"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: highlighting five players seeking redemption in 2014-15.
A vast majority of this month's comeback-oriented headlines will go to Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, as the two big-market megastars attempt to return from long-term injuries. There are plenty of other bounceback hopefuls to found, however, if one sifts through the 2013-14 season in search of players who dealt with injuries, age-related decline, roster fit questions, off-court issues, or some other derailing variable. Some of those names -- Andrea Bargnani, Kevin Garnett -- could prove to be unsalvageable. Others are plenty redeemable.
The following is a detailed rundown of five noteworthy players seeking redemption along with five more bounceback candidates to keep an eye on this season.
Jrue Holiday, Pelicans
Holiday's redemption is less about atoning for a particular sin and more about reminding the NBA world that he still exists. Few players, especially talented up-and-comers, go from All-Star to virtually anonymous as quickly as Holiday. Really, it's taken a perfect storm of events to turn Holiday into one of the league's most forgotten men. First: he was traded to New Orleans, one of the NBA's most-overlooked franchises. Second: by virtue of the trade, his status as a 2013 All-Star point guard for the Sixers in the East immediately gave way to his new status as a third-tier player at his position in the loaded West. Third: a leg injury abruptly ended his season in January, causing a plucky Pelicans team that was hanging around near .500 to fall off the map (New Orleans went 8-18 immediately following his injury after a 15-19 start). Fourth: so many Pelicans missed time due to injury (Eric Gordon, Jason Smith, Ryan Anderson, etc.) that Holiday's absence was easily lumped into a group absence. Fifth: a very strong showing at the FIBA World Cup turned Anthony Davis' stock from "hot" to "scorching," ensuring that any and all preseason stories about New Orleans would revolve around its franchise player.
Allow the 24-year-old Holiday to reintroduce himself as a solid two-way player capable of running an offense, creating for himself and others, knocking down three-pointers and defending his position. Prior to last season, he was also known as a durable guy who had missed just five games in the previous three seasons combined, even though he played huge minutes. The defining number for New Orleans last season was 91: the total number of minutes logged by the awesome-on-paper lineup of Holiday, Davis, Anderson, Gordon and Tyreke Evans. That quintet, plus variations involving center OmerAsik, has the ability to compete for a playoff spot, even in the stacked West.
While the offseason arrival of Asik should certainly stiffen up a defense that ranked tied for 25th last season, let's not discount the boost that Holiday's return should give New Orleans' offense. Last season, New Orleans posted a 107.7 offensive rating with Holiday (equivalent to the NBA's No. 8 attack) and a 103.5 offensive rating without him (equivalent to the NBA's No. 15 attack).
The book is out by now: Williams, 27, is at his best with the ball in his hands, a green light to shoot, and a leash loose enough to account for his streakiness. Although Williams might not always make the decisions necessary to create high-efficiency opportunities, he has shown the ability to get to the free-throw line, create a shot off the bounce, and hit contested shots. As far as lead scoring options off the bench, you can do a lot worse, especially because Williams understands the nuances of the super sub role because he is entering his 10th season. By those standards, Williams' fit in Toronto looks ideal, or close to it.
Raptors GM MasaiUjiri snagged Williams from the Hawks in what amounted to a salary dump. Williams' two-year tenure in Atlanta was marred by a torn ACL in Feb. 2013. He had returned to the court by Nov. 2013, but his 2013-14 numbers were down across the board and his stylistic approach contrasts with Mike Budenholzer's preferred style, which emphasizes ball movement and space. Toronto gets the benefit of a Williams who not only appears fully healthy more than 20 months after his injury but also finds himself in a contract year. The last time Williams was playing for a new deal was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season; he posted a career-high 14.9 points and a career-best 20.9 Player Efficiency Rating. Of note, Williams' 27.4 usage rate that season ranked No. 16 overall among qualified players and was the highest among full-time reserves. That's particularly good news consideringDwane Casey has no problem offering free reign to his perimeter players, with both Kyle Lowry and DeMarDeRozan setting new career-highs in field goal attempts and usage rate in 2013-14.
Williams' arrival should help lessen some of that load from Toronto's top dogs while also adding a kick to a Raptors bench unit that ranked No. 27 in scoring (26.1 points per game) last year. That's just about the extent of expectations. Coming off of a 48-win season with all of the most important rotation players returning, the Raptors don't really need Williams to be a revolutionary force, and he faces little pressure because Toronto sacrificed nothing of value to acquire him. More than anything, this is just an opportunity for Williams to be himself for a good team that should be able to use his specific skills.
