There's been a lot written about the the lag in the games of our two max players, All-Stars, leaders, whatever you want to call them; Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. There's certainly been plenty of reason to get on both players for what is being perceived as less-than-inspired play as of late. But I do think we need to step back, realize where we are as a team and reevaluate whatever it is that's driving our... anger?
Coming to the defense of Zach Randolph is pretty simple, especially considering that he's only played in 12 games since he went down and out on January 1. Randolph has taken the "slowly, but surely" approach, keeping his minutes limited as he works himself into both game shape and game flow. Coming off the bench has been a big change for him, and an even bigger leadership move. Doing what's right for the a team -- a team who, mind you, is 6-3 with Randolph coming off the bench -- in letting Marreese Speights stay in the starting lineup while he had the hot hand. Eventually, Randolph needs to get back into the starting lineup and play 30-plus minutes per, but the urgency wasn't there, especially as they continued to play very good basketball. Now, though, it's step-up time.
Randolph, to me, doesn't need to defend his play, especially when you consider his worst game since returning from injury came on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back set. Those are tough, as we can all imagine, and when you consider he's still not 100%, in terms of in-game shape, you have to at least give him a bit of pass for that Mavericks game. I'm not trying to apologize for the guy, but, c'mon, the schedule has been brutal over the past week-plus.
Now, when it comes to Rudy Gay, that's a tougher sell.
Let me say that, yes, Gay has been awful over the past three games. He averaged just 10.3 points on 27-percent shooting during our back-to-back-to-back set. Terrible basketball from a guy with little to no excuses. That said, we did win 2-of-3 games, including a hard-fought matchup against the Thunder. And Rudy wasn't terrible against the Thunder, just, well, not all that effective.
The problem with Rudy seems pretty simple: he doesn't know who he is as an offensive talent. Period.
Lately, he's become married to shooting long jumpers, which is something I, as his unofficial advisor, would advise him against doing in the future. Against the Thunder he took 7 shots from beyond 16 feet and made just one of them. Against the Warriors, he went 1-for-4 from beyond 16 feet. And on the season, he's shooting a career-worst 33 percent from 16 feet and beyond. But it's not as if this is some sort of new trend. Sure, we're not used to seeing him miss this much, but he's not shooting any more long jumpers than he has over his career. In fact, he's just at his career average in long jumpers per game (4.3) and below his average for threes per game (2.5). So it's coming down to misses.
To be fair, he is taking a career-best 5.4 shots per game at the rim. Yet, on the flip is only getting to the line 3.9 times per game. That's where the problem lies, really. I think we would all like to see Rudy get more aggressive with the ball, using his all-world length and athletic ability to create, as opposed to settling for long jumpers. But, again, that's been something we've been asking from him for years!
The other problem here is Rudy's inability to adapt to what this team has become -- coupled with who he really is as a player. I've answered hundreds (OK, maybe a handful) of questions from other team bloggers and fans alike asking such questions as whether or not Rudy and Zach can co-exist or whether Rudy will even develop into an "elite" talent, and what seems to be common in my answer is that we don't need him to turn elite, just to become a star talent on a damn good team. We have two All-Star talents, one actual All-Star (Marc Gasol), one very good point guard and an all-world defender, plus a strong bench, to boot. We're not lacking in talent.
Rudy's having a tough stretch of games, but let's not forget that if it weren't for his contributions (significant contributions, at that) while Z-Bo was out we wouldn't be making a run at a Top 4 seed in the West. So, sure, it's easy to pile on him for his April stretch, but remember February? He averaged 20.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and played some strong, strong defense. Again, without Rudy Gay we wouldn't be where we are today in the standings. It's just a matter of adjustments. Adjusting to no longer being "the guy." To no longer having to score 20 points in order for our team to win. To taking the damn ball to the basket and not settling for long jumpers! And adjusting to the idea that he helps us win more games with his defensive effort and hustle than he does with his "hero" offensive moments.
And with that, though, comes adjustments from the fans. Albeit a slight adjustment. I'm not saying we shouldn't expect a star talent effort every night, but when we win, and he's "the" reason for said win, we don't cry out for the guy to become something that he isn't. But when we lose, we ask why he isn't "elite." The answer to that, really, is simple. It goes back to the fact that his offense isn't all that developed, nor is his offensive thought process, for a lack of better terms.
Let's all take a step back, relax and count the wins. Had we gone 0-3 on this recent stretch, as opposed to 2-1, and Rudy had played terrible basketball then, well, we'd be in big trouble. It's all about wins and results, right? And Rudy has done plenty to lead this team to victory. In fact, he's done more defensively than he gets credit for. He's in the Top 25 in the in Defensive Win Shares, which isn't too shabby. We often times think of him more as a 20-point scorer, which in turn usually comes with the tag "elite scorer" next to one's name. Which, to be honest, just isn't who Rudy is. He's an elite scorer in the same sense that Andre Iguodala is. Think about that one for a second.
My advice to Rudy, and not that he's taking any from me is to do two things: adjust your offensive game (and, damn it, get to the line more often) and, secondly, adjust your mindset. Become an 18-point-per-game scorer who gets to the line 6-plus times per game and who turns in an elite-level defensive performance. That would be fantastic, if you asked me. And doable.
Really, though, I realize I can't "defend" Rudy Gay nor can I tell you to stop expecting more from him. He's a cornerstone player and our expectations for him are always going to be high. But what I can defend are results, namely wins and losses. As long as the Grizzlies continue to grow as a team, win basketball games and play their way into the playoffs
I think we need to cut these fellas a little slack. Now, if Rudy were to in no way contribute to our winning ways, we would certainly have good reason to criticize him. Which is where we are today. But, I do urge you to at least look at the season in terms of a marathon and not a sprint. Just because Rudy and Zach are struggling today, doesn't mean we don't need them tomorrow.