The Spurs might have struck gold yet again, folding the 31-year-old scorer into their offensive system in a way that help them against Golden State.
Photo by Erik Williams - USA TODAY Sports
The San Antonio Spurs entered free agency hoping to make a splash. Their respect around the league speaks for itself, and any competitive player who prioritizes winning and basketball over money and everything else should view them as an attractive destination.
But instead of adding an obviously helpful name like Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry, San Antonio instead re-signed most of its own free agents (notably Pau Gasol) and decided to roll the dice with a two-year, $17 million deal for Rudy Gay, a mostly-inefficient ball-stopper whose most recent appearance on an NBA court was in January, the moment he tore his left Achilles tendon.
Nobody was particularly impressed. A 61-win team that aspires to dethrone the Golden State Warriors needs more than a 31-year-old who will never make an All-Star team, once personified the exact type of player analytically-savvy organizations (like the Spurs) frowned upon, and whose former teams all seemed to gel and prosper after he was traded away.
Nearly two weeks into the 2017-18 season, it's beginning to look like this might have been the wrong reaction. Even before he declined his player option in Sacramento, Gay was veering towards a more contemporary shot chart, and instead of reaching back and trying to capture what made him an effective (albeit polarizing) NBA player in his prime, the Spurs have streamlined his game in a way few other teams could.
The embers of his supernova athleticism rarely glow nowadays (especially in the open floor), and Gay, understandably, is still feeling his way into a system that treats him more as a cog than a main attraction. He's yet to capitalize off San Antonio's swing-swing ball movement, struggling against closeouts that often go nowhere and only making three threes so far despite a majority of his 11 attempts coming without a hand in his face.
Those shots will eventually fall, and Gay should attack with more conviction as the season goes along and concern over his career-altering injury recedes from memory. But until then, how San Antonio is using Gay has been brilliant. Whether he's at the four in lineups alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, at the three with Gasol and another big slotted in the frontcourt, or even at the five (where he successfully moonlighted against the Miami Heat during the second half of a Spurs win), Gay's intermediary skills have already blended beautifully with San Antonio's general philosophy.
A mid-range specialist all his life, Gay has slowly begun to get with the times. The Spurs aren't reversing this process or turning him into Danny Green, just surgically removing the absolute worst looks and putting him in a better position to succeed against defenses that aren't suited to deal with multiple technically skilled options sharing the floor.
Even though the percentage of his two-point shots taken at the rim hasn't budged from where it was the past two seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass the percentage of long twos (from about the free-throw line to the arc) has plummeted down from about 20 percent to only six percent.
They're encouraging him to take his time on the block, attack mismatches, and lean on his strength and guile to muscle into worthwhile shot attempts. Gay's athleticism isn't where it once was, but his balance is right there. Even against bigger defenders who he used to blow by, Gay can still get a good look with a crafty post game, pretty footwork, and a shoulder that knows how to dig into an opponent's chest without drawing a foul.
We're only six games in, but Gay's PER, True Shooting, and free-throw rate are all career highs, in part because he's gouging opposing teams from the inside out. Threes are wonderful, and Gay is enough of a threat to space the floor when spotted up anywhere on the weakside, but turning him into a catch-and-shoot weapon wouldn't squeeze out all he has to offer.
Long a potent scorer with his back to the basket, the Spurs have folded Gay's post-ups into their game plan in ways that don't halt their machine's steady churn. His movement is fluid from the catch, whether he rips through towards the baseline or backs down into a soft jump hook. He's a smart, self-aware player; those types usually do well in San Antonio.
More important than his results from the first couple weeks are how Gay can help lift San Antonio in games that really matter. Based on what we've seen, it appears Gregg Popovich might be grooming him for a potential postseason showdown against the Golden State Warriors. Wings who can score in isolation or, more importantly, on the block, are especially valuable against a switch-happy defense that craves an uptempo game.
To have success, San Antonio can slow things down and exploit three dangerous one-on-one scorers (Gay, Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard) who bend help defenses in their direction whenever they put the ball on the floor. If they can stay big with those three out there, all the better. If not, Gay's size and length make him a solid two-way piece should the Spurs realize they need to switch everything on and off the ball.
He's not the third member of a Big 3 or superstar many Spurs fans dreamed about four months ago, but sometimes winning basketball—even in this superteam era—is more about context and style. Gay adds a dimension San Antonio didn't have last season, and how they've harnessed him so far is a promising sign for their championship chances.