Every NBA Team's Biggest Disappointment After 3 Weeks

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2021

Every NBA Team's Biggest Disappointment After 3 Weeks

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    Though shorter than usual, this NBA season is still long by any objective standard. Nobody should get too high or low after three weeks of action when there's another six-plus months until one team closes this thing out with a ring.

    Still, we entered this weird year with expectations. Some remain unmet.

    Without proclaiming these early disappointments permanent, we're shining a light on players, teams, tactics and anything else that has either bummed us out or failed to live up to what we hoped for.

    If some of these issues linger, they could sink otherwise promising campaigns. In rare cases, specifically with respect to injury, the damage is irreparable.

    Yes, we're dealing in downers. But try to see the positive. You can't remedy a disappointment without identifying it first.    

Atlanta Hawks: Simmering Strife?

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks had a lot going for them.

    They infused the roster with veteran talent over the offseason, adding Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo. Clint Capela, last year's big addition via trade, is healthy. Trae Young is an offense unto himself, and De'Andre Hunter appears to have made a leap.

    Given all that fresh talent and potential and the attendant legitimacy of the team's playoff aspirations, the Hawks really don't need *this*.

    This, to be specific, is the apparent disconnect between Young and John Collins.

    According to The Athletic's Sam Amick and Chris Kirschner, Collins was critical of Young in a team film session, airing grievances about the point guard's operation of the offense.

    "There was no back-and-forth between the two," Amick and Kirschner reported, "but the pointed criticism caught the attention of the room. And Young, sources say, made it clear to others later that he strongly disagreed with Collins' assessment."

    Maybe this is Collins angling for more touches in a walk year (restricted free agent). Or maybe other Hawks share his criticisms of Young's style, which, without casting blame, can be ball-dominant. The apparent fallout, which included Young playing with a lack of aggression and energy in Atlanta's next game (Kobe Bryant in 2010, anyone?), could have been construed as a defiant "are you sure this is what you want?" message.

    The Hawks have a real shot to do damage this year, but not if their failure to get on the same page cuts the locker room in half and weakens their product on the floor.   

Boston Celtics: The Bigs

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    First, this slot was set for Tristan Thompson, whose presence on the floor this year coincides with alarming spikes in opponent attempt rate and accuracy at the rim. That's not exactly the deterrent effect you want from your starting center...on whom you spent the full mid-level.

    Then, it was going to go to Daniel Theis, a regular starter alongside Thompson in the Boston Celtics' iffy two-big first unit. No Boston rotation player has had a larger negative impact on the team's offensive or defensive rating.

    Basketball is a team sport, though, so we're going to split the disappointment evenly on this one. Theis and Thompson share the blame.

    The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward in free agency and haven't played a minute with Kemba Walker (knee) on the floor. Their biggest problems were supposed to be wing depth and shot creation. Those have also been issues, but the play of the big men is what's holding the Celtics back the most.   

Brooklyn Nets: Defensive Rebounding

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    It's not like the Brooklyn Nets lack length. They play two conventional centers in DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen, and Kevin Durant's telescopic limbs don't exactly put him at a disadvantage at the 4.

    Yet the Nets rank 25th in defensive rebound rate, a key factor in their surprisingly slow start. These guys were a respectable 12th in that same statistic last year, and they didn't lose any key frontcourt players in the offseason. So it's hard to pinpoint what's gone so wrong on the glass.

    Perhaps the Nets, like several other teams with championship ambitions, are pacing themselves. Or maybe because they know games in December and January matter less than the ones in May and June, they haven't summoned the urgency to take care of the little things. That malaise would also explain their turnover issues.

    Not to be overlooked, Brooklyn, like many squads this year, has rarely had all hands on deck.

    Despite giving opponents too many second-chance opportunities, the Nets reside among the top 10 in defensive rating. With an offense that seems destined to finish among the league's best (even if they've underperformed to this point), the Nets could become truly dominant on both ends by securing a few more boards.     

Charlotte Hornets: Devonte' Graham

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Devonte' Graham was among the league's most pleasant surprises last year, as the No. 34 pick in 2018 shook off a dreadful rookie season to emerge as the Charlotte Hornets' best player. He led the Bugs in total minutes, points, assists, steals and made triples, giving the team one of the most valuable offensive weapons there is: a primary ball-handler who can pull-up and hit a three.

