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Since dumping their top scorer, the Grizzlies have been on a tear
What happens when you flip your leading scorer for a past-his-prime small forward, an unproven power forward and a fringe prospect? If you're the Grizzlies, you continue your march toward the best season in franchise history. The new Memphis management, which took over after billionaire Robert Pera purchased the Grizzlies for $377 million last October, was hammered in the press in January after sending Rudy Gay to the Raptors in a three-team deal that brought in Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye. The Grizz were ripped for being cheap (the trade slashed millions off the payroll, getting them further under the luxury tax threshold) and impatient (because of injuries, this was the first full season that Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol had filled out the frontcourt).
Turns out, they were something else: smart.
Since dealing Gay, which was preceded by the salary dump of rotation players Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington, Memphis had won 15 of its last 20 games through Sunday and stood fourth in the West at 44--21. The 33-year-old Prince has provided playmaking and strong defense, while the 6'10" Davis has slipped comfortably into Speights's role. Sure the schedule has softened: In the 21 games before the trade, the Grizzlies played 13 games against playoff teams; in the 21 since, they have played nine. But with Gay gone, ball movement has improved. Memphis ranked 25th in assists to field goals made (56.8%) before the deal; since then it is 10th (62.2%). "The additions of Tayshaun and Ed have made us more of an unselfish team," says point guard Mike Conley. "That's the biggest difference."
Removing Gay from the locker room has helped too. Last summer he went to the front office and asked to be traded. Gay, team sources say, was unhappy with his role in coach Lionel Hollins's offense and uncomfortable playing alongside Randolph, a ball-dominating post scorer. Memphis could have rolled the dice and hoped that Gay—who was shooting a career-low 40.8% this season—would pick up his game by the playoffs. But with Gay able to opt out of his deal after next season, the new group decided to go ahead and jettison him.
Without Gay, who took a team-high 16.4 shots per game, the Grizzlies run almost everything through Randolph and Gasol. Gay's absence has also created more opportunities for Conley, who had been encouraged by Hollins to be more aggressive. Conley has responded by ratcheting up his scoring (14.9 points), assists (7.0) and field goal percentage (43.0%) since the trade.
Ultimately, the success of the deal will be determined in the playoffs. The Grizzlies have never been past the second round, peaking in 2011—when Gay was out with an injured shoulder and Memphis stretched the Thunder to seven games. That version, says Conley, was a lot like this one. "We didn't rely on just one or two people to carry us," says Conley. "This team plays unselfish ball, plays defense and has so many different guys who step up every night."