Every NBA Team's Biggest Underachiever So Far
Well, look at that: The NBA regular season is old enough for us to have some uncomfortable conversations.
This one isn't too bad as far as tough talks go. Underachievers are not hopeless cases. They're here because they have actual expectations to meet, and they're supposed to be better.
Tiny samples complicate this process. The season is still young enough that, say, four-game tears, slumps and absences take up a sizable chunk of someone's resume.
To help keep things in perspective, we'll use a long-term-stock meter to determine whether a player is on the rise or continuing along his downswing. Those battling injuries or who have missed extensive time will (usually) be granted reprieve.
And remember: Preexisting expectations dictate everything.
Players with on-the-fence value are not the primary focus. They will be selected when obvious alternatives aren't available, but the goal here is to single out the top players who, for most or all of this season, have yet to be at their very best.
Four-time All-Star and NBA Champion, Shawn Marion, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss RJ Hampton, LaMelo Ball, Luka Doncic, guarding LeBron, and his Hall of Fame eligibility.
Atlanta Hawks: Alex Len
John Collins' 25-game suspension can be spun into an underachievement if you feel like it. I won't. He would be too much of a default pick.
Alex Len is the more accurate choice.
He established himself as a viable floor-spacing rim protector last season. He canned 36.3 percent of his treys on nearly five attempts per 36 minutes and held opponents to 59.2 percent shooting at the iron—a good-not-great mark right in line with those from Clint Capela (59.7 percent) and Al Horford (59.6 percent).
More than just Len's play factored into Dewayne Dedmon's departure. Like, you know, money. But Len entered this season as the Atlanta Hawks' best possible alternative.
So much for that.
Opponents are shooting just 46.7 percent against Len at the rim, but his offense has completely fallen off. He's hitting just 16 percent of his three-balls, most of which have gone uncontested, and not scoring as efficiently after setting screens. He's averaging 0.82 points per possession as the roll man, down from 1.09 in 2018-19.
It comes as no surprise that Len hasn't seen his minutes spike in Collins' absence. Atlanta is getting more inspired run in the frontcourt from Bruno Fernando and Damian Jones. Even Jabari Parker-at-the-5 arrangements are more interesting at this point, defensive haplessness and all.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum is our first "context matters!" inclusion.
His season is not a letdown in the traditional sense. He is hitting more off-the-dribble threes and remains deadly off the catch, and nobody in the league has posted a better total plus-minus.
Still, it would be a disservice to Tatum's ceiling if we don't harp on his iffy scoring profile.
Though he's taking more of his shots at the rim and from deep, he continues to jack too many in-between two-pointers. He's also shooting under 51 percent at the hoop, a career-worst mark by a mile, and getting to the foul line slightly less even though he didn't really reach the charity stripe too often in the first place.
Flashing more variance on drives would remedy most of his warts. He's almost doubled up the number of his downhill assaults per game from last season, but his attacks aren't always convincing. He'll bail out for a lower-percentage jumper, fail to change directions in the face of traffic or dribble into nowhere instead of throwing a pass on the move.
Basically, Tatum's bag in these situations feels predictable, and it shows. His 39.3 percent clip on drives is a bottom-15 mark among 74 players averaging at least seven per game. His pass percentage on these plays, meanwhile, is the lowest of the group.
This isn't doom and gloom. Tatum is really good. He owns a true shooting percentage of 75.5 in crunch time for crying out loud. And yet, wire to wire, he's still someone who could stand to be much more consistent and decisive with his offense.
Brooklyn Nets: DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan's fit on the Brooklyn Nets was always tenuous, borne out of his relationship with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving more than an actual need. The early returns suggest he's more albatross than asset.
Yes, he remains a deterrent around the rim. Opponents are shooting 5.9 percentage points below their season average when being challenged by him inside six feet, and the frequency with which rival offenses reach the hoop drops by nearly seven percentage points with him on the floor (96th percentile).
That all matters. It also doesn't tell the entire story. As The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote:
"The addition of Jordan, a two-time All-Defensive Team selection, was supposed to help the Nets lock down the lane and prevent burlier big men from bullying Brooklyn inside, something reedy shot-swatter Jarrett Allen had struggled with through his two pro seasons. But while Jordan is turning in his highest block percentage in four seasons, and opponents are shooting far less frequently at the rim when Jordan’s in the game, they’re also scoring like gangbusters in his minutes, taking advantage of his decreased mobility, lacking quickness, and unwillingness to venture outside the paint to blitz Brooklyn to the tune of 114.4 points-per-100 when he’s on the court.