    After a breakout like that, it would have been wise to price in some regression for this season. But nobody expected quite this much pullback.

    Graham's three-point shooting hasn't been great at 29.8 percent (37.3 percent last year), but it's his work inside the arc that should raise red flags. Last season, Graham, undersized for a point guard at 6'1", was the league's least efficient scorer on two-pointers. His 39.7 percent hit rate was the lowest among players who attempted at least 300 twos.

    So far this year, that figure is all the way down to 28.0 percent, and that's after what was, for him, a mid-range barrage (a season-high five two-point makes) against the New York Knicks on Monday. That's almost unfathomably low.          

Chicago Bulls: Self-Inflicted Wounds

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls' horrible defensive performance is largely due to bad luck, as opposing teams are converting shots at unsustainably high rates. If teams were hitting at league-average rates against them, the Bulls would be allowing an effective field-goal percentage right around the middle of the pack.

    Chicago can't do much about opponent luck.

    The turnovers, though? Yeah, the Bulls only have themselves to blame for those.

    Zach LaVine and Coby White, Chicago's two top playmakers, have the highest combined turnover total of any backcourt duo in the league. LaVine is right up near the top in giveaways (second-most with 45), while White, who's already had eight games with at least three cough-ups, sits just outside the top 10 with 33.

    When you're at a talent disadvantage most nights and are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, you can't beat yourself. Right now, the Bulls are their own worst enemy.      

Cleveland Cavaliers: Sexland Interrupted

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers' terrific defensive performance, produced by an unsustainably high opponent turnover rate though it may be, is the main reason they've outperformed modest expectations through the season's first three weeks.

    But the most encouraging development of the year—and the one that feels real—is in the backcourt. Actually, "felt" is the better word, as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, aka "Sexland," were looking like viable cornerstones before they went down with injuries.

    Both hit the shelf, Garland with a shoulder injury and Sexton with an ankle issue, disrupting a beautiful meshing of skill sets. Garland's passing chops shone, as did his deep shooting. And Sexton, now quite clearly better suited as a 2, was hitting everything from the perimeter while attacking the basket with abandon. Garland's sophomore emergence freed up Sexton to do what he does best (score) while minimizing the third-year guard's weakness as a facilitator.

    They had it rolling.

    That those two couldn't stay healthy, develop chemistry and make Cleveland's ridiculous defensive start hold up stands as a major letdown. On the bright side, neither guard's injury is serious. The Cavs have plenty of games left to enjoy the welcome development of their exciting backcourt.     

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic's Workload

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    From an entertainment perspective, we should be rooting for Luka Doncic to have the ball as much as possible. But the Dallas Mavericks are leaning even harder on their future MVP this season, and that could present familiar problems down the line.

    Doncic has shown a career-long habit of wearing down—perhaps due in part to suspect conditioning but also the likely result of a team that doesn't have any other good ways to generate offense. With Kristaps Porzingis out, you could forgive the Mavericks for their early-season reliance on Doncic.

    Dallas' poor clutch performance last season, which we could normally write off as anomalous, seems inextricably tied to the fact that Doncic struggled against both late-game fatigue and defenses that knew stopping him meant stopping the Mavs.       

    That's why it's worrying to see Doncic's average time of possession higher than it was a year ago.

    Dallas added wing defense over the offseason, chiefly in the form of Josh Richardson. That's good! The Mavs needed help there. But early signs suggest they are again foisting a massive offensive burden on Doncic. He can handle it game to game, but it feels like Dallas is setting itself up to face similar struggles down the road.

Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.'s Absence

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets defense is a concern, sitting 25th in the league through the team's first 10 games. With some notable offseason attrition, led by Jerami Grant's departure, and a reputation for being (let's put it kindly) streaky on that end, that particular struggle isn't a huge surprise.

    Michael Porter Jr.'s minimal impact on the Nuggets' season is the bigger disappointment. The second-year forward was on everyone's no-brainer breakout list, but he's on his second quarantine period of the early season. This one will span a minimum of 10 days, longer than the seven-day period that already shelved him, per Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic.

    In total, MPJ is in line to miss all but four of Denver's first 13 games. At minimum.

