[NBA] The 4-Point Play: Western Conference Breakout Players

2 weeks ago we looked at some players in the Eastern Conference that should have break-out seasons. Guys you can pick up in your fantasy draft and impress your friends by the end of the year; Guys that the big media folks will talk about AFTER they have already broken out; Guys you know all about NOW.

This week we’re gonna do the same thing except we’re gonna head out west. Interestingly, the list of players is much harder to come by. Not only because there are so many good players out west who are established, thus giving less chances to younger players, but the typical western team is drafting very slightly later than the east because of the advantage in inter-conference record.

Before we go further I wanted to repeat my critera, or things I’m looking for when I’m trying to find out who is going to break out big time in the upcoming NBA season…

1- Increased role and minutes on a new or renovated team.

2- Any player making the jump from their 2nd to 3rd season in the league.

3- Any player who, the year prior, had fantastic per-minute numbers, but who didn’t play for whatever reason. (Most often because some idiotic coach or owner wanted a higher paid player to play instead.)

4- Any player who has flown under the media radar for stupid reasons having nothing to do with actual output. (Typically, these would be good young players on nakedly awful teams or players with reputations that are undeserved.)

Part 2: 5 Breakout Players From the Western Conference

1- Stromile Swift:I don’t know what it says about a team where they let go a great player, but that the move to let him go was a better move than how they used said player when he was on the team.

The mishandling of Stomile Swift is a large black eye on the franchise. I can’t tell exactly who’s to blame. Hubie Brown? My guess is that he stumbled onto a platoon system, won with it, and held to it even when it was clearly hurting the team. Mike Fratello? He botched the big man situation in Memphis so badly last year that it wasn’t shocking to see the team take a step back last year. How long does Lorenzen Wright have to be worthless before his coaches notice? Jerry West? All this was allowed to happen under his watch. Clearly Swift didn’t do enough to impress West. Not only did Swift get toyed with by the coaches, but West allowed it to happen under his nose.

I say that the move to let Swift go was better than how he was handled when he was on the team because Swift was not what the team wanted from the center position, and since his natural position is PF he was let go. PF is the one position that Memphis actually has solidified. This was clearly a case of a backup who felt he should start, but was never going to on the team he was on.

The move to Houston should open up all sorts of possibilities for Swift. There is almost no pressure on him to score since he will be the 3rd option, at best, on the team. He can focus on put backs and getting to the foul line, something that shouldn’t be too hard as he will be the recipient of many a Tracy McGrady fast-break lob. His rebound rate should move back up to his career highs in the 14-14.5 range. This would put him in a class just above Rasheed Wallace. Considering that Yao Ming isn’t a top rebounder I don’t see any reason why Swift can’t average in the mid 8’s if he’s playing 33 minutes, or so, a game.

What he should provide the team is some interior defense. He has a long body that bothers most post up players and that translates into several tips and blocks per game. I wouldn’t be shocked to see around 2 blocks a game and almost a steal per as well. I think him paring with Ming down low should be a nice group to have with TMac out on the wings bothering perimeter players. The hope is that Swift provides the sledgehammer on defense when he’s going for blocks and deflections. The added toughness would be great for a team that is waiting on Yao Ming to grow a pair and hit someone.

Lastly, Swift had some of his better games against the top teams in the West. He averaged double-digit scoring averages against Minnesota, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Dallas….while not playing huge minutes against any of them. For a team that will need scoring punch against those guys, his addition could be one of the biggest of the offseason. Look for Swift to vault Houston into a dogfight with the Spurs for the right to represent the West in the finals. This should be the year Sto’ puts it all together and has, easily, the best season of his career. Down low and as a 230lb gazelle running the break, the team hopes it’s heavy investment yields a heavy return.

2-Raja Bell-My guess is that Raja Bell simply wished that last year never happened. Known as a defender his entire career, last year he was simply awful. The team fared better on defense without him than with him. Per 100 possessions the team actually held teams to 3 less points without him than with. That’s a sizable gap for a supposed “defender”.

My prediction is that Bell will revert back to years past on the defensive end, especially since that is exactly what the Suns need from him. Bell is quick enough to deflect his share of balls out on the wing, and is a solid-to-fantastic defender in the post. While he lacks a thick frame he uses his tenacity and quicks to prevent from being abused on the block. It’s always been a strength of his game, and I think next year it goes back to being a strength.

