The 10 Biggest Disappointments of the NBA Season so Far

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Enough of the NBA‘s 2021-22 regular season has unfolded to begin reacting to the biggest shocks and starkest letdowns. Let’s start with the latter.

    Missed expectations are the impetus behind every inclusion. If you’re disappointed the Oklahoma City Thunder have a bottom-three offense and defense, I applaud your hopeless romanticism, but I’m also not sure what to tell you.

    Only matters of pure basketball will be put under our microscope. Put another way: This is a Kyrie Irving– and Ben Simmons-free space. Matters of youth and development will also be bounced from consideration. Inexperience demands patience, and certain cases, such as Killian Hayes’ fourth-quarter playing time, are a drag but not a true gut punch.

    Disappointments fueled mostly by injury are excluded, as well. Let the Indiana Pacers perimeter rotation get healthy before entering panic mode. (Related: Welcome back, Caris LeVert!) Give the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense a pass while Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo have played a combined 71 minutes. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Every early-season bummer is presented with the caveat that they have plenty of time to reverse course. Cold streaks can warm up in the span of a night or two. Stats and rankings can heavily shift by the day. This is merely a look at teams and players (and game-play details) that have underachieved so far.

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Kudos to the NBA and its officials for cracking down on offensive playacting and inorganic flailing. The new emphasis on non-basketball moves has made for an instantly more free-flowing, watchable product—even if, anecdotally, there seem to be more maulings going unaddressed around the basket.

    Next up should be a focus on eliminating intentional fouls to stop a fast break.

    They are annoying. They enable vapid efforts from those who don’t wish to sprint back on defense. And they’re arguably worse than clear-path fouls. Those are at least a reaction to everyone being behind the play.

    Eradicating these buzzkills shouldn’t be difficult. Give the offensive team two free throws and the ball whenever they happen and let’s call it day. Going this route doesn’t promise better defensive energy across the board, but it will preserve the cadence of the game and, perhaps, gift us with a few more “Player X is built different 😤” caption-worthy highlights.

    Spare me any concern about the subjectivity of these calls. Clear-path infringements are more formulaic and easier to judge. I get it. But Euro fouls are painfully obvious, which is part of the problem. Guys aren’t even pretending to make actual plays against the ball anymore. They’re hacking and reaching with haphazard leadfootedness.

    Referees, analysts, bloggers, fans and randos off the street who’ve never seen a basketball game can all spot these lame tactics. They’re absolute butt. Let’s get rid of them.

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    Zeroing in on the Boston Celtics’ defense is actually unnecessary. They’re a collective disappointment—two games under .500, with an offense that ranks in the bottom 10ish of points scored per possession and effective field-goal percentage.

    Still, despite crawling into the top half of defensive efficiency following their double-overtime loss to the Washington Wizards, the Celtics have to rethink their approach at the less glamorous end. Head coach Ime Udoka has them switching almost everything. There is a real 2020-21 Sacramento Kings feel to the frequency with which they swap assignments. The Celtics just happen to have the personnel to do it without seeming so aimless.

    That’s not an endorsement. Switching so often has compromised the fundamentals of Boston’s defense. No team is fouling opponents at a higher rate, and the Celtics rank 21st in offensive rebounding percentage. 

    Remedying both feels like low-hanging fruit. Boston’s rebounding should at the very least be better if its bigs aren’t spending so much time guarding on the perimeter. It might have a trickle-down effect on their offense, too.

    Switching expends a ton of energy. Maybe players start making more shots. Or maybe they’ll simply have the stamina to attack with more urgency after opponent makes. Tasking Jaylen Brown and Al Horford with switching after they both just had COVID-19 also seems unnecessarily mean.

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    Kyrie Irving’s absence does not make the Brooklyn Nets’ offensive struggles any less disappointing. They are 23rd in points scored per possession, a standing that actually worsened following Friday night’s victory over the Indiana Pacers.

