Forgotten NBA Stars Who Will Play Huge Roles in 2014-15 Season
One of the great things about the NBA is how each new season brings the possibility of more stars beginning their unique upward ascents.
However, such perennial unpredictability carries with it another, more insidious side effect: forgetting about yesterday’s hardwood heroes.
Whether by dint of injury or flat-out poor production, plenty of household names are poised to enter the 2014-15 slate with something to prove—that they still have what it takes to push their team to the next level.
Today, we’ll look at eight players who fell off our collective radar screens a season ago and explain why the coming campaign is theirs for the taking.
Some had unfortunate run-ins with the injury bug. Others suffered through slumps or awful off years, while still others were the victims of rotational and strategic circumstances beyond their control.
What do they all have in common? They were once squarely on our round-ball radar screens and intend to land there once again.
Let us redeem ourselves!
In any debate as to the intergenerational merits of today’s NBA bigs, the Brooklyn Nets’ Brook Lopez has long been a useful counterpoint to today’s anti-center zealots. Skilled and savvy, towering but coordinated, Lopez has emerged as one of the league’s most compelling pivots.
That is, until the former Stanford standout sustained a broken right foot in a December tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers, immediately derailing what was looking to be a breakout season from Lopez.
Speaking to Newsday’s Roderick Boone, Nets teammate Andrei Kirilenko underscored just how crippling Lopez’s loss had been:
I think when we lost Brook, we kind of lost our force inside. With all my respect to [Mason Plumlee], he's still a little bit raw. He's working right now, he's getting way better. He next season is going to help Brook under the basket. But with Brook, we kind of lost that inside presence and constant threat because he's so good. He's probably the best center right now in the NBA.
With new head coach Lionel Hollins at the helm, Brooklyn is almost certain to redouble its efforts on the defensive end and, in the process, bring the pace of play down considerably. That’s good new for Lopez, whose value has always been as a top-tier half-court option.
Assuming last year’s setback was just that, Lopez—at just 26 years old—has a chance to become that rarest of animal in today’s NBA: a genuine center you can actually build around.
Unlike with Lopez, Josh Smith’s demise was, for the most part, a grave of his own making.
We’ve all known for years that few players possess the sheer two-way potential of the Detroit Pistons' mercurial forward. Actualizing that potential, it turns out, is a little bit harder than simply wishing it so.
To be fair, one could make the argument Smith was too often shoehorned into the role of small forward, playing as he was along side bona fide bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Still, by floating along the perimeter and being reluctant to attack the basket, Smith didn’t exactly help his own cause.
How can new coach (and team president) Stan Van Gundy remedy the situation? If reports by the Detroit Free Press’ Vince Ellis are to be believed, the contractual impasse between Monroe and the Pistons might make the fix for him.
Smith is much more effective at the power forward slot—that much is clear. If Van Gundy can figure out how to make that the norm, either by virtue of Monroe’s departure or some different rotational calculus, Smith has all the tools necessary to author a bounce-back season.
Can someone who’s made but two All-Star appearances in a 12-year career—the last of them being seven years ago—truly be considered a “forgotten star”?
Semantics aside, it’s hard to deny that Carlos Boozer was very, very good for quite a long time. Albeit on one side of the ball.
At 32 years old, Boozer’s best days are undoubtedly behind him. But after being amnestied by the Chicago Bulls and subsequently scooped up by the Los Angeles Lakers, the burly power forward could be poised to prove that, sometimes, all you need is a change of scenery.
Granted, Los Angeles isn't making anyone’s short list of Finals contenders, even with a theoretically healthy Kobe Bryant back in the fold. But the Lakers tout enough in the way of passable talent to make them a potential sleeper in the West.
Now free Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse for good, Boozer can get back to doing what he does best: providing a potent interior scoring punch.
If concern over Brook Lopez centers around the potential for freak injuries, Deron Williams—with numerous ankle surgeries to his name—represents a more cumulative risk for the Nets.
Indeed, only once in his 10-year career has Williams logged a full 82-game slate. Whether or not that trend can improve with the former All-Star point guard fast approaching 30 is, for Brooklyn, a multimillion dollar question.
Then again, we’re talking about a player a mere two years removed from a season in which he averaged 21.0 points and 8.7 assists for the then New Jersey Nets.
But a series of injuries—most recently resulting in surgery on both his ankles—prematurely derailed what was looking very much like a Hall of Fame career.
When healthy and driven, D-Will is an unquestioned top-tier talent. If Hollins can reignite the fire that made Williams an All-Star three years running (from 2010 to 2012), he’ll be putting Brooklyn in a position to make some serious noise in the Eastern Conference.
Of all the players on our list, perhaps none has enjoyed more physical misfortune—pure bad luck, really—than the Atlanta Hawks’ Al Horford.
