10 NBA Players Showing Major Regression This Season
The NBA would look drastically different if no one ever trended in the wrong direction.
Draft busts wouldn't exist, because even Anthony Bennett and Michael Olowokandi would keep improving; they'd just start with lower baselines. Father Time would be rendered irrelevant since not even age could force players into declines. Superstars would have infinitely long primes.
But that's not how it works.
Regression often strikes, and for a variety of reasons. Some previous performances are unsustainable. Fluky shooting at the beginning of the year can drag down percentages and overall levels of effectiveness. Questionable fits with new teammates can prove detrimental. Moving closer to retirement can force older contributors into sinking numbers.
These 10 players, presented in alphabetical order by last name, have the unfortunate distinction of being the best early examples from 2017-18. Above all others, they're the ones wishing for that idyllic utopia in which regression was impossible.
Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 255.63 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-5.92 TPA
Last year, Mike Conley served as one of the NBA's elite point guards.
That's not a hyperbolic statement, even if the talent-laden Western Conference didn't have enough space to feature him on the All-Star roster. While continuing to lock down his individual assignments, he improved every facet of his offensive game to become a true two-way threat for the Memphis Grizzlies. No longer quite as overlooked and underrated as he'd been in the past, he finally started to gain recognition for his exploits.
Entering 2017-18, Conley sat at No. 18 in Dan Favale's player rankings for Bleacher Report. Sports Illustrated listed him in the same spot. ESPN.com's #NBArank had him at No. 23, while he finished behind only 19 players in NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball.
Conley's three-point stroke has disappeared during the opening salvo of the Grizzlies' schedule, with his percentage slipping from 40.8 to 31.2. His mid-range shooting has fallen even further, and he's no longer finishing at the same clip when attacking the basket. He's also been far less involved as a distributor after Chandler Parsons' return to health and Tyreke Evans' emergence as a legitimate threat, since both counterparts take away some touches.
And worst of all? He's been detrimental on defense. After finishing No. 23 among point guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus last year, he's plunged to No. 31 in the early-season standings at his position, posting a decisively more negative score.
Perhaps a troublesome left Achilles is to blame, and a bit of rest will unlock the talent that made Conley not just an All-Star threat, but a legitimate All-NBA candidate one year ago. But it's still quite troubling Memphis has seen its net rating improve by five points per 100 possessions when the floor general purported to be its best player has moved to the pine.
George Hill, PG, Sacramento Kings
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 106.08 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-23.03 TPA
"We need [George] Hill to be aggressive," Garrett Temple said after his new teammate finally submitted a positive performance with a 16-spot against the Washington Wizards, per the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. "We need him to be aggressive with the way this team is built. At the beginning of the season he really didn't know how to attack his role and we continue to tell him to be aggressive, just play your game and we’'re going to fit in around it."
Discomfort has been the theme here.
While a member of the Utah Jazz, Hill was tasked with serving as a leading scorer who constantly attacked a defense. But he's attempted to defer while suiting up for the Sacramento Kings, apparently thinking passivity would help him function as an on-court leader and improve the roster's younger members.
"On every pick-and-roll I've been coming off looking to pass and not being the same guy I've been before coming here, looking to score," he told Jones. "Trying to just play the right way and lead by example and things like that."
In 2016-17, Hill had a 23.5 percent usage rate and assisted 22.8 percent of the buckets his running mates made while sharing the floor with him. During his first year in Sacramento, those marks have declined to 16.9 and 18.0, respectively. But numbers aren't truly necessary to highlight his diminishing involvement; watching the Kings reveals a player who looks uncomfortable, devoid of confidence as he waits on the wings for plays to develop.
Hill is actually shooting the ball better than ever from beyond the arc, knocking down a career-high 47.6 percent of his treys. The skill is still there. But until he gets comfortable—and, ideally, starts exerting a bit more energy on defense—the impact won't follow suit.
Jrue Holiday, PG, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 76.02 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-28.66 TPA
All things considered, the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins experiment is working out nicely.
The New Orleans Pelicans have put both big men in positions to thrive, and they're excelling. Each has blossomed into an individual stud dominating on both ends of the floor, and they've helped spark NOLA to an 8-7 record and positive net rating.