Barnes’ sophomore season was a letdown, no doubt about it. He was a victim of his own hype and pedigree: expectations were bound to skyrocket for a former No. 1 ranked high school player with prototypical size and a pretty shooting stroke coming off a rookie season in which he started 81 games and took his game up a notch (or three) in the 2013 playoffs. Of course, the arrival of Andre Iguodala also proved problematic, as skeptics feared it might. Demoted to the bench for most of the season, Barnes drifted too often and proved unable to emerge as a microwave-style lead scoring option for the second unit. Coach Mark Jackson deemed that to be an acceptable sacrifice, a defensible decision given Iguodala’s experience, all-around game, salary (yes, it’s always factor) and the extraordinary lineup data posted by Golden State’s starting five when healthy. Remember, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut posted a +15.4 net rating in 819 minutes together last season. It’s really hard to top that, and the Warriors probably didn’t get enough credit for having the West’s stingiest defense last season.
The arrival of new coach Steve Kerr has reopened the Barnes vs. Iguodala discussion. The case for starting Iguodala goes something like this: Golden State’s starting lineup evidence is compelling, Barnes should be more comfortable this season now that he knows what a bench role is like, the addition of Shaun Livingston gives the Warriors’ bench another ball-handler to set up Barnes, and the arrival of an an offensive-minded coach in Kerr should put him in better positions and situations to succeed. The case for starting Barnes, on the other hand, goes like this: the cutting and spot-up nature of his game would be a nice perfect complement to the Splash Brothers, some of Iguodala’s play-making abilities are wasted when he plays in the starting lineup and might be fully realized in a bench role, and Iguodala is better suited than Barnes to being a lead option for a second unit at this point in their respective careers. Kerr has tested out Barnes in the starting lineup during the preseason; this is the type of question that could require some tinkering and some extended trial runs before it can be resolved.
While we await that decision, it’s best to remember that Barnes is still only 22. His character and work ethic have always drawn rave reviews, and physically he has all the makings of an impact-making starting small forward on both sides of the ball. The future is bright for Barnes, even if his handle and three-point range need work and even if his performance in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest was one of the worst of the last decade. It would be perturbing if Barnes is unable to improve significantly on last year’s disappointment.
The bellwether statistic for Smith has become, to everyone’s chagrin, three-point attempts. It’s a weird thing to say about a “not quite All-Star” whose reputation was built on defensive versatility and above-the-rim athleticism, but it’s understandably the major focus for Pistons fans who watched him chuck a career-high 265 three-pointers at a 26.4 percent clip last season. For context, that low-efficiency, high-volume combination was one of the very worst in NBA history: only Antoine Walker can claim to have done more damage by laying bricks from behind the arc. Smith’s issues with his jumper have been so obvious for years – boo birds were singing about this for so long before Smith left Atlanta for Detroit in 2013 – that his hoisting has a demoralizing feel. All that chucking produces a season-long slap in the face to observers who understand that the whole team is bound to fail if Smith is shooting a career-low 41.9 percent from the field while taking a career-low percentage of his shots in the basket area (24.4 percent) and a career-high percentage of his shots from deep (21.5 percent).
No sane coach would allow Smith to take nearly as many attempts from 23 feet as from three feet and in. That’s (one reason) why Maurice Cheeks was fired before Valentine’s Day. Enter new coach/president Stan Van Gundy, who is not only sane but one of the sharpest minds among the league’s coaches. How does Smith’s bellwether stat look in the preseason? He’s averaging less than one three-point attempt per game, down dramatically from 4.6 three-point attempts during the 2013 preseason. In theory, Van Gundy’s offensive system and the power he wields as Detroit’s head of basketball operations should help that shift stick once the regular season starts. If it does, Smith is halfway to removing the “scourge” tag.
