With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series continues today with the teams in the Southwest Division: the Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans and Spurs.
Most Interesting New Player: Monta Ellis
All of Dallas’ big free agent pickups were the same basic level of Interesting But Not Really. Seeing decent players like Jose Calderon, DeJuan Blair and Devin Harris in new roles in new jerseys will have some limited novelty, but these are players we’ve seen for long enough now that we basically know who they are and what they do — any legitimate surprise they provide in Dallas will be, well, surprising. Of these players, Monta seems the closest to an unknown quantity, since while we know his strengths and weaknesses a player pretty well, there’s still some debate about how much he can help a solid, veteran team actually win ball games, which is ostensibly what he’ll be called on to do as Dirk Nowitzki’s teammate in Big D. The answer very well might be “little” or “none,” but he’s never played on a team like Dallas, for a coach like Rick Carlisle, or with a teammate like Dirk before, so at least there’s some chance for personal growth there. It’ll be moderately interesting to see.
I would have liked to pick any of Dallas’ rookies in the backcourt for this — Gal Mekel and Ricky Ledo both intrigued in Vegas, and some people seme to think Shane Larkin has sleeper potential — but after the Mavs’ offseason splurging on mid-tier guards, they’re all likely to enter this season buried so deep on the depth chart that they’ll be lucky to even get consistent minutes in garbage time. Wayne Ellington eats first, you know how it is.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Brandan Wright
Brandan Wright is either the league’s most underrated big man, or the best piece of evidence remaining to show how flawed Player Efficiency Rating is as an all-encompassing stat of player evaluation. Wright has had a PER of 21 or better each of the last two seasons, and his 21.0 last year would have ranked sixth amongst all big men in the league. Of course, this is fairly small sample size stuff, as Brandan played only 64 games and just 18 minutes a game. But in those minutes, he shot nearly 60 percent, rebounded decently (about eight per 36) and essentially never turned the ball over, making him a big man of the Tyson Chandler-type, know-your-role offensive efficiency.
It’s surprising to me that Wright didn’t garner more interest in free agency. True, he’s never done it in big minutes, partly because he’s too much of a defensive liability against more physical post players to earn those defensive minutes, but offensive numbers that good, attached to a player only 25 years of age (and still with a lottery pedigree), generally tend to draw some interest around the league, more so than the two years and $10 mil he re-upped for with the Mavs. If he ends up taking big minutes from Samuel Dalembert — and considering Sammy couldn’t hold down starting gigs the last three seasons with the Kings, Rockets or Bucks, I’m guessing he won’t lock this one up either — he could end up being as important to Dallas as any of their bigger-name new pieces. Hope so for Dirk’s sake.
Most Interesting New Player: Dwight Howard
Not that Isaiah Canaan and Omri Casspi aren’t interesting, but you know. There will be no story bigger in the Western Conference this year — at least at first — than whether Dwight Howard can turn around a couple very worrying last few seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles. Will he get back to being one of the league’s most dominant defensive forces? Will his post moves improve from legendary big man Kevin McHale’s tutelage? Will he thrive in an up-tempo, pick-and-roll-heavy offense? And, perhaps most importantly — will he get people to actually like him again?
I say the odds are mostly with him on the latter, but I don’t have a ton of faith in most of the other points. Maybe I’m reading too much into his injury-recovery season with the Lakers, but I just don’t see a change of scenery and a different offensive system being enough to mark a total rejuvenation in a career that’s taken a major downturn of late. If I had to bet on one of the supposedly contending teams out west to be a sizable disappointment, it’d be Houston. They already seemed a little ahead of the curve last season, I’m not sure they’ve done a ton to improve their team outside of Dwight, and I don’t know if Dwight moves the needle as much as he used to. But I’ll be watching just like everyone else to find out, and if Dwight did legitimately have a bounce-back year that landed him in the MVP discussion, I guess I wouldn’t be hugely shocked, either.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Omer Asik
Another reason I’m a little down on the Rockets’ contending potential is because I’m not sure if Dwight Howard and Omer Asik can consistently play together, and if they can’t, I don’t know how much of an upgrade Dwight is over the 7-foot Turk. Asik rebounds at about the same rate, shoots nearly as high a percentage from the field (and a little better from the free throw line), and actually had better on-court/off-court team differentials than Dwight on both sides of the ball last year. He’s also about a half-year younger, has significantly less pro basketball mileage on him, and has a much better health record than D-12. In fact, Asik hasn’t missed a game in his three seasons in the Association.
Not saying that I’d rather have Asik than Dwight. I wouldn’t, and neither should the Rockets. But if they can’t pull off the Twin Towers, and Dwight is largely taking minutes that otherwise would’ve gone to Asik, I’m not totally sold that that makes Houston considerably better, especially if Asik’s continued grousing at being supplanted leads to him eventually being traded for nickels and dimes. It’s a subplot that I think will have more impact on H-Town’s season than many may realize.
Most Interesting New Player: Mike Miller
Outside of Oden-to-the-Heat, there probably wasn’t a more obviously pre-destined free agent signing this offseason than a post-amnesty Mike Miller signing back with his old Memphis ball club — I wanted to swat away the other teams circling him in the FA hunt, trying to get in the way of destiny. Miller is, of course, exactly what the Grizzlies needed this offseason, minus some athleticism and health security perhaps, but otherwise, just what the doctor ordered: A sharp-shooting forward with a little size, to make defenders pay for doubling down on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol as San Antonio did in the conference finals. The fact that he was already on the Grizzlies once, and hit one of the biggest shots in franchise history (before they actually had all that many meaningful shots to hit), was just icing.
