The Grizz have been putting out feelers around the NBA about their not-quite All-Star at small forward, Rudy Gay. This is partially contract related – the Grizzlies are about $4 million over the luxury tax line with their current roster, and their top four players – Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley Jr. and Rudy Gay – lock the Grizzlies into luxury tax penalties this season and the next two. For a small market team like Memphis, this could be untenable (why do you think the Thuunder traded James Harden?). But the Grizzlies are currently fourth in a more muddled Western Conference with a faltering Lakers team dropping out of contention, and it behooves Memphis to keep their core in tact to make a run with what they have. So why are the Grizzlies looking to trade Rudy Gay, and — perhaps more importantly — should they? The answer is probably no, and so far they haven’t.
Starting the season with some hot shooting that saw them go 12-1 in November, the Grizzlies were shooting 45 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from three-point range in a top 10 offense few could believe would last. It didn’t. In December, they dropped back to earth, shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 31.5 from behind the three-point line. This latter stat continues a trend from the last couple seasons where they were a bottom five shooting team from beyond the arc. They always had poor luck from long range, and the departure of O.J. Mayo to Dallas this offseason did little to shore up that weakness this year. They’re currently next to last in three-point attempts and makes (beating only the grind-it-out Chicago Bulls), and 17th in three-point percentage as a whole. That’s not very efficient in today’s NBA, where three-point shooting teams like the Thunder, Knicks, Spurs and Heat reign supreme.
The Grizzlies have survived this season — like the last two — with their defense, which is giving up 96.2 points per 100 possessions, good for the second-best mark in the league. But like last season, where they ranked 21st in offensive efficiency (primarily due to the dearth of three-pointers), this season, they’re only a little better at 16th in league scoring, averaging 101.1 points per 100 possessions (they’re 19th in the league in pace, so this can partially be attributed to their tendency to slow it down and set up their half-court sets).
There’s one guy the Grizz have needed to shoot well, and Rudy Gay’s place as their go-to individual scorer, who can create his own offense late in games, has been ambushed by his poor shooting. For his career, Gay shoots at better than 45 percent from the floor, but this season he’s down to 41 percent through the 32 games he’s appeared in. For example, last season he shot 45.5 percent from the floor. His three-point shooting has been consistently bad since he almost shot 40 percent during 54 games in 2010-11 before going down with an injury (He’s also not connecting on nearly as many midrange shots this year, his bread and butter offensively.). He’s a below-average three-point shooter barely eclipsing the 30 percent threshold for his career. It’s not that Rudy Gay is a terrible three-point shooter, but with a team featuring Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Gay needs to prevent defenders from hedging into the post. A sub-32 percent mark on the season isn’t going to cut it, even if watching the 6-9 Gay shoot a jumper is a study in smooth.
Besides the issues with the luxury taxes taking effect next year, the Grizzlies desperately need some outside shooting, and the thought is they could pick up enough spot-up shooters to make up for the loss of Gay on the wing. Except, there are very few spot-up shooters capable of creating their own shot in the final minutes when defenses tighten, especially as this happens more frequently in tightly contested playoff games. A lot of people defending the Grizzlies decision to dangle Gay as trade bait point to their stunning run in the 2010-11 Playoffs, where Gay was absent. Our own Sean Sweeney mentions this when he spent time with Gay and Randolph in the summer of 2011. Sweeney says both players were striving to prove they could play and win together, but they were again set back by Randolph’s early season knee injury last year and they never really came together. We all remember Gay’s tepid play in the opening round loss to the Clippers last season, where he shot just 42 percent from the floor and posted a career low 14.6 PER, so perhaps that’s another reason Grizzlies management is shopping him.
