Don't ever give up.
That applies to so many things in the NBA, as a game is never over until the fat lady sings the final buzzer sounds. But the 2013-14 season is proving in rather definitive fashion that you should never give up on a player before he retires.
There's always room for change, growth and development.
This season, we've seen multiple players shed their prior reputations and become valuable contributors, even when that was the absolute last thing that anyone expected. We've seen guys hit their strides after years of stagnation, proving that development can happen outside the typical growth curve.
And we've also seen perennially injured players get back on the court, against all the odds.
Again, don't ever give up.
Changing Things Up Entirely
Monta Ellis loved taking bad shots while he played for both the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks.
Early in his career, this wasn't really the case. During the 2007-08 season, which was unquestionably the best of his time playing professional basketball, the heavily tattooed shooting guard averaged 20.2 points while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.
Most importantly, he took only 0.6 triples per contest that year.
Then he suddenly decided he was a great perimeter shooter, and his effectiveness steadily declined.
The end of his career with the Dubs was filled with ill-advised jumpers, and he became somewhat of a punchline for those who believe that efficiency is important. And it is.
Eventually, Golden State grew tired of Ellis and traded him, Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. But things didn't get much better with his new team, as he decided that he would become even more of an inefficient volume scorer.
In 2012-13, he shot a putrid 41.6 percent from the field, and his three-point shooting was just flat-out embarrassing. Despite taking four attempts per game, he knocked down only 28.7 percent of the shots he lofted up from beyond the arc.
To put that in perspective, Basketball-Reference shows that only 18 qualified players in NBA history have ever shot worse than 30 percent from downtown and taken at least four attempts per game. Ellis is obviously now one of them, and it led to rather scathing reports when he hit the market as a free agent this past summer.
Sports Illustrated ranked him as the No. 17 free agent on the market, writing that "his proclivity for low-percentage shots (he shot 43.2 from the field last season) and turnovers (2.6 per game last season) make him a difficult piece to build a team around."
Those stats are referring to Ellis' 2011-12 campaign with the Bucks, but the point still stands. Especially since they both got worse in 2012-13.
Regardless, the Dallas Mavericks gambled on him, and they've reaped the benefits that came with taking such a risk. Ellis' presence has been a major factor in keeping the Mavs competitive and alive in the race for one of the final playoff berths in the difficult Western Conference.
He's finally taking the right shots, eschewing three-point looks so that he can drive to the basket.
The result? Ellis is averaging 20 points and six dimes per game, and he's shooting 46.2 percent from the field.
The combo guard's three-point attempts are down rather dramatically, as Ellis is thriving when he bursts to the basket and can either finish—something he's great at doing—or kick the ball out to a teammate. It's a huge shift in mentality, which doesn't often happen for a 28-year-old player so set in his ways.
But Ellis isn't the only player who is thriving in a new location—Rudy Gay is as well. He's excelled ever since a midseason trade shipped him from the Toronto Raptors to the Sacramento Kings.
After the trade went down, Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote the following:
Everyone said no (when asked if they wanted Gay), and they did so abruptly. This is how far Gay’s value has declined league-wide over the last 18 months. I know GMs who say they wouldn’t touch him now in free agency for the midlevel exception.
Well, I don't have connections to any of basketball's general managers (if you're a GM and reading this, feel free to contact me), but there are surely quite a few of them who would love to have the current version of Gay.
All you need to see is two graphs. The first shows his per-game stats in Sacramento and Toronto:
And the second shows the difference in his shooting percentages:
How's that for impressive?
Gay's offensive contributions have gone way up, and it can be credited to a huge improvement shooting the ball. He's finally taking—and making—the right shots, and the difference is quite noticeable when you look at either true shooting percentage or effective field-goal percentage.
Also notable is what Gay's done from the charity stripe, as it shows that he's shooting the ball with much more confidence. When you're universally lambasted for inefficiency to the point that you ban box scores from the locker room, confidence is crucial.
All of a sudden, Gay has become an asset instead of an offensive liability.
Here's one more graph:
Gay's offensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference, were declining throughout his time with the Memphis Grizzlies, to the point that he was actively hurting the team at the end of his tenure. He was moderately effective during his first season in Toronto, but he was awful in 2013-14.
Now he's lighting it up for Sacramento.
With 1.6 offensive win shares in just 21 games, Gay is on a torrid pace. Prorate that to 82 games, and he'd earn 6.25, which would be a new career-high.
That's what I would consider an unexpected turnaround.
All it took was the right system, just as was the case with Ellis. Once the right group of players, the right coaching staff and—most importantly—the right system was around these guys, they began to take shots they should actually take.
