Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.
What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list. Of those, five have been felled by injuries. What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.
Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument. This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.
To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I needed to win a game tomorrow* with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off. On to the rankings.
- Stephen Curry
The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage. As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.
I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was. Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level. He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time. He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period. For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list. His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates. And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands. What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable. While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.
- LeBron James
A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade. His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.
But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s. Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was. Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.
Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.
Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game. But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier. Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.
Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts. Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism. What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him). He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.
Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average. Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.
- Anthony Davis
In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics. However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred. He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end. What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.
Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James. He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage. He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.
So why is he only third on on this list? He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is. Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved). And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two. Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him. Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate. He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.
Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates. However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.
- James Harden
Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier. His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.” Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals. Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency. With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.
But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot. The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season. The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.
The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date. Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater. Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him. He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.
- Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant. With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand. And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4. When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James. During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.
The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM. Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate. He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.
Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades. His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average. While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons. Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently. That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.
- Chris Paul
This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts. He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll. Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.
Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level. His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years. He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet. And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.
- DeMarcus Cousins
It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.
Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics. The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM. Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal. He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM. While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.
- Blake Griffin
Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age. Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture. Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3. He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post. While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim. What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.
In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year. Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.
9. Marc Gasol
Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit. He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense. Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.
10. Damian Lillard
Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations. While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.
Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order
All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.
Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively. But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post. As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.
Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game. But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.
Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster. He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems. It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.
Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10. RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen. He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency. Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.
Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent. He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.
Irving may be overlooked at this point. Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics. What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort. He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have. Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.
Who Dropped Out
Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now. Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing. He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year. Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse. Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list. And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively. Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health. Hopefully he can return to this list next year.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southeast Division
Chad Smith breaks down the Southeast Division in the latest installment of Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series.
Over the last few weeks, Basketball Insiders has highlighted the biggest surprises of the young NBA season. And, breaking down each division, there seemed to be a fantastic story about to unfold around every corner.
But, now, has reality finally started to settle in?
The pleasant surprises throughout the season are always welcome, but there have been plenty that aren’t so spectacular. Whether expectations were just too high, or unforeseen circumstance led to an awkward shift, some players or teams just haven’t had the greatest time to start the 2019-20 season.
It’s important to remember that the season is but weeks old, November its first full month. And things can change very quickly in the NBA. Still, there are a few situations of note to keep an eye on. That said, here are three of the Southeast division’s biggest disappointments so far this season.
Orlando’s Not So Magical Offense
After they were the darling team of the Eastern Conference last season, the 2019-20 iteration of the Orlando Magic have struggled to find that same consistency.
Orlando has proven especially bad on offense, as they currently rank 30th in total offense, 30th in field goal percentage and 30th in three-point shooting. The fact that they are dead last in every category is even more baffling when you consider the fact that they returned largely the same roster from a year ago.
The Magic were the last team to score 100 points in a game this season and, as of this writing, they average a league-worst 99 points per game. Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier have struggled to find a groove, while DJ Augustin has dropped back into a reserve role. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have looked mediocre-at-best.
Case-and-point, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint why the Magic have struggled to a 5-7 record to start the season, no matter how disappointing it may be. There is hope, however; Orlando has put forth a strong defensive effort, while their schedule is expected to lighten up after contests against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors, among others.
They also have some nice young pieces that have thus far yielded positive results: Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
After such a fun postseason run, it’s incredibly disappointing to see Orlando’s 5th ranked offense from a season ago stumble to such depths. We can’t say for sure whether it’ll turn up at some point but, fortunately for the Magic, they have another 70 games to figure it out.
John Collins Suspension
The 2019-20 season has been a roller-coaster for the Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has looked like a star, but missed time due to an ankle injury. And, despite their 4-7 record, the team has, at times, looked strong on both ends of the court.
But, now, they face a 25-game stretch without John Collins, lost to suspension.
Collins is a remarkable talent, and it’s easy to see how his absence has hurt Atlanta on the court. In the midst of a road trip, Atlanta has struggled against the Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, teams with solid options at the five-spot Collins used to occupy.
As spectacular as he is, it’s unfair to expect Young to carry the day for the team on his own. And, like other teams — see Aron Baynes behind Deandre Ayton in Phoenix — the Hawks just don’t have the depth at the position persevere through the loss of Collins.
If they’re to turn it around, Atlanta will need Jabari Parker, Cameron Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and others to step up and make a big impact. Unfortunately, given their lack of experience (or, in Parker’s case, the fact that he’s a known commodity) it’s hard to imagine that that’ll be the case.
