Rudy Gay’s 12th NBA season just might produce his first trip to the second round of the playoffs.
The Spurs signed Gay, 30, to a two-year contract worth a reported $17.2 million on Thursday. The agreement, which required San Antonio’s mid-level exception, includes a player option for the 2018-19 season. Of note, Gay, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear on Jan. 18, turned down a $14 million option to remain with the Kings after spending three-plus seasons in Sacramento.
At first blush, this deal makes for an odd couple arrangement between an organization known for its consistent winning and a player known for the opposite. Gay (18.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.8 APG) hasn’t advanced to the postseason since 2012, and his departures from Memphis and Toronto coincided with upticks in play from his former teams. An athletic wing with a smooth stroke and two FIBA gold medals to his name, Gay has long battled a reputation for empty stats and middling advanced numbers. In Sacramento, though, the Kings played better with him on the court in each of the last three seasons and he led the team with a +1.7 net rating last year.
San Antonio is uniquely positioned to take a chance on Gay and it’s really not all that chancy given the short-term nature of this deal. First, the Spurs are masters of minutes management and regular-season success so they can afford to bring back Gay on his own schedule and carefully limit his playing time once he returns. Second, they have a clear need for athleticism and length on the wing, as evidenced by their struggles against Golden State following All-Star Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury in Game 1 of the West finals. Third, they’re masters at turning aging cast-offs and forgotten talents into functional rotation pieces. Look no further than Pau Gasol and David Lee, among countless others.
Finally, the Spurs seem to have settled into viewing 2017-18 as a transition year after missing out on Chris Paul and other high-profile potential difference-makers via trade or free-agent signing. San Antonio is set to enjoy significant flexibility next summer when LaMarcus Aldridge can opt out of his contract and Tony Parker’s current deal ends. Right now, Gay’s player option looks mostly like protection against a re-injury and his ability to rehab his market value and re-enter the market next summer keeps San Antonio in position to make a major strike if a big fish becomes available.
Gay will likely be remembered when he retires as a talented scorer who was miscast as a lead option and who frustrated observers by never reaching his star potential. If there’s one thing Gregg Popovich and company succeed at, though, it’s casting their pieces properly. For that reason, Gay’s arrival in San Antonio—and the narrower role he steps into—should be met with measured optimism and patience. He almost certainly won’t be the key to taking down the Warriors, but there weren’t too many better ways for the Spurs to spend their mid-level while keeping their big-picture vision locked on next summer. If Gay is going to be stuck leaving money on the table, San Antonio is the place to do it.