Give And Go: Early-season standouts and disappointments
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
It’s never too early to give praise or express concern, and it’s in that spirit that we take note of a few of the most exceptional cases — for better or worse — from the first month of the season. (All stats and records are through Monday.)
1. Which breakout player has had the most convincing start to their season?
Rob Mahoney: The Clippers’ Eric Bledsoe. It can be dangerous to assume consistency and sustainability of younger players, and I might be more skeptical if these were Bledsoe’s first flashes of NBA viability. But Bledsoe has been worthy of a rotation spot since last season — it’s simply taken this long and this many injuries to convince coach Vinny Del Negro of the 23-year-old guard’s value. In roughly 20 minutes a game this season, Bledsoe has maintained his aggressive brand of on-ball defense and off-ball cutting. He already has the makings of a superb complementary type, with the athleticism and two-way instincts to fill out the team’s needs on either end of the court.
But where Bledsoe has really exceeded expectations is in his work as a creator. Pairing Bledsoe with Chris Paul forces opponents to contend with two lightning-quick players who work well off one another offensively, but if the 18th pick in the 2010 draft is going to eventually become more than a reserve, he’ll have to harness his speed and strength into a consistent avenue for shot creation. He’s doing plenty of that this season, with remarkable success. According to NBA.com, Bledsoe is averaging 20 points (on 51 percent shooting) per 36 minutes without Paul on the floor, up from a mere 9.9 points (on 38 percent shooting) per 36 minutes without Paul a year ago. Bledsoe looks like a completely different player when initiating the pick-and-roll, and he’s playing with a confidence befitting his physical abilities.
Ben Gollliver: There probably needs to be basketball law preventing me from choosing someone besides the guy nicknamed “Mini-LeBron,” but I’ll go with Nuggets power forward Kenneth “The Manimal” Faried, who also happens to have a great nickname, freakish athleticism and great numbers. Like Bledsoe, Faried was a steal late in the first round (No. 22 in 2011). Unlike Bledsoe, Faried entered the NBA with four years of college experience rather than the one-and-done route. As such, he enjoyed a solid role as a rookie, posting a very nice line of 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds. His sophomore season has just been more, more, more. Even with Denver off to a somewhat rocky start, Faried has averaged 13.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. His player efficiency is among the league leaders at his position and he got some of the “he’s for real” validation by being named Western Conference Player of the Week recently, no easy feat as the 23-year-old, third-leading scorer on a non-marquee team.
2. Which player has had the most underwhelming start to the season?
BG: This one has to be Pacers center Roy Hibbert, right? Coming off both an All-Star season and a maximum four-year, $58.4 million contract, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert is shooting 37.9 percent from the field and ranks 31st among centers in Player Efficiency Rating. The underwhelming factor increases because the Pacers are 6-8, a big disappointment after finishing with a top-five record last season, and because leading scorer Danny Granger’s injury meant that more, not less, was needed from Hibbert. The 25-year-old does lead the NBA in blocked shots and anchor the league’s No. 2 defense, but his offensive struggles are a big reason why the Pacers are 29th in points scored per possession.
Let’s not let Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge off the hook, either. As the No. 1 guy on a rebuilding team, Aldridge was supposed to be putting up monster numbers this season and staking his claim to a second consecutive All-Star appearance. Instead, he’s shooting a career-low 44 percent and averaging a career-low-tying 7.5 rebounds while launching an astonishing 10 long twos per game, nearly double the number of Rip Hamilton, whose 5.9 per game are second most in the league. Aldridge is coming off hip surgery and sat a game recently because of back spasms, but the Blazers needed him to make meaningful progress and instead he’s taken a major step back. He’s 18th among power forwards in PER after finishing third last year.
RM: Both fine — if depressing — choices, but I’ve got two more to consider. The first is Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani, who is creating legitimate doubt about his ability to be even a complementary piece in a winning offense. Bargnani is a talented scorer, but he never seems to have his game fully aligned with the Raptors’ offensive goals. He oversteps his bounds, forces shots and generally lives in his own world. When at his best, Bargnani is still operating in an entirely different framework from the rest of his team. His divergence in approach may share some minor goals with the Raptors overall, but ultimately Toronto has little use for a player who oscillates between overshooting and bouts of being gun-shy, with only a void in between. The balance and efficiency that boosted Bargnani’s game early last season has gone up in smoke, as the one-time franchise centerpiece allows his career to slowly burn away.
Mavericks power forward Elton Brand also has been disappointing in failing to live up to his defensive potential. Dallas is actually about four points better defensively per 100 possessions with Brand out of the game, according to NBA.com, a telling mark given that the alternatives are Chris Kaman, Brandan Wright, Troy Murphy, and Bernard James — none of whom will soon be recognized for their defensive accomplishments. The Mavs were able to stay alive through offensive turmoil last season by ranking in the top 10 in points allowed per possession, and Brand was the theoretical key to extending that defensive excellence. He was the defensive heir apparent to Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler, a smart, functional big man who would be able to rotate and wall off the paint in the same system that helped earn Dallas the 2011 title. Instead, Brand’s useless offense and ineffective defense have left him struggling to even earn playing time. The Mavs’ big defensive acquisition has averaged just 15.6 minutes in the last four games, in a rotation that’s already spotting minutes to lesser players in Dirk Nowitzki’s absence.
