Every NBA Team's Biggest Disappointment of the Season so Far
Now that every NBA team has played out more than 10 percent of its 2021-22 schedule, we can reasonably, albeit not entirely safely, start reading into everything we've so far seen—both good and bad.
This space is for the bad. We already tackled the 10 biggest disappointments of the year. (Fear not, we did surprises, too!) The next natural iteration of that exercise is putting a microscope over every squad's largest letdown to date.
Expectations will be the driving force behind every selection. Inclusions can technically be interpreted as backhanded compliments. Certain players and roster-wide issues are here precisely because they're supposed to be better.
Matters of pure basketball will be our primary focus. The Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons situations suck. The allegations of racism and sexism, among other things, reported about Phoenix Suns governor Robert Sarver must be taken seriously. The same goes for allegations that Portland Trail Blazers team president Neil Olshey has created a toxic work environment. This is all beyond disappointing and cringey and complicated and should not be overlooked. But some of it isn't exactly surprising, and this process is meant to tackle active on-court developments.
All of these early-season bummers are presented with the caveat that they have plenty of time to reverse course. Cold streaks can still warm up in the span of a night or three. But enough basketball has been played for us to start wondering when, if not whether, these sad-face-emojis will correct themselves.
Atlanta Hawks: The Defense
Oh, how quickly the tone of the Atlanta Hawks' season has changed.
After opening the year 3-1, they have lost seven of their past eight and plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference's barrel. None of their letdowns qualify as inexcusable when looking at their opponents, and they've played out the league's second-hardest schedule. That still isn't great, Bob. The Hawks are coming off an Eastern Conference Finals cameo. They have higher aspirations than using their strength of schedule as a shield.
Opponents are shooting better than 70 percent around the rim against the Hawks, and Clint Capela doesn't quite look the same. And yet, their interior defense holds up when he's beside John Collins. The one-big minutes are more of a killer. Rival offenses are shooting 81.8 percent at the cup when Capela is on his own and 70 percent at the hoop with Collins running solo.
In general, the team needs to give more of a damn about getting back in transition. Atlanta is allowing 1.50 points per possession after committing a turnover—the worst mark in the Association, according to Inpredictable.
Much of these struggles feel correctable. More consistent wing play is inevitable. The same goes for Capela. Maybe head coach Nate McMillan goes to Delon Wright more often. Perhaps the Hawks' games will be littered with fewer lazy-butt fouls. Something, anything, needs to give. And soon.
Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum's Shot Profile
Close your eyes, spin around 12 to 77 times, haphazardly point in any direction, and your finger will probably land on a disappointing development from the Boston Celtics season. They are among this year's biggest underachievers, even after accounting for absences from Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.
Focusing on their behind-the-scenes chemistry is fair game after Marcus Smart trashed the decision-making of Brown and Jayson Tatum. There still seems to be too much switching on defense, though Boston has been decidedly above average on that end. Smart could stand to make more shots. It turns out Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard won't be bringing their summer-league performances to the regular season.
Tatum's shot profile "wins" out in a relative landslide. The Celtics offense is built such that it will go as far as he can carry them. Everything is rosier when he's making shots. He's yet to do that on a regular basis. He's downing 43.7 percent of his twos and 32.1 percent of his threes, both of which would be career-low marks. His 75.5 percent clip from the foul line is also a personal worst. He's converting just 50 percent of his looks at the rim.
Boston badly needs Tatum to settle into a happier medium. Cleaning up his shot profile is a good place to start. Much has been made of his distribution in the past, mostly for good reason. He is taking fewer threes without upping his frequency around the hoop. Roughly 40 percent of his looks are coming from mid-range—a career high. That's too many.
Count on Tatum's three-ball finding nylon more often. Until it does, and even after it does, he should ensure his game doesn't stall out so far from the rim.
Brooklyn Nets: James Harden's Struggles Inside the Arc
No player is more adversely impacted by the NBA's crackdown on unnatural offensive movements than James Harden. Sure, his crummy start to the year can be owed in part to the right hamstring injury that restricted his offseason activity. It is not the entire story.
Harden continues to knock down threes. He's shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc, including 44.2 percent on step-back triples (19-of-43). But his performance inside the rainbow has belly flopped off a mountain without as many whistles blowing in his favor.
Just 22 percent of Harden's field-goal attempts are coming at the rim, by far the smallest share of his career. His 52 percent clip on those shots represents a similar low; it's the second-worst mark of his career. He has gone from taking 9.6 free throws per 100 possessions last year to 6.5 this season.
The latter drop-off has affected his approach more than anything. He looks out of sorts on drives, a special kind of indecisive and ineffective.
