Russell Westbrook was under the microscope earlier this season, and rightfully so. Like many players who have been recent All-Stars, he needed to step up his game.
As a player with a seemingly limitless ceiling, Westbrook was coming off a pair of firsts – his first All-Star berth and first deep playoff run, which made the Oklahoma City Thunder look like legitimate championship contenders entering this season.
Westbrook was also coming off his first major controversy, having bickered with superstar teammate Kevin Durant and coach Scott Brooks during the Western Conference finals.
Many players have been affected by this season’s abbreviated training camp and ensuing tsunami of games, and Westbrook was no exception. He shot 33 percent with 25 turnovers through the first four games – never mind that Oklahoma City won all four – and his struggles were exacerbated by another on-court spat with Durant, leading to questions about their long-term compatibility.
Both stars downplayed the incident, which has been moved to the back burner by the continued strong play of the Thunder (now a league-best 10-2) and a return to form by Westbrook, who in his last eight games is averaging 20.4 points and shooting 48 percent from the field with 42 assists against 19 turnovers. Now that’s more like it.
But while Westbrook has worked through his early season struggles, many current and former All-Stars still have not found their rhythm. A majority of them are on teams headed for the postseason – all the more reason why they need to snap out of it and start playing better, now.
In a season that looks more unpredictable by the day, a star coming alive or remaining in the doldrums could be the difference between a top-four seed and a bottom-four seed, which of course could be the difference between a deep playoff run or a first-round out.
Westbrook avoided our list, but others weren’t as fortunate. Here are 10 players whose current or former status as All-Stars has not been evident in their play this season:
ELTON BRAND: The two-time All-Star had an uptick last season to 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, showing he was fully recovered from the Achilles tendon and shoulder injuries that have made his stay in Philadelphia a disappointment. His season-high 20 points Tuesday were a good sign, and the 76ers are thriving without his usual production. But they will need much more than his current 9.7 points to make any noise in the playoffs.
VINCE CARTER: To be fair, Carter isn’t the only Maverick with an All-Star resume who has struggled this season. Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and even Dirk Nowitzki also are guilty as charged. But Carter was pretty much handed the starting shooting guard spot and hasn’t even been able to hold onto that. As recently as last season with Orlando, the eight-time All-Star was a 15-point scorer making 47 percent of his shots. He is down to 8.6 points and 36 percent and rarely attacks the basket anymore.
TIM DUNCAN: His decline from superstardom had been incremental until last season, but the future Hall of Famer is now rolling downhill. Even with his minutes limited to a career-low 26.5 per game, he still appears to labor up and down the court at times, and his averages of 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds are about half of what he produced in his consecutive MVP seasons of 2002 and 2003. It’s hard to envision him being much more impactful once the postseason arrives. “I’m still a big part of this team, and I want to be a leader of this team,” he said. We’ll see.
KEVIN GARNETT: Another future Hall of Famer, he is in his 17th season and played his 1,200th game last week, second to Kidd among active players. Garnett never missed more than six games in a season until arriving in Boston, where he has missed 11, 25, 13 and 11. His scoring (13.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.3) are his lowest since his rookie season, and his defense – while still good – is not the door-slammer it was with Kendrick Perkins alongside him.
DANNY GRANGER: The Pacers are off to a surprising 7-3 start despite averaging 92.6 points while shooting just 41.5 percent from the field. The primary culprit has been Granger, a 2009 All-Star who is averaging 15.9 points on 34 percent shooting – and that is after Wednesday’s breakout 24-point effort. “I never shoot good at the beginning of the season,” he said. With the addition of David West, opponents cannot key on Granger as they had in the past. Then again, that may be the problem. See below.
JOE JOHNSON: An All-Star the last five years, Johnson’s production is down while his minutes are up, which is not a good sign for someone with four years and almost $90 million left on his contract. His scoring (16.7 ppg) is down slightly, which may be a good thing. But his assists (3.4) and rebounds (3.1) are their lowest since he arrived in Atlanta in 2005, as is his .416 shooting percentage.
RASHARD LEWIS: All you need to know about Lewis is that the Wizards finally won when he was removed from the starting lineup. A two-time All-Star, he had a knee issue last season that required platelet-rich plasma therapy and he may be giving in to the mileage of 900-plus games. He is shooting below 39 percent – 24 percent from the 3-point arc – while averaging 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds, his lowest marks in over a decade. He might be done.
JAMEER NELSON: Among others, the following point guards have better numbers than Nelson’s paltry 7.8 points and 5.3 assists: Ricky Rubio and Andre Miller, who don’t start for their teams, and Jarrett Jack, D.J. Augustin and Jeff Teague, who are in their first full seasons as starters. An All-Star in 2009, Nelson also is shooting 42 percent from the field and isn’t providing his usual spark to Orlando’s offense.
DAVID WEST: West changed teams in the offseason, so he gets a bit of a pass as he feels his way into Indiana’s offense. But his scoring average of 11.0 points is down nearly 8 ppg from last season. The two-time All-Star is playing less minutes, but that doesn’t excuse his 43 percent shooting, well below his career 49 percent mark. The Pacers could take a huge step this season if West and Granger find their mojo.
METTA WORLD PEACE: All of his numbers are career lows, including his 20.8 minutes per game. Some of that is due to his move to the bench. But his capable 3-point shooting has disappeared (2-of-25), as has his offensive aggression (5.9 ppg). If the Lakers want to be serious about contending for a title, the 2004 All-Star has to pick up more of the slack for the departed Lamar Odom.
