Every NBA season features breakout performers and players that fail to meet expectations. The 2016-17 season was no exception. James Harden took his game to another level once Mike D’Antoni made him the Rockets’ de facto point guard. Russell Westbrook had a monster season after Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area, breaking the regular season triple-double record and dominating in clutch situations. Giannis Antetokounmpo improved in just about every facet of the game and still has plenty of room to grow.
On the flip side, there were several players who failed to play up to their usual or expected level of play this past season. Here is a list of a few players who are in most need of a bounce-back season.
- Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves
Dunn was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 Draft and was expected to be a contributor from day one. After all, Dunn spent four years at Providence, has the physical tools to compete with NBA veterans, and showed significant improvement throughout his time in college. As a prospect, Dunn showed promise as a steady floor general, effective playmaker, developing scorer and an overall plus contributor. If nothing else, Dunn was expected to provide energetic and reliable defense in his rookie season. Unfortunately, Dunn failed to provide any sort of positive, consistent impact in his rookie season.
In 17.1 minutes per game, Dunn averaged 3.8 points, 2.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three-point range. Needless to say, Dunn was ineffective and failed to live up to anyone’s expectations for this season. Dunn was supposed to come in and make Ricky Rubio expendable. Instead, Dunn’s poor production and inconsistent play made Rubio that much more essential to the Timberwolves this past season. Tom Thibodeau may still have hope that Dunn can be his point guard of the future, but based on what we saw this season, that may just be wishful thinking.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
Aldridge is still one of the most talented big men in the NBA and on a good day can be a one-man wrecking crew. The problem this past season was that too often, the best version of Aldridge was nowhere to be found. This is particularly significant since this was the first season in nearly two decades that the Spurs weren’t anchored by Tim Duncan. No one was better positioned to step up and take on a bigger load for the Spurs than Aldridge, but he failed to seize the opportunity for a variety of reasons, including injuries.
Aldridge averaged 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. Aldridge’s numbers went down almost across the board from the previous season, despite Duncan’s retirement. However, Aldridge was slowed by multiple injuries throughout the season, which partially explains the drop off in performance. Additionally, Aldridge’s defense was surprisingly good. In fact, he was one of the better rim protectors this season, which hardly anyone noticed. However, Aldridge had a rough postseason and often at times looked like a shell of the dominant offensive force we know he can be. Whether it was injuries or some other issue, Aldridge disappeared too often in the postseason and throughout the course of the regular season as well.
- Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets,
When Mudiay was drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, it was expected that he would be the Denver Nuggets’ point guard of the future. After this last season, it’s not clear that Mudiay should expect to stay in Denver for the long-term.
Mudiay went from being the clear starter to falling out of the rotation for extended stretches this season. The issue wasn’t so much his per-minute production, which was largely similar to his rookie season. Rather, Mudiay continued to struggle with the same issues that plagued him in his rookie season and failed to utilize and exploit the best parts of his game. Mudiay is a premier athlete that can do serious damage in transition, but he can be careless and indecisive with the ball and is prone to making avoidable mistakes. In addition, his jump shot isn’t where it needs to be and will need to come along quickly considering that players like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are quickly overshadowing Mudiay which makes him increasingly expendable.
Mudiay is just 21 years old and still has a bright future ahead of him. However, he needs a bounce-back season to dispel the growing perception that he isn’t quite the player most people expected before he was drafted.
- Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
Last year, the New York Knicks signed Noah to a four-year, $72 million deal that was universally regarded as a bad deal for New York. It turns out, the deal was significantly worse than most people expected.
Amazingly, it was only a few years ago that Noah was an All-Star and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Yet Noah has suffered through significant injuries and the kind of wear and tear that comes about after years of playing for Tom Thibodeau. Noah only managed to play in 46 games for New York this season and was generally ineffective when he was on the court. His offense was predictable and his defensive impact was at best inconsistent. It doesn’t help Noah’s case that Robin Lopez, who is younger, more affordable and by all measures a better player than Noah at this point, was traded to Chicago to make room for Noah.
Noah will have to find the fountain of youth to get anywhere close to the player he once was. However, a return to being a starting quality center or even just a useful, reliable role player is all Noah can reasonably ask for at this point. And that would be a huge step in the right direction for both Noah and the Knicks.
- Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons
Jackson missed the first 21 games of the regular season because of knee tendinitis and never truly found his footing last season. Whether it was because of lingering injuries, or some other issue, Jackson took a significant step back this last season.
Jackson’s numbers were down across the board last season, with the exception of a slight uptick in his three-point shooting percentage. Jackson struggled to facilitate Detroit’s offense, alienated his teammates with selfish play, was, at times, a sieve on defense and was seemingly outshined by backup Ish Smith. Jackson was ultimately shut down in late March, which mercifully ended his troubling 2016-17 campaign. Jackson is still young and has a promising future ahead of him. But, if he doesn’t reestablish himself next season, his stock will drop significantly across the league and he won’t command the same kind of respect on the court or value in the trade market that he did before the start of last season.
