As the NBA season pushes on into the New Year, front office executives now have a solid understanding of their team’s makeup — and as the year gets closer to February, tough decisions will need to be made. Two of these are fringe playoff teams while the other two are right on the bubble of being a serious championship contender. In either case, their fates may be tied to the underwhelming play of one of their key players.
For some organizations, the problem is more than one player simply underperforming. The San Antonio Spurs, for example, have fallen flat on their faces this season. While LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are the easy targets, the young backcourt of Bryn Forbes and Derrick White are equally to blame for their subpar performances this year.
Expectations were high for all of these teams even before the season began. As the calendar flips to a new year next week, not all of these organizations have lived up to those expectations. Is there time to turn it around? Or must moves be made because of it?
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
After a sensational season a year ago, Orlando has not been able to replicate those same magical performances. While Nikola Vucevic missed 11 games with an injury and Evan Fournier got off to a rough start, the Magic still don’t even resemble the same team that won 42 games last season. They are currently three games under .500 at 14-17 in spite of their thrilling upset victory over Philadelphia recently.
After exploding onto the NBA scene over his first three seasons, Gordon doesn’t seem to have the same burst and pop that he showed early on. Some lower body injuries may be taking their toll on the big man, as his athleticism isn’t quite what it used to be. That is a big part of Gordon’s game too as he is very good at many things but isn’t elite anywhere.
After averaging 17.6 and 16 points per game respectively during the last two seasons, Gordon is at just 13.3 this year. His shooting percentages are down across the board, as are his rebounding numbers. Gordon is shooting 69 percent from the free-throw line and just 29 percent from three-point territory. Orlando will need him to become more productive and more consistent for them to return to the postseason.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Once the Lakers landed their second star in Anthony Davis, we pondered how Kuzma would fit into the equation. After an excellent rookie campaign and a fantastic sophomore season, the forward has struggled to find his place in the rotation. His scoring average has dropped seven points from last season and, understandably, both his rebounding and assist tallies have suffered as well. Most of this can be contributed to his minutes dropping from over 33 per game to just 23 this year.
There have been many times in which Kuzma looks like he is just pressing, trying to do too much, especially when he knows he is about to be subbed out of the game. Playing alongside two superstars is something Kuzma has never done before, so trying to find a comfort zone on a complex team has proved difficult.
The Lakers have been rolling for most of the season and — despite this current four-game losing streak — they are clearly a title contender as one of the best teams in the league. A healthy duo of Davis and LeBron James is obviously vital to their success, but finding a way to incorporate a talent like Kuzma will be key in solidifying their playoff rotation. Or, if Kuzma never quite figures it out this season, the Lakers will be active near the trade deadline, it is safe to assume.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz
Simply put: The Jazz have been on a roller coaster ride this year. They went from being the darling Cinderella favorites after acquiring Conley this summer to arguably the most disappointing team one quarter into the season. The poor play from Conley was an apparent problem, but the solution remains less than obvious.
It was more than just the abysmal numbers for the 12-year veteran, unfortunately. He was adjusting to a new offense and a new system for the first time in his career. Needless to say, one of his biggest strengths was running the pick and roll/pop with Marc Gasol for so many years. And although Rudy Gobert brings his own major contributions, the fit hasn’t been the same for Conley. Not having the shooting threat to kick to has caused severe problems for Utah.
Just as it seemed Conley had turned the corner, he went down with a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for nine of the last ten games. Not being able to be on the floor with his new teammates is not ideal, but it has given Joe Ingles the opportunity to run the point, which has paid big dividends for the Jazz. They’ve gone on a solid tear lately but will need Conley to solidify their place in the Western Conference.
Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have arguably the deepest roster in the league — time and time again, it has been proven on multiple occasions this season. While Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have established themselves as the stars of this franchise, it truly is a team effort in every sense of the word. Case in point: Denver has 12 guys that can legitimately produce on any given night. Better, the Nuggets have six players averaging double figures in scoring, but every player averages less than 18 points per game.
Harris’ production has dwindled over the last two seasons, often finding himself in the middle of a logjam at his position. His minutes are higher than last season but his production has still gone down. Harris has been oozing with potential since his second year in the league, but he has yet to blossom into a great player. Right now, he doesn’t rank anywhere near the top 100 in any significant statistical category.
Denver’s hopes of a title don’t hinge on Harris becoming an All-Star-caliber player, but if he is able to become the player we saw during the 2017-18 season, it would likely solidify their place as one of the best teams in the league.
Ultimately, the respective campaigns may not hinge on these four players in terms of making a deep run during the postseason. However, very clearly, if the Magic, Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz want to reach their truest, highest team-wide potential, they’ll need the play of this lot to improve massively. Come February, will these franchises be back on track or will a trade need to circumvent the issue? Heading into January and a new decade, thankfully, we won’t need to wait long to find out.
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