In his sophomore season with the Spurs, Rudy Gay took his game to the next level.
Welcome to the 2018-19 season player reviews, where we will be rehashing the performance of 13 San Antonio Spurs from this season (excluding Dejounte Murray, Pau Gasol, Donatas Motiejunas, and two-way players Drew Eubanks and Ben Moore) and looking towards the future. If you’ve missed any, you can click here to catch up.
Roger Ebert once talked about how every movie he rated was independent of all the others. He didn’t believe that two movies receiving the same star rating were always of the same quality. Instead, he believed that both movies were equal in achieving their respective goals and expectations. These reviews will take the same approach when providing grades, so two players receiving the same grade does not necessarily mean they had the same impact on the team.
Birthday: August 17th, 1986 (32 years old)
Contract details: Unrestricted Free Agent in 2019-2020
Two summers ago, PATFO took a gamble on signing Rudy Gay. He was a soon-to-be 31 year old reliant on his athleticism coming off a dreaded Achilles tear. He also wasn’t really known for being much of a team player. It wasn’t that he was considered a bad teammate; quite the opposite, actually. It’s just that he had a reputation of getting his own without necessarily making those around him better. It was a calculated risk, though. The Spurs were strapped for cash, and had Gay not been coming off such a severe injury, there’s no way they would have been able to afford him. There were also no other free agents available who could produce the way Gay could and was within the Spurs’ price range. It was a low risk/high reward signing.
I think the timing was perfect for both him and the Spurs. His injury wasn’t going to allow him to handle such a heavy load, and the Spurs were perfectly fine with him playing 20 minutes a game as a scorer off the bench. Even within context, his first year with the Spurs was up and down. He missed 25 games with heel discomfort, and even when he was on the court, it was clear he wasn’t yet 100 percent. His field goal percentage of 47.1 was the second highest of his career, but he shot only 31 percent from distance and had a less-than-stellar 1.3 to 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. Even with the outside shot not falling and him not being much of a distributor, there is an alternate timeline somewhere where Gay’s ability to generate offense on an offensively-challenged team helps the Spurs win an NBA championship in the 2017-2018 season.
With a season under his belt, Gay came into this season looking much healthier. He played more minutes, started more games, and was better in almost every aspect of his game. With the Spurs’ ability to go over the salary cap to re-sign Gay in an offseason where they do not have much cap flexibility, I expect re-signing Gay will be near the top of the Spurs’ priority list.
The Spurs have a knack for turning high-volume scorers into better versions of themselves. We’ve seen LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Gay all have career years in efficiency once arriving in San Antonio. As previously mentioned, in Gay’s first season with the Spurs, he shot 47.1 percent from the field, which was the second highest mark of his career. This season he one-upped that by shooting a career-best 50.4 percent from the field. His biggest improvement was from behind the arc, where he shot a career-best 40.2 percent. He also averaged 6.8 rebounds, the second highest number of his career, and did so in only 26.7 minutes per game. His 2.6 to 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was also the best of his career.
The Spurs’ three leading scorers are known as the Mid(range) Three and for good reason. Aldridge and DeRozan took the 1st and 2nd most midrange shots in the NBA this season. Gay’s 209 attempts was only the 39th most, but he did so in limited minutes. While Aldridge and DeRozan get the majority of the credit from this range, Gay was by far the most efficient this season. His field goal percentage of 52.2 was the 2nd highest percentage in the NBA out of the 42 players with at least 200 attempts. Only Kevin Durant was better, so that’s pretty good company to be in.
The biggest surprise from Gay this season was in his reliability as a spot up shooter. His Points Per Possession (PPP) of 1.148 was ranked 17 out of 80 players with at least 200 spot up possessions. For comparison, last season Gay ranked 123 out of 146 players with at least 150 spot up possessions. Actually, in almost every season prior, Gay finished towards the bottom of the league in this statistic. It goes to wonder if he has figured something out, or if this season was merely an outlier. With the iffy shooting of the Spurs’ starting lineup, his ability to knock down these shots is more important than it might initially appear, especially if the Spurs have plans of him starting next season. Somebody has to be able to stretch the floor in some capacity, right?
Gay is lengthy and physical and is able to use these attributes to be a plus rebounder at the wing position. He averaged 6.8 rebounds on only 26.7 minutes a game, by far the best per-36 average of his career. He brought in 62.3 percent of the rebounds he had a chance of grabbing, which was the highest percentage out of all the Spurs who were part of the regular rotation this season.
When Gay was driving to the basket, he had one thing on his mind: shoot the ball. His assist percentage when driving to the rim was only 5.5 percent, which was the second lowest percentage on the Spurs just behind Aldridge, who only had a total of 76 drives compared to Gay’s 329. Out of the 126 players in the NBA with at least 300 drives this season, Gay’s 5.5 percent assist percentage was ranked 121. It would have been nice to see him look for his teammates more often, especially when playing with a bench unit devoid of play-makers. The good news is that Gay was very good this season at scoring during drives to the rim. His field goal percentage of 52.7 in such possessions ranked 22 out of the 126 players in the NBA with at least 300 drives.