Bet on Harden establishing a new normal in time. He also isn't the sole reason the Brooklyn Nets offense has underachieved. Joe Harris and Patty Mills have also struggled inside the arc. But Harden's warts loom largest. The longer this rut lasts, the more Kevin Durant will have to continue ferrying a team that's supposed to have two superstars.
Charlotte Hornets: Interior Defense
Blame for the Charlotte Hornets' defensive implosion does not fall on any one player. You don't rank 28th in points allowed per possession, after filtering out garbage time, because of a singular spot in the rotation.
At the same time, the Hornets are glaringly insufficient in the middle. Mason Plumlee is the only NBA-caliber center on the roster. Everyone else is either too young or raw or a forward masquerading as a 5 (P.J. Washington, Miles Bridges).
Punting on genuine center depth is coming back to bite the Hornets. Opponents are shooting 71.2 percent at the rim and 45.6 percent from floater range. Both rank among the league's four highest clips. Charlotte also owns the third-highest foul rate and bottom-five defensive rebounding percentage in the half-court while ranking 29th in points allowed after an opponent grabs their own missed shot or free throw.
No potential resolution appears to be on the roster. The Hornets don't just need another big, they need an actual defensive anchor. Maybe they trade for one at the deadline. Or maybe they just continue living to regret their decision to de-emphasize the center rotation during a 2021 offseason in which they had more flexibility than most of the league.
Chicago Bulls: Nikola Vucevic's Shooting
Who had the Chicago Bulls defense outperforming their offense 10 games into the season? Anyone? Bueller?
These are wild times. It's probably worth worrying about the Bulls' overall three-point shooting. They're now 24th in above-the-break efficiency. But the offense continues to chug along, and more than that, Nikola Vucevic is the team's biggest regression culprit.
Through 10 games, the 31-year-old big man is shooting just 26.2 percent from deep and a career-low 42.6 percent inside the arc. His 44 percent conversion rate around the rim is astonishingly bad, and he's currently 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) on looks out of post-ups.
Vooch and Chicago can find solace in knowing this is rock bottom. He's notching a 47.2 effective field-goal percentage on all wide-open looks. That number will climb. But he's really only turned in two seasons of higher-end three-point shooting on meaningful volume before now. His outside clip is worth monitoring.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Collin Sexton Situation
There are levels to the Collin Sexton disappointment.
First and foremost: Screw injuries. Ban them. Forever. And ever. Sexton has no timetable for a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers lineup after suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee during Sunday night's victory over the New York Knicks. Bleck.
His absence is a colossal buzzkill for the plucky Cavs, who have notched a handful of impressive victories and maintain an above-.500 record while playing through one of the Association's five toughest schedules. Sexton is part of that success. He is connecting on just 36.5 percent of his mid-range attempts (19-of-52) and 25.6 percent of his threes (11-of-46), but he's also traded in some of those mid-range looks for opportunities at the rim and played with more pizzazz on defense.
With that said, the Cavs need more dynamic shot-making from Sexton for their offense to peak. His free-throw-attempt rate has dropped, and he was turning the ball over on 23.4 percent of his possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
The absence of any clarity surrounding his future doesn't help matters, especially since the extension deadline came and went without Sexton and Cleveland reaching an agreement. Sources told The Athletic's Shams Charania he wanted a four-year, $100 million deal while the Cavs insisted on a structure that included a fifth season. The uncertainty incumbent of restricted free agency, however minimal, now collides with the ambiguity of his injury and capacity to adapt amid an evolving offensive ecosystem headlined by Darius Garland and Evan Mobley.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis Everything, Basically
Expectations for Kristaps Porzingis begged for a reality check long ago. Forget about the "Can he be the Dallas Mavericks' second star?" slant. The "Can he stay healthy enough to help the team at all?" was more appropriate entering this season.
Those expectations should now be re-adjusted again. Porzingis' availability remains an issue. He has already missed some time this season with back tightness. But his overall value at full strength must also come into question—and it does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Porzingis is shooting 41.5 percent on twos and 25.0 percent on threes through his first five appearances. Both would be career-worst clips by a lightyear.
Head coach Jason Kidd has empowered him to dribble into and jack more mid-range jumpers. He should probably now empower him to stop. Porzingis is just 8-of-27 from mid-range on the year (29.6 percent). And though Dallas is technically posting him on a smaller share of his touches, it's still too much. He's averaging a disastrously low 0.73 points per possession in those situations (15th percentile).
On the bright side, I guess, the Mavericks' insistence of giving Porzingis time at the 4 has not torpedoed the defense. But the offense is mustering just 85.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays beside another big. That is a worst-case scenario's worst-case scenario.
