Last night’s blockbuster trade of Rudy Gay to the Raptors isn’t the only thing happening today for the Grizzlies: tonight, they’ve got to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in a matchup between two of the top teams in the Western Conference.
The Grizzlies will, of course, be shorthanded until they can get Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, and Austin Daye into Griz uniforms, but that doesn’t mean tonight’s game doesn’t matter and it sure doesn’t mean the Thunder are going to take it easy on a Memphis squad that is slowly becoming a rival to the Thunder.
To that end, I asked J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City some questions ahead of tonight’s matchup between the Thunder and Grizzlies. Check out WTLC for the Thunder side of tonight’s action, and great Thunder coverage throughout the season.
KL: The Rudy Gay trade seems to be very divisive. A lot of "smart basketball people" like it, but a lot of casual fans think the Grizzlies are blowing up their team. Do you think Memphis benefited from trading Rudy Gay?
J.A.: I personally think that the Grizzlies are better off, but the move may have hurt their championship chances this year. As I’m sure you are well aware, Gay has this wonderful collection of skills and talents but he’s never really been able to put it together in a way that the labeling seems to promise. It seemed to me that under that reality the best case scenario was for Memphis to continue to believe in the team model that it is building and hope that Gay delivers enough to climb the mountain before the tax bombs hit and your team has to really start shedding personnel.
There is the money angle and all that, but to me, the real question is, can Gay bring the goods when it matters the most? In a playoff series against the Thunder, Clippers, or Spurs, is that guy going to elevate his game while trying to deal with the defense of a Kawhi Leonard or a Kevin Durant? I don’t feel like he can because he’s never shown it yet. I think it is easier to replace Gay’s contribution with cheaper pieces than to put such hope in a guy who is still really waiting for his breakout moment.
KL: Ignoring tonight, since the team will barely have enough players to play the game, are the Grizzlies a dangerous playoff matchup for the Thunder, even after this trade? Were you more or less worried about the Grizzlies before this trade?
J.A.: I’ll put my cards on the table right now - I’m terrified of the Grizzlies, no matter who they put on the court. From everything I’ve seen of them over the past 3 years, the one thing I know is that it doesn’t matter if the other team has more talent on the court. What I love about the Grizz is that they actually seem to know this. Memphis knows that the other team might be fronting with more talent, but Memphis can beat them anyway. That is a powerful, powerful psyche to have over another team, and every time the Thunder step on the court against Memphis, I can tell that OKC knows it too.
To be sure, the Thunder believe in what they’re doing and know that if they play good basketball they can come out on top because of Kevin Durant and their ability to defend the post. However, I have seen way too many games between the two where the Thunder played good basketball through 3 quarters and somehow, almost improbably, the Grizz were hanging with them right there in the end. Then you look over across the court and there is Z-Bo, grinning.
It’s frightening, but oh my is it fun to watch.
KL: The Thunder made a huge trade earlier this season sending James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. That trade couldn’t have been popular with Thunder fans, but now the team is riding high. What would you say to Griz fans who feel like the front office just crippled the team, knowing what you know now about how the Thunder’s trade worked out for them?
J.A.: For the Thunder faithful, the best and healthiest way to look at the team post-Harden was to remember that, in the NBA, there are engines, and there are components. Championship contenders need at least two engines and then 6–7 components that serve specific roles. The tricky thing however is to recognize the difference between an engine and a component.
For the Thunder, those two engines are obviously Durant and Westbrook. They are the twin turbines that fuel the power behind the machine. Harden, as wonderful as he was in OKC, was a component. So is Serge Ibaka. Those two guys are tremendous players, Harden is now an All-Star, and Ibaka might be down the road. However in the Thunder championship puzzle, those guys are components, and you cannot leverage a team’s future for a component. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker? Engines. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? Engines. Kobe Bryant and…Dwight Howard? Heh.
The question the Memphis fanbase needs to be able to answer is, who are the engines on the team? Was Gay an engine? If not, let him go and find a better, cheaper component.
KL: What do you expect from the game tonight, given that the Grizzlies’ roster is in a weird mid-trade shrunken state?
J.A.: Tonight’s game could become a trap game for the Thunder, honestly. While OKC is coming off a dispiriting road trip where they only went 3–3 and are looking to rebound, there is always something to be said for a team that recognizes when it is time to galvanize and circle the wagons.
I fully expect the Thunder to come out and play well tonight, play strong defense, have the necessary intensity, and do what it needs to do to win the game.
However, when that fourth quarter rolls around and it’s still a 2–3 possession game…see #2 above.
Big shoutout to J.A. Sherman and Welcome to Loud City for chatting with me for this piece.