Five players seizing their chance
Paul Millsap has stood out as a fill-in starter in Carlos Boozer's absence
Taking advantage: Roger Mason, Ramon Sessions, Jose Barea, Marquis Daniels
Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo are rolling; Samuel Dalembert is struggling
Eighty percent of success is showing up, or so said Woody Allen. What you do in that remaining 20 percent, though, determines whether you get to keep showing up in the NBA. Almost as important, a player's productivity also determines how much he gets to show up.
This is especially true for those not blessed of high draft position or prior reputation: role players, bench warmers. For them, minutes usually are sparse unless an injury or coaching decision affords them the advantage of showing up.
While many reserves struggle with their chance to make a lasting impression, a handful of veterans this season have played themselves into bigger futures by capably filling in for more celebrated starters. Let's take a look (with stats and records through Sunday's games):
Paul Millsap, Jazz. The third-year power forward has long been one of the league's most productive players on a per-minute basis. With Carlos Boozer starting, however, Millsap's value had been largely underappreciated by all but the keenest NBA observers. But with Boozer sidelined since mid-November with a quadriceps injury, Millsap has exploited his chance to start and play bigger minutes. In nine starts, Millsap has averaged 17.1 points (on 56.1 percent shooting) and 10.9 rebounds in 33.2 minutes, collecting a double-double each time. The opportunity to showcase his game comes at a good time for Millsap, who will become a restricted free agent after the season.
Roger Mason, Spurs. The Spurs opened the season at 6-6, disappointing by their standards but solid considering Manu Ginobili missed all of those games and Tony Parker sat out seven. San Antonio treaded water well enough to keep the Southwest Division lead in sight thanks in good part to fifth-year guard Mason, who averaged 14.5 points and shot 50 percent from three-point range as a fill-in starter. That early production has helped keep the free-agent pickup (who averaged a career-high 21.4 minutes with the Wizards last season) a prominent part of the rotation even with the return of Ginobili and Parker. Now a team whose offense appeared little more than three deep to start the season has found another candidate to spread the floor and play off Tim Duncan.
Ramon Sessions, Bucks. Sessions rode the bench as a rookie last season until April, when he posted five consecutive 10-assist games, including a team-record 24 assists in a 151-135 loss to the Bulls. Nevertheless, first-year coach Scott Skiles decided to start newcomer Luke Ridnour at point guard this season. The 2007 second-round pick didn't have to wait long for his next chance, as Michael Redd's early-season ankle injury pressed Sessions back into significant service. Sessions responded by averaging 15.7 points and 5.8 assists in November. Redd's return has put the squeeze on the 22-year-old's minutes, but you have to believe that even someone as stubborn as Skiles will eventually see the folly in starting Ridnour (and his 38 percent shooting).
J.J. Barea, Mavericks. Who knew part of the solution to the Mavs' early-season swoon was an undrafted 6-foot point guard two years out of Northeastern? Since Barea has become a regular part of the rotation, Dallas has ripped off nine victories in 10 games. Barea has been effective in spelling Jason Kidd and even starting alongside him, as he has done the last two games in averaging 20.0 points and 4.0 assists. Dirk Nowitzki described the undersized Barea as "fearless" and always in "attack mode."
Marquis Daniels, Pacers. Indiana is only 7-13, but its brutal schedule already has included three games against Boston, two each with Cleveland and Orlando and one apiece against Houston and the Lakers. Daniels is a big reason why the Pacers are within striking distance of the .500 mark. He has played well in place of starting shooting guard Mike Dunleavy, whose return from a bone spur in his right knee is a mystery worthy of a CSI episode. There may not be much rush if Daniels (15.9 points, 5.8 rebounds) continues to produce.
Dwight Howard's stat line. Want to know how Orlando is 15-5 with its backcourt shuffling in and out of the lineup with injuries? How about a center who is averaging 21.4 points and league highs of 14.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks. At this rate, Howard can't but help find himself in the MVP conversation.
Brook Lopez's contributions. As much credit as Devin Harris and Vince Carter deserve for the Nets' surprising start, Lopez should also share in the praise. The rookie from Stanford has given the Nets an inside presence that they haven't had since Kenyon Martin had two good knees. New Jersey is 9-3 in his starts, and Lopez has averaged 12.6 points (on 50.8 percent shooting) and 9.0 rebounds in those games.
Rajon Rondo's versatility. The Big Three garner the headlines, but Rondo has been one of the key catalysts to the Celtics's 20-2 start. Since Nov. 18, the third-year point guard is averaging 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 2.3 steals. He recorded his first career triple-double (16 points, 13 rebounds, 17 assists) last week against the Pacers.
The Warriors' defense. When you play at the league's second-fastest pace (behind New York), it's understandable that you'd give up a lot of points. When you surrender four points more per game (112) than any other team in the NBA, that's just sorry defense.
Harmony in Phoenix. In 1999, the Bulls hired Tim Floyd to usher the team from the Phil Jackson/Michael Jordan era with a promise that he would run the same triangle offense that helped secure six NBA titles, conveniently skipping over the fact that the team didn't have the personnel to run it. Nine years later, the Suns are trying the flip side of that strategy: changing the attack, under new coach Terry Porter, without changing the roster much outside of Shaquille O'Neal. Is it any wonder that the team is coming apart amid disgruntled power forwards, depressed point guards and players' meetings?
Samuel Dalembert's disappearance. The veteran center has had trouble finding a role, whether Elton Brand is playing or not for Philadelphia. With Brand out because of a hamstring injury, Dalembert failed to score on 0-of-6 shooting in a 95-84 loss to the Nets on Saturday. That was the third scoreless outing in six games for Dalembert, who also hasn't been as effective in providing a defensive presence (the main reason he is being paid $11.1 million this year) as he has in previous seasons.