Dallas has done better with him at the 5, where he's logged close to an equal number of reps, but the overarching concern stands. This looks like a team that needs to plan as if its currently highest-paid player is not part of its future.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.'s Offensive Malaise
Michael Porter Jr. is day-to-day with a sore lower back that has already cost him a game, but the injury is not enough to spare him from this exercise.
To say the Denver Nuggets need him to be better is an understatement. Porter's offensive efficiency has collapsed unto itself to start the season and is a greater detriment to the longer haul than the team's iffy bench.
Otherworldly accuracy inside the arc is now ho-hum. Porter has gone from hitting 62.8 percent of his twos last season to 49.8 percent now—including a 61 percent clip at the rim that, while far from cataclysmic, represents a 16-point plunge from last year. His struggles from distance are more pronounced. He's splashing in just 20.8 percent of his threes after banging in 44.5 percent on higher volume as a sophomore.
Jamal Murray's absence is the caveat to every nook and cranny of the Nuggets' offensive issues so far. But Porter's drop-off isn't strictly owed to a less streamlined role. He's actually averaging fewer dribbles per touch than last season.
All the usual "it's early" disclaimers apply. Still. But the Nuggets didn't max out Porter to be a reduced version of last year's player, or to even remain that player. That was an investment in him becoming more. And if he's not going to be someone who can carry the offense in non-Nikola Jokic minutes—MPJ's true shooting sits at 34.2 without the reigning MVP—he at least needs stop missing so many of the looks he was converting last season.
Detroit Pistons: The Fun Factor
Settling on the Detroit Pistons' biggest disappointment quickly devolved into more of a chore than I expected. They're not supposed to be good, and Cade Cunningham missed time to start the year. Should anything truly, actually, legitimately make us sad?
Killian Hayes' development and usage sprang to mind. So did Hamidou Diallo's minutes. And Saben Lee's minutes. And Kelly Olynyk's shooting. Pick out any team stat and its ranking, and that likely works, too.
Focusing on raw numbers ultimately feels disingenuous. The bigger crime is Detroit's dearth of fun. This team has the personnel to be an exciting brand of bad, which is to say, field an offense that does not freaking rank 29th in average time of possession, according to Inpredictable.
As Ku Khalil from the Locked On Pistons podcast pointed out, this team places "27th in total transition frequency, 28th in transition frequency off of steals [and] 23rd in transition frequency off of live rebounds." That is almost unforgivable when your half-court attack, as Khalil also relayed, is complete bunk.
"Run more, dammit" is an oversimplification of the Pistons' season. Counterpoint: It's also not. They're going to be bad anyway. They might as well play faster. There may not be a correlation between speed and efficiency, but there's definitely one, in this case, between speed and watchability.
Golden State Warriors: The Offense Without Steph
Picking nits is the only way to come up with an actual disappointment for the Golden State Warriors.
They boast the league's best defense and a top-four offense without getting the best version of Jordan Poole on a consistent basis or welcoming Klay Thompson back into the rotation. Minimum contracts and fliers on Nemanja Bjelica, Andre Iguodala, Gary "Adrenaline's Adrenaline" Payton II and even Otto Porter Jr. are going a long way. Somebody must've reminded Draymond Green he's extension-eligible this summer. Stephen Curry is among the MVP frontrunners.
Life is good for the Warriors—great, even. That holds true for the no-Steph minutes, too. Golden State is outpacing opponents by three points per possessions when he sits, a gargantuan improvement over the minus-8.6 they posted during these stretches last year.
Still, the Warriors are winning those reps on the back of their defense. The offense has not been what you'd call stable without Steph. They're not scoring particularly well in transition. They're putting above-average pressure on the rim, but shooting 26.3 percent from mid-range. They might be a little too married to Poole-plus-all-backups arrangements.
Go ahead and argue in favor of an alternate selection. Maybe Kevon Looney makes you sad. Perhaps Juan Toscano-Anderson deserves more playing time. Head coach Steve Kerr's vacillating interest in unleashing every active player not on a two-way contract can be weird. He is not immune to sitting Steph for too long in the interest of sticking to a routine.
Assistant head coach Kenny Atkinson suffered a leg injury that's prevented him from working on the sidelines and, thus, restricts his bandwidth to advise Kerr on rotation quirks. You could want Golden State to hit the offensive glass harder. Or commit fewer turnovers. Or draw more fouls.
Harp on whatever you like. It's all bound to be immaterial. The Warriors look that good.
Houston Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr.-at-Point Guard Experiment
Clearing the deck at point guard and leaning fully into Kevin Porter Jr.-as-floor general remains the right move for the Houston Rockets. They're not supposed to be good. Accumulating information on one of their highest-upside swings is more important than avoiding a bottom-five offensive finish.
The information to date, though, is far from encouraging.
