Examining players who have bounced back from slow starts
By Rob Mahoney
In evaluating and discussing NBA players,we often overstate the value (and validity) of the first pieces of information available. If a player begins the season on a tear only to struggle later, we attempt to diagnose what went wrong rather than question what had initially gone right. When Rookie of the Year or Most Valuable Player voting comes around, those who exploded into the award conversation early are likely to garner more votes than those who came on strong late.
We may be swayed by recent events, but we’re ultimately tethered to our initial impressions. So let’s for a moment, make a conscious effort to sever that link, and consider the amazing rebounds of a few players for whom the beginning of the season created an inaccurate picture:
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets: There exists a tendency to treat all bits of NBA progression as understandable and explicable events, but not every improvement or regression comes from some specific impetus. Ty Lawson may be a perfect example of how fruitless our search for reason can sometimes be.
After spending roughly the first half of the season whiffing on jumpers and tentatively navigating the paint, Lawson saw his shots begin to fall and his real game emerge. He’s historically been a good shooter, so it initially seemed quite safe to assume that something within Denver’s mix had thrown Lawson’s game off balance.
Then, as tends to happen in situations such as these, Lawson’s shooting regressed to the mean. Since mid-January, Lawson’s shooting percentages on long-range (40 percent, up from 32.1 percent to that point) and mid-range (53.5 percent, worlds better than the horrendous 29.5 percent he had posted on those shots previously) jumpers have taken a leap without any discernible difference in Lawson’s play or shooting form. Denver is using essentially the same lineups, Lawson is still creating these shots for himself at roughly the same rate, and the quality of his attempts appears similar. Sometimes these things are as unsatisfyingly simple as a player getting kinder rolls, and with Lawson I suspect that may well be the case. There’s certainly value in George Karl sticking with the same high-usage starting lineup in terms of building chemistry, but even that does so little to explain why Lawson is converting a vastly improved percentage of his shots while taking the same pull-ups and step-backs.
I’m sure the lack of cogent explanation for Lawson’s reclaimed jumper doesn’t much bother George Karl and the Nuggets, who have benefited greatly from having their primary ball-handler back in full form. Lawson has wisely used his mid-range revival as a means to open up more angles to the rim. A simple pick-and-roll sequence now becomes a test of how long a defender can stick with Lawson as he traces along the free-throw line, where he exploits even the slightest opening between hedging and recovering defenders. If played for a drive, Lawson will quickly create space and fire up a quick J. If an opponent recovers toward him too aggressively, he’ll use that opportunity to push directly toward the rim, often earning a trip to the free-throw line in the process. All of this goes to show just how vital shooting range is to a player’s confidence and ability to manipulate defenses; some point guards can get by without the ability to space the floor or challenge from mid-range, but with Lawson’s size and merely solid court vision, he relies on that shooting stroke — which failed to report to the team until the turn of the calendar year — to set up his drives.
Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers: Waiters began his season by running head-first into the rookie wall. His shot selection was, in a word, abysmal; he gunned without concern for the flow of the offense, his own weaknesses, or general shooting prudence. If that weren’t enough, Waiters also made a habit of driving to the rim despite his poor understanding of how NBA defenses work, and he chased the ball on defense as mindlessly as a cat racing after a laser pointer. It was a bad mix, to say the least.
But rookies grow from game to game and month to month, and by the time January rolled around, Waiters looked like a very different offensive player. There’s still a brashness to his game that won’t likely be extinguished, but his rate of conversion on shots in the restricted area has improved by almost 20 percent since the turn of the calendar year. He’s still only making an underwhelming 56.8 percent of his field goal attempts around the basket, but relative to where he started (38.8 percent through December 31) that figure represents a massive improvement.
Much of that can be attributed to a slightly more creative driving style, as Waiters no longer relies purely on the straight-line bludgeoning that became his early season trademark. He’s starting to fiddle with his speed, attempting to plot contingencies mid-drive and getting a better feel for when and how to set up his teammates. He’s nowhere near a finished product, but in his more recent form he’s at least a more constructive — or at least less destructive — player.
Couple that with a steadily declining rate of ill-advised three-point attempts, and Waiters is coming off of a month where he made over half of his shots (51.4 percent!) from the field, a development that seemed impossible when Waiters debuted to a field goal percentage in the mid-30s. That version of Waiters was a burden on his team and his coach. This version? He’s an NBA player, capable of providing enough to his team to warrant time on the court for continued development.
Out of politeness and the spirit of this exercise, I will refrain from commenting on his defense.
Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards: Fellow Wizard Bradley Beal has received more than enough attention for the way he’s turned his season around, but Ariza has also bounced back to find an effective niche in Washington.
Ariza’s defensive reputation may be a bit overinflated, but he can at least be counted on to stay in front of his mark consistently. He’s far less susceptible to blow-by drives than some of Washington’s other defenders, and his length and quickness make him very effective in recovery. Ariza has been working hard to be a functional part of the Wizards’ defense this season, and he deserves credit for that.
Yet on the offensive end, Ariza had been put in a horrible position for much the season. He wasn’t asked to be a more active shot creator while John Wall was absent from the lineup, but on some level Ariza just can’t help himself; if there isn’t a ball-dominant player controlling the course of a given possession, Ariza is prone to hijack it whenever he catches the ball, often stalling his team’s movement in his attempts to over-dribble his way to a score. It’s a mess, but as fans of the Rockets and Hornets can attest, it’s an unfortunately consistently part of Ariza’s game. He’s a role player with delusions of grandeur, and he’ll force action when given the opportunity.
Luckily, with Wall in the lineup, those occasions are coming far less frequently. His overall shot attempts per minute have dropped, but he’s actually taking significantly more three-pointers (5.6 3PA per 36 minutes with Wall vs. 3.9 3PA/36 without) and converting them at a much higher rate. In fact, his shooting percentages are remarkably better across the board just by playing with Wall. Here’s a look at Ariza’s numbers, both with (left) and without (right) Wall:
Some players just need a certain level of role definition to be successful, and for Ariza it took the return of a promising point guard for him to let go of his most detrimental offensive tendencies.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.