Rudy Gay who?
When they traded Gay to the Toronto Raptors, there were plenty of mixed emotions. Depending on who was speaking, Memphis was either better off or absolutely screwed.
Now on the verge of a Western Conference Finals appearance, the latter is no longer a narrative. The former is hardly discussed, either. It's all "What can't this team do?" talk.
Since dealing Gay, the Grizzlies are 34-14 (playoffs included), exacted revenge on the Los Angeles Clippers, handing them a first-round exit and have garnered an ample amount of championship-caliber conversation.
With the Western Conference more wide open (and confusing) than it's ever been, the Grizzlies have never been in a better position to advance right on through to the NBA Finals.
Spearheading Memphis' surge is Gasol.
Zach Randolph was the Grizzlies' All-Star this year, Mike Conley is playing like a top-tier point guard and Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are doing their thing, but it's Gasol who has emerged as Memphis' primary star.
Before, Gasol may have generated some attention. It was Gay, however, who was considered the Grizzlies' biggest name, mostly because he was paid to be.
Masked by both Gay's success and shortcomings, though, was Gasol. He wasn't a menial piece of Memphis' puzzle, but he wasn't "the piece" either.
Then Gay was traded, and at first Gasol wasn't handed the keys to the Grizzlies. They became one of those success-by-committee stories. The Denver Nuggets of defensive competence, if you will. Housing two All-Stars—one of whom was Gasol (2012)—didn't change that. Neither did Gasol's ensuing performance.
Prior to Gay's departure, Gasol was averaging 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.9 blocks per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the floor. Life without Gay saw his numbers increase ever so slightly, but not exponentially. Following the trade, he put up 14.5 points, eight rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 blocks on 50.4 percent shooting.
It was more, but not superstar more. Not this-is-my-team more.
Once the playoffs rolled around and Gasol's minutes were increased, though, he went off.
Through his first 10 contests, he put up averages of 19.1 points, eight rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.1 blocks a night on 48.5 percent shooting. His usage rate has climbed above 20 percent and the Grizzlies are a plus-21.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to without.
Memphis has become his team. And he's taken ownership of it.
The new reality that Gasol and the Grizzlies are thriving in was never more evident than it was in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Down by as many as 17 points, the Grizzlies clawed their way back to force overtime. It was there that Gasol drilled a jumper with 22 seconds remaining to ice Memphis' victory and ensured his team a 3-1 series lead.
In that moment, the debate was officially over. No more gimmicks, no more illusions, no more confusion—the Grizzlies are Gasol's team.
"I'm lucky it went in," Gasol said afterward to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com.
Lucky. Right. Fortunate that he finds himself in a position of influence, almost as if it was by accident. Like he didn't deserve it.
Only he does deserve it.
Gasol has worked hard to get to this point. He's now the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, a former (and inevitably recurring) All-Star and leading a championship contender. He's paid his dues, spent years behind Gay and much of this season behind Randolph.
He's earned this.
Once considered a throw-in in the Pau Gasol trade—which no longer seems like a disaster—Gasol has made a name for himself. He's not Pau's taller, stronger and hairier brother. Nor is he Gay, Randolph or anyone's sidekick. He is the Grizzlies. Memphis' championship dreams live on through him.
"I just try to win. I take ownership of the team," Gasol explained. "Everybody has to do the same thing. You have to earn respect, show people what you're all about, and the team will follow you."
Five years and one Rudy Gay trade later, the Grizzlies are following Gasol.
To where, exactly? The Western Conference Finals? NBA Finals? A championship?
We don't know just yet. Wherever it is, it's someplace special.
Somewhere only he can lead them.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and 82games.com unless otherwise attributed.
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