The other half of the battle is recommitting fully to the game. It wasn’t lost on anyone that Smith’s rough 2013-14 season came immediately after he signed a four-year, $54 million contract, or that Detroit actually got worse defensively in 2013-14 compared to the previous season, despite his All-Defensive standing. Cheeks was the wrong coach using the wrong lineups and GM Joe Dumars was a sitting duck, but Smith – fresh off that rich new deal – never looked like he wanted to be a part of an attempt at a solution. Van Gundy represents the opportunity to put that history in the past, and he’s shown a desire to avoid the Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe/Smith jumboball orientation that flopped so hard last season. The trio posted an offensive rating of 102.5 and an atrocious defensive rating of 110.5 in more than 1,300 minutes together last season; this year, Van Gundy aims to break up their minutes by shifting Monroe to the bench, a change that absolutely puts Smith in better spots at both ends of the floor. Smith needs to embrace this logical change in tactics with renewed effort and intensity if he wants to salvage the general perception of his game and, more importantly, lead Detroit to its first postseason appearance since 2009.
Roy Hibbert: Pacers
If there’s a silver lining to Indiana’s disastrous offseason, it’s that Hibbert should get a reprieve from the daily pressure and scrutiny that comes with being a key – and often vocal -- contributor on a contender. This guy just needed a breather and, frankly, so did his critics who swung hard against him during an inconsistent stretch run and postseason.
Clearly, it’s bad news when, six years into an All-Star career, nothing seems to be working anymore. On the surface, that’s what happened to Hibbert, who somehow managed to post zero points and zero rebounds three separate times in a one-month span covering April and May. (It had been more than five years since Hibbert had posted a 0/0 prior to that stretch.) That no-show production, influenced by locker room turmoil and a rough matchup with the Hawks, made Hibbert one of the league’s most popular fall guys in the postseason. And, yet, many people lost sight of the fact that Indiana not only came within two wins of the Finals but still managed to post the NBA’s fourth-best defense in the playoffs. Although plenty went wrong and Hibbert certainly disappointed, the 2014 playoffs don’t need to be the career-defining moment for a 27-year-old center with elite rim-protecting ability.
With Lance Stephenson gone to Charlotte, Paul George injured and David West another year older, Hibbert and the Pacers have seen expectations plummet. A spot in the 2015 playoffs would be regarded as a victory, and it’s an achievable possibility if coach Frank Vogel is able to cobble together a strong defense around his 7-foot-2 center in much the same way that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau leaned heavily on Joakim Noah last year. The Pacers’ season isn’t likely to be pretty, but it will take some crazy incompetency for it to be regarded as a disappointment given their substantial losses. That makes for a no-lose situation for Hibbert. If the Pacers are bad, he will have an entire season to get his mind right and refocus without constant attacks from the outside. If the Pacers happen to surprise people, he should be first in line to receive the credit. Either way, there’s nowhere to go but up when everyone’s most recent memory of your play is 0/0.
Five more to watch
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers: Irving's "down year" in 2013-14 still saw him post 20.8 points, 6.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game and win All-Star Game MVP. Still, it was a season filled with uncorrected bad habits and simmering locker room tension. Consider the slate wiped completely clean by the arrivals of LeBron James and Kevin Love, setting Irving up for what should be a memorable and highlight-filled fourth season and his first postseason appearance.
O.J. Mayo, Bucks: Mayo's conditioning and play was so bad in 2013-14 that he was a starter on SI.com's "All-Tank Team," a group of ill-fitting roster pieces designed to lose to the post-trade deadline 76ers. The first year of a new contract can be a tricky time, especially if a team goes as far south as the 15-win Bucks did, and Mayo mailed it in so badly that he was getting hit with DNP-CDs by former coach Larry Drew. Milwaukee has nowhere to go but up this season, and Mayo will hopefully play his part in the revival.
Danilo Gallinari: Nuggets: Denver has slowly worked Gallinari back into the mix during the preseason after missing all of last year with a knee injury. As one of the best players at his position in the West, Gallinari looks like the Nuggets' top X-factor as they look to climb back into the playoff picture.
Ryan Anderson: Pelicans: Anderson's freak neck injury was one of the scariest moments of the 2013-14 season, and he wound up playing just 22 games. Cleared to return after surgery, Anderson has scored in double figures in all six of New Orleans' preseason games. Plenty of spread forwards claim to space the floor, but Anderson (40.9 percent three-point shooting on 7.5 three-point attempts last season) is the real deal.
Larry Sanders, Bucks: God help us all if Sanders can't find a way to improve on a season in which he beefed with his coach, got into a late-night nightclub brawl that left him injured so badly that he needed surgery, drew headlines for mistreating his dogs, got called out by teammate Gary Neal for not living up to his contract, and earned a five-game drug suspension.