The Rudy Gay Risks Are Real, but Let's Not Write Him off Just Yet

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 9:  New Sacramento King Rudy Gay arrives in Sacramento and meets with local media at Sleep Train Arena on December 9, 2013 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Rudy Gay has traveled down this road before.

His volume scoring and heavy contract ($17.8 million salary for this season, a $19.3 million player option for next, via Shamsports.com) had become impossible to ignore.

It took Gay's original employer, the Memphis Grizzlies, nearly seven full seasons to reach that conclusion. His next team, the Toronto Raptors, made the call in less than 11 months.

So here the eight-year veteran stands in an uncomfortably familiar spot. He arrives to the Sacramento Kings carrying the hopes of a rebuilding franchise and more asterisks than he can count.

There's a reason his moves are met with both tempered expectations and fingers-crossed optimism. His physical tools are undeniable, but so too are his less-than-stellar advanced stat lines.

The analytical crowd his already scripted its conclusion to this sequel. But there's more than antiquated box scores keeping hope alive for his return to relevance.

New Beginning

Simply changing one's scenery guarantees no change of identity. Gay was an inefficient wreck when he left Memphis and an inefficient wreck when he got to Toronto.

But with that change of address comes a change of responsibility, opportunity and, most importantly, system.

The Kings aren't ready to contend with or without Gay on the roster. But they just might be planting the perfect seed for the embattled forward to blossom.

Dec 1, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) on the sideline with head coach Michael Malone after being called for a technical foul against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter at Sleep Train Arena. The Gol
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

His ball-pounding, shot-clock-killing days are over. That's not a hope; it's a direct order from his new coach Michael Malone.

"We don’t want it [the ball] to be just dribble, dribble, dribble, no ball movement, easy to guard and shoot," Malone said, via Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee.

The game will be simplified for Gay, and not in the create-what-you-can way it was in Toronto.

These Kings might not be built to win a lot of games out West, but they're perfectly constructed to hold nightly track meets.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings dribbles past Steve Blake #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Recently anointed starting point guard Isaiah Thomas has never stopped running during his two-plus seasons in the league. One of just three Sacramento regulars with a positive net rating (plus-1.4 points per 100 possessions), the 5'9" sparkplug is the kind of fast-paced decision-maker that Gay needs.

DeMarcus Cousins is a beast on the low block (22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds a night), the kind of low-post presence Gay enjoyed his most success alongside of in Memphis (19.5 points on 46.1 percent shooting from 2007-12).

But unlike those grit-and-grind Grizzlies bigs, "Boogie" is more than comfortable motoring his 6'11", 270-pound frame in the open floor. Derrick Williams shifts from liability to asset the faster his teams run.

With Cousins demanding touches and Thomas controlling the tempo, Gay won't be forced into making something out of nothing in isolation sets. Instead, as Rotoworld.com's Aaron Bruski notes, the Kings will "get him moving toward the basket and shooting with his feet set."

Those ball-pounding isolations have yielded Gay just 0.77 points per possession, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).

But when the Raptors found a hint of offensive creativity, Gay was once again a weapon. As a spot-up shooter, he's buried 50 percent of his three-point attempts. As an off-ball cutter, he's wracked up 1.28 points per possession and converted 64.7 percent of his chances.

This is the player the Kings are willing to gamble on. This is the Rudy Gay that Hoopsworld.com's Alex Kennedy notes was once "a fan favorite on the Memphis Grizzlies and considered one of the best up-and-coming forwards in the league."

Even on his worst days, Gay's an active and effective defender, a trait that should keep him in Malone's best graces. But in the right system, at the right position—his potential as a stretch 4 is intoxicating—he has all of the tools to be a two-way force.

Of course, the analytical crowd hasn't been bashing Gay for the fun of it. There's a reason those red flags are flying all around him.

About Those Risks...

The Kings aren't clinging to any false realities with the franchise's biggest—and most expensive—acquisition under first-year general manager Pete D'Alessandro.

They know exactly why Gay slipped all the way to the NBA clearance bin.