At the very least, it’ll take some time for those players to grow into their game and help turn the season around, time the Hawks may not have given such poor start
Where’s Miles Bridges’ Breakout?
On the whole, things have actually been better than expected in Charlotte, as the team has carried a 5-7 record through 12 after many expected them to be one of the worst in the NBA. But, after a rookie season where he flashed, the 2019-20 regular season was set to be Miles Bridges’ introduction to the national NBA audience.
With Kemba Walker gone, and veterans like Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams populating the roster, Bridges was supposed to establish himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ best player and lead the team into the next phase of their rebuild.
And, to be fair, Bridges hasn’t been horrible this season. He just hasn’t been what many had hoped for or expected.
Through Charlotte’s 12 games, Bridges has averaged 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. His shooting percentages — 47.6 percent from the floor, 39.2 percent from three — are good as well. But Bridges has yet to really take the bull by the horns and assert himself as the Hornets’ top-dog. Of course, there is plenty of time for him to change that, but the fact that he hasn’t already is disappointing nonetheless.
Bridges is vocal on the floor and can communicate with others on Charlotte’s roster, both the veterans and the up-and-comers. He could prove exactly the leader this team needs as they transition into the post-Walker phase of their franchise.
Again, the season is young, and these disappointments could quickly flip on their heads and become surprises. But not every team can be so lucky, and these teams may just have to accept them and adjust.
NBA Daily: Aron Baynes’ Three-Point Revolution
Aron Baynes took just six three-pointers over the first five years of his career. But he’s an elite floor-stretcher now, though, a development that’s changed everything for both him and the Phoenix Suns.
Aron Baynes attempted a grand total of six three-pointers over his first five years in the NBA.
When he first ventured beyond the arc in 2017-18 — during his debut campaign with the Boston Celtics — Baynes’ newfound stretch seemed more like a novelty than a development that could significantly alter the course of his career. He took just 21 triples, but 13 of them came from the corners — a spot at which more and more players experimented with the long ball as the league’s emphasis on space reached a new zenith.
The evolution that initially pushed Baynes and other non-shooters like him to the perimeter is ongoing. Thirteen teams are taking at least 35 percent of their shots from deep, up from nine last season, while the number of teams with a three-point rate above 30 percent has jumped from 23 to 27, per Cleaning the Glass.
The NBA’s three-point revolution, obviously, is still in its heyday. But more frequently and easily identified with that reality is a player like James Harden — an annual MVP-worthy candidate — whose three-point rate has risen to a ridiculous 57.2 percent. Or, take Andrew Wiggins, who has revitalized his career by launching 6.7 triples per game – a number that would have ranked among the league’s the top-10 as recently as 2015-16, but currently sits outside its top-20.
Still, it would be foolish to overlook the influence of role players that continue pushing their personal boundaries as long-range shooters, a group for which Baynes has become the poster boy.
Any chance that the three-ball would be a more complementary aspect of his game as opposed to a driving force behind it vanished last season. Baynes shot a solid 34.4 percent from three-point range, just below league average and nearly double his accuracy from the previous season. But his shot chart hinted at even further growth to come as 50 of Baynes’ 61 three-point tries were from above the break. He wasn’t just a stationary safety valve to make opponents pay for ignoring him in the corner — but a shooter with numbers indicated that needed to be guarded all over the floor.
Baynes’ red-hot start to 2019-20 has ensured that defenses must treat him with the respect he deserves, and the Phoenix Suns are taking full advantage.
It’s safe to say Baynes won’t shoot 46.8 percent on three-pointers all season long. Danny Green and Joe Harris were the only players in basketball to connect on even 45 percent of those attempts last season, and it’s not like Baynes has been shy getting them up, allowing for the possibility of a small sample size to artificially inflate his numbers. He’s launching 4.3 triples in only 23.8 minutes per game, hunting them with the vigor of a veteran frontcourt marksman.
Baynes doesn’t care where he is, how quickly he needs to set his feet or how much time is on the shot clock. Only three of his long-range efforts last season came as a defender was within six feet of him. Less than a month into 2019-20, Baynes has doubled that total, even taking three shots from deep when being closely defended, per NBA.com.
He doesn’t just get his shots in pick-and-pop or scramble situations, either. The Suns believe so much in Baynes’ viability as a three-point shooter that they sometimes run a baseline out-of-bounds play to get him an open look from the wing.
