Tayshaun Prince (left) and Rudy Gay are two of the three players trading places for the first time (Image | US Presswire)

Tayshaun Prince (left) and Rudy Gay are two of the three players trading places for the first time (Image | US Presswire)

The Memphis Grizzlies have already made one massive step backwards in the trade market since Christmas, by sending Marreese Speights and Josh Selby to Cleveland in return for D-Leaguer Jon Leuer, but this week they all but sealed their departure from the category of “Western Conference elite” by dealing Rudy Gay to Toronto in the biggest trade of the season so far.

The deal saw Gay head to Toronto, while the Raptors sent athletic fowrard Ed Davis to Memphis and point guard Jose Calderon to Detroit. The Pistons, in turn, dealt franchise icon Tayshaun Prince and three-year benchfiller Austin Daye to the Grizzlies.

Prince’s departure from Motor City, which the lanky defensive specialist has called home for over a decade, was the only element in this deal that prevented it being a total disaster for the cost-cutting Grizzlies. Prince’s more defense-oriented style and superior three-point shooting makes him a better fit with coach Lionel Hollins’ starting line-up, which focuses on getting the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low.

Gay’s departure, though, tears a hole in one of the most tight-knit groups in the league. Although his playing style wasn’t always a good fit for a team in the ascendancy over the last two seasons, Gay, drafted by Memphis in 2006, has been the face of the franchise since the departure of Pau Gasol. His emergence as an All-Star calibre player was the catalyst for the Grizzlies’ recent revival; he was the emotional leader of a team, and a club, which values togetherness and devotion among its greatest qualities.

But new owner Robert Pera and his group of investors had, in reality, little choice. As with the Speights deal earlier in January, this was about cutting costs – when the Grizzlies’ former handed Gasol a massive contract extension in the summer of 2011, they consciously took the team way past the luxury tax limit and committed the franchise to heavy spending in return, hopefully, for rich rewards.

Was that core of Gay, Randolph, Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen good enough to win the West? In all honesty, possibly not. But Memphis’ cost-cutting over the last six months, including also the departure of OJ Mayo in the summer, has taken this team quite a long way in the wrong direction. Even if Prince slots seamlessly into the starting five, and Davis scoops up Speights’ minutes in the frontcourt, Memphis is now a lot thinner in terms of volume scorers than it was even in December, never mind at the tail end of last year.

Jose Calderon's departure leaves a lot of pressure on Kyle Lowry but gives the Raptors a true star to rebuild around

Jose Calderon’s departure leaves a lot of pressure on Kyle Lowry but gives the Raptors a true star to rebuild around

Gay will be hurt that he didn’t get to finish his seven-year project with the Grizzlies. He suffered through the dark times – 68 wins over three seasons between 2006-9 – and was as excited as anyone about the core that had come together around him. Now he heads off to another team amidst a deep rebuild, and joins a Raptors squad ranking Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as its best players.

Calderon is uprooted too, after a seven-and-a-half year spell as a fan favourite in multicultural Toronto, and faces an uncertain prospect in a Pistons team already boasting Will Bynum, Rodney Stuckey and sophomore Brandon Knight as under-sized guards. It seems inevitable that one will be leaving either before the deadline or in the summer to bring in some much-needed frontcourt depth – and if it’s not Stuckey, it’ll be Calderon.

Prince, of course, was in his eleventh year with the Pistons as the last surviving member of Detroit’s 2005 NBA Champions. He, too, has ridden a rollercoaster over his one-team career – from perpetual contenders in the early-mid 2000s to the tumultuous, tragic recent years: the Allen Iverson experiment, the Tracy McGrady experiment, the return and decline of Ben Wallace and the feud between players and John Kuester.

For all three, big new challenges lie ahead. Prince is probably the only one looking forward to it.

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