10 NBA Players Poised for a Monster Bounce Back Season in 2013-14
After down years in 2012-13, some of the NBA's best talents are prepared to return to form this season.
There are plenty of reasons a onetime star could have an outlying poor performance—even one that lasts an entire 82-game schedule. Injuries knocked some of these guys out entirely or left them shells of themselves on the court, while others underperformed due to incompatibility with a team's scheme or a good old-fashioned funk.
This time will be different. The walking wounded are healthy again. Guys in need of a change of scenery have moved to new organizations. The slumping players are looking to prove last season was an aberration.
We'll see if they all pull it off, but they all have plenty of potential to do so.
The New York Knicks suffered defensively last season, as opposing ball-handlers slashed into the middle and got high-percentage shots at will. Stopping the penetration is one thing, but contesting looks in the lane is another.
For that, Tyson Chandler will have to step up again.
Chandler earned his first-ever All-Star nod last season, but that was more a matter of reputation than production. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year was hampered by nagging injuries all year, keeping him a step slow and unable to anchor New York's low post the way he once had. In the second half, a bulging disc in his back made him a borderline liability on both ends of the floor.
As ESPN New York's Ian Begley reports, the center is now healthy and working on a mid-range jumper to complement his one-dimensional offensive game. Just the former would be a huge help for the Knicks, but the latter is nice, too.
It's hard to recall now, but there was once a time when Monta Ellis wasn't a woefully inefficient player.
Shooting 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from three earned him loads of stat-head scorn in 2012-13, but that was also the least accurate full season of Ellis' career. Though he's never been great from beyond the arc, he's a career 45-percent shooter, which is much more respectable.
Ellis has terrible shot selection and can derail an offense with his ball dominance, but those shouldn't be deal breakers now that he's on the Dallas Mavericks. Jose Calderon is a very careful point guard who knows Dirk Nowitzki is his primary option, which should limit the amount of opportunities Ellis gets to freelance.
Rather than create tough looks for himself, Ellis will be put in better positions to score and draw less defensive pressure. All that sets him up to score over 20 points per game again in a manner that's actually helpful to his team.
Don't buy into Rudy Gay becoming a sharpshooter because of his offseason eye surgery, but the Toronto Raptors should put him in the best position to succeed.
Gay has never been an effective long-range threat, and the stat-savvy Raptors are going to gear their offense around getting the 6'8" swingman looks closer to the hoop. Expect Toronto to be setting screens and driving and kicking to open up more scoring opportunities inside.
Besides, new GM Masai Ujiri will likely want to showcase Gay to raise his trade value. Given the choice between scrapping for a low playoff seed or blowing everything up and starting fresh, this regime will let its expensive small forward carry the offensive load until another team is willing to match Toronto's price.
In that regard, the deck is stacked for Gay to bounce back; his performance might be more important than his team's right now.
The New Orleans Pelicans have the firepower to foster Eric Gordon back into peak form.
Once one of the most promising young shooting guards in the league, Gordon has picked up the injury-prone label after suffering cartilage damage in his right knee. Upon returning to the Hornets last season, Gordon's minutes were limited and defenses prevented him from getting into a steady rhythm.
Opponents could lock down on Gordon because New Orleans didn't have any other weapons in its backcourt to worry about. Now Jrue Holiday is running the point and Tyreke Evans is also in town, which will generate more spot-up looks and open space on the floor for Gordon.
On top of that, the additional guards will allow the Pelicans to manage Gordon's minutes without taking too much talent off the floor, allowing him to maintain his health as much as possible.
Does anybody even remember how much Roy Hibbert struggled last season?
The 2013 postseason provides the only evidence that Hibbert is now a great center. He put up 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on 51 percent shooting while also stonewalling anyone who came into the paint against the Indiana Pacers. He was an imposing, technically sound monster on both ends, and there's no reason to expect differently from him in the future.
But a perplexing regular season preceded that playoff outburst. Limited by a wrist injury early, Hibbert put up just 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting under 45 percent from the floor—preposterously low numbers for someone 7'2".
