Toronto traded Rudy Gay for backups, because they determined that said backups were going to be better for them than Rudy Gay. That was the theory, a classic and emphatic case of addition by subtraction. And it worked.
Of the four players they received in return, two have not meant much. John Salmons played big minutes - 1,281 of them over 60 games, to be exact - as the most veteranny veteran role playing option on a team with very few other options at the position, but he didn't play them well, recording a 7.6 PER and a .472% true shooting percentage while doing not much other than shoot. Chuck Hayes meanwhile did Chuck Hayesian things - rebound well, never score, defend the post well without ever being a rim protector. He was useful in a small role, but is only ever destined to stay in a small role, and rather perpetuated a problem Toronto had with their lack of true center size behind Jonas Valanciunas.
The other two players, however, were stalwarts. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson have had success on other teams in the past - most obviously, Vasquez, the one time NBA assists leader - yet they were two big rotational pieces this season on what became a quality team in a way they have never really experienced before.
However, the duo are also both about to be free agents. And this puts the Raptors in a bit of a quandary. They represent a problem teams are constantly having to face - no matter how good they are, how much do you pay a reserve?
Almost exclusively, starting caliber players are better than their backups. Manu Ginobili and Steven Adams are but the rare exceptions - there are few instances of Ben Gordon coming off the bench behind Chris Duhon any more. Reasonably interchangeable parts are sometimes shuffled around to suit team needs and balance rosters, and Carlos Boozer still strangely starts over Taj Gibson, but the core ideology remains - the best players not only end the game, but normally start it.
As good as Vasquez and Patterson have been, neither outplayed their starter. Neither is ever likely to, either. Vasquez, solid as he was, was never going to supersede the tenacious play and driving influence that is Kyle Lowry, while Patterson played behind the perennially underrated Amir Johnson, a thoroughly different but ultimately better player.
This is not just true of the current Raptors roster, but also of wherever else they could play around the league. We are in an era now where the point guard and power forward positions are really quite strong. A recent flurry of quality young point guards has seen all the Duhon, Steve Blake and Avery Johnson-types hit the bench; with maybe one or two exceptions, one of whom will soon wind up with Dante Exum, every team has its long term starter or has its quality young prospect who is about to become one. Pragmatically, Vasquez would be the starter on about two or three NBA teams, and Patterson - at a position readily populated by every player between 6'8 and 7'0, with small forwards and centers all taking a turn - likely could not manage even that.
It does not change how good they are, of course. But it does change how much they are worth. If you have a quality starter at a position, you self-evidently do not need as much time from your backup. Therefore, you do not need them as much. And therefore, it follows you do not need to pay them as much.
Toronto used Vasquez and Patterson in different lineups. Bereft of a true backup center with size, they put Patterson in alongside Amir Johnson in a two power forward lineup many a time, along with giving him minutes alongside Chuck Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough in a variety of ill-fitting pairings. Similarly, Toronto ran many two point-guard lineups featuring Vasquez and Lowry on the court at the same time - neither is as good without the ball in their hands to make this optimum, yet with Vasquez being as solid as he was, they needed to find the time to fit him in somehow.
Ideally, the roster would be so balanced that this ill-fitting lineups would not be necessary. Yet the midseason roster turnover precluded this. In addition to the backup center problem, small forward was a vast gaping hole that emphatically belied the strength in depth at the other three positions. And with DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross both ideally shooting guards, the solution to this problem does not figure to grow from within. In addition to already having two quality two-guards that limit their ability to play these two point guard lineups, then, Toronto seemingly has more pressing concerns for its finite resources.
Quality non-star starting power forwards in the Ryan Anderson, Thaddeus Young, Taj Gibson range earn about $8-9 million per season (Or, if you get a great deal, Amir Johnson at $6 million per). Quality backup power forwards in the Jason Thompson, Marreese Speights range tend to average between $3-5 million per season. The middle ground is for Carl Landry and Brandon Bass types - $6-7 million players who are slightly better than the latter group, but, if they are your starters, are someone you are looking to upgrade. A similar upper band can be seen between the non-star quality starting point guards (Goran Dragic, Jrue Holiday, Jose Calderon, Mike Conley), with slightly more variance in the backups (Nate Robinson and Darren Collison at $2 million per, Lou Williams at $5 million, Kirk Hinrich at $4 million, Jarrett Jack at nearly $7 million).
In both cases, the top band earn considerably more than the lower band. In both cases, Vasquez and Patterson probably sit somewhere in the middle. By definition, the players in this middle should get paid somewhere in this middle. This indeed happens in the case of players like Jack and Landry.
However, the question is not so much 'what are these individual players worth?' as much as 'what is the most value we can get for our money?' If Patterson is a $5 million a season player, yet you can get 80% of his production from a $2.5 million player, do you still give him the $5 million? If Vasquez is one of the league's best backup point guards yet never destined to be a starter, why do you pay him like a starter if nobody else does? Does it matter that Patterson is slightly better than Marreese Speights when you could get two Marreese Speightses for that price?
Toronto can use the restricted free agency of both players to cop out of this situation. With Bird rights and the opportunity to match, they can let the market tell them what the price for each is, take the time to reconcile it with their own needs, and match if they please. Nevertheless, the duo's situations play upon the eternal tension between agent and team. 'If you can go get the money elsewhere, go ahead. But we can always get another player from elsewhere.' It can get ugly, yet if you are not cutthroat in this way, that is from where bad contracts emanate.
Feature photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/John E. Sokolowski