By Rob Mahoney
With the biggest disappointments in the NBA this season already packaged and delivered, it's time that we reflect on a topic more fitting of the new calendar year: self-improvement. Here's a look at 12 players with pronounced improvements in their games.
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder: If Kendrick Perkins is to blame for the Thunder's overly conventional lineups with two court-clogging big men, Ibaka could rightly be credited for some of the team's push-back solvency. If nothing else, Perkins' very presence has forced Ibaka to stretch his game over the past few seasons, and this season we've begun to see the considerable payoff from that evolution.
Such dividends begin with Ibaka's vast improvement as a spot-up shooter -- an area in which he has quietly done solid work for the last few seasons. But the difference between Ibaka's meek effectiveness last season (46 percent on 2.6 long two-point attempts per game, according to Hoopdata) and this season's confident hoisting (50 percent on 4.5 attempts) is stark. Those mid-range looks have become shots that both Ibaka and his teammates fully expect him to take and make, to the point that he receives an earful from Russell Westbrook if he shows even the slightest hesitation in pulling the trigger. That consistent vote of confidence has helped Ibaka to become a more dynamic player.
There's nothing sexy about converting long twos, and with how often the Thunder score at the rim, get to the free-throw line and convert their three-point tries, Ibaka's intermediate looks might not seem preferable by comparison. That said, his mid-range attempts -- born of ball reversals and dribble-drive playmaking -- represent the Thunder's capitalization of a slim but useful moment in time. Oklahoma City can't get every shot from the most efficient zones on the floor, just as it can't conclude every possession with a quality attempt for Kevin Durant. But OKC continues to build on its already brilliant offense by turning every advantage into a point of profit. The room offered to Ibaka on the perimeter has become one such advantage, and, given an offense rich with shot creation, an added bit of flexibility.
(Plus, Ibaka has periodically put the ball on the floor after making a mid-range catch in order to draw a foul or finish emphatically at the rim. That's an entirely new wrinkle to his game, and one that's altogether frightening. Can you imagine what it might ultimately mean for the Thunder offense if those burst drives were to become a more dependable part Ibaka's repertoire?)
George Hill, Indiana Pacers: On a superficial level, it would be easy to call Hill's improvements (+1.9 points, +1.1 assists per-36 minutes relative to last season) modest. But the fifth-year guard has matured into a calming influence after years of inconsistent play both on and off the ball. Hill has become a lifeline for a Pacers team that's otherwise starved for competent point guard play, and brought the NBA's 29th-ranked offense to league-average scoring levels whenever he's on the floor. Bolster those credentials with Hill's always solid defense, and he begins to resemble a primordial Chauncey Billups -- flexible defensively, characteristically unafraid and coming into his own as both a spot scorer and low-risk caretaker.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats: Young NBA players are expected to improve, but I wasn't totally convinced that Walker was capable of his current level of performance at all, much less in Year 2. Where many saw a natural leader and a former college standout, I saw only a quick guard who would likely struggle with the size and speed of NBA defenders, and an offense-first player reliant on pull-up jumpers. To me, that seemed to be the résumé of a decent backup, but hardly the kind of description befitting a lead guard.
But Walker has redefined his NBA potential in my mind by improving in so many phases of the game so quickly, a development that can only be attributed to his willingness to work on better understanding this caliber of opponent and the nuances of the game in general. Many have praised Walker's composure in years past, but the way he now approaches his role and his skill set are fundamentally more intelligent. His quickness is deployed with more control, his shot selection is far more measured and he's already displaying an impressive ability to manipulate defenders in order to create offense. Walker seems likely to always skew toward the score-first mold, but that itself isn't a demerit so much as a stylistic footnote; as long as the Bobcats account for Walker's style of play in their team construction, his passing limitations needn't hold back the development of their offense.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: I've already discussed Durant's growth at length in this space, but somehow KD has only been better since then. Self-actualization was clearly on Durant's to-do list, and his progress as a defender and ball-handler make that goal seem like a summer project rather than a lifelong endeavor. He was great as a focused scorer, but Durant's dedication to basketball completion has elevated him as a candidate to be the league's finest.
Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets: A boost in playing time has helped Parsons' per-game numbers, but beyond those statistical boosts is a fantastic role player who has bettered himself on a per-minute and per-possession level. He passes wonderfully, his cutting instincts are uncanny and he's been a solid defender on and off the ball. He has a complete package of complementary skills, and this season has added a concentrated dose of scoring to his already valuable profile.
Parsons was a particularly shaky shooter in his rookie season, and though he's increased his accuracy from beyond the three-point line by only about three percentage points (from 33.7 to 36.5), his consistency from that range is markedly improved. Whereas last season his feast-or-famine jumper sent many misses crashing on the far side of the backboard or whiffing the basket entirely, Parsons' more controlled stroke now holds the potential for even further improvement. One can see a similar refinement across Parsons' entire offensive game, a development that has enabled the Rockets to thrive behind his dynamic complement to James Harden's pick-and-roll genius and Jeremy Lin's frenzied dribble-driving.