But the pieces around the fire-and-ice combo haven't been quite as successful.
Not only does the lack of supporting talent hinder what Davis and Cousins can do, but their ball-dominating habits have prevented Jrue Holiday from looking comfortable. He simply doesn't seem like a strong fit alongside the two high-usage bigs, failing to make a sizable impact without nearly as many touches.
Holiday was excellent when healthy last year, receiving 66 frontcourt touches per game and making the most of them. That number is down to 38.5 in 2017-18 (along with fewer seconds and dribbles per touch), and the results have been troubling.
For most NBA players, catch-and-shoot attempts are easier than the ones they create for themselves off the bounce. But the reverse holds true for Holiday, who has always been as comfortable leading the charge and creating offense with his dribbling acumen. Even last year, he posted an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 47.0 on catch-and-shoots, while his pull-up eFG% was a comparable 46.8 percent.
Now, the distribution is totally different—and having a deleterious effect on his game.
He took almost five times more pull-up attempts than catch-and-shoot tries last year. In 2017-18, the former is more than doubling the latter, with 1.9 catch-and-shoot attempts per game, and 4.4 pull-up jumpers. He's earning far fewer trips to the charity stripe, shooting a meager 22.6 percent from three-point range and forcing the action a bit too aggressively on the rare occasions when he is permitted to lead the charge.
Holiday should regain some of his effectiveness as his downtown clip trends up, but he's still not going to be the same player he was in a different situation. That won't change until the Pelicans start letting him operate in the pick-and-roll again.
Wesley Matthews, SG/SF, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 4.79 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-19.97 TPA
This shouldn't be too shocking.
Wesley Matthews is on the wrong end of an Achilles rupture, even if he's now played out an entire season since the initial injury. That's a monumentally difficult malady to recover fully from, especially for a wing who's now inching away from his 31st birthday. Matthews isn't getting any younger; no one does.
But he's still regressing. That much is indisputable.
Matthews remains one of the NBA's deadlier marksmen, capable of rising and firing over tight coverage to add three points to the Dallas Mavericks' tally in one fell swoop. A similar portion of his looks have come from beyond the arc, and he's connecting at a 37.9. percent clip.
Unfortunately, that success hasn't carried over to two-point territory.
The veteran wing has uncharacteristically struggled on his mid-range jumpers, and his work at the basket is even more concerning. One year after shooting 55.2 percent from within three feet, he's knocked down just 36.8 percent of his close-range attempts. Per NBA Miner, he had six shots blocked in his first 12 games this year, whereas he had 24 swatted away in 73 appearances throughout 2016-17.
Maybe that's merely him getting unlucky. But nearly doubling the per-contest figure isn't a good sign, perhaps indicative of diminishing explosiveness around the hoop—a statistical observation that, so far, has been backed up by careful viewing.
Khris Middleton, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-10.5 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-21.37 TPA
Let's turn back to ESPN.com's real plus/minus.
Khris Middleton sat at No. 13 among small forwards for his efforts during the 2016-17 campaign. He trailed 18 players at his position by posting a slightly positive offensive score (0.14) and was flat-out excellent on defense. His DRPM of 1.26 left him at No. 17, sandwiched between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
A similar story has not held true in 2017-18.
A minus-0.52 ORPM places Middleton at No. 32 among this year's small forward crop, directly in the middle of Thabo Sefolosha and Matt Costello. And he's been even worse on defense, where his minus-1.13 DRPM beats only the scores earned by nine of the 83 qualified 3s. Add those together, and the 26-year-old's overall RPM (minus-1.65) leaves him at No. 60, right behind Bruno Caboclo, Luol Deng and Royce O'Neale.
All this is despite Middleton upping his per-game averages.
Those are oftentimes misleading figures, driven by increased playing time, bigger roles and reckless gunning for counting stats. In this case, they're also boosted by the swingman's 43-point masterpiece against the Charlotte Hornets—which, we should note, came in a losing effort.
