San Antonio Spurs: Examining the legitimacy of playing Rudy Gay at center

The San Antonio Spurs have put Rudy Gay at the center spot due to ravaging injuries on their roster. Is this a legitimate strategy to use going forward?

With their two leading bigs sidelined due to injury, the San Antonio Spurs have tried to get experimental as of late. While two-way center Drew Eubanks recently started in two games for the silver and black, he hasn’t gotten much playing time, meaning the Spurs need to fill in those minutes at the five with someone else.

Power forward Trey Lyles has seen a large uptick in playing time, including some minutes at the five, but the most interesting development has been forward Rudy Gay slotting in at the center.

It’s been an up-and-down season for the veteran forward, who’s shooting an effective field goal percentage that’s 5.9 percent worse than it was last year. His sudden three-point prowess from last year turned out to be a bit of a fluke. To make matters worse, his defense against perimeter players has worsened and his physicality is visibly slowing down in his 14th season.

However, the Spurs seem to be playing an exciting offensive game when Gay slots in at the five despite defensive ramifications. Sliding Gay to the middle allows the Spurs to play a five-out offensive scheme that spreads the floor wide open for their slashers to penetrate. This oftentimes forces help defenders to collapse, opening up shooters for threes or cutters for shots near the rim.

There are eight five-man lineups that have played more than 10 minutes together since the All-Star break. The one that leads in both offensive rating (130) and net rating (25) features two guards, two wings and Gay at the five.

Players move the ball around the perimeter particularly well without a traditional big in the middle of the lane, as shown by the lineup’s uncanny assist percentage (90 percent). This opens up the middle of the floor for drives in space, which hypothetically will end with a basket at the rim or a kick to the perimeter. With the roster constructed the way it is, San Antonio’s offense operates best when running through drives, kicks and slashes to the basket.

Gay isn’t as swift as he once was, so it’s become harder for him to get past his opponent in many instances. When he slots in at the center, it gives him a better chance to operate from the outside and break down the man defending him. This creates an automatic mismatch of sorts since the center cannot lurk in the paint due to Gay’s threat from the three-point line.

Therefore, guards need to step into the paint and defend shots in that area instead. This goes against everything the traditions of the game taught us growing up, but it’s a new age and winning basketball tends to be always associated with those innovate the most.

Having Gay slide down to a small-ball five every once in a while can be quite deadly, even on the defensive end where’ it’d seem illogical. He’s better off defending closer to the basket nowadays since it’s hard for him to keep up with smaller, more elusive ballhandlers.

There are going to be times when he gets exposed, like early in the game against Charlotte or in the game before that against the Indiana Pacers. Even with that being the case, Gay can rely on his teammates for solid off-ball help.

This is amplified when Lyles slots in at the four because Lyles is a much better weakside defender than he is a rim protector. San Antonio is a fairly good shot-blocking team at ninth in the league, so it’s safe to say his teammates have his back.

Gay is not going to be a permanent center; it’s simply not his role. However, head coach Gregg Popovich toyed with the lineup shift before the Spurs started suffering frontcourt injuries. Modern basketball doesn’t always make sense off the top of our heads, but we’re entering a time in which positionless basketball is what works best.

Obviously former Spur Kawhi Leonard was the main reason why the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals, but there was more to it. Their second-best player is a power forward who can defend multiple positions and handles the ball, their point guard can find ways to exploit matchups with players of all sizes and their head coach is one of the most open-minded in the sport.

Next: Which Spurs are likely to retire after this season?

Even when the rest of the lineup is back in action, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few more lineups with Gay in the middle, surrounded by guards and wings. Results don’t lie.

*All stats and clips courtesy of NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*

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