For the second consecutive season, a pair of former stars whose careers have taken winding paths will hit free agency together.
2011 MVP Derrick Rose suffered near-career-ending knee injuries before bouncing back with a solid two-year stint in Minnesota. Rudy Gay experienced an Achilles injury in 2017 but was able to rehab his value over the last two seasons in San Antonio. The pair will be looking to capitalize on strong years and further prove that they’re simultaneously past their injury woes and able to contribute to winning basketball, even if that means taking a lesser role within a team system.
Both have given reassuring indications for the past two years and can fill “similar secondary scoring punch” roles, but each will have a rather markets.
Nearly completely out of the league just a few years removed from winning MVP, Rose’s continuous injury battles had put him right on the fringes. Tom Thibodeau, his former head coach and at-the-time president of basketball operations in Minnesota, gave Rose one last shot right at the end of the 2017-18 season. He performed well in their last few games and during the club’s first-round playoff series, leading to a Minnesota return for a second year.
Rose wildly outperformed expectations in 2018-19, entrenching himself as the team’s backup point guard and 6th Man behind Jeff Teague. His scoring punch off the bench was precisely what the Timberwolves needed.
And while the team as a whole took a step back this past year due to the Jimmy Butler saga and a myriad other factors, Rose continued to play well and create more of a market for himself this summer.
2018-19 was easily the best post-MVP year of Rose’s career, with a 56 true shooting percentage and a much better feel for the game. He’s by no means the explosive guard he used to be, but he’s smarter on the court and uses what remaining athleticism he still has in the tank. He’s more patient than he was in his early days and takes what the defense gives him, rather than forcing himself into situations where his athleticism can’t make up for the disadvantage he creates for himself.
Rose hasn’t necessarily overhauled his game to fit the modern NBA—though his outside shooting keeps looking better and better—but he has become more efficient in his role as a backup point guard and sparkplug bench scorer in short doses.
Still, the injury issues are a concern for any team signing him as a backup: It would be wise to have a third point guard on the roster in case Rose’s injuries catch up with him. His game-to-game availability will certainly be a concern, which will significantly harm his potential earnings this summer. Whether Rose can command more than the minimum, given his injury issues, is an open question, but he’s in a much better place than he was a year ago.
Then, it wasn’t clear if a team would even give him a shot to be a minimum player, much less carve out a role on their team.
A team with an entrenched starting point guard could look at Rose as a backup, though, again, it will be important to have another option for the handful of games Rose can’t play each year. The Atlanta Hawks are in need of a backup to Trae Young, though they have a roster crunch as a result of the moves they’ve already made.
Assuming Kemba Walker returns, the Charlotte Hornets could use a backup to replace the retired Tony Parker. After they sign a starting point guard, the Dallas Mavericks might like Rose as a changeup pitch to the traditional point guard mentality Jalen Brunson brings as the team’s primary backup. Minnesota, of course, could always bring Rose back to play the same role he did last year, particularly with Tyus Jones entering restricted free agency and amid an unclear Wolves future.
Gay was never the level of superstar Rose was and hasn’t dealt with the same consistent injury issues, but his Achilles tear in 2017 raised questions as to whether he’d ever get back to being the same player we saw earlier in his career.
Rather than falling all the way to the fringes of the league, as Rose did, Gay remains an above-average wing capable of hitting an open shot, generating his own offense from the mid-post, and defending his position. Not necessarily an every-play scorer in the same way he used to be, he’s made the transition from star to role player about as well as one could reasonably expect.
In fact, he’s following in the footsteps of fellow former Toronto Raptor star Vince Carter, who has carved out an extended post-prime career as a role player. Once also sees shades of what former All-NBA star Grant Hill turned his post-injury career into as well. Gay is well on his way down that route and continues to be an eight-figure player who can give a team solid production on both ends of the floor.
The largest worry is the same as it’s been throughout Gay’s career: Can he take and hit enough threes to be treated as a credible threat from outside?
He hit 40 percent of them in 2018-19 but took very few. Teams generally weren’t worried about guarding him beyond the three-point line, which gummed up the works for the rest of the Spurs, though his low volume may also have had something to do with the team’s system and their lack of emphasis on three-point shooting in general. He’s also typically operating with the second unit, where the spacing concerns are less and for shorter periods.
Gay put together a strong year from a creation perspective, tallying a near-career-high 0.66 assist-to-usage ratio that did not come with an uptick in turnovers. His operation from the mid-post as a scorer and passer gave the Spurs a boost offensively, as did his work in pick-and-roll. The cramped spacing didn’t do him any favors, but he remains a strong scoring threat as a secondary or tertiary option.
Add in the extra creation element he found and he would be a strong signing for any team looking for forward help off the bench.
Beyond his more consistent production and overall health, Gay’s largest advantage over Rose is that he’s still a positive force defensively. Both ESPN’s DRPM and Jacob Goldstein’s D-PIPM ranked Gay as a strong defender at his position. More traditional metrics showed similar stories, as the San Antonio defense improved by 6.0 points per 100 possessions last year when he was on the floor.
While Rose will be looking to hang on with a minimum or near-minimum contract this summer due to his injury history, Gay is in line for a deal around eight figures per season, whether he stays in San Antonio or moves elsewhere.
His play at the forward position opens him up to nearly every franchise in the league: There may not be a team out there that would be worse for having Gay on its team.
His transition from star to role player makes him a very good addition to nearly anyone looking for an above-average player off the bench.