The Missing Piece: Plugging in Rudy Gay

Published: January 5, 2013

Just last week, Ryan Schwan stated that this weekly feature is one of his favorite reads on the site. I set out to change that today by  taking time to project how our future would look if we inserted Rudy Gay into our small forward spot. According to recent rumors, the Grizzlies are listening to offers for Rudy Gay for a variety of reasons, the primary one being financial as Gay makes 16.4 million this year and an additional 37 million over the next two seasons. If Memphis doesn’t move Gay, they are looking at a luxury tax bill of about 4 million dollars on top of their 74 million dollar payroll, but if they could move Gay for somebody(s) who makes 4-5 million dollars less, then they not only save that money and avoid paying the tax, but they will also get a rebate check of sorts from the teams over the luxury tax, which figures to be around 4 million dollars this year. Long story short, moving Gay could save Memphis about $12 million this year.

That is the primary reason they are looking at making the move. Other factors include future cap flexibility, as they are already projected to be over the luxury tax next year and that is without the added salaries of free agents they sign, draft picks, and taking care of their own free agents like Tony Allen. Allen is a fan and coaches favorite in Memphis and having Gay on the payroll makes it nearly impossible to match the offers he will likely get in free agency. You also can’t overlook the fact that former ESPN writer John Hollinger having a voice in the Memphis front office is a major factor in this decision. Hollinger invented the stat PER and Rudy Gay only has an average PER (15.4), yet he is one of the highest paid players in the NBA.

As far as the Hornets making a trade for Gay this season, it is practically impossible without giving up Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, or Eric Gordon because of the money Gay commands. For the trade to work per league rules, the Hornets would have to ship out over $13 million in salary and that can’t be done without either gutting the entire team or giving up one of the big three. Ironically, this trade could be done if the Hornets still had Hakim Warrick’s expiring contract, but Dell got rid of that chip in a move I still don’t fully understand. A deal that centered around Lopez and our protected 1st going to Philly, Thaddeus Young and pieces going to Memphis, and Gay coming here would be possible if we just had another 3-4 million dollars in salary to make the figures work. Memphis would get a young vet with a higher PER and a cheaper salary to replace Gay, Philly would get a big who gives them Bynum insurance and a high pick, and the Hornets would get a possible missing piece plus lesser picks and backups for their squad. But alas, it is not to be this year because we cannot make the salaries match.

The more likely scenario would be that Memphis holds on to Gay this year and tries to make one last run with this squad. If they are one and done in the playoffs, they have to consider moving Gay or Randolph because it would not be wise to become repeat luxury tax offenders if all that spending that money gets you is an early exit from the playoffs. Of the two players, Gay would fetch more in a trade because he is still relatively young (26) and more teams in the NBA have a need for a small forward at this point. Memphis could look to move Gay straight up for our pick in the 2013 draft, and if the Hornets land outside of the range where they could realistically get Shabazz Muhammad (top-3), then it is something they should at least consider. If they do, here is what they would be looking at:

Financial Fit

Gay makes 17.9 million next season. If the Hornets pick up their player options on Lopez, Thomas, Roberts, Miller, and Smith they will be right around $43.5 million in payroll. The cap is projected to be somewhere between $58 and $60 million, meaning that the Hornets would have to decline some of those options or move 1-2 of those guys in a trade to get Gay. The most likely scenario is that they could decline Smith’s deal, which is not guaranteed, make the trade for Gay and then use one of their exceptions to give Smith a long term deal. Since Thomas, Miller, and Roberts are essentially on minimum contracts, cutting them wouldn’t give the Hornets much space because there would still be a roster hold for those spots that would account for nearly $500,000. Declining Lopez and trying to re-sign him would probably not be wise, as he would likely command more than the two years and ten million he is currently owed on the free agent market. Declining Smith’s contract, with the understanding that they will give him a long term one in July would probably be the best way to go and would give the Hornets a payroll of between $63-$66 million next season, which would be well under the luxury tax.