This is a situation where what Hibbert has done for us lately is actually most important. He'll be just fine in 2013-14.
Serge Ibaka is on this list less because of any actual shortcoming and more because of the way he and the Oklahoma City Thunder are perceived.
After OKC opted to keep him over James Harden, Ibaka did make incremental strides across the board—averaging 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting while improving his footwork and positioning on defense. That said, this modest improvement did not match the leap expected of Ibaka with Harden gone.
Though he and the Thunder struggled with Russell Westbrook out in the postseason, both Ibaka and his team will benefit in the long run from the point guard's absence early this season.
Ibaka's shooting percentage plummeted to 44 percent in the postseason as opponents keyed on him more, but the problem mainly lay with Scott Brooks' rudimentary offense. Under the system in place, there was no way to get open looks for Ibaka without Westbrook's athleticism.
Now forced to think creatively, the Thunder will figure out how to work the ball to their big more effectively. That will spur on Ibaka's development, allowing him to reach the expectations people had for him last season.
Only two qualified players shot below 40 percent from the field last season. Brandon Jennings was one of them, which explains why the Milwaukee Bucks were so hesitant to sign the restricted free agent this summer.
Now, Jennings is no paragon of efficiency, but the Bucks exacerbated his flaws. They put their offense in the hands of a volume-scoring point guard with poor judgment, then paired him with Ellis, who has almost an identical skill set but with more selfish tendencies.
The hope was that the two speedy guards would run circles around opponents, but Milwaukee's offense was too discombobulated for that to work.
That won't be the case with the Detroit Pistons. Floor spacing will be a big issue with Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but they provide Jennings with tantalizing pick-and-roll options he was missing in Milwaukee.
Encouraging Jennings to cut into the teeth of a defense and giving him simple, reliable outlets off drives will help him play under control, both in terms of passing and shooting. The talent is there; it just has to be utilized properly.
In case you needed proof that hand injuries make it difficult to shoot a basketball, consider Kevin Love.
The Minnesota Timberwolves big fractured bones in his shooting hand during preseason workouts. He returned ahead of schedule and played in 18 games before fracturing his right hand again, knocking him out for the remainder of 2012-13. In his brief time on the floor, he shot 35 percent from the field and 21 percent on threes.
Love's hand is fully healed now, and there is no reason not to anticipate the elite numbers he was putting up prior to his lost season. Additionally, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio are both improving despite injuries of their own; Love's life on the court could be even easier if all three can stay healthy.
Right now, none of those three guys have health issues to worry about. That positions Minnesota to be sneakily tough.
That would be a nice change of pace, since Gasol most certainly did not have things his way last year.
Between Dwight Howard clogging up the offensive post, a few bang-ups and the rest of the dysfunctional mess that befell the Lakers in 2012-13, Gasol suffered through his worst season as a pro, easily setting new career lows in points and shooting percentage.
In a sudden shift, L.A.'s seeming embarrassment of riches from a year ago has been replaced with limited options. Gasol and Steve Nash are at full strength again, but now they're surrounded by the likes of Chris Kaman and Nick Young while Kobe rehabs.
This is all bad news for the Lakers, but it should allow Gasol to take on a bigger role than ever. His offensive contributions will be essential, so L.A. will reorient the team to suit him.
Last but certainly not least, Derrick Rose is a pretty obvious one here.
Though the Chicago Bulls waited, waited and waited some more, their point guard phenom never made it on the court in 2012-13. After tearing his ACL in the 2012 postseason, he opted to play it safe, which amounted to not playing at all.
When opening night rolls around for the Bulls, Rose will take the court in an NBA game for the first time in 18 months. He will inject explosiveness, creativity and pure speed into a Chicago team that was lacking all three last year while knowing its superstar would return with them someday.
It remains to be seen whether Rose will be back in MVP form or something slightly diminished. At the very least, he'll be able to prove his condition in live-game action, which is not something he could say last season.