"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members.
This week, SI.com names its All-Stocking Stuffer Team, a collection of the best low-budget performers who were gifted to their current teams in 2013.
The All-Stocking Stuffer Team
This week's list is self-explanatory: We're looking for players on affordable contracts who have been delivering the goods this season. To add in the Christmas component, the players must have been "gifted" to their current team sometime during the 2013 calendar year, whether by trade, signing or the draft. The cheaper, the better! All players will be subjected to hokey Christmas gift comparisons. You've been forewarned.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
The longer Phoenix keeps winning, the better their offseason trade for Bledsoe looks. The Suns enter the Christmas break at 17-10, good for the fifth-best record in the West, and Bledsoe is nestled among the very best Player Efficiency Rating performers at his position, enjoying a spot near the top of the charts alongside the likes of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Tony Parker.
Both player and team qualify among the league's most pleasant surprises, and Bledsoe is right near the top of the charts when it comes to bang for the buck production. In the final year of his rookie contract, Bledsoe is averaging 18.9 points, 6.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, all while earning just $2.6 million. By comparison, the Bulls paid Derrick Rose $1.8 million per game for the 10 appearances he made prior to his season-ending knee injury.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough hasn't gotten enough hype for plucking Bledsoe, and there's an argument to be made that his trade for Bledsoe belongs in the same discussion as Houston's trade for James Harden, especially when it comes to short-term results. By comparison, Bledsoe is cheaper than Harden was because of his draft order slot, the Suns are overachieving more than the Rockets did last season (so far), Bledsoe's 21.5 PER is comparable to Harden's 23 PER from last season, there's little question that Bledsoe is a better two-way player (in that he actually competes on both ends), and Phoenix's return package has been a pittance compared to Houston's bounty for Harden.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey is credited for making one of the best trades in recent years in snagging Harden -- and rightfully so -- but he did part with a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, a young prospect who has blossomed into a rotation player and a lottery pick to get it done. What did McDonough pay to get Bledsoe? Jared Dudley, a 2014 second-round pick and the money owed to Caron Butler, whose contract he later ditched for two lower-cost players. As for Dudley, he has a PER of 8.9, which ranks among the worst for starters at his position. "I been playing like s---. It's been downright embarrassing," he tweeted earlier this month. Well then. Even if Dudley turns things around, this was a highway robbery price for a franchise building block like Bledsoe; The Point Forward gave Phoenix an "A+" for the move at the time, which may have been missing three or four "plusses" at the end of the grade.
The fact that Bledsoe will command a max-type extension next summer does dampen the excitement here just a touch, but his acquisition was a little bit like waking up on Christmas morning to find the keys to a Mercedes in your stocking. Yes, there will be expensive insurance and maintenance costs to consider down the road but that's not exactly killing the vibe, not when you just upgraded from a Hyundai out of nowhere.
Joining Bledsoe in consideration for this list? Jordan Farmar, who gave Lakers fans good reason to fall in love with him for the second time after returning from overseas. A hamstring injury has put his season on hold, but he's powered one of the league's better benches by averaged 9.2 points and 4.4 assists in 18.9 minutes per game. Rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams, who dropped to the No. 11 spot in the draft, has provided excitement and an excellent return on his $2.2 million rookie deal.
SG: Marco Belinelli, Spurs
Wouldn't you know it? Playing on Tony Parker's Spurs has a beneficial impact on your shooting numbers compared to the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, who were led by the likes of Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Marquis last season. Writing that statement off as Captain Obvious material would be selling short Bellineli's pre-Christmas shooting acumen by a lot.
Entering the holiday, San Antonio's biggest offseason addition is averaging 10.3 points and shooting a mouth-watering 51.1 percent from deep. As the San Antonio Express-News noted this week, Belinelli joins Hawks forward Kyle Korver as the only three-point shooters hitting above 50 percent on at least three attempts per game. More than half of Belinelli's three-point attempts are coming from simple spot-up situations, per Synergy Sports, and he's a cool 50 percent on such knockdown attempts. Bang bang. Hold on, I'm getting a premonition. It's Belinelli and Danny Green going tit-for-tat during the 2014 playoffs, delivering back-and-forth daggers as the television announcers wonder how they keep getting so wide open.
