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Why is Rudy Gay getting minutes for the Jazz?

Even though Gay is struggling, team efficiency differential is high when he’s on the court

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The Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gay dribbles against New Orleans in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

The Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gay dribbles against New Orleans in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Utah Jazz fans reach out to me with questions all the time, and I absolutely love fielding those questions and giving more insight.

The questions that arrive cover a broad range of topics, but there’s one question that has been asked more than any other this season. I get this question after every single game, from multiple fans. I get this question from opposing team beat reporters, from scouts and from inquiring minds on every level.

Why is Rudy Gay getting playing time?

So, I think it’s time that we examine what’s going on with Gay.

It is clear to most people watching the game that he is not playing like the Rudy Gay of years gone by. Even casual fans can see he’s slow defensively, he makes bad decisions on offense and that despite it all, he is still getting minutes ahead of Simone Fontecchio or Ochai Agbaji.

When you dig into some of Gay’s individual stats, it doesn’t help his case much. He’s shooting a career-worst 22.1% from 3-point range, he has a 7.3 player efficiency rating, which is well below the league average of 15, and his shot selection is absolutely horrid compared to what the rest of the Jazz are doing.

The Jazz have a 3-point specialist in Fontecchio and a first-round pick in Agbaji just waiting in the wings, champing at the bit for a chance at more playing time. So why isn’t that happening?

I think the explanation is nuanced and there are many factors that are playing into this.

First — and this certainly won’t help you understand why Gay is getting playing time — I’d like to dispel any belief that the Jazz are playing Gay so that they can increase his trade value. That’s not what’s happening.

Gay is 36 years old and on a $6 million deal with a player option for next season. If anything, he’d be used as salary filler in a trade or the Jazz would have to attach a draft pick to him in order to trade him. He does not have positive value and the Jazz are well aware.

If we’re going to look at things purely from a numbers perspective it has to be noted that the Jazz inexplicably play better with Gay on the court than they do without him.

Per Cleaning The Glass, the Jazz have an efficiency differential of +12.9 with Gay on the court. That equates to 15.5 points per 100 possessions better than when Gay is on the bench, which is exceptional. That’s better than even Lauri Markkanen, who gives the Jazz a +4.7 efficiency differential (+11.7 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court).

I can’t explain why or how the Jazz are putting up those numbers when Gay is on the court, considering his low production and some of his questionable decision-making on both ends, but it is true.

If you pair that with the fact that the Gay is only playing about 15 minutes per game, the Jazz are going to happily live with the results, even if it doesn’t look great when it’s happening.

But there are reasons I believe Gay is playing that go beyond the numbers and beyond the court.

Last season, Quin Snyder benched Gay and the veteran player was not pleased. He racked up DNPs, played in garbage time or when other players were injured and then didn’t play a single minute in the playoffs. On media day this season he likened it to the reporters coming into the interview room and not being able to ask questions, not being allowed to do their job.

In reality it would be more like a reporter doing a bad job and then being demoted for someone who was doing a better job, but that’s not how Gay saw things.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the tone and tenor of the Jazz locker room last season have said that Gay’s displeasure with the situation added to the tension that was already stewing.

This season, Will Hardy, who has known Gay for a long time due to their San Antonio connection, has given Gay a small role on the team and has said multiple times that he has relied on Gay not only as a sounding board but also as a veteran to help guide the young players on the team. 

And, from all accounts from the young players on the Jazz roster, Gay has been incredible. He’s been helpful, has offered advice, direction and understanding.

So, if you’re getting veteran mentorship, a reliable source of wisdom and all you have to give up for that is 12-15 minutes a night and a couple of bad shots, it’s a pretty good deal, especially when those minutes aren’t directly contributing to losing and when you look at what could hypothetically happen if you decided to go in another direction.

If Hardy decided to completely bench Gay to play Fontecchio or Agbaji, Gay might react the same way that he did when Snyder demoted him. Right now, as the Jazz try to develop their roster, rebuild the team and create a new culture, even when they lose the locker room vibes are good. If things started to sour, it could make things for Hardy and the rest of the staff very difficult.

I believe that Hardy is probably doing Gay a solid in exchange for being a good soldier and so long as he does that, there’s no reason not to give him some playing time.

Of course, this can’t last forever. The Jazz are eventually going to have to move on from Gay, whether that means including him in a trade before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, or waiving him so that there’s not a locker room fallout.

On Tuesday night, as the Jazz were falling behind early to the Sacramento Kings, Hardy brought Agbaji off the bench and plugged him in to try to give the Jazz a spark.

“I think it’s time that Ochai finds some minutes,” Hardy said after the loss to the Kings. “He’s worked really, really hard and he’s done great with Scott (Morrison), our G League coach and their staff. He’s been down there getting minutes to learn how to be a pro and understand how he can help our team and we need his physicality, we need his athleticism, especially on the defensive end.”

Hardy and the Jazz brass know that Agbaji and Fontecchio are deserving of some reps and a chance to develop within the game and that Gay is not a part of the Jazz’s extended future. But keeping the peace is sometimes the best option.

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Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay against the Golden State Warriors during game in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press