The NBA's Addition-by-Subtraction All-Stars
Sometimes, less is more.
That lesson has come home to roost in a big way in the NBA so far through the 2013-14 season. Injuries, early action on the trade market and uneasy team chemistry in certain cities have sparked change across the Association, some of which has been for the best.
It's too early to say whether any of this year's examples of "addition by subtraction" properly support the "Ewing Theory." For those of you who aren't familiar, the Ewing Theory, first posited by Bill Simmons, suggests that some teams fare better after losing their best players to injuries, trades or free agency.
Still, there's no shortage of cases across the basketball landscape that fit the basic criteria of "less is more." With the All-Star Game right around the corner, we figured it best to fashion the most pertinent instances into a squad of guys whose respective teams have either held the fort or far exceeded expectations without them.
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
Don't get me wrong: The Oklahoma City Thunder are not—I repeat, are not—better off without Russell Westbrook. He's a legit superstar in today's NBA whose freakish athleticism and fearless playmaking ability render them the prohibitive favorite to come out of the Western Conference for the second time in three years.
That being said, you don't have to look too hard to see how the Thunder have benefited from his absence. A 96-95 road win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday pushed OKC's record without Westbrook to 21-8, including 19-7 since his last operation in late December.
Kevin Durant has stepped up his game to an MVP level, averaging approximately 35 points, seven rebounds and six assists while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three over that span.
As "good" as Westbrook's absence has been for Durant's award candidacy, it's been even better for the confidence of OKC's supporting cast.
Reggie Jackson has chipped in close to 15 points, five assists and four rebounds while starting in Westbrook's spot. Jeremy Lamb has filled in as the Thunder's sixth man in Jackson's stead to the tune of 10 points per game. Serge Ibaka has been good for 16 points and eight rebounds with 2.7 blocks as Durant's second-in-command.
Those four, in particular, should be able to carry that bolstered quotient of confidence with them once Westbrook returns. That way, when things inevitably tighten up come playoff time, Scott Brooks will be able to count on his team's supporting cast that much more to make the right choices and execute in crunch time.
Shooting Guard: Tony Allen
Marc Gasol's return would be the easiest way to account for the Memphis Grizzlies' recent turnaround. They won nine of their first 10 games with him in the lineup, including victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets (twice) before dropping three out of four once Mike Conley succumbed to an ankle injury.
But Memphis' resurgence began shortly before Gasol came back, when another key figure in the "Grit-n-Grind" movement—Tony Allen—saw his own season derailed by a fracture in his left hand. His absence likely played a part in compelling the front office to find a stopgap solution at shooting guard.
Their choice? Courtney Lee, who came to the River City by way of a three-team trade with the Boston Celtics and the Thunder. He has been something of a revelation since he arrived. His three-point shooting has cooled off some, although he's still converting from the field at a 51.1 percent clip.
His legitimacy as a perimeter scoring threat (13.8 points) has helped to unclog the middle of the floor in Memphis' often stodgy, post-centric offense. According to NBA.com, the Grizzlies have averaged nearly two points more per 100 possessions when he is on the floor.
Surprisingly enough, Lee has been a boon to Memphis' once-moribund defense as well; the Grizzlies give up six points fewer per 100 possessions with him in the lineup.
Allen may be part of the heart and soul of this squad, but with Lee playing so well in his stead, he may have a tough time finding minutes once his hand heals up.
Small Forward: Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay has played surprisingly well since joining the Sacramento Kings in December. He has scored 20 points per game on what would be a career-high 51 percent shooting, with 5.4 rebounds and a personal-best 3.2 assists to boot.
But his arrival hasn't ushered in the dawn of a new era of winning in Sacramento; the Kings are just 12-22 since he made his debut.
The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, have gone from borderline tankers to potential playoff victors in his absence. They've gone 21-12—almost the exact opposite of Sacramento's recent record—in the two months since he changed cities.
His departure cleared the way for DeMar DeRozan's rise to All-Star status, Kyle Lowry's transformation into the team's key catalyst and Toronto's overall turnaround on both ends of the floor. According to NBA.com, the Raptors have been a top-10 outfit on both offense and defense over the last eight weeks or so.
As a result, they look like the favorites to win the Atlantic Division and, perhaps, win a postseason series for only the second time in franchise history. That sure beats taking another dip into the lottery, as Sacramento is sure to do come the spring.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer
Carlos Boozer has had a rough go of things of late. He's been battling discomfort in his left calf for weeks now, and he recently took umbrage with Tom Thibodeau's growing tendency to leave him out of the Chicago Bulls lineup during crunch time.
Though, by the looks of it, this may all work out in the team's best interests, this season and beyond. A 15-point win over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday was Chicago's fifth in six tries without Boozer in 2013-14.
