Rudy Gay is that odd sort of player who polarizes fan bases and leaves no room for qualified opinions or middle ground, which is part of the reason his late-stage addition to Team USA is so fascinating.
Featuring a game simultaneously loved and hated, observers either prize Gay's ridiculous combination of size and athleticism or view his shot selection and tunnel-vision passing as a scourge on effective offense. What's so confounding about Gay is his ability to prove both camps right within the span of a few plays.
There's little consensus about the guy, save this: He's on the team, per Marc Stein of ESPN:
Rudy Gay has been with USA Basketball in past and will replace Kevin Durant as 16th member of squad vying for one of final 12 FIBA WC spots— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) August 8, 2014
Kevin Durant and Paul George are out, and other big wings like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony never showed up in the first place. The fact that Gay was added to the camp roster at all means he's likely to advance through the next round of cuts.
So, did Team USA panic by reaching for the first guy who, in a very dark room and viewed through a very severe squint, might kinda sorta maybe possibly resemble Durant? And in so doing, did it doom American basketball to a disappointing fate in the World Cup?
Or do Gay's undeniable skills and valuable international experience make him the perfect pick to fill out the roster?
As befits Gay's polarizing nature, there are two ways to look at it.
For 18 games with the Toronto Raptors last year, Gay was horrible.
His player efficiency rating was a below-average 14.7, he connected on just 38.8 percent of his shots and he averaged 1.5 turnovers for every assist he handed out, per Basketball-Reference. Worse still, he posted a negative net rating for a team that was otherwise in the black and would go on a playoff-bound surge without him.
When a midseason trade sent him to the Sacramento Kings, it was hard to find a player whose reputation among casual fans so grossly misrepresented his actual value.
Gay played better with the Kings, but his three-point percentage plummeted to 31.2 percent—a troubling sign in light of the role he'll likely fill for Team USA. Among the many things the U.S. squad lost in Durant's departure, frontcourt shooting was the most significant.
KD, an ideal hybrid 4 in international competition, could stretch the floor like no other. Gay, for all his talents, cannot do the same. Instead of scrambling madly to close out (like they would have were Durant on the floor), opposing defenders will dare Gay to shoot, knowing any defensive possession that ends with a jumper from him will be, by definition, a successful one.
That lack of floor stretching could have profound effects on the rest of Team USA—forcing the use of more conventional frontcourt lineups, adding to the pressure on Anthony Davis and placing a premium on guys like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry to bury every open shot they see.
"But the international three-point line is shorter," you're shouting. "Won't Gay be more effective at a slightly closer distance?"
Glad you asked. He hit 33.8 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet last year, per Basketball-Reference. In other words, the only thing worse than a Rudy Gay three is a Rudy Gay long two.
Gay's penchant for taking contested jumpers off the dribble is a problem as well, especially on a team where the opportunity cost of hero ball is far higher. It's one thing when Gay's bad shots take away opportunities from Quincy Acy; it's another when they mean someone like Curry doesn't get a touch.
Nobody besides James could have replaced Durant, though Paul Millsap, who didn't survive the first round of cuts would have been a better choice. If the plan was to find someone whose contributions could at least approximate KD's, Team USA got the wrong guy.
Or did it?
If you look past the shooting issues, Gay brings a few intriguing positives to the table.
His overall improvement after being traded last year was undeniable, and if you dig back through the statistics, you'll find Gay has hit for high perimeter accuracy rates in the past. He drilled 39.6 percent of his threes in 2010-11, for example.
Plus, the eight-year vet is a big, rangy defender who can cover power forwards in a pinch. On the other end, Gay was devastatingly effective when functioning as an undersized 4. Per 82games.com, he posted an obscene PER of 29.7 as a power forward with the Kings last year.
Numbers and scouting reports aside, Gay legitimately values his spot on Team USA. He would have been forgiven for passing on that invitation, especially after being ignored in the first round of selections. It was a classy move that showed real commitment when he accepted, and Gay showed his enthusiasm immediately:
"To see how Paul George went down, I feel like it’s not only for the country but we have to do it for him, too," USAB's Rudy Gay told Yahoo.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) August 8, 2014
Gay is also no stranger to the program, which can only help, per Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated: "Officially added to the roster on Friday afternoon, Gay won gold as a reserve with USA Basketball at the 2010 World Championships and already understands the team philosophy. That familiarity works in his favor..."
Finally, we can't discount the fact that Gay has something to prove.
He's on the final year of a deal that will pay him more than $19 million, an annual figure he's unlikely to match in the future. The rise of analytics has largely exposed his game as having more style than substance, and though we mentioned his staunch supporters at the outset of this piece, it's getting harder to find knowledgable fans who defend his worth.
This is an opportunity for Gay to show he can contribute and fill a role. More than that, he needs to prove he still belongs on the court with the best the U.S. has to offer.
With his career at a crossroads (Is he a star or an overpaid, inefficient shot-eater?), motivation should not be an issue for Gay.
Oh, The Irony
Adding Gay to Team USA felt desperate; there's little denying that. If not for George's injury and Durant's withdrawal, we probably wouldn't have gotten around to mentioning Gay until sometime during the Kings' first nine-game losing streak of 2014-15.
But not every desperate decision is a bad one. Because although Gay isn't the kind of scoring superstar Durant was (few are), he does a few key things well. And, perhaps more importantly, he's at a point in his career where a focused effort in international competition could be hugely beneficial to his situation stateside.
In a perfectly ironic twist for a player who divides NBA fans so neatly, Gay's addition to Team USA isn't inspired or desperate.