NBA Players Who Have Reinvented Themselves This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2015

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 3: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings rebounds against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors on February 3, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Rarely is it acceptable for NBA stars to stay the same.

Most of the league's luminaries are expected to improve from season to season. Seldom, though, are top talents tasked with undergoing wholesale adjustments—stylistic reinventions that completely reshape a pre-existing identity.

Still, it happens. It's happening this season. And we're here to single out those instances.

Household names are the focus. These are not the only players significantly altering their play styles, but they're some of the most well-known.

Due to some serious changes in the way they operate, though, it's time we get to know them again.

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings shoots a three pointer against the Toronto Raptors on November 15, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

It's not enough to just say Cousins has evolved to the whoa-th degree. We need to envision how his latest transition with the Kings came about.

"Yeah, hey, DeMarcus? Head honcho George Karl here. I know you're a true center best suited playing inside the paint within a methodically paced offense. Mike Malone left a Post-it for Tyrone Corbin who left a Post-it for me on his way out last season. But, um, we're gonna need you to play power forward this year and learn how to shoot threes while remaining efficient and super productive, and we're totally, if hopelessly, serious about all of this.

"Also, if you could stop forwarding me to voicemail, that would be great, too. Later, gator."

That's an absurd request. It doesn't matter how young or old or Tim Duncan-like you are. Sacramento has, even if unofficially, asked Cousins to remodel his entire game. And he's rising to the occasion.

Adding rookie Wilie Cauley-Stein (injured) and Kosta Koufos to the fold has meant more time at power forward for Cousins. Zero percent of his pro career minutes before this year had been at the 4. Roughly half of his playing time this season, though, is coming at power forward.

Switching positions just like that isn't easy. The 4 and 5 spots aren't interchangeable anymore. Power forwards are expected to space the floor and attack off the dribble. Cousins has never once imitated that genre of big man.

Then this season happened:

As the above chart shows, only once before have more than 25 percent of his field-goal attempts came outside 16 feet of the basket. And never, at any point prior to this season, have more than 2.1 percent of his total looks originated from behind the arc. 

Now, quite suddenly, he's substantively cutting down on his long twos and chucking threes with career-high frequency. He has made more triples this season than through his first five campaigns combined, and his success rate (31.3 percent), while below board relative to league-wide standards, is already higher than Rajon Rondo's career average (27.4 percent).

And Rondo is the other part of Cousins' impromptu change. He has never teamed with a point guard who needs the ball in his hands as much as Rondo does, and is now playing away from the action more than ever:

Almost 65 percent of Cousins' made shots are being assisted on, which is by far and away the highest mark of his career.

Cousins is one of the league's premier post-up players—an imposing interior force who can manipulate defenders with his physicality and footwork. But where fellow back-to-the-basket experts such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, Jahlil Okafor, et al. get to post up 20, 30 and 40 percent of the time, less than 18 percent of Cousins' offensive plays end on the block.

Put another way: More of Marcus Morris' sets end with post-ups than Cousins'. So, yeah, really think about that.

Few bigs could have successfully made this type of shift. Even fewer could have done so without seeing their effective field-goal percentage—the cumulative measurement of two- and three-point shooting—take a nosedive. 

But Cousins' effective field-goal rate is within two percentage points of his career mean, and the Kings offense, one of the team's few bright spots, is statistically superior with him in the game.

Cousins deserves all the style points for breaking tradition and immediately segueing into an unfamiliar stretch forward-center role.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

BROOKLYN, NY - DECEMBER 6: Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on December 6, 2015 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Yes, Green has reinvented himself this season—in more ways than one.

He is still one of the primary reasons the Warriors are able to defend the way they do. He matches up against anyone, and his rotations are flawless. He'll make three or more on any given defensive possession.

It's on the offensive end where Green has truly changed.

The Warriors have long been a floor-spacing masterpiece, and Green has always played a pivotal part in helping them spread opposing defenses beyond function. But he has really upped his shooting game this season compared to last:

How are you supposed to defend the Warriors when their power forward/sometimes-center is draining long balls at above-average clips? You're not. That's why Golden State is on pace to post the highest offensive rating in league history.

But Green's offensive value is only partially tethered to his improved marksmanship. More of his importance is linked to his point power forward/point center duties.

"The way he plays, he plays kind of like a big guard," Shaun Livingston told CBS Sports' Matt Moore. "There are some centers out there who can pass the ball, they just can't move the way that he moves."

"Draymond's a different beast," added Andrew Bogut. "He's not an inside man, he's a 4 who can bring the ball up the floor. He's a very, very smart player. He knows all our options. He's kind of the motor that makes us go."

It's because of Green that the Warriors are able to let Stephen Curry truly loose. Nearly half of the reigning MVP's buckets are coming off assists—a ratio that's relatively uncommon among point guards. Around three-quarters of Chris Paul's baskets go unassisted, while more than 80 percent of Russell Westbrook's made shots are self-created.

Curry is unique for a point guard in that he's at his best when allowed to play off the ball. It becomes much more difficult to run him off screens or stash him beyond the rainbow, waiting for a kick-out, if there isn't a crafty playmaker to break down defenses, attack the basket and fling bullets every which way imaginable.

Neither Andre Iguodala nor Livingston draws enough attention as a pseudo-point man, and Bogut's elbow passes are predictable enough to thwart when relied upon in volume.