Taj Gibson, who has received the starting nod on those occasions and has largely supplanted Boozer in the coach's fourth-quarter rotation, has made the most of his newfound opportunities. He has averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and nearly two blocks per game while shooting just a shade under 50 percent as a starter.
Compare that to Boozer's line (14.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.4 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting), and you don't have to reach very far to figure out that the 28-year-old Gibson could be in line to supplant his 32-year-old predecessor at power forward for good.
That's been the word on the street for some time now. There have been calls for the Bulls to amnesty Boozer's onerous contract ever since that provision came to be in the latest collective bargaining agreement.
Now that Chicago's in-house replacement seems ready to take over, the Bulls could comfortably sever ties with Boozer this summer as both a cost-cutting measure and a means of clearing cap space to refresh the roster with new blood for another run at the title with a (hopefully) healthy Derrick Rose.
Center: Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez is the key to the future for the Brooklyn Nets. They'll need the 25-year-old All-Star to recovery from his latest season-ending foot injury if they're to remain competitive in the years to come, given their glaring deficit of cap space and fungible assets.
For now, though, the Nets might be better off without him. Brooklyn has gone 14-9 since he had the fifth metatarsal in his right foot repaired in late December. That stretch has allowed the Nets to climb out of their early-season malaise and into the playoff mix in the admittedly awful Eastern Conference.
Brooklyn's improvement since then is no matter of pure coincidence, even if the loss of Lopez was accidental. With him out, Nets head coach Jason Kidd has slid Kevin Garnett to center, Paul Pierce to power forward and Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup.
That arrangement allows Garnett to do what he does best (i.e., protect the paint without having to chase around quicker forwards) while providing the Nets with enough size and length to allow them to switch defensive assignments with ease.
Thus far, the results have been eye-opening. According to NBA.com, the Nets have allowed 101.2 points per 100 possessions on 44.3 percent shooting—both of which would grade out as top-10 marks overall.
This isn't to suggest that Lopez is a bad defender by any means. Per Synergy Sports, he had held his opponents to just 0.65 points per play on 32.1 percent shooting prior to his injury. The league's SportVU stats pegged him as an elite rim protector as well, with foes finishing just 40.3 percent of their tries at the hoop.
But, in the context of the team, Lopez's unfortunate absence has been a boon to Brooklyn's hopes of salvaging its disappointing season.
Bench: Danny Granger
Danny Granger fits perfectly into this dubious group if we expand the scope of "addition-by-subtraction" back to the fall of 2012. His 2012-13 campaign (and the first chunk of 2013-14) was derailed by a serious bout with patellar tendinosis.
That left the Indiana Pacers without their leading scorer from the previous five seasons—which turned out to be something for which the term "blessing in disguise" is wholly insufficient. With Granger out of the lineup, Paul George, an up-and-coming young talent, slid into Granger's spot not only the wing but also as Indy's go-to guy on offense.
Seven games into the season, Lance Stephenson, known best at that time for taunting LeBron James from the bench, shifted into the starting lineup.
The Pacers struggled out of the chute. They lost seven of 10 games to start the month of November and were under .500 as late as Dec. 9 of that year. Indy went 39-21 from there on out and has started this season at an NBA-best 40-11 clip. George has emerged as a bona fide two-way superstar, while Stephenson, by virtue of his All-Star-caliber play as Indy's primary playmaker, has all but secured himself a massive payday when he hits free agency this summer.
As for Granger, he's still re-acclimating himself to the NBA game while tending to his troublesome knees and adjusting to an unfamiliar role off Frank Vogel's bench.
Whatever happens to him in free agency this summer, the Pacers ought to offer him a heartfelt "thank you." Not just for leading Indy through those dark, post-"Malice at the Palace" years, but also for unintentionally clearing the way for the emergence of a legitimate juggernaut with the ability to challenge the Miami Heat's supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
Coach: Lawrence Frank
Brooklyn's 2014 turnaround hasn't been solely a matter of player personnel changes. The team's renaissance has also coincided with Jason Kidd's growing confidence as a head coach.
Which, as it happens, may have been sparked by his Dec. 3 decision to demote Lawrence Frank, his top assistant, to writing reports.
I think since Lawrence as left...he was leaning on (Frank) a lot. So now I think he's coaching the way he wants to and doing things the way he wants to so that's what you're seeing.
I think you see him putting his footprint on the game a little bit more, especially lately. He's done a great job. He's learning on the job, and we knew that coming in. But he's doing a great job, especially now.
He's certainly doing a better job than he did when he was busy feuding with Frank, per Sports Illustrated. Without his former head coach around, Kidd has begun to blossom into the sort of coaching talent for which he'd been pegged and that the Nets had expected him to become all along.
As for Frank, he doesn't have it so bad. He may hate shuffling papers, but at least he's getting paid $1 million to do it.
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