"Add in the fact that the Nets’ supposed low-block enforcer has also been trucked in the post by Domantas Sabonis twice in three weeks, and it’s hard to see what the 31-year-old might offer to live up to the four-year, $40 million investment the Nets made to bring him in alongside Durant and Irving."
Brooklyn's downside doesn't end here. Jordan's physical decline has made it easier for offenses to capitalize in transition when he's on the court. The Nets could live with that risk if he were, in fact, neutralizing the bigs Allen is hard-pressed to stop. He's not.
Charlotte Hornets: Dwayne Bacon
Dwayne Bacon was supposed to alleviate some of the shot-creation deficit created by Kemba Walker's departure. Spoiler alert: He's failed.
Few have been as inefficient with their off-the-bounce jumpers. As in, almost no one.
Among the 103 players taking at least three pull-up jumpers per game, Bacon's effective field-goal percentage of 29.1 ranks 99th. Only Kristaps Porzingis, Ricky Rubio, Dennis Smith Jr. and Reggie Jackson, who has appeared in just two games, are faring worse.
Charlotte badly needs Bacon to improve his shot selection. He so often seems out of control working off the bounce and is burning through too many mid-range looks, which he's burying at a 32 percent clip.
Maybe his right knee injury is partially to blame. The Charlotte Hornets will have to continue curbing his playing time—he's averaging about 11 minutes per game since returning from injury—if it's not. He's important to their wing defense, and Devonte' Graham is hitting enough off-the-dribble jumpers for everyone, but Bacon is routinely getting outplayed by Cody Martin. That's not OK.
Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen
Lauri Markkanen's oblique injury might be a blessing in disguise. It at least begins to explain why he's struggled so much to find his offense.
No one issue explains Markkanen's inefficiency. He's shooting 25.5 percent on wide-open threes, 32.4 percent on drives and a career-low 50 percent at the rim. Head coach Jim Boylen hasn't tethered him to the post as much, which is good, because he's averaging 0.65 points per possession when he's there.
It sometimes looks like Markkanen doesn't want to score. His usage rate has dropped by more than three percentage points—way more than expected, or is comforting, even after tacking on volume for Tomas Satoransky, Coby White and, when healthy, Otto Porter Jr.
Time is on Markkanen's side. The season is still relatively young, and the Chicago Bulls offense is a mishmash of newness and question marks. Better health and chemistry will go a long way.
There is likewise precedent for Markkanen starting slow. It took him a while to find his groove last year after he returned from a sprained right elbow. He also dropped off again toward the tail end of the season. So while it isn't quite time to panic, Markkanen's lackluster offensive performance warrants a close eye.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Cedi Osman
Good luck figuring out what to make of Cedi Osman's season.
Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson are the only Cleveland Cavaliers rotation players with a higher net-rating differential, and the 24-year-old has turned in some encouraging defensive performances while shooting 35.7 percent from three. Increasingly, though, it's starting to feel like he's more of a weak link.
Lower-usage wings are critical for teams with as many ball-dominant guards as the Cavs, but Osman too often tilts toward a non-factor. His touches have been slashed from 51.5 per game last season to 35.9 this year without a corresponding plunge in minutes.
Cleveland doesn't have much of an incentive to try expanding Osman's volume. His three-point percentage has plummeted over his past seven games, and he's shooting 41.4 percent at the rim for the season. He hinted at some point forward chops in 2018-19, but the guard rotation makes it difficult to feature him.
Plus-minus superheroes are fun. Osman isn't that anymore. His on-court point differential has suffered as the Cavs rack up uglier losses, and it was always inflated by the time he's spent in their surprisingly effective starting five.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis
Kristaps Porzingis' rocky start comes with the most colossal of caveats: He's working his way back from a torn left ACL that cost him more than 20 months of basketball. Rust was, and still is, the expectation.
But we cannot completely ignore the premise under which the Dallas Mavericks acquired him. He is Luka Doncic's co-star of the future. Even if he's not ready to sustain that kind of burden now, he should be nodding to it with some regularity—improving with time and reps.
