Building A Template For How Rudy Gay Can Thrive As A Small Ball Power Forward

I wasn’t a fan of the trade that brought Rudy Gay to Toronto when looking at it from Toronto’s perspective. They won’t be able to build through the draft (too good), they won’t be able to build through free agency (log-jammed cap, it’s Toronto), and the core they have now isn’t good enough to really contend.

The root of the problem is the team building around a fundamentally mediocre player. Gay’s a big name, but by no means the type of player that could be the best on a title team. He’s an inefficient, high-usage player who takes too many long twos – which is not the profile a franchise cornerstone. With this version of Gay, the Raptors will go nowhere.

Gay doesn’t have to be this player though. Small ball is becoming a fashionable and effective approach to the game in today’s NBA and a number of superstar players have embraced it and ridden it to further success. Namely: LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

These two have unleashed deadly inside out games where they are too quick for opposing power forwards and too strong for opposing small forwards. They force opposing power forwards to play out to the three point line which opens up the inside for teammates’ pick and rolls (See: Chandler, Tyson). They can be used as pick and roll big men themselves which gives two already deadly offensive players just a little more space against a recovering defender. Both players post markedly higher PERs when playing the four.

Gay didn’t have many opportunities to play as a small ball power forward in Memphis. The Grizzlies are still one of the few teams in the league that very rarely go small and Gay suffered because of this. Last season, only 16% of Gay’s minutes were at the four, but in these minutes he impressed: he scored more points, much more efficiently, and posted a higher PER. In Toronto, he will be the clear number one guy and the Raptor’s personnel should better allow Gay to play at the four more, where he can model his game after what Anthony and James have done.

The most obvious thing to see that ‘Melo and James are doing more is going to the post. Both are top 25 post up players in the league per mySynergySports. Each has used the post progressively more and each has his own unique style.

James is best driving to the middle where he can use his strength and touch to finish over his own defender and quite often a helper. He can also see the floor much better and kick to the opposite corner or wing. When James drives towards the middle on a post up, he scores a whopping 1.47 points per play (PPP), higher than what Tyson Chandler scores on pick and roll roll man plays.

Anthony’s game is a little bit more versatile. He likes to face up a little bit more and he has numerous effective options he can go to from here. He likes to drive baseline and draw the foul, finish, or both. He is also very effective beginning a drive only to pull up on a dime for a jumper.

Gay is still learning in the post. He is ranked 44th in the NBA in PPP according to Synergy and he only shoots 40.2% from the field on the play. He far too often settles for fadeaway jumpers and when he attacks he has trouble finishing through multiple defenders. It’s clear for Gay to play more power forward he’ll have to bulk up.

Both James and Anthony are scoring 1.5 PPP as a pick and roll roll man, a mark that would be first in the NBA if they had enough plays to qualify (note: only 42 combined possessions). James is too quick for opposing power forwards to contain when rolling to the rim and once he gets there is a nigh impossible to stop. Anthony uses the play to get just a sliver of space to release his deadly jumper. Both also use the play to get low post position.

It’s a different story for Gay. In theory, he should be just as effective on this play as James and Anthony, but in practice it’s just not true. Gay shoots a measly 28.6% on the play. When you watch the tape though, he’s doing same things as Anthony and James, just missing shots.

With more use of this play I can see him becoming a threat similar to Anthony and James.

The Knicks’ spacing is partly so healthy because of the use of Anthony at power forward.

Here’s a simple pick and roll between Pablo Prigioni and Tyson Chandler that is nearly impossible to stop. All three perimeter players are knockdown three point shooters so there is nobody to help off of. A normal power forward will usually be in the short corner, making it easier for his defender to help. Here, because Anthony is at the power forward the middle is wide open. This type of spacing could greatly benefit pick and roll players like Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, and Kyle Lowry. It gives an athletic wing rotation more room to operate and takes advantage of the Raptors’ speed and athleticism. Gay can also thrive, taking power forwards to the perimeter and and small forwards to the rack.

If Gay can follow in the footsteps of Anthony and James, this trade might not look horrible in hindsight. Another reason to move Gay to the four is Toronto’s logjam on the wing. DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Alan Anderson, and Terrence Ross all will want minutes. This helps clear up that mess and helps improve a suddenly weak power forward rotation. The Raptors with the current version of Gay are stuck in mediocrity. Using him as part of quick, athletic small-ball lineups is Toronto’s best chance at becoming a highly competitive team.

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