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The Bad: What’s Not Working Around The NBA

A look at what’s not working early in the NBA season in our The Good, The Bad & The Ugly series.

John Zitzler

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As we enter December, the NBA season is really starting to take shape. There is still a long way to go, but we are beginning to see how things may play out as the season progresses. The Memphis Grizzlies have jumped out to a terrific start, making a case that they should be viewed as serious title contenders and as one of the best teams in the West. The East, on the other hand, again appears to be the inferior conference, anchored by the winless Philadelphia Sixers, who have seemingly refined tanking into art form. In terms of what’s working and what’s not, you could say the Sixers and the Grizzlies represent opposite ends of the spectrum.

This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly around the NBA to break down what has gone right, what has gone wrong and what has failed miserably. Yesterday, we kicked it off with The Good. Today, we take a glance at a number of situations that haven’t worked out quite as well.

Here are a few of the more disappointing storylines early on in this NBA season.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Obviously much of Thunder’s poor start can be attributed to the absence of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. No team has been decimated by injuries more. In addition to Durant and Westbrook missing games, Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow among others have been sidelined as well. Those three players were playing a vital role in filling the early season void left by Durant and Westbrook, so their injuries were devastating for the team too.

With so many of their key offensive weapons sidelined, the Thunder have slipped to the bottom of the league in points scored, averaging only 90.9 points per game. Coach Scott Brooks has been forced to play a much more deliberate pace in order to give his team a chance to win on a nightly basis. Brooks has always had the Thunder near the top of the league in pace, finishing in the top 10 the last three seasons; however this season, the Thunder are ranked near the bottom at 28th. Their struggles on the offensive end have made wins tough to come by as the Thunder currently sit at 5-12 and in 12th place in the West.

The Thunder have clearly missed their two stars and have struggled to keep their head above water while they recovered from injury. The good news is that Westbrook and Durant are back. The Thunder’s poor start is predominantly out of their control, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are currently positioned near the bottom of the West. For comparison’s sake, last season the Dallas Mavericks needed 49 wins to secure the eighth seed in the West. For the Thunder to finish with 49 wins, they would need go 44-21 over their remaining 65 games. It’s not impossible by any means, but it won’t be easy.

If they were in the East, their unfortunate start would be much less of a concern, but in the West climbing out of an early season hole and back into playoff contention may prove to be a monumental task.

New York Knicks

The Knicks have been very busy in recent months. First, the team made Phil Jackson their new team president, allowing him to oversee all basketball operations. Then, over the offseason, the organization re-signed Carmelo Anthony to a long-term deal and brought in a fresh young face as their new head coach in Derek Fisher. Finally, the team acquired some new players such as Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Quincy Acy, Samuel Dalembert and Cleanthony Early. All signs pointed to a much needed culture change in New York and the Knicks appeared poised to turn things around.

Just over a month into the season, all of the positive momentum accumulated this offseason has disappeared. The Knicks find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only four wins through their first 18 games.

The transition early on to Jackson’s famed triangle offense hasn’t gone nearly as smoothly as many would have hoped. While Anthony continues to put up big numbers – 23.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists – his supporting cast has struggled to provide much help. J.R. Smith has been unable to consistently knock down perimeter shots, shooting only 27.8 percent from three. Also, despite starting every game, Dalembert hasn’t been much more than a big body in the middle, only averaging 4.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. And after a standout rookie season, Tim Hardaway Jr. has found himself playing less minutes, as his 23.1 minute average last season is down to 17.8 minutes this season, and he hasn’t been able to find his shooting touch in those minutes.

Unlike the Thunder, there is no savior returning from injury for the Knicks, they will have to work quickly through their issues if they have any intention of salvaging their season.

Kemba Walker

Kemba Walker has always relied more on his quickness and ball-handling than his outside shot when looking to score. For his career, Walker is only a 39.6 percent shooter, which is one area of his game that he must improve.

This past postseason, in Charlotte’s four-game series with the HEAT, Walker flashed the type of shooting ability many have longed to see. During the playoff run, Walker was dynamic, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and an even more impressive 50 percent from three, while attempting on average six three-pointers per game. Walker finished the postseason with a team-high PER of 19.6.

Walker was able to parlay his strong postseason play into a lucrative four-year, $48 million contract extension with Charlotte. Surely, the Hornets hoped that Walker’s playoff performance would carry over to this season and be something he could build upon going forward.

Early on this season, that has not been the case. While Lance Stephenson has been the team’s biggest magnet for criticism and struggled mightily himself, Walker has earned his fair share as well. He is shooting a career-low 36.4 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three – a far cry from the player that many had expected to see break out this year. The Hornets are currently in a free-fall, losers of nine straight games since starting 4-5, and now more than ever need Walker to bust out of his funk to help right the ship.

Detroit Pistons

Much like the Knicks, the Pistons made big changes in the offseason with aspirations of changing the culture within the organization. Stan Van Gundy was brought in and given tremendous power as he is serving as both the head coach and the president of basketball operations.

With many talented pieces already in place and the addition of Van Gundy, many viewed the Pistons as a dark horse to make the playoffs in the East. However, through their first 17 games, the Pistons haven’t looked like anything close to a playoff team. Currently the only team with a worse record than the 3-14 Pistons is the winless Philadelphia 76ers.

Despite having weapons like Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the league. Offensively, they have only been able to muster up 91.9 points per game and are 28th in offensive rating. While they have done a little better on the defensive end (18th in defensive rating) it has not been nearly enough to overcome their ineffective offensive attack. They have been one of the worst shooting teams in the league, shooting only 41.2 percent from the field as a group. Two of the team’s most prevalent shot takers, Caldwell-Pope and Smith, are each shooting well under 40 percent from the field at 37 percent and 37.7 percent, respectively.

Also, the Pistons have looked to use Drummond as more of a back-to-the-basket scorer, with little success thus far. Drummond, who was near the top of the league in field goal percentage a season ago when he shot 62.3 percent, has seen his shooting numbers plummet this year – dropping down to 44.8 percent.

If the Pistons continue to pile up losses, they are one team that could be very active prior to the trade deadline (either trading for help or trading away assets in a fire sale).

Andre Iguodala

The Warriors are off to a fantastic start, as they are currently 14-2 and in first place in the Pacific Division. By all accounts, new head coach Steve Kerr is pushing all of the right buttons. One noticeable change that Kerr has made is bringing veteran forward Andre Iguodala off the bench, a change Iguodala has not responded well to.

It should come as no surprise that Iguodala has had difficulties making the transition to the bench. Outside of this season, Iguodala had started in every game of his pro career, dating all the way back to his rookie season in 2004 with the Philadelphia 76ers.  Although he is no longer in the starting lineup, Iguodala is still playing significant time, logging just over 27 minutes a night.

Even though his minutes haven’t dropped off severely, Iguodala has been far less productive as a bench player. He is averaging career-lows in points (6.9), rebounds, (2.5), assists (2.4) and field goal percentage (44.1). What may be most concerning is that among the Warriors’ regular rotation players, Iguodala has the worst PER at 9.

What’s scary is that the Warriors have been dominant even with the rough start from Iguodala. They are winning with Iguodala struggling now, but come playoff time they will need their versatile forward to be much more effective.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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