3. Which player has made the most of his new scenery?
RM: I’d love to make an argument for Kyle Lowry, who has quickly established himself as the beating heart of the Raptors, but this title is James Harden’s by right. Even if the Rockets’ guard is only doing what many observers expected if given more minutes and touches, we shouldn’t discount the difficulty in maintaining efficiency while increasing usage so substantially. Harden’s shooting percentages aren’t ideal (43.9 percent from the field, 32 percent from three-point range), but he’s scoring more than ever before, getting to the free-throw line whenever he pleases and making a convincing case to be a first-option scorer. There was no question that the Thunder’s former third wheel was worthy of a max extension in the abstract sense, but now he validates the Rockets’ considerable investment with monster stat lines just about every night.
BG: Lots of good choices for this one but it’s hard to argue against Harden, who is tied for fourth in the NBA in scoring and ranks third among shooting guards in PER. He has a number of strong challengers at his position, though. Clippers guard Jamal Crawford has cooled off slightly but is still shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range and averaging a team-leading 18 points off the bench. Ray Allen knocking in game-winners and game-icers for the Heat, shooting 51 percent from the field and 52.9 percent (!) from deep. O.J. Mayo is breaking out a little bit in Nowitzki’s absence, scoring 21.5 points and shooting 49 percent from the field. Even Kevin Martin, the return value for Harden, has done well in Oklahoma City, averaging 15.7 points (almost matching Harden’s 16.8 points from last season) and shooting 49.3 percent from deep for the first team to make it to 11 wins.
4. Who has had the harshest acclimation to his new team?
BG: I was going to say the default answer to this one should be Steve Nash, for going down in just his second game with the Lakers, but I think Timberwolves guard Brandon Roy has him beat, unfortunately. Roy recently went under the knife for his seventh knee surgery, the result of banging knees on a few fluke plays. His play during his five appearances for Minnesota wasn’t much to write home about, though. It’s looking less and less likely that he’ll make it to the second year of the surprising two-year contract he signed last summer.
One more name here: Darko Milicic. He may actually have it worse than Roy, as he left the Celtics roughly two months after signing with them to return to Europe. That decision, reportedly to be with his ill mother, could mark the end of his career. He played just five minutes in green and white.
RM: Oddly enough, it may be Courtney Lee, who hasn’t looked the slightest bit comfortable in Boston’s offense. The Celtics understandably pursued Lee pretty aggressively in the offseason; the 27-year-old guard was a perfect, cost-efficient replacement for Allen’s cutting and slashing and a better defender than Allen ever was in Boston. But Lee’s offensive game has imploded. A career 38-percent three-point shooter, Lee is converting just 23.8 percent (5-of-21) despite the Celtics’ best efforts to create those looks. He’s also averaging a pitiful (and career-low) 8.3 points per 36 minutes, turning the ball over more frequently than ever (his turnover rate is more than double his 2011-12 mark) and ultimately struggling to make himself useful. That’s a strange development for a transition that was supposed to be fairly seamless, but Lee and the Celtics have wrinkles in their relationship that aren’t all that close to being ironed out. They’ll get it eventually, but the fact that we’re pinning the pair’s success to some ambiguous development of chemistry is unexpected, to say the least.
Or, we could just throw out Andrew Bynum’s name and call it a day. For the Sixers’ sake, I hope that Bynum’s time there results in something positive, be it Bynum’s re-signing — provided that such a thing is prudent with his ailing knees — an eventual trade or some other intangible benefit.
5. Based on the early play and personalities of teams around the league, which squads — excepting last year’s finalists, Miami and Oklahoma City, for argument’s sake — would make for an ideal NBA Finals series?
RM: Call me uninspired, but I’d love to see the Knicks and Grizzlies battle over the course of a seven-game series. Both teams have reinvented their offenses to great effect this season, and yet they create and sustain through very different systems. No opponent could possibly test the Knicks’ resolve in their small-ball ways like the big-bodied Grizz, and watching Memphis grit and grind New York coach Mike Woodson’s psyche over a full playoff series would make for must-see TV. Beyond that, Tyson Chandler and Zach Randolph would ensure thrilling extracurriculars; Tony Allen and J.R. Smith would face off in a matchup of all-time league characters; Raymond Felton and Mike Conley would form a support group for understated point guard play; and Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay would tempt one another into questionable shots. What’s not to love?
BG: What’s wrong with a rematch here? Through the NBA’s first month, I’m not convinced that a single team is better suited to a 2013 Finals appearance than the Heat and Thunder.
With the spirit of the question in mind, though, and just to be different from your picks, which you clearly stole from me when we brainstormed this list, I’ll go way off the board with Spurs and Nets. I know, I know — hear me out, though. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in the modern NBA Finals press conference environment. That’s worth the price of admission alone. Then, Popovich and former Spurs guard Avery Johnson in a little teacher vs. pupil. Next up, great point guard matchup: the rough and rugged Deron Williams vs. the endlessly smooth Tony Parker. Then there’s the Brooklyn factor. As we saw on Monday during the showdown with the Knicks, the NYC magic can’t be oversold. One last title shot for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. A little former Bobcats face-off between Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace. A redemption song for Andray Blatche. (Kidding.) Yes, this will never happen, but in a bizarre Heat-less, Thunder-less world, this would be more fun than it might appear at first glance.
Almost forgot: It would be the 10-year anniversary of that Spurs/Nets 2003 classic. Random Kerry Kittles highlights for everyone. Game, set, match.