35. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
By Jesse Blanchard
Kemba Walker’s career season is every bit a product of circumstance as it is personal growth; though both were absolutely significant in elevating the Charlotte Hornets to a formidable playoff team.
The Hornets lack a true superstar, like so many other teams, but have found a peaceful harmony by which they’ve surrounded flawed players with elite attributes with pieces that augment their strengths and hide their weaknesses. That they’re all on a similar timescale in terms of age should allow for the team to grow together in a way that makes it more difficult to break their bonds into its individual components.
Walker is the catalyst that makes it all work. His handle and quickness are elite, giving him access to every spot on the court via his dribble. There’s a beautiful rhythm in the way he transitions a high, hesitation dribble into a snake bite quick attack dribble, recoiling for a pull-up jumper or explosion to the rim. The flash and bravado have been a constant presence in his game throughout his career, allowing for big shots in big moments when the Hornets were fortunate enough to be in such positions. But on the whole, when stressed too far, Walker offered diminishing returns—not a good enough shooter, not a threatening enough passer, not a strong enough finisher.
The arrival of Nicolas Batum sparked a reaction within Walker’s own development, however, simply by reframing how his gifts are used. By placing a quality playmaker and another offensive initiator next to Walker, his offensive game flourished. By distributing possessions spent as the offensive hub, Walker was able to focus more on his strengths—pressuring the defense with his dribble—without overextending his capabilities.
An improvement in three-point shooting (from 30.4 percent to 37.1 percent) made Walker all the more dangerous, forcing defenders to inch a step closer or track him over screens; allowing him easier access to the middle of the paint and more space for his pull-up.
The rebirth of Marvin Williams as a stretch 4 with enough off-the-dribble punch to attack closeouts, and better pace and overall floor spacing in general, also plugged Walker into a system able to leverage his talents better; getting more mileage out of the attention Walker draws, and in turn, making defenses less willing to converge on him.
Walker still isn’t a natural playmaker, but he’s a valued leader who’s willing to carry out head coach Steve Clifford’s schemes. Defensively, Kemba Walker’s size will always put him closer to a negative individual defender than not. But his competitiveness and ability to execute said schemes allows for his size to be a liability the Hornets’ defense can more than compensate for.
Sometimes individual growth sparked by the right mix of personnel and schemes can provide a permanent improvement that’s viable outside of the system. Other times, even the slightest alteration of chemistry can cause regression. Walker reached new heights last year, but with some amount of turnover on the roster (the loss of Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee), it will be interesting to see if he can build on it.
34. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
The emergence of Hassan Whiteside should have been a godsend for Dwyane Wade, extending Miami’s relevance beyond the departure of LeBron James by landing another star player to partner with him despite few resources.
Instead, Whiteside will be tapped to lead the Miami Heat as Wade’s replacement as a franchise player.
Miami had no hesitation in re-signing Hassan Whiteside to a four-year, $98 million contract but haggled with Wade to the point where their longtime franchise icon balked and signed with the Chicago Bulls. Now the team is in the hands of a player whose cumulative numbers paint the picture of a star, but falls short in terms of day-to-day, possession-to-possession consistency.
The NBA is a game of spacing, and Whiteside gives Miami an edge in the rarely considered vertical plane of that equation. Over the past two years, Whiteside has been more of a component of an offense and defense than driving force, but his ability to control the airspace near the rim are tools teams can structure offenses and defenses around.
Whiteside led the league in blocked shots per game with 3.7, and his combination of length, leaping ability, and mobility can shut down opponents near the rim; yet for half the season, Miami was better defensively with Whiteside on the bench. Some of his faults were the flaws generally associated with youth and inexperience (though Whiteside is 27 years old, his NBA career is only just now gaining traction); finding himself out of position due to an inability to read actions or know where and how to properly shade help to. But a turning point in his season was also a matter of personnel shifting in the absence of Chris Bosh.