TRIVIA: Who was the last high school player taken in the draft? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Magic swingman Quentin Richardson was inactive for a game due to a chemical burn on his ankle, which occurred when he first used Icy Hot on a sore spot, then followed that with ice.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: David West, on why he signed with the Indiana Pacers instead of the Boston Celtics:
“I think everybody’s kind of realistic about the window that the Celtics have. I think, me, looking at where I am, I think my window’s a little bit wider. I’m only 31, so I figure with this young team here, in the next few seasons we have the pieces to be able to compete. We’ve talked about it – maybe not this year, but definitely in a couple years. In terms of maturity and keeping this core together, the pieces are here to get up there.”
LINE OF THE WEEK: Josh Smith, Atlanta vs. Chicago, Jan. 7: 34 minutes, 11-17 FGs, 1-1 3-pointers, 2-2 FTs, five rebounds, five assists, six blocks, four steals, 25 points in a 109-94 win. Yeah, we know Kobe got his buzz on with a pair of 40’s. But Smith needed one steal for the first “five-by-five” game in over six years.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Gerald Wallace, Portland at Phoenix, Jan. 6: 23 minutes, 0-6 FGs, 0-2 3-pointers, 1-2 FTs, two rebounds, one assist, four fouls, one point in a 102-77 loss. This was part of Wallace’s complete disappearing act on the road this season.
TRILLION WATCH: We thought we had co-leaders in the clubhouse when Cleveland’s Ryan Hollins dropped a 6 trillion vs. Minnesota on Jan. 6, tying the lack of effort by Phoenix’s Josh Childress on Dec. 28. However, Lakers forward Devin Ebanks took a nine-minute stroll around EnergySolutions Arena on Jan. 11, posting a number that will be extremely difficult to beat for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, a consolation prize has to go to Detroit rookie Vernon Macklin, who had two 3 trillions and a 4 trillion in his first five games.
GAME OF THE WEEK: LA Lakers at LA Clippers, Jan. 14. We’ve heard all the talk about how the Clippers are ready to take the town away from the Lakers, who only have 16 championships and a global brand. If they plan on making this a real rivalry, this game would be a good place to start.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Detroit at Charlotte, Jan. 13. Someone’s losing streak is going to end.
TWO MINUTES: We can all start playing our small violins for the poor, downtrodden Lakers, who capped their season-opening stretch of 10 games in 15 days with Sunday’s win over the shorthanded Grizzlies. Both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol called the schedule “tough,” even though the Thunder also played 10 games in 15 days and managed to go 8-2, two games better than the Lakers. Yes, LA began the season with three games in three nights. But seven of their first 10 were at home and four were against non-playoff teams. “We’re tired, and we’re going to stay tired,” Gasol said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be.” That’s right, Pau – for every team, not just the Lakers. Take your governor’s advice. … Since Keith Smart replaced Paul Westphal as Kings coach, DeMarcus Cousins has four double-doubles and is averaging 18.3 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field. … Tyler Hansbrough’s impersonation of a black hole is over. The Pacers forward had no assists in 203 minutes over the first eight games before entering midway through the first quarter Monday at Philadelphia and dishing to Roy Hibbert for a hook shot. Two other droughts to watch are the sidelined Jason Kidd’s quest for his first two-point basket of the season – he is 0-of-5 inside the arc – and Boris Diaw’s next trip to the line. He hasn’t shot a free throw in 2012, spanning seven games. … Trying to comprehend Marc Gasol’s boxscore line Sunday of 11 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocks while shooting 0-of-9 required a second cup of coffee and an assistant stat geek. … Not much was expected from the Pistons this season. Last season’s insurrection led to coach John Kuester being replaced by Lawrence Frank, who inherited an inexperienced, mismatched roster. A short training camp and injuries to Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villaneuva have Detroit reeling with five straight losses by an average of 20 points. “Everyone wants a baby, but few people want to go through the pregnancy,” Frank said. “This is going to be hard.” … Last season, the Grizzlies won three of four games from the Thunder, who got even with a thrilling seven-game playoff series win. This season, Oklahoma City has won twice in Memphis, which only has fueled some of the animus between the teams. “We really don’t enjoy each other or like each other, to be honest,” Kevin Durant said. “We beat them last year in the playoffs, but, of course, they thought they were a better team. I think we’re building a nice little rivalry between us.” … Although the playoffs are highly unlikely, the Timberwolves clearly are improved and moving on from the 32-132 debacle of the last two seasons. However, there are still occasional reminders – like their home loss to Cleveland. “A couple guys in the locker room were saying this is the first time it felt like it was last year,” said rookie Derrick Williams. “I wasn’t here last year, but from the looks on their faces you can really tell we don’t want it to be like last year.” … Believe it or not, noted stonemasons DeAndre Jordan (19-of-40) and Kwame Brown (15-of-34) are shooting free throws better than Dwight Howard, who is a miserable 40-of-94 from the line. Among players with at least 20 attempts, only Brendan Haywood (13-of-31) and Tristan Thompson (11-of-27) are worse than Howard, who is third in attempts but just tied for 22nd in makes. Unless your team’s offense is predicated on a running game, you should be thinking about fouling Howard on every low-post catch. … Sixers forward Elton Brand had to change jerseys after one was ripped in Monday’s win over Indiana. When Brand quickly took off the ripped jersey to put on the new one but still heard some whistles from the crowd. “As long as they didn’t start throwing money I was fine,” he said. …
Trivia Answer: Amir Johnson. … Happy 52nd Birthday, Dominique Wilkins. … With all due respect, Mr. President, stop worrying about which team comes to the White House next year. Instead, concern yourself about whether you’re there to greet them.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His column appears every Thursday. You can follow him on Twitter.