That's not yet happening. Porzingis is still kind of wandering around on offense. Dallas mostly has him spotting up behind two-man actions with Doncic and someone else, and the results have been mixed.
Porzingis began the year drilling his threes at a nice clip but is shooting 32.6 percent from beyond the arc over the past two weeks. The occasions on which the Mavs feature him down low have yielded little to no payoff. He's averaging 0.58 points per post-up possession (7th percentile).
Playing with Doncic hasn't streamlined Porzingis' return to form. Dallas is now winning the minutes they play together, but not by much. Porzingis' efficiency off Doncic's passes remains ghastly: 36.1 percent on twos and 21.4 percent on threes.
This shouldn't be the status quo forever. Porzingis will get better. His synergy with Doncic will improve. The Mavericks still need more flashes from him overall.
Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris
Malik Beasley deserves consideration here. He's shooting 32.3 percent inside the arc and not exactly what you would call "in the rotation." But he's coming back from an illness, and extra variance always needed to be baked into his outlook after a singular breakout season.
Gary Harris' offensive inconsistency is more maddening. He is back to swishing more than 36 percent of his threes but has also exchanged looks at the rim for more no-man's-land twos. He's not hitting nearly enough of those to gloss over the volume. A career-high 24 percent of his attempts are coming as short mid-rangers, on which he's shooting 26 percent.
The Denver Nuggets at large deserve some of the blame. They're 28th in average possession time, according to Inpredictable. They fall to dead last in this category after a defensive rebound.
Compare this to last season, when they placed 21st in average possession time, and Harris' struggles are easier to understand. (Though, they still arguably played too slow.) Denver needs to enter its offense quicker to maximize what he does off the ball. Making an effort to get out in transition, where the Nuggets rank 29th in frequency, would help, too.
In the meantime, Harris offsets a spotty scoring profile with rock-solid defense. The Nuggets don't navigate a fluctuating wing rotation without him. He needs to be more of an offensive constant but is indispensable even amid his inconsistency.
Detroit Pistons: Thon Maker
Blake Griffin would be put under the microscope if we trafficked in three-game samples. We don't. Let's move on...and also hope he gets to eventually play on more than 1.5 legs.
Thon Maker is still good for a random offensive highlight, but he offers no resistance at the defensive end. A whopping 40.4 percent of opponent shots are coming at the rim when he's on the floor, and he's allowing players to shoot 4.8 percentage points above their season average inside six feet of the hoop.
Christian Wood has proved to be a far more effective option up front. Just ask Detroit Pistons Twitter. They are all the way out on Maker.
Head coach Dwane Casey may finally be catching up to them. Maker has totaled under nine minutes through his past two games, including a DNP in the second half of Detroit's Nov. 20 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Expect this trend to continue unless the Pistons suffer another injury in the frontcourt. It has become impossibly hard to justify giving him run for any other reason.
Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole
Picking on rookies gives me no pleasure. They're new and young, and development takes time.
In Jordan Poole's case, a larger role has been thrust upon him prematurely, all without the superstar safety nets the Golden State Warriors are supposed to have.
"There is no somebody else right now," head coach Steve Kerr said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole. "That's the issue. We're throwing guys into the fire."
Less than ideal situation in mind, Poole hasn't lived up to his billing. The Warriors drafted him for shooting that translated across different actions, but he's canning just 30 percent of his two-pointers and 23.9 percent of his threes.
Encouraging signs are hard to come by. Poole has struggled to score both off the dribble and on the catch, and his percentages don't much improve when he's left wide open. Golden State can only hope amplified growing pains now give way to an easier transition when the team is once again at full strength—whenever that may be.
Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon
Eric Gordon's injury isn't enough to spare him from this list. He still has more than a month to go before he returns from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, but he's played in more than half of the Houston Rockets' games, through which he was their most demonstrative disappointment.
Under 14 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, where he's shooting just 40 percent. Both are career lows. Houston has never needed him to be a high-volume attack artist, but the capacity to blitz defenses from the outside-in is part of his charm.
Russell Westbrook's arrival doesn't excuse Gordon's dwindling presence around the basket—not to this extent. His super-deep threes are more important to the Rockets' floor balance than ever, but a 31.7 percent drop-off in volume at the hoop is beyond extreme.