Miami simplified what Whiteside had to do by surrounding him with smaller, rangier lineups; allowing him to drop back and make the most of his natural gifts. The results took Whiteside from an empty stats compiler to Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Offensively, Whiteside has a broad range of tools but again struggles understanding utility. He’s a poor passer, averaging more turnovers (1.9) than assists (0.4) per game, making it difficult to initiate plays through him. Despite a nice touch and reasonable footwork, the lack of passing ability feeds into Whiteside taking difficult shots, which contributed to him averaging 0.79 points per possession out of the post (38.2 percentile per NBA.com).
But his ability to work the pick and roll and sky over defenders for lobs forces defensive rotations to come sooner, opening up corner three-pointers and other quality looks when paired with the right point guard. And unlike other defense-and-dive centers (Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan), there are other avenues of scoring to supplement this weapon.
Whiteside was talented enough to keep the Heat competitive alongside Wade, now he’ll have to prove he’s reliable enough to build a foundation without him.
33. Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls
Over the last few years, the question concerning Dwyane Wade was when age would box in and deteriorate his game beyond his ability to find answers for. Though that question still lingers, and will for the remainder of his career, the more pressing question is whether his new environment will finish what Father Time hasn’t been able to.
In Miami, Dwyane Wade was still a franchise icon and big stage performer; averaging 21.4 points 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the playoffs, punctuated by some big moments. In a vacuum, Wade retains many star-like qualities. In Chicago? He’s one of several questionable fits between point guard, small forward, and head coach.
As the league has shifted to pace-and-space and turned offenses over to point guards or point forwards, the shooting guard has become a much more homogenized position.
Teams need the position to space the floor around the primary action and cover large amounts of space defensively. Wade never developed the three-point range to accommodate these shifts, and as a defender, Wade’s fading athleticism and motor have eroded the defensive playmaking ability he once terrorized the NBA with. Though he’s aged better than expected, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to shift in a complementary role in the same way that Vince Carter or Ray Allen did.
But even at the age of 34, Wade was good enough in his high usage capacity to build a workable offense around; and even take over games in a playoff series. Though his athleticism has waned, there’s still purpose and strength in his dribble. He can knock defenders off their stances and create space, and still get to his preferred spots near the elbows and the rim, where he still finishes at or above the league average. At this point, though, the volume outweighs the efficiency.
The knowledge of how to wrong-foot defenders still exists, and despite the pull-up jumper being a preferred outcome for defenses, he can still bait opponents into fouling him attempting them. That instinct for soft spots in a defense also makes Wade an effective cutter off the ball, giving him a greater sense of gravity—the ability to draw a defense’s attention—than his lack of shooting range would suggest. Even if few of his baskets are assisted on (27.8 percent of his two-point attempts), to let him catch the ball on the move in certain spots is to leave a poor defender at his mercy.
Still, the strength of Wade’s game is pulling defenders to inefficient spots on the court and being good enough of a passer to find teammates for easier looks. That requires he be plugged into an environment where he has efficient teammates around him.
Next to Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, there should be a lot less space for Wade to navigate on the court, and those Eurosteps and explosions to the rim just don’t split the seams of a defense as they once did. Wade has long been a survivor, but Father Time is closing in. Away from the comforts of Miami, defenders should have an easier time as well.
32. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors is both a man out of time and a man of his time. At just 25 years old, Favors has yet to reach the age most players begin their peaks; and yet, as the third overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, it feels like he’s been a fixture in the league’s background forever.
Entering his seventh season, Favors has been around for some time. But incremental improvements—as opposed to giant leaps in development—and a throwback skill set in a league that has changed dramatically over the course of his career has painted Favors as a man frozen in time. But make no mistake, Favors is every bit the Renaissance man as hybrid power forwards Draymond Green and Paul Millsap.
Favors’ NBA career was born into a league still steeped in physical wars in the paint, and the lumps taken then continue to inform his game today.
The best Utah Jazz lineups feature two traditional big men in Favors and Rudy Gobert. And while Favors has added a few tools to his skill set, he won’t be confused with other power forwards making plays off the dribble in open space or bombing three-pointers. But the versatility in which Favors applies his more traditional skill set more than makes up for lack of versatility in skill set.
Favors combines new age athleticism with the early back-to-the-basket sensibilities imparted on him early in his career. Though the grinding, run the offense through the post repertoire of moves never quite took in a way that can anchor an offense, Favors found a way to combine the footwork and hook shots learned from those attempts with momentum in open space to become a potent weapon in the pick and roll game.