Similar to his statistics when driving to the rim, Gay was an above average shooter as a pick and roll ball-handler, on post ups, and in isolation. Where Gay struggled was when defenses brought help during these possessions, forcing him to give up the ball. The Spurs only scored 8 points in 12 possessions where the defense forced Gay to pass out of isolation, 64 points in 84 possessions where the defense forced Gay to pass out of pick-and-roll situations, and 32 points in 30 possessions where the defense forced Gay to pass out of the post. These numbers were all well below league average this season.
I know there was a lot of chatter about how Gay should have been the primary ball-handler down the stretch of close games as opposed to DeRozan. It’s hard to know for sure how that would have played out, but Gay had a net rating of -13.7 in 89 minutes that were considered to be clutch time. For comparison, Aldridge had a net rating of +0.3 in 158 minutes, DeRozan had a net rating of +2.2 in 150 minutes, and White had a net rating of +5.4 in 72 minutes. While Gay’s field goal percentage in these clutch moments was 52.4 percent — which was the second highest on the team behind White — the major problem with him down the stretch was his turnovers. His turnover percentage of 11.1 was the second highest on the team behind Patty Mills. The answer to the Spurs’ problems down the stretch might be White instead of Gay.
Defensively Gay was pretty good. His Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM) of 1.78 was ranked 10 out of the 92 players ESPN considers to be small forwards. I do wonder if this number was skewed somewhat due to how poor many of the other Spurs’ players were on defense. If the bar is set low, is being an average defender good enough to end up with a high DRPM number? There’s a lot of voodoo in this statistics, so it’s hard to know for sure.
The eye test showed me that he lost focus on that end far too often. I saw him miss defensive assignments, rotate too late, and lose sight of his opponent altogether, allowing him to cut to the basket for easy points. Paying extra attention while off the ball next season would go a long way in helping the Spurs on the defensive side of the court. They need his length.
Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but as I mentioned earlier, I expect him to be near the top of PATFO’s priority list this summer unless they opt for a massive shakeup. He looked much better a year removed from his Achilles injury and has been working out hard in the offseason, losing some weight and getting into even better shape.
Gay has always been somewhat of an enigma. He had a fantastic season for the Spurs, but he oftentimes makes it look so easy on the court that no matter how good he does, he always makes it look like he could do even better if he wanted to. Sean Elliott spent a good portion of the season talking about how Gay does a good job gauging what the Spurs need. If Gay feels as though the Spurs are struggling on offense, he has no problem taking over a game. I’ll trust Elliott’s assessment in that regard, but I’d still like to see himself assert himself even more next season, especially if he comes into the season in great shape. Too often I felt he disappeared for long stretches of games. He is too important to what the Spurs do for that to happen. The more assertive he is, the less attention the opposition will be able to pay to the Spurs’ other players who may not have the ability to create for themselves. It should free them up to do what they do best, which is catch and shoot.
Gay’s 2.6 to 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was the best of his career, but he is still mostly an isolation player. If Gay ends up coming off the bench and the other bench players are still filled with guys who are only good at spot up shooting, it’ll be important for him to expand his game off the dribble to include passing to the open shooters around the perimeter. Getting them involved in the game can only help make the Spurs more difficult to defend, especially in the playoffs.
Gay needs to continue focusing more on the defensive side of the court, especially now that he’s no longer required to expend as much energy on offense at this stage of his career. He has the tools to really help the Spurs out on defense. If he can stay focused, he could be a nice pairing alongside Murray and White next season.
Gay’s best all-around performance came in a win against the Utah Jazz on December 9. He scored 23 points on 16 shots and added 15 rebounds, two assists, one block, and one steal. He did all of that without a single three pointer.
Honorable mention: Gay hit a game winning shot at home against the Phoenix Suns on January 29. It wasn’t his best game of the season — he scored 16 points on 17 shots — but a game winning shot is always worth reliving. I’m in a good mood today, so I’m just going to ignore the fact that the Spurs needed a game winning shot at home to beat the Suns in the first place.
Final Grade: B+
Gay was probably the most consistent player on the Spurs this season. He came out of the gate red hot and was able to maintain a steady floor throughout the entire season. I also think his expectations were higher this season, knowing that he had an extra season to get healthy, in shape, and learn the Spurs’ system. Almost every advanced metric has him being the 3rd or 4th best player on the Spurs’ roster, and that seems about right.
The biggest knock on Gay this season was his massive struggles in games 2-5 of the Spurs’ playoff series against the Denver Nuggets. He averaged only six points on 20 percent shooting during this stretch and looked quite disinterested at times. Paul Millsap dominated their match-up for much of the series, although he did put it together in the final two games of the series, averaging 20 points on over 50 percent shooting.
I hope Gay gets re-signed this summer. He’s the best the Spurs can hope for at his position given their financial situation, and he’s proven himself to be a great teammate off the court and a valuable asset on the court.
Up next: Patty Mills
2018-2019 Spurs player reviews: Rudy Gay
Source: Pounding The Rock