Rudy Gay in the Gray Area
What makes a player “good” or “bad”? Is it the skills they do or do not possess, or is it how they translate those skills into positive basketball plays? If a player possesses great skills, but for whatever reason fails to translate them into efficient, productive basketball, does that make him an intrinsically “bad” player? To what degree does the context matter?
These are the questions I ask myself when I think about Rudy Gay.
Rudy Gay is not a “bad” player. I think. I think he’s been mis-cast for his entire career. For most of his career in Memphis, he was used as a central “star” of the team, playing on the ball, serving as the primary attacker on the majority of his offensive possessions. He played small forward alongside two burly big men in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and his perimeter mates were more slashers than shooters.
For the most part, he produced adequate results, perhaps not good ones, and certainly not great ones. The Grizzlies advanced to Round 2 of the playoffs with him injured in 2011, lost in the first round with him in 2012, and then advanced to the Western Finals in 2013 following his departure to Toronto. This might suggest that the team was better without him, but the numbers don’t quite bear that out.
Last season, Memphis was +5.6 per 100 possessions with Gay on the floor, +4.1 without him. Those splits were +2.3/+2.5 in 2012, +3.1/+1.7 in 2011, and +0.0/-8.1 in 2010. With the exception of 2010, he didn’t make the team substantially better, but he certainly wasn’t harming them through his presence on the court.
And yet, the NBA blogosphere has made him out to be some type of villain. The old-school-type analysts saw (and perhaps even continue to see) him as a star-caliber player, one that can turn a franchise around. The new-school analysts (rightly) disagreed with this assessment, but have probably gone too far in their disagreements.
The general consensus seems to be a reductive one: “He isn’t as good as those people say he is, therefore, he’s bad.” It’s not that simple. To some extent, I find myself swinging back around to the other side – Rudy Gay might even be under-valued at this point because he’s received so much criticism for failures that may not totally be his fault.
Rudy Gay is not an All-Star small forward. He never will be. He’s a marginally positive small forward, and that’s about it. But he could be a very valuable power forward, if he were given the opportunity. So how does this change our perception of him? Do we still say that he’s a “bad” player because he’s been mis-cast for basically his entire career? Is he a bad player or was it just his circumstances that were bad?
He was never given that opportunity in Memphis. It didn’t quite make sense to, given their coaching staff’s preference towards traditional lineups, their need for offensive creativity from the wing, and the frontcourt spots already populated by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Gay playing on the ball with a cluttered free throw lane was never going to be conducive to the type of offensive dynamism that his skill set suggests might be present, somewhere just beneath the surface.
He finally has that opportunity in Toronto, if only his coaching staff can realize it. Playing on a roster that is relatively thin on the front line, Gay will see more minutes at the four, often out of necessity. Acting as a screener, receiving the ball on the move and attacking in space, conceivably, would open up Gay’s game much in the same way it did for Carmelo Anthony. Playing Gay and Anthony at power forward in the 1980s would have seemed about as practical as using corn syrup as laundry detergent, but in 2013 it creates distinct tactical advantages.
When Gay plays at power forward next to Amir Johnson, with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Landry Fields on the perimeter, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 12 points in 28 minutes (+21 per 48 minutes) through five games this season. A small sample size, yes, but a promising one. There were other lineups last season featuring Gay at power forward that outscored opponents by moderate but noticeable margins.
The worry for the future of “Rudy Gay: Power Forward” is who his frontcourt mate is. On Tuesday night against Miami, Gay spent a good portion of the 4th quarter at power forward next to Tyler Hansbrough. It did not go well (the D.J. Augustin/Terrence Ross/Landry Fields/Gay/Hansbrough lineup that was featured has been outscored by 15 points in 11 minutes this season, although the lineup may have been jettisoned – it wasn’t used in Wednesday’s loss to Charlotte). Gay next to Hansbrough in the frontcourt seems like an obvious failure. The center in a small lineup needs rebound and protect the rim to compensate for the smaller players around him, and Hansbrough can’t do that. In fact, Hansbrough is often the power forward who needs to be protected by a superior rebounder and shot blocker. And offensively, if he can’t divert attention towards himself on rolls to the rim, the rest of the offense has no way to take advantage of the improved spacing.
Pretty much every sample size involving Rudy Gay at power forward in Toronto is too small to hang your hat on. But conceptually, it SHOULD work. Gay is the exact type of player who would be able to maximize his talents when the middle of the floor is less congested. But this might be his last chance. Eventually, disappointing play stops being a coincidence. The optimistic take on Gay is that he’s finally in a position to succeed. So let’s see if he succeeds.