Often times, it's difficult to separate a player from his current contract and evaluate him in a vacuum. That's the case with Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay, one of the more maligned players in the league, in large part because of his massive deal.
It certainly doesn't help Gay's case that whenever he has left a team, they've improved almost immediately. That's what happened last season when Gay was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that drafted him and where he had spent the first six seasons of his career.
Once Gay was dealt Toronto Raptors in late January 2013, Memphis improved drastically on the offensive side of the ball and closed out the season with a 28-9 record before eventually falling in the Western Conference Finals.
It happened again this year after the Toronto Raptors dumped Gay on the Sacramento Kings. The Raptors were 6-12 with Gay to start the year and looked completely disjointed. Without Gay, they have since gone 36-20 and have played like one of the top teams in the league.
Perhaps that wouldn't raise eyebrows with most players, but the combination of Gay's contract and shot selection don't allow him the benefit of the doubt or the advantage of staying in the shadows. Gay's contract is considered to be one of the last remaining albatrosses out there, as he'll pocket $17.8 million this season. Next year, Gay will have a player option worth $19.3 million.
But will he accept it and stay in Sacramento? Gay has been largely noncommittal, as Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com explains:
He says he has not made a decision on the $19.3 million on the table or whether he wants to remain with the Kings at any price. He has so not made a decision, Rudy Gay insists, that he is asked to list a couple factors that will go into the final call and responds, “I don’t know.”
“What does my gut tell me?” Gay says of the looming decision and possibly decisions, plural. “I don’t know. My gut tells me different things every day.”
Gay may not acknowledge any of the key factors, but I can think of 19.3 million reasons for him to accept his player option and stay in Sacramento.
While it wouldn't be the first time a player passed up significant money for long-term security in a place he wants to be, this would be the most extreme example of it maybe in NBA history. With his reputation around the league in question, though, perhaps all that money really isn't the first thing on Gay's mind.
Here's more from NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper:
“I don’t think about that at all,” he says. “I love this game. I don’t play it for money. Obviously it’s a very big plus that we make a lot to play this game, but I think it’s more important to be happy.”
But people say no one leaves that kind of money on the table.
“They’re not in the NBA,” Gay says. “Those people don’t do the job and work as hard as I do.”
So it is possible he trades the $19.3 million for a longer deal now rather than postponing the life decision another season.
“Everything’s possible. I work hard. I work very hard. I feel as though when you work hard and you do things the right way, at the end of the day you will be rewarded. Whether it’s taking that year or whether it’s opting out and signing a new contract, I feel like I will be rewarded for my hard work.”
There are a few things to establish here. The first is that Gay, even by the most optimistic evaluation, is worth nowhere near $19.3 million. In fact, on the open free-agent market, he'd be unlikely to even secure half of that per season.
A decent comparison for Gay is Monta Ellis, who was a free agent last offseason. The age and experience are nearly identical, and both players had the well-earned reputation of chucking and not offering much help defensively.
Ellis' career numbers fall right in line with Gay's as well. Ellis has a 16.8 career PER, while Gay is at 16.4. Their points per game (19.4 for Ellis, 18.2 for Gay) are similar, and their true shooting percentages are identical at 52.7 percent.
Even though most would probably rather have him since he's a better distributor, Ellis is still a decent benchmark for Gay.
So what happened when Ellis hit free agency? After a very long wait, he received a three-year deal worth $25 million from the Dallas Mavericks. If Gay were to land a similar deal around $8 million a year, it would take him nearly two-and-a-half seasons to make what he could in one season by simply accepting his player option.
It's important to remember that the maximum length Gay can sign for in free agency is four years, so the benefit of opting out and getting a long-term deal (which teams may be hesitant to offer him given all the aforementioned concerns) might not provide as much incentive as you'd think. At the least, it's certainly riskier.
Aside from accepting his player option, Gay's best bet might be negotiating a contract extension with Sacramento, as the Kings are the only team that can sign him for a full five years.
But would the Kings do that? You would think that trading for Gay this season when there was no real shot at competing would indicate that Sacramento wanted him for the long haul. At least it sounds as though Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and his staff thought this all out, as Ranadive broke down in an interview with James Dubin at ESPN.com:
Look at Rudy Gay. You could look at one level of numbers and say, “In Toronto he’s scoring 24 points a game, so he’s great.” And then you go next level and say, “Yeah, but he’s only shooting [X] percent, so he’s terrible.” What we did is, we looked at all six years of data, we looked at spatial data, we looked at what happened with a big guy, and what would happen if he was the second or the third option. We concluded that his efficiency would go up dramatically, and sure enough, it’s gone up 20 percentage points. (Note: Gay’s true shooting percentage has increased from 46.8 with Toronto to 57.4 with Sacramento this season, a jump of 8.6 percent. His player efficiency rating, a measure of per-minute efficiency, has gone from 14.7 in Toronto to 20.5 in Sacramento.)
It's promising for Gay's future that Sacramento believes he can become a more efficient player and perhaps enjoy a similar career revival like Ellis has in Dallas, but there are still plenty of dangers attached to a long-term deal.
While the prospect of paying Gay $19.3 million (and almost certainly entering the luxury tax in the process) is far from appealing, the Kings run the risk of negotiating against themselves and Gay's former deal instead of letting the market deem what he's worth.
Of course, it's Gay who holds most of the cards here. If he wants to accept his player option, which he probably should, then that's his prerogative. Sacramento's front office is fully aware of that being the most likely scenario, so that's not a surprise.
Gay is probably worth somewhere in the range of $8 million per year in free agency, but it would frankly be a little shocking if it came to that point quite yet.
If he can continue to restore some of his value in Sacramento, it would make sense to spend another year there and evaluate everything during the 2015 offseason, where there should be more teams with cap space available.
Essentially, Gay can make $19.3 million for delaying his decision and improving the chances he'll be able to secure a long-term deal. That's just too much money to pass up.