This wouldn't matter as much if Gordon were thriving from long range. He's not. He is shooting 28.4 percent from three overall and has been even worse off the catch.
Knee injuries suck. Gordon's might explain his lack of explosion around the rim and the shakiness of his jumper. The Rockets better pray this is a rut and not actual regression. After handing him a four-year, $75.6 million extension over the offseason (three years, $54.7 million guaranteed), they can't afford for it to be the latter.
Indiana Pacers: Aaron Holiday
Aaron Holiday's slow start at first looked like it might cost him his spot in the Indiana Pacers rotation. It turns out his situation isn't that dire.
Injuries have helped. The Pacers aren't in a position to shorten Holiday's leash when Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Victor Oladipo have all needed to miss time. He's made the situation navigable by hitting 42.6 percent of his threes, getting a better feel for running the half-court offense and showcasing his awareness at the defensive end. He is tied for second on the team in offensive fouls drawn.
For all the strides Holiday has made as a playmaker, he's still an offensive dependent. Indiana is mustering just 101.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor without Brogdon.
A 24-point, 13-assist detonation in a blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 20 is a promising harbinger, but Holiday will need to string together more quality offensive outings to remain a prominent part of the rotation once the roster is at full capacity.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
Writing about Patrick Beverley's early-season malaise doesn't hit as strongly at the moment. The Los Angeles Clippers don't pull off their Nov. 20 overtime victory against the Boston Celtics without him going kaboom, and he's shooting better from distance since missing two games with a calf injury.
Once more, though, this is an all-encompassing exercise. One or two games cannot change everything.
Beverley is draining just 23.3 percent of his looks from three, including a 28.0 percent clip on catch-and-fire deepies and a 31.4 percent conversion rate on wide-open triples. His floater has been falling, and he's scoring well out of the pick-and-roll, but his outside touch swings his value more than both.
Successfully playing off everyone else has long been the heart of Beverley's offensive utility. His long-range accuracy is only more mission critical following the return of Paul George. With defenses so focused on him and Kawhi Leonard, the entire floor is going to open up for Beverley. Los Angeles needs him to capitalize on those opportunities.
If his most recent games are any indication, he's going to be fine. He's been anything but otherwise.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
Enough time has passed since Kyle Kuzma's return from a left ankle injury for us to say it: The Los Angeles Lakers need more from him.
Nobody else on the roster aside from Anthony Davis and LeBron James means more to the future. Kuzma is the Lakers' best chance of grooming a No. 3 scorer behind their two superstars. Without getting extremely lucky on the trade market or landing mega discounts in free agency, they so very badly need him to develop into a fringe star.
On some nights, this isn't so farfetched. Kuzma is comfortable operating with the ball and draws plenty of attention from defenders when he's moving off it. His assisted looks don't have to be so simple; he can knock down shots in motion.
On other nights, which is to say most nights, Kuzma looks like he's destined to fall short of the fringe-star standard. So much of his future hinges on a fundamental skill: hitting threes. It's fair to wonder whether he'll ever, consistently, be a league-average marksman.
Kuzma's rookie-year shine has long since worn off. He shot 30.3 percent from downtown last season and is up to just 32.8 percent now. He's better launching off the catch (35.4 percent) and on wide-open treys (34.8 percent) but nowhere near good enough right now to be considered a reliable outlet.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Why yes, I do hate myself for this pick. Thank you so much for asking.
I tried to pivot. Really, I did. But the Memphis Grizzlies, while feisty, aren't teeming with players held to meaningful bars. Expecting Jae Crowder to be more judicious with his shot selection or Kyle Anderson to score more is to demand they be different players.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the default selection unless you really believed Bruno Caboclo was going to break out this year, in which case I don't know what to tell you.
Think of this as a backhanded compliment. Jackson has been fine, especially of late, but he should be better. His lateral usage compared to last year is concerning, and if he's not going to cut down his fouls, he at least needs to be a stronger staple on the glass.
Reducing his offensive vanishing acts is of the utmost importance. His post-ups are down, which is fine. He still doesn't look entirely comfortable facing up off the dribble. That's also fine. But he absolutely must get used to working in transition alongside Ja Morant and needs to be more decisive around the basket.
