Raptors should bring Rudy Gay off the bench

Rudy Gay walks off the court after the Raptors lost to the Miami Heat in Toronto in early November. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Dwane Casey got the wrong guy.

Taking Amir Johnson out of the starting lineup is the right message to send to a team that already plays selfishly?

Removing the one Raptor who more often that not brings a full effort and plays team-first basketball is the way to encourage more of the same?

It’s not. If the Toronto Raptors and Dwane Casey are serious about squeezing whatever quality there is out of the worst first-place team in sports they’re going to have to address the giant elephant in the Air Canada Centre, the $19-million shadow of superstar on the roster that is choking out the sun and making the rest of the team ill.

If he is serious about developing a winning culture around a Raptors franchise that has some creeping signs of rot setting in—TV numbers are miserable and they failed to sellout both home games against the Miami Heat this month while drawing a highly suspect 16,290 on Sunday afternoon against the Denver Nuggets—Casey has to do something about his Rudy Gay problem.

And if he’s going to do something about it general manager Masai Ujiri has to stand behind him as he moves Gay’s $19-million salary out of the starting lineup which would hopefully be a precursor to him being shipped out of town—easier said than done, I realize.

Unlike Johnson, who took his demotion grudgingly but without overt protest, Gay indicated he wouldn’t go willingly when the subject was broached.

“Me? Would I ever come off the bench?” he said, when I asked him about it. “No. I think this team needs me in the starting lineup. Maybe on a different team, maybe in the long run… But here? No.”

In reality the Raptors don’t need Gay in the starting lineup. His presence in it doesn’t make them a very good team, even if they have somehow remained on top of the Atlantic Division with a 6-10 record and a three-game losing streak. For the moment his 20 shots a game and insistence on being The Man is stifling the development of assets like Jonas Valanciunas or Terrence Ross.

And forget concerns about cratering Guy’s already minimal trade value. The other 29 NBA teams are not so desperate as to be fooled that Gay’s shoot-first, pass-never, poor man’s Kobe Bryant imitation contributes to winning basketball.

The Raptors are most likely stuck with Bryan Colangelo’s final mistake, so why not make the best of it? Why cater to him?

Making Gay the highest-paid sixth man in NBA history is a random, kind of crazy thought—“It’s drastic,” said Casey, who also said it’s not something he’s thought about—but there’s a sound basketball reason for it: The Raptors’ bench production is never better than average and at times is varying shades of awful. They were outscored 72–16 by the Nuggets in Denver’s 112–98 win over Toronto, a big reason why the Raptors wasted a 15-point first-half lead.

Having Gay come off the bench would create a cascade of benefits. It would allow his shot-happy style to flourish—or at least cause the least possible damage.

It would embolden DeMar DeRozan as the Raptors’ clear leader and offensive lynchpin, which he is already—or at least whenever he can wrestle the ball from Gay.

Making Ross a starter would give DeRozan some space and allow Toronto to find out if he’s an asset worth further investment. Having one less high-volume shooter in the starting five would mean Valanciunas could conceivably be a consistent part of an offensive game plan, rather than the guy charged with picking up Gay and DeRozan’s scraps.

But the more important reason to drop Gay from the starting rotation would be philosophical or even symbolic. At the moment Gay is the Raptors’ alpha dog, based entirely on the anomaly of his contract, where the Memphis Grizzlies, desperate to keep talent in a less-than-glamourous NBA market, signed Gay to a five-year, $82-million deal in 2010.

Hey, that’s not Gay’s fault. It’s not what you earn, it’s what you negotiate, as basketball sage Jalen Rose was once quoted as saying in these parts.

But Gay has let his contract inform his character. Paid like an NBA superstar, he’s developed a sense of on-court entitlement that rivals Bryant’s, without the five championship rings and the white-hot on-court intensity.

It’s not that Gay is having a miserable season. Against the Nuggets he continued his good work on the boards, grabbing nine rebounds while sprinkling in three steals–he’s second on the Raptors in both categories–and he did score 23 points.

But on a team that doesn’t believe in passing the ball–the only recipe for consistent success in any team sport—Gay is arguably the least willing passer in NBA history. Couple that with his tendency to take and miss enormous numbers of shots and you have the surest possible formula for a team to play below whatever its potential might be.

On Sunday Gay needed 23 shots to score his 23 points. On the season he’s averaging 1.02 points per shot—121st in the NBA. Only three other qualified players are worse. In contrast, LeBron James is averaging 1.67 points per shot this season to lead the league.

Gay is fifth in the NBA with 19 shots a game, meanwhile he’s shooting just 37.9 per cent from the field and averaging just 2.3 assists a game.

The Raptors’ season is only 16 games old, but if Gay continues at the pace he’s on it will be a historic, almost comic, monument to basketball selfishness. He’s on track to become the first player since 1958-59 to take at least 19 shots a game while shooting less than 40 percent and averaging fewer than 2.5 assists.

Moreover, his style of play is infectious. On possession after possession this season either Gay or DeRozan or Kyle Lowry have dribbled out the clock to take an ill-advised, contested two-pointer. The only difference Sunday was the high-octane Nuggets would take the rebound and run it down the Raptors’ throat.

Rudy Gay is the Raptors’ very expensive virus, breeding selfish play. He needs to be put in quarantine. He’s not helping a young team win, and his trade value is minimal as it is. Bringing him off the bench would at least send a message about what the team values and prove that performance—not payroll—dictates playing time.

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