Success in sports can come in waves and it flows up and down like a pendulum. One minute you’re soaring up and the next you’re down bad.
But when athletes are struggling, the great ones always find ways to get back on their feet. This past season, after a disappointing first campaign with Utah, veteran guard Mike Conley returned to form for the Jazz. Thaddeus Young gave the Chicago Bulls what they wanted when they originally signed him. Nicolas Batum came back to life once he joined the Clippers.
It can be a variety of reasons, whether it’s a new environment or a coaching change or different teammates, success on the court tends to ebb and flow.
For this exercise, we also used some visual aids from dunksandthrees.com. who charted each player’s estimated plus-minus (EPM) through their careers. This is a catch-all statistic that aims to provide the best all-in-one metric for net player impact per 100 possessions.
Other factors were included for this list as well, of course, but this helped contextualize our work with a visual reference.
Mike Conley (Utah)
The Utah Jazz made a big splash by acquiring respected veteran guard Mike Conley during the offseason leading up to 2019-20. He was expected to be the glue that tied their team together.
Instead, Conley had an abysmal first season with the Jazz. He finished the season with just 14.4 points per game, his lowest overall scoring output since 2012-13. His defensive output was surprisingly low, too, as his 0.8 steals per game was the worst he has had during his fourteen years of professional experience thus far.
Perhaps it was his hamstring injury. It also could have been tough playing alongside such a ball-dominant scorer like Donovan Mitchell. Maybe he was struggling to adjust to a different style of big man in Rudy Gobert. But the results weren’t pretty.
Here is how Conley provided context for his own struggles (via Salt Lake Tribune):
“I spent a lot of time in the corners, in the wings, stuff like that. It was more time than I was used to, and trying to find ways to be effective was tough. [But] I knew I’m still the same player, I’m still the guy that the Jazz brought me over here to be. Unfortunately, I was trying to figure it out in front of the whole fan base, the whole country.”
The guard responded to that lowly campaign by becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career this past season. The nod was well-earned, too, as he was an instrumental force in leading the Jazz to the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference during the regular season.
As a floor general, he improved his year-over-year assist percentage from a subpar 23.1 percent in 2019-20 to 30.6 percent for the Jazz in 2020-21. As noted by TheScore.com, the guard was able to up his three-point assists from 1.7 per game to 3.1 per game (via PBP Stats).
Meanwhile, he also improved his scoring efficiency on ball screens all the way from 0.85 points per possession (50th percentile) to 1.02 PPP (85th percentile), per Synergy.
Conley, however, shined the brightest on the defensive side of the floor for Utah. After finishing his first season with Utah with a steal percentage that ranked below the 25th percentile among players at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass, he increased that rate back to the 75th percentile last season.
He finished the season with the third-best luck-adjusted defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus (dRAPM) in the league – trailing only Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and underrated defender Alex Caruso.
Overall, the following stars were the only players who graded out as better than Conley in FiveThirtyEight.com’s catch-all impact statistic RAPTOR: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard and Conley’s aforementioned teammate, Gobert. That’s not bad for someone who was just recently considered one of the biggest disappointments in the league.
Thaddeus Young (Chicago)
During his first season with the Chicago Bulls, Thaddeus Young was wildly miscast while playing for head coach Jim Boylen. It got so bad during that campaign that he actually considered retirement.
For whatever reason, in 2019-20, more than one-third of Young’s field goal attempts came from beyond the arc even though his career three-point percentage to that point was just about middling. Young said he was “camping out” around the three-point line but felt that was not exactly “the bread and butter” of how he plays the game – or what the Bulls needed from him.
Now that he has had time to reflect, here is how he described it (via NBC Chicago):
“Last year was just so different for me and it was hard to adjust to because it was something that I had never done in my whole career with just kind of being placed outside on the 3-point line and just trying to make plays and reads from there …[This season] I’m able to do a lot of the things I was doing with previous teams as opposed to last year.”
Fortunately, he went back to his normal shot selection tendencies under head coach Billy Donovan and attempted three-pointers on just six percent of his field-goal attempts.
The best news for Young, though, is that he added more value to his team with some new playmaking developments. In one of his newsletters back in Feb. 2021, Stephen Noh offered an excellent summary (via Noh’s Notebook):
“Thad Young has been a revelation this season. He’s shifted from a lousy floor-spacing role last year under Jim Boylen into a playmaking small-ball five under Billy Donovan. Young has always been a solid player, but where did this version come from, at the ripe old age of 32? No coach has used Young as effectively as Donovan in his career, and both deserve big credit for what has happened this season.”
Young nearly doubled his previous career-best mark for assist percentage and his rating (25.4 percent) ranked in the 96th percentile among all big men, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He led the league in assists from the key (37) and finished as one of the league leaders in assists recorded from the high post (32) as well. That’s especially impressive when considering he had just five assists out of the paint in 2019-20.
