By Mike O’Connor
Solving the puzzle of Rudy Gay’s fit on the San Antonio Spurs has easily been one of the most difficult cases to crack in some time. For starters, it’s important to tread carefully with Spurs signings. Blind faith in the Spurs’ brass is entirely warranted and plausible, but the Spurs could sign an upturned mop with a bucket for a head and we might think it was a good deal. No one aces every signing.
Secondly, it is certainly not a surface-level fit. A score-first, score-second isolation player on a team that avoids isolations like the plague with a top five player in the league at his position.
How does that work?
At first, I hypothesized that this was a footnote-level acquisition. Maybe it was just a flyer, or a “let us try to fix you” contract the Spurs dole out from time to time.
But that didn’t seem to add up. The Spurs just let three players with a combined 84 starts walk away. They aren’t about to watch Kawhi Leonard’s prime wither away without a fight.
And like the genius of most Spurs moves, this one was hidden in plain sight. Though I’ll admit, it did make me reconsider what the Spurs value in a power forward. Yes, a power forward.
Because that’s what Gay is now. Get used to it. Surely, Gregg Popovich envisions Gay playing alongside Kawhi Leonard. In 2015-2016, Leonard’s net rating was 2.7 points higher per 48 minutes when playing small forward compared to power forward, and last season he played just one percent of his minutes there. Kawhi will be staying put in his natural position, thank you very much.
The Spurs’ vision behind plugging Gay in at the power forward appears to have two steps: ridding him of his bad habits and tapping into some hidden talents to reach a new team dynamic.
The Isolation Problem
In checking Gay’s numbers, I was very relieved to find that he has terrible isolation stats. In 2015-2016, Gay had the 18th most isolation possessions in the league and the 186th best points per isolation possession. And he hunts them, too. Only 15 percent of his isolations came with four or less seconds left on the shot clock, the sixth lowest league wide. Sheesh.
But for our sake, this is a good thing. It means that Gay’s value is not rooted in his isolation ability. We can peel away Gay’s isolations without undermining his lone productive area as a player.
In the Spurs’ offense, isolations are little more than byproducts of a broken plays. A possession gone awry. It’s why the Spurs, Warriors and Celtics are all among the bottom five in the league in percentage of isolation plays. To the Spurs, isolations are a necessary evil rather than a viable offensive source, which was the problem in Gay’s three previous destinations.
Additionally, Gay will shoulder far less perimeter creation duties when playing the power forward. It’s a far more confined role in the Spurs’ offense.
For that reason, I trust the Spurs to unplug Gay from his isolating ways. A mixture of lesser need combined with forced schematic avoidance should quell his penchant for isolations.
But… simply downplaying a flaw doesn’t make this a fantastic signing. The Spurs wouldn’t invest in Gay if they didn’t think they could make use of some hidden talents.
In contextualizing his role, it’s clear the Spurs need a power forward who can operate out of the post. They had the fourth most post-ups in the NBA last season, and are also among the best at using the post-up to set up action for shooters on the perimeter.
Gay is shockingly smooth in the post. He ranked 21st in the NBA in 2015-2016 in post-up points per possession, min. 50 possessions. He’s physical, quick and has the lift to shoot over wing defenders.
Better yet, he’s a viable passer in the post. Notice here how he looks off Raymond Felton to one man, then passes to the other.
Which brings us to his next hidden talent. Gay is a surprisingly astute passer. No, seriously. The Kings put Gay in lots of top of the key actions and pick and rolls to make reads and he excelled.
Gay ranked in the 96th percentile in pick and roll ball handler efficiency in 2016, and has been consistently above average in that area for the past half decade. Even coming off an achilles tear, I like him making these little snake maneuvers to create space.
Allow me to stop here and ask if Gay reminds you of a sleeker version of any recent Spurs player. Maybe…Boris Diaw?
Sheesh, if you told me I’d be comparing Rudy Gay to Boris Diaw today, I’d laugh. Sure, Diaw is a uniquely cerebral player and passer. But in 2014-2015, Gay’s last full pre-Rondo season, he had a better assist percentage (19) than Diaw’s last season as a Spur (18.3).
Diaw is also top-tier in post-up efficiency, while Gay is a notch below. But the point is Gay will be used very much like Diaw was. Maneuver in the post, make decisions at the top of the key and handle spot-up duties.
The Sleeker Spurs
The move also represents a stylistic shift for the Spurs. For the entirety of Kawhi Leonard’s career, the Spurs have sported starting lineups with two versatile but conventional big men. Their starting front courts from the past six seasons have included some combination of Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol each year.
I’m immensely excited to see the Spurs’ “shuffle” series with Gay involved. It’s already my favorite play in any NBA team’s playbook. The first option is the alley-oop to Kawhi:
But the second option would then become a second alley-oop to the stampeding Gay rather than the meandering Duncan.
Gay provides a sleeker and broader range of attack with his three-point range, athleticism and potential in the pick and roll. How about this wrinkle in the Spurs’ famed “motion weak” where they go right into a pick and roll for the power forward?
Additionally, Gay provides some much needed defensive versatility to the Spurs. He’s a smart defender with great hands and can put together his whole skill package in situations like this.
Gay fits a very unique classification of NBA players. He headlines the “too talented to shrink into a tremendous role player, but not talented enough to lead a team” crowd that has by and large disappeared this decade. It’s a brutal conundrum most fans and teams write him off for, despite being in the upper class of talent in the NBA.
But if there’s one team who can mold his talent into the confines of a productive role, it’s the San Antonio Spurs. It’s what they do.
It’s very possible most NBA fans have passed Gay by due to his isolating, long two taking ways. In doing so, we’ve committed a considerable oversight of his diverse skill set. And the Spurs are primed to unleash it.
In signing Gay, the Spurs got what they wanted in a power forward, but also took a step towards a more progressive, sleeker lineup.
Has the formula for unlocking Gay’s potential been as simple as shrinking his wide-reaching creation duties into more nuanced, confined role? The league is about to find out.