What makes Belinelli's addition so great is that the summer of 2013 saw shooters command serious coin around the league, and yet the Spurs added the Italian guard for just $5.6 million over two years. Compare that to the likes of Korver ($24 million over four years), J.J. Redick ($27 million over four years) or Martell Webster ($22 million over four years), and you're looking at a situation where, as the saying goes, San Antonio is receiving three-quarters of the production for a quarter of the cost. This might not be quite as good as Miami robbing Boston of Ray Allen in 2012, but we were reminded once again that winning has a funny way of attracting quality players at affordable prices. "Rich kids always get the best presents," you can hear opponents whining under their breath, and Belinelli equates to a pair of luxury sunglasses bought at an outlet store.
Two other stand-out values worth mentioning: Celtics guard Jordan Crawford and Knicks rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. Washington essentially paid Crawford to go away back in February, and he's rewarded Boston's management by posting a career-high 17.3 PER, shooting a career-high 43.4 points and dishing out a career-high 5.4 assists per game during Rajon Rondo's absence. Not bad for $2.2 million. Hardaway has been one of the few bright spots during this trainwreck of a season for New York; finding a 21-year-old guard capable of scoring from day one and posting a PER above league average with the No. 24 pick is no easy task.
SF: Nick Young, Lakers
The Point Forward is taking the liberty of shifting Young to the three spot from his natural role as a two, and if there's any player in the league that defies previously conceived notions or assumptions, it's the dude they call "Swaggy P." An L.A. native and a USC product, Young signed a two-year minimum-salary contract with the Lakers last summer. Hometown discounts rarely work out this well.
Young's numbers -- 15.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 43.1 shooting -- should keep him in the mix for the Sixth Man of the Year award, even if there are more deserving candidates, but it's his personality that's been the real pay off. L.A.'s season was headed nowhere fast, and that was before last week's devastating news that Kobe Bryant will miss at least six weeks with a knee fracture. Sometimes fans need a break from injury countdowns and endlessly tracking recovery progress, and Young has never been short on entertainment value, even if some of his contributions are unintentional. If we're comparing him to a Christmas gift, Young is the goofy bobblehead or the Big Mouth Billy Bass: You're not exactly building your whole list around him, but when he shows up unexpectedly he winds up being the center of attention for a few laugh-laden hours.
L.A. needs someone to knock down the occasional big shot, craft intricate three-point celebrations, wear zany outfits, make Pau Gasol smile, lighten the mood for coach Mike D'Antoni, and distract everyone from the team's injury woes and below-average defense. There's no replacing Bryant, and a player with less charisma would wilt at the mere thought of stepping into that hole. Instead, Young has found it to be a perfect fit by simply being himself, to the fullest, and that should help Lakers Nation pass the time until the 2014 draft lottery, which could well be the highlight of the 2013-14 campaign.
PF: Jon Leuer, Grizzlies
Referring to Leuer as an "afterthought" in the January trade that landed him in Memphis probably isn't accurate, because that assumes people gave any thought to the deal in the first place. When it happened, this was about as unsexy as trades get: Memphis looked to improve its cap position by giving Cleveland a future first-round pick for taking on Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and Marresse Speights (and the money owed to them) in exchange for Leuer. Hey, they had to send something back, and Leuer was buried on the bench despite playing for one of the league's worst teams. The subsequent trade of Rudy Gay only further buried this move.
What's happened since then has been fairly remarkable. Memphis inked Leuer to a budget-friendly deal worth $2.9 million over three years (only the first two years are guaranteed), and he's repaid that faith by emerging as a productive bench player and a fan favorite. A 2011 second-round pick who spent four years at Wisconsin, the 6-foot-10 Leuer has provided some badly-needed perimeter shooting for the Grizzlies. Entering the break, Leuer is averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 19.9 minutes, and he's shooting 50.7 percent from the floor and 53.8 percent from deep with an impressive 18.9 PER.