To Jackson's credit, this isn't all on him. Adjusting to a rookie point guard is hard, and he plays beside a bunch of other ball-handlers. His last seven games have included far fewer disappearances on the offensive end, and for all his struggles, he's still splashing in 37.5 percent of his threes.
Miami Heat: James Johnson
Full disclosure: Justise Winslow came veeery close to edging out James Johnson. His shooting has verged on an atrocity. He's connecting on 41.7 percent of his twos, 25.0 percent of his threes and 58.8 percent of his free throws.
Those splits have boxed the Miami Heat into a tight corner. They can't afford to play Winslow, who's currently out with a concussion, in lineups that displace him from the ball for extended stretches. He's logged fewer than 60 possessions beside Jimmy Butler all season, an incredibly low number even when factoring in the time they've both missed.
Imagine not picking Johnson, though.
He is literally the Heat's biggest underachiever. They essentially banished him from the team at the start of training camp because he didn't meet their conditioning requirements. He didn't make his season debut until Nov. 3 and has since fallen out of the rotation again.
No one should've expected the moon from Johnson after last year. He's not Dion Waiters, either. The Heat aren't jacked up at his position. He's someone expected to play. Seeing Udonis Haslem get minutes ahead of him is not business as usual.
Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe???
Welcome back to the Eric Bledsoe roller coaster.
After opening the season on a freezing-cold streak, he went off over a seven-game stretch in which he averaged 21.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists while slashing 55.8/31.6/92.3. He has since returned to his touch-and-go stasis, and his macro outlook wants for certainty.
Bledsoe has changed out looks at the rim and from beyond the arc for more mid-range jumpers. That's a problem. His outside shot has generally been awful. He's hitting under 30 percent of his threes for the first time since his sophomore season. He has put down 40 percent of his wide-open triples, so there's that. But he's converting just 23.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys.
Khris Middleton's recovery from a left thigh contusion only complicates Bledsoe's stock. He is already seeing more solo time. And while the Bucks are winning the minutes he plays without Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the sample isn't yet large enough to purchase at full price.
Perhaps Bledsoe has been closer to his true medium than not. Milwaukee has other options if you're uncomfortable picking him. Brook Lopez's three-point shooting continues to be off, and their second-string wing rotation is spotty.
Rolling with Bledsoe still feels right. His offensive bar has to be higher on the heels of Malcolm Brogdon's exit, and he hasn't looked the part often enough.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jarrett Culver
Jarrett Culver is another tough inclusion. Rookies deserve more time, but the Minnesota Timberwolves' lack of other options is his downfall.
Can we really be that broken up about Treveon Graham's shooting? Or Shabazz Napier's shooting? Or Noah Vonleh's inconstant usage? Jeff Teague's three-ball is off, and he remains an iffy finisher around the rim, but he's been good otherwise. Minnesota's offense is better off with him in the fold.
Expectations are higher for Culver than anyone else on the Timberwolves you might be inclined to choose. They flipped Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick (Cameron Johnson) to get him at No. 6 overall. His importance is implied.
Aside from some heady performances as a temporary member of the starting lineup, Culver has looked overmatched in his first season.
More than 75 percent of his looks are coming at the rim or from three-point range, but he's not shooting at a high clip from either area. True to his projection, he has struggled to create separation from most guards and wings off the dribble. His pull-up three has been falling, but the level of difficulty on those attempts doesn't feel sustainable. He's opened his career shooting 34.5 percent from the foul line (10-of-29).
Do not misinterpret this as a verdict on Culver's entire career. He's exhibited a good feel for playmaking in the half court. His patience in the lane belies his experience, and he's a quality decision-maker when coming around screens. It's just that, by now, the Timberwolves should have a better idea of what he is.
New Orleans Pelicans: Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday did not have the most flattering start to his season. His defense and playmaking held true to his reputation, but he averaged under 15 points on 44.3 percent true shooting over his first eight appearances.
Tides have turned for him in recent games. He's heightened his aggression, and his three-ball is falling. In his past four contests, three of which were wins, he's averaging 23.5 points on 57.1 percent true shooting.
