Often talented players just need to get out of a toxic situation or find a team that can better utilize their talents before they can succeed. Chauncey Billups and Zach Randolph needed to bounce around before they found a franchise that could harness their talent, and others fell out of rotations for a number of reasons, only to resurface elsewhere as valuable rotation pieces.
Here are five players who changed teams this offseason and have seen a substantial uptick in their productivity with their new squads.
PG – Brandon Knight | 2012-13 Team: Detroit Pistons | 2013-14 Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee has been an unmitigated disaster, holding the league’s worst record for most of the season. The roster is mismatched and injuries have taken their toll, not to mention the poor play of several of the guys who remain on the court. It would be easy to lump in Knight, acquired in the offseason for Brandon Jennings in a sign and trade, but he has quietly put together a career year.
This has been the result of improvements in a few areas. Some of these are fairly traditional: without turning the ball over any more than he did in his first two seasons, Knight has managed to add a full assist per 36 minutes to his average, bringing him up to 5.7 per 36. He’ll never lead the league in dimes, but his work this year at least puts him in the realm of other point guards. He rates in the same strata as guys like Jose Calderon and Damian Lillard, and that’s a big step up from last season.
This has been accompanied by an uptick in his free throw rate, a result of an increase in the kind of fearless drives to the basket that can help draw the defense and open passing lanes, and in an increase in shooting percentage from two odd distances. As the league moves more and more to schemes designed to get 3’s and layups – the two most valuable shots in the game – Knight has improved his shooting significantly on long 2’s (beyond 16 feet) and in the tricky 3 ft. to 9 ft. zone made up mostly of floaters and short jumpers in traffic.
It’s hard to say how much of that shooting boost is sustainable, but it has definitely helped this year. Knight has the highest scoring average of his career by far, putting up nearly 20 points per 36, and his scoring and improved passing have resulted in a five point increase over last season’s PER, raising it to a very solid 17.0. Even as the world burns around him, Knight may be giving the Bucks a nice piece to rebuild around in coming seasons.
SG – Gerald Green | 2012-13 Team: Indiana Pacers | 2013-14 Team: Phoenix Suns
Green’s return to the NBA in 2011 featured some changes in his game, most notably a stark rise in his use of the three ball. His reliance on this shot has only increased in his latest stop with the Suns, and it is paying huge dividends. Phoenix features great spacing and has overseen career years for a few players this season, but Green’s improved percentage from deep with a corresponding rise in attempts lands him a spot on this list. He is shooting over 38% on threes and is taking more than 6 per game in less than 30 minutes. That’s how he has re-invented himself and rebounded from a rough season in Indiana. There’s really nothing else to it, and we have all benefited from the increase in spectacular highlight dunks that come with a boost in his minutes.
SF – James Johnson | 2012-13 Team: Sacramento Kings | 2013-14 Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Johnson is exactly what the Griz needed this season, and he has managed to pull it off after a rocky start to his career with several teams. His combination of opportunistic offense and rangy defense has been exquisite on the wing. To top it off, he is the perfect grit and grind reclamation project to pair with the likes of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
The plus-minus data backs up Johnson’s improvement: Memphis’ efficiency is 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. That’s a result of improved finishing and shot selection, along with confining his usual defensive gambling a bit within the Grizzlies’ system. It has worked quite well and has helped the team stay within range of the playoffs in spite of injuries to both Mike Conley and Gasol.
PF – Michael Beasley | 2012-13 Team: Phoenix Suns | 2013-14 Team: Miami Heat
It’s all about shot selection. Beasley hasn’t taken this many of his shots at the rim during any other season of his career, and the results speak for themselves. He’s always been able to score, the question has just been how many possessions he would take to do it. The Heat have coaxed his better self out and been rewarded with efficient scoring off the bench. They’ve also managed to get the most inspiring rebounding from Beasley since his rookie year.
At this point it’s beyond obvious that he’ll never be a star, but the bench scorer role is treating the former 2nd-overall pick very well. He may have eventually been able to piece this sort of productivity together elsewhere, but the freedom afforded to the coaching staff after back to back championships definitely didn’t hurt when trying to cut down on the long 2’s Beasley had become accustomed to. Hopefully this is the start of a positive trend that will carry into a productive 2nd act to his career.
C – Dwight Howard | 2012-13 Team: L.A. Lakers | 2013-14 Team: Houston Rockets
Everyone else on this hypothetical squad is a role player who has found a good situation in which to play their role. Howard is something else: an elite talent returning to top form (or somewhere close to it). He suffered through a self-induced drop in public support in Orlando, a longer-than-expected recovery from back surgery and the increasingly toxic situation next (behind?) Kobe Bryant in L.A., and now finally finds himself where he belongs.
Houston has offered Howard an ideal resuscitation package. He has the craftiest low-post scorer of all-time for a head coach, a complementary perimeter star in James Harden who excels at setting up stellar finishers, and a deep array of role players surrounding him and making his life easier. As the season has gone on he and the team have managed to cement themselves as legitimate title contenders. This may have happened somewhat quietly with Lebron and Kevin Durant taking the league by storm, but make no mistake – Howard is back to his old ways and has more tools at his disposal than ever.
His improved teammates more than cover for any gaps in his game that age and injury could have exposed, and Dwight’s confidence in his surroundings is more and more palpable with each passing month. Don’t be surprised if he has the Rockets pushing deep into the playoffs and challenging the league’s elite in ways that we didn’t expect to see again after the disappointments of last season.
So Lebron James may mentor Paul George. Thank God.
Some old-school “purists” have, in recent years, bemoaned the friendly atmosphere of the modern NBA. They blame the AAU culture for creating the kind of kinship among high-level players that just didn’t happen in their day. According to this school of thought the NBA is a battlefield, and the current age of Chris Paul inviting opponents to sleep in his guest room or Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah having a pleasant discussion about working together in the future is tantamount to treason.
Michael Jordan may be the modern standard for excellence in the sport (and rightfully so), but that doesn’t mean the game’s culture benefits from his brand of us-vs-them militarism.
This past summer James worked out with Kevin Durant, and if Durant’s play this season is any indication the results have been fantastic. If, as a fan of the game, you want to see incredible basketball, then you should be a fan of the reigning best players in the game offering their help to future stars. The arguments for fluid team play vs. showy one-on-one games are myriad, and the league is trending towards that ideal, with camaraderie amongst players helping to further it.
I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but if not, get on board. The NBA is favoring improved play for all players, a result of a long-awaited return to balance following expansion in the 90’s (and a resulting watering down of the talent pool) and of increased interest in the league. If you want manufactured storylines and random posturing, go watch a B-movie.