It’s New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve always seems to be all about Countdowns. So, naturally, I’m doing a Countdown.

A lot of the past articles have been about making yourself a better basketball player. But in a vacuum, that is hard to conceive. Especially, when we mostly just talk about skill development and skill development is only one part of becoming an accomplished player.

It is also about overcoming adversity, adapting to change, and experiencing a big ol’ dose of humility and introspection.

Even at the most elite levels of basketball, players, superstars even, face these sorts of challenges. In fact, you’ll notice, many of the players I discuss are/were superstars and veterans entering later parts of their careers.

There are lessons to learn – as I try and distill – from the seven dudes, I chose. But the BIG LESSON in this year of 2020 is that there is very little we can control. In basketball, yes, and in life, of course.

But we do have control over how we respond.

We may disagree with a coach’s decision, we may be overcome with frustration and disappointment, we may suffer a major injury, or we may just find out we are not who we thought we were. All of that sucks. But it is all reparable and overcomeable (yes I made that word up) if we accept those realities and work to succeed within that context.

It’s like they say in hiking, there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothing. We can only prepare ourselves for the uncertainties we are sure to face. That should be what we strive for as we become better basketball players and people in 2021.

Okay, enough of the life talk. Basketball.

The Seven Dudes Who Did What they Had to Do in 2020

      #7. Pascal Siakam – From Roleplayer to Playmaker

It was supposed to be a down year for the Toronto Raptors. Mr. Fun Guy had left Toronto for San Diego and ESPN had the Raptors finishing sixth in the East. Sure, Pascal Siakam had just won the Most Improved Player Award, but his success, to that point, had come under the custody of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi. Few thought he had the shot, the handles, or the playmaking prowess necessary to be a primary option.

We all know how wrong the so-called NBA prognosticators were. Pascal flourished as the main guy. His usage rate surged by almost forty percent. In 2018/19, he took two unassisted three-pointers and only ten pull-up jumpers. A year later, he launched forty-four unassisted threes and took 124 pull-up jumpers. He also averaged more points, more assists, and more rebounds in only four more minutes per game.

Yes, his efficiency dropped, as did his win shares, but it was his scoring and playmaking that led Toronto to a second-place finish in the regular season, and, but for the sudden disruption to the season, towards another legitimate run at the title.

Pascal has improved every year he’s been in the League and was not about to let a bunch of naysayers stop his meteoric rise to NBA All-Star.

Quality Change: Improved Playmaking, Shooting, and Passing.
Lesson Learned: There is always room to grow.

      #6. Dwight Howard – One More Shot

Sigh, Dwight Howard. What the Hell happened to Superman? He was supposed to be our generation’s David Robinson. A player with unmatchable size and athleticism that every coach fantasizes about having or dreads facing in the Paint. Time and again teams brought D12 in convinced he was their defensive anchor and rim-running monster. It made sense. He could certainly do it. But he didn’t. His statistics were respectable, but teams could not wait to get rid of him. He alienated teammates and insisted on doing things offensively that, frankly, he sucked at. In the last five years, he was on six different teams. And in 2019, Memphis bought him out with nary a suitor waiting. It looked as though his career was kaput.

That is until Demarcus Cousins blew out his knee and the Lakers desperately needed a back-up centre. Dwight’s potential was so tenuous the Lakers only paid him $14,490 for each day he remained on the team, voidable at any time.

Dwight – and his newly svelte body – proved his worth and signed on for the rest of the season. He became exactly what so many other teams had wished for, a supremely athletic, destructive force that blew up opposing teams’ attacks at the rim and traumatized defensive rebounders. He haunted Nikola Jokic in the playoffs, rightfully earned himself his first NBA championship, and has found a new team in 2021.

Quality Change: Listening to Criticism, Accepting a Role
Lesson Learned: Shape up or ship out.

      #5. Markelle Fultz – Starting Fresh

Markelle Fultz’ first two years in the NBA were more fraught than most’s entire careers. If you don’t recall, have a read of Haley O’Shaughnessy chronicling the bizarre turn of events that led to Markelle missing most of his first two years in the League. In college, he could shoot. Then, all of the sudden, he literally could not shoot. Or at least his mechanics were so abysmal he was too afraid to shoot. They said he had a muscle injury or nerve damage or the yips. Hard to say. Either way, Philadelphia hastily traded him for a guy who fell out of the NBA shortly after, a super-protected first-rounder, and a second-round pick.

AKA they gave up on him.

Last week Fultz got paid $52 million for a three-year extension with the Orlando Magic. He was a hair’s width away from heading to China or maybe never playing basketball again. Instead, he averaged fourteen points and five assists, and shared point guard duties for a playoff team.

He also, most importantly, shot 51% true shooting, which is in the lower tier of NBA guards, but also in a TIER of NBA guards. A friggin’ miracle considering he used to shoot like this and like this. You can’t compare his stats to former years; there were none to compare until now. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself. 

