Two incontrovertible facts succeeded the Rudy Gay trade:
1. The Raptors improved by leaps and bounds.
2. Rudy Gay improved by leaps and bounds.
The Raptors' rise has been well-documented to date. Toronto is now 13-5 since Gay was shipped to Sacramento for spare parts after starting 6-12. In particular, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have thrived with more opportunities to shine. The pieces fit a whole lot better without the pressure of Gay's 20 shots (most inefficiently) per game on the offense.
But less explored is the reality that Gay too has been much, much better removed from the Raptors.
When the trade happened, I offered up two theories on Gay's devolution from a near-All-Star in Memphis to a laughingstock in Toronto. One was that a shoulder injury had destroyed his shooting mechanics and left him as a highly paid shooter who can't shoot. The other theory suggested that at lower usage rates, Rudy could still be an efficient scorer. This is the graph for that theory.
Usage rate is the percentage of all possessions a player ends (via a shot, drawn foul or turnover) while on the court. In Toronto, Gay was up at 30 percent, which is really high. Obviously, his efficiency at that level was abysmal.
In Sacramento, he joined a fully formed offense centered on post play from DeMarcus Cousins and an aggressive Isaiah Thomas. Cousins led the league in usage rate (34 percent) at the time of the trade; I.T. was around 28 percent as a reserve. The worry was that Gay would pop in and take his usual number of shots while remaining inefficient.
Instead, Gay's been much more like the Memphis version of himself, fitting in on offense instead of hijacking it. His usage rate has dropped below 25 percent, third on the team. Thomas' has settled in at 26 percent. Cousins, meanwhile, remains above 33 percent. Gay was taking about 21 shots per 36 minutes in Toronto. (I included free throws in that figure.) In Sacramento, he's taking roughly 17 shots per 36 minutes.
Look at the chart again. Before the trade, Gay was efficient in seasons in which his usage rate was less than 25 percent. He was inefficient (often horribly so) in seasons in which his usage rate was greater than 25 percent.
In Sacramento, his usage rate is below 25 percent. And, as it turns out, his efficiency has never been better. With the Kings, he's shooting 52 percent from the floor with a True Shooting percentage of .606.
The usage theory is looking pretty darn good right now.
That's not likely to be the full story. Extraordinary things can happen in short spans, and 15 games isn't a whole lot to work with. This stretch in Sacramento could be as much an aberration as Gay's 38-percent shooting in Toronto, and he could settle in at the usual 40-45 percent before long. Gay still takes a few too many tough shots, though most come when Thomas and Cousins are out of the game and Rudy becomes the de facto alpha dog. (Kings coach Michael Malone has recently been pulling Gay out at the six-minute mark to give Derrick Williams some run with the starting unit. That allows Gay to come in and play with Williams and Jimmer Fredette in the second quarter. In such lineups, Gay is basically a point forward. It's been a huge boon for Fredette, who is suddenly a real contributor in real minutes.)
And keep in mind that while the Raptors have seen great team success in Gay's absence, Sacramento's performance overall has been more of a mixed bag. The team is 7-8 with Rudy in the lineup, which is better than the 6-14 record before he suited up, but still not very good. Defense is the primary culprit: The Kings, already poor on that end, began giving up ridiculous point totals when Gay arrived. Games against Orlando and Cleveland just moved the Kings from No. 30 in the league in defensive rating to No. 26. It'll be surprising if they aren't back at No. 30 before long.
There's one last consideration Gay's individual success post-trade brings to the forefront: That intriguing little early termination option. Gay has the option of making $19 million in the 2014-15 season and becoming a free agent in 2015 or forgoing that final year becoming a free agent in 2014. When the trade went down, few considered an opt-out even remotely possible. Gay's stock had fallen too far, and $19 million was too big a number of pass up, even at the expense of a long-term deal.
Now? With Gay shooting this well, looking this good? That pendulum is swinging.