HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — No player is caught in the cross hairs of the NBA’s analytics revolution quite like Rudy Gay. The 6-foot-8 slashing small forward is the enemy of the computer.
It doesn’t value his game and it makes no apologies. Gay doesn’t shoot enough 3-pointers or shoot them particularly well, and worse, he takes alarmingly too few from the high-percentage corners. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line frequently enough. When he’s not slashing to the rim, the majority of his scoring chances come from analytical no-man’s land — the mid-range. Combine it all with his low shooting percentages last season and the advanced stats — Effective Shooting Percentage (eFG%), True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and Offensive Rating (offRtg) – offer a less flattering assessment than his conventional 18.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 2.7 apg.
“Honestly, how I view it, a computer can’t tell talent, it just can’t,” Gay told NBA.com during a phone interview Wednesday from the Toronto Raptors locker room following a workout with teammate DeMar DeRozan. “When it comes down to it, it’s all about winning, and however you get the win. According to analytics, you either [have] to shoot a 3 or get to the foul line, and it’s not good for people like me that live in that mid-range area.”
By more conventional measures, Gay can be deemed a super-athletic wing, a valuable weapon with size, a good handle and the ability to create his own shot — at times bandied as a borderline All-Star. Analytic computations conversely box in Gay, a top-six usage player among small forwards in the league, as a highly inefficient player, an offensive black hole who impedes ball movement, is ultimately detrimental to the team concept and is lucky to be in the league.
“It’s tough,” Gay said. “Obviously, according to analytics, some of my opponents wouldn’t value me as much as they do. So, a computer can say what it wants, but as long as I get respect from my peers, that’s all that matters.”
The debate reached a fervor in the build-up to the three-way, midseason trade in which the Memphis Grizzlies sent the seven-year pro to the Raptors. Factions were split. Some, including then-Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, wanted the team’s core to remain intact to make a postseason run. The Grizzlies were 29-13 at the time of the trade and Gay, even with lugging career-low shooting percentages, was averaging 36.7 mpg and a team-best 17.2 ppg. He was viewed as essential for a team with few other perimeter or playmaking options.
The advanced stats crowd — rapidly expanding into nearly every NBA front office (with Memphis’ new management group being a leader) and rising as an integral tool for talent evaluation and valuation — bid Gay good riddance. They vowed Memphis would be better off without him, pointing to the franchise’s previous deepest playoff run in 2011, a seven-game, second-round defeat to Oklahoma City with Gay out with an injury. Eliminating the ball-stopper in the Grizzlies’ methodical, double-post offense, after all, would mean better flow and increased opportunities for high-shooting-percentage big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
“You can’t name one team in the league that has two dominant post men and a wing that can slash,” Gay said. “Obviously, slashing to the basket is hard to do when you have two people down there posting up. It’s basic basketball. I don’t know what team, what great player at the wing position has that. You got [Carmelo Anthony], he even plays the 4 sometimes, [Kevin Durant] — all these guys asked to play the 3-4 position are actually allowed to have the room to get to the basket and do our thing. It was tough. It was tough being there and taking criticism, but we won, so that’s all that matters.”
Both sides better off
Analytic data suggests Memphis’ offense did function more efficiently after the trade, one that was made for both analytical and financial reasons considering Gay’s burdensome contract (he’s due $17.9 million this season and $19.3 million if he exercises his option for 2014-15) and the consequences of the league’s harsher luxury tax penalties.
Memphis won a franchise-best 57 games and advanced to its first Western Conference finals. In its second-round win over a Thunder team without Russell Westbrook, it got just enough offense combined with stout fourth-quarter defense against Durant to win in five down-to-the-wire games. In the West finals, a paint-crashing San Antonio Spurs defense turned the perimeter-weak Grizzlies’ offense impotent and won in a sweep.
“In Memphis, everybody had to play a part, and for us to win, we had to kind of give up a little bit. And it was good,” Gay said. “Those guys stepped up last year in the playoffs and played well. And I feel like my play got a lot better since I got [to Toronto], too, because there’s more room for me to operate. It works out for both teams to me. Of course, I value myself and think that their chances would have been better with me, but I feel like I can be better here.”
Analytic data backs Gay’s assertion that he got better playing in Toronto’s more spacious offense. It’s fueling optimism as training camp opens on Tuesday that pairing the 24-year-old DeRozan and the 27-year-old Gay at the wing positions — despite claims that their skills overlap — with point guard Kyle Lowry, power forward Amir Johnson and promising young center Jonas Valanciunas, plus a more capable bench, will push the Raptors into playoff contention.
Toronto was 34-48 before the trade and 17-16 with Gay in the lineup. His conventional stats jumped to 19.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg (from 5.9) and 2.8 apg (from 2.6) with the Raptors despite his playing time dipping by two full minutes (36.7 mpg to 34.7 mpg). His overall and 3-point shooting percentages, although still low, rose by two percentage points. His eFG%, TS% and Offensive Rating (offRtg) all went up.
DeRozan, the Raptors’ maturing, potential star, saw his advanced stats rise incrementally almost across the board. Longtime friends, DeRozan said he and Gay clicked on the court instantly. He noted how defenses became more limited in their options to defend him with Gay also on the floor, particularly when the 6-foot-7 shooting guard posted up smaller defenders.
“All the analytical people saying this and that about [Gay], about his shots, I really try not to feed into it so much and let that judge a player,” DeRozan said. “We play so well off each other, so it’s difficult for any team to put their best player on me. A lot last season I would post up a lot of two-guards I was bigger than and a lot of times teams were putting their 3-man on me. That went out the window as soon as Rudy came. Little stuff like that started to open up.”
More to come?
Gay had laser surgery to correct a vision problem he said he never realized how bad it really was. He said his blurred vision wasn’t why he shot just 41.6 percent overall and 32.3 percent from beyond the arc last season, the second consecutive season in which his shooting percentages plunged.
“Honestly, I had two bad years of shooting the ball and this last year was really bad, so I just had to go back to the basics,” Gay said of his offseason workouts. “It wasn’t as much my eye sight as it was my form. So, this summer I really had to go back to the basics and fix a couple things and sharpen up my shooting.”
He spent the majority of the summer in his hometown of Baltimore and worked out at his old high school with his personal trainer, Dustin Gray, who Gay said literally moved in with him. Gay said he spent hours each day homing in on the “little things,” the details in his approach and shooting stroke.
Before shoulder surgery prematurely ended his 2010-11 season after 54 games, Gay was averaging 19.8 ppg and shooting 47.1 percent overall and 39.6 percent from 3-point range, both career highs. In the two seasons since, he’s dropped to 43.4 percent and 31.9 percent, respectively
“I wouldn’t say I’m pleased with where I am to this point, but I’m pleased with where I’m at and the situation I’m in,” Gay said. “It gives me a chance.”