    James Harden‘s uncharacteristically inefficient outings continue to receive the most shine. He put together a more complete performance versus Indiana, racking up 19 free-throw attempts, and his accuracy from beyond the arc has avoided rock bottom. But he’s still shooting 38.6 percent on twos for the year while reaching the rim at a career-low clip.

    Adjusting to the new vendetta against non-basketball moves is clearly an issue. A lot of Harden’s strategies and gimmicks on drives no longer fly, at least not consistently. His warts so far are worth watching, albeit far from harbingers of doom. He is still working his way back from a right hamstring injury that limited his activity all offseason.

    Also: Harden alone isn’t responsible for the Nets’ wonky offensive returns. They are 28th in the share of shot attempts that come at the rim and drilling under 34 percent of their three-point looks. Joe Harris and Blake Griffin are both converting fewer than 38 percent of their two-pointers. The frontcourt rotation, aside from Kevin Durant, is a logjammy haze of age and Nic Claxton, who didn’t look right before missing the past few games with an illness. The wing rotation is thin and even thinner on shooters. DeAndre’ Bembry is getting real minutes.

    Chances are Harden and the rest of Brooklyn’s offense will be fine. What’s happening in the interim, though, remains legitimately shocking.

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    Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

    Luka Doncic needs help. Still.

    It’s been a matter of fact for some time. 

    And yet, even by we-knew-Luka-needed-help standards, the Mavs offense has been bad. They rank 28th in points scored per possession, an almost impressively crappy mark knowing they placed eighth last year and didn’t dispose of any mission-critical on-court personnel over the summer.

    Some unlucky outside shooting is at fault. Brown (11.1 percent), Bullock (33.3 percent), Doncic (25.7 percent), Dorian Finney-Smith (19.2 percent) and Kristaps Porzingis (23.5 percent) won’t all notch bottom-of-the-barrel clips until the end of time. But certain dynamics need to change.

    Porzingis, currently dealing with a back injury, is at the center of most. The KP-Dwight Powell frontcourt tandem needs to go. Forever. Times infinity. Though Porzingis is not technically posting up more frequently, his volume in these situations probably needs to go, too. He’s averaging 0.50 points per possession on those sets.

    Head coach Jason Kidd has also empowered him to dribble into and jack more mid-range jumpers. That’s a no-no, as well. Nearly half of KP’s attempts are coming from mid-range, by far his most in Dallas, and he’s hitting them at a 26 percent clip.

    Patience is to some degree important here. Doncic, like some others, doesn’t yet seem used to the new emphasis on unnatural basketball moves. But the crux of Dallas’ issues aren’t going away. This team isn’t built to put more pressure on the basket—the Mavs are dead-last in rim frequency—or have its non-Luka players create off the dribble.

    Something needs to give. In this case, it’s a transaction. There is a subgenre of Mavs Twitter clamoring for Goran Dragic, who’s been seldom used so far. Dallas downgraded its coaching without materially upgrading its personnel. The offense should eventually climb out of the dungeons, but it’ll remain capped without the acquisition of another primary-type ball-handler.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Spotlight the Denver Nuggets’ overall depth if you’re vibing macro spiciness. They remain far too dependent on Nikola Jokic to manufacture offense, even for a team without its second-best player and a fringe All-Star in Jamal Murray.

    Denver has a couple of all-backup or bench-heavy units that are getting obliterated. The Nuggets offensive rating during these no-Jokic stretches currently ranks inside the 1st percentile, which, well, yuck.

    Michael Porter Jr.’s downturn is exacerbating the issue, if not outwardly defining it. Denver signed him to a max extension because he has a superstar’s peak at the offensive. He was, quite literally, one of the most efficient scorers in NBA history last year. No one else has ever averaged 15 or more points per game while shooting at least 60 percent on twos and 40 percent on threes.

    So far, this year isn’t proving to be a good follow-up campaign. MPJ is playing his buttocks off, but he doesn’t have the same telepathic connection with Jokic that Murray does, and he’s clearly not accustomed to an offensive role not entirely streamlined.

