The Biggest Flops and Busts of the 2013-14 NBA Season So Far
Not to be a Danny Downer or a Negative Ned or anything like that, but I can't help but think of the 2013-14 NBA season as one marked by disappointment so far.
The injury bug has ravaged the league's stash of superstars like (seemingly) never before. Most of the Eastern Conference has been drowning in mediocrity. Of the 14 lottery picks from the 2013 NBA draft, only three—Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke—have contributed with any consistency to their respective squads.
To be sure, the Association as a whole hasn't been done in by such misery entirely.
There's still plenty of fun to be found in the budding rivalry between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers; the surprising rise of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns and the Toronto Raptors; the Washington Wizards' long-awaited return to the land of the winning; Kevin Durant going bonkers in the new year; and pretty much every game pitting the Golden State Warriors against a top-tier team.
Still, the extent to which the current campaign has fallen short of (admittedly lofty) expectations can't be ignored. So, rather than trying desperately to accentuate the positive at every turn, let's take a moment to let some of the most underwhelming aspects of the season wash over us, with the hope that the upcoming All-Star Game will spell the end of the NBA's dog days.
What better place to begin a discussion of busts than with the biggest of them all in the NBA right now: Anthony Bennett.
The calamitous Canadian didn't choose to be the first player taken in the 2013 draft, though the Cleveland Cavaliers' decision to do so didn't flout conventional wisdom completely; most projections still had Bennett as a top-five pick.
By any standard, Bennett's rookie season has been nothing short of disastrous. The 20-year-old missed his first 16 shots as a pro and hasn't improved much since; he's converted an abysmal 28.1 percent of his field-goal attempts so far. All told, Bennett has averaged all of three points and 2.4 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, with 12 DNPs and plenty of D-League-related overtures to boot.
Not surprisingly, Bennett will be the first fit-to-play No. 1 pick to be left out of what's now known as the Rising Stars Challenge since Kwame Brown in 2002.
Health, as it happens, has been an issue for Bennett. He spent most of the summer recovering from shoulder surgery and has looked sluggish and out-of-shape this season—perhaps as a result of the aforementioned setback.
Things should get better for Bennett going forward, if only because they can't get much worse. His mind and body seem to be adjusting to the NBA game, as his two double-digit scoring efforts in his last four games would suggest.
It's too soon to call Bennett a complete bust, though he's got his work cut out for him if he's to avoid being slapped with that dubious tag entirely.
The fact that Bennett's stumbles make up merely a tiny slice of the Cleveland Cavaliers' pie of pity should tell you everything you need to know about how terrible this team has been this season.
A five-game losing streak has dropped the Cavs' record to 16-32, which would be bad enough to tie for the worst mark in the Western Conference. Even in the awful East, Cleveland's futility has left this internally tortured team a full five games shy of the 22-28 Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Where exactly the problems begin for the Cavs is somewhat unclear, though the draft seems like a useful place to start. Of the four top-four picks general manager Chris Grant has had the privilege of spending in the last three years, only one (Kyrie Irving) has yielded a surefire star. The other three (Tristan Thompson in 2011, Dion Waiters in 2012, Bennett in 2013) all looked like reaches at the time and still carry that stigma.
The Cavs did what they could to rectify their lack of veteran leadership by trading for Chicago Bulls stalwart Luol Deng, but even he hasn't been able to rescue the team from the vicious vortex created by Irving's pouting, Waiters' whining and Mike Brown's inability to coax anything close to respectable defense out of this mishmash of a roster.
And with Dan Gilbert's de facto dictate from last year's draft lottery that the 2013-14 campaign would be "playoffs or bust" for his club, look for the Cavs to clean house if/when the post-LeBron James postseason dream slips away for good in the coming months.
The Detroit Pistons' Front Line
Like the Cavs, the Detroit Pistons came into this season hoping to end a long playoff drought after making some high-profile additions during the offseason. In Detroit's case, GM Joe Dumars opted for expensive free agents (Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings) and a retread head coach of his own (Maurice Cheeks) to get the job done.
Dumars' latest attempt to build a roster has yielded a 19-28 team that's been patently mediocre on both ends of the floor.
Much of the blame for that might rightly belong to Josh Smith. The high-flying forward is shooting a personal-worst 40.9 percent from the floor, "thanks" in no small part to his 23.5 percent mark from three on a career-high 3.5 attempts per game.
And it's not as though Smith is exactly hustling his way to success elsewhere, either. He's blocking fewer shots and grabbing a smaller share of available rebounds than he ever has, all amid what might politely be described as a "tenuous" relationship between himself and Cheeks.
Smith, though, isn't entirely at fault for his failings.
In some ways, he's been the victim of what's thus far proven to be an ill-conceived arrangement up front. Partnering Smith with fellow behemoths Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond has left the Pistons slow-footed on defense and deprived of proper spacing on offense. According to NBA.com, Detroit has been outscored by an unhealthy 7.1 points per 100 possessions whenever that trio has shared the floor this season.