The move to Arizona, however, will do wonders in allowing his offensive ability to shine. The reason: Steve Nash. Bell put up some very decent numbers last year, and he did it with some pretty mediocre PG play. He averaged double figures in scoring every month of season, his 45% FG and 40% 3pt are both very respectable for a SG. My guess is that playing with a pg who understands how to create good shots for his teammates, will only help Bell improve on those numbers. If you look at what Q Richardson and Joe Johnson did last year, with Nash, you see a huge spike in FG% which was the result of the style of play and style of PG Phoenix has. I also believe that Bell will be the beneficiary of playing in the same lineup as Amare Stoudemire. It should mean more open jumpers as team collapse on Amare, and it should also mean a faster paced game than anything he was used to in Utah under dinosaur Jerry Sloan.

I firmly believe that Bell can replace the FG% and defense of Joe Johnson. He might not be able to replace the passing, but team didn’t lose in the playoffs because their SG couldn’t pass. They lost because they didn’t have anyone to lock down perimeter players on the Spurs. Bell has a better shot to do that then Joe Johnson…and he’ll do it for half the cost of Johnson. I don’t think Bell is a better overall player, however, I do think he is a suitable replacement and an excellent backup plan in light of the team letting Johnson go. Because of the team he is on Bell should easily get rise above his career numbers in almost every category…..and because the team needs it so badly I think the defense returns.

3-Sebastian Telfair-“Kick his ass Seabass”. After hardly playing for the first several of the season Telfair was inserted into the starting lineup in early March. All he did as a rookie starter was score double-digit points, rack up 6 assists, swipe a steal, and shoot 42% from the floor.

At 20 years old there is a very good chance that Telfair will only improve as this season begins. He has an excellent feel for the game. He sees things happen on the court slightly before everyone else and that makes him valuable and dangerous as a point guard. The best thing he has going for him is that he’s “sudden”. Watching him play is like watching a water bug skip across a pond. He’s in front of you and then he’s off again in jerks and stutters.

What surprised me about Telfair was his ability to rebound and his ability to get to the line. Telfair’s rebound rate was 4.5 last season, nothing amazing but it does put him in the Tony Parker class of PG…which is unexpected for a guy who was dreaming the day he listed himself at 6’0. If he’s a centimeter over 5’10 then I’m the King of Siam. As far as getting to line, it was pretty respectable. He got to the line 3 times a game in his starts, which doesn’t sound impressive, but when you consider how little the guy shoots and how much of a passer he is…..it’s a much more solid rate than one would think. If he shot 30 times a game, and went to line at the same rate he does now, he would get to the line 10 times. That 30/10 ratio would put him up in Allen Iverson territory.

The Trailblazers are a young team that should get up and down the court. They have some scoring options on the team and a full year under his belt should provide Telfair with the opportunity to expand his game, his value, and his stats.

The only thing standing in Telfairs way is his defense. Predicitably for such a small PG he is pretty weak on defense. The team did suffer last year on the defensive end when he was in the game….especially when he was not on the floor with Joel Przybilla. Without a center there to clog the lane teams abused Telfair pretty heavily. He is going to have to find a way to at least neutralize this weakness. Making defense a strength might be asking too much, but if he can limit how much he hurts the team, his overall impact will be positive.

One the offensive end, however, it’s clear that his court awareness and speed open up all sorts of options for a team that is going to need the most it can get from him, because it starts several young players who are limited offensively.

4-Joel Przybilla-Did I mention Joel Przybilla? Last year it was my contention that Przybilla was the Most Improved Player of the year, nipping Bobby Simmons by a nose.

Przybilla reminds me of a hungry hungry hippo. You hit the “On” button and he thrashes around trying to maul opposing centers and sucking up every rebound he can find. At 7-1 255lbs he has the kind of size that seems to be disappearing from the NBA. And he uses his size pretty well.

His rebound rate, which had been increasing for some time, improved yet again to a very solid 18.4. To put this in perspective, Tim Duncan’s rate for this season was 19.5. So we are talking about a guy who is big enough, and aggressive enough, to get to the glass at a fantastic rate. His desire is not really in question.

