The NBA trade market is an interesting thing. Trades are much more frequent in the NBA than they are in any of the other major sports and as a result, we tend to always assume more trades will happen in any given season than what reality leaves us. This year is no exception, as fans and media alike braced themselves for a crazy trade season when the embargo to move players signed this summer was lifted in mid-December. Nothing really happened, though: Omer Asik stayed put as Houston realized telling everyone, “We have to trade this guy by this date!” could hurt the value trade offers — the fact Asik was showing us a complete arsenal of “I’m depressed” faces while in a suit on game days did not help (as a self-proclaimed stats nerd, am I allowed to criticize Daryl Morey); Doc Rivers shut down any Blake Griffin-Carmelo Anthony swap rumors immediately, because he knows the inherent power of trade rumors from his time using them to forge his way from coaching Jordan Crawford at point guard to a guy named Chris Paul; and the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets cannot make any trades because … well … because they have no assets and have no cap space (New York City Meltdown, Part 26). Despite the relative lack of trades this season, though, there have been a few significant, smaller trades and one “big” trade involving — for the second year in a row — Rudy Gay.
I am going to try to keep the Rudy Gay bashing to a minimum here if only because I think the NBA media has kind of gone overboard with the attacks on this guy. Yes, Rudy Gay is a highly inefficient player whose style and production cannot really stand up to the advanced analysis a large portion of the NBA — fans, analysts, coaches and front offices — is starting to embrace. But, when the statements towards Gay cross over into somewhat personal and character attacks, I think we may have crossed a line (and I am guilty of it, also).
There is no denying the fact, though, that he tends to hold teams back rather than make them better. Since the Rudy Gay trade — where Toronto traded away Gay, Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes — the Toronto Raptors have been playing some of the best basketball in the Eastern Conference. Heading into Wednesday’s game against Detroit, the Raptors were 10-5 since trading Rudy Gay, which has earned them the eighth-highest winning percentage over that stretch and the third-highest win percentage in the East. They also have the eighth-highest net rating (5.5) over that stretch — and, again, the third-highest net rating in the East. In general the combination of Rudy Gay’s departure and the Atlanta Hawks losing Al Horford for the season have led to the Raptors being the clear cut third-best team in the East, with Washington and the Horford-less Hawks actually pretty far in the rear view mirror.
Toronto has been able to make this leap mostly on the back of their great defense. While Gay was much maligned for his porous shooting, the amount of shots he was taking and the detrimental effect those things were having on Toronto’s offense, the Raptors actually have not made much of improvement on the offensive end. Their offensive rating has only jumped a couple of points — 101.1 before the trade to 103.8 after the trade — and on an individual level, no player has really thrived in Gay’s absence with the exception of Amir Johnson, who is putting together a wildly efficient stretch of play. But on defense is where Toronto has really made the huge leap. Their defensive rating has dropped from 102.1 before the trade to 98.3 after the trade and that 98.3 rating is good for fifth in the NBA over the stretch following the trade to now.
Those numbers suggest that Rudy Gay’s biggest negative impact was on the defensive end and a look at the Sacramento Kings since the trade holds up that theory. In the Kings’ 13 games with Rudy Gay, their horrible defense (105.2 before Rudy Gay started playing) has become deplorable, as the Kings are allowing teams to score 110 points per 100 possessions in those 13 games — which ranks last in the NBA over that stretch. Removing the defensive end from the discussion, though, Rudy Gay has actually had a positive effect on Sacramento’s offense. They have jumped from 101.9 to 105.2 in terms of offensive rating and Rudy Gay has specifically been really good. His true shooting percentage in Sacramento is at 58.8, which would rank in the top 25 among high usage players and is a mind-boggling improvement from the 42.1 true shooting percentage he put up in Toronto. He has somewhat cut back on his 3-point attempts — though he was hitting 3s in Toronto — and is shooting more than 50 percent from the field after shooting sub-40 in Toronto. His success also has not come at the expense of Sacramento’s top players as many predicted. Both Isaiah Thomas‘ and DeMarcus Cousins‘ usage is up since Rudy Gay’s arrival and their efficiency has stayed essentially the same with Gay in the mix — though Derrick Williams has been marginalized since his good start with the Kings pre-Gay trade (he really cannot catch a break).
Now, we only have a 13-game sample size and as my HoopsHabit colleague Chris Reichert pointed out to me on Twitter, Gay had a productive “honeymoon phase” with the Raptors as well. The way things have played out for both teams post-trade is somewhat interesting, though. The narrative surrounding Rudy Gay is that his offensive inefficiency is mainly what holds the teams he plays for back; and he is generally regarded by most people as at least an above-average defender that is usually not a hamper to a team’s defense. But at least a few weeks in to this trade, his offensive effect in Toronto seems like it was neutral and his effect on Sacramento’s offense has been great. On defense however, it seems like he was the player that was holding Toronto back on that end, while his arrival has made Sacramento significantly worse defensively. A quick look at Memphis Grizzlies post-Gay last year somewhat debunks any theory on his positive offensive effect, as well as his negative defensive effect, though. In a much larger sample size, Memphis got noticeably better offensively after Gay’s departure and their defense did not get significantly better or worse after Gay was traded. So, it would not be surprising if the effect of the trade between the Kings and the Raptors appears to have a different effect on both teams than the one it has had early on in the trade. We will see how things pan out as the season goes on.