Wings are an American treasure, essential to a successful game day experience. Off the court, they are a cherished finger food that do the body good while watching the game. On the court, they are instrumental to a team’s success as they are generally the most unique player on the floor, possessing the size of a big man while having the athleticism and shooting prowess of smaller guards and the defensive flexibility to guard multiple positions. Through these multifaceted skillsets, these players are often the most celebrated by basketball fans.
While the line has become more blurred over the years of what a “wing” is, there is no denying that Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Rudy Gay are two of the best wings the Grizzlies have ever had. They both brought to the team the total package as players that could get their own shot as well as hold their own defensively. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the first star to don a Vancouver Grizzlies jersey. He was immediately made the face of the franchise and given the responsibility of carrying the expansion franchise to relevance. While that did not necessarily happen as the franchise never finished above .500 during his tenure in Vancouver, Abdur-Rahim had a productive career as a consistent bucket and defender for those young Vancouver teams. The team’s lack of success led to the legacy of their beautiful uniforms outlasting the actual play on the court and the play of the team’s best player being underrated as he is still sprinkled across the top of franchise leaderboards.
Rudy Gay represented a transition for the franchise, as he arrived to a Grizzlies team that was stuck in neutral as a playoff team that would get swept in the first round. In 2006, the Grizzlies would trade fan-favorite Shane Battier to the Houston Rockets in return for former fan-favorite Stromile Swift and the 8th overall pick — University of Connecticut standout Rudy Gay. In Gay, the Grizzlies now had a player that could spread the floor, get out and run with Pau Gasol, and most importantly create his own shot on three levels, which the Grizzlies lineup had been missing in past playoff runs. While Rudy Gay would never help the Grizzlies surpass the first round, his 7 seasons were successful, as he was productive on both sides of the floor at the small forward position, and the franchise has been looking for this level of production from the position since the parties parted ways.
The question is which wing had the better Grizzlies career?
Tale of the Tape
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (5 seasons): 20.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 46 FG%, 1.0 BLK, 1.1 STL, 11.4 VORP, 19.7 PER
Rudy Gay (7 seasons): 17.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 45 FG%, 0.9 BLK, 1.3 STL, 10.6 VORP, 16.1 PER
As one would expect, an expansion franchise in its second season is a franchise still in turmoil. The Brian Winters-led Vancouver Grizzlies were made up of a mixture of young players in their first few years in the league, along with players like Byron Scott who were on the verge of retirement. The rookie coach had his hands full in his first head coaching gig only winning 15 games in his and the franchise’s inaugural season.
Enter Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Abdur-Rahim would be selected 3rd overall by Vancouver in the 1996 Draft out of the University of California immediately, injecting a dynamic wing into a starting lineup that drastically needed it.
In his NBA debut, Shareef Abdur-Rahim would lead the Grizzlies in minutes, points, rebounds, and steals. The Grizzlies would open the 1997-97 season, with a 29-point loss to Rasheed Wallace and the Portland Trail Blazers, but in 35 minutes of action Abdur-Rahim solidified that he was an NBA-caliber player — scoring 16 points, grabbing 5 rebounds along with adding 2 assists, 3 steals, and a block to his stat line. The Vancouver Grizzlies were still extremely rough around the edges, but the debut of Shareef Abdur-Rahim gave fans a reason to believe in the franchise in its infant stages.
On November 1, 2006, Rudy Gay would make his NBA debut off of the Grizzlies bench in front of a packed FedexForum crowd that unknowingly signed up for one of the longest games in franchise history. The Grizzlies faced the Isiah Thomas-led Knicks in a game that would seemingly never end, as the Grizzlies ultimately lost by one in triple overtime. Gay would make his presence felt on both ends throughout the duration of the triple overtime thriller — scoring 21 points, grabbing 8 rebounds, while adding 4 blocks and a steal on the defensive end in 38 minutes of action. Instead of showcasing the high-flying theatrics he would come known for, Rudy Gay made a living in the mid-range, dropping the same buckets that has kept him in the league as a small ball power forward to this day.
Winner: Rudy Gay
Best Game (per John Hollinger’s Game Score):
Shareef Abdur-Rahim was a beacon of hope and the face of the franchise during the dark days in Vancouver. He showed promise from the day he stepped foot in Vancouver, but his best days came upon the arrival of point guard Mike Bibby. Bibby’s arrival came in Abdur-Rahim’s 3rd season, giving the young team a new dynamic duo that could get out and run, as well as foster a great pick-and-roll/pop relationship. This newly-formed dynamic duo gave both the opportunity to strive as playmakers. That is why after two seasons of having to carry the load, Abdur-Rahim would have his best season in Vancouver, as well as a his best performance in his 3rd season. In the 4th game of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, Shareef Abdur-Rahim would put on a show on both sides of the floor against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers.
He would use his 6’9” 225-pound frame to take advantage of smaller defenders, drawing fouls and operating in the paint for most of the night. Abdur-Rahim would notch his first double-double of the season — scoring 32 points, going 12-13 from the free throw line, while assisting on 11 other baskets for the Grizzlies. He would also grab 7 rebounds and 3 steals as the team’s best defender for the night in a Grizzlies’ 4-point loss to the Pacers through no fault of his own.
Rudy Gay had a number of great games with the Memphis Grizzlies, including two games with an identical Game Score high of 31 with the team. I would rule his “best” out of those two games would be his performance in a 14-point win over the Indiana Pacers on December 26, 2010. Rudy Gay gift-wrapped his buckets and lit the Indiana Pacers up like a Christmas tree. He also shined on both sides of the floor that saw him have 5 steals and one block, in the early stages of what would be a special Memphis Grizzlies team defensively as the “Grit & Grind” began to form.
