Rudy Gay, “star” player

Rudy Gay’s now former coach, Dwane Casey, on the small forward’s trade from the Toronto Raptors to the Sacramento Kings: “I don’t think there’s ever a good time to lose a star player. But it’s something you have to roll with and live with. This is a business, this is the NBA.” Gay is making about $18 million this season, the 15th highest paid player in the NBA. So he’s certainly being paid like a star. But as Dre Alvarez points out at the NBA Geek, there’s really only one thing Gay does especially “well” – take a lot of shots. When it comes to making shots – not so much. This year, Gay has been particularly horrible, under 40% so far. But he’s never been a particularly good shooter – just under 45% for his career, has an assist to turnover ratio of worse than one to one and did I mention – he’s being paid $18 million this year? Even Player Efficiency Rating – the brainchild of John Hollinger, formerly of ESPN and now head of player personnel for the Memphis Grizzlies – which places much more value on shot taking than Dave Berri’s Wins Produced or Dean Oliver’s Win Shares, doesn’t especially like Gay (I know it’s silly to talk about a stat liking a player. So sue me). The highest PER of Gay’s career is 17.8, the mark of a good player (15 is basically average), but not all-star caliber player (20 is all star level. The LeBrons of the world are around 30).

It’s also a mark of how problematic PER is that this season, when Gay’s shooting so poorly and also turning the ball over more than he has at any time in his career, his PER is still almost exactly at his career norm. He is rebounding a bit better than usual, but that PER is being kept afloat because of “usage” – the number of possessions Gay is “using,” which is higher than usual. What’s striking about this is that we can see quite clearly what’s happening in those extra possessions – Gay is missing shots and turning the ball over (he’s shooting quite well from three point range, but is shooting less than 40% from two-point range, which is astoundingly bad).

One can expect his shooting to improve somewhat – he’s 27, in his “prime” and unless he’s hiding an injury, probably hasn’t regressed so much that his performance so far this year represents a new true level of ability (or lack thereof). But it’s quite amazing that teams remain willing to pony up so much for a guy who plays the game he does – shoot first, miss often, and find few other ways to really help your team. And he’s got a player option for next season worth $19 million, in a league where payrolls are capped at (nominally) $60 million a year.

In sum, this trade, as Dre points out, is clearly good news for the Raptors, even if it does involve cutting loose a “star” player.

Update: Zach Lowe, at Grantland, has a very detailed dissection of the Gay trade. Here’s his take on Gay’s performance:

The current version of Gay is basically a harmful player. He used 30 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul — a gargantuan usage rate reserved for the league’s biggest scoring stars. He’s also shooting 38.8 percent for the season. That is a historically rare combination of shot chucking and brick laying. Only three players in league history have used more than 30 percent of their team’s possessions while shooting below 40 percent: Jerry Stackhouse, Baron Davis, and Allen Iverson (twice). This is irresponsible offensive play. Those other guys could at least point to heaps of free throws or solid assist numbers. Gay can point to neither, in part because he has never been an intuitive passer who can read the floor at NBA speed.

It bears repeating that, according to PER, Rudy Gay is a slightly above average player so far this season. It’s also worth noting that in those seasons in which Iverson was engaging in “shot chucking and brick laying” at an historic rate, PER regarded his performance as all-star level, especially in the first of those seasons, 2001-02. Iverson did not do other things particularly well that year. He was not a good rebounder for his position and his assist to turnover ration was below average. He did one thing well – rack up a lot of steals. Every comprehensive metric will have its anomalies. But Lowe’s boss at Grantland, Bill Simmons, still cites PER as his preferred “advanced stat” and has specifically criticized Dave Berri and WP for having failed to acknowledge that Iverson was, indeed, a great player.  Simmons needs to reconsider why he’s wedded to this stat.

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