Jason Kidd, New York Knicks: To say that Kidd was washed up a season ago wasn't some premature eulogy for a player in decline -- it was the undeniable truth to anyone who watched him play in Dallas. Kidd's playmaking style has always been a bit risky, but the return on his passing investments grew increasingly meager as the mental errors piled up.
But Knicks coach Mike Woodson was able to turn one of the greatest point guards of all time into a fascinating standstill shooting guard. As a functional 2, Kidd could benefit from open three-pointers (of which he's making 43 percent) while also using his natural creativity to jazz up New York's swing-passing game. Kidd still participates in the standard side-to-side passing that occurs whenever a defense gets too stretched, but in a split second, the 39-year-old can also read the floor for more interesting alternatives. He might fake the pass and take the shot himself after reading the close-out patterns of the defense. He might thread a feed inside to an inexplicably open Tyson Chandler. He might even put the ball on the floor once in awhile, just for kicks. Kidd has been put in a position where he can read the floor without having the pressure that comes with being a team's primary creator, and that redistribution of his individual skills has breathed new life into a career that was looking downright funereal.
Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings: SB Nation's Tom Ziller was all over the Jimmer-as-MIP angle on Monday, and the second-year guard deserves to be in the conversation for the award. Improvement may be assumed for young players, but Fredette has jumped from rookie incompetence into a showing as one of the league's most potent bench scorers -- a rare bright spot in Sacramento's most recent flop of a season, and a leap that was completely unexpected given all that we saw of Jimmer the first time around. Who knows what the future holds for Fredette in terms of his optimal role and consistent defensive concessions, but he's succeeding as an offensive player.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: Most NBA fans seem to regard Griffin's current season with pessimism, but I see an all-around superior player who is improving each of his greatest weaknesses. Defensive positioning was a big issue for Griffin in his first two seasons, but he and frontcourt mate DeAndre Jordan have been in the right place at the right time more reliably this year. Free-throw shooting is still a bit of an issue, but Griffin has at least jumped to 62 percent from 52 percent a season ago. The expansion of Griffin's mid-range game is a work in progress, but a smoother form and a greater willingness to shoot jumpers has led Griffin to make a career-high 41 percent (nearing David West and Zach Randolph territory) on long two-pointers, per Hoopdata. And that's coupled with Griffin's still-impressive scoring on a deeper Clippers team, his quality defensive rebounding, elite passing skills for his position and effective-as-ever face-up game. Where's the alleged regression?
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: A 34-year-old guard in his 17th year is having the best offensive season of his career because of a conscious change in his possession usage. What a wonderful coda for an already outstanding career.
Corey Brewer, Denver Nuggets: Brewer has always had value as a high-energy cutter and defender, but he had such an inconsistent shot that opponents could disregard him whenever he retreated to the corners. That doesn't theoretically matter much to a high-motor player like Brewer, but it does inconvenience his team's offense. As much as we praise those who move without the ball, there are times when wing players need to space the floor from the weak side or at least not muddle up the strong-side action with a random baseline cut, and it's in that area of the game that Brewer had previously struggled. His effort and value were obvious, but offenses can only afford so many range-less players while still preserving the necessary driving lanes and post-up space.
Brewer, 26, is still no marksman, but by converting long-range shots at a league-average rate (a career-high 34.8 percent), he has dramatically improved his utility. As a result, the Nuggets are able to take full advantage of Brewer's scrambling, long-armed defense and open-court sprinting without much concern for what happens when he catches the ball in the corners.
Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers: We knew of the torment that Bledsoe could cause opposing ball-handlers, and we even had a glimpse of his incredible off-ball potential while playing with Chris Paul in the 2012 playoffs. But the 23-year-old has played the part of a fully functional reserve point guard for the most exciting second unit in the league this season, complete with an improving set shot and some slick pick-and-roll play. At some point the Clippers will need to consider whether Bledsoe is a luxury they can really afford, but for now he's a fantastic change-of-pace player with emerging skills as a playmaker.
J.J. Hickson, Portland Trail Blazers: Hickson doesn't make all that much sense as a part of Portland's rebuilding core, but that hasn't stopped the fifth-year veteran from having a career year as a center placeholder. Though playing alongside LaMarcus Aldridge apparently yields the opportunity for any eager center to get their fill of rebounds, Hickson has surpassed any reasonable expectation by doing elite-level work on the glass. Reggie Evans and Anderson Varejao are the only players in the league to post a higher total rebounding percentage than Hickson, and it's by his efforts alone that Portland is even remotely passable in any rebounding department. Hickson has had flashes of this kind of productivity before (most notably in 2010-11, in his last season as a Cavalier), but the consistency of this rebounding surge offers his game a new credibility. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.