NBA Players Facing Likely Decline Next Season
It's always a little painful to predict slippage among NBA players. Nobody wants to see decline on the horizon.
Let's think of it this way: Anyone we proffer as a candidate for regression next season is probably outperforming expectations in this one.
That's good, right?
In that sense, every player we list here is getting some shine for performing better than his age and history suggested was likely. It's just that, for several reasons, we think this year's surprisingly strong showing is the outlier.
Whether it's due to age, track record or objectively unsustainable production, each of the next 10 players will struggle to recapture what he's achieved this season.
For them, 2016-17 will be as good as it gets.
Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
Playing in a contract year at age 32, Paul Millsap is putting up career highs in points and assists per game.
Though there's nothing in his history to suggest he's motivated to produce strong individual numbers before hitting unrestricted free agency (Millsap has always been a thoroughly team-focused star), it's not a stretch to say he might relax a tad upon locking in his next and probably last massive multiyear deal.
Millsap's defensive performance is hugely responsible for the Atlanta Hawks' allowing the fourth-fewest points per possession in the league. Whatever problems you may have with ESPN's Real Plus-Minus metric, it just feels right to see Millsap slotted in at No. 9 overall in that statistic.
Raw athleticism has never been the source of Millsap's effectiveness, so he'll age better than most. By playing so well at this stage of his career, he already has.
But it's difficult to believe an undersized 6'8" power forward shooting just 31.3 percent from long range is going to put up another no-brainer All-Star campaign while carrying a playoff team in his age-32 season.
Millsap will still be good in 2017-18...but there's no way he's this good.
Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Before you get too bent out of shape about our predicting decline for a 23-year-old, ask yourself a simple question.
Is Otto Porter going to lead the league in three-point shooting accuracy next year?
Now, it's entirely possible Porter develops in other ways. He could continue to grow as a ball-handler. He could add bulk. He could develop a few more in-between offensive tricks.
But he's not going to drill a higher percentage of treys than Stephen Curry, J.J. Redick, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver and everyone else who qualifies. Not with that elbow-out stroke—and not with what we should assume will be an increase in volume.
If you're the Washington Wizards, why wouldn't you try to get Porter more than 4.4 attempts per game from distance?
In that sense, Porter's leap this season will contribute to some of his backsliding in the future. The Wizards would be foolish not to encourage more three-point attempts from their sudden sniper, and layered into that increased volume will be a few more high-difficulty looks. Instead of cleaning up on wide-open triples, he'll try more with a hand in his face.
And opposing defenses will be dialed in even more closely to bother those looks.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs have long offered several choices in the prospective decline department.
Of course, forecasting slippage of any kind—individual or teamwise—in San Antonio has long been a losing bet, so maybe there's wisdom in leaving the Spurs alone here.
As Parker's speed continues to decline, he'll hit a point at which he won't be effective—even in spot minutes. For now, he's got just enough burst to do damage in short spurts. But there's already so much evidence that he's approaching the tipping point.
His shot profile, for one, is trending the wrong way for a player who depends on breaking down the defense.
Only 28.3 percent of Parker's shots have come from within three feet this season. That's one of the lowest marks of his career, and it's an indicator he can't get to the cup like he used to—and that he's not even trying to finish when he does get there.
Parker's next season will be his 17th. With that much mileage, you'd be slipping too.
George Hill, Utah Jazz
It's a shame George Hill and the Utah Jazz didn't pair up sooner.
Hill will turn 31 in May, which is well past the age of peak performance for point guards. But when injuries haven't prevented him from taking the floor, Hill's fit with the Jazz has looked absolutely perfect. He's never been better.
"He's obviously come in and been a leader in the locker room, too, a leader out on the court for us," Gordon Hayward told Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. "He plays with toughness, plays with poise offensively. He's a big part of why we've been successful this year."
That said, it's difficult to expect George to sustain career bests in scoring and effective field-goal percentage.
Chief among the reasons why is the uncertainty that surrounds where Hill will play next season. He and the Jazz couldn't agree on an extension, and if he winds up someplace other than Utah, it's reasonable to expect the fit will be worse.
Toss in that Hill will enter his age-31 season, as well as his troublesome injury history (he's missed 27 games already this season, and he played only 43 in 2014-15), and more signs point to a productivity dip.
We are watching the best possible version of George Hill this season, so a decline is the only reasonable expectation.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Just a guess: Russell Westbrook won't average a triple-double next year.
Considering he's the only guy to do it (so far) in more than a half-century, that seems like a safe stance to adopt. Let's also build in the probability that the Oklahoma City Thunder probably shouldn't want their megastar guard to carry such a load next year.
Not because it hasn't led to success—OKC's winning percentage on the 32 occasions Russ has tripled up this year is a robust 81.2 percent—but because the Thunder should, in theory, get him some more help. When Westbrook has other offensively capable bodies around him, which he did when Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka were teammates, he didn't have to challenge the all-time record for usage rate in a season.
