Posted May 16, 2013

Rudy Gay trade has liberated Grizzlies’ offense … but not in the way you think

2013 NBA playoffs, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rob Mahoney, Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies in late January

Rudy Gay led the Grizzlies in minutes, field-goal attempts and points per game in the postseason last year. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

As Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins noted at the time of the deal, Memphis’ decision to trade Rudy Gay in late January created a point of transition for a potential contender. It invited change into a locker room that had thrived on stability and nudged one of the better teams in the league out of its long-standing comfort zone. The Grizzlies were the league leaders in grit and grind and, with Gay’s scoring boost, had proved capable of grappling with the NBA’s elite. To remove such a prominent piece would test their structural stability as a team, creating roster stress from what was in theory a bit of salary-cap management.

It was a pivotal move for a new owner and a cast of new executives, and it has paid off beautifully in the 2013 postseason. This hasn’t been a lateral exchange — as analysts most optimistic about the deal insisted at the time — but an altogether beneficial shift in solidifying the Grizzlies’ offensive identity. Memphis is no more explosive in scoring than it was before the trade, but it has distilled its offense to the point of being far steadier. As it turns out, Gay was the living, shot-forcing embodiment of opportunity cost, with every bit of his production coming by way of a greater price.

These Grizzlies are definitively better than the Memphis team — led by Gay in minutes, field-goal attempts and points per game — that lost in the first round a season ago. They execute more evenly (the Grizzlies have scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions in this year’s playoffs compared with 99.6 in the 2012 postseason), shoot more accurately (they’ve posted an playoff effective field-goal percentage of 47.3, up from 44.9 last year) and even defend more aggressively. But still, it would be unkind and inaccurate to say that the Grizzlies have improved because of Gay’s exodus, though the trade certainly served as a mechanism for Memphis’ evolution.

Gay was and is a fine player. He isn’t fundamentally selfish or any kind of inherent drain. But he no longer made sense for the Grizzlies from a financial standpoint and unknowingly stood in the way of what this team might someday become. Gay’s high-usage style is what allows him to contribute as a scorer, but through those same means he had nudged Marc Gasol and Mike Conley into roles that were too slim and too safe. Neither Gasol nor Conley had shown much willingness to upset Memphis’ internal order and had contributed to the team’s offensive struggles with deferential shot selection. Though they likely had the team’s best interests in mind, Gasol and Conley held the Grizzlies back by holding themselves back — content to be play ancillary roles while Gay indulged on fadeaway jumpers.

For that reason, it’s far more fitting to credit the Grizzlies’ development to Gasol’s and Conley’s joint arrival. Both have improved over the past year to earn the latitude they’ve been given and helped Memphis pull within two wins of the Western Conference finals.

Accounting for Gay’s touches and shots naturally required some adjustment, but the Grizzlies’ improvement is not a function of simply funneling attempts to a more efficient scorer. Gasol, Conley and Zach Randolph have all shot more frequently since the trade, but the real benefit comes by removing the tangential imprint of Gay’s offense.

Much has been made of the value that a scorer like Gay provides in tough, end-of-clock situations, where the ability to manufacture even a decent shot against a locked-in defender could prove to be the difference between a win or a loss. There’s little question that Gay was a valuable bailout option for a team that often had trouble creating quickly in the 2012 postseason. Still, that line of thinking didn’t give enough weight to how Gay’s presence on the floor might have contributed to those bailouts being necessary in the first place.

Memphis is quite famously a team that takes its time in initiating offense (Hollins’ team ranked 29th in pace during the regular season), but Gay was among the most guilty parties. His over-dribbling, disinterested cutting and slow entry passes made it difficult for the Grizzlies to get the ball to Randolph or Gasol on the block and limited the effectiveness of both by forcing two deliberate players to work against a drained shot clock. One example from the 2012 playoffs in which Gay is implicit, but not solely responsible:

Gay ultimately salvages that possession on a tough shot, but only after Gasol failed to fight through the defense to get to the right block and after most of the shot clock had already been frittered away. This was the problem with Memphis on the whole throughout the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs: The offensive flow was so phlegmatic that the Grizzlies needed to be bailed out far more than was really necessary, a problem to which Gay contributed:

Conley was unfortunately of little help in that regard in last year’s postseason, as he was noticeably tentative when initiating sets — perhaps in part because of the defensive hell unleashed on him by Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe. What the Grizzlies needed was a thorough decongestant, and they’ve gone about filling that prescription by refining their offense to its most crucial elements. Adding more three-point shooters (even average ones, like Quincy Pondexter and Keyon Dooling) has helped clear things up for this current team, but removing Gay created an opportunity for more high-low play between Randolph and Gasol, more driving from a more assertive Conley and more consistent off-ball movement from role players. It instilled a slow-motion offense with a sense of urgency and allows the Grizzlies to better do what they do best.

Memphis’ pace is still plodding (10th among postseason teams), but Conley and Jerryd Bayless are at the very least more mindful of the clock, while Gasol and Randolph aid the effort by getting down the court and establishing good position more quickly. Notice the contrast in this clip compared with those above:

The Grizzlies get the ball up court, Dooling makes a quick entry and a hard cut and Gasol has an entire side of the floor to himself with 15 seconds on the shot clock. Post-up teams have no choice but to be thrifty with every second, as the opportunities opened up by establishing Gasol on the block may come by way of an open cutter or shooter later in the shot clock. Here’s another, nearly identical sequence:

Again: Nothing flashy going on here. This is merely a sensible evolution and a strategic alteration inspired by Gay’s absence. Without that bailout option, this team has little choice but to move more faster and to survey the full spread of possibilities opened up by quickly feeding Gasol or Randolph in the post when possible.

