It turns out Mike D’Antoni isn't the only coach capable of turning waiver-wire flotsam into productive NBA players.
Three months after being cut by the Toronto Raptors, D.J. Augustin has emerged as the leading scorer (following the trade of Luol Deng) and principal playmaker on a Chicago Bulls team that is once again drowning out doubters and defying expectations.
Having lost superstar point guard Derrick Rose to his second major knee injury since 2012, the Bulls have been forced once again to rely on a point guard by committee spearheaded by Augustin and veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich.
|Chicago's Point guard by committee|
|D.J. Augustin (with Chicago)||14.6||5.2||.578||17.3|
Following a rocky 1-4 start in the wake of Augustin’s signing, the Bulls are 26-11 since Dec. 19, propelling them to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and a possible home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
Not bad for a guy many believed would never amount to more than an end-of-bench afterthought.
After a stellar sophomore season at the University of Texas (19.2 points and 5.8 assists on 45 percent shooting), Augustin was selected with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, who saw in their diminutive prospect a possible long-term replacement for the middling Raymond Felton.
Indeed, Augustin’s rookie campaign—11.8 points and 3.5 assists on 42 percent from the floor, including 44 percent from three-point range—suggested anything but a bust-in-waiting.
But after three more years of inconsistent minutes and even more inconsistent production, Augustin signed as a free agent with the ascendant Indiana Pacers ahead of the 2012-13 campaign. Augustin never quite found his footing anchoring one of the league's worst second units, and he was promptly cut adrift.
Sadly, things only got worse, with the Raptors waiving Augustin after logging just 82 minutes over 10 games.
Desperate for depth following a second devastating injury to Rose, Chicago decided to take a flyer on Augustin, hoping to bolster a positional depth chart that had been winnowed down to a single name: Kirk Hinrich.
But while Augustin’s individual numbers have been up near across the board, the Bulls remain a more dangerous team with Hinrich on the floor.
|Team on-off numbers|
Still, even if his role remains that of a SINO (starter in name only), Augustin has proven himself a potent part of some of Chicago’s most productive lineups.
|The Augustin effect|
|Augustin, Dunleavy, Noah, Gibson, Snell||58||111.4||81||30.4|
|Augustin, Gibson, Hinrich, Noah, Snell||43||110.4||81.5||28.9|
|Augustin, Butler, Dunleavy, Gibson, Noah||110||122.2||110.8||11.4|
Indeed, Augustin recognizes that his value to the Bulls—and the opportunity they've afforded him—goes well beyond the box score, as he told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune back in January:
The NBA is just opportunity and situation. Maybe those last two teams I was with wasn't the best situation for my game. I love playing with Coach Thibs and playing with these guys who are very smart and great players. It makes me look better.
In many ways, Augustin has assumed the role orchestrated with theatrical aplomb by Nate Robinson last year. But what Augustin lacks in Nate Rob's flash and fury—and the occasional scoring outburst—he more than makes up for in steady efficiency.
|Nate vs. D.J.|
|Player / Season||Points per 36||TS%*||PER||Team ORtg|
|Nate Robinson (2012-13)||18.5||.540||17.4||101.9|
|D.J. Augustin (2013-14)||16.5||.567||16.2||99.8|
It remains to be seen whether Augustin’s increased production will compel him to do what Robinson did following a similarly impressive run last season: namely, court another fresh contract this summer.
According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, however, Augustin might well return the favor afforded by his second chance:
The good news is Augustin wants to return and seems ready to give the Bulls a bit of a discount, considering they took him off the unemployment line in December after he was waived by the Toronto Raptors and helped him resurrect his career.
Even if Augustin decided to bolt, the Bulls will enter the offseason safe in the knowledge that, should Rose somehow suffer another setback, Tom Thibodeau has fostered both an offensive attack wherein even considerably flawed point guards have a chance to thrive.
Writing at the noted blog Bulls By the Horns, Avi Saini unpacked precisely what makes Thibodeau’s seemingly milquetoast offense so conducive to point guard production:
Chicago’s side-to-side ball movement around the perimeter serves to create offensive opportunities for a team composed of players who struggle to generate their own shot. By moving the ball around, the Bulls force defenses off balance by making them constantly shift their positioning. When used in conjunction with on and off ball screens this forces defensive breakdowns for Chicago to exploit, primarily pick-and-roll driving lanes for the guard, spot up shots, and lanes for players to cut into.
At 26 years old, Augustin’s fate as a replacement-level point guard might be all but set in stone. But even if his never becomes a career of surpassed expectations, Augustin’s production in Chicago is proof positive that, in today’s NBA, one’s abilities are often only as good as the opportunity at hand.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 8, unless otherwise noted.
*True-shooting percentage is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, free throws and three-point shooting.