By James Holas
40. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
For a three-month stretch from Jan. 17-March 17, the Miami Heat were flat out dominant.
Hassan Whiteside was the backbone of the Heat defense, averaging 14.2 rebounds and two blocks per game, and Dion Waiters was Miami’s most dynamic offensive force with roughly 18-4-5 a night.
But it was Goran Dragic who stirred the winning drink.
Last year, it was impossible to keep Dragic out of the lane, averaging team highs in points (22), assists (5.6), three-point percentage (45.5) and minutes (32.4) per game as Miami went 23-4 during the meat of its 30-11 second half.
According to NBA.com, he was third in the league in drives per game, trailing only Dennis Schröder and Isaiah Thomas and ranking just ahead of John Wall and Russell Westbrook. Dragic’s out of sync style keeps defenders wary. Play too far off and he flicks in lefty jumpers (he shot 40 percent from deep last year). Crowd up and he’s knifing to the rim, blowing past defenders with underrated burst. Once Dragic gets into the soft underbelly of the defense, he finishes from a variety of tricky angles or finds the Heat’s bevy of three-point shooters spotting up around the perimeter for clean looks.
Miami narrowly missed the playoffs and if the newly retooled and reloaded Heat are going to improve on last year’s record, Dragic will have to every bit as good as he was last year. Newly inked big man Kelly Olynyk will allow Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to play with some interesting “5-Out” lineups. Olynyk is a crafty passer and capable shooter, allowing Dragic even more freedom to hunt for his offense off ball, stymy defenses by running pick and pop with Olynyk, or simply turn the corner and scoot to the rim down a lane uncluttered by a conventional big man.
Miami whiffed on signing a star, but like Dragic, there’s quality up and down the roster. Dragic isn’t Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, but in Miami’s egalitarian system, they don’t need him to be. The nine-year veteran has been called many things in his career: quality backup, decent starter, malcontent, inconsistent and, after leading Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship this summer, “MVP.” But his play for last year’s Miami Heat has earned him a new honorific: “catalyst.”
39. Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons
A few months ago, Avery Bradley was starting in the Eastern Conference Finals. In a few weeks, the 26-year-old will be starting for a 37-win Detroit Pistons team that made more headlines for their locker room turmoil than play.
The undersized combo guard with a big game brings his stifling on-ball defense and knockdown shooting from Beantown to the Motor City.
Standing only 6-foot-2, Bradley is a bit small, yet the 6.1 boards he grabbed a night made him the first player 6’2” or shorter to grab at least six rebounds per game since Norm Van Lier did it back in 1971.
In seven seasons, Bradley’s hung his hat on hard work and steady improvement. His minutes and scoring have trended upward, while his turnover percentage has steadily improved, from turning it over on almost one out of every five possessions (18.1 percent) as a rookie, to a much more acceptable one out of every 10 (9.7 percent) last season.
The shooting and rebounding are bows on the box, but Bradley’s hawking defense will be the gift that keeps on giving for Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. Avery Bradley’s Fred Astaire footwork and magician-quick hands combined with a relentless motor are nightmares for opposing ball-handlers. His stature means big guards can elevate for clean looks over the top of him, but it also allows him to flit around screens and stay connected to all but the trickiest ball handlers.
His handles may never be more than okay, and he’s a notoriously streaky shooter, but he’ll provide some sorely needed stability and maturity for a team that started last season as the fifth youngest in the NBA. Those Detroit Pistons were a moribund group marked by pouting, injuries, bickering and inconsistency. Along with a healthy Reggie Jackson and a refocused Andre Drummond, Bradley’s steady production and personality should be just what the mechanic ordered for what ailed the Pistons.
38. Hassan Whiteside, Miami
Hassan Whiteside is home. After seven years, three D-League teams and stints in Lebanon and China, Whiteside has dropped anchor in South Beach. Last season, the giant of a man erased any lingering questions about his maturity, keeping his cool during the Heat’s abysmal 11-30 start and coming up huge during the furious 30-11 close to the season. Whiteside set career highs in games played (77), minutes (32 per game), points (17.0) and rebounds (14.1). More importantly, he maintained the positive esprit de corps that powered Miami’s almost magical team chemistry.
