Even the worst team in the NBA is one monster season by one player away from getting back in the playoff race. And it doesn’t always have to be a superstar putting in an MVP-caliber effort, either. Yesterday we looked at five ’09 Lottery teams and pinpointed one player who could get them back into postseason contention in 2010. Here are four more guys who need to step it up…
BARON DAVIS, PG, Clippers
L.A. has talent, but they have a leadership problem. And since Mike Dunleavy Sr. seems hopelessly lost on the coach/GM tip, it’ll be up to Baron to take the Clips wherever they’re gonna go. He did it in Golden State; that ’07 playoff squad took on Boom’s personality and was undoubtedly his team.
Last season was an all-around bust for Baron. After signing a huge contract over the summer, his 14.9 scoring average was his lowest output since his second year in the League, he shot 35% from the floor and 30% from three, and the old injury issues popped back up, as Baron (7.7 apg) played in only 65 games. Meanwhile, the Clippers that came into the season with high expectations quickly fell apart and took their regular seat in the Lottery.
When the Clippers weren’t getting blown out, they were terrible in close games, and Baron’s performance reflected it. According to 82games.com, his scoring per 48 minutes of “clutch” time (4th quarter or OT, less than five minutes left, margin of five points or less) was 14.7 points. Whereas Kobe, LeBron and Carmelo were in the mid-50s, Baron finished well behind Spencer Hawes and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. From the L.A. games I watched, it was basically a result of Baron recklessly jacking up threes instead of going to the rim — and missing most of those threes. He shot 20% from the field in the clutch, one of the five worst performances in the League.
Davis did, however, post 10.9 assists per 48 minutes in the clutch, fourth-best in the League. So he was at least giving the ball up, albeit to a crew of mostly inexperienced and underachieving teammates. This season Baron would serve the Clippers a lot better by being aggressive and taking more games into his own hands. That’s assuming he’s not on an effort strike until Dunleavy gets fired.
CHRIS DUHON, PG, Knicks
Mike D’Antoni needs a Steve Nash to run his system effectively — even if it’s a poor/destitute man’s Nash — and until further notice on the Ramon Sessions/Allen Iverson situation, Duhon is the top candidate. Duhon (11.1 ppg) was actually pretty good at protecting the ball last season, doing the “game manager” thing while averaging 7.2 assists and only 2.8 turnovers, good numbers considering the pace New York plays (Nash gave it up 3.4 times last season).
Where Duhon needs to improve is knocking down his own shots. He hit 42% from the field and 39% from three; when Nash was at his peak in Coach D’s system, he was sticking 50% from the field and 45% from deep. Duhon is better than Nash defensively, but he needs to sustain it over the course of the year. Last season he peaked in December and January, then got weaker as the season went on. For the month of March, Duhon averaged just over eight points and five dimes per, and the Knicks went 5-11. But Duhon is in a contract year, so I’d imagine he’s busting his ass in the gym right now to improve his jumper and his conditioning.
T.J. FORD, PG, Pacers
Having watched almost every Pacers game last season, I can promise you this: Indiana easily could have been a playoff team, and they would have given Cleveland more of a contest than the wounded Pistons did. The Pacers finished three games out of the 8th seed, and by my count, had 27 games that were decided by four points or less (losing 16 of them). Late-game shot selection, execution and defensive breakdowns were Indiana’s worst enemies, and as the point guard, a lot of that falls on Ford to turn around.
Last season Ford (14.9 ppg, 5.3 apg) was distracted by his one-on-one battle with Jarrett Jack, but now that Jack is in Toronto and T.J. knows he’s the starter, he should be able to relax and focus on winning games. (He’s kind of in a contract year, however, with an $8.5 million player option coming up in 2010.) While his decision-making has to improve — he led the NBA in “Jumping in the air with the ball and not having a plan beforehand” — he’s not that bad as a crunch-time player. Ford shot 52% in clutch situations (see the Baron entry above), significantly higher than noted clutch guys Dirk Nowitzki, Chauncey Billups, Manu Ginobili, Hedo Turkoglu and even Danny Granger, who all hit between 35-40% of their clutch shots. (Derek Fisher hit 25% in the clutch.)
At the same time, Ford needs to be more of a distributor. He’ll have some young bigs on the court who can score in Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, and they’ll benefit greatly from a veteran PG getting them good looks. And as much as I saw Troy Murphy kill teams with that straightaway triple that he must have made 75% of the time, there were countless times when I was pointing at a wide-open Murphy on my TV screen, yelling at Ford or Jack to get him the rock.
ANDRAY BLATCHE, PF/C, Wizards
Even if they only get 65-70% of Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards shouldn’t have a problem scoring with Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Randy Foye, Mike Miller and Nick Young all ready to fire away from the perimeter/mid-range. What they need is some kind of interior presence, defense in the paint, rebounding, and everything else that comes with a good, athletic big man.
On paper, Blatche (10 ppg, 5.3 rpg) matches the profile. At 6-11, about 250 pounds, he should be a beast, but every year it’s been “Wait ’til next year” with him; he just can’t seem to get the mental part of being a professional to click in his head. There was a two-game stretch in November that summed up the Blatche experience so far: One night he put up 25 points, 12 boards and five blocks against Golden State, then two nights later, he fouled out in 12 minutes against Orlando. Blatche will be one of Flip Saunders‘ biggest challenges. Flip is known as the classic “player’s coach,” but Blatche might need more of a Coach Carter type (or, hell, a Joe Clark type) to tap into that reservoir of potential.
The Wizards gave up 103 points per game last season, allowing opponents to shoot 48.2% from the floor (29th in the League), and no team this side of the Warriors defended the paint worse. Blatche split time between center and power forward, but with Brendan Haywood back healthy, JaVale McGee improving and Fabricio Oberto added to the roster, Blatche should have a stable role as Jamison’s backup at the four. He won’t have as much trouble guarding fours as he does guarding fives, and could even give some of the less-athletic/shorter PF’s problems of their own.