At the end of January, the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay in a blockbuster deal with the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, led by a desperate Bryan Colangelo and begging for offensive punch, gave up a lot to grab Gay: a young, cheap prospect in Ed Davis, starting point guard Jose Calderon and a second-round pick. Davis was just 23 and in his third season, putting up the best numbers of his career (14.5 points on 55 percent shooting, 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes). He'd been Colangelo's own pick as the power forward of the future.
But Colangelo, apparently needing to make the playoffs to save his job, got starry-eyed and gave up Davis, Calderon's expiring deal and a second-rounder to land the high-scoring Gay.
On Sunday, Masai Ujiri, Colangelo's successor, ended that gamble, trading Gay to the Sacramento Kings. But unlike the Raptors, the Kings gave up basically nothing to take on Gay: three expiring contracts (John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson) and a troublesome contract that extends into next season (Chuck Hayes). Vasquez is a nice piece, but trading him opens the starting point guard spot for Isaiah Thomas. Patterson is an NBA rotation player, but struggled all season. None of the four new Raptors would be considered prospects; it's unlikely any of them will sign new contracts with Toronto.
The Raptors traded assets for Gay 10 months ago and dumped his salary completely on Sunday. Things change quickly in the NBA.
The Raptors' Gay experience was doomed precisely because Colangelo brought him in to be a featured scorer. He was the featured scorer alright: his highest full-season usage rate in Memphis had been 25.6 percent. (That means that he used 25.6 percent of all Memphis possessions while on the court. If all five players used possessions equally, they'd have 20 percent usage rates. The highest-usage players in the league top out around 32 percent.) In the final few months of the 2012-13 season in Toronto, Gay sported a usage rate of 29.1 percent. This season, he's at 30.4 percent.
This is all despite ever-falling efficiency rates, seemingly triggered by a nasty little shoulder injury in early 2011. This chart shows the damage.
Gay is 27 years old. He's not supposed to be getting worse as he enters his age-based prime. He should be getting better! But he's been getting less and less efficient, which is not a small thing. This isn't some New Age woo analytics: shooting efficiency is an accurate look at shooting percentage. And shooting percentage is important, lest you think teams get an unlimited number of shots per game.
Based on that chart, the Kings are doomed and the Raptors were lucky to survive. Gay is due $17 million this season. Based on that chart, Gay will only get worse.
As noted, despite the efficiency drops plummets, Gay has been taking more shots than ever. What if we remix this and look at a skill curve with Gay's efficiency and usage? (Dean Oliver, a former Nuggets and Sonics consultant, developed skill curves in an attempt to see relationships between usage and efficiency on an individual level. Learn more in Oliver's seminal book Basketball On Paper.)
If we take the annual progression out of it and compare Gay's efficiency only to his usage on an annual basis, we get an interesting snapshot.
By this view, in the three seasons -- not including his rookie year -- in which Gay had usage rates below 25 percent, he was more efficient than league average! (Not by much, but still.) In the four seasons he's been above 25 percent in usage, he's been below league average in efficiency. The higher his usage, the lower his efficiency. That matches league norms: players with the lowest usage rates are taking only the easiest shots, usually. As you take more shots, the rate of easy shots available does not increase, so it's totally natural to be less efficient the more shots you take.
For Rudy, the average efficiency cut-off appears to be around 25 percent. That's still fairly high. Guys with 25 percent usage rates aren't role players. In Toronto, Gay was brought in to be the star. The only other high-usage player on the squad was DeMar DeRozan. Not a single other Raptor this season has a usage rate of even 20 percent.
That's not the case in Sacramento: DeMarcus Cousins actually leads the NBA in usage rate with a stunning 34.7 percent mark. Isaiah Thomas, now a starter given that Vasquez is off to Toronto, has a usage rate of 28.7 percent. Even rookie Ben McLemore is at 20.8 percent. Adding Gay to the mix will almost assuredly drop the usage rates of Cousins and Thomas; I.T.'s would have fallen just by virtue of sharing more time with Cousins as a starter.
But the more interesting piece of the puzzle is that Gay's massive 30.4 percent usage rate can't stay that high, not unless Cousins concedes gobs of his touches. The skill curve shows that Gay has been efficient at lower usage rates. Putting him on a team with high-usage options should help his efficiency, maybe significantly ...
... unless it's that first graph that's telling the real story, that the shoulder injury ruined Gay's mechanics and his efficiency is dead forever. There's also the possibility that Gay doesn't see fewer shots, that the still isolation-heavy Kings offense plays into Rudy's worst traits. We'll find out.
The good thing for the Kings, of course, is that unlike the Raptors, Sacramento didn't give up much in the way of assets to get Gay. If it doesn't work out, the Kings still have a young core and draft hopes. Gay's deal expires at the end of next season. This isn't a long-term bet, or even a major bet, unless you thought that the Kings would be major players in 2014 free agency.
The jokes on Sunday revolved around whether the Kings had ignored all the progress in the analytics movement. Not a chance. Instead, they see the numbers a little differently than they look on the face.