NBA Stars Whose Reputations Changed the Most This Season

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIApril 16, 2013

NBA Stars Whose Reputations Changed the Most This Season

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    During the course of an NBA regular season filled with intriguing story lines and plot twists, the reputations of NBA stars have evolved.

    Some NBA stars got hurt while others stayed healthy. Some embraced new roles and blossomed, while others shifted roles and struggled.

    In fact, even the personalities of NBA stars, for better or worse (or perhaps both), are no longer seen in the same light.

    While players like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and LeBron James have continued to have fantastic yet, by their standards and ours, "ho-hum" seasons, other players have had seasons that, for a variety of reasons, changed how fans view them.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Many members of the NBA community knew that the sixth overall draft pick in last summer's draft, Damian Lillard, was going to be good and have a shot at Rookie of the Year honors.

    But did anyone think he was going to be this good or this consistent?

    Numerous NBA pundits felt that because Lillard came out of Weber State, he hadn’t played the caliber of competition needed at the collegiate level to become a solid pro.

    They couldn't have been any further from the truth.

    Although Lillard’s 42.9-percent shooting from the field isn’t fantastic, he’s had to shoulder a huge load for the Portland Trail Blazers this season. The Trail Blazers rank dead last in the NBA in bench minutes and bench points, so the rookie has taken it upon himself to step up and produce to compensate for the shortcomings.

    Portland may not be playoff bound, but Lillard showed great strides in his first season en route to what will inevitably be a ROY award. He’s knocking down 84.6 percent of his free throws and draining a solid 36.9 percent of shots from beyond the arc.

    The 22-year-old point guard is averaging 19.1 points, 6.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. By comparison, NBA legend Isiah Thomas averaged 17.0 points, 7.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game during his rookie year. Thomas averaged 2.1 steals per game compared to 0.9 steals per game for Lillard, but Lillard is still a solid defender with room to improve.

    Many people, including myself, picked Lillard as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Even so, Lillard has exceeded most expectations and become an NBA star in his first year.

Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Steve Nash broke the hearts of Phoenix Suns fans last summer by leaving to pursue a championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Despite his age, Nash was still seen as a dynamic NBA point guard, and many fans felt that joining the Lakers was the move the Canadian needed to make to attain his first championship.

    Instead, the Lakers' 2012-13 season has been an injury-riddled disaster. The struggles for Nash have been evident all year, and following a devastating Achilles injury suffered by Kobe Bryant, it’s not even a certainty that the Lakers will make it to the postseason.

    The Nash-Bryant backcourt tandem is phenomenal on paper. The two combine for three MVP awards and 23 All-Star appearances. But they have also failed to complement each other on the court.

    Since both Nash and Bryant need the ball in their hands regularly to play their best basketball (Nash to orchestrate the offense and distribute; Bryant to isolate and score), the two haven’t fit well since Nash joined the team.

    As a result, Nash is averaging 6.7 assists per game, his lowest since the 1999-2000 season.

    Additionally, Nash broke his leg in the second game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers, forcing him to miss 24 games through November and December. The injury woes didn’t stop there for the 39-year-old, as he’s missed the past seven games due to a combination hamstring/hip/back issue.

    Nash is still a great shooter, ball-handler and passer, but age seems to have caught up with him.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Considering that Dwight Howard is still a complete enigma off the court, perhaps his reputation hasn’t changed much this season.

    He’s been very vague about his basketball future, which should trigger at least some concern for Lakers fans. He’s complained about the amount of touches he gets in the Lakers system, and he’s struggled to regain his dominant form following back surgery.

    D12 simply hasn’t looked like the same player this season, which led’s Bill Simmons to say in a January column: “I know this dumbfounding Lakers season is juggling about 39 different inexplicable subplots, but for me, Howard's decline from ‘third-best player in basketball’ to ‘borderline All-Star’ […] has been the single most staggering subplot.”

    In Howard’s defense, he’s been trying to regain his conditioning level all season long. He has looked better of late and is still putting up rock-solid stats.

    However, if the Lakers are going to continue being a yearly championship contender, they need Howard to be a superstar.

    Even with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner on the roster, Los Angeles has been an abysmal defensive team.

    Will Howard ever return to being the league’s most dominant inside presence? This is something we never would have doubted prior to the surgery, but there is a possibility that Howard is simply a less explosive player now.

Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers' 2012-13 campaign has been overshadowed by the fact that Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a single minute following the team's blockbuster acquisition of the former Laker big man.

    If Bynum was healthy, the Sixers had a chance to be a major player in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. As it stands, Philly is 15 games under .500, and head coach Doug Collins will reportedly resign after the season, according to ESPN.

    In a season marred by negatives, Jrue Holiday has provided one of the few bright spots for Sixers fans.

    If you were a fantasy-basketball owner leaning on Holiday last season (like I was), you probably threw in the towel after the first few months. It took Holiday until his fourth NBA season, but he finally broke out as a star point guard.