Quality Change: Confidence, Shot Mechanics
Lesson Learned: Don’t let others tell you what you are.

      #4. Carmelo Anthony – Finding Your Fit

Speaking of fraught careers, the closing act of Carmelo’s has been, uh, let’s just say, bumpy. He bounced around the league the last couple years culminating in a buy-out with the Houston Rockets. No one else wanted him. He lacked the humility to come off the bench and could not accept the fact that his voluminous offense no longer made up for his leaden feet on defense. Time passed. Melo trained. No team called. Until Portland, in desperate need of any kind of a wing player, took a flyer on him.

A marriage formed. Melo got in shape and came to understand his role as a spot-up shooter (and sommmeeetimes a scorer) in the twilight of his career. Portland let him off the leash at times, but this was about Melo realizing the role he needed to play to stay in the league. And stay in the league he has.

Quality Change: Humility, Fitness
Lesson Learned: There’s a place for you on any team if you can (are willing to) fill a need.

      #3. Rajon Rondo – Winning Over All Else

Rajon Rondo has had one of those careers that if you ran it 100 times in an algorithm, 90% of the outcomes would have been better than this one. Early on he won a championship in Boston and it looked like he might be the next Jason Kidd. Instead, he tore his ACL, got traded to Dallas, got evicted by Dallas (in the PLAYOFFS!), and then bounced around the league as a (sometimes-disgruntled) journeyman. He was still known as a basketball genius and mentor/protector of young players, but also as a stat-grabber and lazy-ass defender.

Then he landed with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a criticized signing. Rondo could not shoot, he didn’t like to play defense, and the ball had to be in his hands, which makes it difficult when your teammate is…Lebron James.

The critics were wrong. In 2020, Playoff Rondo became a household name. Of course, he was not the reason they won, but he, at times, was their third-best player, especially in 4th quarters, and played a foundational role in their championship run. Not through ball dominance, but through timely scores (he shot the best true shooting percentage of his entire career and a shocking 40% from three), heartened defence, and leadership. His net rating in the regular season was 1.4, in the playoffs 5.8 (for context Lebron had a playoff rating of 10 and Jimmy Butler, 3).

Rajon Rondo came full circle both as a champion and as a meaningful contributor on the floor. It just looked a bit different this time around.

Quality Change: Buying in, Putting in the Effort
Lesson Learned: Without talent, winning is challenging. Without effort, winning is impossible.

#2. Russel Westbrook – Submitting to Change

When Westbrook was traded to Houston in the summer of 2019 no one had any idea how two historically high-usage players would coexist – especially with Westbrook’s broken three-pointer. Spoiler alert – they didn’t. But on the way to being traded to Washington, Westbrook, momentarily at least, let go of his need to be ball-dominant – even when playing alongside Kevin Durant or Paul George he refused – and to JACK.

In his last year in Oklahoma City, from December to March, Westbrook took 183 above the break three-pointers and 298 shots in the restricted area. He pulled up 45% of the time and took 7 dribbles or more on 33% of his shots. A year later, in the same span, he only took 78 above the break threes, attempted 382 shots in the restricted area, pulled up 35% of the time, and took 7 dribbles or more on 30% of his shots. His assisted scores went up 30% (meaning he moved off-ball more), his unassisted scores slightly down, and shots at the rim went up 25%.

Westbrook was asked to fill the void of a centre-less offense by dominating the ball less, playing closer to the hoop, and punishing opposing, slow-footed big men. He viciously obliged. 

Quality Change: Less Ball Hogging, Change of Position
Lesson Learned: Accept our flaws, exploit our strengths.

#1. Chris Paul – Proving Critics Wrong

It was over. The cliches abound: he’s one of the worst contracts in the league; aging point guards fall off a cliff; the greatest to never win a championship; they’ll have to give up picks to trade him. Blah blah blah.

When Chris Paul got traded to Oklahoma City, it appeared that the failed experiment in Houston was his final ascent. The rebuild was imminent in OKC. They had already acquired both their point guard of the future, Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, and a duffel bag of picks from the Paul George trade. It seemed that a natural stripping of parts for future assets, including the aging point guard, was to follow.

Boy. Were. We. Wrong.

Paul, alongside SGA and Dennis Schröder, made for a fearsome three-headed guard attack. Paul had higher effective field goal and true shooting percentages and averaged effectively identical statistics as the year before in Houston. The Thunder closed the year one buzzer-beater away from making the second round of the NBA Playoffs and turned Chris Paul into one of the most sought after trade pieces in the NBA offseason.

When it was all said and done, the short Chris Paul-Thunder stint earned Oklahoma City four first-rounders, two first-round pick swaps, and three second-rounders.

Quality Change: Becoming a Better Teammate, Greater Leadership
Lesson Learned: Make the best of the circumstances you are in regardless of what you control.