This leaves open the possibility that Westbrook, with more help, could post a more efficient year in 2017-18—at the expense of some volume numbers. Critics who still aren't sold that more Russ is always better will be happy to hear that.
More broadly, what we're watching right now feels like The Season of Russ. The odds of that happening twice in a row seem slim.
Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
That unprecedented achievement stands as a symbol of Lopez's leap this season.
While the emergence of his three-point accuracy seems reasonable, expecting him to average 1.8 makes per game going forward doesn't.
Because it is basically impossible for the Brooklyn Nets to have less talent, we have to expect they'll have more next season. With that added talent, hopefully, there'll be a few floor-spacers capable of knocking down threes.
It's true the Nets are embracing an uptempo, high-variance, triple-heavy style, but it stands to reason Lopez won't have to lead the team in attempts in 2017-18. He's good at so many other things on offense that using him so frequently as a spacer is something of a waste. In moderation, the threat of his long ball is fantastic. But the hope in Brooklyn must be to surround Lopez with enough talent that he won't have to be the only guy capable of stretching the defense.
As the Nets get better, Lopez's numbers will have to come down.
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
By several measures, Carmelo Anthony has been better this year than last, which makes this prediction feel a little bolder.
The guy is scoring at a better per-possession rate than he did in 2015-16, and his true shooting percentage is at a three-year high.
Still, the signs of game erosion are everywhere.
Anthony has never gotten to the foul line less frequently, and he hasn't devoted such a high percentage of shot attempts to long twos since his days in Denver, which came well before the recent three-point revolution rendered those shots obsolete.
Anthony's burst off the dribble is mostly gone, and though he's strong enough to bully smaller wings, it's gotten to the point where guarding him with a bigger player doesn't have much downside.
By the start of next season, Anthony will be a 33-year-old with a major knee surgery on his resume. In light of his changing shot profile and visibly diminishing ability to attack the rim, it's easy to foresee further decline.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry was so good before the All-Star break.
Like, "should have started for the Eastern Conference in New Orleans" good.
Currently sidelined following wrist surgery and staring down his 31st birthday at the end of March, it's difficult to imagine we haven't already seen the best of the Toronto Raptors point guard.
To be fair, it was reasonable to think the same thing last year after Lowry averaged 21.2 points and 6.4 assists per game while leading the Raps to the best season in franchise history. But he upped both of those averages while crushing his previous career highs in field-goal and three-point field-goal percentage before getting hurt.
He's proved us wrong before.
But another year is another year, and surgery to a shooting wrist is no small thing. Remember, too, that Lowry is likely to sign a big deal in free agency this summer. Maybe we see a shred of complacency sneak in at that point.
If (when) Lowry is something less than the viable second-team All-NBA candidate he was before injury this season, it will still count as a decline.
Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls
At 35, Dwyane Wade is ancient by NBA shooting guard standards.
That he's remained an effective scorer and crunch-time performer this late into his career is a testament to his incredible skill and guile. His mid-post pump-fake game should get its own wing in the Hall of Fame.
As his scoring average dips by two points per game since the All-Star break, and with his three-point shot still a mirage, Wade's buckets are only getting harder to come by. Still best with the ball in his hands, the three-time champ mostly subsists on trickery. As the league comes to fear Wade's game less and comes to expect his sneaky feints as primary weapons, it may become impossible for him to score with any kind of efficiency.
He's already at his lowest true shooting percentage ever this year.
But guess what?
This is supposed to happen when you cross into the latter half of your 30s.
Golden State Warriors Veteran of Your Choice
Take your pick; you've got four good options.
Between Andre Iguodala (33), Shaun Livingston (31), Zaza Pachulia (33) and David West (36), the Golden State Warriors have four veteran rotation pieces who'll all be worse next year than they've been in 2016-17.
Iguodala is shooting the ball better this year than last, hitting at least 50 percent of his shots from the field for just the second time in his career. But that makes predicting decline even easier because nobody keeps trending up at age 33.
Livingston, West and Pachulia are also free agents. If any or all of them leave, they're unlikely to land in a spot that better utilizes their skills while minimizing their deficiencies. The duties of a Warriors role player are essentially limited to the one or two things a player does best. The skill of the team's core prevents supporting talent from ever having to stretch itself.
Backups and bit players get to be the best version of themselves in Golden State.
The Warriors need to preserve as much cap space as possible if they plan to max out Kevin Durant because they don't have his Bird rights*. That means all four of these players will be secondary priorities. If they return, they can't expect offers above those allowed by various roster exceptions and/or the veteran's minimum.
Chances are, most of them will be playing someplace other than Oakland next year.
That, along with the predictable slippage that comes with age, will result in decreased effectiveness.
(*If Durant accepts a salary of about $31.8 million per year, around $4 million below his max, the Warriors can use Bird rights on Iguodala and Livingston, which would allow them to go over the cap to retain them for more than minimums or the mid-level exception.)