By the time they hit their primes, NBA players tend to be what they will be. After the first few years finding their place in the league, they know they spots, shots they can take, how much they are allowed to freelance with the ball and so on. While drastic changes in role or situation can alter these things (think Chris Bosh going from Toronto to Miami or Kevin Love’s move to the Cavaliers) will often result in large year-to-year differences, players are who they are.
Against this backdrop is the “career year” phenomenon. A sudden jump in productivity leads feverish speculation that a player has arrived, or been resurrected. Most commonly this arises in situations where the player is doing the same things he always did, just given more minutes and opportunities — such as Jrue Holiday’s all-star season in 2012-13 in Philadelphia. In that season, after the Sixers traded away Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bynum (who famously never played for the team), Holiday had more or less carte blanche.
His rate statistics were largely in line with his career norms both before and after. However, with the cupboard bare (or at least being emptied in prelude to Sam Hinkie’s massive rebuilding plan), Holiday played significantly more minutes (37.5 as compared to career average of 33), carried a much higher usage (26.6 percent compared to 22.5 percent) and though the NBA had yet to release detailed tracking data on the amount of touches or possession a player had per game, he almost certainly peaked in those terms as well.
Though injuries have had an impact, it’s therefore not much a of a surprise that he’s never really looked like a “all-star” level player in New Orleans where he has to compete with other competent guards for touches and with Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson for shots.
Fast forward to this season, and a number of mid-to-late career players are (or in one instance discussed below were) having resurgent years. Others, such as Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson are far surpassing previous levels of play but they seem to represent young players still on the upswing. What is remarkable about Kyle Korver, Marreese Speights and (for a time) Rasual Butler was how late into their careers they developed.
Or at least seemed to. In Butler’s case, it was always likely his early success was a flash in the pan. Coming into this season Butler had a true shooting percentage of .501 in 11 NBA seasons. With no real change in anything else he was doing on the floor, he put up a .742 TS% in November alone and was sitting at .633 at the turn of the year. This did not last. Whether a hot streak wore off, the 35 year-old started to fatigue, or defenses adjusted, it went south. Fast:
Speights too has seen a drop off in effectiveness, though his has been less abrupt than that of Butler. Of course, he did not have as far to fall. Speights was producing largely in line with his career norms on a per minute basis, with a slight uptick for the Warriors pace and for their offense’s ability to find him for open shots. Still with David Lee returning to health and Steve Kerr opting for more super small lineups with Draymond Green at center, Speights has seen his role decrease as his shooting has dropped off.
Which brings us to Korver, who has surely had one of the stranger career arcs of recent memory. Any time a player even flirts with an accomplishment such as 50/50/90 (FG%, 3P% and FT% respectively) as Korver is doing this season, it has to be considered a career season. But for Korver it appears more the end point of several things converging in his favor.
For one, he has improved. Not really as a shooter, he always had that. Rather, Korver has put himself in position to be one of the most feared offensive players in the league by getting better at everything else. By becoming a better rebounder, defender and passer, he is no longer simply a shooting specialist, camping at the arc. More minutes, more touches and greater involvement result.
As importantly, the league as a whole has moved in a direction favorable to his skill set. The spacing he provides both with his shooting and the attention drawn by his off-ball movement has never been more prized, while his relative lack of creativity off the dribble is less of a problem than ever before as one-on-one shot creation loses currency.
He has also had his share of good fortune. He is fully healthy this season. Most lucky of all is his presence on a team best suited to take advantage of Korver’s skills and the modern environment, as this Atlanta Hawks squad is built around spacing, ball-movement and unselfishness. In other words, he’s playing in a perfect situation, as is so often the case for players in their career seasons.