Rudy Gay washed the taste of Toronto out of everyone’s mouth almost immediately upon arriving in Sacramento in late 2013. Most of the world focused on the Raptors’ sudden rise when released from the yoke of Rudy’s bricks, and rightly so since his timely exit launched Toronto into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. But Gay finished that 2013-14 season quite strongly with the Kings, offering up efficient supplemental scoring and solid all-around play next to DeMarcus Cousins.
Gay followed that up with a strong individual campaign in 2014-15, becoming a rare symbol of stability within a turbulent franchise that fired two coaches and a general manager while alienating its superstar. Early that season, Gay signed an extension with Sacramento that would keep him around until at least July 2017.
That season and a half produced the best scoring numbers of Gay’s career: 20.6 points with a .561 True Shooting percentage. By comparison’s sake, Gay’s True Shooting percentage over six-plus seasons in Memphis was .526. In a year in Toronto, it was a disastrous .497. Next to Boogie as a clear-cut No. 2 option for a season and a half, Rudy Gay finally found the best possible version of his game.
During that season and a half, in games in which Gay played, the Kings went 46-77 for a winning percentage of .374. The best possible version of Rudy Gay was the No. 2 scorer for the equivalent of a 30-win team.
This is the problem with Rudy Gay: He is a scorer only, and an old-school, mid-range scorer at that. He’s not in any sense a point-forward, he’s not an elite defender, and he’s not a dead-eye shooter. If he is your No. 2 scorer and you don’t have a world-class team defense, your team is going to stink. If he’s your second-best player overall, you are in a world of hurt.
On Monday, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Gay had told the Kings he will opt out of his contract next summer. Gay confirmed this to local reporters almost immediately, citing the salary cap boom more than dissatisfaction with the franchise. Something else that Woj reported was that Gay does not plan to consider re-upping with the Kings a year from now. One would hope the feeling is mutual, given Sacramento’s deep roster issues.
You can’t blame Gay for failing to feel the love in the River City. The Kings have been trying to trade him all summer, and he was on the block as far back as the trade deadline. Gay has really done nothing wrong, and in fact has been the model co-star in terms of temperament and leadership. It’s just that his game doesn’t work for the Kings, and it’s not clear exactly where it will work in the NBA at this point.
How many elite teams have a small forward who is not of a lockdown defender, top-flight playmaker or above-average outside shooter? The Raptors spring to mind (Gay is not going back to Toronto), and the Thunder now fit that definition after the loss of Kevin Durant.
How many small-ball power forwards can’t rebound or truly stretch the floor? They don’t make top-tier forwards like Rudy Gay any more, and that’s not a compliment. Of all the players who have been pushed aside by the new NBA focus on ball movement and outside shooting, perhaps Gay is ground zero.
The comparison with fellow Baltimorean Carmelo Anthony comparison has always been interesting; like Gay, Melo does his best (and most frequent) work inside the arc. The difference is that Anthony is a prodigious scorer, one of the best of his era. Gay can’t carry that kind of load. You can’t imagine Gay averaging 25 points per game, let alone 30. He doesn’t have the moves to do that every night. Toronto is a perfect example: Gay was the No. 1 star there, took more shots than ever and topped out around 20 points per game.
He’s not Melo, who can survive and thrive in this new NBA. Gay, in his current state, cannot. So what’s left? Is Rudy Gay doomed to be a decent player on bad teams forever?
Hope for Rudy Gay lies in two prospects.
The first is to find a place on an elite defensive team that has a top-drawer scorer and just needs some mid-range/slasher/post help. The Utah Jazz would work if the Jazz’s top scorer weren’t also a small forward. The Atlanta Hawks could work, assuming the Horford-to-Howard swap and loss of Jeff Teague don’t undercut the defense. The Boston Celtics, strangely enough, work on paper.
The second situation that could work for Gay is to land him on a team with two dominant scorers already in place. This would necessarily shift him into more of a supplemental role. The L.A. Clippers match this idea. So would have the Oklahoma City Thunder, pre-Durexit. (Lots of internet people seem to be pitched on a Gay-for-Enes Kanter idea, but Gay with Russell Westbrook and a number of deferential role players is a bad idea for any team that values shooting efficiency.) The San Antonio Spurs could make it work if Gay played power forward between LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard.
But to me, the best place for a guy like Rudy Gay is Minnesota. Tom Thibodeau is going to have that team in defensive shape quickly, especially with Karl-Anthony Towns in the middle and Andrew Wiggins up top. Towns is already a fine scorer who can work inside and out — he’s a lower-consumption Boogie Cousins on that end, really — and Wiggins and Kris Dunn project to be solid scorers in their own right. Gay could, in theory, be a No. 2 scorer for now while Wiggins and Dunn develop, then he could fade into more of a supplemental role.
The Timberwolves aren’t competing for anything but pride just yet, and Gay is smart enough to see the long-term upside of the franchise (as well as the power of Thibodeau). This could totally work. The Kings have desperate need of a point guard. Ricky Rubio may well be on the outs after the Wolves drafted Dunn. The salaries are a near-perfect match.
Nothing will make Rudy Gay an NBA star in this new basketball paradigm. But he could be far more useful far away from Sacramento. Spinning him away to a new home would be good for him and good for the Kings. The trick is just finding a different team it’d be good for, too.