The results have been marvelous.
The Other Guys
You don't have to change teams in order to find success, though. Sometimes it's just all about opportunity.
And that's where Arron Afflalo comes in.
It's hard to remember now, but this is a guy who was brimming over with potential when he was playing for the Denver Nuggets. Remember when he averaged 12.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 49.8 percent from the field?
That was in 2010-11, and Afflalo was largely viewed as one of the next great shooting guards in the Association. In December of 2011, Bill Simmons wrote an entire article on Grantland about whether or not the Denver 2-guard was worth...wait for it...$50 million.
Here's the highlight, which comes before Simmons decides Afflalo is worth the money:
How can you not like him? You’re getting him at age 26, which means he still has a chance to get about 20 percent better. He’s already a classic Table Test guy—he brings a few things to the table and doesn’t take anything off it. On the right team, you can pencil Afflalo in for 30 to 35 minutes per night, excellent defense, 13 to 15 points per game, 50/40/80 shooting percentages (FGs, threes and FTs), good chemistry and a general efficiency/consistency that makes you totally comfortable. You know what you’re getting with Arron Afflalo. Almost to a tee.
Too bad no one knew what they were getting.
The Nuggets shipped Afflalo off to the Orlando Magic as part of the deal that moved Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, and he immediately declined.
The shooting guard struggled immensely as a lead option for the Magic during his first season there. He averaged 16.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, but his shooting percentage dipped to 43.9 percent. Plus, tasked with immense offensive responsibilities, his promising defense declined.
In fact, the only highlight of that season was getting a shoutout from Kendrick Lamar on "Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City."
But that hasn't been the case in 2013-14.
Highlighted by a 43-point outing against the Philadelphia 76ers, Afflalo has been en fuego throughout the year. He's averaging 20.2 points per game while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 42.3 percent beyond the arc, and he's benefiting from the protection afforded by a collection of solid players.
The Magic may not have any other stars, but the talent level is greater than it was last year, and Afflalo isn't going to draw a double team as consistently.
Instead of forcing his weaknesses, the 28-year-old is letting the game come to him.
He's focusing on work from the left end of the court, dominating in transition and posting up with as much frequency as possible. And that's allowed him to pick and choose his perimeter jumpers with more ease, thus increasing his overall efficiency.
Utah Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin agrees, via Philip Rossman-Reich of OrlandoMagicDaily.com:
Just watching [Arron] throughout the years, he has been in diferent roles he has played for different teams, now he is on a team where he is looked to score a lot more for this team and how he is not searching for shot, he lets the game come to him. He is able to post up. He's able to get some transition stuff. He is able to get some on the perimeter. He has grown his game and it is based around the team and the role he plays for his team."
It's the classic case of a player making the leap, and Afflalo should be right near the forefront of the Most Improved Player conversation.
And amazingly enough, he may not be the best story in Florida.
How can you not be happy for Greg Oden?
The big man went through one of the most brutal careers you could possibly imagine after he was selected first overall in the 2007 NBA draft, one pick ahead of Kevin Durant. You can view the full timeline of his injury-plagued tenure in the NBA here, but bring a box of tissues with you.
Fortunately for Oden, he ended up with the Miami Heat, a team that was willing to be extremely patient with him, refusing to push the envelope and throw him into the fire too quickly.
"I've said a thousand times that I'm grateful that the Miami Heat gave me this shot," Oden told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears while admitting that he had considered the possibility of retirement. "I'm just happy to be playing again."
The Ohio State product's last NBA appearance had come on Dec. 5, 2009, and he ended up writhing on the floor in pain over four years before he would officially step back onto the court in an NBA uniform. That's what made his 2013-14 debut—8:24 minutes against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 14—so special.
It's why that video of his first points in nearly half a decade got Miami's bench so excited. Seriously, just look at the reaction from the rest of the Heat, even if it means hitting the replay button up above.
Since then, Oden has suited up three more times, and he's currently averaging 3.5 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game. It's not much, but it's a step in the right direction, one that leaves hope alive for his future ability to go toe to toe with Roy Hibbert during the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals clash against the Indiana Pacers.
It's easy to doubt Oden's ability to improve that drastically. I wouldn't blame you if you did.
But remember, if the 2013-14 season has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't give up on a player too soon.
Given opportunity and the right situation, anyone can turn around a career.
Rudy Gay did once he was traded to the Sacramento Kings. Monta Ellis did after making a conscious effort to drive instead of pull up. Arron Afflalo took his game to the proverbial next level by learning to play to his strengths, an opportunity affording to him by the current Magic roster.
Maybe we'll be able to add Oden to the list of success stories before too long.
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