Rudy’s Struggling In The Right Way

Rudy Gay is a major problem and his exodus cannot come quick enough, right? Not so fast, cowboy.

Man, $17.9 million just doesn’t get you what it used to.

Rudy Gay, Toronto’s highest-paid player by an enormous margin, has had about as bad a start to the 2013-14 season as anyone could have imagined. He’s shooting below 35% from the field, he’s turning the ball over at a rate well above his career norms and he is easily lagging his fellow starters in plus-minus stats. As DeMar DeRozan continues to look more and more comfortable leading the Raptors on the wings, Gay looks increasingly like he is unsure of how he is supposed to help his team win, which is a problem when he is cashing a cheque that takes up thirty-percent of the team’s salary cap.

Throughout his career in Memphis, Gay acted as the primary offensive force on the wing because he was often by far the club’s most talented option. The Grizzlies were so confident in his ability to hold down their wing scoring, in fact, they paired him with a virtual non-entity on offence, Tony Allen, when they made their biggest push for respectability as a franchise. Gay was given a very long leash to play with and he made full use of that freedom by leading his team in field goal attempts in every year but one.

Things are different in Toronto, though. For the first time in his career, Gay is starting alongside a wing that is not only in his stratosphere as a scorer, but through three games is actually handily surpassing him as a scoring option for the Raptors. When Gay arrived in Toronto, he called DeRozan “by far the best wing I’ve ever played with,” a sentiment that has proven more true than Gay probably intended at the time as the Raptors are now having trouble adjusting to the reality that it is DeRozan, and not Gay, that needs to be anchoring their offensive attack.

While DeRozan is leading the Raptors in raw field goal attempts per game, it is Gay that leads the team in shots per 36 minutes, and on the season he has only taken one shot fewer than DeRozan despite shooting 12% worse than him from the field. Put another way, the only reason that Gay is not leading the Raptors in field goal attempts per game is because he is playing 3.3 fewer minutes per game than DeRozan is. If their minutes were equalized, Gay would be leading the team in shots and exemplifying one of the biggest on-court problems facing the Raptors after one week of play: that this team’s offence is kind of broken.

So, all of this means that Gay is a major problem and his exodus cannot come quick enough, right? Well, not so fast, cowboy.

Look, Gay has had a bad start to the year, there is no way of getting around that. He takes seven pull-up jumpers per game (suggesting his shot selection hasn’t improved since that puts him at 24th in the NBA), he’s turning it over on 15.7 percent of his possessions and the team is allowing 5.7 points per 100 possessions over their average when he is on the court. Also, did I mention that 32.7% field goal percentage? Because that’s not good, either.

However, the devil is in the details here, the key one being that Gay is not going to shoot 32.7% from the floor for the rest of the year. This is a career 45% shooter, so those numbers will normalize as the season wears on. Right now he is pressing and you can see it every time he touches the ball. This slump is already in his head and it is messing with his play. Now that doesn’t justify plays like the one he made in the Milwaukee game where he passed on an open three to take a dribble inside the arc to fire up a (missed) long-two. Nor does it excuse his lazy behind-the-back pass to Amir Johnson, who wasn’t looking for the ball, that wound up being another in a long line of turnovers. It does, however, at least begin to sprinkle some context onto why Gay is making so many bone-headed plays when he gets the ball in his hands. He’s thinking and not reacting and there is no worse place for an NBA player to be than in that particular headspace.

There’s a simple solution, though, right? Stop taking all of those jumpers and get to the paint. Well, Gay has actually been very good about getting into the paint. In fact, he’s actually taken 40% of all of his shots at the rim (22 of 55 FGAs). He’s also averaging 5.7 free throw attempts per game, second only to Kyle Lowry’s 7.3. He’s not hitting his paint shots as well as he needs to (40.9%), but at least he’s trying to get himself high-percentage shots at a time when his jumper is clearly not agreeing with him.

For what it’s worth, he’s taken a far greater percentage of his shots at the rim than DeMar DeRozan has (26.8% of his attempts have been at the rim), and takes one less pull-up jumper per game than DeRozan. Before you think that DeRozan is justified in taking those pull-up jumpers because he’s making them at a far greater rate than Gay is right now, know that DeRozan is only leading Gay by 0.5% in eFG% on pull-up jumpers (thanks for the new player tracking stats,!)

Then there are the 15 rebounds that Gay pulled down against the Bucks on Saturday. Gay made a somewhat self-serving acknowledgement that he’d need to find other ways to help his team out if his shot isn’t falling after the club’s loss to Atlanta (that’s a canned sound bite if ever there was one), yet true to his word he attacked the glass with ferocity twenty-four hours later. One of the biggest reasons the Raptors were able to hold off the Bucks in that game was their 60-38 rebounding advantage, and no player on the Raptors had a bigger rebounding impact than Gay.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that while Gay is struggling to find his niche playing alongside a wing that may have surpassed him in ability (or at least efficiency) this summer, at least he is trying to find out how he has to augment his game to accommodate.

This is probably good for Gay.

Dwane Casey could afford to take Gay out for a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter on Saturday because they didn’t need him to be the club’s offensive catalyst in a close game. Gay doesn’t have free reign like he had for so long in Memphis. The Raptors don’t need him in the same way that Memphis believed they did for so many years. Don’t misunderstand, the Raptors need an effective Gay as presently constructed if they want to consistently win games, but they don’t need him to dominate scoring on the wings to have a chance at winning. For the first time Gay has to grow as a player to be afforded the kind of role he has grown accustomed to after seven NBA seasons.

At this point it’s an open secret that Masai Ujiri would trade Gay if he got a whiff of what he considered to be a palatable deal. Gay simply makes too much money to not seriously entertain any and all offers that come the team’s way. Whether the Raptors trade him or not, though, Gay making strides to reimagine his game can only help their cause going forward, which in a way opens up the possibility that Gay’s early-season struggles could actually be a boon for him and the Raptors if he learns from it in the right way.

He may never be worth the $17.9 million he’s gonna make this year, but maybe an early-season reality check can force him to get a little closer to justifying it than he may have otherwise if he’d performed at his typical NBA standard.

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