Smaller samples are not gospel, but the latest version of Holiday is much closer to his normal. He no longer appears limited by his sprained left knee and isn't shy about searching for his own offense. He'll have to adjust as both Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson get healthy, but for now, he looks more at home in the superstar's role.
And that's really why Holiday is here at all. This year was supposed to mark the end of his stay among the league's most underrated and the beginning of his transition into full-blown stardom. He checked in at No. 26 on Bleacher Report's preseason top-100 rankings, and that was, roughly, consensus placement.
Extra scrutiny and greater demands come with that territory. Holiday has not lived up to the task for most of this season.
He's starting to now.
New York Knicks: Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith Jr.'s stock is in the middle of a free fall. He's yet to show signs of reversing it.
Make no mistake, Smith deserves some leeway. He missed seven games following the death of his stepmother. He could never be expected to come back and just turn it on.
What he's shown this season is still a red flag. Other than his 13-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 14 and his 13-point, 5-of-9 display against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 20, he hasn't offered much of anything.
Among 321 players who have logged at least 100 total minutes, Smith's 41.4 true shooting percentage ranks 308th. The frequency with which he's reaching the rim has been slashed by nearly 25 points, while his long-two volume has more than doubled.
Where he stands in the New York Knicks' plans remains unclear. They need a floor general who can defend the smaller point guards who are carving them up without torpedoing their spacing. Right now, Smith can do neither.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Mike Muscala
Steven Adams is a tempting selection here, in large part because the Oklahoma City Thunder have so few candidates.
Pretty much everyone is as expected or better. Adams is an exception. His scoring and efficiency have dropped right along with his playing time—but for good reason. He's been playing through a left knee injury. It doesn't make sense to penalize the hobbled.
Hello, Mike Muscala.
Anyone who expected him to have a huge impact in Oklahoma City is probably on the Muscala family tree. He was brought in to space the floor around a Paul George-Russell Westbrook core that no longer exists.
Muscala has yet to provide the latter in limited action. He's shooting 23.5 percent from downtown, his worst mark since his rookie season, when he didn't really shoot threes.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
Terrence Ross' season-long slump is about to stand out more than ever.
Nikola Vucevic is set to miss at least the next four weeks with a right ankle injury, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. His absence might as well be a death sentence for the Orlando Magic's already zombie-esque offense. They're scoring 18.3 points per 100 possessions less when Vucevic is off the floor.
Surviving his stay on the sidelines wouldn't ever fall on Ross alone. Even when he was at his best last year, he couldn't float the Vooch-less minutes. Orlando's offensive rating placed in the 13th percentile during those stretches and was actually worse when adding in D.J. Augustin, who had arguably his best season.
And if that was the case then, the Magic should be terrified now.
Ross is shooting just 26 percent on threes. Where he could run some pick-and-roll and sink jumpers off the dribble last year, he's now falling flat in both departments. He's downing 66.7 percent of his looks on drives and getting to the foul line more often, but he also doesn't attack the rim enough for it to matter.
Orlando is chock full of early-season underachievers. More than a few players on the roster are crashing after a career year in 2018-19. Ross' slippage is the most damning, and Orlando will only get worse if he doesn't turn it around.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons' megastar peak hasn't gone anywhere. His best-case scenario is still an MVP candidate. He's just never seemed further away from turning into that player.
Every Simmons critique begins with a three-point joke. Let's skip that this time. The volume isn't coming anytime soon.
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown has plays aimed at getting Simmons looks from the corner, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, but he didn't hit his first career regular-season three until a Nov. 20 close-call victory over the New York Knicks. This is whatever. Simmons can be—he is—an exceptional player without an outside shot. It is the impact this absence of range has on those around him that matters most.
The Sixers are not built to have a point guard who takes 90 percent of his shots inside of eight feet, and whose efficiency takes a nosedive outside the restricted area. They're not stocked with the requisite shooting around him.
All of their tricks and gimmicks—read Lowe's piece for the full scoop—can work to an extent, but they mean only so much when Simmons isn't playing up to snuff within his wheelhouse. Not only has his free-throw-attempt rate imploded, but he's once again dropped below 60 percent shooting when at the charity stripe. More of his attempts are coming on non-restricted-area looks in the paint compared to last season, but he's putting them down at a 26.8 percent clip.