    It's never good when a key piece of the roster misses time, but this was supposed to be the year Porter developed chemistry with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as a full-time starter. Coming into the season, it was fashionable to argue Porter would define Denver's ceiling. A breakout campaign would make the Nuggets a true contender in theory.

    Forget ceilings. It's just a shame Porter can't get on the floor.     

Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Blake Griffin just isn't the same guy this season.

    Maybe we should have expected that after so many athleticism-sapping surgeries. The most recent operation came just over a year ago and was, at the time, the second performed on his left knee in an eight-month span.

    The six-time All-Star has never gotten to the rim less frequently and is posting his lowest free-throw rate—dead giveaways that his burst and bounce, already fading over the last several seasons, are gone.

    Griffin is still a skilled passer and deserves mountains of credit for transforming his game as his otherworldly athleticism disappeared during the last half-decade. But early signs indicate his body just isn't letting him play the way he wants to anymore.     

Golden State Warriors: Kelly Oubre Jr.'s Offense

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Kelly Oubre Jr. will have to outshoot Stephen Curry the rest of the way to even sniff the 35.2 percent he made from distance last year. That's how deep the hole is with the Golden State Warriors' biggest offseason wing addition, who's posting a historically low hit rate that will take a long time to get out of the teens.

    He wasn't much better inside the arc either. If it wasn't a dunk, Oubre simply couldn't make anything through his first handful of games with the Dubs.

    He's warmed up lately and shot 4-of-6 from distance in the Warriors' 31-point drubbing of the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 4. But Oubre's offensive issues extend beyond his stroke. Perhaps because his shot isn't falling, he has been prone to forced drives into traffic, several missed open men per game and a general lack of feel for Golden State's offense. He's in Curry's way far too often.

    A live wire on D and the creator of several highlight slams in the early going, Oubre has had his moments. But the Warriors need more than moments. They need him to become a reliable catch-and-shoot option again, which will hopefully bring some comfort and cut down on his other mistakes.    

Houston Rockets: Stuck in Limbo

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Every team is hard to evaluate in this unusual season, but few make scrutiny as pointless as the Houston Rockets. Even if we could draw conclusions about them, it wouldn't matter because we know James Harden's eventual exit will change everything.

    It's like being a civil engineer assessing plans just before Godzilla stomps into town. Things are going to look different after the shake-up.

    It'd be nice to fixate on how the five-man unit of Harden, John Wall, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Christian Wood has thrashed opponents on both ends in a small sample. And it'd be fun to assess the ripple effects of Harden posting his lowest usage rate since 2013-14.

    Evaluating a team that will undergo massive change feels like a waste. Who cares how Wall and Harden coexist when they won't share the same locker room for much longer?

    For observers and Houston fans who'd probably just like to get a trade done and move on, it's endlessly frustrating to linger in limbo.       

Indiana Pacers: The T.J. Warren Void

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Injuries are disappointing under any circumstances; we'll cover plenty of others before we're done here. But T.J. Warren's absence due to surgery on a stress fracture in his left foot is particularly disheartening.

    The Indiana Pacers have something going on this year, and a healthy Warren might have turned a very good season into a special one.

    Domantas Sabonis is bullying everyone while enjoying more diverse offensive responsibilities under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren. Myles Turner is turning away shots at a historic rate. Victor Oladipo looks close to his old self. It feels like Malcolm Brogdon never misses.

    Just imagine what Indy could do with a deadeye three-point shooter on the wing who could get his own shot and take on tough opposing matchups defensively. Warren would have rounded things out perfectly for the Pacers, who might still be a top-four team in the East without him.

    Here's hoping Warren makes it back to full strength and slots into that wing void. Everyone should want to see what this Indiana team can do with a complete roster.   

Los Angeles Clippers: The Blown-Lead Problem Isn't Gone

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    No matter what, the Los Angeles Clippers were going to spend this season under the shadow of their bubble collapse. You can't blow a 3-1 series lead in such dramatic fashion without it lingering, without observers wondering if, competitively, there's just something wrong with you.

    So Kawhi Leonard and the Clips really didn't need Stephen Curry's fireworks show illuminating the same frailty that cost them last year.

    Containing Curry on a hot streak is all but impossible, and you can bet that's what the Clippers will tell themselves after Steph's 38 points catalyzed a comeback from a 22-point hole.