Middleton hasn't looked comfortable on defense. He's holding his own when opponents force him into pick-and-roll coverage, but he's lacked the discipline necessary to thrive against spot-up shooters and sometimes seems to wander aimlessly in head coach Jason Kidd's obfuscated defensive schemes.
Couple that with career-worst shooting percentages—41.4 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from beyond the arc—and Middleton has been a detrimental presence during what was supposed to be his breakout season. The numbers are creeping up as the year progresses, and he should eventually trend back toward his typical marks, but the early going has been rather rough.
Patty Mills, PG/SG, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 44.75 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.8 points, 1.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-17.09 TPA
Rather than break out and establish himself as a key member of the San Antonio Spurs offense in Tony Parker's absence, Patty Mills has instead struggled to find twine.
On his field-goal attempts, the Australian guard is shooting a derisory 37.1 percent. That number drops down to 35.3 percent when Mills is launching attempts from outside the rainbow. The former is rather easily the worst mark of his career, while the latter beats only his efforts from 2014-15.
As Mike Finger wrote for the San Antonio Express-News, His paltry percentage might not be noticeable if the Spurs weren't relying on him to be a focal part of the offense for long stretches, but they are."
Not only has Mills been incapable of sparking the San Antonio offense—his 19 points against the Dallas Mavericks on 7-of-13 shooting offer hope this could change in the near future—but his defense has been woeful. Though preventing points has always been a weak spot for the 29-year-old, he's rarely been this bad.
Thanks to the brilliance of head coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs are typically able to turn any quintet into a suffocating unit. This franchise doesn't normally see its rotation players register massive on/off differences on the defensive end since the pieces are so interchangeable and understand how to cover up for each other's flaws. Somehow, the exclusion of Kawhi Leonard provided for the biggest gains on this end in 2016-17— an anomaly Matt Moore covered extensively for CBS Sports.
But Mills has proved an exception thus far, and it's worth noting the defense was actually 1.9 points per 100 possessions better while he was off the floor last year.
San Antonio is posting a 93.2 defensive rating without him, which would outpace the Boston Celtics for the top mark (95.8) in the season-long standings. When he plays, that number skyrockets to 108.5, which would sit between the No. 25 Atlanta Hawks and No. 26 Minnesota Timberwolves.
That differential is nearly twice as bad as the on/off marks produced by any other rotation member.
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, minus-35.55 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-21.37 TPA
Father Time is undefeated.
Watching legends in their twilights can be a painful experience. No one wants to remember Hakeem Olajuwon during his one year with the Toronto Raptors. The sooner you forget about Patrick Ewing's brief stint with the Orlando Magic, the better. I've scrubbed any and all recollections of Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards go-rounds from my memory.
Dirk Nowitzki is still wearing a Dallas Mavericks uniform, but his play is starting to fall in that same category of surefire Hall of Famers struggling to look the part (Jordan is an exception because, well, he's Jordan and was still able to earn All-Star nods in the wrong jersey).
As Tim MacMahon wrote for ESPN.com, the numbers aren't there for the German 7-footer:
"Nowitzki's numbers—averages of 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 41.4 percent from the floor—are down significantly from last season...and are the worst since his rookie year. He's playing primarily center instead of power forward as a concession to his increasingly limited mobility, to put it politely.
"His mere presence still benefits the Mavs offensively, even though he's almost solely a catch-and-shoot threat at this age, no longer effective on the isolation and post-up plays he scored so many buckets on over the years. Dallas is a defensive disaster with Nowitzki on the floor, bleeding for an average of 117.3 points allowed per 100 possessions."
Problem is, his presence may not benefit the Dallas offense for too much longer.
Without any semblance of aggression around the hoop and devoid of the ability to do scoring damage without a mid-range or deep jumper, he's not a threatening presence. Defenses will adjust and start paying him less mind. Sad as it may be to admit, he's veering ever closer to becoming a true two-way liability.
Ricky Rubio, PG, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 34.06 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-5.22 TPA
Rarely does a player's style change so drastically from one year to the next.
Though Ricky Rubio was the pass-happy table-setter for the Minnesota Timberwolves throughout his career in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he morphed into a point guard who looks to score first and foremost after transitioning to the Utah Jazz. Perhaps that's out of sheer necessity on a roster devoid of established shot-makers, but the change hasn't been an effective one.
