5 Breakout Players
Before last season began, I wrote a column predicting 5 players who will have breakout seasons, 5 players who will get traded, and 5 players who will have the biggest impact on the title picture. I whiffed so badly on the players who will be traded and the players that will impact the title picture, that I’m not even going to try again. However, I was 2 for 5 on my five breakout players (Lawson and George), which would win me a batting title in Major League Baseball, so I’ll give it another try.
Brook Lopez - The Nets have put together an outstanding roster with a starting lineup of 5 guys who have all been All-Stars in the last 3 years. This ensemble approach will not only serve them well as a team, it will individually beneficial to each of those five stars they start plus their 6th man Andrei Kirilenko. However, there is no player on their roster who will benefit more from the delivery of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Kirilenko to Brooklyn than their starting center Brook Lopez.
Lopez is an excellent offensive center. He is an accomplished low post player, solid in the pick and roll, and can step outside and drain a perimeter shot with consistency. With a dynamic perimeter attack spear headed by Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and the aforementioned Pierce, Lopez will have more room to operate than he’s ever had in his career. That, combined with his maturity and the knowledge that he can be an unstoppable force inside set Lopez up to have the best year of his career.
Lopez also has some discernible weaknesses. He’s never been the strongest rebounder. He generally boxes out like he wants to avoid an infectious disease. His on the ball defense is not very good either. However, he made big strides on the defensive end this past season, especially as a help defender. With the king of defensive anchors playing next to him in Kevin Garnett, the stage is set for Lopez to graduate into being a plus defender across the board. The luxury of having Garnett teach and at times cover for Lopez, will be priceless for him. Garnett can’t do anything about Lopez’ lead feet defending the pick and roll, but he can educate Lopez on a smarter approach.
Lopez has a ton of ability and the willingness to improve. Now he has an excellent team around him. This is the year Lopez makes the jump from an above average center to one of the league’s best.
Chandler Parsons- Parsons is only entering his third year in the league after being selected in the second round by brilliant Houston GM Daryl Morey. In his rookie year, he certainly showed that he belonged in the league as a useful role player and maybe a little more. However, in year 2, he flashed some potential that showed he could be so much more.
Parsons has decent athleticism for a wing, but what distinguishes him is his excellent size. He measures close to 6’10”in sneakers. That length helps him defensively, where he’s very active. It also helps him offensively where he is a good perimeter shooter and is very aggressive attacking the basket off the dribble. He shot 48% from the field last season and 38.5% from behind the arc, both well above the league average. His shot selection is also good. He gets his shots within the framework of the Rockets’ offense and forces very little.
Parsons has also landed in an extremely enviable spot on a legitimate title contender. Last season, he fit in seamlessly as a wing partner to James Harden. He took the tough wing defensive match up allowing Houston coach Kevin McHale to hide a much weaker defender in Harden. This year, the synergies for Parsons are exponentially improved with the addition of a legitimate force in the middle in Dwight Howard. Parsons will have more space to operate offensively and an animal of a shot blocker behind him defensively which allows him the luxury of being more aggressive on the ball.
The added bonus for both the Rockets and Parsons is his versatility. Parsons is long enough that he provides Houston a match up disadvantage not only at on a wing, but as a stretch four as well. With Houston’s affinity for the three point shot, the presence of Howard allows McHale the luxury of putting four shooters on the floor without punishing the defensive end. Parsons is a good player who’s in an ideal situation. It should be a very good year.
After last year’s regular season, Butler had established himself as a productive rotation player on a contender. However, due to a rash of injuries, he was afforded an opportunity to be more than just a rotation player in the playoffs. He was given the chance to play a major role and very frankly, he aced his exam and then some.
Butler had an extremely efficient regular season in averaging 26 minutes per game. Butler shot 46 % from the field and 38% from behind the arc while only attempting 6 shots per game. Butler was able to mostly maintain that efficiency when his minutes per game were increased by necessity in the playoffs. With many players, the law of diminishing returns kicks in when there is a big bump in minutes. Butler is not that type of player.
The thing that really distinguishes Butler is his defense. He is extremely aggressive on the perimeter and has no issue with physicality. His defense during the Bulls 2nd round loss to the Heat on Lebron James was excellent. Shutting down Lebron is impossible at this stage, but Butler makes him work for everything he gets and is quite good at making life difficult for him. With Butler only entering his 3rd year, his physicality and cerebral approach will only improve. He could very shortly be the best perimeter defender in the NBA.