Baynes has been one of the best screeners in basketball for years. He’s massively built with broad shoulders and a thick chest, thus allowing him to make contact with defenders trying to avoid a pick when most bigs couldn’t. His keen understanding of angles and timing regularly provides unencumbered runways for ball handlers that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Even so, Baynes is far more dynamic as a screener now that he’s an imminently-dangerous three-point shooter. He mixes in a steady diet of dives to the rim with more frequent pops to the arc, and Phoenix ball handlers have increasingly made a habit out of drawing two defenders by creasing the paint, only to kick back out to Baynes for an open triple. The result is Baynes averaging 1.56 points per possession as a roll man, fourth-best in the league, on the strength a 77.8 effective field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
Monty Williams hasn’t just empowered Baynes as a three-point shooter, either. The Suns’ head coach consistently takes advantage of the mere threat of Baynes’ presence, too, producing easy scoring opportunities elsewhere on the floor. Phoenix loves clearing the lane for quick Booker post-ups at the charge circle against overmatched defenders and Baynes, an underrated passer, routinely finds others with backdoor dimes when the defense overplays dribble hand-offs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, sporting the league’s best defense, were eventually so spooked last week by Baynes, Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky raining threes that they resorted to switching across five positions. While Los Angeles hung on for a hard-fought win in a delightfully hostile environment, it still speaks volumes about the Suns’ offensive attack that a defense led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis felt the need to junk-up its scheme.
Baynes isn’t a high-usage post player and never will be. But when defenses feel compelled to switch to combat the long-range shooting of he and other bigs, the Suns should remember that he was able to exploit James on the block with ease.
Baynes is no star, even if there’s data suggesting otherwise. Phoenix’s offensive rating is almost 15 points better with him on the court, but that number aligns closely with that of other starters. His presence makes almost no affect on the Suns’ team-wide shot chart, either. But any sweet-shooting, screen-setting, backdoor-passing big man would be an abject offensive plus, and it’s telling that Phoenix’s effective field goal percentage ticks up 6.3 percent with Baynes in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Deandre Ayton will take Baynes’ place in the starting lineup upon his suspension ending and rightfully so. But if the Suns take a step back offensively with Ayton active, don’t be surprised.
Baynes isn’t quite the engine behind the league’s third-best offense, but he’s certainly a crucial cog – and his rapid growth as a shooter is the reason why.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Atlantic Division
Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues with Drew Maresca examining the Atlantic Division’s start to the 2019-20 season.
The NBA season is still very young, but some disappointing starts are just that – disappointing. Meaning that they can exist on their own without knowing the end result. Certain players and teams around the league surprised us with their unexpectedly strong play, and others have left us scratching our heads and wondering what’s went wrong.
And with that being said, let’s continue our series on early-season disappointments, shifting our attention to the Atlantic Division. The Atlantic is always home to controversy thanks to its large media markets and (mostly) historic franchises. So let’s examine who has underachieved thus far and how they can turn it around.
Nets Surprising Defensive Struggles
Defense is presenting early problems for the new-look Brooklyn Nets; they’re 4-7 after entering the season with fairly high expectations. Now, this writer was burned last season after forecasting a Nets’ demise following a poor start, so we won’t be making any kind of long-term predictions. But it’s been problematic enough to get Kenny Atkinson’s attention in recent postgame press conferences.
Sometimes their defense has lapses in the final minutes of close games (e.g., a five-point loss to the Jazz this past Tuesday), and other times it fails them earlier in the game (e.g., a blowout loss against the Suns on last Sunday).
But one way or the other, the Nets have to improve defensively. They are allowing 119.5 points per game, which is good for 27th in the Association. And sure, they’re averaging the seventh-most points per game in the league (116.8), but they’ve posted the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league so far and a -2.4 net rating. That’s not going to cut it for a team with aspirations of making a deep postseason run.
The bright side is that it’s never surprising when a team struggles to find continuity on defense after an offseason of turnover. The Nets returned only seven players from 2018-19, and each of their three most frequently used lineups features multiple new players. There is plenty of time left for the Nets to build synergy and improve their defense. And Atkinson is an incredible motivator, so there is little reason to worry about long-term implications. But as far as this season is concerned, they should get to it quickly because every win (and loss) affects their seeding and/or chances of making the playoffs.
Knicks Offensive Woes
The Knicks’ lack of success is well-documented. And despite the team signing a number of established veterans who many felt would propel them to respectability, the losing has continued.
