Why Rudy Gay and the Sacramento Kings Are Perfect for Each Other
During the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies took down a 61-win, first-seeded San Antonio Spurs team in six games without the services of Rudy Gay, their second-leading scorer from that season. After seeing how good Memphis had the potential to be on its own, one couldn't help but wonder if they even needed Gay at all to be competitive, despite the fact that they had just locked him up for five years and $82 million the summer before.
The Grizzlies eventually decided that they would be fine without Gay and his bloated contract, trading him to the Toronto Raptors in the early stages of 2013 for spare parts. The Grizzlies have rattled off two 50-win seasons since the trade and haven't looked back. Within a year of trading for Gay, the Raptors also decided that they would be fine without him and his pay check, trading him away to the Sacramento Kings for spare parts at the end of 2013. They then turned a terrible 6-12 start to the season around and finished with a franchise-best 48-34 record.
It was starting to look like the best way to win when Rudy Gay was on your team was to have him miss games or to trade him. If you're paying a guy nearly $20 million a year to be your star player, that's not exactly a trend that'll instil confidence in your fanbase.
But when the Sacramento Kings brought Rudy in to ride out his contract on their bottom-feeding team, something interesting happened.
Rudy Gay became an efficient basketball player.
Gay has long been the whipping boy of basketball nerds and analytic aficionados because of the way he has generally defined inefficiency for most of his career. This new, more efficient Rudy Gay, therefore, turned a lot of heads. The old Gay was always lambasted for jacking up so many 19-footers that it felt like he believed they were somehow worth more points than other shots: a big no-no in the new world of basketball analytics but generally accepted by old school purveyors of the eye test. Now, he's kind of a crowd pleaser for both sides.
Look at the difference in his shot distribution while playing for Memphis, Toronto, and Sacramento over his career (percentage of field goal attempts that came from each range, measured by feet from the hoop).
As you can see, Gay has reduced his attempts pretty significantly from the mid-range (16 feet to anything less than the three-point line), dropping from 22.0% of his shots in Memphis, to 20.8% in Toronto, to only 17.2% in Sacramento. He's now only taking 16.7% of his shots from long range now as well - down from a career high 21.1% in Toronto - which is fine for a career 34.2% shooter. Now, Gay shoots much more from three to 10 feet (the painted area and nearby) and even a little more from 10 to 16 feet (which is still preferable to the 16-feet-onward zone).
As a result, Gay has gone from being a 45.2% shooter in Memphis and 41.1% in Toronto to a 47.6% shooter in Sacramento. Throw in the highest free throw rate of his career (.370 freebies for every field goal attempt, up from .265 in Memphis and .252 in Toronto), and you've got a player who's clearly attacking the hoop more and settling for low-percentage shots a whole lot less.
The spike in efficiency has led to career bests for Gay so far in this young season in just about any efficiency category you can find. Player efficiency rating? A career-best 20.7. Win shares per 48 minutes? .165, a full .042 better than his previous high of .123 set in 2010-11. Offensive rating? 113, 4 points produced per 100 possessions better than his previous 2009-10 high. Value over replacement player (VORP), which estimates points per 100 team possessions a player contributes above a replacement-level player? 4.6, easily a career best and currently the 10th best in the whole NBA. Our own in-house metric, nERD, which estimates how many games above .500 a league-average team would ultimately finish with said player as one of its starters? 7.5, 27th in the whole Association and over three times higher than his previous high of 2.4 set in 2010-11.
I know that's a lot of statistics to digest in one sitting, but take one thing away from all of it: he's playing the most efficient basketball of his career. Of course, you don't even need the bells and whistles of advanced analytics to tell you Gay's playing like an All-Star; the rawest box score statistics do that just fine:
What's more, the Sacramento Kings are a surprising 7-5 to start 2014-15 with signature wins already under their belts against the Clippers, Suns, Spurs, and Bulls (all teams in the top 10 of our preseason power rankings). Gay has been a huge part of that, and the three-year, $40 million extension he got from the Kings seems just right for a 28-year-old who is finding his niche and helping his team exceed everyone's expectations.
When Gay was still on the Raptors, their fans were terrified of his $19.3 million player option for 2014-15. Then, after an impressive 55 games with the Kings last season, Sacramento's management urged him to pick it up, and it actually didn't seem that crazy for a team with nothing, really, to play for and very little to sell fans on. Now, 12 games into this season, his new $13.3 average annual salary on a team with playoffs on the brain could almost be considered a bargain, particularly if you consider the upcoming TV deal and the inevitability of much bigger salaries for NBA players that will come with it.
He and DeMarcus Cousins solidified their chemistry this summer playing together for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup and look like the cornerstones of this Kings franchise for the next several seasons. Early returns this year sure do look great, but time will tell if the start is for real or not. For now, there's simply no denying that Rudy Gay is earning his pay check, regardless of whether you're into efficiency analytics or not.
Man, what a difference a year makes.