All-Stocking Stuffer Team: The NBA’s best low-budget gifts of 2013
SF: Nick Young, Lakers
The Point Forward is taking the liberty of shifting Young to the three spot from his natural role as a two, and if there’s any player in the league that defies previously conceived notions or assumptions, it’s the dude they call “Swaggy P.” An L.A. native and a USC product, Young signed a two-year minimum-salary contract with the Lakers last summer. Hometown discounts rarely work out this well.
Young’s numbers — 15.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 43.1 shooting — should keep him in the mix for the Sixth Man of the Year award, even if there are more deserving candidates, but it’s his personality that’s been the real pay off. L.A.’s season was headed nowhere fast, and that was before last week’s devastating news that Kobe Bryant will miss at least six weeks with a knee fracture. Sometimes fans need a break from injury countdowns and endlessly tracking recovery progress, and Young has never been short on entertainment value, even if some of his contributions are unintentional. If we’re comparing him to a Christmas gift, Young is the goofy bobblehead or the Big Mouth Billy Bass: You’re not exactly building your whole list around him, but when he shows up unexpectedly he winds up being the center of attention for a few laugh-laden hours.
L.A. needs someone to knock down the occasional big shot, craft intricate three-point celebrations, wear zany outfits, make Pau Gasol smile, lighten the mood for coach Mike D’Antoni, and distract everyone from the team’s injury woes and below-average defense. There’s no replacing Bryant, and a player with less charisma would wilt at the mere thought of stepping into that hole. Instead, Young has found it to be a perfect fit by simply being himself, to the fullest, and that should help Lakers Nation pass the time until the 2014 draft lottery, which could well be the highlight of the 2013-14 campaign.
The Heat’s minimum-salary reclamation project of Michael Beasley is definitely worth an Honorable Mention here, and he was included in The Point Forward’s All-Grateful Team back in November.
PF: Jon Leuer, Grizzlies
Referring to Leuer as an “afterthought” in the January trade that landed him in Memphis probably isn’t accurate, because that assumes people gave any thought to the deal in the first place. When it happened, this was about as unsexy as trades get: Memphis looked to improve its cap position by giving Cleveland a future first-round pick for taking on Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and Marresse Speights (and the money owed to them) in exchange for Leuer. Hey, they had to send something back, and Leuer was buried on the bench despite playing for one of the league’s worst teams. The subsequent trade of Rudy Gay only further buried this move.
What’s happened since then has been fairly remarkable. Memphis inked Leuer to a budget-friendly deal worth $2.9 million over three years (only the first two years are guaranteed), and he’s repaid that faith by emerging as a productive bench player and a fan favorite. A 2011 second-round pick who spent four years at Wisconsin, the 6-foot-10 Leuer has provided some badly-needed perimeter shooting for the Grizzlies. Entering the break, Leuer is averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 19.9 minutes, and he’s shooting 50.7 percent from the floor and 53.8 percent from deep with an impressive 18.9 PER.
The list of things that have gone wrong in Memphis of late is a long one: The falling-out with former coach Lionel Hollins, the dirty laundry aired by a former assistant in the aftermath of the coaching change, a season-altering injury to Marc Gasol, a serious injury to Quincy Pondexter, a defense that has dropped from No. 2 last season to No. 24 this season, an offense that continues to sputter along at a bottom-10 clip, etc. You get the picture; any more would just be piling on. Memphis currently resides in the Southwest Division basement and the playoffs seem an awful long ways away, even if the Grizzlies are only three games out of the No. 8 seed.
Through all of that, Leuer has emerged as a hard-working, reliable, no-ego personality for the Grit & Grind faithful to rally around. Grizzlies blog 3SOB.com notes that fans are debating whether to nickname him “Johnny Badger” or “Whitesnake,” and a number of the site’s bloggers went so far as to tab Leuer as the team’s MVP to date, praising his consistency in particular. Whether you want to compare him to chocolate, socks or some other dependable holiday staple, Leuer fits the “Stocking Stuffer” bill. His arrival in Memphis has been a case of right player, right team, right timing, and right price for a team that has seen its franchise-best 2012-13 season followed up by a nightmare start.
One other name considered: Suns combo forward Marcus Morris, who is averaging 11 points and 4.6 rebounds (both career-highs) this season. His arrival via trade in February has also spurred twin brother Markieff to a career-year (12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds) too. Double the pleasure, double the production.
C: Robin Lopez, Blazers
This is a Christmas-themed list, but Portland’s new starting center would qualify for a Valentine’s Day version, too. “I love Robin,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts blurted out after one win earlier this season, and it’s easy to see why. Lopez — who has developed, and cultivated, a reputation as a goofy, afro-haired, comic book nerd — was always going to be a great fit in the Rose City’s “Keep Portland Weird” off-court vibe, but he’s also meshed absolutely seamlessly on the court as well.
Averaging 9.5 points and a career-high 8.3 rebounds so far this season, the 25-year-old Lopez has impressed on both ends. Offensively, he’s fit nicely into the fifth option role in Portland’s No. 1 ranked attack, feasting on opportunities created by the extra attention given to All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and pick-and-roll passes from Nicolas Batum while mixing in an occasional mid-range jumper without unnecessarily wasting any possessions. Although Lopez hasn’t transformed Portland’s overall defense, which ranks No. 22 in the league, he’s been a key cog in a starting lineup that boasts an outstanding plus-13.7 net rating. The Blazers have been guilty of flipping switches on defense this year, but they’ve generally gotten stops when it’s mattered, as evidenced by their league-best 13-3 in “clutch” games, per NBA.com/stats.
It takes a special kind of balance for a team to jump out of the lottery one year all the way to a conference-best record at Christmas the next year, and Lopez is right at the top of the list when it comes to the key driving factors for Portland’s success. When it comes to holiday gifts, he is the gift that fills out the collection: the final book in the trilogy or the last baseball card that completes the set. He does the dirty work, he takes the pressure off of Aldridge, he understands his role and limitations without being overly passive and, most importantly, he’s held up under the biggest minutes strain of his career. It’s no secret that Stotts loves to ride his starters, and Lopez is currently playing a career-high 30 minutes per night. He’s yet to miss a game and the injury problems that plagued him back during his Phoenix days have remained a thing of the past.
Although Lopez is earning $5.9 million this season, not that much less than the four other players on this list combined, that figure represents a bargain for a starting center capable of handling the load he’s been given. He arrived in Portland from New Orleans as part of the three-way Tyreke Evans deal; his cost to the Blazers were a pair of second-round picks, Jeff Withey, cash and agreeing to take on his salary. That’s not quite nothing, but it’s proven to be a very sound investment.
The center position just might be the deepest when it comes to Stocking Stuffer candidates. Miami’s brilliant (but risky) addition of Chris Andersen fueled an historic winning streak, Suns GM Ryan McDonough committed another act of larceny in netting Miles Plumlee from the Pacers and DeJuan Blair continues to ply his rebound-rate trade after signing with the Mavericks for less than a $1 millon in the offseason.