Ranking the 7 Biggest Disappointments in the NBA This Season
Believe it or not, the 2020-21 NBA season is nearing its quarter-pole. How did we get here? Who knows. It's a blur. It has involved a lot of postponements, plenty of blowouts, exactly one James Harden trade and a slew of surprises, both good and bad.
Making sense of this year's landscape is tough under the circumstances—shortened offseasons for some, extended breaks for others, abridged training camps for everyone, injuries and absences due to health and safety protocols galore. So many letdowns and come-ups are genuinely disarming, and they can be hard to interpret.
Since we're here, though, we might as well take a stab at rationalizing those letdowns.
Not all the headlining disappointments will be included. Anything related to injuries or COVID-19 is not up for discussion. Those setbacks are gutting. They're also beyond teams' control so long as the NBA plans to continue playing basketball games.
This exercise is only for the most alarming on-court situations—the stark deviations from preseason expectations or situations in which there doesn't appear to be an obvious way out from onset struggles.
7. Sacramento Kings
Nobody was forecasting a banner year from the Sacramento Kings. They were still supposed to be more entertaining than...whatever we're seeing now.
Silver linings are not nonexistent. They're just hard to find after Tyrese Haliburton (really good) and Richaun Holmes (really underappreciated).
De'Aaron Fox is fine—he's shooting almost 41 percent from deep over his last five games—but hasn't made a tremendous leap. The Kings are 17th in transition frequency and not getting on the break a great deal more when he's playing. That's borderline criminal.
Marvin Bagley III has perked up on offense lately but isn't nearly consistent enough and remains a non-entity on defense. Opponents are shooting 75 percent against him at the rim, the second-worst mark in the league among 62 players contesting at least four point-blank looks per game. (Of note: Buddy Hield is 62nd.)
Sacramento's defense at large is a disaster. It isn't any singular issue, either.
The Kings surrender a ton of three-point attempts and, unsurprisingly, rank 30th in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim. They don't force turnovers. They foul more than any team that is dead last in forcing turnovers should. They do an extremely poor job finding their matchups after missed shots; rival offenses are feasting in transition. They're losing track of shooters. They're not equipped to put up a fight against power wings.
On a scale of 1 to 10, disenchantment should be at 11. The Kings are neither built to defend nor, it seems, win. Watch them heading into the trade deadline. Fox (signed an extension) and Haliburton are safe. Everyone else—including Holmes, who is a free agent after this season—should be considered expendable.
Honorable Mentions: Russell Westbrook (currently out with left quad injury), Denver's defense, Portland's defense, Devonte' Graham's shooting/finishing and Minnesota's everything.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans have not consigned themselves to any one direction. They have enough younglings that they can chalk this year up to development but remain talented enough on paper to chase a postseason entry.
They are still a disappointment relative to those ambiguous standards.
It starts on offense, where they are playing entirely too slow. They are 25th in average possession time, according to Impredictable, and 19th in transition frequency. These terms of engagement are unacceptable for any team housing Zion Williamson, but especially one that wants for reliable half-court creators.
Brandon Ingram gives the Pelicans one ball-handler who can initiate the offense and get downhill without a frenetic head start. They don't really have another. Eric Bledsoe needs a burst of steam when defenses still don't give a damn about his outside shot. Zion is best zooming down the middle off the catch, not as a ball-handler.
Lonzo Ball has never been that player and isn't a threat to finish when he tries to be. He's shooting 31.3 percent on drives, a bottom-six mark among 117 players who have made at least five appearances and are averaging five or more downhill attacks per game. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a viable alternative, but New Orleans can only afford to give him so much license over the offense.
Iffy spacing is also starting to catch up with the Pelicans.
They are 26th in three-point accuracy and 24th in the percentage of their looks that come from downtown. And they don't have the personnel for either to change. JJ Redick (31.8 percent from deep) will get better, but Ball (30.8 percent), Josh Hart (31.9 percent) and Nicolo Melli (18.8 percent) aren't givens to improve. New Orleans should probably ditch Melli minutes altogether at this point.
Even the Pelicans' hot start on defense has faded.
Giving up long-range attempts more often than anyone else is no longer having the intended effect, and only the Kings are allowing a higher conversion rate at the rim. Defensive rebounding isn't an issue, per se, but they need Zion to do more on the glass. He has a lower defensive rebounding rate than Ingram, and New Orleans is getting waxed on the boards whenever he plays without Steven Adams.
By no means is this season playoffs-or-bust for the Pelicans. They are, however, running out of time to define this year's direction.
5. MIami Heat
Returning to action so soon after making the NBA Finals gave the Miami Heat some wiggle room to struggle. The thing is, they're almost already out of runway.
Suboptimal energy has been a popular talking point, but the Heat's early-season malaise feels like more than a matter of fatigue. At the very least, they're battling enough issues to start asking uncomfortable questions.
Can the offense get its turnovers under control? Will Tyler Herro-at-point guard minutes become more palatable? Can they shoot better than not-quite-average from beyond the arc? Should Herro and Duncan Robinson both be starting when the roster is at full strength?
Are they this bad at guarding the three-point line, or are opponents just getting lucky? Does the bench have any defensive rebounding juice? Do they need a more dynamic option at the 4—you know, someone like Jae Crowder? Can they begin limiting the amount of time opponents spend in transition?
Aspects of the Heat's performance should normalize.
Rival offenses won't swish more than 40 percent of their above-the-break threes forever. They won't look as lethargic on 50-50 balls. Benefit of the doubt should be given to both a reigning Finals participant and a team working off the shortest offseason in the history of offseasons. Miami is not as deep as the Los Angeles Lakers after prioritizing 2021 flexibility during free agency.
