Rudy Gay watched last season as the Memphis Grizzlies pushed into the Western Conference playoffs and a stunning first-round upset of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. It was the franchise's greatest moment, and yet Gay – one of their greatest players – could only watch his teammates from the sideline after a shoulder injury cut short his season.
The Grizzlies' ensuing success made a lot of people wonder: Was the team better off without Gay? Was the five-year, $84 million contract the Grizzlies given Gay a waste of money?
A year later, Gay is again healthy and has resumed his leading role with the team. He's also on a mission to prove the Grizzlies can be even better with him in the lineup.
“People were saying they did it without me," Gay said. "It would mean a lot for me to make the playoffs to show how good this team is – not just me – and how much of an impact I could have on it.”
Gay developed into an impressive scorer during his first four seasons with Memphis, but that wasn’t enough to get the franchise to the playoffs. Last season began promisingly enough after the Grizzlies gave him a max contract, but he dislocated his left shoulder on Feb. 15, 2010 and eventually had season-ending surgery.
Led by Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies played well without Gay, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“I considered trying to come back and not have the surgery,” Gay said. “But when I tried to work myself back in, I realized how far away I was and how bad it was. Coach [Lionel Hollins] and the trainers told me maybe I should think about just getting the surgery. When the surgery was done I had no chance.”
After beating the Spurs, the Grizzlies lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a tough seven-game series in the second round. Their success had people questioning Gay's value to the franchise.
“I heard all of it,” Gay said. “It was to be expected because this was the furthest the team had gone in their existence in Memphis. I’m out, and they’re doing good. So, of course, they would think they would do better without me since I’ve been there the whole time.
"That just motivated me. I know what I can do and I know what I helped this team get to, up to this point. And from talking to some of my teammates, they said, 'We wouldn’t have got here if it wasn’t for some of the games that you won and some of things you’ve done.' ”
Hollins had thought Gay sometimes focused too much on his scoring and needed to sustain his level of play every night, rather than elevating for only the elite opponents. But he didn't agree the Grizzlies were better without Gay – especially because they didn't have anyone to counter Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant.
“After a while no one was guarding the perimeter, so how could you say we’d be better without Rudy?" Hollins said. "That’s just people who don’t know Rudy’s game.”
Gay was fully recovered from surgery by the time the lockout ended, but said he “felt like a rookie” trying to fit in early this season after averaging 13.3 points in the first four games. When Randolph tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Jan. 1, Gay regained his lead role. Though the Grizzlies announced Randolph is expected to be out eight weeks from the time of his injury, Hollins said he doesn’t expect his star forward back this season. Even if Randolph does return, it could be difficult to reincorporate him after such a long layoff.
“When Zach went out, [Gay] knew he had to be the leader and make these guys better,” Hollins said.
The Grizzlies have stayed in the playoff hunt without Gay, winning seven straight games at one stretch this month. Gay has averaged 20.3 points since Randolph went down, and Hollins says this is the "best all-around that he’s played.”
“He’s letting the game come to him,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said. “He’s taking good shots and he’s getting better and better with getting his teammates involved.”
Gay’s goal is obvious: Play in the playoffs for the first time and hope the Grizzlies can build off what they did without him last season.
“The sky is the limit for us,” Gay said. “I got a lot to make up for. I got a lot of things I want to do with this team and a lot of things I want to do with my career.”