NBA PM: Who Has The Most To Prove?
In many ways, the 2012-13 NBA season has already been defined by the players who have missed significant time due to injury than it has by the way teams across the league have performed on the basketball court.
The Dallas Mavericks played the bulk of the first two months without All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, the Chicago Bulls are still waiting for Derrick Rose, the Indiana Pacers lost Danny Granger early on, the Golden State Warriors await a healthy Andrew Bogut, Steve Nash was out long enough to cost the Los Angeles Lakers a head coach, Andrew Bynum’s unfortunate bowling habit cost the Philadelphia 76ers dearly, the Minnesota Timberwolves have had more severe injuries than can easily be counted and so on. As we look across the NBA landscape, the fortunes of many teams have been dictated by missing personnel.
Of all those injured players who are slowly but surely making their way back to the court, none may have more to prove than Washington Wizards’ point guard John Wall.
When the Wizards made Wall the top pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, they believed he would be the player who would take them back to the ranks of the perennial playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. That may still happen, but if he’s going to become an elite NBA player Wall had better get busy.
His rookie year was solid, and after averaging 16.4 points and 8.3 assists per contest and having his name all but laminated on the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award (winning it every month from January on), Wall finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin.
Wall’s second season, however, was not as impressive. Rather than taking a significant step forward, as most top rookies do, he actually took a step back. He averaged 16.3 points and 8.0 assists while nearly losing his three-point touch altogether (3-42) and committing 5.0 turnovers per contest. He ranked in just the 30th percentile in offense, 38th percentile in transition offense and a dismal 19th percentile in half court sets. He was only marginally better on the defensive end, ranking in the 34th percentile among all NBA players, managing to rank higher than the 50th percentile in only one area. He ranked in the 64th percentile in defending screen plays, but that accounted for just 5.4% of the opponent’s offense last season.
Granted, the team around Wall has been in a state of flux, but if he’s going to be the lynchpin around which the rest of the team is built, he has to step up his game and show that he is going to be worthy of that distinction.
There are a number of players who have a great deal to prove this season. Danny Granger has to show that he is still the best player on a team that is rapidly moving on without him. Kevin Love has to prove that he can stay healthy, lest he lose his spot to the up-and-coming Derrick Williams. Andrew Bynum has to prove that he was worth all that they gave to up acquire him.
At the top of the list, however, is Washington’s Wall. Their franchise is in desperate need of a savior, and it remains to be seen if he is up to the challenge.
Unexpected All-Star Rising in Denver?
After the Denver Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, Nuggets head coach George Karl famously said that he didn’t feel he needed a superstar to compete for a championship. He later clarified a bit, saying he felt he has a superstar in the making already on his team, referring to up-and-coming players like Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari. At the time he wasn’t even thinking about then-rookie Kenneth Faried, yet Faried’s play earned him more and more playing time, even for a coach who doesn’t usually play rookies.
“It helped me a lot,” Faried tells HOOPSWORLD. “Because it showed that he had confidence and faith in me, and my teammates had confidence and faith in me, and what you got around you that’s going to help you and not downgrade you or make you look like just, ‘Look you’re just a rookie. You can’t do this.’ Then you have a lot of faith in yourself.”
Karl certainly has faith in Faried, letting him know that he has raised the bar on himself with his excellent play. He’s going to have to prepare for the kind of defensive focus teams are throwing at him now to take his game to the next level.
“I think Kenneth has been up and down,” says Karl. “He’s asked me a couple of times after he hasn’t played well and I said, ‘You understand you’re in the scouting report now?’ Last year he wasn’t on the scouting report and now he’s probably on top of the scouting report, some nights he might be the number one priority of the opposing team.”
As much as Karl thinks Faried might turn out to be his next big star, the second-year forward is staying focused on the immediate task at hand.
“It’s an honor to hear that from my coach, but I’m not really focused on that,” says Faried. “I’m more focused on just helping the team win and trying to win each and every game that we come out, and if we don’t win, at least not have a blow out game, and always bring energy and have fun. I enjoy playing this game, actually, I love playing this game so I’m just going to keep having fun.”
The Nuggets were up and down over the first two months of the season, which they spent largely on the road. Now that the New Year has ushered in a high dose of home games, Faried’s looking forward to living up to the expectations people had for his team at season’s start.
“Yes, I am. We all are, actually,” says Faried. “We want to go back home, that environment, and everybody keeps saying that we’re not altitude ready ourselves because we keep getting on the road, so when we get home, and get this long home stretch, we going to be ready.”
Faried feels his team’s current home stretch is a chance for them to prove they belong in the West’s elite.
“Yeah, it’s early,” says Faried. “Everybody’s saying stuff, I mean, even about the Lakers and how poorly they started, but they’re starting to get their chemistry. It really helps when you get that home stand and the crowd behind you to get your team and get the team camaraderie together, and we are going to get in the right direction.”
So far, so good for Denver. They’ve won three games in a row, seven of their last ten, and are back in the Western Conference playoff picture. If Faried continues to elevate his game and his teammates respond to his infectious energy, the Nuggets could soon be back where everyone thought they would be during preseason – among the best teams in the Western Conference.
Blazers A Playoff Team?
It’s time to give credit where it’s due. When the HOOPSWORLD team sat down to take a long look at the Portland Trail Blazers for our annual season preview, most of us weren’t convinced they were ready to be a playoff team just yet. In fact, the only member of the team who really felt the Blazers might be a postseason participant was Derek Page, who put them among the playoff teams when he ranked the Western Conference.
The playoffs are a long way off, of course, but roughly two and a half months into the 2012-13 NBA season the Blazers actually do look like a team that could make the playoffs.
The driving force behind Portland’s improvement this season has been rookie sensation Damian Lillard. After a head-turning performance in summer league, we knew that Lillard was something special, but the way he has taken the league by storm has been something to see. Whether it’s making huge shots at the end of games, setting up his teammates with seemingly-impossible passes, or just fueling the team with his own offense, Lillard has been fabulous. He’s averaging 18.0 points and 6.5 assists per game, and behind his strong play the Blazers are riding a four-game winning streak and sit just a half-game behind Houston in the West’s seventh seed.
Next up is Nicholas Batum, who signed a contract extension worth roughly $50 million over the summer in a move that some questioned. Question no more. Batum has been everything the Blazers need him to be and more, averaging 16.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per contest. He’s put up some huge scoring numbers and made some big clutch plays, but his all-around game is what has benefitted the Blazers the most. Last night the team hosted the defending champion Miami HEAT and came out on top behind 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists from Batum. That’s just how good he’s been this season.
Finally, there has been the steady presence of All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge has never been one to be too concerned about credit or the limelight, and his humble tone has kept the Blazers from getting too high on themselves. While Lillard and Batum get a great deal of attention for their superb play, behind it all is Aldridge averaging 20.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, as steady and dependable as any star in the NBA.
The Blazers still have some questions to answer on the defensive end, especially at center, but as things stand they are right in the thick of the postseason chase as we near the season’s midway point. It might just be that the Portland Trail Blazers will be a playoff team after all.
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