The Salt Lake City offense has actually been worse with him on the floor—3.2 points per 100 possessions worse, in fact.
Defenses can sag off and dare him to shoot jumpers that have been even more ineffective in 2017-18 (25.8 percent from three-point territory). They can usher him into the lane and watch as he finishes a putrid 46.7 percent of his shots from within three feet. They're motivated to compel him into shots, since he's far more dangerous when serving as he has in the past.
And even when he fills his more traditional role, he's been less effective as a facilitator.
The Jazz are shooting only 45 percent off his potential assists, which stands far below last year's 58.6 percent clip in Minnesota. He's also generating 3.4 fewer potential dimes per game while passing the ball 5.9 fewer times during his average contest.
Rubio's defense has been fine. He remains a hounding, parsimonious presence with quick hands who can generate plenty of transition opportunities for an anemic Jazz attack.
It's just the offense that has been so problematic in this new location.
Dwyane Wade, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 35.58 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, minus-19.69 TPA
The version of Dwyane Wade who spent one year with his hometown Chicago Bulls was still effective, even if he couldn't hold a candle to the All-Star who suited up with the Miami Heat for so many seasons. Despite regressing after his hot-shooting start to the campaign, the veteran 2-guard was a slightly beneficial presence on both ends of the floor.
That...hasn't been the case now he's reunited with LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wade was such a disaster in the starting lineup that he voluntarily moved to the bench just three games into the calendar. As he said while making the transition, per Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor, "I'm trying to find it, man. It's very different, different than I've ever played. I've always been a one or two option. It's just a different game. You gotta kinda figure out your way."
He hasn't found "it" coming off the pine, either.
Wade's perimeter stroke has all but disappeared. He's spending even more time operating as a facilitator, but that's left him discombobulated after so many years leading the scoring charge. And even when he does attack, he's shooting 58.3 percent from within three feet—the second-worst mark of his career, topping only last season's diminished efforts.
For so long, physicality has been a central part of Wade's game, which makes it disconcerting that he's generating free throws more infrequently than ever before. Per Cleaning the Glass, 9.7 percent of his shooting attempts have generated whistles, which, while still in the 75th percentile for his position, is the lowest rate of his NBA tenure.
Without aggression, a convincing shooting stroke or much retained defensive dynamism, Wade has found himself in total limbo while the Cavaliers struggle to move up the Eastern Conference standings.
Dion Waiters, SG, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-24.70 TPA
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-22.15 TPA
"I don't like these basketballs man," Dion Waiters revealed after missing a game-winning attempt against the Denver Nuggets, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "I don't like these basketballs here. It was like slippery the entire night."
That's been his season, in a nutshell. Nothing has gone right, leaving him searching for excuses—whether valid or not.
Even with an allegedly slippery basketball, Waiters' attempt was close enough to rattle around the rim before falling harmlessly to the floor. Unfortunately, it was one of many misfires for a shooting guard who's connecting on his deep tries at a meager 31.7 percent clip.
Up to this point in the 2017-18 campaign, 50 different players are taking at least five treys per contest (Waiters is at 5.7). Only Danilo Gallinari, Tim Hardaway Jr., D'Angelo Russell, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell are drawing iron (or nothing at all!) at a higher rate than the recently extended 25-year-old. And this would be fine if Waiters were providing substantial value in other areas.
Waiters has spent significantly less time acting as a distributor for the Miami Heat—he's making 5.1 fewer passes per game than he did last year—and has coupled the diminished dimes with increased turnovers. He's struggling even more on the defensive end and is tormented whenever opponents put him into the pick-and-roll grinder (10th percentile against PnR ball-handlers). Even his lofty two-point percentage is buoyed by his 65.0 percent shooting within three feet, which feels unsustainable after he connected on 50.7 percent of those looks last year and entered this new season with a lifetime figure of 51.9 percent.
This may not be what Heat fans want to hear. But it's almost like the Miami front office bought into a small-sample-size fluke, deciding to hand Waiters a four-year, $52 million deal after he'd submitted around a half-season of impressive production that flew in the face of his larger body of work.