If a coach and an organization are supposed to put their players into situations where they are most likely to succeed, the former Raptors forward Rudy Gay could perceive, in hindsight, his 10 months in Toronto as an attempt to sabotage his reputation and career.
The Raptors knew who they traded for when then President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo acquired Gay in January and the team did little or even nothing to replicate the situations where Gay had been most successful in Memphis.
Almost from the beginning, Head Coach Dwane Casey put Gay into situations where the forward had little experience. The Raptors went small – a lot, playing Gay significant minutes at power forward. Gay struggled in that role last season and he struggled even more in his new role this season.
Last season in Toronto, at small forward Gay had a 52.2 effective field goal percentage and a 21.2 PER. At power forward, he had a 37.9 effective field goal percentage and an 11.0 PER. More minutes at power forward only meant worsening numbers and a perception Gay was failing this year.
Gay went into the summer looking to add weight and change his game to be more effective in the paint, but the Raptors small ball experiment continued even after it had become obvious the change in roles was a failure.
“I try to use my strength and quickness to get around and get to the ball,” Gay said early in the season. “I just want to help the team. It hasn’t been by shooting lately, so I have to get down there and get our team extra possessions.”
“I think it is mostly mental.”
It was less mental than physical. As the star player on the Raptors, Gay saw more double-teams in Toronto every game than he would have seen playing beside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in a month with Memphis. Defenses collapsed around Gay and those ‘easy’ shots at the rim were almost always through traffic and over multiple defenders.
With three ‘star’ players used to finishing plays rather than creating for others in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Gay, plus big men that needed to be setup in order to score, the Raptors offense often stagnated – the ball appearing to stick – a lot. As the team’s assist totals sank to the bottom of the league, Casey demanded Gay to take on another role he was unfamiliar with – that of point forward or facilitator.
“He is our star player,” Casey said. “So he is going to have to have a lot of roles. Leader, point forward, rebounder, defender, in the end, he’s our guy and we have to roll with him.”
How Casey described Gay’s roles was accurate. It wasn’t reasonable, but it was true. The Raptors needed Gay to perform all of those roles, he just never had to before. Gay didn’t shy away from trying either.
“It is a lot different,” Gay said. “(It is) just adding a new dynamic to my game. I welcome the challenge.”
“There is no reason (I can’t do this), but obviously this team needs to score too and that is something I have been doing for a long time. It is not like Coach is trying to change my game, he is just trying to help me get better.”
Unfortunately, putting the ball into the hands of a player to initiate the offense, who has always been asked to score, only made the ‘sticking’ issue seem even more obvious. In the past, Gay’s wasn’t expected to be looking to move the ball along or find the better option or make the pass that would lead to the pass for an easy bucket. It would have been a shock if Gay had morphed his game quickly and easily into that of a point forward.
It was never reasonable to expect Gay to become a power forward, point forward or perhaps even a team’s star player based on the role he was most successful at in Memphis. Gay had his best seasons as the second or third scoring option on a team with two All-Star big men that kept the attention off of him, big men that defenders did not leave to double or triple team Gay in the paint or on the perimeter.
However, the experiment being run by the Raptors using Gay wasn’t intended to sabotage his image. Gay is being paid first option All-Star money. The Raptors new President and General Manager, Basket Operations Masai Ujiri had to find out if Gay was worth his contract and he didn’t have a lot of time to figure it out. The Raptors did not want to be laying out $19.3 million next season for a scoring small forward that wasn’t, as Casey described, ‘Leader, point forward, rebounder, defender’ plus a reasonably efficient scorer.
Gay is still a supremely talented player and playing as a second option behind the Kings star big man DeMarcus Cousins should help bring his numbers back towards his career averages. The Kings are taking a lot of flak for taking on Gay’s contract after it was dumped by the Grizzlies and dumped again by the Raptors, but give Kings General Manager Pete D’Alessandro some credit for knowing who he just acquired. If he puts Gay into situations where he is most likely to succeed, Gay should produce like he did in Memphis. Then the only issue is the size of Gay’s contract and it should be pointed out, it’s not our money.