Inside Rudy Gay’s Struggles and Possible Breakout Performance

When the San Antonio Spurs first signed Rudy Gay in the summer of 2017, there were certainly some doubts about how he may fit into the squad. As if trying to come back from a devastating injury wasn’t enough, his reputation at that point was that of an “empty stats” player — one who could get numbers, but rarely make a positive impact.

The Toronto Raptors had dumped him a few years prior and improved almost immediately. His four years with the Sacramento Kings were respectable from an individual standpoint, but the team failed to make the playoffs. The Spurs were a franchise who had been winning awards for their analytics department. The fact that Gay once infamously banned stat sheets from the locker room may have had some questioning if he and the team’s culture could actually work.

However, with the Spurs, Gay managed to reinvent himself as an effective combo forward. His shot selection improved, he played adequate defense and he went on to set career-highs in three-point shooting and field goal percentage.

Despite a wonderful honeymoon phase and an admirable second season with the Spurs, Gay has come crashing down to earth this season. His numbers are down in virtually every single category as he is struggling both offensively and defensively. For a player who just signed a two-year, $32 million deal, his contract is starting to look like a big overpay in comparison to his performance this season.

Thankfully, in the game against the Dallas Mavericks, Gay showed signs of life. As the Spurs fight for a playoff spot, Gay’s play against Dallas was a huge step in the right direction.

Rudy Gay’s Shooting Woes

Before we can praise Gay for his performance against the Mavericks, we need to see what has been going wrong for him all season. Gay is posting his worst field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assist numbers of his Spurs tenure. He also looks to be a step or two slower this season.

On threes, Gay shot a career-best 40.2% last season on 2.7 attempts per game. His ability to keep the defense honest and help with the spacing was instrumental. He was ideal in playing the four spot when the Spurs would go small.

This season, not only is he shooting one of the worst three point percentages of his career at a measly 30.2%, he’s doing it while taking 3.2 attempts per game — his most ever as a Spur. For a team that’s been getting very inconsistent production from its forwards, as well as getting left behind in the three-point era of the NBA, Gay’s shooting woes come at a bad time. Even against the Memphis Grizzlies when the Spurs shot at a franchise record clip, Gay still went a paltry 2-for-6 from the floor.

Ice Cold Isolation

One of Gay’s best assets in his first two seasons with the Spurs was his ability to get buckets in isolations when the offense needed it most. While Gay’s off the ball play improved during his time with the Spurs, he was arguably most valuable in iso situations, especially last season. His size allowed him to bully small defenders and his athleticism allowed him to blow by bigger defenders.

Rudy Gay’s 2018-19 ISO stats
Rudy Gay’s 2019-20 ISO stats

Unfortunately, this season has seen a big drop in efficiency for Gay in isolations. Gay went from shooting a tidy 48.8% in iso situations last year to a putrid 32% this year.

To make matters worse, Gay is turning the ball over nearly twice as often when he’s forced to create for himself. His ability to score off a catch-and-shoot has also declined, from 40.2% last year to just 27% this year.

Rudy Gay’s Declining Defense

Using his size and length, Gay had always been a respectable defender when he put in the effort. Boasting a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Gay can certainly alter shots and he has averaged nearly a block per game for his career. Last season, he impressively ranked 8th in Defensive RPM for small forwards. This season, he has fallen all the way down to 27th.

Gay has really struggled at guarding players within ten feet of the basket. Perhaps this is where his declining athleticism is hurting him, as his lack of foot speed isn’t allowing him to follow his man all the way to the hoop.

Last season, Gay held opposing players to below their season average from just about any spot on the court. This season, we can see that is no longer the case, especially from mid-range and at the rim.

With the Spurs ranking in the bottom third of the league defensively, Gay is really going to have to find a way to give more effort on the defensive end, as opposed to going through the motions during this offensive slump. The Spurs lineup that has the most appearances with Rudy Gay is getting outscored by 7.7 points per game.

Could the Mavs Game be the Spark?

A grim as it has looked for Gay all season, last game felt like a revelation compared to his prior performances. He went 4-for-7 from downtown, battled on the boards for eight rebounds and played much better defense. Gay has seemed to lack confidence this season but he was much more assertive in Dallas, which really helped the Spurs keep the game as close as they did. One can only hope that it was a sign of things to come.

If it’s any consolation, Gay started off pretty slow last season as well. He had his best months of the year last December onward. As he ages, it may take him longer and longer to find his groove. The Mavs game was a promising start.

Hopefully Gay regains his previous form soon, as the Spurs are a much better team when he shows up consistently and creates mismatches on offense and uses his length on defense. Otherwise, as the Spurs flirt with the panic button, if Gay can’t get out of the slump this winter, he may find himself in a different uniform by spring.