All-Recalibration Team: Five players who could bolster their reputations in 2014
“The Point Forward All-Stars” will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members.
This week, SI.com welcomes in the New Year with the All-Recalibration Team, a collection of five players that could bolster their reputations in 2014, especially if they enjoy strong postseason performances.
The All-Recalibration Team
The coming of the New Year means a fresh start, new goals and new expectations for all of us, and NBA players are no different. In 2013, a host of teams and players reached new heights: Denver and Memphis enjoyed franchise-best seasons, New York won its first playoff series in more than a decade, Paul George and Stephen Curry emerged as superstars, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders drew new-found appreciation for their defensive abilities, and Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler, among others, enjoyed moments in the sun during the playoffs.
Indeed, the postseason will always be home to the biggest boosting and bashing of reputations, the gold standard by which most judgments and comparisons are made. SI.com’s All-Recalibration Team is not a prediction of which players will break out over the next 12 months, a la George or Curry, but rather a group of five players who are uniquely positioned to bolster their reputations and/or improve their personal narrative as their respective teams approach the 2014 playoffs. To date, none of these five players has enjoyed much in the way of postseason success, but all five are presented with new opportunities for achieving that elusive stamp of approval once the 2013-14 season comes to an end.
PG: John Wall, Wizards
You really have to strain to come up with any positive takeaways from the pitiful state of the Eastern Conference, where 12 of the 15 teams are currently at or below .500, and Atlanta, one of the three plus-.500 teams, just lost Al Horford for the season.
Don’t worry, I went through the straining process so you didn’t have to: the upshot to the league’s conference disparity and the two-horse race in the East is that there will be plenty of room for new postseason heroes to emerge from the carnage. Remember, only the seventh and eighth seeds in the East are heading towards first-round slaughterhouses against the Pacers and Heat; that leaves four full seeds of room for newcomers and, no matter what, at least two teams currently facing serious questions will wind up earning trips to the conference finals. As it stands, Toronto, Washington, Charlotte and Detroit could all snap playoff droughts come April, and it’s conceivable that multiple teams from that quartet could advance in the postseason. This is potentially the dawning of a new day.
Wall, Washington’s newly-minted franchise guard, is at the end of the line when it comes to potentially reaping the benefits of this wide open landscape. There was plenty of chuckling shared when he ranked himself as “the best” point guard in the NBA last summer, but Wall’s declaration has looked less and less delusional as this season has played out. Consider: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo are all dealing with knee injuries, Deron Williams and Steve Nash have become afterthoughts, and Kyrie Irving’s Cavaliers are a total mess (again). Meanwhile, Wall is ranked in the top five at his position in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) just as he was last year, his Wizards are currently .500 and are a strong challenger to claim the No. 3 seed, and he will almost certainly earn his first All-Star selection come February. His importance to the Wizards is undisputed: their offense falls off a cliff when he leaves the court (from a 105.7 offensive rating when he’s on to 88.7 when he’s off) and he significantly improves the team’s defensive numbers, too.
No matter what happens this postseason, Wall will still be behind Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry on the point guard pecking order, with Rose, Westbrook and Rondo all getting the benefit of the doubt when it comes to head-to-head comparisons because of their experience and accolades. Still, the bevy of injuries at his position and Wall’s development into a 20-point, 9-assist, 2-steal per night player sets the table for his inclusion in the top-five point guards debate as we move forward. A playoff series victory in the first postseason appearance of his career, at the age of 23, would really elevate his profile, weak East or not.
SG: Monta Ellis, Mavericks
The reshaping of Ellis has been underway for months in Dallas, where he is posting some of his best efficiency numbers in years. Predictably, Rick Carlisle has found a way to coax Ellis towards his strengths (pick-and-roll scoring, plays at the basket) while cutting out the fat (he’s averaging just 2.4 threes per game this season, compared to four per game last season). The ninth-year guard is averaging 20.3 points and 5.9 assists entering 2014, his 54.1 true shooting percentage is his best mark since 2008, and his 17.9 PER currently ranks in the top 10 at his position.
The player Don Nelson famously called a “selfish little bastard” in a Sports Illustrated interview is now shooting “only” 16.3 shots per game, his fewest since 2008, and his 5.6 free throw attempts per game are the most since since 2010. Put it all together and Ellis would have a legitimate shot at an All-Star spot if he was posting the same numbers in the East, and he’s a legitimate offensive weapon even in the loaded West. Suddently, the “Monta Ellis has it all” sarcastic quips have been put on pause.
For years now, Ellis’ high-volume shooting and unsightly percentages have coincided with lots of losing. Even though he turned 28 in October, Ellis has just 15 playoff games to his name, and he hasn’t won a postseason game since he was a part of the “We Believe” Warriors in 2007. Last year, he played for a Milwaukee team whose postseason existence was both short-lived and a complete joke thanks to Brandon Jennings, who unfortunately decided to predict that the Bucks would beat the Heat in six games. Instead, they were swept out in four consecutive double-digit defeats, and Ellis was held to a mere 14.3 points per game. He smartly found new digs in Dallas a few months later.
The Dirk Nowitzki/Ellis/Jose Calderon triumvirate has powered Dallas to the No. 6 ranked offense to date; the Mavericks (18-13 and in the No. 8 seed currently) are no guarantee to make the playoffs, but if they do they will assume the proverbial “team no one wants to play” tag. In addition to the multi-pronged, super-efficient offense, Dallas boasts an elite coach, the requisite championship experience from Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, and an always aggressive owner in Mark Cuban who might be tempted to do some buying at this year’s trade deadline, given the tight bunching between teams four through eight in the West. A strong showing in the postseason from Ellis would underscore the progress he has made this season, and the discussion around one of the league’s most polarizing players would really shift if he managed to play a key role in helping Dallas pull off a first-round upset.
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.