Struggling NBA Stars Who Will Have Bounceback Season in 2013-14

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

Struggling NBA Stars Who Will Have Bounceback Season in 2013-14

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    When an NBA star suddenly hits the statistical skids, there's usually a good reason for it. Injuries, poor chemistry and bad coaching can all play roles in an abrupt drop in production. But top-flight players who are still in their primes don't usually stay down for long.

    Last year, emerging stars like Avery Bradley suffered through physical ailments that put a stop to the upward momentum of their career trajectories. And established studs like Pau Gasol, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard also struggled with injuries that hampered their production.

    In other instances, bad fits resulted in ugly seasons for Joe Johnson and Monta Ellis.

    All of those players are in better situations—in terms of health and team environment, respectively—this year, so they land on our list of NBA players who'll return to form in 2013-14.

Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics

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    Almost everything went wrong for Avery Bradley last year. First, a pair of shoulder surgeries cost him all of training camp and the first two months of the 2012-13 season. When he finally made it back onto the court, the Texas product didn't look like himself.

    And Rajon Rondo's torn ACL forced the natural shooting guard to play far too many minutes out of position down the stretch.

    Physically limited and forced into an uncomfortable role, Bradley struggled mightily.

    In all, the third-year pro shot just 40.2 percent from the field, 31.7 percent from long range and managed to score just 11.6 points per 36 minutes. Coming off of a 2011-12 campaign in which he shot nearly 50 percent from the field and hit more than 40 percent of his tries from beyond the arc, Bradley's offensive collapse was impossible to ignore.

    With a full offseason to prepare and better health, expect Bradley to rediscover his stroke in his fourth NBA season. He may not ever be an elite sniper, but if he can knock down a few threes from the corner, his skills as a top-flight perimeter stopper will make him a very valuable player once again.

    Rondo's return should allow him to return to his natural position, where he'll get more open looks and receive less defensive pressure.

    Bank on a major bounceback from Bradley.

     

Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    At first glance, Kevin Love's 2012-13 season doesn't look so bad. He averaged 18.3 points and 14 rebounds in 34.3 minutes per game. But the sweet-shooting big man's perimeter stroke totally disappeared and he managed to suit up for just 18 games.

    A twice-broken right hand was to blame for pretty much everything.

    Superstars don't just suddenly lose their talent unless space aliens invade and steal it with a magical basketball (I really need to stop watching Space Jam), so assuming Love's shooting hand is fully healthy, he'll immediately return to his high-efficiency, stat-stuffing ways.

    Plus, the Minnesota Timberwolves are primed to surround Love with more talent than at any point in his career. Ricky Rubio and Chase Budinger are healthy, Nikola Pekovic seems a lock to re-sign and Kevin Martin is in the rotation as a scoring ace.

    There's no way Love puts up another year of 36 percent shooting from the field or 22 percent shooting from three-point range. His 2011-12 rates of 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from long range are much closer to his actual talent level. And we know from his remarkably efficient 2010-11 campaign that he's capable of being even better than that.

    The 2013-14 season will see Love's All-Star status restored.

     

Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Pau Gasol endured the worst season of his NBA career in 2012-13. Thanks to a a busy summer of Olympic basketball, a coach that switched up his offensive role every five minutes and a couple of freak injuries, the big man posted averages of just 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds on 46.6 percent shooting.

    A restful offseason should prevent the plantar fasciitis flareup that hampered Gasol last year, and it seems unlikely that he'll suffer another grisly bloody nose/concussion combo. Plus, offseason knee surgery will hopefully alleviate the tendonitis that robbed him of his mobility.

    It'll also help that head coach Mike D'Antoni won't have to subjugate Gasol in an effort to appease the offensive desires of Dwight Howard.

    Ultimately, Gasol will be put in more positions to succeed next year and he'll be be in the kind of physical condition that will allow him to make the most of those opportunities. Remember, this is a Hall of Fame talent and one of the most skilled bigs in history we're talking about here.

    Gasol just turned 33, so some normal age-related decline from his career averages can be expected, but there's just no way that he logs numbers as bad as the ones he did last year. 

Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors

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    For the first time in a while, Andrew Bogut will head into an NBA season with a clean bill of health. His 2012-13 campaign with the Golden State Warriors was marked by occasional flashes of the form that made Bogut a former No. 1 overall pick, but also by lengthy injury-related absences.

    We all saw how dominant Bogut could be when he was healthy enough to stay on the floor in last year's playoffs. He put up 14 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks in Game 6 of the Dubs' first-round series win over the Denver Nuggets. Then, he followed it up by averaging 14 rebounds in the first four games of the Warriors' second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.

    Staying healthy has always been the problem for Bogut, but with his balky ankle more than a year removed from surgery and no other major physical issues, there's a good chance that he finally puts together a full season in 2013-14.

