Trade of Gay shows new la­bor deal seems a lot like old la­bor deal

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MICHAEL LEE leem@wash­post.com

NBA Com­mis­sioner David Stern made a star­tling dec­la­ra­tion last month, tac­itly ac­knowl­edg­ing that ar­gu­ments for main­tain­ing com­pet­i­tive bal­ance for small­er­mar­ket NBA teams through a puni­tive lux­ury tax penalty were merely rhetoric.

The lat­est la­bor deal, which ini­tially was hailed by the league as a vic­tory for small-mar­ket teams, has in fact made it more dif­fi­cult for well-run or­ga­ni­za­tions with­out deep-pock­eted own­ers to draft, de­velop, trade and build con­tenders with­out even­tu­ally sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity as­sets.

Last week, the Mem­phis Griz­zlies be­came the lat­est tal­ent-rich small-mar­ket team to pri­or­i­tize fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity over spend­ing with the hope of a June pay­off.

The Griz­zlies shipped Rudy Gay, at 26 a rel­a­tively young but ex­pen­sive tal­ent, to Toronto in a three-team deal that yielded promis­ing big young man Ed Davis and a sec­ond-round pick from the Rap­tors and Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from Detroit.

A week ear­lier, the Griz­zlies made an­other cost-cut­ting deal by send­ing Mar­reese Speights, Wayne Elling­ton, Josh Selby and a pro­tected No. 1 pick to Cleve­land for Jon Leuer, who has been play­ing in the NBA Devel­op­ment League.

Mem­phis achieved its fi­nan­cial goals with the trades, clear­ing roughly $16 mil­lion in com­mit­ments, and will no longer have to worry about a $4 mil­lion lux­u­ry­tax bill. Had the Griz­zlies stuck with Gay’s deal through 2015 — he is owed $37 mil­lion over the next two sea­sons — the tax penalty would’ve been more se­vere and in­creased each year be­cause the team would be con­sid­ered a re­peat of­fender.

Griz­zlies Coach Lionel Hollins openly sup­ported keep­ing the team to­gether, hop­ing to see how far it could go. But Hollins also un­der­stood the eco­nomic chal­lenges of be­ing a small-mar­ket team, con­ced­ing this week to re­porters in Ok­la­homa City, “When you have cham­pagne taste, you can’t be on a beer bud­get.”

The Griz­zlies could’ve pos­si­bly waited un­til the off­sea­son to move Gay and Speights and still avoided paying the lux­ury tax. Gay’s optout clause for the 2014-15 sea­son — when he is slated to earn about $19 mil­lion — made teams un­will­ing to sur­ren­der any­thing of value for a pos­si­ble one-year ren­tal.

Mem­phis cer­tainly had bas­ket­ball motivations in trad­ing Gay, with the team sput­ter­ing of­fen­sively, slump­ing since a red-hot Novem­ber and with Gay show­ing signs of re­gres­sion two sea­sons af­ter shoul­der surgery.

But eco­nom­ics, not nec­es­sar­ily a fair tal­ent swap, once again be­came the pri­mary fac­tor for a trade in the NBA, where deals are rarely made with­out the buzz­words of “ex­pir­ing con­tact” and “salary cap flex­i­bil­ity.” The deal was more dis­con­cert­ing be­cause it came ex­actly five years af­ter the or­ga­ni­za­tion traded Pau Ga­sol to the Lak­ers, cre­at­ing a peren­nial cham­pi­onship con­tender in Los An­ge­les.

The Griz­zlies couldn’t guar­an­tee that a core of Gay, all-star for­ward Zach Ran­dolph, former all-star cen­ter Marc Ga­sol and Mike Con­ley could com­pete with San An­to­nio, Ok­la­homa City and the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers, but backed out be­fore giv­ing it a real chance. And the new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment adds its lat­est ca­su­alty.

NATHAN DENETTE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­ward Rudy Gay scored 20 points in his Toronto de­but on Fri­day, a 98-73 win over the L.A. Clip­pers.

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