10 formerly feel good storylines from the first half
Nothing lasts forever, even hot November play. The same thing happens every NBA season — a number of players and teams burst out of the gate, appearing to have taken that great leap forward or that big rebound back to respectability, and then over the course of the year, at least half of them fall by the wayside, victims of injury or circumstance or simple regression to the mean. Some of those feel-good stories disappear so quickly and with so little notice that we don’t even realize they’re gone until we look at the players and teams months later and think, “Woah, what the hell happened there?”
Of course, the good news here is that the opposite is true, too. A similar percentage of the players and teams who start off the season unexpectedly cold eventually heat up. The Pacers eventually got good (and watchable), Ersan Ilyasova is a professional basketball player again, and even Deron Williams got some serious All-Star consideration. But with the All-Star Break approaching and the moment being one of reflection, let’s take a look back at the positive storylines from earlier this season that are no longer with us, lest we forget that they were ever part of the 2012-13 conversation at all.
1. Jae Crowder, League Pass Favorite. This one should probably lead off the list, because it was the one that lasted the shortest — arguably just one game. Crowder came in off the bench in the Mavericks’ season opener against the Lakers, hit a couple threes, and added some rebounding and a lot of energy to the Mavs’ road upset (which, in retrospect, doesn’t seem nearly as impressive as it did at the time). With his athleticism, his smooth stroke, and eye-catching braids, he was tabbed as a rookie to watch this year, with some (on TBJ, anyway) referring to him as “Mini-Manimal” for a vague resemblance to Kenneth Faried. Crowder was even inserted into the short-handed Mavs’ starting lineup for a few games.
And that was about it for Jae Crowder. He’s scored more than 10 points only once in his last 23 games, while his minutes have been slashed to ribbons with the returns of Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowtizki, and his percentages have dropped to just 37 percent from the field, 32 percent from deep. He’s still got the braids, but otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot to tune in for with Mini-Manimal these days.
2. Jerry Stackhouse, Corner Three Assassin. After two seasons as a garbage-time scrub, Jerry Stackhouse saw an unexpected surge in relevance early this year as his knockdown three-point shooting — a combined 9-11 from deep in two high-profile Nets wins against the Celtics and Knicks, most from the corner — assured him a near-permanent home at the Barclays Center. It was one of the best stories of the early season, both for its unlikeliness and for the fact that, as with his Class of ’95 peer Rasheed Wallace up in midtown, it was just so much fun to have Jerry Stackhouse back in our NBA lives again.
But as the Nets fell back to earth after their 11-4 start, so did JerBear. Following that game, Jerry went a mediocre six for his next 21, and then his shooting fell off the cliffiest of cliffs, as Stackhouse hit just four of his last 28 and saw his three-point percentage slip to a subpar 32.5 percent. Without a whole lot else to contribute to the Nets at age 38, Stackhouse’s minutes started slipping along with his shooting, and now he hasn’t seen the court since January, likely back to the garbage-time-only status he had in Miami and Atlanta. Come back to NBA TV, Jerry — you’re needed much more there than behind Mirza Teletovic on the Brooklyn depth chart.
3. Orlando Magic, Playoff Contender. They won their first two games by a combined 34 points — including a shocking 13-point home upset over the Denver Nuggets — but that quickly looked to be a fluke after they proceeded to lose seven of their next eight. However, the idea of the Magic being a surprise 2012-13 success story was given new life by a 7-4 stretch (including four wins in a row, and two over the seemingly playoff-bound Golden State Warriors) that brought them back to 12-13, just one game under .500 in the mediocre East. Grantland’s Zach Lowe even wrote a column in late December entitled “Can the Orlando Magic Actually Make the Playoffs?,” though his answer was to that question was basically “maybe, but probably not.”
“Probably not” would be pretty goddamn generous for the Magic at this point. Since peaking at 12-13, the Magic have gone a staggering 3-23, including a 14-game losing streak that only ended last night against the Blazers. They have, however, re-entered the conversation as Orlando Magic, Lottery Contender, which given the Magic’s post-Dwight long-term plan, might be preferable anyway.
