Rudy Gay doesn’t seem controversial. He is a 27-year-old basketball player, who can run and jump and shoot. He hasn’t been arrested or taken a social stand of note, but this week both he and the Sacramento Kings came under attack from advanced statistic junkies.
Here at Cowbell Kingdom, we walk a tightrope between traditional media and the blogosphere. We consider ourselves journalists, but we produce content for a non-traditional medium. We write recaps and columns, but sometimes we go deeper into the content than you will find in a typical newspaper article.
We understand that basketball is not played on paper and that there is more to a player than just a box score or shot chart. But we also look at advance metrics as a tool that cannot be ignored. The same goes for in-depth knowledge of the salary cap or the personal relationships that we forge with players in the locker room. All of these bits of information are pieces to a bigger, more complete puzzle.
We hope that these components help create a balanced perspective on the game that we write about daily. Reading about the struggles of Jason Thompson through the lens of advanced statistics or about the intricate workings of Isaiah Thomas’ contract might be tedious to some and that’s fine. But ignoring one aspect of information that is readily available to us is not something we’re willing to do.
The Sacramento Kings’ new front office understands all of this, as well. General manager Pete D’Alessandro is known around the league as a salary cap guru and an advanced statistics believer. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t a top-flight talent evaluator as well, but just in case, he surrounds himself with front office veterans like Chris Mullin, George McCloud and Mike Bratz.
As a matter of opinion, the trade that is garnering all of the attention between Sacramento and the Toronto Raptors appears to make sense for everyone involved. The Kings received a player who has floated just below an All-Star level for most of his career. With all of the excitement surrounding the team staying in Sacramento, the new ownership and management group felt that adding talent and payroll was in order. Gay fits the bill on both fronts.
In exchange, the Raptors were able to hit a hard reset button on the failed experiments of former general manager Bryan Colangelo. By taking on John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes in exchange for Gay, the Raptors cleared roughly $12 million off the books for next season.
The Kings didn’t mortgage their future by throwing a pick into the deal. They didn’t take on a Joe Johnson-type commitment that could potentially cripple the franchise for four or five seasons. They took a stab with a talented, young, healthy athlete with a proven track record of success.
So why are the Kings being roasted by the advanced stats folks around the league?
“I read everything that everyone reads,” general manager Pete D’Alessandro said earlier this week. “We have our processes to and see things differently and that’s just the nature of that ever growing and ever expanding game. We look at him differently than maybe others do.”
Yes, Gay’s usage rate of 30.4 percent is outrageous for a perimeter scoring wing. And yes, a shooter with that type of usage rate cannot, in any system, shoot 38.8 percent from the field. But if advanced statistics tell us anything, it is that there is danger in small sample size.
Gay has been a statistical nightmare through 18 games with the Raptors this season. But in one game with Sacramento, his usage rate dropped to 22.2 percent, his shooting percentage skyrocketed to 66.7 percent and he scored 24 points. Yes, we are being facetious, but in the grand scheme of a seven-year career, 18 games mean no more and no less than one single game. Both are too small a sample size to make any type of prediction on future performance.
Has Rudy Gay aged over night? Has his game regressed or was he in a situation that took him away from his strengths as a player?
“I feel like a lot of times with certain players, it’s where they’re getting the ball, it’s where they’re scoring, it’s the position they’re put in,” D’Alessandro said. “We were talking as a staff a little bit and we have a good idea of what positions we’d like to put him in.”
The type of transformation we have seen from Gay in his time in Toronto looks and feels like an anomaly. Gay has averaged 18 points a game on 44.7 percent shooting and a usage rate of 24.6 percent over 530 career games. That is a large enough sample size with which to make solid predictions.
“You look at the man and you look at the body of work,” D’Alessandro said. “This is a very, very good player.”
In addition to the numbers, Gay is considered a quality NBA citizen. His entire body of work backs up what D’Alessandro believes to be true. At 27 years old, he should be entering his prime, not regressing. The Kings have roughly 60 games – possibly 140 – to test that theory. The cost was a handful of veteran role players on a 5-13 team.
There is risk here, but honestly, it’s negligible. What is the worst case? Gay is a black hole and you have to coach him or bench him? He opts out and takes his $19 million cap figure with him? He plays well enough for a new deal, either in Sacramento or elsewhere?
Maybe the worst case is that the Kings start winning games because they acquired more talent and the 2014 NBA Draft pool happens to be incredibly strong at the top. But banking on the Draft lottery over a proven asset is a fool’s errand.
Using every tool at our disposal, it’s hard to understand the backlash aimed at the Kings. Gay makes a lot of money and his production is not where you would like it to be. But the combination of Salmons, Hayes, Vasquez and Patterson also made a lot of money for very little production. At least with Gay, there is potential that he can return to his former self.
There are pros and cons to every deal. Before chastising the Kings, it’s probably best to let this deal play out a little further.