The veteran is a pesky defensive playmaker who once again was one of the league leaders in steal percentage among players at his position. As he always does, he finished near the top of the leaderboards for hustle stats like deflections, loose balls recovered and charges drawn.
He feels the Bulls finally got what they “signed up for” and it won’t be surprising if he brings that same level of impact as a triple-double threat to the San Antonio Spurs next season.
Nicolas Batum (LA Clippers)
After a really solid seven years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Nicolas Batum largely failed to live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he played for the Charlotte Hornets.
Batum felt so guilty about his performance that he even apologized to fans for not living up to his contract. Later, he found out on Twitter, not even from anyone within the front office or staff, that he had been released by the organization.
All things considered, Charlotte agreed to waive and stretch the final years and $27 million remaining on Batum’s contract. He knew he hadn’t played good basketball in a year and a half – he said it himself. He eventually signed with the Clippers.
Eventually, however, Steve Kerr of the Western Conference rival Golden State Warriors has since called the signing the “biggest move” of the entire offseason. So what changed? Here is how Mason Bissada explained it (via SI.com):
“Batum completely rehabilitated his value this season, and his body type and play style are very much in vogue right now across the league. A 6’8, long, switchable corner-three specialist that can also protect the rim has been a hot commodity ever since the Warriors struck gold with Draymond Green.”
He may have finished the regular season with just 8.1 points per game but there are plenty more ways to provide value to a team — especially one that has the scoring department mostly covered with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George rostered.
It was hard to justify a hefty price tag for someone who had a usage rate as low as Batum did for the Hornets, especially considering his three-point percentage his final season in Charlotte (28.6 percent) was abysmal. But he managed to improve that mark to 40.4 percent, objectively better than the positional average.
Meanwhile, he shot a career-best mark at the rim (70 percent) and he was one of the more efficient basket cutters in the league. According to BBall-Index, Batum was one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA during the regular season as well.
Then in the playoffs, he recorded the highest plus-minus (135) of all players on the Clippers. In fact, per PBP Stats, L.A. outscored opponents by 23.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor but were outscored by 9.4 points per 100 when he was off.
Batum, who was also one of the leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (6.5) during the NBA’s 2021 postseason, did exactly what he was asked to do when he signed with the Clippers. It’s what helped him earn a two-year deal to return to the championship-contending organization.
Kyle Anderson (Memphis)
Memphis Grizzlies playmaking forward Kyle Anderson is someone who largely defines what it means to be a plus role player in the modern NBA. But after several years in a row of providing positive value to his teams, Anderson didn’t have a particularly good showing in 2019-20.
He averaged 0.90 points per possession during that campaign, via Synergy, which ranked 30th percentile in the league. This past season, though, Anderson returned to the starting lineup for every game he played for Memphis. He switched positions and proved to be a more natural fit at the four than at the three and he had what was likely the best year of his career.
“A revamped Kyle Anderson has been an underrated playmaking cog for the Grizzlies. He can add the sauce on passes when he wants to, but where he thrives is moving the ball through the flow of the offense. Whether it’s making a kick off the drive, or a simple extra pass on the perimeter, Anderson’s going to make the right play – style (sometimes) be damned.”
In some ways, Anderson simply improved his game around the edges, slightly increasing his assist percentage and various other stats.
Similarly, the forward is someone who had drawn around 3.0 fouls per 100 possessions during his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs. That rate dropped to 2.6 in 2019-20 before spiking to a career-best 3.4 fouls drawn per 100 in 2020-21.
But in other ways, his game has changed dramatically. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins preaches the idea of letting it fly, which didn’t seem like a fit for a non-shooting wing such as Anderson.
More than half of his total field goal attempts occurred at the rim in 2018-19. Yet by this past season, those shots accounted for less than 20 percent of his looks and instead, he joined the three-point revolution and he developed the confidence to move beyond the arc as a shooter.
Anderson had previously never even reached the 10th percentile among players at his position when it came to three-point attempt frequency. However, with the encouragement from Jenkins, the forward increased that rate dramatically and he finished this past season with a career-high three-point frequency at 36 percent.
The forward was never someone who could create his own shot in the NBA. Anderson had scored just once on an unassisted three-pointer before this season. Yet he managed to connect on 13 (!) unassisted three-pointers in just this past season alone. Overall, according to Synergy, that helped him increase his isolation scoring from 0.2 points per game in 2019-20 all the way to 0.9 ppg in 2020-21.
This past season, Anderson reminded fans why he is someone every team in the NBA could use down the stretch.
Image: Coley Cleary / USA TODAY Sports Media Group