The Sacramento Kings should be feeling duped.
But there is no hint of buyer's remorse in Sactown. You see, the Kings didn't get that Rudy Gay.
The one they received is patient, potent and, dare I say it, efficient:
Just finished Cavs-Kings. So, so much blood. Rudy has been really good as a King so far.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 13, 2014
So, what exactly happened on that long flight from north of the border to Northern California? How have the Kings brought back Gay from his analytical grave?
Most importantly, just how long should Kings fans expect to see this Gay stick around?
On the surface, it seemed like Gay walked into a mess in Sacramento. The Kings were 6-14 before he debuted on Dec. 13, and they had already suffered two losing streaks of five or more games.
The Raptors weren't much better under Gay's watch during this time—6-12 before the trade—but they played in the East. That alone guaranteed the presence of hope.
Sacramento had something else, though. Something that had eluded Gay during his 10-plus-month stay in Hogtown.
The Kings had help. Help that Gay desperately needed.
The Raptors had asked him to be the man. Kings coach Michael Malone said his team wanted Gay to be anything but.
"We don’t want it to be just dribble, dribble, dribble, no ball movement, easy to guard and shoot,” Malone said after the trade, via Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee. “Rudy’s going to buy in. He’s a high-character kid."
He's a talented one, too. And with the Kings, he's surrounded by talent that complements his skills.
Gay isn't the primary option in this offense. That role falls on DeMarcus Cousins' broad shoulders, and the big man is making the most of his chances (23.3 points, 49.4 percent shooting, 3.1 assists).
Boogie's a willing and able passer out of the low block, provided his teammates give him passing lanes to exploit.
"Cuz can move the ball, but everybody has to move," Gay said, via The Sacramento Bee's Ailene Voisin. "When he gets the ball and everybody stands around, it frustrates him. That’s not the way to play basketball."
Gay knows all about the frustration of being continually asked to create something out of nothing. He also knows what the combination of his athleticism and Cousins' vision can produce.
But it's bigger than Boogie.
Isaiah Thomas (19.0 points, .451/.411/.860 shooting) is pulling defenders his direction or punishing teams for not bringing help.
Cousins is like the versatile bigs Gay shined alongside in Memphis, and Thomas is the electric backcourt scoring presence Gay has never had. And Gay—plus fellow newcomers Derrick Williams and Quincy Acy—is the perfect complement for this athletic roster.
Before his arrival, the Kings averaged 95.94 possessions per 48 minutes, which would be just 18th fastest in the league. Since Dec. 13, Sacramento's now up to 98.48 possessions per 48 minutes, ninth fastest over that stretch.
The offense isn't just faster, it's also more efficient. The Kings are averaging 106.2 points per 100 possessions with Gay in the lineup, up from 101.9 in the team's first 20 games.
Sacramento never placed savior expectations on Gay. For the first time, a franchise has decided to try and save him.
Chance for Success
The Kings didn't take a wild swing for the fences when they finalized this trade. Sacramento had a plan.
Numbers never lie, but the Kings sensed some deception in Gay's box scores. Something didn't feel right with the fact that he'd held his field-goal percentage between 45.3 and 47.1 for five straight seasons before it bottomed out with last year's 41.6 percent mark.
Had the then-seven-year pro really regressed that much in one summer? Or were those diminishing returns the signs of a flawed system?
The Kings gambled on it being the latter. They've been raking in the prize money ever since.
The Raptors didn't have an offense for Gay. At least, not one more complex than the here-see-what-you-can-come-up-with system coach Dwane Casey employed.
Everyone pounded Gay for the ball-stopping, dribble-pounding they were seeing. No one bothered to ask why he was even in that position.
The way Malone saw it, all Gay's critics did was just drive down his price tag, via Voisin:
The thing I'm happiest about is that all the analytics people came out and made Rudy Gay the poster child of inefficient NBA players. All we heard was that he was shooting 38 percent in Toronto, taking too many shots, that he was awful. But when we made the deal, we didn't look at him as a Raptor. We looked at him as a player.
Gay hadn't lost his effectiveness. His team simply didn't know how to use him. Sacramento hasn't made those same mistakes with Gay. This offense has figured out what he does best and put him in position to make those plays.
The Kings are running him through pick-and-rolls with Cousins and letting his untapped playmaking ability shine. His usage percentage is down six points in Sacramento (24.6) from where it was in Toronto (30.6), yet he's added more than two points to his assist percentage (13.8, up from 11.7).
He's spending more time in the post, where his combination of size (6'8", 230 lbs), length (7'3" wingspan) and quickness can frustrate defenders.
He's getting more of his shots within the offensive flow instead of having to create his own chances. Just 61.2 percent of his field goals are unassisted in Sacramento, a full five-point drop from what he'd seen in Toronto (66.2).
With Cousins on one block and shooters surrounding him, he's finding better quality looks near the basket. Some he creates for himself, others are set up by willing passers as he sprints to the rim. All of them are better than what he'd seen in Toronto.
He's taking virtually the same percentage of his shots within the paint (51.3) than he did with the Raptors (49.2). But his conversion rate inside the paint (62.5 percent) is up more than 21 percentage points (41.2).
This channeled aggressiveness has also helped him to a .333 free-throw rate (free-throw attempts per field-goal attempts) with the Kings. If that holds up, it would be just the second time he's held that figure above .300.
Gay has been everything the Kings could have imagined they were acquiring. Probably even more.
But will his present tie him to this team's future?
When his critics aren't talking about his stat sheets—and really, there hasn't been much to criticize in Sacramento—they're harping on his contract.
Admittedly, it's worth the noise.
Gay holds a $19.3 million player option for next season. Assuming he opts in, he'd be the 11th highest paid player in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Conventional wisdom has long held that this is simply too much money for Gay to walk away from—even after he assured us all his decision would have nothing to do with dollars.
But his call might not be as easy to make as it first seemed.
He's not going to find an annual salary north of $19 million anywhere. But he could go searching for a longer deal worth close to a king's ransom given his production level in Sacramento—20.0 points on 51.7 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks.
The Kings already gambled on him once and should have no trouble buying in a second time if he walks away from that player option. But the negotiating table could be more crowded than anyone anticipated.
Sacramento might have seen something no one else could while Gay was wasting away north of the border. But that secret is out now.
Rudy Gay is back. And he just might be better than ever.