Recently ESPN ran a piece, as part of their 5-on-5 Roundtable series, assessing the NBA's small forward position. Somewhat predictably, all five analysts had Rudy Gay down as the most overrated small forward in the league. Although it's easy to see why they'd come to that conclusion, I'm not so sure that Gay is overrated anymore.
There will always be casual fans out there who cling to the notion that points-per-game is the ultimate indicator of quality, ignoring less glamorous things like efficiency. However, Gay's game has been so heavily criticized and dissected over the last few months that you'd have a hard time finding any credible analyst, G.M. or serious NBA fan who's still under the illusion that he's an elite player. (In SB Nation's look at the top 100 players four years from now, Gay barely made the list.) Most people understand that Gay's an above average, but inefficient scorer, and someone who fails to make the most of his length and athleticism on defense. He's good, but far from great.
At this stage it's more accurate to say that Rudy Gay's properly rated and horribly overpaid...actually, horribly overpaid might be a slight understatement. I realize that Gay's salary might already be seared into the brains of most Raptors fans, but here it is again for those in denial: $17.8 million for this coming season, and a $19.3 million player option for 2014-15. Gross. In today's NBA world - a world that's moving towards more sensible contracts (see Ellis, Monta) - Gay's services are probably only worth $12-14 million on the open market.
But while Gay has many vehement detractors, he can still provide the Raptors, or any other team, with decent offensive production; and if can improve his 3-point shooting next season (I know, I know, a big if), he could be very effective. He's not elite, but that doesn't mean he isn't a good player. That salary just makes it impossible to assess Gay in a vacuum. It's hard to have an objective discussion about what Gay brings to the table with the unsightly, $37 million elephant in the room.
And it's an elephant that Masai Ujiri's going to have to deal with at some point in the coming season.
So far Ujiri has kept his cards masterfully close to his chest. It's unclear as to whether he's leaning towards tanking, or towards making a run at the playoffs next season. The best guess seems to be - and this should be reassuring to us all, considering Bryan Colangelo's reckless, all-or-nothing approach to NBA matters - that he's intent on maintaining flexibility. Either direction is possible, depending on how things go 20 or so games into the season.
When it comes to Rudy Gay, however, things aren't quite as flexible as I'm sure Ujiri would like. If Gay plays badly he'll probably opt-in for the 2014-15 season and collect his $19 million, but if he plays well there's a chance he opt-outs and tests the free-agent market. Gay may decide to follow in Andre Iguodala's footsteps. Iggy opted for the long-term security of a four- year deal with the Warriors and the chance to play with a contender, over a large single-season pay cheque. And if LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony opt-in for an additional season with their respective teams, Gay's value could increase further and a desperate team (*cough* the Lakers *cough*) may offer him a decent amount of cash.
When Colangelo made the trade for Gay last season it seemed very likely that Gay would be signed to a contract extension this summer. Thankfully, with Ujiri at the helm that hasn't happened. The two years that the Raptors could've tacked on to Gay's current contract would've been ludicrously expensive-over $20 million for each additional year. If Gay wants any kind of long-term money with the Raptors, he'll have to audition for it this season, and based on a recent interview done by Coach Casey, fingers are crossed that Gay's offseason eye surgery helps the cause.
But if we can make inferences based on what hasn't happened this summer, there's a reasonable chance that Gay is no longer a Raptor by the time the February trade deadline rolls around.
What the Raptors could get back in a trade is uncertain, however. The fact that Detroit's offer of Rodney Stuckey's and Charlie Villanueva's expiring contracts was rejected, makes it clear that Ujiri isn't willing to get rid of Gay simply for the sake of getting rid of him. He wants something of value back.
A first-round pick for Gay would be a nice return, but teams will be very reluctant to part with those assets given that next year's draft is so highly touted. Of course, some will point to Ujiri working wonders in Denver, trading Anthony to the Knicks in his final year, and getting a decent return. But Gay has a lot less value than Melo did back in 2011. And it's not like you can do business with the easily fleeceable Knicks every time.
It's sound slightly banal, but ultimately what Ujiri is able to get back in a Rudy Gay trade depends a lot on how well the player himself starts the season. A lot of fans are secretly - or not so secretly - hoping that the Raptors get off to an atrocious start and Ujiri transitions the team into full on rebuilding mode. This is an entirely defensible position. However, if that atrocious start to the season involves Gay having an atrocious start personally, it's going to be infinitely harder to move his contract and/or get anything of value back. In that scenario the Raptors may end up stuck with Gay for the remainder of the year, and it wouldn't make much sense for a player with low value to opt-out of almost $20 million.
The ideal scenario going forward is that Gay plays at a high level, and remains marketable. By having a good season Gay will undoubtedly gain some leverage in future contract negotiations (with Toronto, or anyone else), but Ujiri will also gain leverage in any pre-February trade negotiations. In other words, regardless of whether management sees him as the long-term face of the franchise, or a trade chip, it's in everyone's interest that Rudy Gay regains some of the form that led to Memphis signing him to that ridiculous contract in the first place.
Gay may no longer be overrated as a player, but when it comes to being a huge pain in the backside, his contract is considerably underrated.