All-Recalibration Team: Five players who could bolster their reputations in 2014
SF: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
When Iguodala ditched Denver for Golden State last summer, he did so presumably because he was sick of being a postseason punching bag. Only once during the first nine years of his career did the 29-year-old Iguodala advance out of of the first round of playoffs: that series victory came with one of the all-time great asterisks, as his Sixers capitalized on Derrick Rose’s first season-ending knee injury to get past the Bulls in 2012. Even Philadelphia’s management didn’t put much stock in that accomplishment, deciding to go all in on Andrew Bynum by shipping Iguodala to Denver just a few months later.
Last summer, the Warriors, fresh off a dream run to the conference semifinals, offered Iguodala the opportunity to join a fully-formed starting lineup and a roster with enough depth to be considered among the preseason favorites to top the West. Although an injury to Iguodala contributed to a somewhat underwhelming start to the season, Golden State sits at 20-13 entering 2014, and the Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson/Iguodala/David Lee/Andrew Bogut lineup sports an outrageously good +20 net rating (116.7 offensive rating; 96.7 defensive rating) in 346 minutes together this season. If that quintet enters the postseason intact and in good health, we should be prepared to feel sympathy for their opponents.
There are a few other considerations at play here: Iguodala has averaged 14.4 points per game while shooting just 41.9 percent overall and 65.3 percent from the free-throw line during his postseason career, numbers that his critics might argue played a large role in Iggy’s teams going one-and-done year after year. Last season, Iguodala’s Nuggets were upset by the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, even though Denver had homecourt advantage and Lee went down with an injury. Although Iguodala averaged 18 points, eight rebounds and 5.3 assists during the series, the Warriors’ triumph was another piece of evidence to suggest that Iguodala, an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, was a very talented two-way wing but not a transformational, put-the-team-on-his-back superstar. Finally, there is the matter of former Nuggets coach George Karl suggesting that Iguodala acted as a “mole” for the Warriors during the hotly-contested series; Iguodala later denied that accusation, according to the Denver Post, but that’s the type of stain that doesn’t come out on one washing.
The fit between Iguodala and the Warriors — positional, culture, etc. — appeared strong from the start, and the vision has crystallized during Golden State’s recent six-game winning streak, a run in which Iguodala has shifted into a more natural complementary role on offense while Curry, Thompson and Lee do the heavy lifting. Assuming Golden State (No. 7 in the West currently) hangs on to a playoff spot, it goes without saying that an elite, versatile perimeter stopper will be a crucial asset, regardless of their first-round opponent. The Warriors could wind up anywhere from No. 4 to No. 8, meaning Iguodala could see time against the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Nicolas Batum, Ellis and Leonard, among others. Under virtually any scenario, Iguodala should have the opportunity to prove he made the right decision by selecting the Warriors during the offseason while also pursuing the first asterisk-free series victory of his career. A first conference finals trip isn’t out of the question, either.
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers
The last two months represent the high-water mark of Aldridge’s career. The two-time All-Star is on the ride of his life: he’s currently averaging 23.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists (all career highs), while finding his name mentioned as an MVP candidate for the first time in his nine-year career. His Blazers own the NBA’s No. 1 offense and one of the league’s best records at 25-7, and Portland’s starting unit — which pairs Aldridge with Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez — possesses a sterling +12.0 net rating in 643 minutes this season. All of the elements necessary for the Blazers to claim their first playoff series victory since 2000 appear to be in place.
Talk about perfect timing for Aldridge, who spent last summer grumbling about his lot in life after the small-market Blazers lost 13 straight games to finish off their second straight trip to the lottery. His discontent was understandable, given that he is 29 years old and has been established as one of the best players at his position. This wasn’t a case of Charles Barkley failing to secure a championship ring; Aldridge has won only six playoff games total since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft and he has never played in a Game 7. What’s more, his previous postseason experience — three straight runs from 2009 to 2011 — came as Brandon Roy’s sidekick. Not only did Aldridge have to grin and bear it through a rebuilding cycle following career-altering knee injuries to Roy and Greg Oden, he was stuck listening to critics who said he wasn’t good enough to be the No. 1 guy on a team capable of making real noise in the playoffs.
