The 10 Biggest Disappointments of the 2020-21 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 29, 2021

The 10 Biggest Disappointments of the 2020-21 NBA Season

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    It's not possible for everyone to get what they want from an NBA season. If it were, we'd close every year with 30 champions, 30 MVPs and 30 Rookies of the Year—one to wholly satisfy every fanbase.

    This particular year, shortened and unusual as it's been, has actually delivered more pleasant surprises than disappointments. If that rings false, think back to this time 12 months ago, when there was no ball being played at all, and reconsider. No matter how disappointed you might be with your favorite team or player in isolation, the current state of the season, in which basketball is actually being played, beats the alternative.

    Keeping that glass-half-full backdrop in mind, there are still a few instances in which we, the basketball-viewing collective, didn't get what we hoped for or expected.

    These are the biggest disappointments of the 2020-21 NBA season. 

Jamal Murray's Injury

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    All injuries are bummers. Unhealthy players weaken teams, taking away their peak potential. But while every ankle sprain, strained calf and pulled hamstring chips away at the best version of the league, serious injuries to star players are especially brutal.

    In the specific case of Jamal Murray, who tore his ACL in a 116-107 loss to the Golden State Warriors on April 12, the disappointment was overwhelming. Murray, a star enjoying a career year whose passion is impossible to deny, is obviously suffering most. His last two postseasons were defined by leaps in effectiveness, so even amid a terrific season, we had reason to believe the best was yet to come.

    You just know he had another 50-point eruption in him. And now we won't get to see it until 2022.

    What Murray's injury did to the Denver Nuggets, dropping them from the ranks of believable contenders to a team that will need to be at its absolute best to survive the first round, only compounded the pain. In short, we were robbed of a title threat.

    Credit the Nuggets for holding strong and winning four straight games immediately following Murray's departure. But it wouldn't be fair to expect Nikola Jokic, MVP candidate though he is, to carry Denver to postseason success without his top running mate.

James Wiseman's Rookie Performance

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Our expectations should have been low from the start when James Wiseman and his three games of college experience landed on a Warriors team trying to toe the line between long-term development and immediate success. In some ways, he was set up to fail.

    And fail he did!

    Wiseman never exhibited any feel on either end, contributed to a cratering net rating whenever he played and his troublingly poor hands might be the kind of inborn shortcoming that no amount of training can fix. That his torn meniscus will also cost him the critical development time he would have gotten in the offseason and summer league exacerbates the concern.

    A player who regressed as the season wore on and clearly has miles to go before he makes a positive impact on a winner won't even get to take a meaningful step toward improvement for several more months.

    It's best to avoid imagining how much better the Warriors' outlook would be with LaMelo Ball or Tyrese Haliburton in Wiseman's place.

    Maybe the athletically breathtaking center will still validate those tempting David Robinson comps. It's worth noting Wiseman was a hilarious five years younger as a rookie than the Admiral was. But anyone believing Wiseman has star potential in him is operating on faith and combine measurements. This season offered little evidence on the floor to support that belief.

No Kyle Lowry Trade

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    If the Los Angeles Lakers get fully healthy and in-shape versions of LeBron James and Anthony Davis back by the time the games matter, this could change. But the current state of the NBA title race feels wide open.

    That's why it's such a shame that Kyle Lowry won't participate in it.

    Toronto Raptors fans have a sentimental right to feel differently, but the league is worse for the lack of a Lowry deadline deal. He could have elevated an already dangerous Philadelphia 76ers squad, or given the Miami Heat yet another savvy and relentless competitor, or turned the Dallas Mavericks into something special.

    Considering Lowry will be a free agent after this season, it's not hard to understand why contenders were hesitant to sacrifice assets for a costly player they might not get to keep. The fact remains that instead of potentially swinging the championship race, Lowry is now playing out the string for a Raptors organization that is, at best, indifferent about whether it even reaches the play-in round.

We've Barely Seen the Real Brooklyn Nets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Seven games. Seven.

    That's all we've seen of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor together.

    The superstar trio put up a 122.4 offensive rating in that tiny sample, a gaudy figure, but not one based on enough volume to be reliable. Considering the talent involved, it's possible Brooklyn's offense, which produces a league-leading 117.3 points per 100 possessions on the year overall, could be even better than that limited sample. But that's just it: We haven't seen enough to know.

    With Harden's troublesome hamstring potentially keeping him on the bench for the rest of the regular season, the Nets could hit the playoffs with the same limited information about how their three best players work together that they have right now.

    On one hand, that's exciting; we'll get to see Brooklyn try to find its top form on the fly. On the other, this season would have been a lot more fun if we'd gotten to see three of the most unstoppable offensive forces playing together more often.

    The record for most points scored by a team in a regulation game is 173, and it has stood for over 30 years. Durant, Harden and Irving might have smashed that number if they'd gotten a few more cracks at it.

The Bulls' Bold, Bad Move

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    There's no way to say the Nikola Vucevic trade has been a success to this point. It was a win-now move that hasn't produced enough wins to get the Chicago Bulls out of the fringes of the play-in mix.

    But this was easy to see coming. And it now feels like, best case, the deal will consign the Bulls to the same low-ceiling future that defined Vucevic's past with the Orlando Magic.

    Chicago surrendered top-four protected first-round picks in 2021 and 2023, plus 22-year-old center Wendell Carter Jr., to add a 30-year-old offense-only 5. Vucevic's contract isn't a crippler at two more years that decline in value from $24 million in 2021-22 to $22 million in 2022-23, but it absolutely hobbles the Bulls in their efforts to become a stable playoff threat.

