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The Mutually Beneficial Pairing of Rudy Gay and the Kings

This is the best-case scenario for the Kings’ notion of buying low on overpaid players: Gay has played well, and the Kings will bring him back for about $6 million less per season as the salary cap is primed for a mega-leap.

The Kings have been almost amazingly forthright in discussing their path to becoming relevant for the first time since the Rick Adelman era. They couldn’t tear down, again, since they want to be competitive by the time they move into their new arena in 2016.

As part of that competitive-or-bust mantra, the Kings targeted players that the rest of the league considered overpaid, their GM, Pete D’Alessandro, told me over the summer. It takes some guts to admit that: We will think about players on contracts that make our peers snicker.

Rudy Gay was one of those players. He was a broken brick machine in Toronto last December, when the Kings swapped four rotation players for him after the Raptors could find no other willing suitor. Gay earned nearly $18 million last season, and held a mammoth $19 million player option for 2014-15 — an option he would probably take, given the decline in his skills.

It was a reach, and the Kings knew it. They admitted it.

And guess what: It has worked so far. Damn near everything has worked for the Kings over the first 10 games of the season; a bunch of us are going to have to swallow some royal crow if Darren Collison keeps pushing the pace, getting to the line six times per game, dishing dimes, and keeping DeMarcus Cousins happy.

The Kings rode those good vibes Sunday, inking Gay to a three-year, $40 million extension, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo and confirmed by several league sources. That is really the best-case scenario for the Kings’ notion of buying low on overpaid players: Gay has played well, and the Kings will bring him back for about $6 million less per season as the salary cap is primed for a mega-leap. Getting the Sacramento version of Gay for $13 million under the current cap environment is a fair-ish price, even if you’re not the biggest fan of his game. Getting him for that money as the cap jumps from $63 million now into the $90 million range1 for 2016-17 might end up a steal.


1.

For reasons I’ve discussed before, this $90 million figure is a very rough estimate — and one that could prove very high if the league and union agree on a smoothing mechanism for the new national TV money.

Gay will earn only a little more than Alec Burks, and less than Ricky Rubio. He’s older than those guys, of course, and likely won’t get any better than he has been so far as a King. This deal will take Gay past age 30, through the end of his prime, and the player option the Kings gave him for 2017-18 might bite them a bit in that regard. Player options are kind of a no-win for teams. If the player is rolling, he’ll turn it down and enter free agency. If he’s in clear decline, as Gay might be at age 31, he’ll happily take it and clog up your books.

But Gay has been healthy since a bundle of injuries late in his Memphis years, and his game has elements that should age pretty well. Someone was going to give Gay a contract this size (if not an even bigger one) on the open market this summer; half the league has max-level cap space, and everyone wants a solid two-way wing player.

Sacramento acted early here, before gathering enough evidence that this better-than-expected start is sustainable, but the Kings didn’t cost themselves in doing so. They can approach the trade deadline with more roster certainty now, and they don’t have to worry about Gay bolting in free agency. Remember: Losing Gay for nothing, with no big name in his place, is just not an option for a hungry ownership group hell-bent on goosing attendance and bringing a playoff-caliber roster to Sacto’s new arena.

There is some opportunity cost in forfeited cap space this summer, assuming that the 2015-16 cap sticks around the projected $66 million–to–$68 million range. That is what almost all team executives anticipate now. Bringing back Gay at this number could leave the Kings only about $9 million in space, depending on a few variables. Chief among those: the first-round pick that Sacramento owes Chicago, the gross aftertaste from the disastrous Omri Casspi–J.J. Hickson trade. The Kings keep that pick only if it falls within the top 10, and the joke for years around the league has been that acquiring a lottery-protected pick from the Kings is like trying to hug a ghost.

Don’t look now, but the odds today favor the Kings actually sending that pick to Chicago — a boon for the East’s deepest team. Sacramento might fall back a bit, but it has a massive head start on the Denver-Minnesota-Utah-Lakers crew at the bottom of the West, and it’s frankly hard at this point to see the Nuggets, Wolves, and Lakers being competitive. The East remains a mess; the Kings might well finish with a better record than every Eastern Conference lottery team, plus one or two playoff teams.

Losing that pick would suck, but the Kings have spent enough time fake-smiling on the lottery dais, and they’d gain an extra $2 million (give or take) in cap space as a consolation prize. The $9 million room estimate assumes that Sacto sends the pick, and $9 million puts them somewhere in cap space no-man’s-land — not enough to lure a big-time guy, and barely more than capped-out teams can offer via the midlevel exception.

The Kings could open up meaningful space by dumping just one midsize contract, with Jason Thompson being the most likely trade candidate. Thompson brings some balance to the roster, since the Kings now use Carl Landry as a primary post-up cog on bench units, but they could compensate by starting Landry and playing more small ball. They might also try to find a team willing to take the last flier on Derrick Williams, who will be a free agent this summer after a hugely disappointing first four seasons. The Sixers lurk with oodles of cap space and an appetite for your second-round picks.

Even if the Kings can’t carve out that extra room, it’s not as if they could count on being a major free-agent player. Most small-market teams can’t, which is why they prioritize keeping even the flawed sub-stars they have. This free-agency market is heavy on centers, and Cousins has shifted more toward center than power forward as his career has evolved. The Kings don’t have an emergency need for Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Robin Lopez, Tyson Chandler, or any of the other centers potentially set for a big July.

