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NBA Playoff Studs Finally Meeting Expectations

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIMay 21, 2013

NBA Playoff Studs Finally Meeting Expectations

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    While just four teams remain in the 2013 NBA playoffs, breakout performances throughout the postseason have players meeting lofty expectations.

    Some players are justifying contracts that were widely criticized by fans and pundits. Others are vindicating a front office’s choice to trade for them by fitting a niche. In some cases, players fall into both of those categories by defending their hefty contract and changing viewpoints regarding a “bad” trade.

    Through a cloud of negativity, these NBA playoff studs finally gave their fans something to cheer about. Many of them shut up their critics in the process.

    Although some of these upstart players are still fighting for a championship, I’ll also look back at the postseason as a whole.

Honorable Mention: Omer Asik, Houston Rockets

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    Omer Asik has been living up to his new contract and meeting expectations since Day 1 in Houston, so he’s only an honorable mention on this list. Obviously, he didn’t “finally” start meeting expectations in the postseason because he had a tremendous regular season as well, but his case is worth noting regardless.

    Prior to the 2012-13 season, Asik signed a three-year contract with the Houston Rockets set to pay him more than $25 million.

    The “poison pill” contract—which will earn Asik $5 million this season and $5.225 million next season before nearly tripling to more than $14.8 million in Year 3—was enough to pry the Turkish center away from the Chicago Bulls last summer.

    The move was certainly a gamble for Houston, considering that Asik’s only career accolades to that point included being a perennial All-Star on the “Most Frequently Mispronounced Names” NBA team.

    Asik’s hefty new deal prompted Angel Diaz and Paul Palladino of Complex Sports to rank him No. 7 on a list of the 25 most overpaid NBA players (written in July 2012).

    He’s been forcing critical pundits and fans to eat their words ever since.

    Asik began justifying his contract right away when he averaged 10.7 points and 12.6 rebounds per game in November. Not only did he keep the steady double-double numbers throughout the regular season, but he also started all 82 games while playing 30 minutes per game.

    Given how the defensive-minded seven-footer has played for Houston thus far, you could easily argue that Asik is underpaid. If nothing else, he certainly shouldn’t be on a list of the league’s 25 most overpaid players.

    Astonishingly enough, Asik’s stellar play only improved in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The Rockets couldn’t manage an upset over Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1, but Asik averaged 12.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game to go with 56.4 percent shooting from the field and 63.8 percent shooting from the free-throw line.

    Excluding rebounds, every single one of those statistics was an improvement from his regular-season averages.

    Let’s just agree that Houston general manager Daryl Morey struck gold with Asik.

5. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics

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    Watching Kendrick Perkins have a historically bad postseason (h/t Tom Ley of Deadspin)—in which the big man actually posted a negative Player Efficiency Rating (yes, that is possible)—helped Boston Celtics fans stomach the unpopular Jeff Green trade from 2011.

    Following open-heart surgery and an inconsistent season back in Boston, Green’s stellar postseason play in 2013 (coupled with Perk’s awful playoff performance) has completely justified the deal Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on two years ago.

    For reference, here are Green’s regular-season numbers compared to his postseason stats:

    Regular season: 46.6/38.5/80.8 shooting splits, 12.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game

    Playoffs: 43.5/45.5/84.4 shooting splits, 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game

    As you can see, the only stat that didn’t increase in the playoffs was Green’s field-goal shooting percentage. He took on a much bigger offensive role this postseason by averaging 20.3 points per game and shooting an impressive 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.

    The Celtics will expect more of the same from the 26-year-old moving forward. He certainly has the skill level to put up those numbers on a regular basis.

4. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors

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    The only time Andrew Bogut played 82 games in a season was during his rookie year. He played just 12 games in 2011-12 (all for the Milwaukee Bucks) and 32 games this season.

    Despite notching minutes in only 44 of a possible 148 regular-season games for the past two seasons, Bogut finally got healthy enough for the playoffs and proved to be a gigantic asset for the Golden State Warriors.

    Needless to say, Warriors fans were not initially pleased with the trade that sent volume-scoring guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee in exchange for an injured Bogut.

    For further evidence, check out the comment section of this USA Today article by Jeff Zillgitt. One disgruntled fan called it the “worst trade in Golden State history.” Another echoed that sentiment saying, “I love how stupid the Warriors are.”

    Well, it took some convincing, but Bogut has proven to be an interior force when healthy.

    He averaged 7.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the Dubs’ postseason run. Those numbers were highlighted by a 14-point, 21-rebound, four-block affair in the closeout game against the Denver Nuggets.

    Health has always been (and perhaps always will be) the concern with Bogut. However, the big Aussie showed some flashes of the player he used to be before injuries derailed his career.

    The Warriors will continue to be an exciting team if Bogut can stay healthy and provide an interior spark.

3. George Hill, Indiana Pacers

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    San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich once called the point guard out of IUPUI his favorite player, according to Arash Markazi of Sports Illustrated. Considering that Pop is arguably the best coach in the NBA, that’s some seriously high praise.