    He’s averaging career highs with 17.9 points, 8.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. His 3.8 turnovers per game will require some work, but without Holiday, Philly would be much deeper in the bowels of the NBA.

Paul George, Indiana Pacers

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    When the Indiana Pacers learned that Danny Granger would miss ample time due to knee surgery, it became obvious that the young Paul George would have to step up in his absence.

    Well, George has done that and then some. Granger's knee injury has limited him to just five total games this season, but Indiana hasn’t skipped a beat thanks to George.

    The 22-year-old is averaging career highs with 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, but his offensive prowess isn’t even the best thing he brings to the table.

    George actually leads the entire NBA with 6.3 defensive win shares. That’s a full defensive win share better than Kevin Durant and Marc Gasol, who are tied for second place in that category.

    Yes, George does benefit from playing alongside Roy Hibbert and David West (two solid defensive presences in the post), but his perimeter D has been a big difference-maker for one of the league’s best defensive teams.

    If George continues to improve—and this season's career-worst shooting percentage of 41.9 percent suggests that he still has some work to do—he’s going to be an All-Star-caliber player for a long time.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    For what seemed like Stephen Curry’s entire career up until this season, the young sharpshooter has dealt with recurring ankle issues. He played in just 26 total games last season because of injury, but with his health intact this season, Curry has blossomed into one of the NBA’s best guards.

    Curry is scoring 23.0 points per game this season on 45.3-percent shooting from the field, a ridiculous 45.5 percent from three-point range and 90.0 percent from the charity stripe.

    In my opinion, Curry was the most egregious All-Star snub in 2013. He made a strong case for himself after the fact by posting a career-high 54 points against the New York Knicks, while shooting 11-of-13 from beyond the three-point line.

    With Curry healthy, the Golden State Warriors clinched their first playoff spot since the magical 2006-2007 season.

    Curry has no doubt solidified his place among the NBA’s elite with his performance this season.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    James Harden didn’t get the chance to defend his 2012 Sixth Man of the Year award because he was traded from Oklahoma City to become “the man” in Houston.

    Harden was a gigantic focal point of OKC’s success as a scorer off the bench, but his reputation this season is one of a bona fide NBA star.

    The bearded one currently ranks fifth among all NBA scorers, putting up 25.9 points per game. Additionally, Harden is helping in other categories by notching 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per contest.

    His 3.8 turnovers per game are a glaring flaw in his game, but without him, the Houston Rockets would have had no chance at a playoff spot in 2013.

    In his first season as the go-to guy for an NBA team, Harden has exceeded lofty expectations by embracing his role and scoring in bunches. And at just 23 years old, Harden will be a franchise player for many years to come.

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kevin Durant has continued to solidify his place as the second-best player in the NBA today. He’s averaging 28.1 points per game on a career-high 51.0 percent from the field, while burying 41.6 percent of his three-point attempts.

    In other words, KD is doing typical KD things and this should surprise nobody.

    However, the NBA community this season has seen a distinct personality shift from Durant. He’s asserted himself, developed a mean streak and has essentially told the league that there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy.

    Most recently, the league fined Durant $25,000 for making a “menacing gesture” against the Golden State Warriors. That “menacing gesture,” according to ESPN, occurred when Durant pretended to slice his throat after a dunk.

    In addition to being fined for behavior uncharacteristic of his playing style, the lengthy swingman has recorded 12 technical fouls this season. Not only does that rank Durant eighth in the entire NBA, but that’s also more than double the amount of technical fouls he received all of last season (five).

    Durant has come out with a fiery vengeance this season. Although it’s not consistent with what we’ve seen from him in the past, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    It’s easy to tell that Durant has a genuine thirst for an NBA championship. Losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat last season simply added fuel to that fire.

    I expect Durant to have a monster postseason to reflect his personality swing.

Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony was connected to just about every negative NBA stereotype last season. Fans would say that he was a ball hog, not a team player, an offensive black hole that sucks the life out of the shot clock with his isolation offense.

    Fast-forward to this season and the narrative has been flipped on its head. Anthony is leading the race for the NBA scoring title over three-time reigning champ Kevin Durant by averaging 28.7 points per game, and he’s getting strong MVP consideration as a result (well, you know, behind LeBron James).

    He’s also been on an absolute rampage since returning to game action on March 20. Anthony has scored 21 or more points in 15 straight games. Additionally, Anthony scored at least 36 points in six straight, which started with a 50-point affair against the Miami Heat.

    Anthony is still the same volume scorer he’s always been. But now he’s getting recognized as more of a team leader for his overall dominance, and the vitriol from fans and analysts has subsided quite a bit.

    Keep in mind Anthony did win an NCAA championship in 2003 at Syracuse, so he knows how to win on the big stage. The Knicks are a major underdog in comparison to the Heat, but they have a puncher’s chance.