Simmons' harshest critics overstate the adverse impact of his limitations. He is a playmaking wizard, and opposing floor generals shrink in real time when he's on their case. His finite range wouldn't be as much of an obstacle on teams with fewer spacing warts.
Even so, it isn't worth pretending Simmons hasn't come up short this year. He's taken a step back as a scorer thus far, and despite the addition of Al Horford, the Sixers aren't yet winning the minutes he logs without Joel Embiid.
Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges
Choosing an underachiever from the Phoenix Suns is almost unfair...unless Deandre Ayton's suspension for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy counts....which, per the John Collins Exception, it does not.
Settling on Mikal Bridges is both the right call and nauseating. He remains a nightmare for opposing offenses. His length holds up across four positions, and he's even hung tough when rotating onto traditional bigs. It doesn't take long to count the number of wings who are better team defenders, because there aren't many.
Bridges deserves credit for his increased presence on the glass. His defensive rebounding rate has almost doubled. And although his assist percentage has dropped, he's helped set the tone for Phoenix's offense by pushing the ball after snaring those misses.
Labeling Bridges a disappointment is about one thing and one thing only: shooting. He's draining 23.8 percent of his long balls on significantly lower volume than last year. His outside opportunities have been replaced with (a lot) more looks at the rim, but that doesn't help him stay on the court when he's tasked with complementing Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio.
Spacing the floor is more important for wings who don't even qualify as secondary ball-handlers. Bridges' iffy jumper is holding him back, and the Suns are no longer obligated to grin and bear it. They have the depth and sweet-shooting alternatives to cut his playing time—and that's exactly what they've done.
Portland Trail Blazers: CJ McCollum
CJ McCollum is yet another an entrenched star who needs to do more.
Just about every team will take 21.3 points and 3.5 assists per game from their No. 2. But his numbers come on a lackluster 50.8 true shooting percentage and don't quite measure up to the workload the Portland Trail Blazers need him to handle.
Never mind Damian Lillard's recent stay on the sidelines with back spasms. McCollum wasn't picking up enough of the offensive slack before that. The Blazers were scoring just 97.5 points per 100 possessions in the time he spent playing without Lillard prior to his injury.
Other stars score less efficiently than McCollum. That's nothing close to a stamp of approval. The Blazers need both he and Lillard to be otherworldly—to subsist on absurdly hard shot attempts. McCollum is hitting just 23.4 percent of his pull-up threes, and his trademark floater is dropping at a 34.6 percent clip.
Holding out for much—much—better is not unreasonable. McCollum's offense has thrived in the postseason pressure-cooker. Portland needs that player now, with more table-setting sprinkled in, lest this year end with a lottery appearance.
Sacramento Kings: Dewayne Dedmon
Dewyane Dedmon or Cory Joseph?
Cory Joseph can breathe easily for now, and not for the right reasons. His scoring profile is aggressively yucky. He's averaging 9.1 points per 36 minutes on a sub-39 effective field-goal percentage. Among the 233 players matching or exceeding his shot volume, only eight are knocking down their looks at a lower clip.
To paraphrase theoretical responses from Indiana Pacers fans: So what? No-showing on offense is kind of Joseph's thing. He is definitely supposed to be swishing more of his threes and has a 14-assist outing to his name, but this collapse isn't out of character.
Dedmon's devolution is more surprising, even if it doesn't hurt as much thanks to Richaun Holmes. He entered free agency last summer as a below-the-radar floor-spacing rim protector. Now, he's canning just 22.6 percent of his threes, posting the worst net-rating differential among the Sacramento Kings' healthy rotation players and hardly part of the game plan. He can barely remember to shed his warmups before checking in these days.
Optimists are free to note that Dedmon has put together a couple of tidy performances in recent games. Hooray, and stuff. But the Kings didn't make him their second-highest paid player to contribute in drips and drabs. He's supposed to be opening up the offense, not hamstringing it.
San Antonio Spurs: Marco Belinelli
Calls for DeMar DeRozan to take Marco Belinelli's spot will be deemed disingenuous. He's getting buckets on a questionable shot profile and setting up teammates, and the San Antonio Spurs are more efficient with him off the floor. This is nothing new.
