By Rob Mahoney
The inevitable year-to-year surprises in player and team performance are a crucial part of any regular-season narrative. Revel in Kevin Durant's broadening game. Bask in the struggles of the widely loathed Lakers. Embrace the bewilderment that comes with Roy Hibbert's offensive slump, Andray Blatche's rebirth or the Hawks' sturdy defense. It's all part of the fun, after all. But from where I sit, the greatest surprises are those that emerge from the realm of the known quantities -- the veterans who find new ways to succeed, defy the aging process or come back stronger than ever after rehabilitation. Today we focus on some players who have made unexpected contributions after being written off in one way or another based on what we presumed to know about their games or careers:
Jason Kidd, New York Knicks
Kidd's on-court role was redefined long ago. Age has precluded Kidd from being the player he once was, just as all great players are forced to compromise for the sake of extending their NBA life span. To his credit, Kidd did so beautifully -- and arguably transitioned from centerpiece to role player more effectively than any player in NBA history. While playing with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Kidd's game shifted almost entirely to the perimeter, where he made three-pointers at a completely uncharacteristic rate, lifting his long-range accuracy above 40 percent, and shifted his playmaking style to better suit his physical abilities.
It was a happy marriage for a player and team with similar sensibilities, but Kidd's play in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season hit worrisome new lows. There has always been a slightly wild shadow to Kidd's pinpoint passing, and that streak seemed to get the better of him as he turned the ball over at a career-high rate (24.2 percent) while scoring and assisting at a lower rate than he had at any point in his career.
But when a 38-year-old point guard slows his roll, few stop to really wonder why. There really was little in Kidd's 2011-12 performance to suggest that he was capable of a rebound -- much less the full-on renaissance he's experienced as a Knick. Kidd is no more spry today than he was last season, and yet he has again contorted his career to find new life as New York's nominal shooting guard. His assists are down, but his influence is way up; much of the Knicks' newfound unselfishness has been attributed to Kidd's style and influence. He doesn't have to do a ton with Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton carrying the offensive load, and he makes the most of his opportunities by sinking damn near every three-pointer he takes (Kidd is shooting a league-best 52.8 percent) and getting the ball where it needs to go.
O'Neal's basketball career was dead, buried and decomposing. Then the Suns dragged him up from the Earth, threw a uniform on him and reanimated his game through what I can only assume to be necromancy. It'd be impressive if it weren't outright frightening. How long until the Suns' roster is built entirely of basketball's undead?
But supernatural influence aside, it's been nice to see the 34-year-old O'Neal not only back in the league after what most assumed to be his final season, but also virtually doubling his per-36-minute scoring production (up to 15.4 from 7.9 last season). There's a night-and-day difference in terms of O'Neal's style of play from this season to last, which again is of far more credit to the Suns than it is in any way a slight to the Celtics. He's still ill equipped to carry a significant load for the Suns (or any team, for that matter), but the fact that O'Neal is good for a productive 20 minutes a night is miraculous in itself.
Jason Richardson, Philadelphia 76ers
Richardson looked more limited than ever last season with the Magic. He still converted a respectable 36.8 percent from three-point range, but everything beyond a spot-up jumper was something of an ordeal. Richardson was once among the most athletic players in the league, but his ability to work off the dribble seemed to have all but left him by the time he turned 31. Not to oversimplify Richardson's regression, but it was almost exactly as Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus -- in a June 2011 piece for ESPN Insider -- foretold:
Richardson turned 30 in January, and that's a dangerous time for swingmen of his ilk. Seventy-two percent of players with a similarity score of 95 or higher to Richardson, based on our SCHOENE Projection System, declined the following season. On average, their overall performance dropped off by nearly 10 percent. Michael Finley, one of Richardson's closest matches, is a good example of what might lie ahead for Richardson. Finley's last above-average season came at age 31, and a year after that, the Mavericks used the amnesty provision in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement to waive him.
As he moves into his 30s, Richardson can continue to offer value as a shooting specialist in a more limited role, such as Finley played for the San Antonio Spurs. Other players similar to Richardson, such as Byron Scott and Dan Majerle, had second careers as reserves. The problem is that Richardson's next contract might pay him more like the starter he has been throughout his NBA career.
Former Magic general manager Otis Smith then signed Richardson to a four-year, $24 million deal in the exact vein that Pelton warned against. One season and a roughly 10 percent drop in production later, Richardson was sent to Philadelphia, where he has managed to hold steady as one of the more dependable wings in the Sixers' rotation. Richardson really isn't doing anything that he wasn't doing last year, but given the discrepancy between Stan Van Gundy's kick-out-heavy offense in Orlando (which relied heavily on perimeter shooters) and Philadelphia's general offensive disarray a season ago, it's surprising that he's been able to maintain his per-minute contributions. Yet there Richardson is, making a slightly higher percentage of his three-point attempts (38.6) and working almost solely as a spot-up shooter, but providing value for a team badly in need of his skill set.
