Should the Grizzlies Go Forward with Rudy Gay?

Posted on May 22, 2010 by


Jamie Vann Struth is an economist based in Vancouver, BC. He owns an economic development consulting firm and crunches sports statistics for fun. His history with the Grizzlies goes back to the beginning, when they were born in 1995 at the exact time that he arrived in Vancouver to attend graduate school at Simon Fraser University. He has continued to follow the Grizzlies in Memphis and waits patiently for the NBA’s inevitable return to Vancouver.

This is part two of a two-part post on the Memphis Grizzlies.  In the first part, Jamie reviewed the 2009-10 season.  In this part, he addresses the team’s young players and the specific question of whether or not the Grizzlies should re-sign Rudy Gay.

In my previous post I addressed how the Grizzlies improved from 2008-09 to 2009-10.  Left out of this discussion was the role of the young players the Grizzlies have on their roster.  When we look at the numbers we see – and these numbers shouldn’t be a surprise – the young players employed by Memphis have improved.

  • Marc Gasol, age 25 (0.180 WP48 this year, 0.098 WP48 last year)
  • Rudy Gay, age 23 (0.054 WP48 this year, 0.029 WP48 last year)
  • O.J. Mayo, age 22 (0.065 WP48 this year, 0.042 WP48 last year)
  • Mike Conley, age 22 (0.069 WP 48 this year, 0.144 WP48 last year)

The typical career arc for NBA players sees several years of improvement early in a career, with a peak around age 24 or 25.  This is followed by a slow decline through the late 20s and a faster decline starting around age 30. Of course the specific arc for each player will vary somewhat around this general trend, but it provides a guideline for evaluating the Grizzlies four young starters.

Figure 1 – Career Trajectories of the Grizzlies Youthful Core, by WP48

The trend line (seen in Figure 1) for all of the young veterans is positive, but the trio of Gay, Mayo and Conley are all still below-average performers.   

  • Conley regressed significantly, producing less than half as many wins as his sophomore production would indicate. He specifically regressed with respect to shooting efficiency, free throw shooting, rebounding, turnovers and personal fouls. He did play much better in the second half of the season, and there is a sentiment that Allen Iverson’s brief presence at the beginning of the season affected Conley’s mental approach and led to a drop in performance. Regardless, the fact that he was a solid above-average performer in 2008-09 suggests the potential to once again be an above-average performer.
  • O.J. Mayo showed only minor improvement from his rookie to sophomore seasons, becoming a more efficient shooter and improving slightly with respect to blocks, turnovers, and personal fouls. He is still on an upward trajectory, but if stardom was in his future, a much greater improvement might have been expected (such as fellow top-three pick Kevin Durant’s improvement from an abysmal -0.034 WP48 as a rookie, to 0.165 as a sophomore, and then a starry 0.280 this past season).
  • Marc Gasol improved from an average player as a rookie in 2008-09 (0.98 WP48) to approach the unofficial “star” status of a 0.200 WP48. He became a much more efficient shooter and also improved with respect to rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers and personal fouls. A decline with respect to free throw shooting (from 73.3% to 67.0%) was his only blemish. As the oldest of the young core, Gasol may have little or no further improvement to come, but should be a very productive player for the next half-decade at least.
  • Hasheem Thabeet is also shown on the graph with his 0.084 WP48. He began his career two years younger than Gasol and could be poised for a similar improvement over the next few years. Unfortunately they both play the same position, meaning one may be on the trade block within a couple of years.  This also raises the question of why the Grizzlies used the #2 pick on a redundant position.

That question, though, pales in significance to the issue the Grizzlies must address this summer.  Should Memphis keep Rudy Gay?

The Crux of the Matter: The Future of Rudy Gay

Before specifically addressing the Rudy Gay question,  I would like to raise a topic frequently addressed on this blog. The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of a team’s production is tied to the top 20% of performers. In the NBA, that means the top 3 players produce most of the wins on a team.

If we assume for argument’s sake that the minimum number of wins required to be a legitimate championship contender is 55, then a team’s top 3 players need to produce 44 wins (80% of the total). If these top 3 players each play 3,000 minutes, they must then average a WP48 of 0.235.

The Grizzlies top 3 players in 2009-10 were Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and O.J. Mayo, who combined to produce 28 wins. How many had a WP48 of 0.235? None (although Randolph was very close). Simply put, this team needs stars. If Randolph and Gasol maintain their current production, then a superstar with a WP48 of 0.294 is needed to reach this minimum contending threshold. What kind of player has a WP48 at that level? Jason Kidd or Chris Paul at the point, Dwyane Wade or Manu Ginobili at shooting guard, or Kevin Durant or Gerald Wallace at small forward. Could Rudy Gay ultimately reach this level? Based on the evidence of his first four seasons, there is absolutely no indication that Gay will ever approach this level of productivity.

From the perspective of Wins Produced, Rudy Gay is a bel0w-average NBA player.  He may continue to improve for a few more years, but the chance of improving from substantially below-average to star level (WP48 of 0.200 or above) is extremely unlikely. However, he is an above-average scorer who is only 23 years old. And that means he may be the most notable restricted free agent in the NBA this offseason. There are a number of teams that have created cap space to take a run at a marquee unrestricted free agent (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudamire, Joe Johnson, etc.).  Obviously some of these teams (or most of these teams?) will not be successful.  When that happens, some have argued that one of these teams will make a desperate attempt to save face with their fans (or their owner) by signing Rudy Gay to an offer sheet approaching the NBA maximum salary.

Based on his first four seasons, Gay will not come anywhere close to producing enough to justify a contract close to the NBA maximum.  But the Grizzlies will face severe pressure to match any offer he might receive. They are struggling to attract fans and want to continue improving in the final year of the Three-Year Plan.

Viewing Gay in the context of Wins Produced suggests the following options, in descending order of preference:

1. Execute a sign-and-trade.

This is the best option provided the assets coming in return for Gay have value and are cap-friendly enough that they do not impinge on future team-improving moves. If one accepts that scoring is over-valued in the NBA, this market inefficiency makes it eminently possible for the Grizzlies to trade Gay and receive one or more players in return who score less, but ultimately contribute more to a winning team.

2.  Let him walk away with no compensation.

This option would create a short-term public relations pain.  However, the reality is that Gay is not a major contributor to wins.  Therefore signing him to a massive contract (in a small market, with an owner who clearly places great value on fiscal responsibility) would almost certainly limit the team’s future options. Gay will never be the star the team needs, so he should not be paid like it.

3.  Sign Gay, and HOPE that he has several years of substantial improvement ahead of him.

Ultimately this seems like the most likely option to be realized. Ideally the value of the contract is substantially less than the maximum, but given the market for scorers like Gay, any contract that he signs will pay him more than he is worth. Like David Berri has said in the past in this forum, hope is not a plan.

In Conclusion

Will Grizzlies management learn the lessons of Stumbling on Wins and make a rational evaluation of their team? If so, they will realize that the 2009-10 team was not as good as its record indicates and benefited from very good health. Young players like Mayo, Conley, Thabeet and the other rookies should improve, but none (except maybe Thabeet) looks like he has the potential to be a future star (i.e. WP48 in excess of 0.200). Most importantly they must accept that the one player who has provided the most evidence that he will not achieve stardom, based on four below-average years in the NBA, is Rudy Gay.

Given this evidence I have to say the following:  Mr. Heisley, you must say goodbye to Rudy.

– Jamie Vann Struth

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