Ranking NBA Stars With the Worst Supporting Casts

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 4, 2023

Ranking NBA Stars With the Worst Supporting Casts

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    Luka Doncic (left) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right).
    Luka Doncic (left) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right).Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    Stars rule the NBA. That's nothing new.

    What's changed, perhaps, in the past decade-plus is how the constellation of net-shredding stars is formed. This is, after all, the Association's era of player empowerment, and several elites have taken it upon themselves to join forces to make a run at the crown.

    Not everyone is fortunate enough to find—or form—a superteam, though. There are still some solo stars trying to make the most of their undermanned supporting casts.

    Our aim here is to identify which stars are lining up alongside the weakest rosters.

    A few quick notes before getting started.

    First, we're broadly applying the star label to include players who have previously booked All-Star trips or have a legitimate chance to debut in the midseason classic this time around.

    Second, we're leaning on a combination of statistics and the eye test to rank these supporting casts. This is mostly data-driven—comparing players by several catch-all advanced metrics—but the eyes can see things the stat sheets sometimes don't, so there's some subjectivity at play here, too.

5. Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 2: LeBron James #6, Anthony Davis #3 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand on the court during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 2, 2022 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images).
    Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

    LeBron James has pulled off countless miracles over his 20 magical seasons, but even the King can only do so much to prop up a flawed Lakers' roster around he and Anthony Davis.

    No matter which Hollywood star you want to plant at the middle of the Purple and Gold universe—Davis looked incredible before hurting his foot, James has been incredible in Davis' absence—it won't change the sad state of this supporting cast. Even the bump from having a top-shelf co-star (either Davis or James) isn't enough to keep this group out of the bottom five.

    The way RAPTOR sees it, Davis has been a top-five performer and James remains in the top 20. Look beyond those two, though, and heady reserve Austin Reaves is the only other Laker you'll find in the league's top 200. Energetic center Thomas Bryant, meanwhile, is the only Laker not named James or Davis with a positive box plus/minus.

    Russell Westbrook, ostensibly the third building block in L.A.'s Big Three, has never had a lower true shooting percentage (48.2) or higher turnover percentage (19.1). Lonnie Walker IV, the team's third-leading scorer, has a higher turnover percentage (7.1) than assists percentage (6.7) and lands in the 23rd percentile for defensive estimated plus-minus.

    The more names you pull from this roster, the more flaws you'll find. That helps explain how Davis and James—again, two top-20 players by even conservative measures—have an 8-11 record and modest plus-2.1 net rating together this season.

4. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 31: DeMar DeRozan #11 of the Chicago Bulls looks on prior to the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at United Center on December 31, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The Bulls are supposed to have three All-Stars on the roster—maybe even four with a fully healthy Lonzo Ball. But Ball, of course, isn't healthy and hasn't been since suffering a torn meniscus last January—precisely the time when things went awry with this team.

    Chicago was 27-13 at the time of Ball's injury. It went 19-23 the rest of the way, was knocked out of the first round in just five games and has opened this season 16-21. This roster is flawed to the point that a top-to-bottom rebuild seems possible between now and the trade deadline.

    Talent isn't necessarily the issue in the Windy City, but rather the problem is fit.

    DeMar DeRozan, by far Chicago's most consistent contributor since his 2021 arrival, likes to operate in the mid-range, just like Nikola Vučević. DeRozan also works best with the ball in his hands, which is true of Zach LaVine as well. None of the three are positive presences on the defensive end.

    All three can score at will—they average better than 66 combined points per game—yet there's so much overlap that they mute their own strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses. In statistical terms, they've lost their 759 minutes together this season by 3.7 points per possession. Last season, they had a minus-1.1 net rating across 1,206 minutes.

    This complete lack of on-court chemistry effectively torpedoes what the Bulls want to accomplish, especially when they don't have a two-way connector like Ball tying everything together. They badly needed a leap year out of Patrick Williams, but his 10.0 player efficiency rating is the worst of his career. Ayo Dosunmu hasn't fared much better with an 11.5 PER.

    Chicago's bench has a top-10 net rating, and there are a decent amount of win-now veterans who could contribute to a good team. None of that really matters, though, when things aren't working at the top.

3. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on December 31, 2022 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Mavericks are clearly cool with Luka Dončić digging as deep into his bag as possible, and it's hard to argue with the results. In his last seven outings—all Dallas wins, by the way—he's sitting on nightly averages of 41.7 points, 11 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 2.3 steals. This stretch has included a 60-point triple-double, two other 50-point eruptions and a scorching 55.6/40.7/75.9 slash line.

