The Memphis Grizzlies have won eight of their last nine playoff games and romped into the conference finals with a distinct swagger.
While their stifling defense has carried them this far, they don't miss their leading scorer at all since trading him just over three months ago.
On January 30, the Grizzlies shipped Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors as part of a three-team deal that netted them Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from the Detroit Pistons, with Detroit receiving Jose Calderon from the Raptors.
Essentially, the Grizz exchanged Gay for Prince and saved about $12 million in the process, according to Ed Arnold of the Memphis Business Journal. And based on the results, their front office must be staffed by geniuses.
Many commentators were vexed by the trade, as the Grizzlies had been stagnant on offense even with Rudy Gay. He was their most dynamic offensive player and had led the team in points per game, field-goal attempts and minutes in 2011-12.
Everyday I wonder why a playoff team would trade away their leading scorer. Memphis should have hung onto Rudy Gay. #needscoring— Brett Poirier NBA (@BrettNBA) April 26, 2013
They were a very respectable 29-16 when Prince joined the team. Then the Grizz went 27-10 to close out the regular season.
And once the playoffs started, they ran full steam ahead through a pair of talented teams.
Reminder after the Rudy Gay trade Memphis had the 3rd best record in the NBA and only lost 1 game at home.(Miami and Denver were better)— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) May 16, 2013
This postseason, they have stormed into the Western Conference Finals by losing only three games to the high-flying Los Angeles Clippers and reigning conference champions Okahoma City Thunder.
Conventional wisdom held that the Grizzlies would struggle to score without Gay's skills as a swingman. But in fact, their defense got even better while their offense stayed consistent.
With Prince starting at the 3 instead of Gay, Memphis posted a slightly higher effective field-goal percentage while limiting opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 2.2 percent less (per 82 games.com). Of their top-five five-man floor units, the two best included Prince in the lineup.
With Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Grizz outscored their opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions. When Jerryd Bayless played in Allen's stead, they outscored opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions.
Gay allowed opposing small forwards to post a player efficiency rating of 18.4 against him, similar to the PER of a player like Kenneth Faried, while Prince limited opposing 3s to a PER of just 10.3, comparable to the likes of John Salmons (via 82games.com).
Clearly, the addition of Prince had a ripple effect across the team, serving to make them more efficient and more dominant.
Filling the Void
Copious credit goes to coach Lionel Hollins, who has his team playing better than any other squad in the West.
The subtraction of Gay from the rotation opened up space and opportunities for all of the Grizzlies, especially Conley and Gasol.
Memphis ORtg was 103.6 after Rudy Gay trade. Would have been good for 11th over the season. So, maybe not "terrible" on offense.— Andrew Han (@andrewthehan) May 16, 2013
Gasol took some time to find his footing after Gay's departure, averaging his worst shooting percentage of the season in February (43.9 percent). But he went nuclear in March, tallying 17.2 points per game on 57 percent from the field, plus 7.1 boards, 4.5 dimes and 1.9 blocks.
Conley trudged through a dreadful month of December, as he averaged 11.4 points on 34 percent shooting. He began to raise his play in January, but once Gay departed, Conley became much more offensively potent and efficient.
The former Buckeye put up 14 points per game in February and then averaged more than 17 a night in March and April; he also shot 45 percent in March and 51 percent in April. Not to mention the fact that he's an absolute kleptomaniac, averaging 2.2 steals per game for the season.
And Zach Randolph has continued beasting just as he was at the beginning of the season. After racking up 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds a night during the season, he's averaging 19.7 points on 51 percent shooting through 11 playoff games.
Pairing his toughness in the paint and on the glass with the silky smooth flat-footed jumpers of Gasol has produced one of the finest combos on the interior in recent memory.
Presently, the predominant sentiment across the Twitterverse takes the guise of sarcastic laments about how much the soaring Grizzlies miss Rudy Gay.
I feel bad for Grizzlies fans tonight. Shame on the Memphis FO for trading away their shot creator Rudy Gay and leaving them weaponless.— The man with the #'s (@ArturoGalletti) May 14, 2013
Verily, they don't miss him at all. After a torturous first-round exit last year, they're now competing for a conference title and a surprising run to the NBA Finals.
As noted by Rob Mahoney of SI.com, jettisoning Rudy Gay has actually sped up Memphis' offense. Gay is what some refer to as a volume scorer, so he needs to see a high usage rate to be effective. Without him, gone are the iso sets, idle dribbling, slow entry passes and players being spectators.
Instead, the Grizz have attacked with their duo of talented bigs and relied heavily on the post game while also unleashing their promising young point guard as a dynamic offensive threat.
Grit and Grind
Essentially, the Grizz improved on both offense and defense since trading Rudy Gay, and they still saved $12 million, giving them crucial room to maneuver in the offseason.
Moreover, they acquired more than just a lanky, disciplined defender and a stat-sheet stuffing veteran in Tayshaun Prince. They also added an NBA champion who won his ring as part of the ragtag 2004 Detroit Pistons.
That squad bears some striking similarities to this year's Memphis team. Those Pistons were led by another pair of ferocious bigs in Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace.
What's the biggest factor in Memphis' success without Rudy Gay?
They were similarly driven by their punishing defense and consistently found ways to outscore their opponents, despite lacking an elite scorer.
The Grizzlies have the league's best defensive starting lineup, highlighted by Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Wasn't it Shakespeare who wrote that defense wins championships? Or maybe it was Bear Bryant, but the adage bodes well for Memphis.
With Conley making strides by the day and Prince showing few signs of age, the only person regretting the Rudy Gay trade may be Gay. And, of course, all of the Thunder and Clippers players who'll be watching the Grizz in the conference finals from their living rooms.