Linsanity at full-force was short-lived. Most observers of this team would tell you Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic were both better anyway. Terrence Williams didn’t work out largely due to his own fault. To followers of the Houston Rockets, Rudy Gay still stands as ‘the one that got away’ in the Morey era.
Gay was a Rocket for mere minutes. After selecting him with the 9th pick in the 2006 draft, the Rockets sent him to Memphis–along with Stromile Swift–in exchange for forward Shane Battier. I’ve described news of that trade before as “at the time, my worst moment as a Rockets fan.”
When the Grizzlies rolled into town on Friday, I decided to ask Gay about the deal. It’s clear he still thinks about it too:
“I was talking to one of my teammates about what if I stayed here,” said Gay in response.
When I asked him whether he had envisioned himself playing next to Tracy McGrady during that short stint on draft night, Gay responded:
“I did, I did. I saw myself learning a lot from him and being able to absorb a lot from him. He’s a great. I would’ve loved to play behind him or with him.”
It’s a painful picture. At the time, on that night, I still remember my feelings. In the running for much of the year to be the #1 overall selection, when he was still available at #9, I was doing backflips. It was an absolute miracle. The travesty that was the Houston Rockets’ 2005-2006 season would be made worthwhile. The Rockets would finally have the young athlete they desperately needed. (The team had been platooning the likes of Jon Barry and David Wesley opposite T-Mac for the previous two seasons.) Gay would complement McGrady on the perimeter; he would learn from him; he would give the Rockets the swingman duo that would be the envy of the entire league.
Only the Rockets had different plans. Minutes after the selection, Ric Bucher came on my television set to announce that the Rockets would be trading Rudy Gay to Memphis for Shane Battier. I couldn’t move. I felt nauseous.
It was the first move of the Morey era and still stands as the most controversial. It was certainly his signature trade. It was the first bold proclamation that the new regime would be doing things very differently and perhaps not easily understood. Morey traded a young, unproven athlete for a guy whose contributions weren’t otherwise seen in traditional box scores.
In hindsight, with the way things worked out, even with Gay’s ascent to stardom, I do now think trading Gay for Battier was the right move.
From his second season onward, Gay put up points and did it with flash. He’s certainly a spectacle. But after watching Battier, I’m not completely sure Gay would have helped the team more.
Battier anchored some injury-ridden Rockets teams which heavily overachieved. He defended the other team’s best player; he led; he was a coach on the floor at both ends.
In his five seasons with the team, Battier posted win shares of 9.0, 8.2, 5.2, 4.3, and 4.1. (Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player.) By comparison, in those years, Gay posted win shares of 0.5, 5.0, 3.3, 6.4, and 5.5. While Gay probably would have helped the team more in the past two seasons–and now, with Battier having moved on–it’s probably also the case that he wouldn’t have had nearly the impact that Battier did in those first three years. And those first three years were when the Rockets were contenders.
Gay catching lobs from McGrady and learning from his tutelage is a wondrous vision. But who would have defended? Defense was the Rockets’ calling card the last half of this last decade. Who would have kept the team together through injuries as Battier did? Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out as well as I had imagined.
Even now, with Gay on the books for $15million, and Memphis just a few games ahead of Houston in the standings, would the Rockets really be that much better off both in the present and long-term?