Sometimes, things are what they are. Unless they aren’t. Every shot thrown at the rim isn’t the same; a Ray Allen rhythm pull-up in space isn’t equal to Ben Wallace taking a contested fade away from the free throw line, even if both find the bottom of the net. No matter how deep into the NBA’s atomic structure an analytically adept front office maestro looking for any slight advantage would like to dive, it’s never “all about numbers”. And no matter how hard the crusty, round shouldered legends sneer at the rise of data-driven nature of the modern NBA, the “eye test” no longer is enough. 

Funny thing, it was NEVER an either-or kind of thing. The following exchange is not a reenactment. Don’t try this level of nuance at home (just kidding. Please, try to use nuance and context like this daily when you’re talking basketball).

Adam Spinella: Alright Matt, we need to talk about Rudy Gay for a moment. Ever since he was traded away by the Memphis Grizzlies almost three years ago, there’s been this perception that he just puts points on the board inefficiently and plays no defense. The Grizzlies trade him, they take the next step and become a top dog in the West. Toronto trades him, and they instantly become the best team in the Atlantic. Rudy’s a bit outside the spotlight in Sacramento, where I thought he quietly had a good year last season. But what do the numbers suggest? Is he really just a volume scorer that makes his team worse?

Matt Way: Rudy Gay has, in fact, put together a good season-and-a-half in Sacramento.  While he was an inefficient volume scorer in Toronto and Memphis, his efficiency has improved quite a bit in Sacramento.  In 2011-12, Gay had a True Shooting Percentage of .521, which is well below league average.  In 2012-13, that number dropped to a dismal .494.  During his time in Sacramento, his True Shooting Percentage has been at or above league average (.567 in 2013-14 and .556 in 2014-15).  Part of the reason for his improved efficiency is that he is getting to the line much more frequently.  After shooting only four free throws per 36 minutes in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Gay averaged 5.7 and 5.9 free throws per 36 minutes during his two seasons with the Sacramento Kings.

Not only is Rudy Gay getting to the free throw line more often, he’s shot much more efficiently in the mid-range, where a lot of his shots come.

Rudy Gay Efficiency chart

The above image, taken from BBallBreakdown’s Bucket app, shows Gay’s shooting efficiency at specific distances on the floor during the past four seasons (most recent to the far right).  Gay’s improved accuracy from 10-15 feet has had a major effect on his overall shooting efficiency and should be helping shake the negative volume scorer label that he had in Memphis and Toronto.

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Adam: Gay has been fantastic in the lane and in that 10-15 foot range, and certainly the playbook in Sacramento has something to do with that. Gay’s best attributes as a forward are his combination of quickness and size. When a smaller defender is guarding him, he takes him down into the post. When a bigger forward guards him, he’s been able to face-up from the perimeter and take them to the rim off the bounce.

The Kings have been a little more sophisticated with how they have used Gay in half-court sets. His versatility as a ball handler and a screen-setter make him one of the more dynamic players in the league—he can post up, attack one-on-one, set a pick, or come off a ball screen. Ball handling situations inside the three-point line—where opponents cannot simply go under a screen and dare him to shoot the three—are particularly effective for Gay.

Likewise, the Kings use him as the screen-setter in side pick-and-roll situations, where he either forces a switch with the ball handler or simply bullies his way into the post. Gay is so strong against other wings that he doesn’t need to establish position in the post. If he sees a matchup he likes where he’s simply stronger than his opponent, he can back him down and make a quick move in the post—something the Kings have given him ample freedom to do:

George Karl has the opportunity to use Gay a lot like Carmelo Anthony was used in Denver. I don’t know how the rest of the roster fits, but he certainly had a nice stretch last season playing under Karl, who used Gay as a power forward more than Michael Malone or Ty Corbin did. Do you think that is the reason for his success with Karl, or is it more about an up-tempo system?

Matt: I think Karl’s fast paced system played a bigger role than Gay playing more power forward.  The Kings certainly played faster under Karl.  Rudy Gay lineups played at a pace of 97.72 before Karl was hired, which increased to 100.02 after the coaching change.

Before that, just 27.3 percent of Gay’s shots came with 15+ seconds on the shot clock.  With Karl coaching, that number increased dramatically, with 34.6 percent of Gay’s shots coming early in the shot clock.  Gay’s efficiency on those early shots improved from 52.1 percent to 64.4 percent.

The fast paced system also helped Gay because he didn’t hold onto the ball for nearly as long.  Before Karl, 18.8 percent of Gay’s shots came after he had touched the ball for more than 6 seconds.  Under Karl, only 10.4 percent of Gay’s shots came in those same situations.  In general, shot efficiency increases as the time a player touches it decreases.  The faster pace decreased the amount of time Gay was holding onto the ball, and he took more high-percentage shots as a result.

The last major effect of Karl’s faster paced system is that Rudy Gay attempted more shots in the paint, increasing his attempts within 10 feet of the rim from 41 percent to 48.5 percent.

Incidentally, the Kings best lineup by far came with Rudy Gay as the small forward. The lineup of Collison-McLemore-Gay-Thompson-Cousins posted a terrific 16.4 Net Rating over 427 minutes.  In an era where everyone is looking for the next stretch 4, why did Gay work so well at small forward?

Adam: Your argument on pace makes a lot of sense with his shot selection. I like to use that six-second mark as a barrier for when isolation plays become very easy for a defense to defend. Regardless of the player movement, defenses can key in on the ball and position themselves in a way that prevent easy drives to the rim or double-team deep post position. Since Gay was used in lineups with non-shooters like Cousins, Thompson or Carl Landry, teams would clog the paint and force Gay to shoot lower percentage, highly-contested mid-range jumpers. It would feel like playing Gay at the 4 would negate that effect, but it didn’t appear to happen last year.