Gay would be a three-level scorer on this night too, going 3-3 from 3-point range, while also finding comfort in the mid-range and in the paint via the fastbreak. Gay would finish with a stat line of 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists to go along with his spectacular defensive performance.
Winner: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Intangibles (Durability, Rebounds, Defense):
For a player that was as involved on both ends of the floor as Shareef Abdur-Rahim was, he durable as they come, only missing 3 games over the course of 5 seasons while averaging 38 minutes per game. Although this was an era with slower pace and more set offenses, thus less action compared to players today that need the occasional “Out – Load Management” designation, missing 3 games over 5 seasons is to be commended. The same could be said for the majority of Gay’s career in Memphis, as he missed very few games until a left shoulder subluxation caused him to miss the remainder of the 2011 season that saw the Grizzlies lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semi-finals.
In his Grizzlies career, Rudy Gay averaged 5.8 rebounds per game, which doesn’t seem like much, but when you consider the era he played in that has seen players move farther from the basket compared to that of Abdur-Rahim’s, that number is remarkable. Gay was a top-5 rebounder for his position during his time in Memphis, only surpassed by the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Gerald Wallace on a consistent basis at the position. He was the best rebounders on those late 2000s-early 2010 Grizzlies teams, only surpassed by the Gasol brothers and Zach Randolph during that period.
As far as Shareef Abdur-Rahim, he had to do everything for those Grizzlies teams besides coach, as he led the team in points in rebounds in three out of five seasons in Vancouver, finishing second in rebounds his rookie in sophomore seasons with the club behind Bryant Reeves. In a big-dominant league, Abdur-Rahim, much like Gay, was a top-5 rebounder at his position, including leading the small forward position in rebounding in 1999 and finishing as the 6th best rebounder in the league in 2000 (10.1).
While neither Gay nor Abdur-Rahim would be quantified as Defensive Player of the Year candidates, they were both serviceable defenders. After the early struggles that come for most young players, Shareef Abdur-Rahim became a top defender on the Grizzlies his final 3 seasons in Vancouver, averaging a 106 defensive rating. He even garnered a net positive defensive season in 2000, on teams with subpar defense that constantly finished at the bottom of the league.
Rudy Gay struggled early on, but improved over the duration of his time with Lionel Hollins. He became a plus defender in 2010, as the Grit and Grind defenses began to shut down the league. Rudy Gay would average around a 110 defensive rating, before the arrival of Tony Allen to help on the perimeter. The addition of Allen into Hollins’ defensive scheme lowered Gay’s defensive rating to 105 and 102 in his final seasons with Memphis as the defensive burden was lightened.
Winner: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Shareef Abdur-Rahim was a member of the historic 1996 NBA Draft class that hosted future stars Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen amongst others that saw him selected third by the Vancouver Grizzlies behind Iverson and Marcus Camby. Although his name doesn’t carry the weight of some of his fellow classmates, Shareef-Abdur-Rahim had a really solid career, without the acclaim of other members of the 1996 class due to the situation cast upon him. He was Vancouver’s best player the day the jet landed in Vancouver. He led the Grizzlies in scoring his rookie season, earned First-Team NBA All-Rookie honors in 1997, and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Iverson and Marbury. He only improved from there, averaging more than 20 points per game over the next four seasons and leading the team in rebounds his final three seasons. Abdur-Rahim was so impactful on the floor that he finished in the top 20 in THIRTEEN statistical categories in the NBA in 2000-01. He was a force that flew under the radar due to the struggles of the team he called home and had to leave in order to get proper recognition, making his first NBA All-Star game in his first season in Atlanta after Memphis traded him for the rights to Pau Gasol.
As the franchise enters its 20th season in Memphis, Abdur-Rahim still finds himself hovering around the top 5 in most statistical categories, including being 4th all-time in rebounds and free throws, while still leading the franchise in minutes played, points per game, and usage percentage.
Rudy Gay’s career started much like Abdur-Rahim’s. As the Grizzlies looked to find themselves as their young rookie showed promise in his rookie season winning, Gay would earn 2007 NBA All-Rookie First Team honors, while finishing third in NBA Rookie of the Year honors, this time behind Brandon Roy and Andrea Bargnani. In his sophomore season, he would make the jump to become the scorer many believed he could, as he’s only the third player in franchise history to average 20 points per game — after the previously mentioned Abdur-Rahim and Gasol — leading him to be an NBA Most Improved finalist. Gay unluckily got caught between the Pau Gasol and “Grit and Grind” eras never really getting to see the fruits of his labor in the playoffs, as he only suited up for one playoff run in Memphis. During his time in Memphis, Rudy Gay brought excitement to FedExForum whether it be from his high flying dunks or buzzer beating shots. Gay was everything the Grizzlies asked for when they traded for him in the 2006 Draft, as he was a three-level scorer that could contribute defensively — holding the mantle as the franchise’s leader in steals when he was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 2013.
Much like Abdur-Rahim, Gay is found hovering around the top-5 on Grizzlies leaderboards. He will most likely never receive the acclaim of the Core Four, Pau Gasol, or if everything works out Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., but he should be remembered as one of the best two-way players in Grizzlies history, and as a member of the original Grit & Grind teams and helped usher in a new era of Grizzlies basketball post-Pau Gasol.
Rudy Gay was great with Pau, and even better as franchise cornerstones Mike Conley and Marc Gasol found their footing in the NBA before the arrival of the rest of the Core Four. Shareef Abdur-Rahim never had this level of surrounding talent, as Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson with a green light were the best players employed on Vancouver teams not built to win. Teams had the ability to key in on Abdur-Rahim and still could do nothing to stop him, and it is for these reasons Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the winner of this week’s Verzuz.
Winner: Shareef Abdur-Rahim