The Toronto Raptors are in a bit of a precarious situation this season.
The main problems aren't really derived from a severe lack of talent. All things told, Toronto's starting lineup is probably one of the better groups in the Eastern Conference, despite the parts not really meshing together all that well.
Despite that, this is a core that could conceivably challenge for a playoff spot.
But if you pull back and look at the Raptors from 40,000 feet, you'll see a team that's marred by uncertainty.
Typically, players don't perform all that well when they're constantly looking over their shoulder, waiting to see if they're about to be replaced.
Usually it's the head coach who wields that power, but in this case, it's new Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri who is looming over everything, perhaps ready to pull the plug at any moment on a team that was built out of desperation by someone trying to save his job.
Can a group of players, some of whom already have selfish tendencies, succeed in this kind of environment? Without commitment or trust, who is a player like Kyle Lowry, in a contract year, going to play for? Himself, right?
Ujiri has talked about avoiding that sort of thing and creating a new culture that players want to be a part of, but that might be hard to do with old parts.
Long story short, that's why it may be mutually beneficial for the Raptors to move on from the Rudy Gay experiment.
Gay has a player option for $19.3 million that he could decline to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and we've seen in the past that players very rarely walk away from the chance to secure long-term financial security whenever possible.
Can a team succeed without any level of commitment to its most recognizable star? Is Ujiri willing to sacrifice the potential of gained assets for a shot at what would most likely be a first-round exit?
The answer to those questions is probably no, which is why a Rudy Gay trade seems likely.
What Toronto Wants
Now that we've established why Toronto would want to move Gay, let's take a look at what the preferred return in a trade may be.
If everyone except Jonas Valanciunas really is available, which would make sense, it would stand to reason that the Raptors are looking to skew young and build through the draft going forward.
While a team may be hesitant to deal a future draft pick for Gay without some sort of guarantee that he would re-sign, it's probably not as big of a roadblock as it may seem. These things would be agreed upon before any deal would take place.
What would Toronto want in return? One thing Ujiri probably doesn't want any part of is a long-term, expensive contract. While he was with Denver, Ujiri dealt Nene and Arron Afflalo almost immediately after retaining them in an effort to get their salary off the future books.
Of course, Ujiri also has experience stepping into a new situation and dealing a star that is ready to bolt for free agency. While Toronto won't be able to get anywhere near the return on Gay as the Nuggets did for Carmelo Anthony, the type of assets he targeted might be relevant.
In that trade for Anthony, the Nuggets landed four players on rookie deals (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos), two second-round picks, a future first-round pick and Raymond Felton. No player Ujiri acquired was over the age of 25.
The trade with the New York Knicks involving Andrea Bargnani is relevant here as well. Somehow, the Raptors were able to receive a future first-round pick in return for Bargnani and his bloated contract, which is a good indicator of the type of deal Ujiri is capable of.
Again, these are different situations, but it provides context when considering what a Rudy Gay trade might look like.
Potential Landing Spots
Which teams would want Gay now and moving forward? That's a little tougher to discern.
Toronto has very little leverage in a trade for Gay given his contract situation, but that doesn't mean Ujiri can't prey on the impatience of a few owners looking to making a big move now, much in the same way the Memphis Grizzlies did last year with Toronto.
If Rudy Gay was acquired for an expiring contract (Jose Calderon), a young prospect (Ed Davis) and a second-round pick, Ujiri should be able to get a similar haul, at least in theory.
It should also be noted that Toronto likely won't accept back more salary in a trade for Gay this year, as the Raptors are already dangerously close to the luxury tax line. There are limitations to what they can bring back.
The Cavs probably won't give up on the cap space that's been carefully saved for the LeBron James pipe dream, but Gay would be an intriguing backup plan if Cavs owner Dan Gilbert gets a bucket of water splashed in his face.
What would Toronto be after, though? Perhaps the Raptors could make a play for one of Canada's best talents in years in Anthony Bennett, as it was no secret that Cleveland wanted to move the first pick in the draft for an established player this summer.
A deal along the lines of Gay and Terrence Ross for Bennett and the expiring and/or non-guaranteed deals of C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee and Earl Clark might be mutually beneficial.
From Toronto's side, building around Bennett and Valanciunas would be awfully appealing, especially since the alternative is losing Gay for nothing. Miles, Gee and Clark all come off the books next season, so the Raptors would accomplish the goal of retaining financial flexibility while obtaining a future asset.
For Cleveland, it's a little dicier. Giving up on Bennett so quickly would be almost unheard of, even if his poor start to the season is, well, almost unheard of.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert might be less patient than we think, however, and Gay would certainly be an upgrade over the small forward committee Cleveland is currently trotting out.
Adding a cheap, athletic shooter like Terrence Ross to the bench might be enough to make the Cavs think long and hard about this, particularly if it becomes painfully clear that LeBron won't be coming back home. Cleveland isn't exactly a premium free-agent destination for people who weren't born there, after all.
Here's another small-market team in need of a small forward. The Sacramento Kings have a handful of expiring assets, but with limited cap flexibility, some tough decisions are going to have to be made this offseason.
Perhaps the Kings would be well-served to combine some of those expiring assets into the type of player they'd have no chance at landing in free agency.
Sacramento could send John Salmons (only $1 million guaranteed next year), Patrick Patterson, Jimmer Fredette and a 2016 lottery-protected first-round draft pick to Toronto for Rudy Gay. If Sacramento is prepared to let those three players go, the risk is relatively small.
For Toronto, picking up a future draft pick as well as a free look at Patterson and Fredette (while not committing to any future salary) would be a solid yet slightly unspectacular return.
For Sacramento, locking up Gay long term would give the Kings one of the league's most athletic cores. If the new ownership group thinks the team will be competing by 2016 anyhow, moving a draft pick might not be much of an issue to get a player of Gay's caliber.
Consolidating assets into one big piece is a viable strategy for Sacramento, and these two teams seem like natural trading partners.
If the Charlotte Bobcats will spend top dollar in free agency on a player like Al Jefferson, maybe making a move for Rudy Gay wouldn't be as out of character as it appears on the surface.
The Bobcats probably have the league's most attractive expiring contract in Ben Gordon, so there wouldn't be a need for a whole lot of cap gymnastics here.
Something very simple along the lines of Charlotte sending Ben Gordon, Jeff Taylor and a top-10 protected 2016 first-round pick (that eventually becomes unprotected) in exchange for Rudy Gay could work.
Taylor is an interesting prospect, but the big prize would be a draft pick from the Bobcats. That's an asset to have in the cupboard, even if it might take a few years to be conveyed.
For the Bobcats, making a move for another well-known player might make sense from a business standpoint. Making Michael Kidd-Gilchrist a high-energy sixth man might be a good decision on the floor, and lineups with both Gay and MKG could terrorize teams in transition with all that athleticism.
If Charlotte really is trying to be competitive, cashing in on Gordon's expiring deal might be the next step in that process.
The Alternate Reality
While it seems very slim, there is a chance that the Raptors hang on to Gay and negotiate a long-term deal. If the trade market is dry and Gay is willing to return for a much more reasonable price, it's not completely out of the question.
This would likely require the Raptors to be in the playoff hunt this season, which isn't out of the question.
Again, there is talent here, and if Dwane Casey can cobble it all together and make it work, perhaps the Raptors would avoid a rebuild and try to add depth and smaller assets, much in the same way Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has done.
We should have a better idea of what direction the Raptors will go as the trade deadline draws closer, but you can be assured that the Rudy Gay trade talks aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
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