Ramble mode activated: Why the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay trade is a fail
Yesterday Memphis, Toronto and Detroit completed a trade with Rudy Gay and Hamed Haddidi getting traded to Toronto, Jose Calderon getting traded to the Detroit and Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and a 2nd from Toronto, headed to Memphis.
The obvious winner is Detroit. They moved a poor long term contract in Prince, for a PG in Calderon who’s not only an upgrade in production but fits their needs with two bigs in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond on the team. If they don’t resign him this summer, it’s a good trade for the capspace alone.
I might have a follow-up article on Toronto’s end, but I like it for them. They were a team in an undesirable, mediocre position due to the mistakes of GM Bryan Colangelo, so taking a chance on a talent as great as Gay without paying a crippling price, seems a decent move. The main problem the team faces is the unbelievable amount of bad contracts handed out by Bryan Colangelo recently to Demar Derozan, Andrea Bargnani, Landry Fields, Linas Kleiza, Aaron Gray and others, hampering their flexibility. But this is unrelated to the Gay trade.
But for now I want to talk about Memphis’ side in the trade and it’s a fascinating one. Rudy Gay this season is caught in the middle of statistical vs practical analysis battle. Memphis is a 54 win pace team despite Gay shooting a way below average .478 TS% (league average TS% is .532) on an estimated 18 shooting possessions (FGA + 0.44*FTA). If Memphis is a tier 2 team, what’s holding them back from contention is their offensive rating only ranking 18th of 30 teams, while their defense is 2nd. For this reason a statistical argument could be made that Memphis making the leap from pretender to contender could happen by simply taking away Gay’s below average shots and redistributing them to the rest of the Grizzlies. Putting Tayshaun Prince in Gay’s place is as close as you can get to testing that hypothesis, because in skillset he’s almost a dead ringer for a version of Rudy Gay that simply doesn’t shoot as much. He’s a big small forward who’s as underwhelming a 3 point shooter as Gay and who occasionally likes to use his size in the post or take midrange shots. On the defensive end he’ll be expect to perform to a Gay-like level – respectably, but not elite. If all goes to plan, the Grizzlies with “lobotomized Rudy Gay” in the form of Prince of would redistribute the bad shots taken from Gay by above average shots on the rest of the roster, thus elevating that ORTG to top 10 instead of #18 and turning the Grizzlies into a contender.
But of course, there’s a strong argument to be made that things don’t work out this way. Taking away the pressure Rudy Gay puts on defenses as a slasher, may make it easier for defenses to load up against Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. This is especially true considering Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince provide as little offensive value as any SG and SF combination in the league, with no help coming from Wayne Ellington or Quincy Pondexter off the bench, it will be easy for teams to neglect guarding them in favor of double teaming Memphis’ stars. Furthermore I’m a believer in the concept of energy distribution in basketball. By having a high usage player like Rudy Gay on the court offensively, not only does it give his teammates more space, but it gives them more energy. It allows them to save their energy not only for the offensive plays called for them, but for the defensive end and on the glass. Memphis’ offensive stars will now essentially be playing 3 on 5 for large portions of the game on the offensive end. Might this put a damper on how much they have left for defense?
Finally in regards to shot redistribution, I’m not sure if evaluating a player like Gay is as easy as taking his TS% as a whole and comparing it to a league average replacement shot. Gay’s shots can be split essentially into two categories, good shots and bad shots. According to hoopdata.com, Gay takes 4.1 FGs at the rim a game at 65%, to go along with 3.7 FTA (about 1.6 shot attempts) at the FT line at an even better 78%. Thus he “creates” about 5.7 excellent efficiency shots a game. The problem is he takes 2.1 shots from 3-9 FT at 36.3%, 2.2 shots from 10-15 FT at 45.9%, 3.9 shots from 16-23 FT at 35.0% and 2.9 3s at .457 eFG. This is a combined 11.1 shots at a poor efficiency. Thus it’s easy to see where Gay’s way below TS% comes from. While creating good shots, he takes twice as many bad ones. That is why replacing all of his shots with league average ones theoretically would increase his team’s offensive efficiency.
The question however, is how responsible Gay is for his good shots and how responsible he is for his bad shots. The problem with assigning him blame for the latter, is that many bad shots are a result of the team’s imperfection. Teams don’t WANT to take the worst shot in basketball, contested 2 pointers, but they have to when the shot clock is nearing 0 and they have no better shot to take. When Rudy Gay takes one of these shots, converted at a poor efficiency, his shooting % is taking the weight for the failure of the team’s offense as a whole. Removing Rudy Gay from this play wouldn’t prevent this contested 2 point shot from happening. If he’s not there, someone else has to take that bad shot and their efficiency gets worse. My favorite analogy to show this is Allen Iverson. On the early 2000s Sixers, he played on teams with dreadful supporting offensive talent, lacking either shooting or post scoring. Their job was defense and rebounding. In Iverson’s incredibly inefficient 01-02 season (.489 TS%), Iverson took an incredible 18 shots a game from either 3-9, 10-15, or 16-23 FT and all at < 40% shooting, way below league average for TS%. The assumption that Iverson is hurting his team by taking these shots, relies on the assumption that they wouldn’t be taking them anyways. In reality, due to the lack of offensive talent on the Sixers, it’s likely that removing Iverson would cause them to take MORE bad mid-range shots. Iverson was the only one who could be relied upon to create shots at the rim, FT line or from 3. Removing those shots likely forces the team into even more “dead sets” and contested 2 point jumpers. Thus it doesn’t make sense to replace Iverson’s bad shots with average shots when evaluating how well his shots would be replaced, because in all likelihood not only would his bad shots be replaced by his teammates, but his good shots would be replaced by bad ones.
