Seeing Rudy Gay get tossed around the league like this is odd for anyone who hit their prime of NBA fandom in the 1990s.
Back then, guys like Glenn Robinson could get 10-year, $68 million contracts without ever stepping on the court and Allen Iverson could become arguably the league’s biggest star. Glen Rice and Mitch Richmond could be perennial All-Stars. Even into the early 2000s, Allan Houston could pull down $20 million a year from the Knicks, who appear to still pretty much operate under this ’90s mentality today.
It was a good time to be a score-first, score-most-only player in professional basketball.
That’s not to say any of those guys are exactly like Gay or that any of them were bad players. They were all effective in their own ways and, like Gay, occasionally excellent. A few, like Iverson, are absolutely Hall of Famers. Perhaps Gay would have been one them, cashing in on $100 million contracts in the era before maximum deals and making yearly trips to the All-Star game thanks to his gaudy-looking 18.0 career scoring average.
It’s a different world now, as the reported trade to send Gay to the Sacramento Kings reminds us. There’s a greater emphasis on efficiency than ever, and nobody who shoots 38 percent with a usage rate of 30.4 percent is going to last very long on the more analytical teams. The Raptors traded for Gay less than 12 months ago, but that was a previous administration. First-year general manager Masai Ujiri is as new-school as they come and Toronto was believed to be shopping Gay almost from the moment Ujiri came on board. Still, it was somewhat stunning that a team 1 1/2 games out of first place would trade away its leading scorer and nominal star.
Just what the Kings’ motivation is in this deal is unclear. New owner Vivek Ranadive doesn’t seem like some glory-grasping neophyte who just wants a big name, but maybe that’s exactly what he is. The Kings dealt away starting point guard Greivis Vasquez, probably their only distributor of any kind, which means the starting lineup now needs to accommodate increased shots not just for Gay but for Isaiah Thomas, who presumably moves from sixth man into a starting role, as well. They just acquired underachieving forward Derrick Williams, and DeMarcus Cousins has been outstanding this year. Any move that takes the ball out of Cousins’ hands seems like a bad one.
Yet the most jarring aspect of the deal, the part that demonstrates just how much times have changed, is the reactions coming from the respective teams’ fan bases. Raptors fans are thrilled. Kings fans are either disgusted or mildly displeased, since their relief over still having an NBA franchise makes it tough for them to get too enraged now. Once upon a time, adding a potential 20-points-per-game scorer to a lineup that already includes two players in Cousins and Thomas who average more than 23 points per 36 minutes would spark neon-striped posters of the trio with some intense slogan like “CAPITAL OFFENSE” emblazoned across it.
Instead, Kings fans are shouting a collective, “Noooooooooooo!”
Honestly, that’s sort of weird. But it’s also progress. It’s tough for Gay, who isn’t trying to be a player nobody really wants on their team, but it does add to the feeling that the professional game is changing and improving.
The disappearance of 50-point games has become a nice shorthand for what’s happened to the NBA in the last seven or eight years. Team basketball proliferates, and the best squads are the ones that best adhere to fundamental defensive principles, not the ones that feature isolation-heavy offenses and singular, inefficient stars. The Spurs, Pacers and Trail Blazers feature just two players the average fan might recognize at the mall, yet Paul George‘s best trait is his defense and Tim Duncan isn’t even one of the top seven players among those three teams.
Hopefully, for his sake, Gay still has a place in today’s NBA. Maybe he’ll adjust or maybe Kings coach Mike Malone will utilize a system that makes use of Gay’s strengths while minimizing his shot-happy weaknesses. Maybe, once his contract is up in 2015, Gay will discover the free agent market isn’t that strong for a volume scorer who actually kind of struggles to score. Maybe the Kings represent Gay’s last, best hope to retain the “star” label.
Or maybe the Knicks will just throw a max contract at him a couple of summers from now. Probably that.
Photo via Facebook/The Toronto Raptors