Having Green act as the main floor general for extended periods of time allows the Warriors to do a ton of things off the ball. His passes off the dribble are getting downright ridiculous, and defenses must now respect his handles and range.

Golden State goes to Point Draymond so frequently that his assist percentage is nearly identical to Curry's and has almost doubled between last season and now. LeBron James and Blake Griffin are the only forwards with a better assist rate.

This alternating dynamic is having an indisputable impact on Curry's performance. Point Draymond has helped out on close to 19 percent of his converted shots, and Curry's shooting percentages, though still sexy, plummet when Green is off the floor.

There's no question that, on many levels, Green is building upon a play style that started taking shape last season. But his game has changed and his role has expanded. He owns the Warriors' second-best net rating and, along with Curry, is one of two players they simply cannot survive without—a nightly triple-double threat and surefire superstar with an under-the-radar MVP case on which to stand.

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 21: Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots against Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 21, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Rocky W. Widner/Getty Images

Horford's basketball reincarnation has been more gradual than not.

Last season, he made and attempted more treys than he did through his first seven go-rounds combined. This season, he's doing the same, only more so, and in noticeably different fashion.

The Hawks are not using Horford like most superstars. He is not their offensive lifeline. He's hardly even a focal point. His usage rate has once again taken a backseat to Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder, and he's being featured in the post on less than 17 percent of his offensive touches.

Horford, at this moment, is a superstar role player.

Such continued sacrifice is necessary to keep the Hawks offense humming. They move the ball more than most teams and need willing playmakers, not action-dominant scorers.

Nearly one-quarter of his shot attempts are catch-and-shoot threes. That's up from three percent last season and just over two percent in 2013-14.

Nothing about this standstill usage is typical for a center. Consider this: Horford has almost twice as many spot-up possessions under his belt this season as Kyle Korver, one of the foremost authorities on catch-and-shoot situations. That's stupid-incredible.

Here's a guy who has never allocated even five percent of his looks to long-range missiles and is now leaning on the three-ball around 25 percent of the time while shooting 36 percent from distance and maintaining his career effective field-goal percentage.

These aren't glamour shots Horford is jacking up, and that merely accentuates his reinvention. He executes in whatever way the Hawks need him to—even if it means leaving the paint to orbit the perimeter as part-superstar, part-glorified jump-shot specialist. 

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 25:  Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets reacts after a play during their game against the Washington Wizards at Time Warner Cable Arena on November 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NBA - NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tore a labrum in his right shoulder, sidelining him for all of 2015-16, it was initially thought that he took Charlotte's playoff hopes with him.

But then the season started, with the Hornets showcasing a fancy new small-ball-inspired offense run by a more refined Kemba Walker.

True to form, he is hoisting many of the same shots. More than one-third of his looks still come between 10 feet and just inside the three-point line, and he remains most comfortable when creating opportunities for himself.

Shots he usually misses are just finding nylon more often:

With the exception of mid-range and long twos (his vices), Walker is notching career-best percentages from every designated area. His three-point shot specifically has gone from nonexistent to legitimate, and that's opened up the Hornets offense a great deal.

Charlotte actively uses Walker off the ball when Jeremy Lin is on the floor, and top defenses are finally forced to respect his outside touch. That's paved clearer paths to the basket for Nicolas Batum and Lin, and it's put Walker in a position where he can be stashed in the corner for kick-outs or easily dart around screens before slashing toward the basket.

His polished shooting has been a boon for Charlotte's pick-and-roll blitz as well. The Hornets ball-handlers rank in the top seven of points scored per possession and sit inside the top 10 of usage.

That combination of quality and quantity wasn't possible last season when Walker was prone to being exploited by the most basic defensive practices. As numberFire's Dale Redman wrote: 

When defending the pick-and-roll, players have two choices, both with their own inherent weaknesses. First, they could go under the screener, leaving them in a better position to defend the drive but more susceptible to a long range jumper. The other option is to fight over or through the pick so that the ball handler has a contested shot. This method leaves the defender vulnerable to being beaten off the dribble.

If you don't respect the ball handler's jump shot (most teams had no reason to respect Walker's jumper), then you would consistently go under the screen, effectively blocking off the lane for the point guard to use his quick first step, reducing the effectiveness of the play for the Hornets the past few years.

Sagging off Walker is no longer an option—not with him hovering around 40 percent shooting outside 25 feet of the rim. But fighting over screens or closing out on him early isn't particularly appetizing, either.

Walker has never been more dangerous when trying to score on the move. His drives are down in frequency from last season, but his accuracy has improved by more than eight percentage points. Even if teams try hedging against his pick-and-rolls, he has the speed to get around defenses and make a beeline for the hoop. 

All of this is happening, mind you, without adversely effecting Walker in other areas. His free-throw splits are intact despite launching fewer shots, and he's not turning the ball over an unreasonable number of times.

The second cherry atop the already cherry-topped sundae that is his 2015-16 season? 

Presented with the caveat that he is a defensive minus, Walker's block percentage is higher than those of Omer Asik, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Enes Kanter, Meyers Leonard, Zaza Pachulia and a boatload of other players who have no business being out-blocked by a 6'1" point guard.

Which is to say: This is the best version of Kemba Walker we have ever seen.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited and are accurate leading into games on Dec. 9.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.


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