“Tanking” Raptors May Have Improved After Trading Rudy Gay

It’s not often that a tank-triggering move makes a team better, but I think last night’s trade of Rudy Gay may have achieved just such a paradoxical outcome.

It’s not often that a tank-triggering move makes a team better, but I think last night’s trade of Rudy Gay may have achieved just such a paradoxical outcome.

At this point we don’t need to delve too deeply into all of the ways that Rudy Gay was hurting the Raptors. His low-percentage, shot-happy, turnover-prone style of play has been torn apart and blogged about in so many corners it’s amazing to think he’s only been at it for 39 days this season. He was a “star” player, though, and so his departure is meant to signal the inevitable descent in the NBA’s basement, except that there is a chance that this move could actually make these Raptors better rather than worse, especially if Dwane Casey doesn’t get the memo on losses becoming a priority.

With Gay gone, that means the Raptors have freed up 15.9 shots and 57.8 touches per game to give to more efficient scores and more intelligent playmakers. Without even considering the incoming players, that means more looks for Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry and the noticeably-improved DeMar DeRozan. That means fewer accommodations need to be made for a player that will simply arrest the offence by holding the ball and making decisions at the pace of an MLB pitcher. That means players might feel encouraged to move without the ball because now there is a better chance they’ll actually see a pass if they get themselves open. By removing just one player the Raptors have completely blown apart their offence, and considering that offence ranks in the bottom-third of the NBA, that can’t be a bad thing.

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Of course, Gay wasn’t just sent away, there were players sent back to Toronto in return. There is the pass-first point guard Greivis Vasquez, the sweet-shooting big man Patrick Patterson, the exceptional post defender Chuck Hayes and three-point threat (and one-time near-Raptor) John Salmons. While collectively this group brings a much more flexible cap situation to Toronto (the biggest motivation behind last night’s trade), they also bring play that might actually interrupt the team’s hopes of cascading down the Eastern Conference standings.

Vasquez represents the kind of player that most Raptors fans began coveting as soon as they saw what Dwane Casey’s offence would look like if run by someone other than Jose Calderon. Vasquez is a true playmaking point guard and, mercifully, someone who should finally be able to put Valanciunas and Johnson back into some pick-and-roll situations. While he’s been splitting time this year with Isaiah Thomas, last season he ran the point in New Orleans to the tune of nine assists per game, good for third in the NBA. He simply has a great feel for passing the ball to open teammates, which is a skill that Raptors fans may have forgotten existed after watching this team play through 18 games this season.

While he’ll immediately become the team’s backup point guard, supplanting the putrid three-headed monster that was attempting to hold down the position, it is likely to be a short-lived stay on the bench. Not only will Casey probably see the same benefits to starting Vasquez that he saw in starting Calderon last season, expectations are running rampant that Lowry will be the next Raptor shown the door as Ujiri continues to de-Colangelo his roster before the trade deadline. Either way, his ability to run a functional offence (the Hornets scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions last season with Vasquez on the floor, which would have been enough for a top-ten offence) will greatly improve the club’s bench production until Lowry is traded, and may even improve aspects of the starting unit’s attack if he can fully recapture his form from a season ago.

After Vasquez comes Patterson, a player that Raptors were intrigued by in the draft three years go and someone who could possibly supplant Steve Novak in the role of stretch four if he can return to his ’12-’13 shooting from behind the arc. Patterson may not be as deadly from three-point range as Novak (although he did manage to shoot .386 from three last season), but even still he’s a great pick-and-pop option that will help spread the floor for Valanciunas and DeRozan while also providing help in other areas like offensive rebounding and post scoring – something that Novak simply cannot do. As an offensive partner with Valaciunas, you can see the benefits immediately, with Patterson pulling power forwards out of help position and leaving Valanciunas more room to operate on post-ups and more space on dives to the basket.

