The Grizzlies returned to work Friday afternoon for the first time since eliminating the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and punching their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.
Still, despite all of the hoopla and the national buzz this small-market franchise has created this postseason, it seems that one proverbial topic continues to re-surface as Memphis prepares to take on the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their best-of-7 series Sunday at 2:30 p.m. CST in the AT&T Center.
That is, are the Grizzlies a better team since trading franchise player Rudy Gay?
“We definitely are a better team,” said Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, who has become Memphis’ leading scorer since the team dealt Gay. “This team is more together. We understand. Our confidence is up. We play for one another, so we’re definitely a better team.”
That certainly didn’t appear to be the case after the Grizzlies, Raptors, and Pistons agreed to a six-player trade on January 30 that sent the star swingman to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Ed Davis, Austin Daye, and Tayshaun Prince.
For some, trading Gay was befitting, considering the seven-year veteran, at least at the time, wasn’t performing like a player who signed a five-year extension with Memphis worth a reported $82 million in July 2010. For others, they sensed that moving Gay after the team had gotten below the dreaded luxury tax threshold — after sending reserves Marresse Speights, Josh Selby, Wayne Ellington to Cleveland eight days earlier — wasn’t consummate, given Memphis was deemed a legitimate title contender before the start of the season.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, for instance, was among those who felt team officials’ decision to trade Gay was a questionable move. And, after a January 15 shootaround in FedExForum, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who’s close friends with Gay, said “the Grizzlies would be crazy” for trading the former UConn star.
What a difference three-and-half months have made.
That’s because all the new-look Grizzlies have done since Gay’s exodus was emerge as arguably the hottest and most efficient team in the NBA, let alone pose as a serious threat to dethrone the Miami Heat in the coming weeks. Add to the fact that the Grizzlies have generated the league’s third-best record (34-14) since trading Gay and ousted two title contenders (the Clippers and Thunder) in eloquent fashion, and it’s no wonder why seasoned Grizzlies such as Randolph and Mike Conley don’t shy away from weighing in on a subject they believe is an afterthought at this stage in the season.
“We’re happy to be here.” Conley said of Memphis’ historical run to the conference finals. “But we’re focused on bigger things. You’ve
got to have a vision. And even with Rudy being gone, it might have altered the vision a little bit, might have been a little bit tougher on guys to do it, but the vision stays the same. I still believed (after the trade) that we had a chance. I still believed that if certain guys step up, that we could be just as good, that we could be a good team.”
While Hollins publicly acknowledged he wasn’t in favor of the Grizzlies bargaining Gay, he said among the things he appreciates mostly about his team is the camaraderie his players have established in the aftermath of the trade, a key characteristic he feels has benefited the Grizzlies immensely in the playoffs.
“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Hollins jokingly said. “That’s the hardest part of coaching…motivating, getting them to accept their roles, getting them to play together. You do those three things and you got talent, you have a good chance of winning. It’s a difficult proposition. There’s a lot of ways to go about it. I’m not going to tell you how I go about it because it’s not good for TV.”
The Grizzlies, appearing in the conference finals for the first time since the team’s inception in 1995 (Vancouver), have certainly been must-see TV this postseason, a trend this town has relished since Gay — whom many labeled an ambassador for the city of Memphis during his stint here — was sent north of the border.
As for whether Memphis is better off since trading Gay, it’s safe to assume the longest-tenured Grizzly is being careful to use his words wisely.
“I think it’s a different team without Rudy,” Conley said.
With a straight face.