The All-Grateful Team: Five players who are extra thankful this holiday
"The Point Forward All-Stars" centers on a single shared trait that brings its team members together. This week: five players who will be savoring their turkey a little more than usual this year. Without further ado, here's SI.com's second annual All-Grateful Team.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Grateful for: Good health
This team’s headliner is self-explanatory, but it’s still worth a little extra love given the sheer volume of comeback stories that are taking place this season. After missing virtually all of last season with a leg injury and then watching his off-season get swallowed up with a debate over small ball, Pacers forward Paul George is back with a vengeance. Forty points worth of vengeance against the Wizards on Tuesday, and 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals worth of vengeance on the season to date.
Despite clear identity issues and a slow start from free-agent acquisition Monta Ellis, the Pacers are beating expectations at 9-5. To date, Indiana is one of just five teams to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency—joining Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio and Toronto—and the bulk of the credit belongs to George.
His highlight reel against the Wizards, when viewed in context of what he’s been through in the last 18 months, is about as close to “Chicken Soup for the Soul” as YouTube basketball clips get. He’s shoulder-shaking into jumpers, pulling up from deep, cutting backdoor for reverse dunks, knocking home floaters, putting home fadeaways, and powering through multiple defenders in the paint. The Wizards’ poor announcers are practically begging for mercy by the end of it.
What a tour de force.
The only players to match George’s current 25/8/4 numbers for a season since 2000 are Chris Webber (2001), LeBron James (2013) and Kevin Love (2014). That puts George in the mix for the All-NBA First Team discussion, even if his torrid early-season outside shooting gives way, and he’s right back in the All-Defense mix as well. George isn’t quite matching Curry shot for shot and win for win this season, but he’s doing well to back up his brash declaration, made in early October, that he wants to be the 2016 MVP. It’s a pleasure to see him back walking the walk.
Michael Carter-Williams, Bucks
Grateful for: Being a former Sixer
Things are far from perfect for Carter-Williams and the Bucks, who reside in the Central Division’s basement at 6-8 thanks to a defense that has base jumped down to No. 29 after ranking No. 2 last season. Carter-Williams has missed some time with an ankle injury, he’s still not a proficient outside shooter, and there’s a decent chance he places among the league’s most turnover-prone players for the third straight season.
But the third-year guard surely realizes that his current predicament, as frustrating as it might be, is nothing compared to what he endured in Philadelphia. The Feb. 2014 three-way trade that sent Carter-Williams from the Sixers to the Bucks saved the 24-year-old guard from even more embarrassment. As a rookie, he suffered through an NBA record-tying 26 straight losses. Last season, he suffered 17 straight losses. After trading Carter-Williams for a draft pick, Philadelphia posted a 6-23 record to close 2014-15 and is off to an 0-15 start this season. All told, the Sixers enter Wednesday’s action on a 25-game losing streak dating back to last year. Losses to Boston on Wednesday and Houston on Friday would set a new record for the longest losing streak in league history (27). Philadelphia could also set a new record for the worst start to a season if they lose their first 19 games.
This week's guests: Suns' Jeff Hornacek and ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes
Sixers fans and management will argue that the 2016 draft will be the franchise’s long-awaited turning point, as Philadelphia could have four first-round picks, thereby redeeming the “Trust The Process” approach. That’s fine. Patience makes sense for those who have no choice but to be tied to the franchise. For players like Carter-Williams, there’s little doubt that escape was a preferable option. Finding a role on a serious team takes time, and rookie contracts don’t last forever. Carter-Williams will be eligible for a rookie extension next fall with restricted free agency looming in 2017 if he doesn’t reach a deal. There’s no time like the present for him to start compiling a resume that won’t be tainted by tank-inflated numbers and an avalanche of losses.
One can’t help but wonder whether Philadelphia’s continued futility will cause Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor to dream of greener pastures. In most situations, NBA media members and casual fans come down hard on stars (or potential stars) who try to force their way out of town. Let’s say one of those two did go to management and forcefully request a trade, and then word leaked out. Would anyone side with Sixers GM Sam Hinkie? Wouldn’t just about everyone sympathize with the players given Philadelphia’s extreme approach and terrible results in recent years? What, really, is Hinkie’s play in that situation besides holding firm and deciding to hold his centerpieces hostage?
The good news for Carter-Williams: he doesn’t need to worry about these hypotheticals, he doesn’t need to wonder if the Noel/Okafor pairing can work together, he doesn’t need to wonder why his GM hasn’t landed a real free agent in years, he doesn’t need to explain why Sixers starting point guard TJ McConnell still hasn’t attempted a free throw in 429 minutes this season, and he doesn’t need to keep tabs on Joel Embiid’s health and conditioning. He can just play, with the expectation that he’ll win more than one or two games a month.
Festus Ezeli, Golden State Warriors
Grateful for: The best job in the NBA?
Two years ago, Warriors center Festus Ezeli looked like he was on the fast track to anonymity. The last player taken in the first round of the 2012 draft missed the entire 2013-14 season following knee surgery and, while he was out, Golden State inked starting center Andrew Bogut to a three-year extension. Last year, Ezeli watched almost half of Golden State’s games from the sidelines. But this year? Ezeli might have the best job in basketball.
