NBA Players Likely Facing a Decline Next Season
And now for a series of Debbie Downer discussions no one ever wants to have.
Forecasting declines for NBA players is delicate business. It can come off as insensitive and reckless, even when it's not meant to be.
This batch of predictions is not intended to be malicious. The selected players are not assured of substantive regression next season. They could remain on a treadmill or, in a select few cases, buck the evidence and improve.
But, again, they could also slide down the league's totem pole for any number of reasons—age, changing roles, injuries, traces of an ongoing downturn, etc.
Players firmly entrenched in their twilight will not be singled out. Maybe a 40-year-old Dirk Nowitzki doesn't shoot a career high from downtown again next season, but, well, he'll be 40. He gets a pass.
The focus instead lies with household names who could possibly incur more significant drop-offs. Some of them are already traveling down Backslide Boulevard. Their devolutions are at risk of becoming more pronounced. Others will be new to the party. They're the ones who are crawling toward the end of their peak, working through major setbacks or being impacted by their team's direction.
Players to Monitor
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley is on the wrong side of 30 and will miss all but 12 games this season while dealing with recurring Achilles issues. While his performance isn't dependent on explosion or redonkulous lateral quickness, this hardly portends good times.
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
If conspiracy theorists get their way, Gordon Hayward will offer a glimpse into his future following a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia by the end of this season. If his initial timeline prevails, the Celtics and their fans will enter next season on pins and needles looking to see whether his return to form is more immediate, gradual or pipe dream.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard told reporters he may return "soon" from a right quad injury that has hampered him all season. Even if he misses the rest of this year, the smart money is on his 26-year-old self being fine.
Still, his recovery has baffled pretty much everyone. We need to at least account for a potential drop-off from All-Galactic MVP candidate to run-of-the-mill superstar.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Torn ACLs aren't the career-ruining injuries they used to be. They're also not afterthought setbacks. As FanSided's Jared Dubin pointed out, Kristaps Porzingis has dealt with more than his fair share of issues on the left side of his body, including this one. That's not insignificant.
Plus, humans weren't mean to grow 87, potentially 89, inches tall and move like Porzingis does. The Knicks need to handle his rehab with the utmost caution.
Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Will Andre Roberson still exist in the Defensive Player of the Year backdrop after having surgery to repair a ruptured left patellar tendon? Oklahoma City and its nosediving stopping power sure hope so.
Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City Thunder (Early-Termination Option)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 40.8 percent shooting
Reason for Potential Decline: Age, diminishing role
Carmelo Anthony is already on the downswing in a big way. The frequency with which he reaches the rim continues to ebb, and neither his true shooting percentage nor his free-throw rate has ever been lower.
Plenty of factors are working against Anthony—including the trappings of age and a game that de-emphasizes the bully-ball he used to power his claim to fame. Most of all, though, the Thunder are giving him his first taste of role-player duty outside the Olympics.
Paul George and Russell Westbrook are not Anthony's contemporaries. They are, objectively, higher up on the NBA's food chain. He knows it. Earlier in the season, he approached head coach Billy Donovan to address it, to which the latter said, per ESPN's Tim Keown:
"Carmelo, I think for our team, we're going to need you to fill a role. You're going to have to stretch the floor, and you're going to have to recognize mismatches. We're going to need to create space for Russ and Paul to play downhill and be creators for us. There might be times when you go four or five or six possessions and you don't get the ball. You might get missed on the break. Those are all adjustments, but we can't be the full team we're capable of being unless you're playing well."
More than half of Anthony's made buckets are coming off assists for the first time since 2007-08. He's finished just over 24 percent of Oklahoma City's offensive plays when on the floor, by far and away a career low. He's averaging fewer minutes per game than ever.
Crystal-balling Anthony for additional decline feels a little loaded with him complicity adjusting aspects of his game. But the returns on his season point to this as the beginning.
His efficiency shouldn't be dipping in a lower-volume capacity. The Thunder's point differential shouldn't improve by more than six points per 100 possessions when George and Westbrook play without him. His bread-and-butter shot, the mid-range jumper, shouldn't play like a non-weapon.
