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Why the Grizzlies Locked Up Rudy Gay Early

The internet is confused.

It doesn't understand why the Memphis Grizzlies gave up their restricted free agency rights on Rudy Gay by extending him on the first day. As Fanhouse's Tom Ziller put most pointedly, owner Michael Heisley, "basically looked at his hand, saw the pair of kings, and folded."

Ziller's got a point, like he always does, but I'm still supporting signing Rudy to a 5 year, $81 million dollar deal, as I have all along.

Yes, the small forward market did get a boost with Paul Pierce and Richard Jefferson opting out and mixing things up. Yes, the Timberwolves did effectively kill their chances by signing Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic. And, yes, the market for Gay was beginning to look smaller with the Bulls not looking for a wing without the title of King and the Wizards taking on some salaries.

A big market with lots of cash was still there, though. With the biggest three claiming they all want to be settled by the 5th, Gay's talks with either New Jersey or New York were coming sooner rather than later. The Spurs would have been thrilled to let Popovich's mind control squeeze every ounce of potential out of Rudy. Don't underestimate how happy Rudy would have been being allowed to loaf for the Los Angeles Clippers for a full 5 years.

Any of these teams could have gotten Rudy to sign a "toxic" offer sheet. That means instead of receiving his 10.5% Bird raises, Gay would have taken a signing bonus of 80% of his first year salary. 80% of $14 million is a lot of cash. To match that, the Grizz would have been shelling out $24 million to keep their stud, then still had to pay about $14 million each year after. With Zach Randolph still on the payroll at $17 million, another $24 million is a huge cost for a team that will likely be looking at a first-round playoff appearance as a successful season.

Actually, it's likely the Grizz's biggest mistake wasn't accepting Rudy's 5 year, $60 million counter last year. The writing was on the wall. In any other summer, Rudy wouldn't have gotten a maximum contract. But Memphis's pocketbook was a victim of circumstance. Rudy does a pretty good impression of Bron-Bron's dunks, and always stood to be overpaid this year. Not recognizing that and waffling on making the call to keep Gay was their real error.

It's easy for pundits to kill the Grizzlies over the decision to pay Gay at all. They could have let New York or New Jersey overpay for Gay. To pause briefly, let's be clear, the Grizz did overpay for Rudy's production. Lots of fans would have forgiven them, but most wouldn't have been happy.

The Grizzlies are a franchise with a profound public image problem, and they absolutely could not afford to let their best player walk after trading their last best player, Pau Gasol, to save money and cap space. If Rudy Gay had left and the Grizzlies fell back into the realm of 30 wins, needing another couple of years to rebuild, the Memphis Grizzlies franchise was dead.

Realistically Memphis has to make it back into the playoffs, and into relevancy, by 2012, or you might as well kiss the team goodbye. Michael Heisley might have seen a pair of kings and folded, but it's only because he was pushed all-in too early. The stakes were simply to high to be playing games.