Rudy Gay Could be Just What the San Antonio Spurs Needed
The last time the San Antonio Spurs didn’t win 50 games in an NBA season—excluding lockout-shortened campaigns—came back in 1996-97.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were still the Seattle SuperSonics. Karl Malone was the league MVP. Lonzo Ball wasn’t even born yet.
And the newest Spur, Rudy Gay, was a 10-year-old kid who had not yet played competitive basketball.
Using Tim Duncan’s VCR, we can fast forward 20 years to the beginning of the Gay-infused Spurs era. San Antonio signed Gay this summer with the hope that he can give a jolt to their offense. He has certainly had an odd NBA career up to this point, as not many players have had a 20-point-per-game season for three different organizations without ever becoming an All-Star. He thrives at an unappealing and outdated style of basketball: the mid-range jumper.
His shot chart tells the tale of a scorer who takes a large volume of a statistically “bad” shot:
He is average or better from a wide variety of locations inside the three-point arc, including the top of the key. Here he showcases that shot, as he knocks one down off the dribble after a down-screen from Anthony Tolliver:
Gay’s 44 percent shooting from medium distance has never gotten him much credit as an effective player. However, he regularly posts excellent free-throw percentages, and he’s a career 34.5 percent shooter from three. That second figure isn’t perfect in the modern NBA, but it is still about average and improving by the year. It’s a semi-efficient track record as a scorer, but he has never been considered a top player on any team for which he has played.
And wherever Gay goes, he is scrutinized by fans and media alike.
But arguably the most interesting stat about him is that he’s had ten head coaches in his 11 NBA seasons. This lack of continuity has made it hard for him to focus on developing his skills and refining his talents. Now, if Gay needed an instructor to turn him into a more focused and effective player, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is likely the best in the league.
Pop’s military style of coaching and player development could be perfect for him and his growth as a scorer, especially as he comes off an injury. Coincidentally, the Spurs need someone who can take the wing scoring load off of superstar Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio and Gay makes perfect sense on paper.
The Spurs had an odd, Leonard-led offense last season. Of guys with over 1,000 minutes, The Claw had the eighth-highest usage rate in the league. With the same minutes-played criteria, he had the fourth-highest assist rate on his own team. All this to say: Everything San Antonio did last year ran through Kawhi, and while he was considered a top-five player in the league, he couldn’t do it all. Few others could create a shot, and that left him out to dry on multiple occasions.
Here, Leonard comes off a screen, only to be met by a fury of Suns defenders:
Blinded by the Sun(s), his options are limited. He could pass to LaMarcus Aldridge or Jonathon Simmons for a three, but they shoot 29 and 32 percent for their careers from deep, respectively. He could dish it to Pau Gasol on the pop, but Gasol is in position for a long two—statistically the worst shot in basketball. Met with few options, Leonard shoots just before the triple-team arrives and misses, largely due to being dealt a no-win hand.
Batman has Robin, Mario has Luigi, and now Kawhi has Rudy Gay.
He rated in the 74.1 percentile on spot-up situations last season, per NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles, whereas Aldridge ranked in just the 50.9 percentile and Simmons the 36.3. Imagine in the clip above that Gay is standing in the corner as a substitute for LMA. Instead of Kawhi forcing up a tough shot, you may have seen a result like this one:
Gay can hit the spot-up and isn’t afraid to shoot.
And this duo doesn’t have to be about Kawhi setting up Gay all the time. The Spurs’ new acquisition is also skilled as a shot creator; last year, he averaged 2.9 assists per 36 minutes on a Sacramento Kings team without many talented offensive players.
In the play below, he navigates a pick-and-roll before drawing in the defense. Just when it looks like he’s going to pull up in the lane, the defense collapses, so he fires it out to Darren Collison for a three:
That type of unselfish play from Gay will be a beautiful fit within what’s already one of the most pass-friendly offenses in basketball; San Antonio ranked sixth in the league in passes per game last season. Keeping the ball moving is something the Spurs want to do, and if he is able to contribute to that goal, he will get plenty of time on the court to contribute.
