After weeks of angry discussions about Rudy Gay's future with the Memphis Grizzlies appearing in comment threads, this article seeks to begin a more civil debate by examining his role within the role both historically and in the present.
In the past few weeks, there has been a debate brewing in the comments and game threads surrounding Rudy Gay. He has always had his detractors, but his poor play as of late has spurned many to argue that we ought to explore the possibility of trading him. Tom has already defended Rudy and Zach, which if you haven't read yet you should, but I would like to approach this problem from a different standpoint by looking at how Rudy's role on this team has changed and exploring his future on this team including the possibility of a trade. This is a long post, so my apologies in advance. After you finish reading, I ask you to post your thoughts in the comments section, so that we can begin a true dialogue on his value to the Memphis Grizzlies going forward.
When we traded Shane Battier for Stromile Swift and the rights to Rudy Gay on Draft Night in 2006, it represented a fairly big gamble. Though he was no star, Battier was a solid player and a calming influence. While the Grizzlies had made the playoffs the past three years, they had yet to win a single postseason game and a shake-up was needed. Gay was actually considered to be one of the top prospects in a weak draft class, but his stock had fallen due to questions surrounding his motor. The 2006-2007 season was an abject diaster for Memphis, but Rudy demonstrated enough potential for the Front Office to feel vindicated, and he was pegged as a breakout candidate for the following season. He did enjoy a breakout season in 2008, so much so that the team's established star, Pau Gasol, was immediately pushed into the second option on offense. Although Memphis signaled its intent to rebuild by trading Gasol in February, Gay increased his production after the trade and demonstrated that the team still had at least one star.
In 2009, the Grizzlies acquired troubled forward Zach Randolph, which signaled a major shift in our team's offensive philosophy. The previous two seasons featured isolation-heavy sets from Gay and O.J. Mayo on the perimeter. On the other hand, Randolph was one of the league's best post-scorers and Marc Gasol had shown enough to warrant more touches. That team had plenty of talent, but it was a mess of clashing styles, and it was up to Coach Lionel Hollins to sort out the offensive. Amazingly enough, he succeeded by equally distributing the offense between Randolph (16.4 Field Goal Attempts/24.6 Usage--an estimate of the % of plays used by a player), Gay (16.1 FGA/22.5 USG%), and Mayo (14.4/20.7), with Conley (10.4/18.4) and Gasol (9.4/16.9) also getting their fair share of opportunities. The team finished with an Offensive Rating of 108.3, or 13th place in the league, quite respectable given how poor that team was outside of the starting five.
The following season, Rudy put up the best numbers of his career. While he overtook Zach in field goal attempts per game, his usage remained lower. However, that season also saw a star-making turn from Marc Gasol and a breakout peformance from Mike Conley. In reality, their shot attempts and usage were almost the same, they simply were more efficient. O.J. regressed severely, but the team's bench (nonexistent the previous season) improved, led by Tony Allen, Darrell Arthur, and Sam Young. However, there wasn't a dramatic shift in offensive philosophy; the team got out in transition, isolated Rudy on the perimeter, and got the ball to Zach in the post.
When Rudy Gay went down with a season-ending injury, it forced the Grizzlies to alter the structure of their offense. As there was no one who could even begin to replace Rudy in terms of perimeter isolation sets, the team instead focused on finding Randolph and Gasol in the post. Since most of our wings were poor shooters, they would make backdoor cuts to the basket while Gasol or Randolph held the ball in the post. Zach and Marc are great post scorers, but they can also pass as well as any bigman in the league, and the threat of the cutters kept the other teams' defenses from doubling down on our bigs too often. The team finished the season with a lower offensive rating than the previous year (107.6, 16th in the NBA), which is no-doubt due to absence of Rudy for the last few months of the season.
It's somewhat ironic that our most cherished time thus far as Grizzlies fans, has also caused our biggest quandry. Because we all saw how effective this team's offense can be when it's run through Randolph and Gasol in the post (with generous helpings of Mike Conley), Rudy has been forced into the role of odd-man out; his strengths don't compliment that kind of offense. At his best, Rudy likes to get the ball near the 3-point line, face up his defender, jab-step, and drive past his man or take a fallaway jumper. Dominant post players are best served by cutters (which Rudy is certainly capable of, but cutting doesn't utilize his full talents) or deadeye shooters. This brings us to our quandry: do we need to trade Rudy if we truly want to maximize our offense?
The answer would seem to be "yes," but that brings in a whole new set of issues: while this is a fairly young team, we're in "win-now"-mode. That means that if we trade Rudy we need to get an equally talented player in return. There are plenty of good wings out there who would probably be a better fit--Andre Iguodala and Danny Granger come to mind--but, unfortunately, history shows that it's unlikely to occur; teams almost never swap star players, even when it would seem to benefit both teams. The reason why is that GM's would rather stick with the known, even if it's not the best fit, rather than risk the unknown. When you swap star players there are host of potential issues: how they fit into the offense, egos, chemistry, training habits, injuries (teams always have a good idea what kind of condition their own players are in, but aren't privy to the full medical history of other teams' players), whether the player wants to be traded or not. If the Grizzlies exchanged Gay for Granger, it could be seamless, but it could also be a nightmare for either team. Therefore, neither team will risk it. Thus, if we do put Rudy on trade block, the Grizzlies would probably get some kind of package in return, a good prospect, a veteran, and/or draft picks. Memphis wants to win and they want to win now, meaning that we can't take a chance on some prospect who may or may not work out. So, in other words, we probably won't be able to trade Rudy Gay.
There is some good news. As this article indicates, there is evidence to suggest that this team can have success with Rudy. In terms of distribution of offense, we're actually very close to where we've been in the past. Marc's FGA and USG% have increaed due to Zach's absence (and, as a result his efficiency has suffered), but those should decrease as Zach continues to work his way back into the line-up. Further, Mike Conley is having the best season of his career without an increased role. Our Offensive Rating (103.0, 22nd in the league) is the worst it has been in three years, but it would appear to the result of 3 factors: 1) Zach Randolph's injury, 2) Marc Gasol being forced to take a larger role in the offense to the detriment of his efficiency, and 3) Rudy's decreased efficiency. As for the third point, Tom's has covered that already. Basically, Rudy has been too consistent throughout his career for this to be anything other than a fluke. If Marc and Rudy can improve their efficiency and Zach can increase his role, our offense should revert back to its previous levels.
As for Gay being an imperfect fit in the offense, it's just something we're going to have to deal with for the time being. If an (unlikely) opportunity presents itself to trade for a better fit, then we ought to take it. Otherwise, the team would be best served to preserve our current squad.