10. Rudy Gay
The December trade that sent Gay to Sacramento couldn’t have come at a much better time for the trigger-happy swingman. His brutal mid-range shooting had made the leap from “Elephant in the Room” to “Social Media Punchline”, as his massive contract drew scrutiny League-wide.
He’d struggled to adjust his offensive style to team concepts in both Memphis and Toronto, as a ball-dominant gunner with the athleticism to create his own shot at will, but a very inconsistent touch from distance. Rudy and the Kings – an undisciplined, young team with no expectations and a recent history of blatant “me-first” play – were almost a match made in heaven.
Thriving off the confidence of being green-lighted again, Rudy enjoyed arguably the best season of his career in Sacramento, scoring a personal-best 20.5ppg, with his FG% rising meteorically - 39 to 49% from his 18 games with the Raptors. Not saying he’s worth the $19million player option he can sign off on this summer, but it was a bounce-back year for Gay.
9. DJ Augustin
For the second year in a row, one of Derrick Rose’s knees betrayed the Bulls’ title hopes, but for a second year in a row, his replacement came up big.
While nobody will accuse Augustin of being Chris Paul, he was a significant upgrade over Nate Robinson last year in terms of defensive stability and actually passing the ball to his teammates. What’s better, Augustin – who was plucked from the waiver wire after the Raptors suddenly found themselves with 5 point guards – gave Chicago 15ppg, which would be a great supporting contribution on most teams, but instead leads this scoring-bereft roster.
Chicago’s drumming up plenty of noise about a run to the East Finals - especially in the wake of Indiana’s dramatic meltdown – and Augustin’s boost is a big reason why.
8. Andre Iguodala
This one’s kind of a toss-up, depending on who you ask. Some will say that Iguodala’s near-career-low numbers aren’t very flattering, nor his overall impact on the Warriors, who’ve merely risen with the rest of the West’s tide. They’ve won more games, but will still finish sixth again, at best. Their prospects of an inspiring Playoff run seem somewhat less likely.
Others will suggest that Iggy’s been an alpha-Shane Battier-type; a versatile utility guy and elite defender whose value transcends raw stats. The Warriors field many poor defenders, and one such metric (Real Plus Minus) rates Tim Duncan as the NBA’s only player with net impact greater than Iguodala on D, and only LeBron and Chris Paul higher overall.
Still, the question lingers as to whether his $13.5million salary would’ve been better spent elsewhere. Harrison Barnes declined to comment.
7. Marcin Gortat
Not that too many people in Phoenix are complaining (the Suns may have an appearance on this list) but in Gortat, they cut loose a genuine interior presence.
The Bullets, sorry, Wizards were shifting into “win now” mode (or at least “avoid the Lottery now” mode), needing Emeka Okafor’s eternal void filled; Gortat stepped in amply. Starting on a Playoff team for the first time, the Polish Hammer put up double-double numbers, and gave Washington a consistent force inside with Nene’s frequent injuries.
Encouraging growth from young stars John Wall and Bradley Beal were vital to the Wizards snapping their postseason drought, but this may have been the move that put them over the hump, and safely into the bracket.
6. Paul Millsap
Freed from the Mormon confines of Salt Lake City, Millsap touched down in the ATL to form a fearsome post duo with another “Al”. Or so he thought.
When Horford went down for the year early, the Hawks morphed into the NBA’s most perimeter-heavy team. Millsap’s deceptively versatile game swerved smoothly into the new attack, shooting a decent 36% from long range, on six times as many attempts as in any previous year.
Millsap’s career-high 18 points went along with 8.5 boards, 1.8 steals (fourth among forwards) and his first All-Star appearance to round out his best season yet.
5. Monta Ellis
After last year’s ill-advised pairing with Brandon Jennings in the Bucks’ backcourt, Monta took to free agency, and found himself a new home with the Mavs.
Few situations could’ve been worse for Ellis than Milwaukee; a stark contrast to his fit in Dallas. He’s been an acute second option behind Dirk Nowitzki, and has flourished as a slashing scorer/playmaker with the 7-Foot Schnitzel spacing the floor like no big ever has.
Ellis’ play has been lauded most of the year, putting to rest many of the negative stereotypes about his poor shot selection and inability to contribute to a winner. Dallas is back in the Playoffs, and it doesn’t happen without Monta.
4. The Rudy Gay Exchange Rate
Masai Ujiri is simply diabolical. The Knicks had barely begun licking their wounds from the Andrea Bargnani Pillage, and Ujiri was already concocting another cold-blooded plot to make a team hate themselves for dealing with him.
This time it would be the Sacramento Kings, whose neck Masai placed under the guillotine of Rudy Gay’s impending $19million player option, taking back a slew of talented role players with quasi-expiring contracts.
Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons would not only save Toronto money going forward, but gelled seamlessly to round out their bench rotation. Their additions were key to the Raptors’ immediate run to the top of the Atlantic Division, and a franchise-best regular season.
3. Al Jefferson
Another talented big man who Utah let walk last summer, Jefferson signed with the Hornets (let’s get over this “Bobcats” thing), boldly foraying into the realms of a Jordan-owned franchise.
A funny thing happened this year though, Charlotte didn’t really suck all that much. And Jefferson – after an early ankle injury and brief adjustment stretch – went on a dominant romp that’s seen him post near career-high numbers (only on the pitiful ’09 T-Wolves did he average more pts+rebs).
The emergence of Kemba Walker, and en excellent first year from Steve Clifford are both big reasons why Charlotte’s back in the Playoffs, but the biggest is Big Al.
2. Dwight Howard
Nobody really knew exactly to expect from Howard this season. He didn’t know what he wanted in Orlando, didn’t get what he wanted in L.A, and was now on the spot to prove he wanted it in Houston.
The situation couldn’t have been much better: a fellow superstar in James Harden, a creatively strong GM in Daryl Morey, an offense built around the inside-out system Howard took the Magic to the Finals with, and two legendary big men – Hakeem Olajuwon and coach Kevin McHale – to develop his post game.
The result couldn’t have been much better either, not only with Howard’s numbers and defensive presence returning to elite levels, but we’ve gone all year without him bitching too much or trying to completely sabotage the franchise.
1. The Phoenix Suns
A bunch of corny parallels can be made between “the legend of the Phoenix” (to quote Pharrell) and what happened with the Suns this year. What with the team rising from the proverbial ashes of the NBA’s worst, getting career years from basically its entire rotation under a rookie head coach.
It’s technically cheating by awarding the #1 Spot a whole team, but the way Phoenix has stubbornly defied preseason projections – largely due to the additions of Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and Eric Bledsoe – has been the biggest surprise of a season that’s unveiled many.
Seen unanimously as a Lottery team six months ago, the Suns would have a Playoff ticket punched already if Bledsoe hadn’t missed half the season. That they’re still contending in such a deep West, and getting Most Improved Player-type seasons from each of their new additions, has to be recognized.