The campaign began the minute Rudy Gay touched down in Sacramento almost a year ago. Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro passionately touted the All-Star abilities of DeMarcus Cousins, promised to upgrade the point guard position, and stressed the benefits of living in a small-market community that is building an arena and peering into a future that again includes the playoffs.
Gay listened. The owners put money on the table. And only hours after Saturday’s energetic victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Kings scored again.
Three years, $40 million. Sweet. Fair. Absolutely necessary.
Retaining the veteran small forward who was obtained from the Toronto Raptors last December – and doing so without depleting the payroll or striking an onerous deal that precludes additional maneuvers – furthers the notion the Vivek Ranadive regime has the cash and the inclination to acquire and re-sign the franchise’s most valuable players.
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Gay, who exercised a $19.3 million option for this season, will make $13.3 million annually beginning next season . He can opt out after the second year – right about the time he turns 31 and the league’s new TV agreement is expected to boost player salaries substantially. Not a bad place to be.
But if the Kings continue progressing, Gay keeps improving and complementing his surrounding cast, and ownership and management add the right pieces and subtract ill-fitting parts, why would he leave?
That has never been his style. His East Coast roots and the West Coast drought notwithstanding, this is not someone who thinks the grass is always greener elsewhere. He enjoyed living in Memphis, for instance, and has maintained a home there even after being traded to the Raptors in 2013.
While it would have been ludicrous to mess with that $19.3 million, Gay was undecided until the past few weeks about whether to re-sign with the Kings or pursue free agency in the offseason.
So what swayed him? Though he was unavailable for comment Sunday, some factors are obvious and thought to be influential.
D’Alessandro, quietly operating as a relentless and effective recruiter, sold Gay and his wife, Ecko, on the lifestyle in Sacramento and as a comfortable place to raise their infant son. Gay grew to appreciate Cousins’ talents and outsized personality when the two were paired on Mike Krzyzewski’s U.S. World Cup team last summer in Spain. Another potential game changer was the offseason signing of Darren Collison, a veteran point guard who provides a quicker pace and defense, willingly moves the ball and openly acknowledges Cousins and Gay as the primary scorers.
“I think we feel good about the chemistry we’re starting to develop,” D’Alessandro said Saturday, “and I credit Darren Collison with a lot of that. We talk about leadership, how he influences his teammates, and frankly, we hadn’t had that in my time here. We’re 6-4 and thinking positively about the upcoming games.”
There is this, too: At 28, Gay is playing the best basketball of his career. The same player portrayed as an inefficient volume shooter in Memphis and Toronto, an intelligent, gifted, 6-foot-8 athlete with long arms that enable him to extend and shoot over defenders, is averaging a well-rounded 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
What was it coach Michael Malone told The Bee before the meltdown last week in Memphis? That Gay’s biggest challenge is establishing a reputation as a versatile star, not a one-dimensional scorer?
“He has the ability to create for himself, create for his teammates,” Malone added, “and he’s going to draw a crowd.”
Suddenly, surprisingly, the Kings are intriguing again, are hunting for victories every night again, with Gay-Cousins emerging as one of the most dynamic combinations in the league. And this is something extra to contemplate: Gay is entering his prime years. He is allowed to improve.
He can be a culprit when the Kings stagnate, refusing to move without the ball, neglecting to make one pass, much less the extra pass, and revert to their days of death-by-dribbling and the sluggish one-on-one style reminiscent of the 1990s. Teams don’t rank last in assists (Kings) without plenty of standing around.
But imagine if Malone’s team commits to playing faster and making quicker, wiser decisions? The Kings would be more than intriguing – they would crash the party of playoff contenders. It starts with Cousins, of course, and continues with Gay.
This was an important, impactful weekend for the Kings, and for their future.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.