"This year has not been a good year for him, shooting 18 times a game, shooting 38 percent from the field,” Malone said, via Jones.

Somehow, that's actually putting it lightly.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 11:  Rudy Gay #22 of the Toronto Raptors looks to pass during the game against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on November 11, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Forget about the 19.4 points he's averaging (22nd overall). This season has been nothing short of disastrous for Gay.

Volume scoring has never sounded this bad. He's one of only four players (along with Charlotte's Kemba Walker, Utah's Gordon Hayward and Detroit's Josh Smith) holding both a top-75 scoring average and a sub-40 field-goal percentage.

His player efficiency rating of 15.9 is barely treading water above the league-average mark of 15.0. It's also putting him in a four-way tie for the 132nd spot in the category, a place he shares with such unimpressive names as Robin Lopez, Martell Webster and Thaddeus Young.

A glutton for analytical punishment, he's been living—but mostly dying—in the efficiency-killing mid-range. More than 30 percent of his field-goal attempts have been released 10-to-19 feet from the basket. His percentage from this dead zone (39.8) is almost exactly the same as his overall success rate (38.8).

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 13: Rudy Gay #22 of the Toronto Raptors shoots against Tayshaun Prince #21 of the Memphis Grizzlies on November 13, 2013 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Part of this damage is the result of self-inflicted wounds. He's been creating most of these helpless scoring chances for himself (92.3 percent of his makes from 10-to-14 feet and 82.1 percent from 15-to-19 feet have been unassisted.)

But he's also been the victim of a systematic collapse that put him in these unsightly positions. He's not taking (and missing) all of those shots without being surrounded by four ball-watching teammates and a coach that doesn't know when (or how) to say "Stop!"

It's easy to see the stat sheets—provided you can sneak them past Gay—and cast blame on the name beside the numbers. But Gay didn't create this ball-dominant, shot-chucking beast himself.

And none of those co-creators accompanied him to Sacramento.

Same Story, Different Outcome?

If the Kings are hoping for Gay to be their savior, then hopefully there's a cushion in place for their inevitable fall.

He's not that kind of player. And this isn't a one-piece-away kind of team.

But if Sacramento simply went searching for a possible piece for the future, that's a hurdle that Gay could easily surpass.

Systems matter. Supporting casts do, too.

There was no light at the end of the tunnel for him in Toronto. The roster was in need of repair, and then-GM Bryan Colangelo was in need of a miracle. Rather than preparing for the future and riding his young guns, Colangelo made a last-ditch effort at saving his job and tasked Gay with leading a lottery-bound roster into the postseason.

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 01:  Rudy Gay #22, Kyle Lowry #7 and DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors react in the final seconds of their 102-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 1, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User express
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The odds weren't against Gay; they didn't even exist. His tenure was doomed the moment that transaction took place.

Not unlike a former target of the analytical crowd, Monta Ellis. After being battered and bruised for his failure to create magic on some bad Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks teams, Ellis was cast aside as another stat-padding, ball-dominant volume scorer.

That magic finally came this summer. Ellis found a competent supporting staff with the Dallas Mavericks.

He finally had someone capable of sharing the scoring burden (Dirk Nowitzki). He had a tactical genius (Rick Carlisle) putting him in position to succeed.

Expectations were lowered. Opportunities emerged.

It's been a while now since Ellis drew the wrath of the advanced statistics world. It's hard to hate on a guy pouring in 21.5 points, shooting 47.0 percent from the field and humming along with a career-best 19.1 player efficiency rating.

The load will be similarly lightened for Gay upon his arrival. Cousins and Thomas—and eventually rookie Ben McLemore—will draw defensive attention and simplify his job description. Malone will give Gay the freedom to succeed, not the freedom to flop he had in Toronto.

Gay's challenge is to seize this opportunity, to silence his growing list of critics.

Maybe the ending to this narrative won't change. Then again, maybe it will.

That ray of hope might not sound like much. But it's been a notable omission from Gay's story for a long time.

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.