Additionally, there’s now time to execute multiple post-ups on a single possession should the first break down. There’s also spacing necessary for the Grizzlies’ big men to create quality shots on a regular basis. These Grizzlies are simply better at doing what they do best; according to NBA.com, the Grizzlies are averaging more shots in the restricted area and converting more in the playoffs (58.8 percent compared with 54.1 percent) than they did last season. They still take their share of mid-range looks and still have to make do when the clock winds down, but Gasol and Randolph have been given more room (via perimeter shooting, which is also up significantly in terms of percentages) and more time to operate.

In that, the greatest benefit of Gay’s absence isn’t in taking away shots from one player and giving them to another, but in cleaning up the looks that the Grizzlies’ offense has long aimed to produce. Memphis is getting more shot attempts out of the low block, sure, but those touches were there against the Clippers last May and throughout the first few months of the 2012-13 regular season. They just didn’t come as cleanly or quickly with Gay on the court, if only because of the minor ways in which he strained the Grizzlies offensively. His scoring helped, particularly through those late-clock attempts that redeemed wayward possessions. But Memphis is producing fewer and fewer instances of shot-clock-squandering plays these days, in part because of the relief that its roster shift provides.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.

10 comments
daxecutioner2424
daxecutioner2424

I completely agree with DMIZE.. i think everyone overreacted to Zach Randolph and Memphis run 2 years ago. In reality he's overrated with a huge contract but most importantly he can't jump so if he's not making jump shots he's a liability its going downhill as he ages. Gasol is a very good player but he's not a dominating center like Shaq or Howard so he doesn't need 20 shots per game,they could of definitely shared the ball more effectively with a better game plan .if the heat did it with 3 crazy egos anyone can. Also Oj mayo was a huge part of that run coming off the bench, Memphis executives don't understand a good bench is just as important as the starters they so dearly love.

In today's league is all about stars memphis don't have one anymore,how you think OKC made it to the finals last year? Durant , Westbrook and one very good role player of the bench Harden. Also i don't understand the thinking of why would you choose a player thats 31 (Randolph) compare to one thats 26 (Rudy)?? I would of tried trading Randolph to the knicks or something if they are worried so much about luxury tax etc

Now there windows is close. I do believe the Lakers are coming back stronger next year,OKC would of beat them this year if it wasn't for westbrook getting hurt,of course the spurs are always contenders. Everything is timing some players reach their max potential quicker than others some at 23-24 and other at 27 or 28 Rudy Gay is the latter



DMIZE
DMIZE

"These Grizzlies are definitively better than the Memphis team — led by Gay"

Yeah, no they're not. They beat a pathetic Clippers team with no coach and no defense, then beat OKC without Westbrook. They've gotten destroyed by the Spurs. Tayshaun Prince playoff averages this year are beyond pathetic. The overreaction to those 2 wins is hilarious.

Throw all the #'s you want, but they don't account for RG's ability to get his shot off at any time, his clutchness(easily was on the team), and overall floor stretching ability(regardless of his %'s he stretches the floor).

wg9157
wg9157

My Grizz lookin alright right now in my opinion, Z and M holding down the middle old school style and  PRince is a winner, the guard is a good one and Allen is a stopper... COACH is having an mvp performance...lets go Grizz

robinbabu
robinbabu

Speaking of Larry Brown, this team reminds me of the Pistons back when they won it in 2004.  They got rid of Carmelo Lite (Gay) and started playing the game the "right way"

jsteppling
jsteppling

statistically there is an argument. But as larry brown said just today, stats lie. Memphis is NOT better offensively. Thats for sure. Are they better over all? thats an interesting question. I think the problem was dumping speights and Ellington. In return for all these guys memphis got Prince and a bunch of junk. Ed Davis is awful.....i could have told you that, as could dwayne casey. But prince is more steady than gay, not as erratic jacking up hopeless shots....so on some level its better, but they miss Gay's length and energy on offense even when he shot badly. Same way OKC needs westbrook it seems. He created things..space, tempo, and he made defenders stop and think. Prince doesnt. Nobody does now. Memphis got lucky when westbrook went out is all i can say.

bpilgrim
bpilgrim

@jsteppling Seriously, Rudy is simply a poor shooter (you can look up the percentages if you like -- or read Grantland where they detail how the Clippers gifted him jumpers last year on purpose in the playoffs). The Grizzlies get better by not having him miss and miss and miss. Oh, and his defense ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAKoOW0-nw4 ... not a bad player, but the Grizzlies can't afford him CP3 money for that kind of performance.

bpilgrim
bpilgrim

@jsteppling Larry Brown, noted mathematician. ... On what, JStepp, do you base your hypothesis? The Grizzlies' performance against the Clippers last year vs. this? Your esteemed eyesight? 

jsteppling
jsteppling

@bpilgrim @jsteppling im well aware of gay's stats and in and of itself, I dont mind the idea of trading him. I think the timing was bad, but thats not the problem. The problem is Prince is not a replacement for him. But worse was losing speights and ellington. Ellington doesnt do much, but he DOES knock down threes. And they depleted their bench with those moves and what do they have now? Ed davis and Arthur? It seems they were better off before. But its one of those arguments cant be solved. 

ChannonLamarBrown
ChannonLamarBrown

Can they get Rudy back has he signed a long contract yet they learned there mistake the hard way let by gones be by gones and get him back