    This was Step-Skipping 101, a hasty move made by a team that overestimated its current strength. Nothing in Vucevic's track record suggested he was anything but a floor-raiser—not the kind of foundational talent around which you could construct a high-level winner. Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford manufactured passable stopping power by scheming around Vooch's lack of mobility in Orlando, but those are two of the league's most accomplished defensive minds.

    The Bulls have been markedly worse on both ends with Vooch on the floor.

    Sure, Chicago could reduce Vucevic's role and hand-pick matchups less likely to exploit his limitations. But that only makes the trade look worse. Why surrender such massive draft equity for a guy you have to use judiciously—one who, at his apex, only managed to get the Magic the seventh seed in a weak Eastern Conference?

    Chicago needed offensive support for Zach LaVine, overtaxed as a primary playmaker. But not at this cost, this age or this position. Orlando got off the mediocrity treadmill by moving Vucevic, and now the Bulls have hopped on in its place.

The New Orleans Pelicans' Defense

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson's breakout as a primary ball-handler means the New Orleans Pelicans' season is far from a total loss, but just about everything else that happened this year fell short of expectations.

    Nothing was more discouraging than the Pels' failure to improve on defense.

    Last year, New Orleans ranked 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 17th in opponent effective field-goal percentage. Despite the installation of noted defense-first head coach Stan Van Gundy, the addition of theoretically stalwart anchor Steven Adams and the general growth you'd expect from a young roster, the Pelicans currently rank 27th in both statistics.

    More minutes and a larger role for Zion explains some of that. He's not yet an intuitive or consistently focused defender. His size also makes it hard for him to navigate screens away from the ball. For him, larger responsibilities on offense were always going to weaken the Pels on the other end.

    But this level of regression is shocking.

    It makes you question everything from the makeup of the team's core to the coaching acumen of Van Gundy to the wisdom of the front office that put it all together. And the ugly upshot is that the longer New Orleans underperforms, the louder the chatter about Williamson potentially leaving will grow.

    You know that's coming, by the way. Fair or not, it always does in situations like this.

The Stacked Deck Against Stephen Silas

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Stephen Silas spent two decades as an assistant coach, helping shape the early careers of LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic—earning the respect of his peers and the affinity of stars every stop. He's a second-generation lifer in the game, and he deserved so much better than what he got from his first chance at a head-coaching gig.

    Silas' rough season started with the James Harden saga, a distraction that consumed the Houston Rockets and ultimately triggered a rebuilding phase. The teardown that ensued was at least partly the result of ownership "hellbent on reducing payroll and getting the Rockets out of the luxury tax business for the foreseeable future," sources told the Athletic's David Aldridge and Kelly Iko.

    In charge of a roster that suddenly wasn't built to compete, Silas ultimately found himself having to answer for a 20-game losing streak. It was gut-wrenching.

    Better days are ahead for Silas, if only because the ones he's endured already have been so incredibly bad.

A Vintage Stephen Curry Season All for Naught

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry almost certainly won't win his third MVP this season, but there's an argument to be made that, given the circumstances, 2020-21 has been the best performance of his career.

    Curry's heroism has the Warriors in play-in range. He's somehow beating scouting reports that, due to the Dubs' total lack of supporting offensive talent, probably read, "Just stop Steph." He's putting on shot-making, ball-handling and resiliency clinics every night, and it's barely been enough to keep Golden State near the .500 mark.

    He has never averaged more points per 36 minutes, and his 66.2 true shooting percentage is the third highest of his decorated career.

    Historical greatness at age 33 suggests 34 and 35 could still be pretty darn impressive. That eases the ache of a brilliant season spent outside the contender conversation. But Golden State has a ton of work to do if it wants to avoid squandering another season of Curry's prime next year.

    Watching this one go to waste was painful enough.

The Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

    The Portland Trail Blazers, currently posting a negative point differential and eyeing a play-in berth after an offseason that had many (raises hand sheepishly) thinking a top-three seed in the West was possible, have been one of this season's most confounding disappointments.

    Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. were supposed to fix the Blazers' weak wing defense. The former was among the game's most respected off-ball disruptors, while the latter's athleticism keyed suffocating zone looks for the Miami Heat last season. 

    Yet the team ranks 29th on D, somehow worse than last year's No. 27 finish. 

    CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic both missed significant time with injury, during which Damian Lillard carried the team with a heap of clutch performances. But now Lillard is lagging as he nurses a sore hamstring—perhaps the cost of shouldering such an outsized load for so long.

    Worst of all, the apparent malaise on both ends has one of the league's steadier franchises looking a little unstable. It's jarring and disheartening when a team has obvious talent and makes the moves that should logically address its flaws, only to see everything go sideways.

How Little We Learned

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The lingering fatigue of the bubble, a short offseason, a condensed schedule further strained by necessary rest days and health and safety protocols—all these factors combined to make this season less instructive about how the playoffs might unfold than any in memory.

    Every single contender has questions to answer, and many of those unknowns are the same ones you would have pointed to either before or very early on in the season.

    We have severely limited information on how the best teams might attack one another because it has been almost impossible to get all hands on deck for marquee matchups. That uncertainty stretches to individual players as well. It's largely unclear how, say, the Los Angeles Lakers might look with a fully healthy and revamped rotation because injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis never allowed the team to establish any rhythm.

    Will the Milwaukee Bucks' emphasis on tactical flexibility make a difference against top competition? Can the Philadelphia 76ers curb their late-game turnovers against full-strength, playoff-caliber foes? Have the Los Angeles Clippers finally come together? We already hit this one, but can the Nets work in harmony against dialed-in, high-end postseason defenses? And can they stop anybody, anywhere, ever?

    We don't know.

    That allows for a positive spin as we close this out.

    An unpredictable postseason free-for-all where anything seems possible? Forget disappointing. That sounds like fun.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.