February 2, 2013 by upandatom786
Depending on when you read this, Rudy Gay and the Raptors may have already played LeBron James and the Heat on Sunday. The reason this game is notable is because the Heat have become the prime example of a type of team construction I think Toronto would be wise to emulate. Namely, smallball. Dwane Casey is no stranger to smallball concepts. He’s been forced by injuries to play wings like Alan Anderson and Landry Fields at the 4 for significant stretches this season, and according to 82games.com, they’ve combined to play 12% of Toronto’s total minutes at power forward. It’s worth wondering what the upgrade from those limited players to the exponentially more talented Gay would do for the Raptors.
Gay has some familiarity with the power forward position from his time in Memphis. This season, he’s played slightly less than 6% of his total minutes at the 4. The results have been stellar, although it’s important to remember the sample size is minute and he’s playing against backups the majority of the time. Still, a Net48 of +25.5 is a huge number and not one to be dismissed lightly. It’s lent even more weight when you look at the positional stats from 2011-12. Back then, he played a more significant 16% of his minutes at the 4, and though the advantage wasn’t nearly as gargantuan, at 7.5 per-48, it’s still a notable advantage. The big change came offensively, which should be obvious. Gay is quick and athletic, with a decent handle, and that makes him too much for most big men to handle off the dribble. It’s why his eFG% improved significantly as a PF. The key with Gay at the 4 is the defensive tradeoff. Gay has great length but he’s not particularly strong and although he’s an active and willing defender, he doesn’t approach LeBron’s ability and intelligence on defense. Playing with Gasol helped mitigate some of the defensive impact in Memphis, but Toronto doesn’t have anyone as talented on defense. It’ll be up to Casey to find situations where Gay can work on offense as a 4 without being abused on defense.
The specific smallball lineup most observers have been salivating for (and rightfully so, because it’s an exciting possibility) features Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Gay, and either Amir or Jonas. This would instantly become the most athletic 5 man unit in the league, and the combination of Lowry and Ross mitigate any spacing problems DeRozan and Gay would have (although I think Gay’s 3 point shooting problems are overblown. He’s a career 34% 3 point shooter, and as recently as the last non-lockout season, he shot nearly 43% on spot up 3s, as per Synergy). If Gay buys in on defense and bounces back to his former skill on offense, this lineup could make the whole trade worthwhile for Toronto.
I’m brought back to Miami’s change to a nearly full-time smallball operation. As recently as the playoffs last year, the Heat were a relatively orthodox offense, relying on alternating pick and rolls from LeBron and Dwyane for their offense. Those are 2 Hall Of Famers, but neither is an elite three point shooter (or, in the case of LeBron, was an elite three point shooter). The loss of Bosh to injury against the Pacers forced Spoelstra to abandon orthodoxy and spread the floor around LeBron in the post and Dwyane making creative cuts. The result was a scarily efficient offense and a title. I’m not myopic enough to directly compare Toronto’s situation to Miami’s, but Toronto’s two starting wings are both not elite three point shooters. It’s worth wondering if Casey should take a page out of Spoelstra’s playbook and give the finger to orthodoxy.