A strong presence near the rim (71.4 percent within two feet last year), Favors has improved from 37.1 percent to 45.3 percent in that tricky three-to-nine foot area away from the rim—where hooks, floaters, and flip shots rule the day—over the course of his career; mastering the art of the shot roll.
The ability to stop his momentum to avoid a charge against a rotating defender speaks to his immense body control; his footwork and touch to seal off defenders and get to his shot recalls the early days from the post. More importantly, the ability to navigate in this space allows Gobert to stay within his comfort lane at the rim, forcing defenders into a decision whether to let Favors shoot, or step up and contest and leave Gobert available for a dump off pass or offensive rebound.
Defensively, Favors transitions from center to power forward responsibilities—at times on the same possession—as fluidly as anyone outside of Al Horford. He can hedge and wall off point guards at the point of attack, take larger wings head on, and protect the rim. In two-big alignments, few things are as important as the rotations between the center and power forward and Favors and Gobert have nearly perfected theirs.
Where the requirements of the position have asked defenders to be fluid, Favors also adds an imposing physical presence; he arrives suddenly and with force, disrupting schemes and deterring actions.
As the league transitions to smaller, spread out offenses, the Utah Jazz are rising through new applications of traditional strengths. In doing so, Favors imparts an important lesson: longevity in this NBA is every bit as much about adaptability as it is versatility.
31. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Basketball is a game of space and timing, with an advantage to players or teams that can manipulate both. Lacking the former in the Memphis Grizzlies’ cramped two-post offense, Mike Conley has devoted himself to the latter.
Conley has several gifts, from dexterity and quickness to leadership, but none as outstanding as his sense of timing on the floor. In his head is a figurative clock, tracking the time between touches for each of his teammates, allocating resources as needed. The Grizzlies are known for their physicality, but it’s the intelligent, precise, and coordinated application of their brute strength that keeps Memphis formidable even as the NBA shifts away from their style of play.
Directing a possession through the post invariably bleeds precious time off the clock, halting movement as a Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph fights for an advantageous position near the rim. From there, every bit of ground gained is impeded, rarely offering a clean path for enough momentum to gather to hurriedly pull help defenders to the action. In an era where zone defenses were illegal, the investment of such time each possession was worth it because the preceding actions were direct and quick, often needing only one pass for a play to reach its conclusion.
In the modern NBA, man-to-man defenses imbued with zone principles allow rotations to force second and third passes; and if a defense can control the clock, they’re also better positioned to control who shoots.
Credit Conley for understanding the rhythms of an offense, quickly getting everyone into place to buy his teammates the time necessary to grind out possessions; or, failing that, having the wherewithal to audible out of the first action and quickly transition to the next.
As a scorer, Conley is more solid than explosive, averaging 15.3 points per game last year while shooting 36.3 percent from three and a true shooting percentage of 53.8. He’s famous for his off-hand floater, but such shots are an inefficient tool to build around. Instead, his strength is the ability to access different areas of the court despite the tight lanes to get through. Conley is a master of subtle deceit, able to suddenly burst into a mad fit of violent dribbles and just as quickly transition to smooth, fluid movements.
Driving through a thicket of arms, Conley doesn’t just hesitate—often times he’ll square his shoulders to a teammate, as if to make a pass, sending help defenders back towards their assignment before he spins or crosses back along his path and slither through the defense.
While not elite at any one area, the abundance of options at his disposal—he’s a solid shooter, passer, and ambidextrous finisher—is enough to keep defenses honest. The lack of exploitable weaknesses also strengthens his defense, where he’s able to lock in, contain, and create turnovers.
Conley doesn’t have the type of game-changing explosions that separate elite point guards like Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook from the pack. Nor does he have the overall command and presence of Chris Paul. But what he does provide the Memphis Grizzlies is a solid foundation to build from; filling in the gaps and making do with the limitations present on the roster.
This summer, the Memphis Grizzlies deemed that enough to extend Conley a max contract. That he reached free agency in a year where the salary cap spiked and the Grizzlies had no other options landed him the richest contract in NBA history—proving, once again, that timing is everything.