Rudy Gay Teaches the Memphis Grizzlies a Familiar Lesson

After the 2009-10 season, Rudy Gay had posted the following career numbers (in four NBA seasons):

  • 10.6 Wins Produced
  • 0.045 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]

Average WP48 is 0.100, so these numbers say that Gay was below average.  Despite these numbers, Gay was signed to a contract for about $82 million.  Of course, the Memphis Grizzlies were not looking at Wins Produced numbers in making this decision.  Given how decisions are made in the NBA, here are the numbers the Grizzlies probably considered:

  • 20.1
  • 18.9
  • 19.6

These numbers are how many points Gay averaged per game from 2007-08 to 2009-10.  Scoring – as has been documented in published studies – dominates player evaluation in the NBA.  And given these scoring numbers, if Gay left Memphis this past summer the Grizzlies would obviously be in trouble.  After all, how could the Grizzlies replace all the shots Gay “created” if he left town?  Since “creating” shots is difficult, Memphis obviously had to pay Gay more than $80 million. 

Then again…

This season, Gay was averaging 19.8 points per game.  And after 57 games, the team was in playoff contention with a record of 31-26. When we look at offensive and defensive efficiency, we saw the following marks:

  • Offensive Efficiency: 103.2 (points per 100 possessions)
  • Defensive Efficiency: 101.5 (points per 100 possessions)
  • Efficiency Differential: 1.67 (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency)
  • Field Goal Attempts per game: 83.3

During the 57th game, Gay was hurt.  And now we hear he is missing the rest of the season.  And that leads one to wonder… how have the Memphis Grizzlies done without the player the team had to pay more than $80 million (because he was so difficult to replace)?

Here is what Memphis had done in the past 15 games (with Gay watching):

  • Offensive Efficiency: 105.1
  • Defensive Efficiency: 102.3
  • Efficiency Differential: 2.9
  • Field Goal Attempts per game: 83.5

The team’s record without Gay has been 9-6.  In terms of efficiency differential, the team has actually improved a bit (Zach Lowe at SI.com has also noted that Memphis hasn’t struggled as much as expected without Gay). 

And all those shots that Gay “creates”?  As we see in the data, players don’t really “create” shots.  Players just “take” shots.  And who are they taking their shots from?  Of course, shots are taken from their teammates. 

This is why the Grizzlies –with and without Gay – take about the same number of field goal attempts per game.  In other words – as has been noted before – shots are something teams can easily replace.   And that means, player evaluation has to move beyond points per game.

When we move beyond scoring – and consider all the factors in the box score – we can see that Gay actually improved from 2009-10 to the current season.  In fact, as the following table indicates, in 2010-11 he has been as productive as Carmelo Anthony.  Yes, Rudy Gay is as good as one of the greatest players in the game (or so I have heard).

Once again, an average player posts a WP48 of 0.100.  Carmelo Anthony – as a small forward –exceeded this threshold last season and so far in 2010-11.  Gay – again, as a small forward – was actually a bit below average last season.  In fact, he had never been above average before the 2010-11 (and still — as I think I mentioned — the Grizzlies agreed to give him more than $80 million). 

This season, though, Gay is above average.  And his overall contribution compares favorably to Melo.   Yes, Anthony gets more rebounds and takes more trips to the free throw line.  But Gay is a more efficient scorer from the field.  When we put the entire picture together we see that although Anthony scores more points, each player has similar WP48 marks in 2010-11.

Such a mark is above average.  But not very far above average.  In other words, neither player is exactly LeBron James (who has a WP48 mark in excess of 0.300).  Replacing a player who posts a WP48 beyond 0.300 is difficult because these players are very scarce.  Players with marks around 0.150, though, are more abundant. 

As we have seen, the Denver Nuggets have managed to win a few games without Melo.  Who is producing wins for Memphis now that Gay is on the bench?

As one can see, Gay has improved.  But his leap is not the largest.  Memphis is actually getting more production from both Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.  In fact, Zach Randolph is twice as productive as Gay.  And that means, losing Randolph – which could happen this summer – would probably have a bigger impact on this team’s fortunes.

In addition to Randolph and Conley, Memphis is also getting above average production from Tony Allen and Shane Battier. In fact, the trade for Battier has done much to replace what the Grizzlies lost from Gay (at least on a per-minute basis).

So what are the lessons we learn from this story?

  • The data said before this season started that the Grizzlies could survive without Gay.  So paying Gay more than $80 million wasn’t necessary.
  • Across the last 15 games, Memphis has now seen more evidence that Gay’s contract was unnecessary.  At least, it should be clear that Memphis can find someone else who can “create” shots.

Okay, those are the lessons Memphis should have learned.  Let’s now repeat the much bigger story.

Scoring dominates player evaluation in the NBA. But the Rudy Gay story (like the Allen Iverson story and Carmelo Anthony story) demonstrates why this focus is misplaced.  Players do not create shots in the NBA.  Players simply take shots.  Therefore, paying players maximum contracts to take shots from their teammates is not a good idea. 

The focus on scoring has led teams to pay players – like Gay, Melo, Iverson, Stephon Marbury, etc… — who do not produce many wins a great deal of money .  It also gives players the incentive to focus more on their shot attempts than they do on winning.  And since fans really care about winning (really, that’s what drives revenue), maybe NBA teams should start focusing on the factors that create wins (i.e. shooting efficiency and factors that get and keep possession of the ball for the team).

- DJ

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