UPDATE: It's been brought to my attention that the on court/off court stats cited via 82Games.com haven't been updated in about a month — which I didn't notice. Current numbers underscore the same point about the team being better with Gay on the floor at both the offensive and defensive ends, though the difference now isn't quite as extreme because the "bench" has improved over the past month. I'll update the numbers when I have a chance.
The Grizzlies got bad news yesterday when an MRI on Rudy Gay's injured shoulder revealed enough damage to keep him out of the lineup for what's estimated to be at least four weeks — which would be nearly half the remaining season. This loss comes at the team's most optimistic moment of the season, in the midst of four-game winning streak and a playoff situation in which the Grizzlies are now tied for the 8th seed and only 1.5 games out of the 5th seed. Can they remain in the playoff race without him?
Playing Without Him: While the Grizzlies have been much worse this season when Gay's gone to the bench, they've actually been pretty solid in the three-and-a-half games in which Gay hasn't been available at all.
With Gay serving a one-game league suspension on December 18th, the Grizzlies took the San Antonio Spurs — the league's top team so far this season — to overtime on the road before losing. With Gay out sick on January 1st, the Grizzlies played at Utah in what was a single-possession game into the final minute before losing 98-92. And with Gay out with a sprained toe on February 8th, the Grizzlies won a rousing overtime road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even in the game in which Gay got injured, against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Grizzlies turned a one-point third quarter lead without Gay into a double-digit win against a team that went on to win big in Houston the next night and his 10-2 in their past 12 games against teams other than the Grizzlies.
So, the Grizzlies have shown they can be competitive without Rudy Gay. But can they do so for 12 or more games in a row?
Replacing the Points: A 20-point scorer on the season, Gay's scoring has actually been down a little during the team's recent run. Gay averaged 17 points during the Mayo suspension, in which the team went 8-2. Meanwhile, the team has enjoyed more offensive balance with several secondary scorers outperforming their season averages in the past 10 games: Mike Conley (16.5 in the past 10 to 13.7 on the season), Sam Young (13.7 to 6.4), Marc Gasol (12.6 to 11.8), Darrell Arthur (10.7 to 8.6), and Tony Allen (10.3 to 6.9) have all stepped up their scoring lately.
The Grizzlies will need these players, collectively, to keep it up and hopefully push their scoring up a little bit more. But the best hope for replacing the bulk of those 17 points Gay's been giving the team will come from a couple of "new" additions.
One is Jason Williams, who has made three appearances since joining the team, finally taking — and making — his first field-goal attempt (a three-pointer) in the last game against Philadelphia. Williams seems likely to become the primary point guard behind Mike Conley and while the team certainly will not be expecting Williams to become a significant scorer, the hope will be that Williams' ability to knockdown open threes can add a needed component to the team's offense.
More significant is the return of O.J. Mayo, who played only six minutes off the bench Tuesday night in his return from suspension. Gay's injury opens the door for Mayo to reassert himself offensively. At the very least, the Grizzlies should expect Mayo to add the 12 points per game that has been his average this season, which, with a little more from everyone else, could make up for Gay's recent scoring. But really, the Grizzlies need more than that from Mayo, something more like his 16.7 ppg career average. For what it's worth, in the two games this season in which Mayo has played and Gay has not — at San Antonio and at Utah — Mayo has averaged 22.5 points.
Bigger Problems Defensively: One reason the team may need more points from Mayo than merely what it would take to replace Gay's recent offensive production is that the team is likely to be hurt much more on the defensive end than on the offensive end.
Gay has a reputation as a poor defender based on a history of wavering focus and the sense that he's so physically gifted that anything short of great play is a disappointment. But this season, Gay is averaging career highs in blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds per game, while the Grizzlies have been 5.5 points per 100 possession better defensively with Gay on the floor. By contrast, the Grizzlies have been 6.1 points worse with Mayo. That's a much more significant negative swing on the defensive end than on the offensive end, where the team has been 7.8 points better with Gay but roughly even with or without Mayo. And there's a better chance that Mayo elevates his game offensively than defensively.
The Grizzlies will also miss Gay on the boards, where he's stepped up to average 7.3 rebounds a game from the small-forward position over the past 10 games. Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur will need to step up their positionally sub par rebounding in his absence.
The Grizzlies defensive surge has been built, in part, on a wing rotation — Gay, Sam Young, Tony Allen — of long, strong, active defenders. Subtracting the 6'8" Gay from that mix while adding the 6'4" Mayo will likely hurt defensively more than offensively. Hollins could start Young and Allen together and keep Mayo's off-the-bench minutes to his season averages of 28 (or even less) in order to keep up the current defense — which is what I expect. But then you risk not making up the lost scoring. It will not be an easy problem for Hollins to manage.
Roster Changes: The other issue is whether the team's roster changes with Gay's injury coming just more than a week before the NBA's February 24th trade deadline. While I don't put much weight behind the highly speculative reports that Zach Randolph could be dealt, Hasheem Thabeet and O.J. Mayo could be very much in play. Does the Gay injury impact the likelihood of a deal? I doubt it. With Thabeet the prospect of a trade has always been entirely dependent on someone being willing to give up something useful for him. I think the Griz will bite on a "good" deal for Thabeet and the Gay injury doesn't change that. As for Mayo, I tend to believe reports that the Griz are willing to move him in a deal that brings back both immediate help and something of long-term value. (My totally made-up idea of something that would make sense is this along with a protected pick from the Nets.)
But, ask yourself this: Are the Grizzlies really likely to get someone in return for Mayo more likely than Mayo himself to be able to make up for Gay's lost production?
One Final Thing: The sad thing about Gay's injury, in addition to its potential to negatively impact what is shaping up as a wild, tight playoff race is that it comes at a moment when not only was the team turning a corner but Gay seemed to be stepping up a level as a mature, all-around player.