KPJ's struggles from the field are one thing. He's more efficient on off-the-dribble jumpers than catch-and-shoot looks yet not hitting either at an especially good clip. Whatever. Slumps happen. He has at least maintained his finishing around the rim.
A lack of development as the primary playmaker is more damning. KPJ currently has a higher turnover rate than usage and is coughing up the ball on more than 30 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions. He either seems to get tunnel vision on drives or throw passes as a last resort. Jalen Green and even Alperen Sengun have so far proven more effective at finding guys around or cutting toward the basket.
This isn't the end of the world. The season, much like KPJ himself, is still young. And he's not gobbling up opportunities to a shinier alternative. John Wall never figured into the Rockets' plans, and D.J. Augustin is a long-term afterthought. Josh Christopher deserves more run, but he's not a primary facilitator. KPJ's limitations are merely issues to monitor—and something to consider as Houston maps out its offensive hierarchy at the trade deadline and beyond.
Indiana Pacers: Third Quarters of Doom
Feel free to land on something specifically related to the Indiana Pacers defense. Opponents have been reaching the rim with alarming ease whenever they split up their bigs.
Still, the third quarter has been a more macro problem to date. Indiana is getting outscored by 20 points per 100 possessions coming out of halftime, the league's second-worst net rating, behind only the Detroit Pistons.
This is actually an improvement over where the Pacers were before. Here's a quick breakdown of their third-quarter performances this year:
- Game 1: Minus-20 points at Charlotte
- Game 2: Minus-10 points at Washington
- Game 3 :Minus-9 vs. Miami
- Game 4: Minus-6 vs. Milwaukee
- Game 5: Minus-7 at Toronto
- Game 6: Minus-8 at Brooklyn
- Game 7: Minus-2 vs. Toronto
- Game 8: Plus-4 vs. San Antonio
- Game 9: Minus-4 vs. New York
- Game 10: Plus-7 at Portland
- Game 11: Plus-2 vs. Sacramento
If their past two outings are any indication, the Pacers will be fine as time wears on and the roster cobbles together stretches at fullish strength. But winning three of 11 third frames is hardly ideal. Sloggy second-half starts—dragged down spotty shooting—have no doubt cost Indiana a couple of victories.
LA Clippers: Point Guard Rotation
Kawhi Leonard's absence casts a monumental shadow over every note about the Los Angeles Clippers offense this season. They weren't assembled to run through a conventional point guard pecking order with him. They were never going to have an easier time without him.
The Clippers' point guard contributions have been a disappointment even by those repressed expectations. They are the latest team to learn you just can't make Eric Bledsoe happen anymore, and with the exception of a few quality outings over the past week, Reggie Jackson has looked like a shell of last season's pleasant surprise.
Detroit is currently the only team getting fewer points per pick-and-roll possession from its ball-handlers. Bledsoe and Jackson are doing their darnedest to keep that number down. Jackson is averaging 0.63 points per possession as the ball-handler (19th percentile). Bledsoe's 0.22 points per possession are not a typo and are, in fact, the worst mark among 105 players running at least two pick-and-rolls per game.
Jackson is shooting under 34 percent from deep and 35.1 percent on drives. Bledsoe is hitting just 13.8 percent of his triples and 43 percent of his looks at the rim. He's also turning the ball over on nearly 21 percent of his possessions. Jackson is averaging fewer than two free throws per 100 possessions.
L.A. has contingencies to run through, like Paul George and Luke Kennard. Terance Mann has made strides as a passer. But this team still wants for a reliable creator and, unless Jackson recaptures last year's form, a shot-maker at the 1.
Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook's Impact
Just about every reasonable person expected the Los Angeles Lakers to endure growing pains following their acquisition of Russell Westbrook. He is miles from a natural fit beside Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Any prospective synergy would demand wholesale adaptions from someone and require time.
Well, even by those expectations, the Russell Westbrook experiment is so far unnerving. The Lakers are 12.1 points per 100 possession better with him off the floor, the second-worst net rating swing on the team that just so happens to match up with the eye test.
Westbrook is taking more of his shots at the rim but converting them at a 54 percent clip, which would be his lowest hit rate since his second year in the league. His outside touch remains a non-starter. He continues to take mid-range jumpers and drains them at a good-not-good-enough 39 percent clip. He is shooting 25.6 percent on threes and is only slightly more efficient off the catch (28 percent). His 20.3 turnover rate would be the highest of his career. He remains an expert of doing too much without actually doing anything on defense.
It's still early, LeBron has been banged up, Davis doesn't yet look right, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker haven't played, blah, blah, blah. I get it. The Lakers and Westbrook have time. But perhaps the most salient argument in favor of his arrival was that he elevated both the floor and ceiling through these stretches during which Los Angeles' stars weren't at peak capacity. That has yet to be the case.