The issue with Gay as a stretch 4 has always been his defense. Not that he’s a good defender on the wings, but Gay wasn’t really asked to defend many big players last year with the Kings. A lot of the lineups late in the season used either Omri Casspi or Derrick Williams next to Gay, allowing Gay to be the 4 on offense and essentially the 3 on defense. So we never saw Gay truly spend an extended period of time guarding other big men. Casspi would guard a larger defender and bang in the paint on defense, then be able to spread the floor to either the corner or the three point line. It opens up more space for Gay to operate down low offensively.

If Gay moves to the 4 full-time, I fear what that does to his offensive game as well. Like we mentioned earlier, Gay’s biggest asset on offense is his versatility. If he rarely has smaller players that guard him, he will spend less time in the post. Gay isn’t exactly a consistently reliable spot-up shooter (even though his numbers improved last year) and defenses will continue to play a step off him when he doesn’t have the ball. So the ideal lineup to surround Rudy involves shooters and a versatile 4-man.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can see those same type of numbers being duplicated this year by Gay. The roster change in Sacramento doesn’t seem to benefit him, with a non-shooting point guard in Rondo and more big men that are less mobile in Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos. Plus, I’d fear a lineup with him and Marco Belinelli on the wings being atrocious defensively. Am I over-reacting to the changes or does this roster really not compliment Rudy’s strengths as well as it used to?

Matt: I think your concerns about a Gay and Belinelli lineup being terrible defensively are well-founded.  The Kings had a defensive rating of 106.9 when Rudy Gay was on the floor, the worst defensive rating of any of their regular starters.  The Spurs had a defensive rating of 105.1 when Marco Belinelli was on the floor, by far the worst defensive rating of any of their regular rotation players.  On/off numbers aren’t perfect, but on/off defensive ratings do give you a general idea of how good or bad someone is at defense.  Kawhi Leonard and DeMarcus Cousins, for example, had the best defensive rating of any of their respective teams’ starters.

Offensively, I think your concerns make sense as well.  Certainly, having shooters around Gay is going to be optimal.  Gay likes to have the ball in his hands, he’s been assisted on only approximately 30 percent of his two-point shots the past two years.  Adding Rondo complicates things because of his poor shooting.  If Gay has the ball in his hands, Rondo is not able to be a legitimate threat to spot-up and knock down shots.  His shooting numbers outside of 15 feet were really poor last year:

5vKWLx5

To be honest, I really struggle to see how Gay can sustain his performance from the past two years with the current Kings roster.  I know George Karl likes to play fast, but is there any sort of scheme that Karl that might employ to maximize Gay’s abilities?

Adam: Karl and Rondo are a peculiar fit, Matt, and that’s worrisome when it comes to Gay’s production. Karl has generally favored a system that moves the ball around the court quickly. Mainly, his use of point guards in Denver was with Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson or Allen Iverson—all guys that can shoot and space the floor. The closest comparison I can find to the non-shooter that dominates the ball is in Andre Miller, the former Nuggets point guard that made plays happen yet clashed with Coach Karl’s system. I would guess that while Miller’s numbers were strong, it killed the ball movement and stagnated the offense for the team. Rondo would have that same role.

The best way for Karl to combat this is to play Gay at the 4 with more shooters on the wings when he’s got Rondo on the floor. The best way to start is with that lineup that allows him to be the 4 on offense, the 3 on defense playing next to Casspi. If Karl is intentional and savvy with how he uses those two together while realizing Casspi cannot play more than 25 minutes a night, that could be the best-case scenario for Gay.

Here’s a quick sketch of what some rotations could look like:

Start: Rondo, McLemore, Casspi, Gay, Cousins

5 minute mark 1Q: Collison, McLemore, Gay, Cousins, Koufos. Go big and get a shooting PG in the game.

2-minute mark 1Q: Collison, Belinelli, Gay, Casspi, Koufos: Let Rudy be the play-maker in a late clock situation, minimize the ability for the defense to be manipulated since the clock limits the possessions this late in the quarter.

Start 2Q: Rondo, Collison, Belinelli, Acy, Koufos. Allow Collison and Belinelli to be scorers on 2nd unit, go small, let Rondo play his style.

8-minute mark 2Q: Rondo, McLemore, Belinelli, Acy, Cousins. Go bigger and get Cousins as primary scorer.

6-minute mark 2Q: Collison, McLemore, Gay, Cousins, Koufos. Get Gay back in the game, get Rondo a breather and allow this to be the best lineup either for the rest of the quarter or until Karl sees a better matchup.

Of course game flow dictates changes to substitution patterns. But this way Gay gets a mix of a run at the 3 and the 4, Cousins gets a big rest at the end of the 1st quarter, and most of Casspi’s minutes are seen with Gay. Lineup management will be huge if Rudy is going to have a consistent impact.

Matt: Those lineups seem reasonable to me, Adam.  Ultimately, I could see a Collison/Belinelli/Gay/Casspi/Koufos lineup playing a decent amount of minutes this year.  George Karl teams traditionally switch a lot, so having more wing-types would be preferable.  That lineup would also work pretty well for Rudy Gay offensively.  I think he’s definitely more suited as a 3 based on the lineup numbers we looked at earlier and that particular lineup provides enough floor spacing to allow Gay to be a creator offensively. Gay has shown that he can be a volume scorer and, if last year’s numbers under Karl are any indication, he should be able to score at an above average efficiency and build on his success of the last two years.

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Matthew Way

Matthew Way is an eternally optimistic Detroit Pistons fan who loves basketball at every level. When not watching the NBA, he spends time worshiping John Beilein's motion offense.

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