Perhaps Anthony can still be the face of a quality offense. Though Melo-plus-bench units have been used sparingly in Oklahoma City, they're a plus-37 in under 85 minutes. But what exactly does that imply?
What if the Thunder miss the playoffs? Does he get relegated to the bench? Has playing in a smaller market like Oklahoma City unlocked his inner ring-chaser? Might he exercise his early-termination option, leave a pile of money on the table and follow LeBron James wherever he goes this summer, as a second-unit hub or ceremonial starter?
Whatever becomes of this season, Anthony seems destined to assume an even lower-profile role next year—the continuation of a transition that isn't treating him especially well now.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans (Free Agent)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks, 47.0 percent shooting
Reason for Decline: Achilles injury
Look, this stinks. It flat-out sucks. There's also no way around it.
Major Achilles injuries seem to always alter career arcs. Sometimes, they ruin them. Recent history has not been kind to those in a similar boat, as SB Nation's Tim Cato wrote:
"The problem is that an Achilles is a terrible injury—probably the worst in basketball—that has a terrible track record for full recovery. Go down the list, and few players ever regained their former peaks after an Achilles tendon rupture: Kobe Bryant, Wesley Matthews, and Elton Brand are notable recent cases.
"Matthews might be the best case scenario for Cousins’ recovery. Matthews tore his Achilles tendon headed into a contract summer, and he still was signed to a four-year, $70 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks. Despite suffering the injury in March, Matthews still returned for the start of the season and only missed 13 games combined the next two summers. But Matthews still hasn’t returned to his pre-injury form—he’s having his best season since the injury this year, and it’s still a ways off from the Matthews of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
Cousins' road to recovery is complicated even further by the level at which he was playing. A 28-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to ever match his per-game benchmarks for an entire season. Even now, more than a month after his injury, he places second among centers in ESPN's RPM Wins, just behind Karl-Anthony Towns.
Borderline 7-footers carting around more than 250 pounds on their frame aren't supposed to move like Cousins. He is—or rather, was—exceptionally nimble on his feet. The New Orleans Pelicans had him running pick-and-rolls. He left the season averaging more drives than guards and playmaking wings like Paul George, Eric Gordon and Kyle Lowry.
Counting on the exact same version of Cousins next year and beyond is wishy-washy. He'll be lucky to field max-contract offers over the summer. Maybe he proves to be an exception, either out of the gate or in time. For now, we must brace ourselves for the worst—a decline beyond his control.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 41.6 percent shooting
Reason for Potential Decline: Age
Incorporating a steady dose of three-point attempts into his offensive repertoire should help Marc Gasol's aging process. Brutal battles on the block needn't cannibalize his touch distribution, and spending more time camped out on the perimeter, orbiting around other ball-handlers, theoretically eats into the distance he must travel when getting back on defense.
Here's the thing: The getting-old process is underway. Gasol will be playing out his age-34 campaign in 2018-19, and he's already flashing limitations tied to consistent run-ins with Father Time.
Dipping efficiency can be chalked up to the Grizzlies' own misfortune—to some extent. Injuries have ripped through their roster, and Gasol finds himself enveloped by youth, inexperience and general projects.
Case in point: He's logged more time beside Dillon Brooks than anyone else. Tyreke Evans is his second-most frequent sidekick, and JaMychal Green checks in at third.
Combining Memphis' rotation carousel with increased volume from three-point range helps explain Gasol tying his lowest effective field-goal percentage. But does it justify his plummeting and, by extension, career-worst accuracy between three and 16 feet? Or him going from 0.94 points per post-up possession in 2016-17—and 0.89 in 2015-16—to 0.78 this year?
Scoring at a higher clip will only get so much easier following the return of Mike Conley. The Grizzlies will still be light on playmaking wings, even if Evans returns, and Gasol will still be another year older. And regardless of what happens on offense, life won't get any better for him at the defensive end.
Ball-handling bigs are a fact of life as the NBA dives deeper into positionless basketball. Age is not the friend of fellow behemoths tasked with lining up against them. Opponents see fewer of their looks come at the rim with Gasol in the game, but Memphis is more susceptible to getting beat in transition when he plays, according to Cleaning The Glass.
