Believe it or not, we’ve reached the quarter pole of the shortened 2020-21 NBA season, and in that time a number of surprising storylines have taken shape. Most are of the happy-surprise variety, like how hard LeBron James is playing when we all figured he would approach his 18th regular season on autopilot, or the borderline superstar ascension of Jaylen Brown, or the ridiculed 2020 rookie class almost immediately acquitting itself of the low-ceiling label.
But today, our glass is half empty as we take a look at the most disappointing developments to start this strange season. For the record, I’m leaving out the constant COVID-19 interruptions, as this was expected, though perhaps not to the degree we were seeing games postponed and players entering the protocol through an early stretch that had a lot of people wondering why the NBA wasn’t hitting pause on the season.
So let’s get it going. Here are five of the NBA’s biggest 2020-21 bummers.
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The Pelicans opted not to extend Lonzo Ball’s rookie contract this past offseason for a pretty simple reason: They don’t know if they want to be in the Ball business long term. They need more time to evaluate, and this season is that time with Ball set to hit restricted free agency this summer.
It’s not going well so far.
Entering play on Monday, Ball is shooting 38 percent from the field, and just 29 percent from 3 on over seven attempts per game. You hate to boil Ball’s game down to just shooting, but in the context of his place going forward on the Pelicans, it’s the difference between him being a useful role player and a drag on the potential of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram as a star duo in need of proper spacing.
Ball improved as a 3-point shooter through the first three seasons of his career, going from 30 percent to 33 percent to a 38 percent boom last season, per Cleaning the Glass. The improvement looked real. Ball overhauled his cockeyed mechanics and shot with confidence, even aggression. He couldn’t hit anything in the bubble, but the hope was that would prove to be a blip on the radar and he would return to form this season. It’s still early, but the returns on that hope have been disappointing.
Warriors’ starting-lineup woes
When Klay Thompson went down with a season-ending Achilles tear just as training camp was about to open, the Warriors decided to use their $17.2 million trade exception to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Thunder. Including luxury-tax penalties, the Warriors are paying north of $80 million for Oubre this season, an while nobody expected him to replace Thompson, the notion that he would get off to literally the worst shooting start in NBA history wasn’t exactly a consideration.
Add in the rookie mistakes, and limitations, of James Wiseman, and the Warriors’ starting lineup has been a disaster so far. How bad are we talking? Entering Monday, the Stephen Curry-Oubre-Andrew Wiggins-Draymond Green-Wiseman unit had been outscored by 73 points in 161 minutes. That is by far the worst point differential for any five-man unit in the league that has played even a modicum of minutes together.
It’s a particularly alarming stat for the fact that Curry, for his gravity alone, has been a plus-minus god over the years. You wouldn’t think there would be a five-man unit in the league he couldn’t lift to at least passable levels, but one of the most frustrating parts of watching Golden State’s starters is that Curry accounts for just a 22.8 percent usage rate when he is playing with the starters, which is roughly the same amount of control that … wait for it … Elfrid Payton gets over the Knicks’ offense.
In short, Curry is doing a lot of running around while lesser players control the ball, and ultimately take shots. when it is clear to anyone watching that the best and most consistent shots are generated when Curry is attacking with the ball in his hands. Why Curry’s usage rate balloons to 35 percent when he’s not playing with the starters but is restrained to an average-player number with the starters is becoming an elephant in the room.
“There’s a lot that goes into all that,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Curry’s strikingly low usage rate with the starters, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic. “We see all the numbers and all the combinations. There are plenty of theories that we could talk about. I’m gonna leave that to you guys to assess and figure out.”
One of those those theories, perhaps, could be that the Warriors are more interested in saving Curry’s legs for next season when they feel like they’ll have a chance to compete for a title with Thompson back in the fold. Kerr has also stated he is willing to endure some early season struggles in the interest of getting the lineup he feels gives the Warriors the best defense, and the best chance to succeed in the playoffs, the reps it needs to get comfortable. We’ll see how long he sticks with that.
Jusuf Nurkic has a broken wrist and will be reevaluated in five weeks. CJ McCollum has a broken foot and will be reevaluated in a month. There is no way to overstate what a massive bummer this is for the Blazers, who appeared, on paper, to have their best shot at competing for a Finals berth in the Damian Lillard era.
It doesn’t mean the Blazers are done. Lillard has proven he can carry a team, and if he can keep the Blazers afloat for the next month or so, perhaps they could still be in range of a low playoff seed (remember, 10 teams get in with the expanded play-in series) when McCollum and Nurkic return for a late surge.
But that’s still going to pit them against a great team in the first round, if they even get that far, and that’s also assuming the front end of these timelines. Again, it doesn’t say Nurkic is going to be back in five weeks or McCollum is going to be back in a month; it says they will be reevaluated. It could be a lot longer, and that’s to say nothing of their stunted rhythm upon return.
For McCollum, we’re talking about what was the best rhythm of his career. He was in line to make his first All-Star team, having expanded his shot chart to the tune of a career-high 11 3-pointers per game, which he was making at a career-high 44 percent clip before the injury. And then he goes down. It seems like someone is always going down at a terrible time for the Blazers. This is just another gut punch.
Speaking of gut-punch injuries, Fultz looked like he was trending toward becoming an actual good NBA basketball player rather than one whose bar was so low that we had to exaggerate his every functional contribution. Then boom, he tears his ACL eight games into his season.
Fultz’s shooting was still way below average to start the season, but he at least looked capable from 3 and his midrange pull-up looked, dare I say, smooth. For a guy as strong as he is with the ball, bullying his way into the lane and to the rim with an offbeat cadence and savvy court sense, not to mention his being a strong, versatile defender, Fultz’s lack of 3-point range was becoming an acceptable tradeoff.
Considering what he went through mentally and physically after being drafted No. 1 overall in 2017, and now this, it’s hard to think of a guy who’s had a more challenging start to his career. That Fultz kept his head down and improved enough to get a $50 million contract extension this past offseason feels like nothing short of a basketball miracle considering how low he had sunk, and at least we can be thankful he got his money and secured his future before this latest injury hit.
Old stars burning out
Blake Griffin, once as high-flying an act as the NBA had to offer, has yet to record a single dunk this season. He looks like he would be seriously challenged to hit a 20-inch vertical. He looks slow and old. In recent years, his becoming a legitimate 3-point shooter felt like a development that could perhaps catapult him back to All-Star levels. Now it’s the only thing keeping him in the league as he simply can’t generate any lift or explosion. And even the 3 aren’t anything to speak of; he’s shooting just 32 percent for the season, and even that number is small-sample skewed after he began the season nine for his first 38 (23 percent) attempts from deep.
Along the same lines, Russell Westbrook, though he’s only played seven games for the Wizards, looks absolutely nothing like his old self. Well, check that. He actually does look like his old self as he misfires away from the midrange — where he is taking 54 percent of his shots despite converting them at just a 33 percent clip. Westbrook can’t get to the rim like he used to, and his 41.8 eFG, per Cleaning the Glass, puts him in the 17th percentile league-wide.
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