7. Jamal Crawford, Portland
Nate McMillan promised a team that would run more this season, and Crawford is the gunner the Trail Blazers needed to carry that goal. Good friend Brandon Roy’s retirement created a hole in the team’s scoring from the two-guard spot. The Michigan man has fixed it. It hasn’t been a seamless transition. His shooting percentage is down from 42 to 35 percent over last year and scoring down a point to 13.2 per game. He’s been more inconsistent than McMillan would prefer: Only four times has he had consecutive games in double-digit scoring. Still, Portland’s second unit isn’t known for being selfish enough with capable players (Nicolas Batum) not necessarily the same ones to create their own shot. Crawford makes defenses gameplan for him coming off the bench and is unpredictable as a freelancer in McMillan’s offense..
6. Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia
The young 76ers are still hanging around, a pleasant surprise after making last year’s playoffs, and Young has mirrored his team’s development. Young’s always been one of the league’s most dangerous athletes with his leaping (cue video of his denial on help D below) but it’s what he’s not doing this year: turning the ball over. Young’s turnover percentage has dropped like an anchor from 12.5 per 100 possessions in 2010 to just 7.9 this season. His steals and blocks are at career highs, so while his offense stays around his career average at 12.5 per game, Young’s key to keeping Philly in the race is not giving other teams buckets.
5. Ian Mahinmi, Dallas
The 25-year-old Frenchman? Really? Yes, the surprisingly efficient 25-year-old Frenchman — really. Mahinmi, when not surprising Kevin Durant with a right-handed helping of yam, is shooting 65 percent. That’s fifth-best in the league when you take outliers (We’ll toss out Eduardo Najera and Ronny Turiaf’s six combined games).
Rick Carlisle more than doubled his minutes this season to 19.9, and in turn his points have more than doubled, to 7.9 per, and his rebounds have doubled, too. Mahinmi might not cut the classic stereotype of a big-minutes sixth man teammate Jason Terry does. JET is doing his usual thing of 13.9 points even if his shooting is down five percentage points. But Dallas was awful in the season’s first weeks because it couldn’t find a big man to replace Tyson Chandler. Other than talk about trading for Dwight Howard, the Mavs won’t find that dominant big man this season. If it’s a guy who shoots it at 77 percent at the rim you’re looking for, with a respectable defensive game, Mahinmi is happy to prove he’s your man.
4. Mo Williams, L.A. Clippers
We heard all December about the Clippers in the backcourt not named Mo: Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, and how the Clips weren’t the first choice for either (Case in point, Mo being introduced as Chauncey). Williams has been strong for Vinny Del Negro in 12 games this year, with the highest PER of his career at 21. You can credit most of that bump to the 10th-year pro with his sixth team, somehow putting together one of his best seasons. He’s shooting 54 percent (his career average is 44) from the field and 45 percent from three (his career average is 39 percent). We can talk about the effect of old legs during a compressed season, but he’s knocked down more shots than ever. Need more evidence? Of the top 10 scoring games by a reserve this season, Williams has three after going for 26, 26 and 25 in a four-day stretch starting Jan. 18.
Another benefit he brings from playing in L.A. last season is familiarity with his teammates. Billups and Paul are still working that out. Just because it’s Lob City doesn’t mean understanding the nuance of teammates’ playing styles doesn’t count.