MINNEAPOLIS – When the Timberwolves traded Wayne Ellington to Memphis for Dante Cunningham on July 24, it made sense. The Grizzlies needed guards; the Timberwolves had a surplus. The Timberwolves needed forwards; the Grizzlies had one to deal. The two seemed to have levels of output, made similar money, and between the day of the trade and training camp, the deal took on about as much significance as the color of David Kahn’s socks.
Little did the Timberwolves president of basketball operations know what he was getting in Cunningham, who’s averaging a career-high 8.1 points off the bench. Coach Rick Adelman admitted as much, calling him a “pleasant surprise” not only for the stats he’s put up but for the intangibles: the energy, the defense, the persistence.
In Memphis, Cunningham averaged a full five minutes per game less than the 22 he’s averaging in Minnesota this season, and he’s making the most of that opportunity, coming off one of the better benches in the league. He was exactly what the Timberwolves needed with Kevin Love out early in the season, and since the star power forward’s return, Cunningham has segued into the reserve role that the team needs him to fill without a hitch.
No knock on Ellington, but it seems that the Timberwolves got the better end of that deal, or at least that Cunningham did. In Minnesota, he found an environment in need of his skills and an opportunity from Love’s injury that no one saw coming. He found all that, and he made the most what might have otherwise been an insignificant trade.
When players are traded or sign with different teams, it’s not always that the previous team doesn’t want them. Obviously. There are salary concerns, which came into play with everything from the James Harden megadeal to the Timberwolves’ opportunity to sign backup center Greg Stiemsma. There are chemistry issues, personnel logjams, or cases like the Ellington-Cunningham swap, where teams just need a different kind of role player.
But of course there’s a negative connotation to moving around. Why didn’t anyone want him? Why did the last team want him? Why does no one seem to want him? With the exception of the league’s stars — this offseason’s Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum (pre-Bowling-gate) and even Andre Iguodala — to move is to prove oneself, to be presented with a challenge. A month into the 2012-13 season, it’s time for a look at the players who have made the most of the changes they’ve been dealt (or those they’ve chosen).
The old men
SG Ray Allen (Boston to Miami, signed): This move paid off almost immediately; Kevin Garnett’s blatant snub on opening night made the whole thing worth it, even if the guard had gone on to have the worst year of his life in Miami. I could watch that clip on a loop for at least 10 minutes. High five, high five, hug, hug, GLARE. But aside from that, Allen is also in the perfect situation for his 37-year-old body. He’s coming off the bench, averaging 13.2 points through Wednesday (all stats in this story are through Dec. 5 games), and his 0.48 points-per-minute average is better than his mark in Boston last year (0.42 per minute). In addition, he’s shooting better from the field and from long-range (50 percent from both) with the Heat than he did last season.
SG Jerry Stackhouse (Atlanta to Brooklyn, signed): After averaging 3.6 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.5 assists last year in Atlanta, Stackhouse is back with a 38-year-old’s vengeance. He’s logged 7.4 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game in 11 contests this season and been the delight of announcers anytime he does anything. Jerry Stackhouse! He’s 38! And still playing! And better than last year!
F Ryan Anderson (Orlando to New Orleans, sign-and-trade): Anderson is putting up the best numbers of his career in New Orleans, averaging 18.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists. Part of that has to be separation from the cancer that was Howard in Orlando, and Anderson is doing all this for a losing team, but still. He’s stepped in with Anthony Davis out and could figure into the Hornets’ cross-species transformation – or he could be a valuable trade piece going forward. C Omer Asik (Chicago to Houston, signed): Asik found himself a starting job in Houston and then received the gift of James Harden, and he’s made the most of both. His 10.9 points per game are a career high and more than three times what he averaged last year, and he’s already just 144 rebounds away from hitting last year’s total in 66 games. G Jamal Crawford (Portland to L.A. Clippers, signed): He’s a likely candidate for the old man group, but at 32, Crawford is not quite old enough and still contributing just a bit too much for such a designation. His 17.8 points per game for the surprisingly talented but streaky Clippers mark his best scoring since 2009-10 in Atlanta and the fourth-best average of his 13-year career.
SG James Harden (Oklahoma City to Houston, traded then signed): Yeah, he might have to watch as his former teammates finally get their championship this year, but Harden got his max deal and finally his glory once he emerged from the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Even if he doesn’t go on to win the scoring title he seemed on pace for early, James Harden got the best for James Harden in the late-October surprise trade.
C Robin Lopez (Phoenix to New Orleans, sign-and-trade): Another Hornet makes the list, this one a former reserve back in a starting role he lost two years prior. The lesser-known Lopez is averaging a career-high 12.0 points in New Orleans, and even if it is on a bad team, it’s arguably a better situation than with Phoenix, his former team.
SG O.J. Mayo (Memphis to Dallas, signed): Mayo lost his starting job in Memphis after two seasons, but he’s back in the starting lineup in Dallas this season, averaging a career-high 19.7 points and shooting the most accurately he has in his five-year career. A year ago, Mayo looked to be en route to something approaching a bust but not quite, definitely a player drafted too highly. Now, he’s pleading a solid case that maybe, it was just going to take some time and the right environment (basically one that doesn’t include Tony Allen).
C Andray Blatche (Washington to Brooklyn, signed): Blatche recently told the New York Daily News that he’d like to sign with the Nets when he’s a free agent this summer but that he couldn’t commit to anything so early in the season and will thus have to wait until after Brooklyn wins its championship this June. And for that, Andray Blatche, you are a winner. Oh, plus the fact that he’s averaging 10.6 points off the bench playing for a good team for the first time in his career.
PG Raymond Felton (Portland to New York, sign-and-trade): Most of this has to do with the fact that Felton at some point decided to aspire to have the body of an NBA player rather than a chubby rec league coach, but still, his move to the Knicks has been nothing but good. In a system that seems much more to his liking, he’s averaging 15.2 points, a career high, and he’s on pace to log about 207 rebounds as a starter for the Knicks, who look like real contenders.
SG E’Twaun Moore (Boston to Houston to Orlando, traded, waived, signed): Moore has played in 18 games for the Magic this season, starting seven. Last year as a rookie in Boston, he played in just 38 games and did not start. Yes, he ended up with an Orlando team that’s rebuilding, but for a young player, to get the kind of minutes he’s getting is a huge opportunity. Plus, he’s averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 assists, which isn’t bad for a second-round pick who spend his first season as the most limited of reserves.
PG Jeremy Pargo (Memphis to Cleveland, traded): The second-year point guard is averaging 11.5 points this season, up from 2.9 last year, and though that’s in part a result of more minutes and a worse team, he’s still far more productive than he was in Memphis. Plus, now the most productive Pargo in the league has a name found in the average baby book. (See: Jannero.)