Rudy Gay’s path to becoming the least productive player on a dollar-for-dollar basis in the NBA began on an innocent-looking play on a February night in Memphis.
It was in the midst of the 2010–11 season—the best of Gay’s career to that point.
In his fifth year, he was ascendant. Through 54 games he was averaging 19.8 points a game while shooting 47 per cent from the floor and 39 per cent from beyond the three-point arc. He was also averaging just over six rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks along with a career-high 2.8 assists. All of this as the fulcrum of a Memphis Grizzlies team that was surging to a 46-win season and a playoff spot.
The only player who has matched those numbers in the past 10 years was LeBron James who did it (and then some) last season on his way to his fourth MVP award.
Since the three-point line was introduced in 1979–80 only 10 players have shown that kind of versatility, and it’s a remarkable list, featuring the likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
But then Gay caught the ball on the right block in the second quarter of the Grizzlies game against the Philadelphia 76ers and whirled hard to his left. Overmatched, 76ers rookie Evan Turner had no choice but to deliver a hard chop across Gay’s arms, giving up a two-shot foul rather than the easy bucket in the paint that was surely coming.
It was a fairly innocent-looking play, but it changed everything for Gay. He was sent to the floor writhing in pain. His left (non-shooting) shoulder required reconstructive surgery for what was a conceivably career-ending injury.
“I don’t think people realized what kind of surgery that was,” he said this week as the Raptors opened training camp for what will be a pivotal season for Gay and the franchise. “It was basically a reconstruction of my shoulder. In the past people wouldn’t have come back from that.”
Gay returned but his game never has. In the next 30 months he was transformed from an emerging franchise player and NBA star to an over-paid enigma. His numbers plummeted and the Grizzlies couldn’t trade him fast enough.
Rather than holding a place on a list with legends, he was statistically paired with unrepentant chuckers: of the 18 players in the league who shot at least 1,200 times last season only Brandon Jennings (39.9 per cent) shot worse. Gay and Monta Ellis were tied for the second-least effective as they each shot a miserable 41.6 per cent.
For Gay it was a career-low. He also shot just 32.3 per cent from the three-point line (after shooting 31 per cent in 2011–12). Toss in his $16.4-million salary and presto!—Gay was the least productive player on a dollar-for-dollar basis in basketball, a not-so-insignificant title in a league with an increasingly hard salary cap that values efficiency more than it ever has before.
As a result, Gay and the Raptors are at career-shaping and franchise-altering crossroads. Their fates are so inseparably intertwined they may as well be holding hands.
If Gay can rediscover the level he was playing at before he got hurt the Raptors might well have the franchise-defining player they’ve been missing since Chris Bosh left to join the Miami Heat, or even since the heady days of Vince Carter. If he can play at that level or better the thought of him picking up the $19.4-million option on his contract next season is a welcome one. If he can play at that level the Raptors may even have a team that Drake can be proud of in time for the 2016 All-Star Game. If all that comes to pass the Raptors and their new general manager, Masai Ujiri, will be building around him rather than rebuilding without him.
Rudy Gay knows all of this. As he spent nearly every day of his summer retooling his battle-scarred jump shot with his trainer, Dustin Gray, it was a source of great motivation.
“I want to quiet some people—well, not people. People, if you listen to them, will make you crazy,” he said. “It’s more about proving to myself that what I can be and what I want to be. I know what I want to happen with this team and I’ve been working hard to prepare myself.”
The first move was to get surgery on his eyes to correct a “trauma-induced astigmatism” the result—he believes—of an injury he suffered in his second season. His sight had deteriorated to the point where he failed the vision test when he went to renew his driver’s licence last year.
But Gay says it’s the fallout from his shoulder injury that mostly explains the regression in his shooting.
After his shoulder surgery Gay couldn’t play for seven months, a period he spent—by his own admission—sulking for the most part. He jumped into the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season unprepared and his numbers showed it. The following summer his gym time was also sporadic, his basketball training devoted mainly to competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, where he was one of the final cuts.
This past summer Gay got back to the gym and got back to basics following a six-week break to recover from his April 22 eye surgery.
“He doesn’t believe he’s a 32-per cent (three-point) shooter. He wants to be better,” says Gray. “And in order to be better he put time in the gym…. It’s not necessarily fun to get in there and grind out rep after rep, but that’s what it takes.”
The returns are promising, with Gay showing significant improvement in training. He says he added 20 pounds of muscle (Gray also does his strength and conditioning) and became a much-improved shooter.
“I charted it all out. Over the past month he was shooting upwards of 65–75 per cent on non-contested (three-point) shots—he was in the mid-50s when he started,” says Gray. “He made a big jump.”
And while Gay needs to carry that improvement from the gym to the floor this year, the irony is that the play on which he was injured back in 2011 is exactly what the Raptors want more of this season. Along with seeking out uncontested threes that he was knocking down so efficiently in the summer, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wants Gay to post up more.
Thirty months after the Evan Turner foul tore Gay’s shoulder and ripped a swath through his career, the forward is determined to get back on lists that include LeBron and MJ as opposed to those where he’s paired up with Ellis and Jennings. If he does the Raptors will benefit.
“This city deserves a winner,” he says. “They don’t deserve another bad season. And in the locker room, we don’t deserve it. Everyone has put their time in and for us to give the season away, it would be a waste of my career, a waste of a year of my career.”
There’s been enough of that already.