The “Ben Afflecks” of the 2013-14 NBA season
USA Today Sports
Ben Affleck, age 41, born in Berkeley, Calif. and raised in Cambridge, Mass., is a well recognized actor, someone who is likely known by a good percentage of the readers who visit this site. You’ve probably heard of the film, “Good Will Hunting,” a film that won Affleck his first Oscar, for Best Screenplay, that he shared with Matt Damon. “Good Will Hunting” was Affleck’s big break into Hollywood, and he followed up his performance with roles in “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” and “Sum Of All Fears.” Things were going pretty well for Affleck, and then “Daredevil” and “Gigli” happened.
I’d suggest watching all his movies before those two, skipping them, and fast forwarding to the end of the decade, when Affleck began to reinvent himself in Hollywood. With “The Town” and “Argo,” Affleck began to realize his true calling – directing films and playing supporting roles in those. “Argo” won an Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year, and it deserved it. “Argo” was an incredible movie, and remains one of the best films I have seen in the last few years.
Affleck began to find success again in Hollywood, not by continuing to do the same things over and over, but by challenging himself and improving.
The correlation to the NBA?
There are a few players this season that have stepped up their game and improved in the three major categories – points, rebounds, and assists. Players that were already skilled enough to earn starters minutes have worked during the offseason with coaches, put in the work in the weight room, and grown as leaders to become All-Star caliber players. Truly, these players are in contention for an award that doesn’t get won twice – Most Improved Player of the Year.
Paul George brought home that trophy last season, and this year has ascended to become one of the best five players in the league. While that is an improvement upon last season, no one has ever won most improved player twice, and George is in contention for Most Valuable Player, although I think I can guess the winner already (barring injury).
Andrew Koo helped find a list of 43 players who are averaging new career highs in points, rebounds, and assists this season – if you can guess half of them, call the fire department, because your NBA acumen is on fire – and today we’ll look at three of those players and highlight their improvement.
Always a candidate for “most misspelled name” in the NBA, Afflalo has seen a large jump in points per game this season, as the Magic have relied on this six-year veteran to help carry the scoring load. While the previous season may not have indicated that Afflalo was ready to shoot more, Afflalo has been money from the left side of the floor this season. Afflalo has always been a decent rebounder, and is likely seeing a boost from increased minutes on the court. Afflalo is averaging around 7.8 assist opportunities per game, according to NBA.com, a number comparable to George Hill and Mario Chalmers this season. This shows us that the rise in assists could be contributed to his teammates simply converting attempts into field goals, but Afflalo is also looking for scoring opportunities, whether by his hand or not.
The numbers Afflalo is putting up with the Magic ought to make Denver Nuggets fans cringe. Afflalo was sent to Orlando in the blockbuster trade that sent Andre Iguodala to Denver last season, where the former 76ers swingman played only one year before signing a contract with Golden State. The shooting guard position has been the worst position on the team this season, according to 82games.com, and in aggregate are contributing around the same numbers as Afflalo is by himself. While the two teams are playing different systems, one is left to wonder if the Nuggets would have rather kept Afflalo and a 2014 draft pick rather than have Iguodala drape a powder blue jersey across his shoulders for 86 games last year.
Ibaka was a surprise for me. He primarily serves as a finisher near the rim for the Thunder, but is making a good percentage of his mid-range shots to help stretch the defense from 18 feet. Opponents are finishing at the rim at a 45.6% rate against Ibaka this year, putting him just outside the top 25 overall for players averaging more than 25 minutes a game. For comparison, the veteran Tim Duncan is allowing opponents to convert at a 43.0% rate.
What has impressed me is Ibaka has lowered the rate at which he is blocking shots per game. While the fans love blocked shots, and they are the final line of defense for a possession, going for a block may oftentimes leave the defender unable to secure the defensive rebound. Instead of trying to force blocked shots on bad shot attempts, Ibaka has stayed ground-bound more frequently and is averaging a career high 7.1 defensive rebounds per game. His offensive rebound numbers have stayed relatively the same at the per game level, but the combination of experience, coaching, and discipline have helped Ibaka improve on the defensive end of the court this season.
If Ibaka is able to continue to gain wisdom on defense, perhaps the Thunder front office won’t have to feel quite so bad about the departure of James Harden.
Lawson is a frontrunner, in my opinion, for most improved player of the year. Every year, his level of responsibility and ownership of the Nuggets has increased. Now with Brian Shaw in as head coach, Lawson is benefiting from having a coach who will design plays for the offense to run. The Nuggets offense this year could be basically described as “give Ty Lawson the ball and let things happen within the system,” and it’s working. Lawson has nearly doubled his free throw attempts per game from last season, and his teammates are benefiting from Shaw’s playcalling which allows Lawson to get them the ball with clean looks at the rim.
Lawson has been one of the fastest players in the league since the day he was drafted, and this season, he has begun to use his physical gifts to not only get to the rim before the defense, but use his quickness to create additional scoring opportunities. “Lawson is tricky these days. He can go either way around a pick, though he prefers to go right. He slows down before the pick, tossing in shoulder fakes and hesitation dribbles that leave defenders confused about which way he’s going,” Zach Lowe wrote of Lawson recently. He is shooting 50% when he drives to the hoop this season, a rate comparable to Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. Getting to the rim is a valuable skill, and Lawson has put in the work to improve in that area and step up his game.
I wanted to highlight these three players. I could have included Lance Stephenson, Terrence Jones, Isaiah Thomas, and others in the discussion for most improved player. The Jazz starters are getting more minutes, but let’s be real, they are an awful team right now. Keep on riggin’ for Wiggins, be sorry for Jabari, break your heart for Marcus Smart, and hold up a candle for Julius Randle. It gets better Utah!
Statistical support for this piece is courtesy of basketball-reference.com, NBA.com/stats, and 82games.com. The author thanks these sites for their support.