For Horford, the curse hasn’t been to knee, ankle or back, but to his pectoral muscle. After missing 55 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Horford reaggravated the injury again 29 games into last season.
Two rare injuries, two lost seasons. At this point, head coach Mike Budenholzer has to hope against hope that bad things don’t come in threes.
Picked by most to miss the playoffs altogether, particularly in Horford’s absence, the Hawks instead rallied around Budenholzer’s San Antonio Spurs-inspired offense, eventually capturing the No. 8 seed.
Now, it’s impossible to view Horford taking on a kind of Tim Duncan role with the young, pass-happy Hawks, who added stopper Thabo Sefolosha to a team whose only real weakness had been consistent perimeter defense.
Can Horford be the best player on a title contender? Probably not. But after getting cheated out of 108 games the past three years, you’d better believe he’ll be coming out of the gate determined to prove otherwise.
Over the past six months, no team’s fortunes fell harder or faster than those of the Indiana Pacers, whose offseason has been defined by the departure of Lance Stephenson and—just last Friday—a tragic, potentially career-threatening injury to All-Star forward Paul George.
If there’s any sliver of a silver lining to be had (and at a this point, given George’s importance to the franchise, there really isn’t), it might be this: Roy Hibbert, after a disastrous second half of last season, has a clean slate.
Following a breakout 2012-13 campaign that saw the Pacers pivot emerge as one of the league’s foremost rim protectors, Hibbert’s production hemorrhaged severely this past season.
Be the underlying cause a crisis of confidence or locker room rancor, it was clear Hibbert wasn’t himself.
Here’s what we know: During the team’s conference finals showdown with the Miami Heat, Hibbert made it clear, via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that he felt like he wasn’t getting near the attention he deserved on offense.
"The game plan really wasn't to utilize me as much; I'm just trying to be effective as I can," Hibbert said. "Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes."
Be careful what you wish for.
With Lance Stephenson and George out of the picture, Hibbert stands to become an integral part of the Pacers offense. It might not be enough to propel Indiana back into the playoffs, but it could prove a coup for the embattled center’s career.
To those determined to see in Kobe Bryant’s brief 2013-14 stretch reason to write off the 16-time All-Star for good, be warned: He will find you.
Bryant, who will be 36 by the time the season starts, isn’t going to win any scoring titles. He’s not going to win the MVP or even play on the next Olympic team.
What the Mamba can do, however, is ride out his Lakers career with one or two more stellar seasons—efficiency wise, if not in terms of sheer productivity. And after suiting up in just six games a year ago, you’d better believe that’s high on Bryant’s priority list.
With Nick Young and Jeremy Lin making up the team’s third and fourth offensive options, Bryant’s leadership will be needed more than ever.
And, as Bleacher Report’s David Murphy recently underscored, there are things the Lakers can do to help minimize the wear and tear on their beloved basketball hero:
What kind of player Bryant is able to be next season will be largely influenced by being put into a position to succeed. The ability to get to his sweet spots early, creating space at either the short corner or just outside the block, will be important.
Playing at the small forward position would allow him to expend less energy, something that would be especially important in the early part of the campaign as he starts to get those oft-injured legs back into game condition.
A lot of people have pointed to his recent two-year, $48.5 million extension as a cynical ploy on the part of L.A. to pay Bryant for his past performance. That might well have been the case.
But if we’ve learned anything about Kobe Bean Bryant after all these years, it’s that he possesses a Michael Jordan-esque flair for the vengeful. That’s great news for the Lakers and their fans, and it's bad news for just about everyone else.
Why wouldn’t we save the best for last?
No player in the last decade has experienced a more meddlesome media maelstrom than Derrick Rose, whose stratospheric trajectory has been twice derailed by knee injuries.
Over the interceding two years, speculation abounded as to whether Rose—whose hyperathletic style was at once a blessing and a curse—would ever again reclaim the fantastic form of his 2009-10 MVP season.
If you ask Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, for whom Rose will suit up at this month’s FIBA World Cup in Spain, those doubters are about to be answered, via ESPN’s Nick Friedell:
I think he's exceptional in every way. He went right at it. The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball handler. Moving his feet, attacking him -- there was a buzz right away -- because it was basically his saying, 'Look, I'm not just back. I'm back at a level that's elite…He really created an air of excitement for the team because we all were anxious to see who he was right now. And who he is is very, very good. We're ecstatic about it and so happy for him.
Now that the Bulls have added Pau Gasol, Euroleague MVP Nikola Mirotic and rookie sharpshooter Doug McDermott to a team that still managed to finish fourth in the East this past season, expectations are about to reach an even more fevered pitch for Rose.
In the wake of Paul George’s tragic injury, fans the world over are hungry for a happy retort. In the return of Rose—a player whose skills, spirit and work ethic have made him as much a role model as a basketball hero—they might well get their wish.