- Chandler Parsons, Memphis Grizzlies
If you ask a group of NBA fans who had the most disappointing 2016-17 NBA season, the majority of them would likely say, without hesitation, “Chandler Parsons.” To be fair to Parsons, he entered this season coming off of a knee operation to repair damaged cartilage, which came after a hybrid microfracture operation in 2015. Any operation involving cartilage in the knee comes with risks and Parsons is no exception.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, that risk came along in the form of a four-year, $94 million max contract. The Grizzlies gambled that Parsons would overcome his knee issues and would revert into the versatile forward he had been in recent seasons for the Houston Rockets and, at times, with the Dallas Mavericks. The early returns are problematic for Memphis, to say the least.
Rather than trying to break down just how far Parson’s numbers dropped off this season, we’ll simply provide a chart to reference.
(Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)
Other players have overcome significant injuries in the past, which Parsons will likely also manage to do. However, if he is unable to do so, his contract will be considered one of the absolute worst deals in recent NBA history.
Bobby Portis’ Time to Shine
Bobby Portis talks to Basketball Insiders about his increased role on offense, the Bulls’ young core of talent and more.
When the Chicago Bulls acquired Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the summer of 2016, it was assumed that they were gearing up for another strong season and a playoff appearance. Fred Hoiberg had just finished up his first season as head coach and the team ended with a decent 42-40 record, albeit missing the playoffs.
They struggled the following season, however,but snuck into the postseason as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 record. They put a brief scare into the Boston Celtics in the first round, but Bulls management ultimately decided to move in another direction. They traded franchise cornerstone Jimmy Butler, bought out Wade’s contract and allowed Rondo to sign elsewhere.
The departure of their veteran players opened up minutes and opportunities for the younger guys on the team, in particular, Bobby Portis. Currently, in his third year with the Bulls, Portis was surrounded by veteran guys during his first couple of years in the league. It’s a different type of environment now in Chicago.
“We went from a veteran-led team, very experienced team, to now having guys on the team here who have never played in the playoffs,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a different team, but at the same time we’re gonna grow together and get better together.”
A McDonald’s All-American coming out of Hall High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Portis was one of the best college basketball players in the nation during the 2014-15 season. He was named the SEC Player of the Year and he declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season at the University of Arkansas.
He was selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 draft but having joined a team that had serious playoff aspirations, he saw only sporadic playing time as a rookie. His second year in the NBA, he started seeing increased playing time, but he still had a string of DNP’s throughout the year. His role changed this season when the Bulls front office started heading down the rebuilding path.
“I’m just playing more minutes and actually having a defined role on the team. I don’t have to come in worried if I’m gonna play or not, I know I’m gonna play,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing for me. Also, the coaching staff having the utmost confidence in me to go out there every night and do what I do.”
This season, he’s emerged as one of the young Bulls most dependable reserves. He’s averaging a career-best 21.3 minutes per game while putting up 13 points on a career-high 10.7 field goal attempts and shooting 47.5 percent from the field. He’s also improved his outside shooting, connecting on 34.7 percent of his attempts from the three-point line.
With many of the Bulls top scoring options gone, Portis has had to take on a much bigger role in the Bulls’ offense. On Thursday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, he dropped a career-high 38 points on 57.7 percent shooting and 6-9 shooting from beyond the arc. In the Bulls’ 22 games since Jan. 1, he’s only failed to reach double-figures in scoring in seven of those games.
“I always say my role is to bring energy and toughness off the bench. Now I feel like my role has changed a little bit,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I have to be more aggressive on the offensive end, even more so than last year. Going out there and trying to make my teammates better, moving the basketball, sharing the basketball, trying to lead by example.”
Although he’s been playing better personally, he’s also seen a change in the team as a whole as the season has progressed. The Bulls dug themselves into a hole to begin the season, losing 17 of their first 20 games. They had a much better stretch during their next 20 games, winning 11 of them, including seven consecutively.
“We’re learning how to close games out, learning how to finish games. That’s something we didn’t do earlier in the season, we let other teams come back and win,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We’re learning some of each other’s tendencies with the basketball. Having chemistry on the court is always big.”
And as the Bulls move forward with their rebuilding project, they seem to have found at least one player in Portis who can be a part of that. He still has another year left on his contract before he can become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019. He likes what he sees from the Bulls’ young core, and it’s something he’d like the continue to be a part of.
“Guys are going out there and getting minutes,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing in this league, you play more minutes you get more experience. It’s having an opportunity.”
NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota
Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.
Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.
In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.
If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.
Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.
Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.
But, not all hope is lost.
David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
MRI Saturday will give final word, but there is some optimism in @JimmyButler camp that he may have at least avoided the worst—an ACL tear—on Friday.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) February 24, 2018
Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.
On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.
So, let’s dig a little deeper.
When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.
Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.
Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.
Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.
Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.
Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?
In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.
Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.
Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.
The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.
Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.
Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency
Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.
When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.
But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.
Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.
“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.
The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.
“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.
“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”
Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.
When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.
“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.
“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”
Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.
However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.
“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.
“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”
The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”
In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.
“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”
Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.
“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”
Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.
Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.
“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.
“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”
Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.
“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.
“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”
In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.
“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.
“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”
Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.
“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”
So far, so good.
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