Likewise the danger for Memphis is that by trading away Rudy Gay, they lose the 6 or so “good” shots he creates at the rim and FT line, but the 11 “bad” shots he takes a game are simply replaced by teammates. This would leave them with 6 less “good” shots than they were getting before. It’s possible that Rudy’s 6 good shots and 11 bad shots, end up replaced by 17 bad shots – which would make their offense worse, not better. Rudy takes 8.2 FGA a game combined from 3-9, 10-15 and 16-23 FT, while Conley Jr. only takes 2.2, Tony Allen 3.5 from those ranges. All 3 shoot brutal percentages from those zones. If the responsibility of taking “dead set” shots simply transfers from Gay to Conley and Allen, it doesn’t make a lot of sense punish Gay’s shooting % for those shots as much as it does to credit the ones he creates by slashing to the basket.
Or put it this way: Allen Iverson was one of the best slashers in the game (defining slashing as, getting to the rim, then scoring at the rim). Rudy Gay is a very good slasher. Slashing is how a team gets field goal attempts at the rim and free throw line. If you remove these guys, barring a unique situation, you’re probably going to have a team that is less capable at creating shots at the rim. Now if Memphis traded for a sharpshooter at SF, they could’ve justifed the deal by becoming worse at slashing, but better at 3pt shooting, which is another way to score efficient shots. The problem is that they didn’t improve their 3pt shooting either, with the similarity ability Prince and Gay have in that area. So you have a team that got worse at slashing, without getting better at 3pt shooting. Chances are that team will be worse offensively and at creating good shots.
No, it simply does not make sense to me for anyone to believe that simply removing Gay with such a non-offensive element as Prince, is going to make them BETTER offensively. The Grizzlies now become indisputably easier to guard than they were with Gay. They now have to play with virtual non threats offensively all game at SG and SF which puts a big toll on their offensive stars.
To me the big problem with the Grizzlies offense before, was twofold: A lack of 3pt shooting/spacing and a lack of offensive support off the bench. Trading for Prince, who is as mediocre a 3pt threat as Gay, certainly does not help their spacing. It makes spacing worse because despite Gay’s lack of range, he still attracted attention from Conley, Randolph and Gasol, which Prince won’t. They did improve their bench scoring by adding the talented Ed Davis, but he the 2nd unit needed much, much more offensive support. To me it’s pretty clear that the team got worse offensively.
The timing of this trade for Memphis is also puzzling. After paying a price to get under the luxury tax last year in the trade they made with Cleveland, why the rush to trade Gay? Memphis was still on pace for their best season ever by record and in the mix for a top 5 seed in the West. Trade offers for Gay would’ve still been there this summer, if not greater offers if teams became desperate after a failed playoff run. Toronto has been desperate to add Gay since last June and likely would’ve been this summer as well offering an identical deal. Furthermore while the Grizzlies cleared flexibility this summer, they are not under the cap enough to sign anyone but their own player Tony Allen this summer. It seems the only reason to make this trade now was because they actually thought replacing Gay with Prince and Davis would make them better immediately and give them a better chance at winning the title these playoffs – while improving their long term future with Davis’ talent and the extra flexibility. And in my opinion, they are very wrong about that so called improvement.
Finally, one more side point about Rudy Gay and the Grizzlies. Right now, the two dominant players in the league are both physically freakish small forwards, Lebron James and Kevin Durant. If the Grizzlies want to win the NBA title, those two stars are likely to be standing in their way. In a playoff series with the Heat or Thunder, might it be a good idea to have a Rudy Gay to match up with those players? Not only is Rudy one of the few players who has the size and length to stick on them, but one can make the case that making them defend Rudy Gay on the other end, has some value. Not only could Gay physically tire them out or force them into foul trouble, but mentally, the toe to toe battle with Gay is one more thing Lebron and Durant would have to worry about. On the other hand they can rest physically and mentally if they only have to guard Tayshaun Prince. When playoff series are decided by inches, this could make a difference.
The Grizzlies as a whole took a big step backwards in talent level by trading Gay. This is a huge red flag because having more talent than the other team is everything in the NBA. I believe a better move may have been if trading Gay, for someone with equal “blue chip” status. The perfect trade would’ve been flipping him for Paul Pierce or Danny Granger, two star SFs who fit their lineup. Grabbing Arron Afflalo from Orlando would a respectable mid level wing replacement. If those teams weren’t interested in Gay, perhaps Toronto could’ve rerouted Calderon and Davis to Indiana, Boston or Orlando. But to not even get a sharpshooting 3pt shooting role playing SF in return for Gay (such as Jared Dudley from Phoenix, as rumored), is just an immense failure. If Memphis was to go with a “trade Gay for a lineup that fits more”, they HAD to get an elite 3pt shooting spacer. By only getting Prince, they took a clear step back in the immediate future offensively which defeats the purpose of trading Gay this quick.