    Still, the Golden State Warriors, who ultimately handed the Clippers a 115-105 loss on Friday, are a flawed team trying to find their way in the early going. They had no business doing this against a title-threat Clips squad that added talent over the offseason. Especially when Los Angeles had a recent reminder of how fleeting a big lead can be.

    The Phoenix Suns almost came all the way back from a 31-point deficit Jan. 3.

    This was just another example of L.A.'s unique ability to squander big advantages—a skill you would have hoped they'd shaken.              

Los Angeles Lakers: The Continued Reliance on LeBron James

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Every team depends heavily on its best player, but the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason moves were geared largely toward building a team that could at least tread water whenever LeBron James left the floor. The idea being: The less James has to play during the year, the better rested he'll be for the playoff contests that matter most.

    So far, L.A.'s moves haven't paid off.

    The Lakers have been outscored without James on the court—to a larger extent this season than last.

    Weren't Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder supposed to crush second units? Wouldn't Marc Gasol's passing keep the offense humming on its own?

    Not so much.

    Look, the Lakers are the best team in the league, so you've got to dig deep to find anything disappointing. Realistically, James will get plenty of rest when he needs it, and it's not like L.A. is struggling to win games. But considering the necessity of reducing reliance on an 18-year vet, it's at least worth flagging what looks like a failure at this early juncture.       

Memphis Grizzlies: Postponed Development

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    I'm not sure where it ranked on the list of the most anticipated aspects of the 2020-21 season, but the second year of the Ja Morant-Jaren Jackson Jr. partnership was way up there.

    Jackson has yet to play this year and has no exact timetable to return from his torn meniscus, and Morant's sprained ankle came with a three-to-five week recovery estimate back on Dec. 29. Given the Grizzlies' rough start and the long-term importance of Morant, expect the point guard's return to come toward the back end of that window.

    Morant is an impossible one-on-one matchup with elite handles, vision and quickness—perfect for attacking downhill in the pick-and-roll or against a fully spread floor in isolation. Jackson is a high-volume three-point shooter with legitimate center size at 6'11". It's hard to come up with a pair of young stars whose games fit together better than Morant's and Jackson's. 

    That we haven't seen them share reps this year is a shame. And assuming the Grizz are as cautious as they ought to be, we might not see them take the floor in tandem for months.    

Miami Heat: Shooting Themselves in the Foot

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    You'd think a team that barged into the 2020 Finals would have the basics handled, but the Miami Heat have started this season by violating a core tenet of good basketball: Take care of the rock.

    The Heat lead the league in turnover percentage, which, combined with an extremely low offensive rebound rate, means they're losing the possession battle in a big way. Miami was 20th in turnover rate last year, so this lack of ball security isn't coming out of the blue. But when a team has as much success as the Heat did, it stands to reason that identifying the few obvious weak points would be pretty easy.

    Apparently not.

    The result of all of this is that Miami, despite having a top-five effective field-goal percentage through three weeks, has only the 19th-ranked offense. That's what happens when you pile up empty possessions and rarely get second-chance opportunities.

    An egalitarian offense built on passing and movement might just lend itself to turnovers, but the Heat are a well-coached veteran outfit. They're better than this.   

Milwaukee Bucks: Tactical Stubbornness

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Milwaukee Bucks' tactical inflexibility is a reliable mainstay in the disappointment department, with the latest entry being the Utah Jazz flummoxing the switch-resistant Bucks with guard-guard pick-and-rolls on Friday.

    Milwaukee adjusted in the second half, but—stop me if you've heard this one before—it was too late. The Jazz won by a final score of 131-118.

    It's a broken record at this point, but the Bucks are just too stuck in their ways on both ends. And yes, though they've added wrinkles here and there, we're going on three years now in which Milwaukee adheres to relatively strict principles (to great success) in the regular season, only to see them fail in the playoffs.

    One game in January doesn't matter to a team with title aspirations and the best net rating in the league. But you can't gloss over even the most seemingly meaningless defeat when it's the result of the very thing that has undone the Bucks in the last two postseasons.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Everything

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    You can't pick just one disappointment for the Minnesota Timberwolves, not in a season that has gone south so quickly that the team's best hope may be to lose enough games to keep the top-three protected pick they owe the Warriors in the 2021 draft.