Compare that to the marks posted by the Pistons when any two of those three take the floor without the third—plus-2.2 for Monroe-Drummond, plus-4.8 for Drummond-Smith and plus-8.8 for Monroe-Smith—and it becomes clear that the issue here isn't with any one of Detroit's giants, but rather in the attempt to make them all play together. Detroit's lack of three-point shooting (an NBA-worst 30.6 percent from deep) has only compounded the problem.
If the Pistons are smart, they'll find a way to relieve that pressure in the paint and spread the floor all at once. Flipping Monroe, a restricted free agent-to-be, for a shooter seems like the way to go.
Until then, the crunch in Motown doesn't figure to abate.
It's tough to tell how, exactly, the Milwaukee Bucks should feel about Larry Sanders still being a half-season away from his expensive extension kicking in. On the one hand, Sanders' disastrous campaign, marred by an injurious bar fight in early November, is coming at the modest expense of around $3 million for Milwaukee.
On the other hand, Sanders' performance this season (7.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 3.5 fouls in 26 minutes) can't be comforting to a club that extended his contract by four years and $44 million this past offseason. His 25-game absence and the tiff with head coach Larry Drew that preceded it had plenty to do with Milwaukee's collapse from the fringe of the playoff picture last season to the very bottom of the barrel this time around.
Not that the Bucks have been that much better when Sanders has played. According to NBA.com, Milwaukee has been outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions when Sanders has played, as opposed to 10.1 when he's sat.
But if the Bucks are going to build a more competitive squad out of the ashes of this lost season, they'll need Sanders to be an effective piece of the puzzle, particularly on the defensive end.
Speaking of underwhelming teams with frontcourt woes, how about them New York Knicks?
Truth be told, J.R. Smith would've been an easy choice to represent the Knicks' woes in microcosm. Smith repaid New York's kindness for signing him to a three-year, $18 million contract this summer by undergoing knee surgery, convincing the team to sign his younger brother to a guaranteed contract, missing the first five games of the season to a drug-related suspension and feuding with head coach Mike Woodson.
Not to mention his poor play from the outset.
But at least Smith has turned things around of late; he's averaged 17.1 points on 47.4 percent shooting (48.5 percent from three) in his last 12 games.
The same can't be said for Andrea Bargnani. The tall Italian tore a ligament in his left elbow after falling far short in his attempt to posterize the Philadelphia 76ers in late January (see the video above).
Bargs wasn't exactly setting the NBA ablaze before then, either. The supposed sharpshooter had knocked down a career-low 27.8 percent of his three-point attempts, which made his long-standing deficiencies as a rebounder and a defender that much more difficult to overlook.
What's worse, the Knicks shipped Steve Novak, a pair of cap-filling contracts and three draft picks— including a 2016 first-rounder—to the Toronto Raptors to bring Bargs to the Big Apple. Those assets would've come in handy right about now, as New York's brass peruses the trade market for whatever help it can find.
You could argue (perhaps even convincingly so) that Kobe Bryant's campaign isn't even the most disappointing among those endured by injured superstars to this point.
For instance, Derrick Rose was expected to lift the Chicago Bulls back into the NBA's upper echelon upon his return from a year-and-a-half recovery from a torn ACL. Instead, Rose was slow to reacclimate, posting career-low numbers across the board before succumbing to yet another season-ending knee injury just 10 games into his comeback.
But Rose's Bulls, while far from elite, are still winning games at a decent clip. As for Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers, they, like the Bucks, have been sucked into a seemingly inevitable black hole of mediocrity, despite their best efforts to cobble together a competitive club in the wake of Dwight Howard's departure.
To be sure, Bryant wouldn't have been able to reverse L.A.'s misfortune all on his own.
After all, it's not his fault that so many of Purple and Gold's players of consequence have succumbed to one significant injury or another this season. Moreover, the Lakers' struggles as a bottom-10 outfit on both ends of the floor were and are beyond anything the 35-year-old Bryant could fix on his own, with or without setbacks involving his left leg.
Even so, Kobe was expected to be a huge draw, not only for the Lakers, but also for the league as a whole. He's still the NBA's most widely recognized superstar, with only LeBron James so much as sniffing Bryant's pop-culture cachet.
He showed flashes of his old self during his six-game stint in December, most notably in his three 20-point performances thereabout. But Bryant clearly wasn't the same guy; he was a step or two slower, and his timing with his new teammates was off, as his 5.7 turnovers per game would indicate.
Bryant isn't due to have his knee re-evaluated until mid-February and probably won't be back until March as a result. At this point, the Lakers can only hope that he's able to recapture some of his prior magic thereafter.
Lest Bryant's behemoth extension (two years, $48.5 million) turns out to be an albatross on L.A.'s books.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have stumbled upon (and over) a veritable cornucopia of complications this year, many (if not all) of which can be tied back, in one way or another, to Ricky Rubio's reluctance to shoot.
Their offense, which ranks 23rd in three-point percentage (.347) and 25th in field-goal percentage (.437), has had a tough time generating good looks at the basket. A sizable share of the responsibility for that falls on Rubio, who isn't much of a threat to score when he has the ball in his hands.