Watching the Heat, though, it still seems like they're one shot-creator and wing-sized 4 short of staging a legitimate Eastern Conference title defense.
4. Deandre Ayton's Inconsistency
Grace periods must be baked in for teams undergoing wholesale face-lifts, and after they added Chris Paul, you better believe that includes the Phoenix Suns.
Deandre Ayton isn't the only one going through the motions.
Devin Booker is struggling to find himself within an offense that has another star. He still butchers defenses on-ball, but his turnover rate has spiked, and his shot totals seem subject to wild swings. The starting lineup in general has flopped. Head coach Monty Williams went with Cameron Johnson in place of Jae Crowder to open the Jan. 18 matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, which the Suns lost.
No player appears to be going through more of an existential crisis than Ayton. His performance waxes and wanes, to the point he's become almost unpredictable on a night-to-night basis.
Weirdly, though not entirely shockingly, Ayton is choppiest on the offensive end. Playing beside both Booker and Paul requires an adjustment, but he's not saddled with total reinvention. His 5.4 post-ups per game are right in line with last year's 6.2. His problems seem more rooted in approach. He isn't rolling to the basket off screens as hard—or as often.
About 37 percent of his field-goal attempts come inside three feet, down roughly 9 percent from last year. His free-throw-attempt rate is up but still too low. He goes from tallying consecutive 20-plus-point performances to start January to barely getting up 10 shots per night in the two weeks that follow.
The idea of Ayton continues to tantalize. He played with peak aggression during Phoenix's loss to Memphis (18 points on 14 shots). The Suns need that version of him more often. Otherwise, they may have to start thinking about whether he's most valuable to them as a trade asset.
3. Kelly Oubre Jr.'s Offense
Kelly Oubre Jr. always profiled as a less-than-perfect fit for the Golden State Warriors. Sure, he can devastate in the open floor. But he's not a knockdown shooter, and his defensive contributions are rooted in intermittent disruption.
The Oubre experience is very much a roller coaster, and shallower teams, like the Warriors, are going to fuh-eel the ups, downs, twists, turns and loop-de-loops.
What Golden State has so far experienced is something worse—something more turbulent.
Though Oubre drained six of his last 15 three-point attempts (40 percent) entering a Jan. 18 tilt with the Los Angeles Lakers, in which he briefly showed how a pivotal performance could elevate his team's ceiling, he's still right around 20 percent for the season. Out of 171 players who have attempted at least 25 above-the-break treys, his 14.3 percent clip ranks...171st. He is downing a ghastly 34.4 percent of his layups and ranks among the least efficient scorers on wide-open shot opportunities.
It is fair to deem this a rut. Oubre is much closer to a league-average long-range shooter than the NBA's absolute worst. He's also playing for a new team. Transition takes time.
For the Warriors' sake, they better hope time is all this takes. Their half-court offense is struggling even with Stephen Curry on the court. They can't afford to have Oubre slumping this hard for much longer.
2. Toronto Raptors
Little about the Toronto Raptors' season makes any sense—including the feel-good surprises.
Chris Boucher has been something like their second-best player. Stanley Johnson is shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. Norman Powell is splashing in 42.4 percent of his triples and 34.0 percent of his twos and playing approximately zero defense.
Pascal Siakam has pieced together some encouraging performances but is up-and-down at best. Defenses are ready for his spins to nowhere, and he's still absent a dependable in-between game. The Raptors sorely need him to sniff league-average efficiency from three-point range again.
Aron Baynes and Alex Len have not been great. The offense is somehow 11th in points scored per possession despite its limitations outside of transition. The defense is 23rd in points allowed per possession, getting burned from behind the rainbow and fouling too much without grabbing enough boards or locking down the rim. OG Anunoby is still a terrifying on-ball stopper but needs to hone his ball control.
Kyle Lowry is forever.
Interpret everything as you wish—if you dare. It has all amounted to a bottom-three record in the East. And while the number of losses the Raptors have suffered in crunch time (five) suggests they're closer than not to figuring it out, they've yet to do anything that proves they top out as more than a first-round steppingstone.
1. Trae Young
Trae Young's season began innocently enough. His three-ball has seldom fallen consistently, but he offset that variance with charity-stripe parades. Through his first four games, he averaged 33.0 points, 8.3 assists and a mind-melting 15.5 free-throw attempts.
And then his production fell off a cliff.
Since Jan. 1, Young is averaging 18.3 points, 8.8 assists and 6.4 free-throw attempts while shooting just 22.2 percent from long distance. His floater isn't finding nylon nearly as frequently, either. He's hitting those baby push shots at a 35.7 percent clip (20-of-56).
Not surprisingly, the Atlanta Hawks aren't looking so hot. They are 2-6 since Young's free-throw drought began—he does have games with 15 and 12 free-throw attempts over this span—and have gone 0-4 in crunch-time matchups. More complicated still, a report from The Athletic's Sam Amick and Chris Kirschner stated that this slide has coincided with John Collins aiming thinly veiled critiques in his direction.
Injuries to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, Danilo Gallinari and Cam Reddish have no doubt impacted the Hawks more than bruised egos. And let's not forget, Young is an offensive star. His freezing-cold start is a phase, not a new normal.
That doesn't make his overall performance any less of a letdown. The Hawks had the look and feel of a playoff lock entering the season, but that was always predicated upon Young playing like he did last year, if not better. Anything less from him and a more favorable health bill or not, they're liable to remain where they are now: uncomfortably close to falling outside the East's top 10.