    "I've never seen anybody do what he's able to do," Christian Wood, Dončić's newest co-star, told reporters.

    Luka magic is...well, magical, you just wish Dallas didn't need so much of it. He's logging a career-high 37 minutes a night and being tasked with the heaviest usage rate of his career (38.4)

    He's also well on his way to a career for the ages, and his best teammate is Wood, a skilled offensive center with massive deficiencies on defense. The 27-year-old is in his seventh NBA season (and on his seventh NBA team) and still awaiting his first positive defensive box plus/minus. Well, it's Wood or Spencer Dinwiddie, a ball-dominant, offensive-minded point guard with an in-the-red career defensive box plus/minus.

    RAPTOR doesn't regard Wood or Dinwiddie as top-125 players. The only Mavericks who make that cut are Dončić, Tim Hardaway Jr. (who's shooting below 40 percent for the second straight season), Josh Green (whose 7.0 points per game are easily a career-high) and Dwight Powell (whose 3.6 rebounds are his fewest since his rookie season).

    Dallas desperately needs a second star to help maximize Dončić's prime and give him a real shot at championship contention. Of course, that's been true for quite a while now, and there's no reason to think the Mavs are any closer to finding one.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 2: LaMelo Ball #1 of the Charlotte Hornets dribbles the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 2, 2023 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

    LaMelo Ball is a wizard.

    Does anyone even remember that he essentially lost the first two months to an ankle injury anymore? Hornets fans surely do, but with the way he's humming along, it's easy to forget he's missed any time. He's riding a string of 12 consecutive 20-point efforts, averaging an absurd 25 points, 7.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds over this stretch.

    Massive numbers, right? Well, here's where all the air gets sucked out of Buzz City: Charlotte is just 3-9 in those contests. That's a .250 winning percentage while Ball is producing at a rate only 10 players have ever maintained over an entire season.

    Using FiveThirtyEight's default 502-minute cutoff, Charlotte doesn't have a single qualified player inside the RAPTOR metric's top 90. Only three even crack the top-150: Kelly Oubre Jr. (tied for 94th), Mason Plumlee (also tied for 94th) and Jalen McDaniels (tied for 103rd). Ball's highest-paid teammates, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, check in at 222nd and 201st, respectively.

    Charlotte only has three players in the 70th percentile of estimated plus-minus. Ball, naturally, leads the way in the 83rd percentile. Plumlee, a placeholder if we've ever spotted one, is close behind in the 82nd. Also in the 82nd percentile is Dennis Smith Jr., who appeared as if he might be on his way out of the league before Charlotte offered him a non-guaranteed pact in September.

    The Hornets have a centerpiece in Ball and quite possibly nothing else for their rebuild. Mark Williams, a rookie who only recently joined the rotation and has logged fewer than 100 NBA minutes, might already be the second-most important prospect in Charlotte. It is bleak.

1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 29: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during the second half of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on December 29, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    If you find yourself quibbling at all over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's inclusion among NBA stars, stop it.

    He's a top-15 player in RAPTOR, estimated plus-minus and box plus/minus. If traditional metrics are more your jam, he's this season's fifth-best scorer at 30.8 points per game, a 49.9/35.4/91.3 shooter and on course to become only the 10th player this decade to average 30 points, five assists and four rebounds.

    He is, as the stat-sheet-stuffing Dončić recently put it, "a complete player" whose game is "beautiful to watch."

    What's even more astonishing about Gilgeous-Alexander's ascension, though, is that he's doing this with almost zero support from Oklahoma City's rebuilding roster. You could make the argument his most important teammate is Chet Holmgren, this summer's No. 2 pick who had his would-be rookie season erased by a foot injury.

    Josh Giddey is a brilliant playmaker, Lu Dort is a relentless defender, Jalen Williams has exceeded all expectations and Aleksej Pokusevski was making massive strides before a recent leg injury, but none has even a league-average PER. Only three Thunder players do: SGA, shooting specialist Isaiah Joe and glue-guy Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

    The saving grace for SGA is that this isn't at all surprising—or necessarily even unplanned. The Thunder have fully prioritized the future. At this stage of their organizational reset, they're tracking developmental progress, not on-court production. If this is still a problem in another season or two, then it might be time to worry.

    For now, though, the entire Sooner State can simply kick back and marvel at what Gilgeous-Alexander can do with the least amount of support among NBA elites.

    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, FiveThirtyEight and Dunks & Threes and accurate through Monday.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.