Jerry Stackhouse, Brooklyn Nets
After an inconsequential season in Atlanta, Stackhouse signed with the Nets in what was widely considered to either be an outright punchline or a favor to Jeff Schwartz -- the agent who also facilitated Deron Williams' re-signing in Brooklyn. Even if that was the case, the 38-year-old Stackhouse has gone on to nab a legitimate spot in the Nets' rotation and admirably fill 18 minutes a night. Stack has bounced between a few teams since his last productive stint, with the Mavericks in 2007-08, and his deliberate offensive game didn't seem to bode well for the twilight stage of his career. Milwaukee, Miami and Atlanta all gave Stackhouse a chance to earn a place in their respective rotations, but he was largely unable to provide much scoring and proved a poor fit for the roles in which he was used.
But Brooklyn coach Avery Johnson -- a longtime Stackhouse booster -- has found a new use for a player who was once among the league's most explosive scorers. As Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson orchestrate much of the Nets' offense, Stackhouse simply waits in the corner, prepared to fire up an attempt whenever a pass comes his way. Stackhouse has never been a particularly good three-point shooter (he's made just 31 percent for his career), but he has benefited greatly from shooting wide-open attempts from the closest possible point along the three-point line. As a standstill shooter, Stackhouse has made 17-of-33 corner threes, an impressive 51.5 percent mark that makes him a superior option to token three-and-D man Keith Bogans in the Nets' rotation.
Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
Crawford has a difficult game to place, as his strengths are almost required to correspond with his own team's weaknesses. He's a scoring-centric role player, but one who needs complete freedom in order to ply his trade effectively. Such a concession often comes at a cost, as Crawford can drift into a mental space where beating his man off the dribble becomes his sole focus. Between an uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers and an elite-level handle, Crawford is quite capable of doing just that. But in accepting that approach, Crawford and his team gloss over superior offensive options, the benefit of a team-wide orchestration and the efficiency around which great offensive teams are built.
Somehow, the Clippers have been able to benefit from the creative streaks of Crawford's game without bringing about their second unit's undoing -- a balance that had eluded the 32-year-old in his five previous NBA stops under 15 head coaches. Vinny Del Negro isn't really the cause for Crawford's unbelievable success, but he is to be credited for finding a formula that works, even if he only arrived at that result haphazardly. The kinetic energy of a lineup featuring Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf has overwhelmed the bench units of other teams at a rate of 21.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Sub in Ryan Hollins for Turiaf and the results are a little less gaudy (only a plus-8.3 net rating per 100 possessions), but no less significant. Crawford was chased out of Portland (by a mob of angry Blazers fans, no doubt) into a perfect situation that has him scoring at what is essentially a career-high rate.
Rasheed Wallace, New York Knicks
Coming out of retirement is rarely a sound formula for NBA success, but Wallace -- while out of shape and chucking three-point attempts at an astounding rate -- has managed to be a largely positive contributor for a Knicks team that would otherwise be stuck with the immobile Kurt Thomas. Wallace may not be covering all that much ground on a game-to-game basis, but he's done surprisingly well as a second-unit defender, and the Knicks hold opponents to just 96.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. It may not make much sense, but a 38-year-old volume shooter with a career's worth of motivational concerns is somehow giving the Knicks just what they need in a reserve big man.
Reggie Evans, Brooklyn Nets
The top-tier rebounding numbers and flopping theatrics are par for the course with Evans, but color me impressed at the way this tried-and-true, 32-year-old specialist has been able to expand his defensive game. Many basketball observers have a bad habit of tying rebounding and defense together when it comes to big men, but Evans was long a shining example of why that logic is so deeply flawed. Rebounding is a very specific skill, and while many of the league's best big-man defenders are also strong rebounders, there's not sufficient reason to assume one strength simply because of the other.
And so Evans ultimately has spent most of his career struggling on both sides of the ball, while succeeding wildly in the brief space in between possessions. According to Basketball-Reference, only two players in NBA history have posted a higher career rebounding percentage than Evans: Dennis Rodman and Kevin Love. But Evans has also managed to average 4.5 fouls to just 7.6 points per 36 minutes, a testament to his wild and physical defensive style.
That's changed pretty drastically this season. Evans has continued his rebounding excellence while also being the Nets' best defender in the pick-and-roll by a pretty wide margin. The competition for that honor isn't exactly fierce with Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Blatche as Brooklyn's most frequently used alternatives, but that shouldn't discount the subtle improvements in the way that Evans defends those sequences. His overbearing nature will never be fully erased, but Evans is doing a much better job of reining in his instinct to assault anyone with the ball, and is regularly saving possessions that the Nets' other big men have conceded with their late recovery on the roll man. All of that improvement might just make Evans a net defensive benefit, but even average interior defense is useful among Brooklyn's crop of bigs. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.