Which is a problem, since he has the ball in his hands so often...because, well, he's the point guard.
Rubio's regrettable shooting (.354 from the field, .338 from three, .444 in the restricted area) has allowed defenders to sag off him—and onto more dangerous teammates, like Kevin Love and Kevin Martin—while feeding into his hesitancy to launch for himself.
Those problems have been compounded in fourth quarters. According to NBA.com, the T-Wolves have been outscored by 8.1 points per 100 fourth-quarter possessions this season, with Rubio's 11-of-48 (22.9 percent) performance in 35 final frames as one of the chief culprits.
It's no wonder, then, that the T-Wolves are 1-12 in games decided by four points or fewer; their primary ball-handler is all but helpless to score when they need him to most.
As if that weren't enough, Rubio could be the reason for Love's untimely departure on more than one front. Former GM David Kahn passed on giving Love a five-year max extension in 2012, fully anticipating that he'd have to save that distinction for Rubio.
Clearly, Rubio has yet to live up to such lofty expectations, and if Love leaves in 2015 on account of Minny's ongoing mediocrity, the slippery Spaniard will likely be saddled with some of the blame.
The Los Angeles Clippers expected Jared Dudley to be not a worldbeater, but a solid starter who could stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. Outside of a handful of potential breakout games between mid-December and early January, Dudley has failed to live up to even that most modest of billings.
Through his first 51 games as a Clipper, Dudley averaged 7.9 points on 44.9 percent shooting (36.3 percent from three)—all numbers that double as his worst since at least 2008-09, when he split time between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Phoenix Suns. Dudley's disappointing play has since precipitated a demotion to Doc Rivers' bench, with Matt Barnes taking over as L.A.'s starter at small forward.
Now, Dudley finds himself on the trading block for the second time in less than eight months, per ESPN's Marc Stein.
All of which reflects poorly on the deal that brought Dudley to Southern California in the first place. Back in July, the Clippers agreed to part ways with Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler as part of a three-team deal that yielded J.J. Redick and Dudley. Redick has played well when healthy, though he and Dudley haven't brought nearly the same combined value to the Clips that Bledsoe did to the Suns before succumbing to his latest knee injury.
One can't help but wonder, then, if the Clips got as much as they could have for their young point guard, especially in light of Dudley's difficulties.
As bad as Dudley has been, his problems won't keep the Clippers from extending their playoff streak to a franchise-record-tying three seasons.
The same can't be said of the Denver Nuggets, whose own decade of uninterrupted postseason participation is firmly on the line. At 23-23, the Nuggets currently sit three-and-a-half games back of the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves to leapfrog along the way.
Denver's decline comes as anything but a surprise. This past summer alone, the team parted ways with longtime coach George Karl, allowed GM Masai Ujiri to leave for a more lucrative gig in Toronto and ended up sending Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors as part of a three-team sign-and-trade deal.
The Nuggets have stabilized somewhat under the auspices of Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly, though trouble hasn't left their doorstep just yet. Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson are both done for the year with left knee injuries. JaVale McGee hasn't played since mid-November on account of a fractured tibia. Even Andre Miller, long the team's veteran stalwart, has fallen on hard times, albeit for "philosophical" reasons rather than physical ones.
Nobody expected the Nuggets to be power players in the Western Conference after their tumultuous offseason, but a fall into the lottery seemed steep for a squad that had just won a franchise-record 57 games.
And yet, if the regular season ended today, Denver would become just the eighth team in the last two decades to win 55 games one year and miss the playoffs the next—just as Grantland's Zach Lowe suggested the case might be back in October.
Sacramento Kings' Defense
Speaking of things that are at once predictable and depressing, the Sacramento Kings are still a terrible defensive team.
As in, the Kings are on pace to finish among the bottom three in defensive efficiency for the third year running. They've thus far allowed their opponents to score 106.4 points per 100 possessions—a mark "topped" only by the 107.7 the Utah Jazz have given up, per NBA.com.
Theoretically speaking, any team that leans so heavily on the slovenly DeMarcus Cousins and the diminutive Isaiah Thomas at the two most important positions is bound to have trouble stopping its opposition. Yet, the Kings have surrendered a more-respectable 103.7 points per 100 possessions when those two have played together.
Truth be told, Sacramento has made some strides on the defensive end. The Kings most recently held the Bulls to 70 points in a blowout win, though few would mistake Chicago for an offensive juggernaut.
On the whole, though, the Kings remain a long way off from being the two-way force that management likely envisioned when it hired the defensive-minded Mike Malone to be the next head coach. In Malone's defense, he's up against a legacy of losing and an organizational culture that had fallen into decay during the waning years of the Maloof regime.
Sacramento should turn things around in due course under its new ownership, though this operation won't truly get off the ground until the Kings commit themselves to playing hard and smart on the defensive end with some consistency.
Who or what else has disappointed you this season? Let me know on Twitter!