Taking issue with DeRozan now is akin to litigating his entire career. That's a valid conversation to have, but it warrants its own discussion. Any pushes to include him here are more so a reaction to San Antonio hovering near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Belinelli's individual performance is more of a roadblock. He is tolerable insofar as he's connecting on his outside shot, which he's not. He's finding nylon on only 28.3 percent of his three-point attempts, with a truly bizarre scoring profile.
Exhibit A: Belinelli is faring better on pull-up triples (38.9 percent) than spot-up threes (21.4 percent). And he's knocking down just—and this is not a typo—6.7 percent of his uncontested deep balls.
San Antonio's bench remains strong, and so do Belinelli's on-off splits. Don't let that fool you. The Spurs have problems at the top, but their issues are mostly about fit and philosophy. By virtue of not converting the shots they most need him to make, he's underachieved relative to expectations more than anyone on the roster.
Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol
Congratulations to Marc Gasol for tracking toward one of the worst two-point shooting seasons in league history.
"Marc Gasol is shooting 26.7 percent on two-point shots," Yahoo Sports' William Lou wrote. "This is the worst shooting percentage by a center averaging over 24 minutes per game from at least 1954 onward."
In all honestly, this is impressive. Gasol is drilling his threes at about the same clip (41.5 percent) as he's shooting at the rim (41.7 percent). That's pretty friggin' hard to do.
It is also problematic for painfully obvious reasons. The Toronto Raptors need Gasol to be more of a hub than bystander on offense. His usage rate has dropped by more than eight points compared to last season, which is saying something, because it plunged from 2017-18 to 2018-19 as well.
Then again, Gasol has yet to actively hurt the Raptors. His interior defense remains solid, and their offensive rating improves by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor—third-highest mark on the team. Opposing squads need to respect his outside shot, and he still drops nifty dimes against scrambling defenses.
None of which totally excuses Gasol's regression. Chances are Toronto will start to show symptoms of his doing less. Pascal Siakam is from another galaxy, but the Raptors have overachieved relative to the injuries they've suffered (Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka) and supporting cast they're rolling out.
They needed a more aggressive Gasol, even if only in spurts, to win a title last year. Rest assured, they'll need him again.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
The good news: Mike Conley has perked up over the past week-and-a-half. The bad news: He's still not yet meeting expectations.
About 43 percent of Conley's shot attempts are coming from mid-range—close to a career high. That's counterintuitive to how the Utah Jazz are supposed to run their offense, and it's rendered even more painful by his 35 percent success rate on those looks.
Life outside that zone isn't much better. Conley is shooting almost a career low at the rim and making just 28.9 percent of his pull-up treys. His standstill threes are finding the bottom of the net, but he's not attempting them that much more often than he did with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Utah's half-court offense is once again middle-of-the-road. Conley's arrival was supposed safeguard the team against another underwhelming finish. At the very least, the Jazz should be better served to tread water in Donovan Mitchell's absence. They're instead getting obliterated in the minutes Conley has logged on his own. (The same holds true when Mitchell plays without him.)
On the bright side, Utah isn't fast-tracked to nowhere. A league-best defense has spearheaded a top-10 net rating. That the Jazz are this well off without Conley playing his best is almost encouraging. Star integration can take time. The smart money is on him getting a lot better.
Washington Wizards: Ish Smith
This is the choice we make when dealing with a team nearly devoid of players facing steep-to-steepish expectations.
Ish Smith has been up and down all year. That's part of the Ish Smith experience. He will go 9-of-12 like he did during the Washington Wizards' Nov. 20 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. He will also put together extended stretches in which he tones down his shooting but churns out ultra-ugly efficiency.
This year is unfolding on the turbulent side, even for him.
He hasn't shot this poorly at the rim since his rookie season and is putting down fewer than 28 percent of his catch-and-launch threes. His turnover rate out of the pick-and-roll has jumped by 6.5 percentage points compared to last season, and he's averaging just 0.67 points when initiating these possessions.
Washington has shocked everyone by sustaining the league's second-best offense to date. Smith's half-court attacks are part of that success. But he's supposed to give the Wizards a dependable, if slightly erratic, steward beyond Bradley Beal. His performance thus far has fallen short.
Failing that, he's a victim of Washington's other standouts. The Wizards aren't good, but they're getting more from many of their non-Beal players than anyone could have reasonably predicted.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and are accurate entering Thursday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, RealGM and Spotrac.