The Lakers are getting outscored by 12.1 points per 100 possessions when Davis and Westbrook play without LeBron. Their net rating checks in at minus-6.9 when Russ goes it alone. Westbrook may not be the only reason Los Angeles is floundering, but the decision to trade for him fundamentally warped the makeup of the roster and left the Lakers where they are now: short on immediate and long-term assurances, without margin for error.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.'s Variance in Performances
Jaren Jackson Jr. continues to tantalize and frustrate. His overall numbers are a letdown—13.6 points and 1.9 assists on 37.5 percent shooting inside the arc and a 34.8 percent clip from three—but then he turns in the occasional starry-eyed performance, like he did against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 23 or the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 3, and it reinvigorates belief in his ceiling.
Maintaining conviction is reasonable. Jackson changes the geometry of the Memphis Grizzlies' offense just by being on the floor. He is the only big on the roster who can stretch defenses beyond the three-point line, and with that dynamic comes extra maneuverability for megastar Ja Morant and others. It is no surprise Memphis' effective field-goal percentage rises by 3.6 points—the second-largest swing on the team—with Jackson in the game. The very idea of him is an asset.
Invariably, though, the actuality of Jackson needs to catch up with the theory. It hasn't yet. The Grizzlies are trying to stomach his self-discovery. He has the agency to put the ball on the floor, even as he struggles to finish (30 percent shooting on drives) or make the right pass (almost 1-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio), and they only limit his minutes when he's in foul trouble...which is quite often (6.5 fouls per 100 possessions).
This will all be worth it if Jackson settles into his role as a combo big who can capably guard at the 5, cut down on his fouls and make decisions off the dribble while stretching defenses beyond function. For now, the Grizzlies are still investing in a concept, replete with a four-year, $104.7 million extension, rather than the player himself.
Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson's Humanness from Deep
Duncan Robinson is paid to spit fire.
For the moment, he's spewing a tepid mist.
Robinson is shooting 34.1 percent from three, a stark decline off the 42.7 percent success rate he's posted over the past two seasons on identical volume. He remains effective coming off screens—1.20 points per possession (84th percentile)—but has incurred a huge dip on his tightly contested attempts.
Almost one-third of Robinson's long-range looks last year came with a defender between two and four feet, on which he shot 37.7 percent. That share is up a hair this season, to 35.1 percent, but he's knocking down these shots just 30.3 percent of the time.
Few players are so comfortable trafficking in outside jumpers afforded mere slivers of space. But the context of Robinson's role hasn't changed. He cut his teeth downing these looks. That he's struggled to thrive inside his usual role is at least cause for minor concern with 10 games in the books.
Milwaukee Bucks: Wide-Open Shooting
Frankly, I can't bring myself to read too much into anything the Milwaukee Bucks have done until they're a semblance of healthy for longer than, like, a second.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has spent much of the season toiling away with a revolving-door of supporting cast members. Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis have all missed substantial time. Lopez (back) and Middleton (health and safety protocols) are still out. Donte DiVincenzo has yet to play while he recovers from the left ankle injury that ended his 2021 playoff run.
If we have to choose, which we do, I'll default to the Bucks' struggles on uncontested shots. They're notching a 50.6 effective field-goal percentage when defenders are six or more feet away. Only the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards are faring worse in these situations. Milwaukee's 33 percent clip on wide-open threes is also among the league's six worst marks.
Nobody is touting the Bucks as a cast of lights-out snipers. They are still supposed to be better than this—and were much better than this last season. That offers hope for normalization.
Portis (21.4 effective field-goal percentage), Middleton (28.4), Pat Connaughton (34.1) and even Giannis (41.7) should all progress to a higher mean. Middleton, specifically, should also rescue Milwaukee from its 37.6 percent mid-range clip.
In the meantime, this is worth keeping an eye on. The Bucks offense still isn't hyper-efficient in the half-court—outside of offensive rebounds, anyway—and can't afford to miss higher-quality looks, not even as they reach full strength.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Offense at Large
Let's say someone told you the Minnesota Timberwolves would rank in the top 10 of offensive or defensive efficiency to start the season. You'd naturally guess they'd peak on the offensive side. And you'd have been wrong.
Minnesota's offense has verged on a disaster. Take a look at the greatest not-great-at-all ranks:
- 25th in points scored per possession
- 26th in effective field-goal percentage
- 28th in turnover rate
- 26th in free-throw-attempt rate
- 22nd in field-goal percentage at the rim
- 25th in mid-range accuracy
- 24th in three-point shooting (12th from above the break, 30th in the corners)
- 25th in catch-and-shoot effective field-goal percentage
- 24th in effective field-goal percentage on wide-open shots
We'll stop here, because eyes aren't meant to bleed.