He also uses his size to block shots and intimidate opposing centers. As a starter he blocked almost 3 shots per game, and “dissuaded” several more by his mere presence….once guys started taking this Opie-looking guys seriously.

Probably the best indicator that he is headed in the right direction is his robust FG%. Last year the guy shot almost 60% from the floor, which is just an amazing number. Obviously, it’s going to be hard to keep that up, if guys like him COULD they would be in the Hall Of Fame, but it does show the kind of ability he does have and the kind of numbers he can display. Maybe not exactly that high day-to-day, but it’s better than average and it’s fantastic for a center. He understands his game and knows that his shots aren’t going to be shots made for him, he realizes most of his points are going to come on high % shots like tip ins and offensive rebounds.

His efficiency, a stat the NBA created in 2002 and can be computed by doing the following {(pts + reb + stls + asts + blk) – ((fga – fgm) + (fta – ftm) + to))/g}, almost doubled from 7.12 to 13.43. This, like FG%, speaks to his growth and why he is a top candidate for total breakout this coming season.

5-Shaun Livingston-Look, this guy was called the next “Magic Johnson” by the Clippers so of course I’m scared as hell predicting any kind of greatness for this kid. Also, if you look at him he looks like a very soft player….I can’t explain it because some players are just soft because they look soft. It’s an aura about a player, you know he’s the one that gets bullied and pushed around.

However, what I don’t think is in question is the talent that he showed by the end of last season. What he did was on par with Telfair, and in some ways it was even more impressive.

The first thing that stuck out was the amount of double-digit assist games. In 15 starts he had 4 games over 9 assists. That would translate to about 20 in a full season…which would be just fantastic. It seems clear that he does have a good feel for game. The only issue I see is that he is a high turnover type of player and that is going to hurt his overall value to whatever team he happens to end up on. But he has a smoothness to him that can not be taught and that actually reminds me of a young Grant Hill.

The temp of the Clippers should suit him. They run some up-tempo which is to the strength of the youth on that team, especially guys like Corey Maggette and Cuttino Mobley. The more they run the more they fit into what Livingston wants to do. He is solid in the half-court, but a running game doesn’t leave him as exposed to steals from smaller/faster players, and it plays into his ability to see over the opposition to make the right play near the basket.

Because of his size he appears to be a better defender than Telfair, but that isn’t totally surprising and big PG’s do tend to defend better than the micromites. My guess is that he defends at a level seen by Magic Johnson, which is to say he won’t hurt the team on defense, but he won’t lock anyone down either. Possibly as he gains weight he will be a tougher player, but it could come at the cost of some speed….it could all even out.

I would suspect that his ability to break out, or not, will depend on his ability to beat out Sam Cassell for the starting PG spot on the Clippers. The team owes Sam more money, and often times that’s what dictates who starts. However, if the team is out of contention early they could promote Livingston in late December. At this point Sam Cassell isn’t going to help anyone and it’s shocking that the team lists Sam as their number one guy. Or maybe it isn’t we all know when you slap Sam in the face he cries about it all year and causes a huge distraction to the team. Maybe they hope Livingston slowly takes over the spot and forces Sam out as the season progresses. That way Sam bitches after the team is already cooked, instead of doing it in the preaseason when the team is still dreaming about 8th seeds and “one-and-done” series bounce-outs.

If he gets minutes Livingston should provide the team with the creativity it has lacked from the PG position for many years. He should fit in well with that team and I would expect something closer to 8 assists from him in games he starts. He has the talent to be a top 5 passer in the game…..I think this is the year he shows it.

That wraps up my 2 “parter” on the breakout players this season. Here is the whole list:

Al Jefferson
Caron Butler
Jason Williams (Not the motorcycle crash test dummy)
Nenad Krstic
Tyson Chandler
Stomile Swift
Raja Bell
Sebastian Telfair
Joel Przybilla
Shaun Livingston

FYI: In the offseason come back here every OTHER week…for all the knowledge you need heading into the NBA season. However, when the NBA season starts make a date to be here weekly. I make one hell of a roofie-colada, and I promise I’ll have you back home by 11.

Nick breaks down the NFL week that was.

Nguyen has a portrait of the whole IP Sports gang. Also find out who feels like they’ve been punched in the nuts 20 times.

(Questions? Comments. Email me.)