4. Kyle Lowry, New Face of the Raptors Franchise. Not entirely Lowry’s fault here, as injuries have sadly played a large role in slowing the scorching point guard’s first season north of the border. Still, it is a little staggering just how much Kyle Lowry’s season has fallen off since his first three games as a Toronto Raptor, where he averaged 24 points, seven boards, seven assists and nearly four steals, looking like he was going to change the entire culture of the Raptors with his aggressiveness while being named by TBJ’s own J.E. Skeets as his Favorite Raptor Ever. The conditional first-rounder they dealt for him in the off-season looked like a small price for Toronto to pay for the new face of their franchise.
But a rough tumble in OKC caused Lowry to miss a couple weeks, and when he came back, he lost his starting job to the steadier hand of veteran Jose Calderon. Lowry has regained the starting position after Calderon’s trade, and his per-game numbers are about where they were for the Rockets last season. But there are still a number of games where the point guard shows disconcerting passivity — there have been eight games since his return where Lowry’s scored five points or fewer, something that would seem unthinkable from anyone who watched him in those first three games. Meanwhile, Lowry’s presence has been overshadowed by the trade for swingman Rudy Gay, who Toronto appears to be grooming as their next franchise player.
Again, some circumstances beyond Lowry’s control here, but you have to wonder when (or if) we’re gonna see that early season form from him again.
5. Rashard Lewis, Off-Season Steal. Two ex-Washington Wizards started the season with new teams while playing like Comeback Player of the Year candidates (if such an award existed in the NBA): Andray Blatche with the Brooklyn Nets and Rashard Lewis with the Miami Heat. Blatche posted the best PER of his career (and one of the best in the league) as a bench weapon and injury replacement starter for the Nets, while Lewis teamed with Ray Allen to give the Heat an absolutely lethal second-unit three-point shooting combination on the wings. It seemed pretty likely that at least one of them would come significantly back to earth, while maybe the other would continue to be a factor.
If your money was on Blatche to remain the consistent contributor while Lewis fell out of favor, congratulations. Lewis’ percentages are still quite solid — 47 percent from the field, 44 from deep — but he’s lost his role with the Heat, with coach Erik Spoelstra toggling backup forward minutes between Lewis, Mike Miller and Shane Battier, with Lewis’ defensive deficiencies often leaving him the odd man out. He went about two weeks without seeing game action at the turn of the year, and though he’s gotten more minutes of late, he’s still perpetually at the mercy of Spoelstra’s inconsistent rotations, and always a risk to disappear for the rest of the season without notice for no particular reason.
6. Mike Dunlap, Coach of the Year Candidate. Like the Magic, the Bobcats started off the year with unforeseen competence, going 7-5 in their first 12 and, again, looking like a possible playoff conference in the up-for-grabs East. The reasoning for that was many-fold, including a second year leap for Kemba Walker, an impressive stat-stuffing start from rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and solid contributions from the veteran likes of Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions. But the guy who got the most credit for it might have been first year head coach Mike Dunlap, lauded for giving the Bobcats a new focus, toughness and defensive mindset, all badly missing in their 7-59 season the year before.
Eventually, though, the lack of talent catches up to almost everybody, and after the 7-5 start, the Bobcats have only won 5 of their last 38, with MKG hitting the rookie wall earlier than expected, frontcourt deficiencies coming to the forefront, and the team’s defense falling apart, at one point getting blitzed for triple digits in 14 straight games. The jury is still out on Dunlap as the long-term coach for the rebuilding Cats, but the Coach of the Year momentum he was briefly garnering at season’s start certainly won’t be reappearing this season.
7. DeAndre Jordan, Evolved Offensive Player. I’m not even 100 percent sure I remember where this came from — maybe he tried a hook shot or two outside of the paint in his first week or so — but after a good deal of offseason noise about DeAndre Jordan working on his offensive moves, Jordan started the season with the reputation of being a player with new dimensions to this game. Indeed, Jordan started the season averaging nearly 12 a game in his first six games, including back-to-back 20-point games for the first time in his career, looking like he would play a large role in the Clippers’ suddenly unstoppable, rebuilt offense.