But, let’s say the Grizzlies unload Gay and pick up a couple solid — but not game-changing — long range shooters to cut into their future luxury tax burdens. Then let’s say this actually improves their three-point shooting. Who is going to create offense and open up teammates in the game’s final moments? You could point to Mike Conley Jr, but he’s shown a reluctance to take over games down the stretch, and their beasts down on the block might not be able to avoid teams doubling down and forcing the issue from the outside. Gay’s length, plus his ability to get a turnaround over just about every defender in the league, shouldn’t be discounted simply because he’s having an early season shooting slump. We know the Grizzlies’ new hire, stats maestro, John Hollinger, must be looking at Gay’s lowest PER (15.0) since the 2008-09 season (when he was just 22) and probably thinks they can do better with some more shooters at a lower cost (the guy did invent PER), but that’s neglecting the game’s final moments, where Gay’s ability to get a decent look with teams buckled down on defense should not be discounted.
Also, since Hollinger has to be playing a leading role in the evaluation of Gay, we should look at his plus/minus this season. It’s right behind their triumvirate of starters mentioned from above: Conley, Gasol and Randolph, via 82games.com. For the season, the Grizzlies have scored more and defended better when Gay is on the floor, and his place as the small forward and power forward (when the Grizz bring in Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington at the guard spots, and move Quincy Pondexter to the small forward with Gay and Gasol holding down the rest of the frontcourt) represents a better winning percentage than any 5-man units that don’t involve Gay.
With Rudy Gay on the floor, the Grizzlies score 106.4 points per 100 possessions, which is good enough to be sixth in the league overall, trailing only the Thunder, Heat, Knicks, Clippers and Spurs. With him off the court, they’re back around their overall average this season at 102.1, via 82games.com. With Gay on the court, the Grizzlies also give up 99.8 points per 100 possessions, which is right in line with their overall defense (99 points given up per 100 possessions). With him off the court, they’re giving up 102.2.
So the Grizzlies team scores more when Gay is on the court, and they play better defense when he’s on the court. Both numbers can be ascribed to his playing the majority of his minutes with the starters, all of whom — save Tony Allen — possess better plus/minus numbers. John Hollinger knows all this, and knows that if the Grizzlies are going to make a splashy trade that opens up the court more on the offensive end, their best bet is Gay and the $16 million he’s owed this year (plus the $37 million he’s under contract for through the 2014-15 season). Conley’s deal doesn’t take enough money off, and point guards are harder to come by than a three-point shooter they’re looking for in exchange for Gay. Gasol and Randolph are signed through the 2014-15 season too, but they’re the franchise cornerstones, and probably the best center/power forward tandem in the league.
Even though Rudy Gay might be paid like a superstar, with nary an All-Star or All-NBA nod to his bio, he’s still a long, lean forward that can get into the lane and create havoc late in games. He’s not shooting up to par this year, but he still defends well enough and scores efficiently enough to keep the team in the black when he’s playing. Yes, the Grizzlies desperately need some three-point shooting to rectify their predictable offense, but at what cost? And when you’re a legitimate threat to host a playoff series in a wide open Western Conference, why roll the dice on a big move before you have to?
The Grizzlies have more than a month before they’re locked in with Conley, Gay, Randolph and Gasol over the next three years (the trade deadline is February 21), so they should either wait for a perfect offer that may not come, or settle in with the four man unit they have for the next three years (Tony Allen is a restricted free agent this summer, and they’ll probably let him bounce). The perfect offer is a trade that dumps Gay’s contract, but gets three-point shooters (plural), and a player with the capability to — at the very least — create his own shot off the dribble. If not, why mess with a good thing? If Randolph gets hot like he did in the 2010-11 postseason, but Gay shoots and defends at career averages, the Grizzlies will still be a mediocre offense team with one of the top defenses in the league come spring time. That’s title contention, and you don’t want to forfeit title aspirations to save a few dollars in luxury tax fees. When you’re this close, why switch up personnel that hasn’t really been given a chance at full strength to succeed in the playoffs? Trading Rudy Gay might be an answer, but the Grizzlies rely on him to create so much offense when their set plays fall apart late in games, it’ll be hard to make up for that when he’s gone. There are other ways to dump contracts without dumping the one guy that is probably going to take a last second shot for your team.
The Grizzlies are in the discussion as Western Conference title contenders, even if they’re at a second tier right now behind the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs. But that’s with a middling offense that can only get better. They should roll the dice. Not many teams get a chance to compete for a title, and this year’s team has that chance.
What should Memphis do?
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