Now is the time of the season when reality is setting in. Those miraculous 3-0 starts by teams projected to be in the lottery have turned into more reasonable 4-4 openings, and the better teams have started winning more games than the bad ones. But with reality arriving, so too comes the parts of reality that team owners and general managers didn’t want to admit.
Their team that they boldly thought of as a “contender” is actually pretty mediocre.
They need to make a trade.
‘Oh god. Who’s out there? Can we give up any organs we’re not using all that often? Everyone’s gonna think that guy we picked up in the second round and shooting 39% is worth something… right?’
Such is the dilemma faced by executives across the nation. I don’t envy them. Okay, fine, I do envy them a lot, but their job is still tough, aside from the being in an air-conditioned office and making hundreds of thousands of dollars to decide the fate of athletes… let’s move on.
The Most Important Trade Assets: Rudy Gay
Why is he important?
The Toronto Raptors are a fantastic team to ask a fan about to find out their perspective on the game. If you ask a casual fan, they will maybe be able to tell you that either OJ Mayo or Rudy Gay plays for them (Mayo actually plays for Milwaukee, but I get the two of them confused all the time, it’s not a big deal). If you ask a more serious fan, they’ll tell you that they finally have a good player in Rudy Gay to get them buckets at the end of games. If you ask an analytics-oriented person, they’ll roll their eyes derisively at the previous fan, and inform you that there’s some dude named Amir Johnson who plays basketball.
The hatred that the analytics-minded have for Rudy Gay has crossed over slightly to the mainstream, in that people will preface their praise with “stat geeks hate him, but…”
First, the good news: he’s an above-average defender and rebounder for a small forward.
That’s it. That’s all of the good news.
The bad news is that the offense – the entire reason teams want him – is actually really bad. He takes a ton of shots, and is not good at taking shots. With point guards, this can be somewhat excused, because their driving and ballhandling opens up shots for other people, but Rudy Gay is a certified non-passer. He hates, hates, hates passing, and on this Raptors team with fellow shot-attempter DeRozan, he’s probably not getting it back if he does.
He is a jump shooter that should not shoot jump shots. He is an athletic finisher that shoots barely over 50% from within 8ft (per nba.com/stats), and so far this year he’s down to 36% there.
So… why is he important? Because the Raptors secretly have a great three-man core in Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Valanciunas. Getting rid of Gay’s empty possessions will improve them immensely, and hopefully do something about Toronto’s dead-last pace and woeful passing. Tonight’s game featured 114 field goals attempted by the Raptors, and ten assists. That shouldn’t happen, ever, and Rudy Gay’s fingerprints are all over it in the bricks he put up.
Who wants him?
The good news for My Hero Masai Ujiri is that not everyone agrees with the above assessment. Some share the optimism that his predecessor had when he acquired Gay, hoping that giving their team “a scorer” would make the offense better. This did not work in Toronto, and it will not work outside it, either.
Someone will trade for Gay, and probably give up good players to do it. Look for the usual suspects of suspect decision-making, especially among underperforming teams. If the Knicks trade for Gay, I will nearly explode with disaster-awaiting delight. However, that’s probably unlikely, since if the Knicks hear Masai Ujiri calling them again, they should just slam the phone down at this point.
Why is he important?
Last year, he doubled his career average minutes, going from the best backup center in the league for the Bulls into a league-renowned starting center for the Rockets. He was the same player, of course, and his production despite the extra minutes load vindicated advanced stats people who projected him as a great starter. When he was on the floor for the Rockets, they had a top-ten defense (team DRTG of 104.2, vs a league average of 105.9, per basketball-reference). When he was on the bench, there were few worse defensive teams. It doesn’t get much night-and-day different than that. If offensive and defensive impact were weighted equally in the minds of fans, he would have been an All-Star, but basketball doesn’t work that way.
Fans don’t generally see the subtle movements defenders make to guard pick-and-rolls, or the way that a seven-footer will come out of the paint to guard a nimble guard, or how certain defensive bigs can time their jumps perfectly to make at-rim shot attempts seem impossible without fouling. What they see, in Asik’s case, are the hilariously fumbled passes, the inability to bounce the ball more than once (if that), and the horrendous free throw shooting if he does hang onto the ball.
The good news for Asik is that the game itself doesn’t much care if you produce in an aesthetically appealing way. Asik does his defense-and-rebounding thing, and he’s one of the best in the league at it. The Rockets, amongst other teams, recognize this, and paid him a starting salary for it. The truth is, he’s just too good to serve as a backup; an elite player playing under 25 minutes is just an inefficient use of resources.
The Rockets have also tried some ‘twin towers’ lineups with both him and Dwight Howard playing at the same time, but this is not a long-term solution. Combinations of big men like Sampson-Olajuwan, Duncan-Robinson, and Gasol-Bynum weren’t just throwing two centers out there and having them both act like centers; they worked because the former player in those pairs had an offensive game that was best slightly further from the basket, in the midrange rather than lounging around the basket for dunks. Neither Asik nor Howard can reliably make free throws, so god knows defenses aren’t going to respect them when they catch the ball at the free throw line during a play. And on defense, they’ll certainly be good together (they might even be fantastic), but neither of them need the added safety of another big defender. Howard spent his time anchoring an elite defense that was him and four guys that did not play defense even a little bit. He honed his craft next to Ryan Anderson; he doesn’t need Asik there.
