Lewenberg: Gay thriving after mutually beneficial Raps split

Josh Lewenberg
2/5/2014 8:45:53 PM
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SACRAMENTO - Regardless of how the rest of the campaign shakes out, when it's all said and done December 8 will be a date that jumps out as a turning point, not only for the Raptors but for Rudy Gay himself.

It's been two seasons in one for both parties and neither will look back on the first 18 games fondly.

"I think I took the fall for a lot of things," said Gay, reflecting on his short time in Toronto ahead of Wednesday's game against his former club. "But it's happened before and it'll happen again."

Rightly or wrongly, Gay has and will continue to shoulder most of the blame for Toronto's 6-12 start, the same way his exodus will be credited for the team's remarkable turnaround. There's no avoiding it.

In Toronto, Gay was the offence, more or less. He was taking more shots than ever before, shooting the lowest percentages of his career and as a result the team was losing. The numbers are pretty conclusive, the Raptors are a better team without him on the roster. However, Gay has also taken off since the trade to Sacramento, which goes to show you that finding the right fit - although it's easier said than done - can make a big difference.

"I think here there's just more space [in the offence]," said Gay, who is averaging more points and taking fewer shots with the Kings. "Obviously with the kind of season Kyle (Lowry) is having and with DeMar (DeRozan) sometimes it would be a little cluttered out there, especially at the guard position. Here there's just more space for me to do what I do."

Gay has shot 50 per cent or better in 17 of his 25 games with the Kings after doing so in one of 18 contests to begin the season in Toronto. Overall, he's hitting 53 per cent of his field goal attempts since the trade, having shot 39 per cent before it.

"It just wasn't working up there for whatever reason," said Kings first-year head coach Mike Malone. "But when we made the acquisition we looked at Rudy as a complete player and his whole history, including his years in Memphis and you see how efficient and effective he's been for us."

He credits most of that improvement to a system that's more conducive to his style of play, a system that revolves around dominant centre DeMarcus Cousins.

Cousins is one of just three NBA players averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds this season. The attention he attracts in the paint has created space for Gay to operate on the perimeter.

"You look at Toronto's roster and no disrespect to Jonas (Valanciunas) or Amir (Johnson) but they don't have a true low-post presence," Malone said. "When Rudy was in Memphis he had two [frontcourt] guys that he could play with in Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) and we just thought the idea of putting him on the perimeter with the inside presence of [Cousins] could really allow him to showcase his abilities."

"So it is a fit and guys have to compliment each other and that's what putting together a roster is all about," he continued. "Up there, for whatever reason, DeMar and Rudy on the court maybe wasn't a mesh, maybe [there] wasn't enough shots to go around. I'm not sure what it was but all I can tell you is that the games that we've had Rudy he's been a great fit."

The marriage between Gay and the Raptors, which lasted less than a full year, was flawed from the outset. He and DeRozan had repetitive skill sets that clashed on the court, restricting Lowry from playing to his strengths and stunting the growth of Valanciunas. Dwane Casey tried his best to fit square pegs into round holes until the inevitable split up freed his team and their most expensive player. The pieces just didn't fit.

Though his pre-trade numbers may suggest otherwise, Gay never threw in the towel or lost hope that they would figure it out.

"I think we had a chance to be a really good team," he said, two months removed from the deal. "I mean obviously they're a really good team now but I still don't feel we had a lot of time to build and become a big threat in the East."

Without Gay the Raptors have a record of 20-10, third best in the Eastern Conference behind only Indiana and Miami. They have recorded 20 or more assists in 24 of those 30 games, averaging 22.9 per contest, ninth-best over that stretch after ranking last in that category before the trade (averaging 17.3).

They have gone from the 19th ranked three-point shooting team (34 per cent) to the fifth best (38 per cent) and find themselves in the top 10 in both offensive (10th) and defensive (fifth) efficiency since Dec. 8.

"I think the trade helped both of us," Gay said. "I'm here, I have more room and they have a solid bench. [There's] no hard feelings. I love the fact that those guys are winning."

Meanwhile, Gay's reprisal hasn't translated to team success in Sacramento, at least not yet. The Kings are 11-19 since the trade, tied for the worst record in the West overall. They're last in the NBA in assists since Gay's arrival but it's been their defence, among the worst in the league, that has held them back more than anything else. Yet with Gay on board, paired with a young core of Cousins and breakout point guard Isaiah Thomas, the Kings are optimistic about the future. They have reason to be.

"We couldn't be happier with Rudy and he's shown that he's much more than just a scorer," Malone said. "He's proven to everybody that he can be a very efficient player so that's been a bonus."

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