Free Agent Stock Watch: Rudy Gay

Rudy Gay was so torn about whether to exercise his $19.3MM+ player option for 2014/15 when the month began that he couldn’t so much as identify the criteria he’d use to come to his decision. He now has little more than two months to make a choice that seemed a certainty in the wake of his trade to the Kings in December, when he appeared ready to opt in. He spent the rest of the season reviving his game to the point that accepting a season of guaranteed maximum salary is no longer a slam dunk.

The former eighth overall pick hit a nadir in Toronto at the beginning of the season, becoming the epitome of the inefficient albatross so many of his analytically minded detractors had regarded him to be. He was shooting just 38.8%, a career low, and yet he was taking a career high 18.6 shots per game through 18 contests with the Raptors, 12 of which were losses. His PER was 14.7, a tick below the mark of an average NBA player.

Enter an NBA owner and advanced metrics devotee who had a different view of Gay. Vivek Ranadive has said repeatedly that his numbers suggested that Gay would perform much better with the Kings, for whom he could be a secondary option to the inside presence of DeMarcus Cousins. Gay was a 20.1 PPG scorer in a partial season in Sacramento, an average identical to the one he posted during 2007/08, his highest scoring season of his eight years in the NBA. He shot 48.2% with the Kings, which would have exceeded his all-time best mark. He also dished out 3.1 assists per game, a volume great enough to set a new career high of 2.9 for the season.

The advanced metrics tell a similar story. His PER spiked to 19.6 in Sacramento, 1.8 points better than his previous career best. He notched .114 win shares per 48 minutes on a team that finished with 28 wins. Tellingly, the average distance of his shot attempts decreased to 11.6, nearly a foot closer than his career average, according to Basketball Reference.

Ranadive had coveted him for months and reportedly was the catalyst behind the trade. There probably isn’t an owner who’s a greater fan of Gay’s, or more willing to open his checkbook for the Octagon Sports client. Perhaps Gay feels as though the time to capitalize on this is now, before any regression happens, before another losing season in Sacramento spoils the owner’s mood, and before the Kings make another move that ties up their books.

There hasn’t been much chatter about an extension after it seemed in the wake of the trade that there was a decent chance it would become a topic of discussion. Former Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo had broached the subject before his ouster last summer. Still, unless Gay opts in and signs an extension after the end of June, it could only run two years longer than his current deal. It wouldn’t give him the kind of long-term financial security that a new, five-year deal from the Kings could provide.

Even a four-year deal with an interested suitor from outside Sacramento would probably ensure more money than an extension would. Some GMs said early in the season that he wouldn’t be worthy of mid-level exception salaries, but that group probably doesn’t include Suns GM Ryan McDonough, as Phoenix appears to have him in its sights. The Suns have been linked to a number of potential free agents this summer, as they’re set to have plenty of cap flexibility even with a new max deal for Eric Bledsoe.

Phoenix, coming off a 48-win season, might be an intriguing destination for Gay, who suggested in December that he wants to play for a winning team. He made similar comments when he spoke about his option decision at the beginning of the month, saying that while he can see himself continuing to play for a rebuilding team, it’s not ideal. Gay was part of a high-scoring trio with Cousins and Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento, but the Kings are miles from contention, and Thomas is set to become a restricted free agent this summer.

Gay has expressed a fondness for Sacramento and said in February that he appreciates the on-court freedom Kings coach Michael Malone and his staff have given him. Gay’s arrival in Sacramento was certainly a boon for his on-court production, even if it meant joining a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2005/06. The vast majority of that streak of lottery appearances was under the ownership of the Maloof family. Ranadive was right about Gay’s improved play this season, and his complete reboot of the front office and coaching staff since buying the team last year is reason for optimism. Sacramento has a decent chance to make significant improvements between now and the end of Gay’s next deal.

That next deal is one I think he chooses to sign with Sacramento after opting out of the final season of his existing contract. Hoops Rumors readers pegged his value at between $10MM and $15MM before his time in Sacramento began, and I think he’ll warrant salaries at the high end of that spectrum from Ranadive and company, if not slightly more. That kind of long-term money will more than make up for sacrificing his lucrative option year.

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