Rudy Gay started the season as something to get rid of. As soon as the Toronto Raptors hired analytics-minded cap savant Masai Ujiri, it was clear Gay would be playing north of the border for only as long as it took Ujiri to find a trade partner. The assumption was that Gay would go to some team on the peripheries of playoff contention, one that wasn’t enlightened enough to know he would move them further from their desired destination, not toward it.
So the Kings are the rubes we’ve been waiting for, I guess, though the trade is nonsense from which it’s difficult to discern Sacramento GM Pete D’Alessandro’s intent. The Raptors obviously wanted to dump Gay’s contract ($17.9 million this year, a player option for $19.3 million the next) so they can make some signings or salary-absorbing trades going forward, but the Kings… are trying to build around Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Ben McLemore? Think they’re now a playoff contender? Neither of those possibilities sound right. I’m not sure Gay moves the needle one way or the other in terms of their trajectory, which can only be significantly altered with an additional lottery pick or perhaps an unforeseen leap from McLemore. What the Kings need more than anything is a player who can pass, and Gay isn’t that.
The trade probably won’t have significant ramifications this season, but it has reaffirmed Gay’s status as an object of fun and scorn. It’s been a swift decline for the wiry forward, who didn’t quite fit in with Memphis, then became a shot-jacking pariah in Toronto in less than a year. Rob Mahoney mentioned over at The Point Forward that Gay’s level of play isn’t up for debate anymore. It’s not that advanced stats hate him: eyeballs and the most basic numbers do, too. There’s an argument to be made that Gay — who was a reasonably efficient scoring wing not long ago — can be redeemed, but there’s no sensible point of view that asserts he has played well over the past couple of seasons.
What I find irksome is that this is where the discussion about Rudy Gay seems to end. He’s a punchline, something to feel superior about. Didn’t we all have a good laugh when he banned box scores from the locker room? That guy hates truth!
Driving this perception of Gay as someone who deserves to be punished for his hubris is an increasingly pervasive strain of basketball thought that’s focused on answering the question Who is Best? through stats and analytics. This produces some useful stuff, but it also has the consequence of creating a lot of articles that are video-clip-and-stat-table-adorned report cards, treating the sport as if it were an efficiency-optimization exercise, as opposed to something much richer. It’s also occasionally just the haughtiest thing, empiricism at its most self-satisfied. You can catch a whiff of this whenever someone expresses an affinity for a volume scorer.
This is the movement that has repeatedly flogged Monta Ellis. (That is, until his recent resurgence in Dallas. Now he’s being patted on the head like a dog that finally learned to heel.) He takes too many difficult shots. He gambles on defense. He chooses the fall-away baseline jumper when a simple bounce pass would create a better scoring opportunity. This is all relevant enough; let it be said that Monta Ellis doesn’t often make the high-percentage play.
But the tone of a healthy share of Monta pieces over the years has been, party-crashingly, Let Me Explain to You Why This Guy You Like Isn’t Good. When you take a criticism of a player’s tendencies, and blow it up into a larger argument about how the player is somehow wrong to play the way he does — as if being wrong is of any consequence in the playland of sports — you tend to come off as a scolding bore and anti-aesthete.
Monta is one of the most dynamic players of his generation in part because he’s injudicious. We watch him immolate in the fire of his own self-belief. He explores the limits of his abilities and sometimes he just shows off, trying some cool trick that might not work just for the sake of trying it. He isn’t a stupid player. He understands the game as both a spectacle and a competition. This is no crime.
Basketball is a text, but a lot of analytics and statistics-heavy thought is didactic, and implies with not a little arrogance that there’s a correct way to the conceive of the game… and then there are other ways. The informing curiosity of the school is one that seeks to evaluate, and thus it yields only judgment. It is an exceedingly narrow reading of the text, designed to provide us with rigidly defined heroes and fools. This strikes me as especially out of place in a sport that’s so expressive and has so many incidental pleasures, like running into someone at a music festival who’s there for the sole purpose of catching their favorite band, as if the skin and lunatics and contact highs are beside the point.
Rudy Gay doesn’t play with Monta’s panache. He kind of sleepily steps into ill-advised 18-footers, wanders to the rim like it’s a fridge he half-expects to find empty. There’s little showman’s flare to his game; he just isn’t great at shooting the shots he likes to take.
And yet, there’s something there: Gay is telling a story about faith. For two years, we’ve watched him believe fervently that he is something he’s not. Gay isn’t making a wrongheaded argument with each of his shots; he’s expressing a tragic confidence. As he readies another doomed pull-up, I imagine him in a scene that’s only dunes and stars, drinking the sand like it’s water. Not every player needs to find his way. Sometimes it’s more interesting when they don’t.