One of the league’s premier players, Rajon Rondo, will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. This signifies a huge shift in franchise prospectus for a handful of teams; now that the Celtics, already struggling for the East’s final playoff spot, have lost their most important piece, they’ve become a major factor in trade-scenarios.
The Raptors, reportedly, have been aggressively pursuing talks with the Grizzlies, as to the availability of Rudy Gay. Gay’s on a huge contract, and the jury’s still out on his value as a teammate, so Toronto’s enthusiasm comes as something of a surprise. But this is a team that’s been throwing their hat into the ring for quite some time now; they seem eager to try just about anything to become contenders, and, given their market, tremendous luck in the draft, or a trade, do seem to be their best routes to prominence. How Rondo’s injury effects their outlook is in the piece of Paul Pierce, who is at the heart of the Celtics’ sudden quandary. Everyone in Boston wants to see #34 in the rafters, and will—but it seems almost equally important for their franchise to keep loyal to the faded tradition of the franchise player, who’s never seen in another uniform.
But in the contemporary NBA, this is rare for good reason. The liquidity of players is often extremely beneficial for everyone involved. In the event that the Celtics dealt Pierce to Memphis, for Gay (a deal which would surely require some further complications—namely Memphis taking another contract or two), the Celtics would remain viable for years to come with the core of Rondo, Gay, Jared Sullinger, and Avery Bradley, and Memphis is suddenly a more serious championship contender with Pierce’s scoring and post-season poise; he’s a great teammate to go deep with, and would fit perfectly into a team that dominates games by forcing teams into a half-court style. The scenario solves both of the franchise’s most pressing worries (or at least what should be their most pressing worries), and the appeal of the trade is likely keeping the Raptors’ offers for Gay only so appealing to Memphis—there’s nothing Toronto can offer that could give them such an immediate upgrade.
It’s an instance that brings light to just how small the window for championship opportunity is for small and mid-market teams in the NBA (e.g. Memphis), and just how desperate those same markets are for even as much as improved mediocrity, when they’re toward the bottom of the standings (e.g. Toronto).
As always, the actual nature of discussions between these teams—how seriously they’re considering each of the proposed scenarios—is something of a mystery to us, even when there’s reports citing ‘credible NBA sources.’ As fans and observers, we enjoy a critical distance from ‘discussions’ that’s misleading, but also somewhat wiser than the pressurized considerations of front office wheelers and dealers.
One of the stronger tenets of Nate Silver—baseball analytics guru turned predictor of everything, most especially the outcome of the last two presidential elections—is that teams are rarely honest with themselves about their competitive quality. As observers (and especially as ones without rooting interests in the teams at hand), we enjoy a freedom that makes this sort of honesty easy. We can see how virtually no scenario in which the Raptors acquire Gay leaves them with a team that can do more than contend for a low playoff seed, and is without fruitful financial options. And we can see how lucky the Grizzlies are to even have a whiff of what could be the crucial missing piece for a team with a hair’s chance at a title. Unlikely as the biggest trophy is for this squad, this is as close as a market like Memphis can typically hope to get to the promised land.
But for Boston, this is territory more often traveled. As a storied franchise with an established brand and economic commitment to winning, they’ve long had the resources for a brighter situation—be it present or future. They’re equipped to manage the hole they suddenly find themselves in. But their exit strategy is finite: if the Celtics stand pat in their situation, they’ll set themselves up for either a fade from contention, or the most defiant dismissal of their doubters yet. If they decide to move Pierce—Kevin Garnett, after all, has a no-trade clause—and do it for Gay, they’ll be committing to Eastern Conference legitimacy as soon as next year, with years more to come, and adding new drama to the championship picture in the now.