    It was clearly a tough decision for Popovich and the Spurs to part ways with George Hill, but shipping him to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for 15th overall draft pick Kawhi Leonard proved to be the right choice.

    After the trade, Hill’s scoring average dipped to 9.6 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from the field (both the lowest totals since his rookie year). Despite regressing statistically in his first year with the Pacers, Indy rewarded Hill with a five-year, $40 million contract.

    The timing of the deal was certainly odd. I admit to being critical of the Pacers’ decision at the time, because giving $40 million to a guy who didn’t average double-digit points had me scratching my head.

    Fortunately for Indiana, the move worked out. Hill’s numbers improved across the board, as he notched career highs with 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game during the 2012-13 campaign.

    A concussion Hill sustained in Round 2 kept him out of the Game 5 loss against the New York Knicks, but aside from that bump in the road, Hill’s postseason has been solid.

    Not only have Hill’s scoring averages increased to 15.2 points per game in Round 1 and 16.2 points per game in Round 2, but according to ESPN Stats and Information, his presence on the court has led to higher efficiency.

    George Hill cleared by Pacers doctors to play tonight. Pacers are shooting 43% with him on court, 37% with him off court this postseason

    — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 18, 2013

    Hill has clearly been a positive influence on Indiana’s offense, but he’s making an even bigger impact on the defensive end.

    According to Basketball Reference, the offensive rating of Pacers opponents in the postseason is 97.2 points per 100 possessions when Hill is on the court. When he heads to the bench, that number explodes to 108.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s a differential of 11.2 points per 100 possessions when Hill is off the court versus when he’s on it.

    That statistic can be attributed to the lineup he plays with, but it’s staggering regardless.

    If he wasn’t considered the ultimate team player before, he should certainly be in the conversation now.

2. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

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    When the Memphis Grizzlies front office decided to trade Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors, fans knew that Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph would have to step up and fill that void. Gasol and Z-Bo were always up to that task, but the true wild card was Mike Conley.

    The point guard out of Ohio State experienced a slow start to his NBA career. In his third season (2009-10), Conley averaged just 12 points and 5.3 assists per game.

    Despite those pedestrian stats, Conley was signed to a five-year, $40 million contract extension in November 2010 (the amount was originally reported at $45 million).

    The contract extension prompted ESPN’s Bill Simmons to tweet the following:

    Mike Conley??? Are you sure it wasn't 5 million for 45 years? RT @francium34: ESPN reports Conley gets 5 year 45M extension.

    — Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) November 2, 2010

    Some Conley fans put that quip in their back pocket, waiting for the 2013 playoffs to roll around. When he got called out for the statement, Simmons ate his words via Twitter:

    I apologize! RT @clubtrillion The Mike Conley Fan Club has held a 2.5 year grudge over this + demands an apology. twitter.com/billsimmons/st…

    — Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 8, 2013

    Conley’s shooting percentages in the postseason have left a lot to be desired. He’s shooting 38.7 percent from the field and a lowly 28.6 percent from long range. However, the Grizzlies point guard is averaging 17.3 points, 7.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. All are big improvements from his regular-season totals.

    As if that isn’t impressive enough, Conley’s 2.1 turnovers-per-game average in the high-octane playoff atmosphere is lower than his average during the regular season (2.4).

    There’s still some room for improvement, but Conley is starting to justify that $40 million deal (and then some).

1. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers

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    Following an offseason in which the Portland Trail Blazers offered Roy Hibbert a max contract, which the Indiana Pacers decided to match, the towering center had his work cut out for him.

    Justifying a max contract can prove to be an arduous task even for the league’s elite talents. But for a 7’2” center who had never grabbed more than 8.8 rebounds or scored more than 12.8 points per game in a season, he’d be under much more scrutiny.

    During the regular season, Hibbert’s numbers regressed as he failed to validate receiving a max deal. The big man shot a career-low 44.8 percent from the field, which would have been much uglier if not for 47.9 percent shooting in March and 57.3 percent shooting in April. His 11.9 points per game was the lowest average since his sophomore year.

    The only career high Hibbert totaled during the 2012-13 campaign was blocks, swatting 2.6 shots per contest.

    Hibbert still proved to be a fantastic defensive player this year, but his offensive numbers were arguably the worst of his entire career. The Pacers needed Hibbert to flip the script and meet expectations in the playoffs.

    And he has done so.

    After 12 playoff games and two series victories against the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, Hibbert is averaging 14 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Additionally, Hibbert has improved his field-goal shooting to 47.3 percent and his free-throw shooting to 80.7 percent.

    Hibbert will need to be the focal point for the Pacers once again as they prepare to take on the defending champion Miami Heat. Miami is a notoriously lackluster rebounding team, so Indiana’s big man will have to assert himself if the Pacers hope to pull off the upset.

    I believe that the Pacers can shock the NBA community by beating the Heat, but Hibbert will need to play even better than he has to this point in the postseason.

     

    Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @BenLebo

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