    Karl-Anthony Towns dislocated his left wrist on Dec. 26 and missed six games. Jarret Culver still can't shoot. Anthony Edwards is doing nothing to dispel concerns he'd be an empty-numbers scorer. And D'Angelo Russell (a pantheon member of that same club) is getting his stats while doing little to drive winning.

    The Wolves have been obliterated in Russell's minutes, which is a problem because he's played more of them than anyone on the team other than Malik Beasley.

    Minnesota, toting the worst net rating in the league by a mile, is in rough shape.

    This team was never going to be objectively good this year, but starts this rotten (3-7) risk spoiling the development of young players. And let's face it, this year seems like a wash three weeks in, so the Wolves are already playing for the future.      

New Orleans Pelicans: The Slowdown

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Stan Van Gundy doesn't do uptempo, so the New Orleans Pelicans' more deliberate pace was easy to see coming.

    That doesn't make it any less disheartening.

    The Pels have Zion Williamson, one of the most irresistible downhill forces in the league. And Lonzo Ball is as good of a hit-ahead break-starter as there is. Brandon Ingram can run, and Eric Bledsoe is still a top-end athlete in his age-31 season. Don't forget about JJ Redick, who can sneak free much more easily in transition than he can in half-court sets.

    New Orleans' defense has improved, but its pace has fallen from fourth in the league last year all the way down to 25th this season. The Pelicans also rank 26th in points per half-court play. So in addition to the eye test that says these guys should be running, the numbers suggest they aren't playing to their strengths.

    It's all a trade-off, and Van Gundy's pace preferences have produced results elsewhere. Still, from an entertainment perspective, it's too bad that he isn't turning the Pels loose more often.

New York Knicks: Don't Worry, It's Coming

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks should enjoy the ride while it lasts, because three-point regression is coming—on both ends of the floor.

    Austin Rivers is hitting 45.0 percent of his threes, Alec Burks was at 66.7 percent prior to his sprained ankle and Kevin Knox is striping it at an even 40.0 percent. Don't forger Frank Ntilikina (55.6 percent) or Julius Randle (35.0 percent). Every one of those figures would rate as career highs.

    You might argue that Reggie Bullock, who has the best long-range track record on the roster, has actually been less accurate than expected. But his move up from a 33.3 percent conversion rate won't offset the imminent cooling of the rest of the roster.

    Even more ominous is how New York's opponents have shot. The Knicks are allowing 39.8 percent of opposing shots to come from beyond the arc, the seventh-highest rate in the league. They also permit the third-highest number of wide-open triples in the league, yet their opponent three-point percentage is third-lowest.

    When those numbers normalize, disappointment will set in for anyone that believed New York's luck would never run out.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Too Much Winning

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma City Thunder dealt their way to a total of 18 first-round picks between now and 2027, so their rebuilding efforts aren't that dependent on their own lottery position. Still, the best way to add affordable, elite talent is to grab it high in the draft.

    So far, OKC is winning a little too often to go that route.

    That isn't the worst situation to be in, as much of the Thunder's success is the result of young players succeeding in major roles. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has improved in every facet and looks destined for multiple All-Star games. He's one of only eight players averaging at least 20 points, six assists and five rebounds.

    Luguentz Dort is now reliable from deep and profiles as a top-end three-and-D wing on a bargain contract. Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo are showing more frequent flashes as well.

    Coming into the year, it was clear the Thunder weren't built to win. That wasn't the point. By that logic, a record hovering around .500 is at least unexpected, if not disappointing.

    Maybe when OKC flips Al Horford and George Hill for more picks, the losses will finally start piling up.

Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz's Torn ACL

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    This one is as obvious as it is uncomplicated.

    It just flat-out sucks that Markelle Fultz is going to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

    No, the former No. 1 overall pick wasn't having much of a year. He was shooting 39.4 percent from the field and averaging 12.9 points per game when he went down. But for a player whose early career has been marked by so much misfortune and injury, this was a devastating blow. He's now assured of playing fewer than 20 games in three of his four professional seasons.

    It's a hit to the Orlando Magic as well. They saw enough in Fultz to hand him a $50 million extension prior to the season and are painfully thin at the point behind him. Rookie Cole Anthony will get as many reps as he can handle, and maybe if he does something with them, that'l count as a silver lining.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons Is the Same

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Saying Ben Simmons is the same doesn't mean Ben Simmons is bad because, well...Ben Simmons is good.