    His 25 percent shooting from deep is an eyesore, and he’s knocking down just 42.1 percent of his twos. His average dribbles per touch are actually down from last year, but so is the average on his points per touch. It’s almost been halved, going from 0.460 to 0.255.

    All the usual “it’s early” disclaimers apply. Porter’s efficiency should rebound. But the Nuggets also need him to be less dependent on the minutes he spends next to Jokic. His true shooting percentage drops from a freezing-cold 43 beside the reigning MVP to a frost-bitten 32.4 without him—all while not seeing a major uptick in usage. Denver’s offensive rating, not surprisingly, fails to sniff 99 in those stretches. It has to hope this is the absolute nadir for Porter, otherwise this season will be far more complicated than their 4-2 record implies.

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Others may prefer to focus on Russell Westbrook‘s awkward fit with the Los Angeles Lakers. That issue is too much of a given. The highs, lows and haplessly sideways journeys come as no surprise.

    The performance of the Anthony Davis-at-the-5 arrangements are a different story.

    Sticking AD in the middle is supposed to be the Lakers’ lineup du jour, the functional tweak that rains mismatches upon opponents and irons out the Westbrook wrinkles while surviving on defense. It hasn’t yet been that cheat code. The Lakers found success with AD manning the middle in Friday night’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re losing the minutes with him at center for the season.

    They needn’t worry about the offense during these stretches. It is the advertised amount of potent. But the defense is coughing up 117.6 points per 100 possessions, struggling on the glass, fouling a ton and allowing opponents to shoot better than 66 percent at the rim.

    Small-sample theater? Perhaps. But the goal isn’t to tread water through these minutes. The Lakers need to dominate them. They outscored opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions with Davis at center last year, albeit across a tiny sample size, without getting waxed at the defensive end. That’s tougher to do now given their shift in personnel.

    Davis-at-the-5 arrangements are no longer dotted with some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma. LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will be at the 4 (until Trevor Ariza gets healthy) while the guard rotation is populated by Westbrook, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore and, apparently, Austin Reaves.

    Once more, with lots of feeling: It’s early. Ariza has yet to play. Talen Horton-Tucker, too. Nothing can be deemed irreversible. But the Lakers’ decision to discard three of their five most important defenders from last season was questionable in the moment. That uncertainty persists now.

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Three-point regression was inevitable for the Los Angeles Clippers. “On fire” was their default mode last season. They canned almost 42 percent of their triples as a team. There would be no encore of that magnitude.

    But like this?

    The Clippers are shooting 31.1 percent from beyond the arc (26th), including just 29.7 percent on above-the-break threes (26th). Last year, they had seven regular rotation players average at least three long-range attempts per game and drain them at a clip of 39 percent or better. This season, they have two regular rotation players shooting above 33.3 percent from deep, period (Paul George and Luke Kennard).

    Freezing cold should not be the Clippers’ new status quo. Someone from the Terance Mann (33.3 percent), Reggie Jackson (29.2 percent), Marcus Morris Sr. (27.3 percent) and Nicolas Batum (21.1 percent) gaggle will progress to a (much) higher mean. Eric Bledsoe’s sub-20-percent clip is probably a touch too low, but not overwhelmingly anomalous. A healthy Serge Ibaka will help the cause. 

    Kawhi Leonard’s absence looms over the bigger picture. The Clippers were at a shot-creation deficit with him. Soldiering on without him makes every possession infinitely harder. Sludgier. There is no guarantee their 26th-ranked offense—which includes a bottom-five success rate at the rim—will get a seismic bump, not even as Ibaka (back) and Morris (left knee) return from injury.

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Full disclosure: The Phoenix Suns were my preseason title pick. So, while I wouldn’t call this personal, I am dying inside just a little.

    The Suns have served up a league-average offense while attempting to implement new stuff and shooting poorly from behind the rainbow. They’re still sub-27 percent on the above-the-break missiles. Booker, Chris Paul, Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne and Abdel Nader will all shoot better. Mikal Bridges will continue to get more comfortable with his dramatic increase in frontcourt touches.