He’s also in a very nice spot to improve offensively. With Derrick Rose back at full strength, Butler will have much more space to operate than he did last year with all the attention defenses need to pay to Rose. He’s a selective shooter as I noted earlier, but he’ll get more quality shots being on the floor at the same time as Rose. With Chicago head coach needing to pay more attention to budgeting his best players’ minutes, having an asset like Butler with phenomenal endurance is priceless.
When Barnes was drafted, the Warriors figured they had a prototypical big wing/small forward. He had a decent rookie regular season where he showed flashes of his brilliant talent and athleticism but definitely had his moments where the learning curve appeared a little slow. Then the playoffs started, David Lee got hurt and the Warriors saw something in Barnes that they didn’t completely envision when they drafted him. In today’s NBA where floors are spread through the 3 pointer but size still matters, Harrison Barnes has everything one would want in a stretch 4.
Barnes took great advantage of a new role in the playoffs. He increased his scoring frequency, not only through more minutes but through more shots per minute as well and his efficiency didn’t suffer. He grabbed an extra rebound per 36 minutes in the playoffs when asked to play big forward. In the second round loss to the Spurs, he was the one player that the Spurs didn’t have an answer for. By the end of the series, the Spurs had a beat on how to contain Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but not Barnes.
This season presents yet another different challenge for Barnes. Lee is healthy again prepared to step back into his starting big forward role. Plus, the Warriors were able to free up enough cap space to be able to sing and trade for one of the better wing defenders in basketball, Andre Igoudala. The prevailing thought was that Barnes would be relegated to a 6th man role. I don’t think bringing Barnes off the bench is advisable nor am I convinced that’s the course of action that Golden State head coach Mark Jackson will take.
With a healthy Andrew Bogut, like the Warriors had in the playoffs, Barnes could be in a great spot to ascend to stardom. He has all the tools and Bogut’s skill set masks many of the weaknesses associated with having Barnes play big forward. Lee is an accomplished offensive player in the pick and roll, but his defensive shortcomings are vast and have been well documented. Barnes isn’t necessarily a defensive stalwart at this stage, but there are signs there that he can be an above average defender plus his floor stretching ability is a better fit with this current Warrior group than Lee’s pick and roll prowess. Frankly, I think Lee’s skill set is ideally suited for him to be the 6th man. Also, the Warriors quietly shopped Lee in the off-season but didn’t get any suitable offers largely because of his gargantuan contract.
Already in the preseason, Jackson is experimenting with different lineups. He started with bringing Thompson off the bench, which I don’t love either. The Warriors have a wonderful future ahead of them. The core of that future is Curry, Thompson, and Barnes. That core can win them a title one day. That fact alone makes it imperative that solidifying their respective roles is the priority. If Barnes is used properly, we may see a bigger jump in his game this season than we do from the other two.
Last season, the Thunder lost their star point guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury at the worst possible time. Without him, their chances in last year’s playoffs were greatly diminished, although I’ll argue to the death that they would have lost the Memphis series with a healthy Westbrook, but I digress. The Westbrook injury they’ve been forced to endure to start this season is much more fortuitously timed. If they have to be without Westbrook, better it’s the first eight weeks of the season as opposed to the last eight weeks.
With that thought in mind, there is an opportunity presented through this Westbrook injury for the Thunder and their backup point guard Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. Last season during the playoffs, Jackson was thrust into a starters’ role when the stakes were the highest. Because of the circumstances, there was a general hesitancy to give Jackson enough freedom to develop his game as a lead guard. However, with Jackson taking over the first 6-8 weeks of this season, giving him more freedom to develop his game in regular season conditions will not have the punitive consequences it would in the playoffs. And with the Thunder making no appreciable personnel upgrades in the off-season, developing a young asset like Jackson carries added importance.The Thunder have had a big void since last year’s James Harden trade. They thought that Kevin Martin could provide a one year stop gap option but that didn’t pan out very well. Martin was such a liability on the defensive end, that Brooks couldn’t use him in some big spots in the playoffs. The other player they got in that deal, second year player Jeremy Lamb will be looked upon to assume some of that responsibility. Lamb could very well be capable. However, Jackson is such a dynamic athlete, if they could develop him as a scoring guard off the bench, they could have a dimension that could create matchup nightmares.
Jackson is lethal off the dribble with tremendous quickness and great straight line speed. Where Jackson needs help is in how to harness that ability with a more cerebral approach to the game. He also needs to significantly improve his three point shooting. These are all things that will never be developed fully without handing the kid more responsibility. If the powers that be in Oklahoma City are willing to do this, they could have a borderline all star on their hands and some people may actually start to forget the Harden trade. In last year’s playoffs, they asked Kevin Durant to do far too much. If they make that mistake again to start this season in Westbrook’s absence, they will be squandering an opportunity that is essential to their internal growth.