    How's that for in-depth analysis?

    Simmons is, however, very high on the list of players we all agree could be better. Maybe he can't be, and maybe it's unfair to keep demanding growth in the areas we'd prefer, but it's still the case that the Philadelphia 76ers' two-time All-Star is just as ineffective as a shooter, foul-drawer and pick-and-roll orchestrator as ever.

    The Athletic's Derek Bodner broke down Simmons' uninspiring pick-and-roll work, and we need only look at the numbers to verify Simmons' lack of progress elsewhere.

    He's less accurate than ever outside of three feet and hasn't made a single two-point jumper outside the lane all year. In addition, Simmons continues to avoid contact on drives, contorting himself into impossible positions and ratcheting up the difficulty on his finishes when the better course would be using his big frame to initiate contact. His free-throw rate is marginally higher than last year, but Simmons is only making 60.9 percent of his freebies. His low accuracy and visible discomfort from the stripe seem unlikely to inspire more aggression.

    We wouldn't be piling on Simmons if the Sixers' roster hadn't changed. But it has, and all that extra shooting has clearly produced better results from Joel Embiid, who's developed as a passer out of double teams and is conducting a master class on foul-drawing every night. The same changed conditions that benefit Embiid should also be fostering growth in Simmons. 

    So far, that hasn't happened.

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton's Impact

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    Randall Benton/Associated Press

    Chris Paul and Devin Booker are both high usage guards, so bringing them together in the same backcourt was always going to diminish the touch time and playmaking impact of the other Phoenix Suns.

    It feels like Deandre Ayton could still be doing more.

    Ayton has had a solid season so far. His true shooting percentage, rebound rate and free-throw rate are all ahead of last year's pace. But he's not crashing the offensive glass like he used to, and though he's improved at drawing contact, Ayton only ranks 25th in free-throw rate among qualified centers. His mid-range jumper is more reliable than most bigs', but there's still no real excuse for an athlete of Ayton's caliber getting to the foul line so infrequently.

    Ideally, Ayton would have responded to a reduced role by seizing new opportunities. Teams pay most of their attention to Paul and Booker, which necessarily makes Ayton a lesser defensive priority. He should be bouncing around underneath the bucket and glorying in life as an opponent's afterthought.

    Spin it the other way, and it's laudable that a No. 1 overall pick would willingly take a step back just when you'd normally expect his role to expand and his production to take off. That's team-first stuff. Still, if we're nitpicking a tremendous start for the Suns, it seems fair to say Ayton could be doing more on the margins to really put the Suns over the top.

Portland Trail Blazers: The Overhaul Didn't Fix as Much as We Thought

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    I was among those who guzzled the Kool-Aid, sure the Portland Trail Blazers' acquisitions of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. shored up the only holes on the roster. Two defensively potent forwards, in addition to the dynamic scoring of the backcourt and a healthy Jusuf Nurkic in the middle made a conference finals trip seem realistic.

    Maybe it still is, but the early results of this season suggest Covington and Jones won't fix everything on their own. And what's more, Portland remains ill equipped to handle floor-spacing centers and pull-up point guards in the pick-and-roll. 

    Zach Collins, out with another surgery, could have given Portland more lineup versatility. He made sense as the answer against downsized, stretchy 5s. Covington and Jones have actually played to a positive net rating in their shared minutes, even if most of that success stems from offense generated by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—not elite stopping power.

    Maybe Covington and Jones will still become a better version of the Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, the forward duo that helped the Blazers reach the 2018 West finals. And maybe as head coach Terry Stotts trims the minutes involving both Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony (Portland's most-used bench tandem), the team's overall defensive rating will improve.

    The Blazers still have a shot to go far, but relative to expectations generated by what seemed like a killer offseason, too many glaring problems persist.

Sacramento Kings: The Dispiriting Familiarity of It All

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    "To me, it goes back to the understanding of the consistency of doing it for long stretches," Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton told reporters, via Jason Jones of The Athletic. "Both teams are going to go on runs and whatnot, but it’s about being good and being consistent and doing it over and over. I know that sounds boring but it’s what the good teams do."

    That assessment came in the wake of the Kings' lackluster 125-99 loss to the Blazers on Jan. 9, just one day after the team rolled over and surrendered a franchise-record 144 points to the Toronto Raptors. It's no coincidence these guys sport the worst defensive rating in the league.