This also marks the fifth consecutive season the Grizzlies are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the bench, dating back to 2013-14. The days of him being a viable defensive anchor appear to be long gone, and the franchise has neither the personnel nor cap flexibility nor trade assets to soften that downswing entering 2018-19.
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 49.2 percent shooting
Reason for Potential Decline: Diminishing role
Re-signing Serge Ibaka to a three-year deal was a huge win for the Toronto Raptors—not because they needed him to return or because he accepted a cut-rate salary (he didn't), but because a short-term commitment minimizes the amount of time they'll spend bankrolling his decline.
Ibaka already appeared to peak statistically before this season. He no longer contends for the league lead in blocked shots. His Defensive Player of the Year appeal has faded with the expansion of available metrics and the rise of bigs who survive while guarding in space and rotating onto wings.
That doesn't mean Ibaka is irrelevant or detrimental. He knocks down enough of his threes (35.7 percent) to keep defenses honest, and Toronto has extracted some more off-the-dribble work from him. He also maintains some stopping power when he plays the 5.
Except, the Raptors aren't using him at center. Barely 5 percent of his minutes have come there, according to Cleaning The Glass. Their roster hasn't allowed for any more.
Jonas Valanciunas has played better than expected for most of this season. Sophomores Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl are better switching options and have emerged as bright spots off the bench. Lucas Nogueira, while basically out of the rotation, has eaten up his own share of minutes.
Broadening Ibaka's role won't get any easier in the coming years. The Raptors will probably let Nogueira walk in free agency (restricted), but they're not just going to play Siakam and Poeltl less. Greasing the wheels of a Valanciunas trade, even for luxury-tax purposes, would no longer be a no-brainer—assuming the final two years and $34.2 million of his contract are movable at all.
Toronto has used Ibaka in crunch time more than any of its other bigs. That matters. But his minutes are down overall, and they're not due for an uptick so long as he plays for a team championing success-by-committee in its frontcourt.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (Player Option)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks, 64.9 percent shooting
Reason for Potential Decline: Impending free agency, uncertain role, age
Feel free to hate me. Frankly, I despise myself.
DeAndre Jordan isn't showing the usual symptoms of decline. He's tallying career-high rebounding and assist rates. He's never been more efficient from the foul line. His shooting percentage from the floor has dropped without Chris Paul tossing him lobs, but he's still finishing more than 70 percent of his looks inside three feet of the hoop. He's actually missed games due to injury, but only five.
Age doesn't play too much of a factor here, even though he turns 30 in July. The Three-Oh isn't the harbinger of doom it used to be for high-flyers, and Jordan carries a wee bit of LeBron James' mystique as one of the most durable players in league history.
This has more to do with the lack of certainty attached to Jordan's future.
It almost doesn't matter whether he's with the Los Angeles Clippers beyond this season. He's past his offensive zenith. He will never be as valuable or impactful as he was alongside Paul and Blake Griffin, because, in all likelihood, he will never sync up with a duo as talented.
Sustaining the status quo is fine, but he might not be able to do it in Los Angeles. He remains dependent on surrounding playmakers to set him up. More than two-thirds of his baskets come off assists, and almost 45 percent of all his offensive possessions are dedicated to pick-and-roll dives or putbacks.
Thriving in his current role becomes exponentially harder if anything changes. Lou Williams could play like something less than an All-Star candidate. The Clippers could cannonball their way into a rebuild. He could sign elsewhere and struggle to forge chemistry with his new running mates. He could stay with Los Angeles, then be jettisoned to a new location with shakier spacing at the trade deadline.
And this says nothing of Jordan's wobbly defensive stock. He's being exposed amid the Clippers' reduction in perimeter pests. They're allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and opponents are reaching the rim with noticeably higher frequency when he's in the middle, according to Cleaning The Glass. He doesn't look as comfortable when stepping outside the paint either.
Dragging Jordan into this discussion could be getting slightly ahead of the game. But his circumstances have changed too much over the past eight months for us to trust what comes next.