Dane Moore of The Dane Moore NBA Podcast has (repeatedly) done the best job of summing up the Timberwolves' offensive plight. Essentially, he's noted they're trying to install more free-flowing tenets that either haven't quite taken or for which they don't have the personnel.
Traveling this direction has pulled them even further from the structure incumbent of pick-and-roll basketball, a puzzling decision given the strengths of D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves' spacing has also looked...wonky. They at once play four- or five-out and shrink the floor by having so many bodies congregate near one another.
Select players will just flat-out shoot better—Russell, Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, etc. Something larger still needs to change. Maybe it's the system. Maybe it's the personnel. Maybe all this team needs is time to comprehend and perfect how it's supposed to play. I guess Minnesota will find out.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson's Non-Timetable
Pivoting from what's happening on the court makes me feel a little queasy. You're free to propose a different direction. You won't want for options.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker's non-breakout. Naji Marshall's regression. A lack of progress from Kira Lewis Jr. Shoddy finishing around the rim. Random-no-good-unfair injuries to Herb Jones. The New Orleans Pelicans can rankle you in a variety of ways.
Nothing, however, is more impactful than the obfuscation of Zion Williamson's status. Almost everything plaguing the Pelicans on offense can be traced back to his absence. (Shoutout to Devonte' Graham and Jonas Valanciunas for playing their buttocks off.) Brandon Ingram's hip injury might even fall under that umbrella. Would New Orleans wrap its second-best player, who's genuinely terrific, in bubble wrap if it had something for which to compete?
Injuries happen. They can be unavoidable and impact a player's body composition. Maybe Zion looks out of shape because he's injured and isn't injured because he's out of shape. His fractured right foot isn't actually the issue. It's that neither he nor the Pelicans said a damn word about it until media day, and ever since then, there have only been half-baked updates on his return—timetables for when an actual timetable might be made available.
Most recently, on Nov. 1, the Pelicans announced he was "progressing" toward but not yet doing five-on-five work and would be reevaluated in two to three weeks. It could be Thanksgiving until Zion has a target return date, or until we receive our next non-timetable timetable.
To be sure: New Orleans and Zion should be taking it slow. He is the team's timetable so long as he's on the roster. But this predicament has been mishandled every step of the way. The Pelicans owe their fans a modicum of transparency.
New York Knicks: The Starting 5's Defense
Only one lineup has tallied more total possessions this season than the New York Knicks' starting five. To be clear: That volume is not a compliment.
So far, it's a problem.
New York's go-to opening lineup—Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson—is getting blasted by 13 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-worst net rating among 38 five-man combinations who have spent 100 or more total possessions on the court. Basketball analysis has moved beyond ascribing too much value to starting fives, but when an arrangement plays this much and is this bad, it's an issue.
Defense continues to be this group's Achilles' heel. Opponents are scoring 121.9 points per 100 possessions while shooting 67.7 percent at the rim and 41.1 percent from downtown. It's early enough for these returns to include some noise. But it isn't solely bad luck. The Knicks allow wide-open threes more frequently than any team outside Houston, and they start two players, Fournier and Walker, rival offenses are able to attack.
Adjustments will eventually be in order. New York's bench has once more provided some necessary oomph. Derrick Rose is yet again a net-rating-swing standout, and the all-backup unit featuring him, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson is annihilating the opposition.
But depending on the bench to make up for rutty starts or blown leads isn't a sustainable model—not when the Knicks are hoping to be a more dynamic threat than they were last year. The starting five needs to be better or changed. It's that simple.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Luguentz Dort's Offense
Spotlighting the Oklahoma City Thunder's biggest disappointment is a matter of preference.
Darius Bazley's uneven, unidentifiable offense and sub-dungeon lulls continue to hurt my soul. That Aleksej Pokusevski's role remains so tiny on a team built to get weird and withstand growing pains is mildly concerning. Can someone please teach Theo Maledon how to finish around the rim?
Luguentz Dort's offense feels like the most universal disappointment. He is billed as someone who can be more than a three-and-D specialist, and right now, he's not even coming close to meeting the three-and-D threshold.
His 22.4 percent clip from long range would be a career low and is the third-worst success rate among 57 players averaging at least six attempts per game. He has torched twine on 35.7 percent of his wide-open triples, but that's not an especially high mark, and he's noticeably flustered when defenders are within closeout distance.
Dort has been unable to offset the difference with better finishing inside the rainbow. He is shooting 48 percent at the rim (13th percentile), which would be another career low. And though he's hitting 52 percent of his looks on drives, his attacks come with a fairly high turnover rate (10.6).
Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs' Slow Start
Rookies deserve time to marinate. Jalen Suggs is no different. He is not suddenly on bust watch because the first 11 games of his career have not resulted in insta-stardom.
Patience is different from ignorance. Suggs is a top-five pick in a rookie class that's been largely outstanding. The opening stretch of his career is disappointing relative to expectations and how important he remains to the Orlando Magic's future, and it'd be a much bigger story if Cole Anthony and fellow rookie Franz Wagner weren't playing so well.
Suggs is averaging 12.0 points per game while shooting 37.5 percent on twos and 22.2 percent from three and committing as many turnovers as assists (39). Defenses have keyed in on him, an occupational hazard given how uninspiring the rest of the Magic's roster appears on paper. But Suggs isn't just whiffing amid impossible circumstances. His 34.8 effective field-goal percentage on wide-open shots is the second-worst mark among 102 players with at least 25 attempts.
Once more: This isn't meant as irreversible doom and gloom. Suggs has some spirited moments under his belt and has found a way to reach the rim at a pleasant clip despite facing so much attention. For Orlando's sake, though, his glimpses must eventually give way to more protracted highs.
Phoenix Suns: Cam Johnson's Rut
Yours truly went from wondering how many step-back jumpers Cam Johnson would hit this season to just hoping he'd start hitting shots at all.
Optimists will point out he's getting to the rim more often and still finishing pretty well. Awesome. Johnson's game isn't rooted in volume at the basket. He is most lethal as an outside marksman and someone who can disarm defenses with his in-between touch.
Both are failing him. He's shooting 37.9 percent on twos and 29.7 percent from downtown. He has yet to make a bucket from mid-range, where he's 0-of-13.
Johnson shouldn't be trapped in a shot-making nadir until the end of time. But the Phoenix Suns need a progression to the mean. Their second unit doesn't pack the same kind of punch when Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet and Frank Kaminsky are the most consistent sources of offensive production.
Philadelphia 76ers: Mounting Absences
This is not my way of forcing Ben Simmons' absence to the fore of Philadelphia 76ers' season. For starters, it's already there. Mostly, though, he's not the only one Philly has needed to soldier on without.
Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Isaiah Joe and Matisse Thybulle are all away from the team after entering the league's health and safety protocols. Danny Green missed some time with a left hamstring injury. Furkan Korkmaz sat out one contest with a right wrist injury.
Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang are the only players to appear in every Sixers game this season. Simmons, as we all know, has yet to play.
Philly has a top-three net rating and the league's best offense anyway. Curry is playing in the image of an actively erupting volcano. Korkmaz, Niang and Andre Drummond have all been spectacular. Paul Reed has played some impactful minutes. The Sixers' skeleton crew has not derailed their season.
Skeptics will wonder whether that's sustainable. Which, fair. The bigger questions: How good could Philly actually be when it resembles anything close to full strength? And will we ever get to find out?
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard's Slump
Worrying about Damian Lillard is a lot like conversing with numeric-alpha code Twitter handles: It gives you something to do, but in the end, it probably won't take you anywhere productive.
Acknowledging nearly a decade of superhuman shot-making takes precedence. It does not erase the rut in which Lillard is embroiled, though.
He is downing less than 30 percent of his threes, including just 22.4 percent of his pull-up threebies. His mid-range accuracy has picked up, but he's still converting just 51 percent of his opportunities at the rim, a 10-point nosedive off last season's mark. His free-throw-attempt rate has been roughly halved compared to 2020-21.
Major props to the Portland Trail Blazers for featuring a top-tier offense amid Lillard's struggles. Kudos to Lillard, as well. The magnetic pull he has both on and away from the ball is part of that standing. But the Blazers cannot expect to survive in the West with their best player navigating the worst stretch of his career.
Lillard's topsy-turvy shooting is a concern because it's out of character, and because it's lasted this long.
Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox's Inefficiency
De'Aaron Fox has pieced together three relatively steady to flat-out good performances in his past four games. Perhaps we're witnessing a turning point. The Sacramento Kings better hope so. They'll be hard-pressed to continue hovering around .500 with Fox registering as one of the most detrimental high-volume offensive players alive.
That is, quite literally, what he has been. He has exchanged some of his threes and looks at the rim for more mid-range jumpers. It doesn't look good on him. His mid-range efficiency is right around its career average, but he's hitting a personal-worst 57 percent of his looks at the rim and just over 20 percent of his threes while seeing both a dip in volume and accuracy at the foul line.
Good luck finding a more damaging jump-shooter. Among 52 players with at least 50 pull-up attempts this season, Fox ranks...51st with a 32.5 effective field-goal percentage. He is turning the ball over on a substantially larger percentage of his drives (9.9) than last season (6.6).