And the Gay-Spurs link goes beyond just his potential harmony with Kawhi. If San Antonio had to identify its biggest problem from last season, it would be the bench unit’s inability to score. With Leonard on the court, the Spurs had an offensive rating of 112.6. When he sat, that number dropped a full 10 points, all the way down to a pathetic 102.6. That figure would have ranked 26th in the league.
Gay, in a rather inept offense in Sacramento, had an offensive rating of 106.5, almost four points per 100 possessions better than the Spurs reserves. He can create his own shots, and on a San Antonio team devoid of creators off the bench, this skill will be very serviceable. Here, with the shot clock winding down, he is able to get to his spot for a pull-up jumper:
Gay can give a Second Team All-Defense player like Anthony Davis fits when he gets to his spot. He doesn’t need more than a sliver of space to get his jumper off, and as a 48 percent shooter inside the arc, he has proven he can be effective once he gets that room.
And he can create more than just mid-range shots for himself; he is also exceptional finishing at the rim. He shot 69 percent from three feet and in last year, and his size and agility allow him to get there seemingly at will. In this clip, he gets by staunch defender Jae Crowder with ease and lays it in:
With his creation and driving skills, he can lead a second-unit offense more deftly than anyone currently on San Antonio’s roster, and it will allow the coaching staff to feel increasingly comfortable resting Kawhi for an extra minute or two every night. If signing Gay means Leonard will be at full strength every moment he is on the court, the Spurs will be thrilled.
But possibly the biggest relationship to focus on in central Texas will be between Popovich and Gay. Pop has long been considered a top coach in the NBA for his ability to get the most out of his roster, and he should be able to use Gay in a way that caters to both his strengths and the Spurs’ aptitudes.
Pop loves to run with two big men. Almost all of the Spurs’ most-used lineups last season contained some combination of Aldridge, Gasol, David Lee or Dewayne Dedmon. The coach goes small very rarely, as he enjoys having a taller player who excels in the post at the 4 and 5.
Thankfully, Gay shines at the 4.
He’s 6’8″, so he has no problem playing in the post from a size standpoint. Oh, and remember our Play-Type Profiles? Gay’s best individual offensive skill was posting up, where he ranked in the 89.6 percentile in points per possession. If Pop wanted to deploy Gay to play more in the post on offense, he could. He wouldn’t just hold his own; he would thrive.
Watch this highlight, where he backs down his matchup in the post and hits a beautiful fadeaway jumper:
And he can flourish even when he doesn’t have a mismatch. He has special fundamentals, which Popovich will love, and they allow him to score even when he is guarded by a bigger defender.
In this snippet, he seals off the man guarding him, Marreese Speights, and gives himself enough space to receive the ball. Then, he keeps it up high to avoid getting stripped or blocked, and he turns and shoots right over Speights:
Somewhere, Pop just saw this clip and smiled. If Gay can continue to be useful at the 4, the Spurs will have no problem playing him there in any lineup, and that will make him serviceable.
Question marks certainly hang over Gay after his injury; whether or not he can be as effective as he once was is still to be seen. Thankfully, the Spurs’ medical staff has a decent pedigree. Last season they got David Lee to play in 79 games (his most since 2010), and they have gotten decades of relatively injury-free seasons out of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. If the doctors can get their new signing back to playing as effectively as he did pre-injury, the Spurs—and Popovich—are going to be joyful with their summer signing.
So, can the Spurs win 50 games again? They are bringing back most of an aging roster that won 61 games last season but appeared to give up ground in the Western Conference due to the lack of talent added this summer. If the roster proves to be older and significantly slower than last season, Leonard alone would have a hard time getting these guys to 50 victories.
Insert Gay, and there’s no doubt. The rest of the league needs to watch out, because the Spurs machine is coming. Again.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TEastNBA.