Unfortunately, what has really held Patterson back in his career thus far has been his defence. It’s not good. Since Valanciunas has not yet developed into the kind of defender that the Raptors expect him to be, playing the two of them together could be problematic at that end. While they fit very nicely on offence, neither one looks capable of picking up the slack for the other on defence. Considering Casey’s predisposition to favour defence first, Patterson may not see enough minutes in the team’s now-crowded frontcourt to affect the rotation in any meaningful way.

That situation could be exacerbated by Hayes, a rugged defender and tremendous team-first guy that Casey may have trouble keeping off of the court, especially when Valanciunas is playing. Despite being hilariously undersized for a centre (6-foot-6), Hayes knows every trick when it comes to positioning and angles and has acted as the last resort on defence for some very good defensive teams in Houston. On paper he replaces the outgoing Aaron Gray, but in reality he is offers so much more to this team. The Kings were 3.8 points per 100 possessions better on defence when Hayes plays this season and were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better last year. The Raptors defensive efficiency has been in a free-fall of late and since Casey knows that he needs a top-tier defence to prove his worthiness as a head coach (in Toronto or elsewhere) you can expect to see Hayes log time, possibly and probably at the expense of newcomer Patterson.

The last new addition is John Salmons, the player that controversially backed-out of a deal with the Raptors in Colangelo’s first year with the club to sign a more lucrative deal with the Kings back in 2006. Salmons is an infuriatingly inconsistent player, but he tends to play really well after he’s been traded and his three-point shooting accuracy (.381 this season) could help offset the loss of Gay’s strong three-point shooting this season. Also of benefit to the Raptors, Salmons is a willing passer. This is why he stands a chance of inheriting the starting small forward spot, because he combines that three-point shot with an ability to get the ball to his teammates, a combination that Gay was never able to master. At 15.0, Salmons possesses an assist percentage that exceeds that of every regular Raptors rotation player outside of Kyle Lowry. Just imagine, the Raptors starting two players that are interested in moving the ball – it’s almost a notion to incredible to be believed.

Of course, Salmons doesn’t have the starting spot yet, and truth be told he may never get it because, again, he’s maddeningly inconsistent. He’s sort of the kind of player that fans tend to hate to have on their own team, which is why it’s also a positive that he’s owed only $1 million on his deal next season, which means the Raptors are almost sure to waive him this summer.

Regardless of how Salmons plays, though, this club has just done a pretty significant remodelling job on large swaths of their roster, and how the rotation shakes out will take a couple of weeks to determine. You can definitely expect Vasquez to get serious minutes, and Salmons will likely see time considering how shallow the wings are. Patterson fits ideally next to Valanciunas on offence, but Hayes fits better on defence, and lest we forget the Raptors already have two effective big men in Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough that have yet to give any reason to be unseated from their spots in the pecking order. There is no doubt that more trades are in the pipeline, but who knows how long that will take. There may be another trade tomorrow, or it may take until February for the next player to be dealt away. Until then, Casey has to figure out how to make his new rotation work, all the while knowing that he’ll likely have to remake it again at some point, all while fighting for his job that seems to constantly be in jeopardy.

Maybe that’s Ujiri’s grand plan, though. Maybe he plans to keep this roster so destabilized that they are never able to create any chemistry or momentum at any point this season, thus leading to a poor enough record to players in the 2014 NBA draft. At 7-12, the Raptors are ninth in the NBA standings, which is not good enough by tanking standards to be considered a ‘success’. At this point I maintain my stance that this team is too good right now to compete with the worst that the NBA has to offer. Last night’s trade, while removing a big name player, actually goes a long way towards balancing the club’s roster and addressing holes that were previously holding them back. They’ve ditched a terribly inefficient forward and replaced him with an a solid backup point guard, two effective big men and an erratic-yet-capable wing that tends to play his best basketball after he’s been traded. The Raptors may be signalling a move into tank mode, but I don’t know that they’ve actually gotten any worse as a result.

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