Portland has been dogged by the “Are they for real?” question throughout their early season success, and it remains a fair question given the team’s below-average defensive efficiency numbers. This is not a team with elite balance like the Thunder or Spurs, and the Blazers’ entire core (not just Aldridge) is lacking in postseason credentials. At this point, it would take a catastrophic, unforeseeable drop-off for the Blazers to miss the playoffs — Portland could win just 38 percent of its remaining games and still finish with 44 victories, which likely would be more than enough for the No. 8 seed — which means the question will soon shift from “Are they for real?” to “Can they do it on the big stage?”
Predicting the tipping point for when stars become superstars is a risky, mistake-prone business, but Aldridge is far closer to the very top of the league’s food chain than he’s ever been before. For context, let’s not forget that Aldridge was the “last guy off the bench” in each of the last two All-Star Games, a fact that left a sour taste in his mouth in 2012. Indeed, 2014 will be the first time he is a shoo-in All-Star selection rather than one of the bubble guys anxiously awaiting their fate. What would a playoff series victory mean for him? It would remove the “he’s never won anything tag” for good, it would give him another leg up in comparisons with Kevin Love (zero postseason appearances) and Blake Griffin (a firm No. 2 behind Chris Paul), and it could vault him into a consensus spot in the “top 10 NBA players” club after years spent in the 11-20 range. It might even help open a window of title contention for the Blazers, who are positioned to bring back all of their important pieces for the 2014-15 season and beyond.
C: Al Jefferson, Bobcats
Much like Ellis, his fellow Mississippian, Jefferson has been cast for years as an offense-first, defense-optional player whose shooting percentage and track record of losing both left a lot to be desired. At 28, the Bobcats’ center has averaged at least 17 points and nine rebounds per game for seven straight seasons, but he’s made just 11 career playoff game appearances and he hasn’t won a postseason game since he was a back-up for the 2005 Celtics, three teams ago.
The West-to-East move that came with Charlotte’s three-year, $41 million contract offer last summer has reopened the playoff door for Jefferson, who was stuck on middling Jazz teams that lived a purgatorial existence for the last three seasons. Of course, that door-opening is all relative: Charlotte is currently 14-18, a record that would only be good for 12th in the West, and they’re no lock to make the playoffs, especially if their injury woes continue.
Still, the Bobcats have been one of the league’s biggest surprises this season under first-year coach Steve Clifford, primarily because they’ve carried a top-five defensive efficiency into the New Year, a crazy improvement that no one saw coming after Charlotte ranked dead last in 2012-13. That defensive success has so far stood up despite the rotation-stretching losses of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor, and Jefferson is one of Charlotte’s leading plus/minus performers, while also leading the team in rebounding, blocks and PER. He’s even drawn praise for Clifford for his defensive abilities, something Jefferson told the Salt Lake Tribune meant a lot for his confidence and that came as a surprise, even to him.
The unexpected irony here is that the Bobcats are exceeding expectations without getting the type of monster individual numbers from Jefferson that many expected when he cashed out last summer. The 10-year veteran is averaging 17 points and 10.3 rebounds — very good numbers but not the 24/12 that seemed possible when analyzing Charlotte’s shallow depth chart back in September — and he’s shooting a career-low 44.9 percent. Meanwhile, the Bobcats rank No. 28 in offensive efficiency; comparatively, the Jazz had the 11th best, the seventh-best and the 14th best offenses during Jefferson’s three seasons in Utah. This is all very strange, and the Bobcats will enter January on a three-game losing streak.
Where is this going? Who knows. Charlotte is smack dab in the center of the East’s messy middle class: four games out of the No. 3 seed and four games out of the No. 14 seed. No one on the roster should be as motivated to make the playoffs as Jefferson, who would surely like to rewrite his lackluster track record. Practically, the fact that he has a player option for the 2015-16 season waiting for him must be mentioned too. Imagine this ideal scenario: Jefferson could be in a position to opt out in July 2015 after back-to-back postseason appearances, with Charlotte’s current young core (plus a host of new draft picks) looking to him as the stabilizing piece. Translation: another nice pay day.
In the immediate future, the East is desperate for storylines, and Jefferson teaming with Kemba Walker in pursuit of the first playoff series victory in Bobcats franchise history has the makings of a care-free thrill ride for impartial observers. Plus, even if they fall short, we still have the new “Charlotte Hornets” era to look forward to.