And much of the reason for their continued disappointments is their offensive struggles. NBA teams are getting more shot attempts and scoring more points than ever before. The Knicks never received that memo. Through 11 games (not including their game Thursday night vs. the Mavericks), the Knicks are one of only two teams averaging less than 100 points per game, and they rank dead last in points per 100 possessions. And what’s worse — they are tied for the third-least assists per game (20.3) and their coach recently kind of, sort of defended their isolation-heavy offense by mentioning the Houston Rockets proclivity to play isolation-heavy basketball (although he later acknowledged that the Knicks don’t have the same level as do the Rockets and that they must move the ball to succeed).
Looking ahead, someone is going to pay for this. Franchise owner James Dolan recently met with the team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to articulate his frustrations. That prompted an unexpected press conference from the two to discuss their dissatisfaction with the early failures. Ultimately, this is going to fall on Fizdale, whose coaching seat has become white-hot. But Perry, and maybe even Mills. could both be looking for work, too. Dolan is rumored to be smitten with the idea of luring Masai Ujiri to New York, again — potentially with the goal of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
But regardless of what happens in the future, it looks like there’s no way out of the current mess this season. But one thing the Knicks can do to soften the blow is move the ball. Too often, the Knicks settle – or prefer – to isolate with their opponent while the four other Knicks stand idly by and watch. They must move without the ball and screen away from it. More pick-and-roll action would benefit them, too. Getting back to the basics is the best recipe for a team that has appeared to lack an offensive system, or at least an understanding of it.
The Struggles of Dennis Smith Jr.
Since a midseason trade from the Dallas Mavericks last year, Smith Jr. has had a difficult time adjusting to New York, at least on a consistent basis. And before going into this, experiencing a personal tragedy such as what he just went through takes a strong person to push on.
Strictly from an on-court perspective, however, beginning with his first three games of the season, Smith Jr. totaled only three points and three assists on 0-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 26:12 of play.
Now, he tweaked his back sometime prior to the beginning of the preseason, which caused him to miss preseason games, a number of practices and – in turn – threw off his timing and conditioning. It’s understandable how that affects a player. It’s also understandable that his mental state could’ve been significantly affected by personal matters. Why was Smith Jr. playing, then? Was it out of fear of losing his place in the rotation? Was it pressure from the team? Was it his own stubbornness?
On the bright side, Smith Jr. looked more like his old self last night in a victory over the Mavericks. Smith Jr. posted 13 points and 8 assists on 5-for-12 shooting in 29:58 minutes of action. While Smith Jr. has been far-less effective through the Knicks’ first 12 games than they’d hoped he would be, they can take some solace in his most recent performance.
But more importantly, they must demand that he rehab fully so he can demonstrate exactly what he’s capable of doing; Smith Jr. could be seen occasionally limping around the court as recently as last game. Otherwise, the Knicks are not only hurting Smith Jr. and his future earning potential, but they’re also hurting themselves by not getting a clean look at a talented young player. Sure, they exercised his fourth-year option for 2020-21, so they have next season to evaluate, too; but every game is important in assessing a young player’s potential output, and you’d prefer to do so by examining healthy performances.
Celtics’ Continuous Injury Bug
This one hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s play since the Celtics entered Thursday night with the league’s best record (9-1). But still, the Celtics – and more specifically, Gordon Hayward – have had some bad luck as far as injuries are concerned in recent seasons.
Hayward suffered a devastating foot injury two seasons ago. He spent the entirety of last year getting back his confidence and rhythm. He came out this season and looked dangerously close to his old self, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in eight games.
And then, the unthinkable happened – Hayward suffered another injury that would ultimately require surgery.
Fortunately for Hayward and the Celtics, the broken hand — which required surgery — shouldn’t be season-ending. Also fortunate is the fact that Boston maintained its depth at the wing this offseason, opting to hang on to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.
Still, it must be incredibly frustrating for Hayward, the Celtics and their fans to see the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder miss extended time – again – to another injury. Hopefully, this is the last major injury Hayward suffers, and hopefully the Celtics’ entire roster can remain relatively healthy for the foreseeable future – because no one wants to see seasons decided by injuries.
We are only slightly more than 10 percent of the way through the 2019-20 season, so every team and player mentioned above has a chance at redemption. Still, each of the above disappointing starts is a cause for concern. And every player and team should begin preparing countermeasures to combat the possibility that the above-mentioned disappointing trends linger longer than expected.
But one thing’s for sure: When we’re talking about teams from the Atlantic Division, each and every aforementioned storyline will play out as loudly as possible.