The Kings in the past have used Cousins as a nominal power forward, hoping a rim protector like Samuel Dalembert might seal up the team’s always-horrific defense. Cousins certainly has the skills to play with a paint-bound center — the jumper, the passing from the elbows, even the dribble-drive ability. But he falls a bit too in love with the fancier ingredients of being a stretchy big man, and he has reached a monstrous new level of efficiency over the past two seasons as a post-up behemoth destroying fools under the basket. He’s not an over-the-rim basket protector, but the Kings have played league-average defense so far, and they’ve clearly developed a better understanding of Mike Malone’s system — a scheme that Malone has toned down a bit this year so that Cousins and the other big men can stay a bit closer to the rim against the pick-and-roll.

The Kings probably haven’t ruled out the idea of someday finding a rim protector to work alongside Cousins; it is possible to play two centers at once, and more teams seem to be trying it this season. But the Kings’ urgency to fill that hole has dissipated. There will be some nice shooting guards available, but the Kings picked Ben McLemore — suddenly hot! — and Nik Stauskas in back-to-back drafts.

Given their roster construction and historic market appeal, it’s absolutely reasonable for the Kings to have looked at this summer’s free-agency class and concluded they could not do better than Gay.

Gay made that easier with his play as a second option in Sacramento, instead of the lead dog role for which he was miscast elsewhere. He has played both better and differently as a King than he did as a Drake or Grizzly. The Kings have used him more than anyone ever did as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and Gay has done well in that role over consecutive seasons now; he’s shooting 46 percent as the lead dog in the pick-and-roll this season, doing solid work drawing fouls when he tries to score2 and making smart passes otherwise.


2.

And avoiding turnovers.

The Kings are posting him more, and Gay’s post-up game has exploded in Sacramento after weirdly falling off throughout 2012 and 2013. He’s a ridiculous 79-of-141 on post-up shots as a King, good for 56 percent, a number that would have ranked third among 117 players who attempted at least 50 such shots last season.

These numbers will come down some. Gay still takes a lot of insanely tough midrange shots; about 69 percent of his shots this season have come against a defender within four feet of him, a higher share than isolation-heavy scorers such as Carmelo Anthony and James Harden, per NBA.com’s SportVU player-tracking stats.

Most of those shots come near the rim, since that area of the floor is naturally crowded, but Gay still takes about 1.3 closely contested midrange jumpers per game — a higher number than most wing scorers, including Harden, Anthony, and midrange artist DeMar DeRozan. (Use caution in looking up Kobe Bryant’s numbers on these lists.)

Still, Gay is a shot-maker, and even if he’s taking hard shots, they’re a hair easier than the looks he used to get in other places. He doesn’t rely as much on isolations that start 30 feet from the rim, and he’s become smarter about inching his way a few feet closer to pay dirt.

Gay’s actually getting to the rim a bit less in Sacramento, but he’s traded long midrange jumpers for shots that come in the paint and inside the foul line, per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference. Those shots are just a little easier, and they’re coming off a nice, natural rhythm in Gay’s game:

RUDY

Gay is more patient on the pick-and-roll; instead of jacking up the first 20-footer available, he’ll turn the corner around the screen, slow down for a beat, deke the helping big man with a crossover, and zoom into a 12-foot jumper or soft floater. He’s bigger and stronger than almost every wing defender, and he’s more aggressive bullying those guys toward the basket on post-ups.

Malone and his staff have helped by giving Gay more of a head start. He flies into some of his pick-and-rolls by running off a pin-down screen and taking a handoff that works as a second pick. The Kings use him as the screener in the pick-and-roll sometimes, a setup that allows him to fade into open space and catch the ball with a head of steam.

Gay has thrived in transition, and the Kings are in the early stages of finding some synergy between the on-the-block games of Gay and Cousins. Gay is tall enough to work as a great entry passer for Cousins post-ups, and Cousins is smart about flashing into the paint while Gay works one-on-one at the elbow:

DMCFLASH

The Kings have also experimented with a little snug pick-and-roll in which Gay posts up on the wing and waits for Cousins to lumber down for a screen:

SNUG1

SNUG2

It’s a good way for Gay to turn in to the middle of the floor, forcing Cousins’s defender to help on Gay’s drive. With no third Sacto player on the Gay-Cousins side of the court, there is no natural help defender to crash down on Cousins as he rumbles toward the rim.

Let’s slow down a bit. We have to see if this hot early start is real, and it’s not as if the Kings are going to morph into a title contender in two or three seasons behind a Cousins-Gay-Collison core — even if they get more consistent production from their young shooting guards. They may have to fight every season in perpetuity just to make the playoffs in the West. That isn’t anyone’s idea of a great endgame for this era of Kings basketball.

The Kings need shooting, badly, since none among Collison, Gay, and Cousins excel at spacing the floor. They’ll need quality depth down the line.

But they got Gay at a good price, he’s thrived for them, and it’s not like they have a bundle of other choices. The Kings with cap space are not the Lakers with cap space. In re-signing Gay, the Kings have locked up a big NBA name. They have two of those now, and when you have two, it’s easier to get more — especially if Cousins remains on his best behavior. They’ll still have cap space this summer, and they should have a ton when the cap leaps in July 2016.

Gay at this salary is also a trade chip that could actually get you things if the Kings decide to go in that direction, though that is not in their thinking today.

This is a good deal. Things are looking up in Sacramento. Holy cow.