    If Bogut can stay on the floor, he's a proven defensive anchor, a terrific rebounder and an underrated passer. Because he'll head into this upcoming season in better health than he's enjoyed in any of the past three years, watch for Bogut to approach his career averages of 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

    More importantly, expect him to completely control the defensive end for the Warriors (and possibly put guys like JaVale McGee on a few more posters).

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

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    For the first time in more than a decade, Dirk Nowitzki missed the playoffs last year. He also posted his lowest scoring and rebounding averages since the 1999-2000 season.

    But there are plenty of signs from Nowitzki's rough 2012-13 campaign that point to a major resurgence in 2013-14.

    For starters, Nowitzki missed the first 27 games of the season while recovering from knee surgery and didn't really hit a groove until mid-January. Despite working his way back into shape, Nowitzki still managed to hit 47 percent of his shots from the field and 41 percent from long distance. His per-game scoring average suffered only because he played just 31.3 minutes per game.

    What's also interesting is that Nowitzki's rebound rate actually improved from 11.3 percent in 2011-12 to 12.2 percent last year (per ESPN, subscription required), indicating that he was still mobile enough to track down boards.

    With Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon providing some much-needed backcourt scoring punch, Nowitzki is going to benefit from reduced defensive pressure and more pick-and-pop opportunities in 2013-14. With a skill set that figures to age extremely well, the German big man probably has three or four more good seasons in him.

    He'll be better than most expect next year.

Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Nowitzki's newest teammate, Monta Ellis, is also a candidate for a comeback.

    Apparently, it's a good year to be a Mav.

    Ellis was in a horrible situation with the Milwaukee Bucks, and while I'll never be one to apologize for the combo guard's selfish approach on both ends, playing alongside another undersized, shoot-first guard (Brandon Jennings) was never going to allow Ellis to thrive.

    Superficially, Ellis' 19.2 points-per-game average in 2012-13 looks fine, but he got his scoring numbers with remarkable inefficiency—even for him. Both his true-shooting percentage (49.3) and his PER (16.30) were Ellis' lowest since his 25-game, post-moped accident cameo in the 2008-09 season with the Warriors.

    There's never going to be an excuse for Ellis' lazy defense, but it was clear last year that the pairing with Jennings was simply never going to generate efficient offense.

    Now, Ellis will play off the ball much more with Calderon at his side and perhaps more importantly, he'll be sharing the floor with Nowitzki, the best teammate he's ever had. From an efficiency standpoint, Ellis was never better than when he played third fiddle to Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson in Golden State, so perhaps he'll return to optimal form with Nowitzki as the Mavs' unquestioned alpha dog.

    It's hard to know whether Ellis is willing to accept a reduced role. But if he is, he could be in for some serious improvement in 2013-14.

Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets

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    Joe Johnson played his 12th NBA season last year, which could explain why he appeared to slow down a bit and had a hard time generating efficient offense. Johnson's field-goal percentage (42 percent) and scoring average (16.3 points per game) were both the lowest they'd been since the 2002-03 season.

    But his struggles might also have derived from the Nets' unbalanced lineup construction.

    With Deron Williams handling the ball, Johnson should have enjoyed reduced defensive attention. But because no other Nets player commanded serious off-the-ball consideration (thanks a lot, Gerald Wallace), defenses could simply key in on Johnson as Brooklyn's only other perimeter threat.

    His cuts were often stymied by the packed-in lane that resulted from weak-side defenders totally ignoring Wallace and/or Reggie Evans away from the ball. And his drives met with the same gang resistance, which explains his 48 percent conversion rate at the rim.

    With Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry in town to keep defenses much more honest this year, expect Johnson to thrive as he gets more open looks and finds himself playing in an offense with vastly improved spacing.

    His scoring average might dip a bit in 2013-14 because of the Nets myriad offensive options, but Johnson is going to enjoy a strong uptick in his overall efficiency. And that's all Brooklyn fans should care about.

Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

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    If you think per-game averages of 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds sound like pretty good numbers, that's because they are for most NBA big men.

    But not for Dwight Howard.

    D12 struggled through the worst season since 2005-06 last year, battling injury and a toxic situation with the Los Angeles Lakers. It's probably appropriate to mention here that Howard was responsible for almost all of said toxicity, but it's still true that the L.A. environment wasn't one in which Howard thrived.

    The point here is that Howard is still just 27 years old and is now in a situation that should help him reclaim his status as the NBA's best center. The Houston Rockets have many of the necessary inside-out pieces to recreate the Orlando environment in which Howard dominated. Plus, James Harden is one of the league's best pick-and-roll operators. So if Howard is finally willing to embrace his true destiny as the league's most devastating roller, he's in the perfect place to do it.

    Most of all, Howard is now fully healthy and has an awful lot to prove.

    We know that as last season went on and he got further away from back surgery, the big man's production climbed steadily upward. Before the All-Star Break, D12 averaged 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds. After it, he posted averages 18.4 points and 13.6 boards, per ESPN.

    Expect that upward trend to continue into this season, as a healthy Howard does his best to make the most of his first season with his new team.