Who wants him?
About half the teams in the league have a center they’re somewhat confident in going forward, and the other half would love to have an elite defensive big starting for them. I admit that I heard this one from Bill Simmons, but Asik going to New Orleans in exchange for Ryan Anderson almost makes too much sense for it to possibly happen. There will be some competition here, though, and I expect that a lot of teams are making calls about him.
Why is he important?
The common criticism of Anderson is that he “can’t create his own shot.” My response is a simple “who gives a shit?” He launches about eight three-pointers per 36 minutes, making just under 40% of them. He’s in an elite group of players that are extremely good at shooting threes while still posting above-average usage rates, meaning they aren’t just hanging out waiting for something to happen, they are actively taking shots.
Unlike those low-usage players, Anderson has a nifty fake-and-drive maneuver if the defense closes too quickly for a good shot. Somehow, he manages to add extremely good offensive rebounding on top of that. Along with the previously-mentioned Amir Johnson and Asik, he’s a classic adored-by-advanced-stats-followers guy. However good you think he was at the end of his stay in Orlando, there are stats saying he was better than that, even ones that show him to be a top-ten player on the offensive side of the court.
New Orleans just isn’t the place for him, though. He’s playing a sixth man role there, which is bad for multiple reasons: he’s not the classic versatile sixth man, as he is very definitely a stretch four, and putting him at small forward will get him embarrassed defensively even more than usual. There’s no getting around it: his defense is bad, and always has been. New Orleans was the first time that his bad defense had, in terms of plus/minus, actually outweighed his offensive contributions. He needs to play next to a rock-solid defensive center, not a developing-but-wiry power forward like Anthony Davis. The two of them on the court together were an unmitigated defensive disaster, and neither of those excellent players deserves to be stuck with someone that brings out the worst qualities in their skillsets.
Who wants him?
As three-point shooting creeps up in importance year after year, guys like Ryan Anderson become more and more valuable. Anyone that doesn’t have an elite power forward (and make no mistake, that is what Anthony Davis is) shouldn’t turn him down if they could get him, but particularly teams with issues shooting three-pointers like the Bulls and Grizzlies should make an offer. Even if a team has shooters at both guard spots and small forward, taking more three-pointers is just good strategy, and leads to more open looks for the other shooters the better-spaced the floor is.
Why is he important?
Like the two players above, this is a starting-caliber player who’s playing less than 30mpg due to the needs of the franchise. The Suns are trying to rebuild around Eric Bledsoe and their Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of draft picks, and Dragic is a quality point guard gumming up the works.
The above paragraph is the same as what I would have written before the season, so now let me admit: I have no idea what’s going on with the Suns. They were supposed to be near-historically terrible, with probably eight players I could not pick out of a police lineup, yet they somehow are, as of this writing, 5-2. I am going to rain on Phoenix’s desert and say that this will not hold up; that no, Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris did not just become two of the best players in the NBA, that their 60% shooting on two-pointers will come down to earth (and Bledsoe’s Hardenesque foul drawing can probably come down a bit with it), and that this bunch of randoms will probably not continue to have the 6th-best defense in the league.
Even in the midst of this mystifying run, Dragic isn’t having the best year. He is not a shooter, he is not a slasher or an off-the-ball-cut-maker, he is a point guard who runs pick-and-roll and finds open players with the ball in his hands. Bledsoe, on the other hand, has (as noted above) been playing wonderfully while Dragic was injured. To further Bledsoe’s development, and to continue their strategy of trading everyone not currently entombed for draft picks, they’ll almost certainly ship out Dragic for more picks and maybe some prospect PG to back up Bledsoe instead.
Who wants him?
Dragic is a good starting point guard, but the NBA has become an increasingly point-guard driven league, and merely being good will leave you unwanted by a shockingly large number of teams. (Note to prospective players: practice those wing skills, we’re in short supply of good ones at the moment.) I doubt that anyone will want to pay him 7.5m to play 10mpg in the playoffs, but if none of the teams without a real PG are interested, it might not be terrible for him to go to a team like the Warriors with an injury-prone PG to push them up a few places during the regular season. I hear the Bulls might be looking for someone new.
Errata to the piece on Masai Ujiri: I left out something very important about JaVale McGee that really affects my opinion of that trade. McGee suffers from chronic asthma, and the altitude in Denver pretty obviously bothers him. His home/away splits last year are like nothing I’ve ever seen: his TS% was 62.9% on the road, compared with 53.8% at home, and his offensive rebounding was better by about 20%. He even played several more minutes per game on the road than at home. Basically, JaVale McGee cannot be a professional basketball player in Denver, and I hope that Denver’s management realizes this and trades him. Every time I saw JaVale wheezing on the sidelines, I felt genuinely uncomfortable.