Whiteside has fashioned himself into a sure handed finisher as the roll-man and a force as an offensive rebounder, shooting 77 percent from within three feet of the bucket over the last two seasons. He excels at moving into pockets of space around the bucket to make himself available for drop offs and lobs, providing valuable vertical spacing for his attacking Heat teammates.
He’ll never be Hakeem or the Admiral, but he’s honed his touch on a variety of jump hooks and flip shots under duress, and even flashes the occasional set shot out to about 16 feet. His best skill is being massive. At 7-foot-3 and 265 pounds, he carves out territory in the paint and inhales missed shots, all while using his 7-foot-7 inch wingspan to menace those who dare encroach on his real estate under the rim. The Heat finished last year fifth in defensive rating, in large part because of Whiteside’s long armed paint patrol.
With perimeter big Kelly Olynyk and rookie pogo stick Bam Adebayo in town, Whiteside’s minutes and touches may suffer, but the 28-year-old man in the middle will be no less vital to Miami’s success. In a league that’s going increasingly small and fast, Hassan Whiteside comes up big by being big.
37. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
In early February, the Milwaukee Bucks were floundering along at 22-28 with coach Jason Kidd desperate for a spark. On. Feb. 8, Khris Middleton returned to the lineup and voila!
Even with Jabari Parker’s 20 points and six boards a night out of the lineup (Parker went down with a knee injury on the same night Middleton came back), Milwaukee closed the season by going 19-10 in games Middleton appeared in, including 17-6 in his 23 starts.
“Be a star in your role,” is the advice LeBron famously gave teammate Tristan Thompson, but Middleton was paying attention. His numbers last year don’t scream star role player, but his impact certainly does. Since the inception of the three-point line, only Steph Curry and Mike Miller have reached the 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 43.3 percent from three on the solid volume that Middleton slapped up last season.
Middleton is the ideal complement on a team featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo as the nexus. He’s just as effective off ball (he hit 45.3 percent of his catch and shoot threes) as with the ball in his hands (he was fourth on the team in potential assists and assist points created with 6.7 and 8 per game, respectively).
Middleton’s the prototype for the modern position-less basketball player. He has the size to tussle with most power forwards and the know-how to duel most guards on the perimeter. He’s the perfect low maintenance cog for the Bucks as they try to navigate their way in the top-heavy East. Every team could use an efficient shot making playmaker who defends, rebounds and makes threes. Khris Middleton has quietly been one of the more underrated talents in the league, but if the Bucks are going to make the jump up the standings many project them to, you can bet his game will need to speak volumes.
36. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Nine seasons into his career, you know exactly what you’re getting from DeAndre Jordan: Rebounds, blocks, physical interior defense and bone rattling screens to go with monstrous, crowd-igniting dunks.
Along with bouncy Blake Griffin, Jordan made an ideal bookend to the skill set of Chris Paul and the trio spent six years knocking around the upper echelon in the West.
With Paul moved on to greener (Rocket redder) pastures, what can Jordan do to help keep the Clippers relevant? Exactly what he’s been doing.
Jordan has inhaled 6,817 rebounds since coming into the league in 2008. Only two other players (Dwight Howard and Kevin Love) have managed to snag 6,500 or more in that same span. Only Serge ibaka and Dwight have amassed more rejections in that same timeframe than Jordan’s 1,206. Toss in DeAndre’s career 67.7 percent career field goal percentage and your player profile is narrowed down to one person. Since 1947, only DeAndre has compiled that many boards and blocks while connecting so accurately from the field.
The new Clippers will no longer orbit the passing prowess of Paul, instead spreading the playmaking wealth along the roster. Newcomers Pat Beverley and Milos Teodosic will join Austin Rivers in filling the CP3-sized void. Blake Griffin is now the offensive hub (as he should have been years ago), and new addition Danilo Gallinari will provide scoring pop beside (and behind) Blake.
The biggest question mark: Does DeAndre Jordan have any other tricks up his sleeves?