Eh. Jordan quickly regressted to basically the same one-dimensional player we always knew, taking only 10 shots all season from beyond 10 feet and scoring in single digits in 14 of the last 21 Clippers games. And once again, he proved to be unplayable at the end of games, now a 43 percent free-throw shooter and a regular victim of the Hack-a-___ strategy when so exposed. If you were gonna bet on one player to be next off-season’s “Lessons with Hakeem” student, DeAndre would have to be the odds-on favorite, for narrative’s sake, if nothing else.
8. New York Knicks, OLD GUYZ RULE. Nobody in the Eastern Conference started the season as blazing as the New York Knicks, and a good deal of the credit for that was given to their newly-acquired spate of AARP eligibles. Jason Kidd had the highest Offensive Rating in the league and shot over 50 percent from three for a good stretch of the season, Rasheed Wallace was the team’s designated post defender and another surprise three-point marksmen, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby … well, they collected game checks, anyway. Even Pablo Priogini, the team’s 35-year-old rookie, started the season well, becoming a fan favorite with his playmaking and quick hands on defense.
But as they tend to do, the old guys have slowed down. Neither Camby nor Wallace has even played in a month, both out with injuries, while Kurt Thomas only plays spot minutes these days following the return of Amar’e Stoudemire from injury. And Jason Kidd has been absolute murder from the floor lately, making only 11 of his last 58 threes, and seeing his shooting percentages drop precipitously in the process. (Somehow, his offensive rating is still a resounding 118. Go figure.) Prigioni has still been solid as the backup point, but otherwise, the Knicks’ anti-youth movement has been downright arthritic of late.
9. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, Awaiting Saviors in the Wings. The Minnesota Timberwolves looked like the scariest .500-ish team in the league in November, somehow treading water despite early season injuries to their ostensible two best players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Once they got those two guys back, to go along with an improved Nikola Pekovic and a number of exciting new players (Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Dante Cunningham), it seemed like they were gonna have a pretty good chance at fulfilling some of their loftier preseason expectations.
That didn’t quite go according to plan. Love came back much sooner than expected and played much worse than expected, averaging just 18 points on 35 percent shooting in 18 games before re-aggravating his hand injury and going back to the IR. Shortly after, Ricky Rubio returned, but failed to help the team’s struggling offense, averaging just four points and five assists a game (on unthinkably poor 23 percent shooting) in his first 15 games back. Rubio’s stepped it up a little since, at least getting his PER into the teens, but Kevin Love’s return is still well off, and by the time he gets back, it’ll probably be way too late for the 18-30 Timberwolves (2-15 over their last 17) to make a playoff push in the always-crowded West.
10. Memphis Grizzlies Bench, Difference Makers. Along with the geriatric Knicks, no team got off to a better start this season than the Memphis Grizzlies, who looked like Finals contenders through their first 17 games, starting 14-3 with the same starting five that crapped out in the first round against the Clippers the prior season. The difference was the bench, which after the loss of sixth man O.J. Mayo, had restocked with the likes of Wayne Ellington and Jerryd Bayless and received improved contributions from Quincy Pondexter and Marreese Speights. The peak probably came with the Grizzlies’ mid-November beatdown of the Heat, in which the Memphis bench outscored Miami’s by 15, largely thanks to a 25-point effort from Ellington, who sank seven threes on the night.
Perhaps more than any other storyline on this list, this one was perhaps the most vulnerable to regression to the mean, and the Grizzlies’ bench (and by extension, the Grizzlies in general) suffered this one pretty badly. It took Ellington another 14 games combined to match as many threes as he had in that game against the Heat, and once November turned to December, Bayless didn’t score in double digits for nearly another two months. Now, most of that vaunted early bench unit isn’t even there anymore, with Ellington, Speights and Josh Selby shipped off to Cleveland, replaced by the newly acquired Jon Leuer and Austin Daye. The lesson here is probably that when you’re relying on a bunch of 25-and-under players already on their second or third teams to be the difference in your team being a championship contender … your team’s probably not gonna be a championship contender.