    Perhaps CP3’s struggles are worth harping on. He cobbled together a nice performance in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, but he’s 36. Could this be the year’s lost a step?

    Even that’s tough to get worked up over. The Suns still have Booker, who remains an expert playmaker and manipulator. He has a 2.6-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio right now. He won’t continue to be a coin-toss finisher around the rim.

    Phoenix’s overall defense is a more pressing concern. It escaped a rock-bottom ranking in Saturday’s win but needed a 47-10 run, after trailing by double-digits, to do so.

    Opponents will not keep smoking the Suns from three all season. A 40-plus-percent clip from downtown is untenable even if they’re all wide-open gimmes. Phoenix is largely OK versus set offenses to boot. Functioning in faster situations has hurt more. The Suns are getting nuked in transition and moving like they’re wearing concrete shoes after committing turnovers.

    Another disclosure: I remain less than mildly concerned. The Suns had a shorter offseason than most. Booker played in the Olympics. And then got COVID-19. Players are adjusting to new or higher-volume roles.

    Make no mistake, a Finals participant losing three of its first four games and then needing to climb out of a double-digit hole against Cleveland to avoid going 1-4 isn’t ideal. The Suns seem like a team that misses Torrey Craig. Like, really misses him. Overall, though, they look sloggy. Not broken. Feel free to bookmark this for the whatever-percent chance I’m wrong and blinded by own agenda.

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    Damian Lillard got it right on Twitter. A short-term rut out of the gate doesn’t erase a decade of general incandescence. 

    It also doesn’t make the start of his season any less colder. Lillard is shooting 26.2 percent from deep and 28 percent on mid-range jumpers. For context, he finished last season at 39.1 percent and 40 percent, respectively. His shooting is a disappointment precisely because it’s been the exact opposite since approximately the dawn of time.

    On the bright side, Lillard is already flirting with a return to form. He went 4-of-11 from downtown during the Portland Trail Blazers’ Wednesday night victory over the Memphis Grizzlies and then followed that up with a 5-of-7 clip from distance in Friday’s win against LA Clippers. He is shooting 57.1 percent (8-of-14) on off-the-dribble triples during this small burst.

    Spotlighting Lillard is almost more about the Blazers than his onset slump. They’re not sustaining a top-seven offense without him flamethrowing off the bounce on a regular basis and don’t have the margin for error to win games without one.

    Steady, unrelenting blocks of Dame Time are the standard in Portland. Anything less, for anything longer than a game or two, is genuinely flooring.

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    De’Aaron Fox is coming off a monster fourth year in which he averaged 25.2 points and 7.2 assists while shooting a career-best 53.9 percent on twos and showcasing an operable step-back three. It was a performance worthy of monstrous expectations—a standard Fox is currently missing.

    His efficiency has been nightmarish. He’s downing 16.1 percent of his threes and seen his accuracy inside three feet plunge by more than 10 percentage points. Among the 70 players who have attempted 25 or more pull-up jumpers this season, his 31.4 effective field-goal percentage ranks 67th.

    Time is always the antidote to nosedives this monumental. But Fox still needs to improve his decision-making on the attack. His mid-range shot selection is iffy, to put it kindly, and he’s sporting a slapdash handle. His 12 percent turnover rate on drives is the fourth highest among everyone who has finished at least 50 of these plays.

    Glass-half-full optimists can and should point out that the Sacramento Kings have not imploded amid Fox’s funky start. They have a top-10 offense, thanks in large part to the molten-hot Harrison Barnes, and scooped up two quality, gutsy wins against Portland and Phoenix.

    Great. Grand. Wonderful.

    Borderline immaterial.

    Fox is the Kings’ ceiling. They’re not contending for a top-six-to-play-in seed if he’s anything less than the inarguable star he was last season.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Sunday’s games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math’s Adam Fromal.

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