The list of things that have gone wrong in Memphis of late is a long one: The falling-out with former coach Lionel Hollins, the dirty laundry aired by a former assistant in the aftermath of the coaching change, a season-altering injury to Marc Gasol, a serious injury to Quincy Pondexter, a defense that has dropped from No. 2 last season to No. 24 this season, an offense that continues to sputter along at a bottom-10 clip, etc. You get the picture; any more would just be piling on. Memphis currently resides in the Southwest Division basement and the playoffs seem an awful long ways away, even if the Grizzlies are only three games out of the No. 8 seed.
Through all of that, Leuer has emerged as a hard-working, reliable, no-ego personality for the Grit & Grind faithful to rally around. Grizzlies blog 3SOB.com notes that fans are debating whether to nickname him "Johnny Badger" or "Whitesnake," and a number of the site's bloggers went so far as to tab Leuer as the team's MVP to date, praising his consistency in particular. Whether you want to compare him to chocolate, socks or some other dependable holiday staple, Leuer fits the "Stocking Stuffer" bill. His arrival in Memphis has been a case of right player, right team, right timing, and right price for a team that has seen its franchise-best 2012-13 season followed up by a nightmare start.
One other name considered: Suns combo forward Marcus Morris, who is averaging 11 points and 4.6 rebounds (both career-highs) this season. His arrival via trade in February has also spurred twin brother Markieff to a career-year (12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds) too. Double the pleasure, double the production.
C: Robin Lopez, Blazers
This is a Christmas-themed list, but Portland's new starting center would qualify for a Valentine's Day version, too. "I love Robin," Blazers coach Terry Stotts blurted out after one win earlier this season, and it's easy to see why. Lopez -- who has developed, and cultivated, a reputation as a goofy, afro-haired, comic book nerd -- was always going to be a great fit in the Rose City's "Keep Portland Weird" off-court vibe, but he's also meshed absolutely seamlessly on the court as well.
Averaging 9.5 points and a career-high 8.3 rebounds so far this season, the 25-year-old Lopez has impressed on both ends. Offensively, he's fit nicely into the fifth option role in Portland's No. 1 ranked attack, feasting on opportunities created by the extra attention given to All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and pick-and-roll passes from Nicolas Batum while mixing in an occasional mid-range jumper without unnecessarily wasting any possessions. Although Lopez hasn't transformed Portland's overall defense, which ranks No. 22 in the league, he's been a key cog in a starting lineup that boasts an outstanding plus-13.7 net rating. The Blazers have been guilty of flipping switches on defense this year, but they've generally gotten stops when it's mattered, as evidenced by their league-best 13-3 in "clutch" games, per NBA.com/stats.
It takes a special kind of balance for a team to jump out of the lottery one year all the way to a conference-best record at Christmas the next year, and Lopez is right at the top of the list when it comes to the key driving factors for Portland's success. When it comes to holiday gifts, he is the gift that fills out the collection: the final book in the trilogy or the last baseball card that completes the set. He does the dirty work, he takes the pressure off of Aldridge, he understands his role and limitations without being overly passive and, most importantly, he's held up under the biggest minutes strain of his career. It's no secret that Stotts loves to ride his starters, and Lopez is currently playing a career-high 30 minutes per night. He's yet to miss a game and the injury problems that plagued him back during his Phoenix days have remained a thing of the past.
Although Lopez is earning $5.9 million this season, not that much less than the four other players on this list combined, that figure represents a bargain for a starting center capable of handling the load he's been given. He arrived in Portland from New Orleans as part of the three-way Tyreke Evans deal; his cost to the Blazers were a pair of second-round picks, Jeff Withey, cash and agreeing to take on his salary. That's not quite nothing, but it's proven to be a very sound investment. The center position just might be the deepest when it comes to Stocking Stuffer candidates. Miami's brilliant (but risky) addition of Chris Andersen fueled an historic winning streak, Suns GM Ryan McDonough committed another act of larceny in netting Miles Plumlee from the Pacers and DeJuan Blair continues to ply his rebound-rate trade after signing with the Mavericks for less than a $1 millon in the offseason.