Of course, with so many making big personnel moves this offseason, it might ring a little hollow to suggest that the Grizzlies adding an oft-injured 33-year-old who flitted in and out of the rotation for his entire three years in Miami is a signing of true consequence. Still, he doesn’t have to hit all that many shots to be a difference-maker for the almost-there Grizzlies, and Miller has certainly proven over the last two postseasons that he can hit a couple shots when they really matter. I’m pretty excited for both player and team on this one.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Ed Davis
I’d really rather say Tony Wroten, because I guess I caught what must have been the only two good Tony Wroten games in my initial exposure to him last year, and he looked like a future starter to me. But an uninspiring end to the season and a rough Summer League later, I gotta see it a couple more times in game action before I get totally on the Von Wroten Express. In the meantime, I’m still fascinated by Ed Davis, who I thought was developing into a future Big Deal in Toronto, before he got buried in Memphis after the Rudy Gay trade. Having Darrell Arthur as a teammate and Lionel Hollins as a coach did Davis no favors, and I’m hoping that with both of them gone this year, he gets back to regular minutes and the chance to be an important part to the Grizzlies’ Western Conference push — or at least to being the best trade bait the team has to dangle around the deadline.
Seriously, though, Tony Wroten, give me something to work with this year. And do it quickly, otherwise Josh Akogon might be getting your minutes by mid-November.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Most Interesting New Player: Jrue Holiday
Though I mostly agree with the analysis that the Sixers won the Holiday/Noel & 1st swap that overshadowed draft night (for me, at least), I think people are still downplaying what a good get Holiday was for the Pelicans. Like, getting a 23-year-old All-Star point guard for the entirety of his more-than-reasonable four-year contract is a pretty big deal, especially when your team already has a couple other good players on board. Yes, Jrue’s second-half stats were pretty crappy, but that’s largely because the Sixers had no backup point guard and he had to lead the team for 40 minutes a night in the first half. And yes, Jrue’s efficiency was pretty lousy, but that’s largely because the Sixers ran an ultra-conservative offense, and he was expected to be both the primary scorer and distributor without a whole lot of help on the wings or in the post. Trust me: The guy’s a really good player.
Playing alongside an improved-looking Anthony Davis and his best backcourt scoring partner yet in Eric Gordon, I believe Jrue’s gonna have an even better season next year, while the Sixers absolutely crumble on offense without him. I still wish the team hadn’t signed Tyreke Evans, since I’m not really sure what he does but confuse the situation for all involved, but I think Pellies (or whatever) fans are gonna absolutely love the Damaja.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Anthony Davis
Lots of interesting returnees on this Pelicans team: Can Eric Gordon stay healthy and out of Monty Williams’ doghouse? Can Al-Farouq Aminu hold down the starting job at small forward? Can Austin Rivers resemble an actual NBA player at some point? But for the most part in New Orleans, it starts and ends with Anthony Davis, a guy who has a chance to make a second-year leap to take the Pelicans out of the lottery and into playoff contention. If you saw the Team USA exhibition scrimmage a few weeks ago, you saw how liquid AD’s jumper was starting to look, and you know that if he can make that shot, there’s not a whole lot left holding him back from becoming one of the game’s most dominant big men.
Of course, injury concerns remain, and a jumper in one offseason game does not necessarily portend season-long improvement. But I don’t know if there’s a bigger wild card player in the whole West than Anthony Davis. With one big breakout year, the guy could probably change the conference’s entire playoff picture.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Most Interesting New Player: Marco Belinelli
Not particularly interesting, of course, but that’s the Spurs — the only time I can remember them consciously trying to do something legitimately interesting in the offseason was when they traded for Richard Jefferson four summers ago, and given how poorly that ultimately went, it’s hardly surprising they haven’t looked to replicate it recently. It’s a bummer they couldn’t get AK-47, since that would’ve been the rare name free agent that it would have actually made sense (and felt oh so right) for the Spurs to have gone for, but generally speaking, no news is good news for San Antonio, arguably the most stable franchise in all of pro sports.
And oh yeah, Marco Belinelli. Solid second-unit player with the Bulls in the postseason last year; given the choice, I’d probably rather have him on my team than Gary Neal. Your standard San Antonio Nice Pickup, pretty much. Can’t argue with that.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Kawhi Leonard
There aren’t a lot of players who could say they’ve been one of the three or four best players in a playoff series featuring seven likely future Hall-of-Famers — let alone an NBA Finals — but the not-even-22-year-old Kawhi Leonard certainly found himself up for that particular challenge, and won the unending respect of the NBA-watching nation in the process, missed free throws be damned. Gregg Popovich’s comments about Leonard eventually becoming the Face of the Spurs once seemed silly (or at least unhealthily optimistic), but after that Finals, where Kawhi averaged 15 and 11 on 51 percent shooting with stellar defense on the World’s Best Player, I definitely wouldn’t bet against it now.
At his best, Kawhi might even offer the Spurs something that many thought impossible for the team: life after the Big Three. He won’t replace the production of all or even one of the team’s former triumvirate, but his continued maturity and improvement could very possibly offset some of the lost athleticism the team’s veteran dudes will suffer, and when it comes time for one or more of the players to retire, they can do so knowing that there’s at least one young guy on the roster to feel comfortable passing the torch to. He’s got work to do to come anywhere close to being San Antonio’s first or even second option on offense, but you can safely assume he won’t be taking anybody by surprise with exceptional play and numbers in the postseason anymore.