Think about it. He plays for the undefeated Warriors. His biggest weaknesses—free throw shooting and offensive range—aren’t really issues because Golden State can go small whenever it needs to and has plenty of other floor-spacing shooters. He’s made one shot outside the restricted area all season and that couldn’t matter less. His biggest strengths—interior defense and finishing in the basket area—are in high demand in the modern NBA. And, perhaps best of all, he gets to dunk, dunk, dunk until his heart’s content.
Entering Tuesday’s games, Ezeli led the NBA with 34 dunks, per Basketball-Reference.com, and he added two more against in the Warriors’ blowout win over the Lakers. All told, 36 of Ezeli’s 51 field goals this season are dunks. Even better, a vast, vast majority of his dunks have been assisted and 16 have been of the alley-oop variety.
Draymond Green and Ezeli have really refined their big-to-big connection this season, adding a little Blake Griffin to DeAndre Jordan-like element to Golden State’s attack. It’s often said that defenses must “pick their poison” if they try to double-team Stephen Curry, because Green gets to play 4-on-3 from the top of the key. Some of that poison comes from Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes in the corners, some comes from Klay Thompson at the angle, and some comes from Ezeli’s jackhammer finishes down low.
It’s one thing when a dunk makes you scrunch up your face as if to say, “Ooo nasty.” It’s another when it makes you nod your head and whisper, “Too easy.”
Ezeli benefits when Green pushes the ball in transition, too, as he’s a natural trailing target.
Whether in the half-court or on the break, the table is more or less permanently set for Ezeli. The best part? All this joyful productivity is coming in a contract year, as Ezeli will join Barnes in restricted free agency next summer. As the Warriors look to keep their title window open and avoid a crazy luxury tax bill, their best-case scenario in 2016 might be paying up to keep Barnes and Ezeli while trading away Bogut’s expiring contract in a David Lee-like salary dump.
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
Grateful for: Perfectly-timed breakout
A fair number of 2012 draft class members reached early extensions before the season. For those who didn’t, the countdown is on until next summer, when the NBA’s rising salary cap will set off an unprecedented spending spree (one that will trump last summer’s unprecedented spending spree).
Pistons center Andre Drummond and Wizards guard Bradley Beal are both headed for clear max deals. But the 2012 class had some cases that were less clear-cut: Harrison Barnes, Dion Waiters, Meyers Leonard, Terrence Jones, and others. With the possible exception of Barnes, who is averaging a career-high 13.8 points for the undefeated Warriors, no member of the 2012 class has helped his cause more this season than Magic forward Evan Fournier.
The 6'7" Frenchman is having a textbook breakout campaign, averaging a team-leading 18.8 points thanks to a slipperiness off the dribble that helps him get to the hoop and a solid three-point stroke. True breakouts demand a major increase in opportunity and responsibility, and the 23-year-old Fournier is enjoying both. His usage rate and shot attempts are at career-high marks, and Magic coach Scott Skiles is riding him for 37.1 minutes per night, which ranks third in the NBA behind All-Stars James Harden and Damian Lillard. Although Orlando’s offense (No. 24) and record (6-8) aren’t anything special, they are better than last year and any further progress will only aid Fournier’s negotiating power next summer.
Magic GM Rob Hennigan has spent the last three years assembling young talent and waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to bust through. As he’s waited, he’s already invested real money in center Nikola Vucevic and forward Tobias Harris. Fournier, who made headlines last week with a pretty game-winning three-pointer, is clearly next up.
Yahoo Sports reported this week that he turned down a four-year, $32 million offer from the Magic prior to the season. If Fournier’s hot start continues, he could well follow the Jimmy Butler path by banking a contract next summer that winds up being double the offer he rejected. Now that’s how you “bet on yourself.”
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Grateful for: His 9th basketball life
Full disclosure: I was fully convinced that Spurs guard Manu Ginobili was done for good after his rough outing in the 2015 playoffs. The numbers were grisly—8 PPG on 34.9% shooting and a 1-for-6 night in what could have been a closeout Game 6—but it was more about the feel of his play. The command was gone. The timely shots weren’t falling. His occasionally erratic body control was veering towards totally erratic. He was 37 at the time and it seemed a straightforward case of the wheels falling off.
I left Game 7 of San Antonio’s first-round series convinced that Tim Duncan should return but that Ginobili should hang it up. I feared that Ginobili, if he returned, would be engulfed by the same age-relate struggles that have plauged Kobe Bryant.
Instead, Ginobili, now 38, has been putting on one more magic act for the 11-3 Spurs, who are happily cruising under the radar while the Warriors get all the attention and hype. Yes, he’s missed a few games with a minor hip injury. Yes, he’s down to just 20.6 minutes per night, a career low. And yes, his per-game numbers—11.6 points and 3.4 assists—are modest.
Those facts acknowledged, it sure is hard to make the case that Ginobili is washed up when he’s posting a +21.9 net rating and ranking among the top players at his position in Real Plus-Minus.
Or, when he’s threading the needle to a backdoor cutter through three defenders like this...
Or, when he’s playing a soccer-style bounce pass into space in transition like this…
Or, when he’s unfurling a perfect pocket pass to a big man like this…
The Spurs will need him if and when they face the Warriors in the playoffs and, unlike his fellow geezers (Bryant, Kevin Garnett, etc.), he has the chance to be a contributor if his health holds.
Ginobili is surely grateful that Father Time decided to procrastinate just a little bit longer. But, really, it’s the viewing public that should be thankful Ginobili’s tank hasn’t hit empty quite yet.