    The problem: Walton's comments could have been plucked, almost at random, from any point in the coach's tenure. Or, to take some blame off Walton, almost any point in the last 15 years or so.

    Failure to compete consistently, shaky strategic choices, a lack of urgency—it's all so familiar to a Kings team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2006. Losing habits are more deeply ingrained in this franchise than almost any other.

    Someday, the Kings won't be like this. But it's looking increasingly likely that "someday" isn't going to happen this season.

San Antonio Spurs: Mid-Range Love Persists

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    We've gone to the injured/unavailable well a few too many times in this exercise, so we'll avoid it here. But just know that Derrick White playing a single game for the San Antonio Spurs due to another toe injury is a massive bummer. 

    Instead of White, we've got a familiar Spurs bugaboo to highlight.

    This team led the league in mid-range frequency last year, and despite DeMar DeRozan rediscovering that weird, rounded line about 23 feet from the bucket (he's already made as many threes as he did all of last year), the Spurs are still taking a higher percentage of their looks from outside the paint but inside the arc than all but two other teams.

    Doubly problematic, San Antonio is 28th in three-point attempt frequency.

    The Spurs always tailor their schemes to personnel, and it remains true that their most reliable offensive weapons prefer those out-of-favor long jumpers. But San Antonio is a bottom-10 offense not because it's missing shots, but because it's not taking the right ones.

    Indiana had minimal personnel turnover this year, but it juiced its offense by altering its shot profile. The Spurs continue to resist that change, much to their detriment.

Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Almost everything about the Toronto Raptors' 2-8 start was disappointing, but Pascal Siakam looking just as shaky as he did in the bubble set off the loudest alarm bells.

    Could a late-blooming player whose growth trajectory seemed to be a straight vertical line at times just...lose it all at once? Not exactly. Siakam has appeared more comfortable over the last week or so. But that frigid start remains a real concern.

    Siakam, after winning Most Improved Player in 2018-19 and then taking an even larger leap to the All-NBA level last year, began this season adrift. He couldn't get to the bucket against the smaller players opponents threw at him, couldn't find his perimeter stroke and generally looked lost.

    In a strange season where their home games will be played in Tampa Bay and future uncertainty looms (icon Kyle Lowry and architect Masai Ujiri are both in walk years), it may be easier for things to go completely off the rails.

    Maybe this is just a personal disappointment, as I'm forever in the bag for Nick Nurse and the Raps. But no one can deny the letdown of Siakam and Toronto's stumbling start.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Nobody expected Donovan Mitchell's bubble barrage of 50-point games to continue, but it was fair to expect a considerable step forward in his fourth season.

    Instead, Mitchell's scoring efficiency is way down. He's shooting less accurately from the field than ever and isn't getting to the line as frequently as he did in either of the last two seasons. In a 12-point loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 6, Mitchell played 36 minutes and didn't attempt a single free throw.

    It also seems clear Mitchell isn't going to be the wing stopper the Utah Jazz need. Not any time soon, anyway.

    The Jazz are loaded, and it's early enough that the 2019-20 All-Star's slow start could disappear from memory with a hot week. But after what felt like a breakthrough in the 2020 postseason, Mitchell hasn't quite kept the momentum going.

    At least Mitchell's not alone. Bojan Bogdanovic has been a wreck all year, but he's not as vital to Utah's success, so this "honor" goes to Mitchell.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal Is Still Wasting His Brilliance

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal had 10 games with at least 40 points last season, and the Washington Wizards lost nine of them. And no, Beal wasn't stat-hunting at the expense of his team in any of those contests. He made at least half his field-goal attempts in all but one.

    They also lost his 60-point eruption against the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 6. Unsurprising, but no less bothersome to Beal.

    "I'm pissed off," Beal said, via ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "I'm mad. I don't count [them]. ... Any of my career highs, they've been in losses. So I don't give a damn. You can throw it right out the window with the other two or three I've had."

    This has to be getting old for the Wizards' two-time All-Star, who's been almost unbelievably consistent in his loyalty to a franchise that hasn't surrounded him with enough talent to make his high-scoring nights count for anything. It's always disappointing when a single individual effort goes to waste, but it's even worse when it happens all the time.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 12.


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