Today, let’s look at six players in need of a bounce-back campaign in 2016-17. Some were just recently eliminated from the postseason while others already entered their offseason workout regimens in preparation for next season. Not unlike my colleague Lang Greene’s look at several upcoming free agents who could use a turnaround performance in 2016-17, each of these players either need to take the next step in terms of their on-court play or translate their personal production into more overall team success.
Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans
Make no mistake about it, Davis is still far and away one of the league’s most promising young big men. He’s also coming off a year in which he averaged around 24 points and 10 rebounds per contest, so let’s not pretend he didn’t have another strong campaign (which included a career-high 59-point, 20-rebound performance) before a season-ending injury in March. That said, and even though his Pelicans were in fact injury-riddled yet again, Davis entered the season with the expectations of being in the running for the league’s MVP award just as his team was also seen as on the rise.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt for the Pelicans to find a way to surround him with healthy bodies, but New Orleans also needs Davis himself to remain on the court in order to maintain any true momentum. The 23-year-old power forward has missed at least double-digit games due to injury in each of his first four years in the league. The fan base may have accepted the sudden drop-off in coach Alvin Gentry’s first year at the helm, but expect those same heightened expectations to surface once again this fall for both Davis and Gentry in year two. New Orleans was a playoff team in 2014-15, but managed to win just 30 games this season. They’ll need to take a big step forward next year.
James Harden – Houston Rockets
Harden is the only player on the list who qualified for the postseason this year, but that doesn’t remove him from this discussion. Following a season in which Harden finished second behind Golden State’s Steph Curry in the MVP vote and led the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals (by coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the L.A. Clippers to advance), the seven-year veteran endured a year of individual scrutiny and questions about his overall leadership capabilities.To go from being the MVP runner-up to not even making one of the three All-NBA squads demonstrates his drop off this season.
By the general counting numbers and to the casual fan in particular, Harden appeared to have a phenomenal season. His 29 PPG, 7.5 APG and 6.1 RPG obviously cannot be ignored entirely, as he remained one of the league’s most offensively productive players. The trouble is, the honeymoon period alongside teammate Dwight Howard definitely appears to be over since the team struggled with chemistry and leadership issues throughout the year and barely managed to finish with a .500 record. Howard returning seems highly unlikely, especially with the team’s recent decision to hire Mike D’Antoni as the next head coach, so Harden will be looked upon to not only adjust to at least a slightly more efficient and less isolation-reliant offensive style, but also produce more consistently on the defensive end.
D’Angelo Russell – Los Angeles Lakers
Russell was actually a productive player for Los Angeles once he was able to establish himself as part of the rotation. He ranked fifth among fellow rookies in scoring (13.2 PPG), first in made three pointers (130), sixth in three-point percentage (35.1 percent), third in assists (3.3 APG) and third in steals (1.16 SPG). With all of that said, while you absolutely cannot throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in terms of the “locker room mistake” he made late in the year, you also cannot ignore the issue altogether when determining his future at this level.
Russell clearly doesn’t lack for confidence and did a good job of at least saying all the right things following a bit of a tumultuous season, but must show all-around progress and improved maturity heading into next season in order to fully restore faith in him as a potential star talent. The Lakers may be playing the free agency market for a significant talent upgrade come July, but Russell can absolutely grow into one of the team’s leaders and influential voices moving forward if the 20-year-old continues to develop.
Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
Anthony has been one of the league’s most versatile and dominant scoring threats for the bulk of his career, but now finds himself on a slight (but steady) physical decline. Not to mention, he’s looking in from the outside of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Although his production, while less efficient, is obviously nothing to disregard altogether, it cannot be a very good feeling to routinely see your contemporaries and closest friends from around the league making playoff and Finals runs each year as you spend May and June of your prime years on vacation.
Much like Chris Paul, Anthony is now about to head into the years where folks start to really hone in and ask why he hasn’t been able to do more to help his team contend for championships. Unlike Paul and his Clippers, Anthony doesn’t even have the benefit of being able to say another playoff run was thwarted at least in part by injuries. His Knicks have been out of the running in the early going over these past few seasons.
John Wall – Washington Wizards
Perhaps the strongest argument for someone deserving to be removed from this list could be made for Wall. Although his Wizards didn’t make the postseason in a conference still deemed to be less competitive than its counterpart out West, Wall did have a very strong season individually. His 19.9 PPG, 10.2 APG and 35.1 percent shooting from deep on 4.3 attempts per contest were all career-highs, but the three-time All Star wasn’t able to help his Wizards get back to the postseason as many predicted heading into the year.
Look for Wall to answer the disappointment of this season with authority, as he’s already reportedly ahead of schedule in recovering from offseason knee surgery. The Wizards have some work to do in terms of figuring out the right mix with the roster and whether to offer a max deal to the very talented, yet somewhat injury prone, Bradley Beal. It also remains to be seen if Washington can add a marquee free agent this summer. Wall seems to respond to external challenges with a vengeance, so it could be a very fun 2016-17 for Wall’s Wizards and their newly hired head coach Scott Brooks.
DeMarcus Cousins – Sacramento Kings
Cousins will be 26 years old and heading into the prime years of his career and while few would argue against him being (at least) a top two center in the league, he still has a tremendous amount to prove in terms of being able to turn personal production into team success. At a certain point, while plenty of excuses can be made regarding apparent organizational dysfunction prior to this point, you still have to wonder what role Cousins actually played in the chaos along the way?
By all accounts, Cousins was well-received and even surprised some from around the league by how mature and non-combative he was during his time with Team USA two summers ago. It’s time for Cousins to take that next step as a professional and leader while acting as the franchise player in Sacramento. Coach Dave Joerger appeared to handle a Memphis locker room with several strong personalities fairly well, so it would be nice to see him get off on the right foot with Cousins.
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