Stringing together longer and better stretches is inevitable. Fox is too good for this to be a status quo. But his issues out of the gate are a setback for the Kings. There is no margin for missed opportunity in the middle of the Western Conference, and Fox has struggled at a time when Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are playing the best basketball of their careers.
San Antonio Spurs: Derrick White's Inconsistency
Mistakes and struggles are easy to forgive on a San Antonio Spurs squad dipping its toes into a new era and quasi-rebuild. The crunch-time bumps are whatever. The Spurs will figure it out. They need a more traditional offensive creator. They've upped their pace. They're trying new stuff. Let them work through the motions.
Onset slumps aren't as pardonable for players seasoned enough to be above them, though. Derrick White is 27 and in year five. His sub-50 true shooting on a team that desperately needs him to be an offensive fulcrum is concerning, if not a little disturbing. He's knocking down just 32 percent of his triples, and his increased dependence on mid-range jumpers is a red flag when partnered with a 24 percent clip. He continues to be a non-threat out of the pick-and-roll.
Maddening inconsistency makes his struggles even harder to reconcile. White's game logs are a roller coaster. He will go 6-of-10 from the floor against the Dallas Mavericks, only to shoot a combined 4-of-28 over the following two games, including an 0-of-10 dumpster fire that drew the Twitter ire of...Dejounte Murray's dad.
"Derrick is having a tough time right now in a lot of ways," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after White's 0-of-10 clunker. "We need him to be a good player every night."
San Antonio isn't on a must-be-good-right-now timeline. It can stomach rough stretches. But White is on his second contract and supposed to be among the franchise's cornerstones. The Spurs will be forced to confront some harder, far more awkward questions if this seesaw persists.
Toronto Raptors: Chris Boucher
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wasted little time in calling out Chris Boucher's dismal start to the season.
"He needs to start playing better," he told reporters three games into the schedule. "Period."
Tough love has not proved to be the remedy to whatever ails Boucher—who, for the record, is a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. He is shooting 19.4 percent from three-point range and hasn't discovered any sort of groove on the defensive end. He has combined for as many fouls and turnovers as made shots (21).
Playing so poorly has left him on the fringes of a Raptors rotation that, while rich in length, wants for capable presences in the middle. Boucher did miss the end of last season with a sprained MCL in his left knee. That injury could be a factor now.
Whatever the primary issue, opportunities will only get harder for Boucher to come by.
Pascal Siakam has returned from his shoulder injury, and Boucher's minutes are not about to come at the expense of Scottie Barnes, the potential Rookie of the Year favorite. Boucher needs his outside shot to start falling again, and to play less stiff yet under more control at the defensive end. If he doesn't, his days in Toronto, let alone inside the rotation, could be numbered.
Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson's Outside Shooting
Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson is off to an arctic-cold start from the outside.
And that may be putting it kindly.
Ten games into the season, Clarkson is shooting 21.7 percent from beyond the arc, a career low by a country mile. Bright spots are pretty much nowhere to be found. He's 4-of-17 from the corners (23.6 percent) and 15-of-69 from above the break (21.7 percent).
Dropping in 46 percent of his mid-range jumpers and improving upon last year's clip at the rim has not been enough to salvage his overall efficiency. His 38.8 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers is a bottom-nine mark among 52 players with at least 50 such attempts under their belt.
The Utah Jazz's offense has suffered accordingly with him on the floor. They're 16.8 points per 100 possessions worse when he's in the game, with a demonstratively worse effective field-goal percentage.
Clarkson's three-point shooting fell off last season following a scorching-hot start. He notched a sub-32-percent clip for half the year. Even by those standards, and even with him nailing 54.2 percent of his twos now, his performance has been a huge letdown.
Washington Wizards: Davis Bertans
Davis Bertans is day-to-day with a left ankle sprain but was having his minutes squeezed long before the injury. The Washington Wizards have taken on a more go-getter's approach at the defensive end under new head coach Wes Unseld Jr., a style for which the soon-to-be 29-year-old sharpshooter isn't well-suited.
Especially when his shooting isn't so sharp.
Bertans' splits from the floor are in the toilet through seven appearances. He's shooting 37.5 percent inside the arc (3-of-8) and 33.3 percent from deep (10-of-30). His spiraling efficiency is not the result of more complicated usage, either. Over 76 percent of his attempts (29) have come off the catch, and nearly 60 percent of his looks are classified as open or wide-open (a defender is at least four feet away).
It's tough to envision a worse start to Bertans' year. Figuring out his long-term spot in the rotation is even tougher.
Thomas Bryant (knee) and Rui Hachimura (personal reasons) will eventually make their season debuts, and Montrezl Harrell has been a breath of fresh air. At this rate, Bertans could become a lucratively paid 11th or 12th man before year's end.