Moving forward, the Hornets books would be pretty tight again for the following year but they would not risk losing any current players by bringing on Gay, nor would they be at risk to go over the luxury tax. Essentially, they would have a two year window with a starting lineup of Vasquez/Gordon/Gay/Davis/Lopez with Roberts/Rivers/Miller/Anderson/Smith coming off the bench. After those two seasons, Gay, Lopez, and Vasquez would be free agents and Gordon would have a player option on his contract where he could choose to become an unrestricted free agent. Davis and Anderson would still be under their current contracts but would likely be due hefty raises the following year, making it unlikely that the Hornets could keep that entire core together if it performed well in the two years leading up to that summer.


Most would say that Rudy Gay would undoubtedly be an upgrade over the current crop of Hornets small forwards, but  the numbers don’t necessarily say that is the case. The Hornets current crop of small forwards take about eight shots per 36 minutes and average 1.14 points per shot. Gay meanwhile, averages eight shots per 36 minutes and averages 1.074 points per shot. Not only is he less efficient than a horrific crop of small forwards now, but he would project to take away eight shots from guys like Gordon, Anderson, and Davis- all guys who are average 1.2 pps or higher. Based on those numbers, if Gay were to slide into our small forward spot right now and continue to take and make shots at his current clip, the Hornets would project to be nearly a point worse per 36 minutes with Gay on the floor.

Of course numbers can’t tell the whole story, and you can make several cases that the offense would unquestionably be better with Rudy Gay at the biggest position of weakness. His presence would actually demand the other teams’ attention and this could do wonders for every other player on the court with him. He is also a better passer, averaging nearly an additional assist per 36 over our current crop, and provides more of a three-point threat than any current small forward on the roster. You could also argue that this is a down season for Gay, as he has the lowest field goal % of his career, and if he returned to his prior career averages, he would actually have a higher efficiency than the current crop of Hornets small forwards.

But even if you are as generous to Gay as possible, the numbers still tell you that he doesn’t bring the offensive impact that you assume a quasi All-Star would at a position of weakness. He will get his points, but at what expense to his fellow teammates? Will the threat of Rudy Gay increase the amount of open looks that Gordon, Anderson, and Davis get and if so, will their increased percentages offset the fact that they are getting fewer shots? These are tough questions to answer no matter how much data that you have. At some point, it just comes down to a gut feeling and a coaches instinct on how he could weave these pieces into his system.


The Hornets current crop of small forwards is a mess on this end of the court, and have been called out specifically by Monty after several games this season. Meanwhile, Gay plays heavy minutes on a team that gives up the fewest points in the league and is second in defensive rating. He is an above average isolation defender and that makes him miles better than anything the Hornets have at the small forward position. Currently this season, he is allowing just .74 points per possession when he is in isolation as his man is shooting just over 39%. Meanwhile, the Hornets collection of small forwards give up 1.05 ppp in this situations and opponents shoot nearly 48%. Gay also turns opposing small forwards over far more and fouls less, while holding them to a drastically lower PER when compared to the Hornets SF’s.

Though Gay is known primarily as an offensive player, it is on this end of the court where he can provide the biggest improvement for the Hornets. His length gives him the ability to bother shooters and disrupt passing lanes, while he rebounds at a higher rate than most small forwards (15.5% DRB). His weakness on this end is that he has a habit of gambling and that leaves his man open quite a bit for spot up opportunities, but this is a big part of the Grizzlies defensive philosophy as they have been in the top five of turnovers created for the past three years. It would be interesting to see whether Monty would allow Gay to continue to gamble or if he would reign him in.

Either way, when you process everything and try to determine whether bringing in Gay would be the right move for this team in particular, it is hard to ignore the defensive impact that he would have on this team, and with the Hornets currently sitting at 29th in defensive rating, an instant impact player on that end is needed more than anything else. Whether Gay is the right piece when you consider his cost and offensive inefficiency is a tough question to answer, but it is undoubtedly a question worth asking.

The Missing Piece is a weekly feature that you can find every Saturday only on For past pieces in this series, click here.



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