There’s been plenty of awesome stuff in the NBA this season: the nightly superheroics of James Harden and Russell Westbrook; the Golden State Warriors being a league-best source of incineration that can still delightfully burn itself; and, of course, Giannis and JoJo. It’s been fun!
This week’s Four Corners, however, turns attention to that which been less than dope. The topic on the roundtable: What has been the biggest disappointment of the 2016-17 NBA season? Here’s what’s bummed out the BDL crew. Share your picks in the comments below.
The Portland Trail Blazers
I guess we should’ve seen this coming.
The Blazers signed Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli for a combined $85 million, and true to form, they’ve combined for all of 0.6 win shares this season. Of course, Portland had to spend its $24 million in cap space on someone this past summer, since tying up the core that won them 44 games and a playoff series last season will take them over the cap for the foreseeable future. But Turner and Ezeli?
Still, this is, by and large, the same team that was arguably the league’s biggest surprise last season. And it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise nature of the problem in Portland. Last year’s most effective lineup — the starting unit of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Mo Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee — is outscoring opponents by double digits per 100 possessions again this season. Swap Allen Crabbe for Aminu, who has missed 18 games due to injury, and that lineup is still outperforming the opposition by 10.3 points-per-100.
In fact, four of Portland’s top six most-utilized lineups are in the black, and the other two are operating at a negligible loss. Like it or not, the problems begin when Turner and, to a lesser degree, Noah Vonleh take the court. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has yet to find a two-man combo involving Turner that can outperform opponents. When Turner and Lillard share the floor, it’s a disaster, and you don’t even want to know what happens when Turner and Vonleh play together.
The Blazers weren’t good defensively last season, their 105.6 defensive rating ranking 20th in 2015-16, but that was still almost four points-per-100 better than they are now. They still rank among the league’s three best teams at defending the rim, as they did last season, but opponents are shooting at a higher percentage from almost every other zone on the floor. That’s what can happen when you mix a third defensive liability to a backcourt that already featured two.
We should’ve seen this coming. Just not to the degree that Portland (17-23) is on pace for 34 wins and battling the Sacramento Kings for an eighth seed. There is still time for a fix. It just might involve coming to the realization that your $85 million investment was not money well spent. — Ben Rohrbach
The Minnesota Timberwolves
We’re used to seeing Minnesota’s name in the lottery standings deep into January. It’s been an NBA fixture since the team’s Road to Rashad McCants in 2005, and will probably remain a destination in 2017 for a Wolves team stuck at 12-26 entering Wednesday night’s game against the Houston Rockets.
That’s not supposed to be how this was going to work. If the Wolves missed the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year in 2016-17 by a hair, fine. At least they’re competing, and this is the West.
On pace to win just 26 games, though? Tied for fifth in the lottery standings with a Phoenix Suns team that is actively trying to punt the season?
If you’re just checking in, no player is tanking the season in Minnesota. Andrew Wiggins’ disappearing act still allows for his averages to come out tidy — 21.9 points per game thus far — and Zach LaVine has blossomed into a 20-point scorer and 40-percent shooter from long distance at just 21 years of age. Karl-Anthony Towns has cleaned up his shot selection a little of late, and is averaging nearly 22 points, 12 rebounds rebounds and three assists with a block and a half per game. Rookie Kris Dunn’s 38 percent struggles on the field could be blamed on a the typical rookie frustrations.
First-year coach Tom Thibodeau, one would think, would be above all that. This is the guy who turned a mediocre Chicago Bulls team (with some help from the front office) into the league’s best regular-season team during his rookie coaching year in Chicago back in 2010-11. Thibodeau’s defense, ranked 24th in the league in his first turn with Minnesota, has not made its way north.
Thibodeau is working his Wolves batty. Five Timberwolves play more than 30 minutes a game, which is astonishing when you note that one of the participants (guard Ricky Rubio, at 31.5 a contest) is supposed to be in the team’s doghouse. The team has a dodgy bench and the cast of characters is almost entirely filled with young legs (Rubio, at 26, is the elder), but the league as a whole is moving away from heavy minute allotments. It’s telling that if LaVine continues to lead the NBA in minutes — he currently shares top billing with Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry — his 37.4 minutes per contest will stand as the lowest league-leader in minutes played in NBA history.
The Timberwolves aren’t beaten down by Thibodeau yet, but you get the feeling the team is just a loss or two away from collectively recalling the monologue from the episode of “Cheers” in which Coach returned to managing by manning the dugout for a Little League team featuring a young Corey Feldman:
“I can’t take it anymore! You’re too hard on me. I can’t sleep. My pets hate me. I’m starting to smoke again. I’ve had enough and I’m through!”
We’re not quite at the season’s midway point. Perhaps there is some hope left for the pets. — Kelly Dwyer
The Los Angeles Clippers, after their 14-2 start
Heading into this season, basketball fans could be forgiven for thinking that the participants in the 2017 NBA Finals were all but inevitable. The Cleveland Cavaliers remained the class of the East with no clear challenger on hand, and the Golden State Warriors’ summer acquisition of Kevin Durant gave them a talent advantage that appeared insurmountable. Everything else in 2016-17 was to be the lead-up to another June matchup between these teams.
Then the L.A. Clippers started the season 14-2, adding an elite defense to the offensive attack that had previously made them a quasi-contender in the West. With Blake Griffin back to his star self, it looked like the Clippers could emerge as a legitimate threat to the Warriors and help make for a great conference finals. Then they turned into basically the same Clippers team we’ve come to know over the past few seasons.
Chris Paul got hurt for a bit, Griffin is still out a while, and the defense regressed back to normal. Key absences have made their record a little worse than deserved, but Doc Rivers’s team faces an uphill climb to get to a top-three seed and once again figures to enter the postseason as a dark horse, at best. Chances are that the excitement over their start was misplaced; they just had a very impressive stretch earlier than usual, and now we’re all left to assume the same Cavs-Warriors ending we knew to be true. — Eric Freeman
Eastern promises unfulfilled
In general, I’d piggyback off Ben and Kelly to point to the lower reaches of the Western Conference playoff bracket. With teams like Portland, Minnesota, Sacramento, the New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets all struggling with one issue or another — too many injuries, too much youth, not enough defense, insufficient support for tentpole stars, too many decent players without a single great one to bring it all together — the battle for the eighth seed in the West has seemed less a race for the playoffs and more a halftime baby race. Teams briefly get going in the right direction, only to become distracted by flashing lights, upset by loud noises, or deterred by the realization that their diapers have just, very problematically, become full.
Let us not spare the Eastern Conference, though.
Back in October, hardly anybody diverged from the chalk take that the Cleveland Cavaliers would once again represent the East in the NBA Finals come June. Many of us, though, harbored hopes that external additions and internal development would spark the growth of a healthy middle class in the conference. That, um, hasn’t happened.
The Toronto Raptors have continued to look more like a one-or-two-pieces-shy gatekeeper than a true contender, but they’ve held up their end of the bargain as the East’s clear second banana. The Boston Celtics have looked dynamite when healthy, but have been decidedly less than the sum of their parts without their full starting lineup intact. Everybody else? Well, let’s just say we’re decidedly sub-whelmed.
Entering Wednesday’s play, the East’s No. 4 seed is an Atlanta Hawks squad that so clearly recognizes it cannot compete for a championship that it just sold off the second-to-last remaining piece of its golden-days core to the team that has eliminated it from the playoffs two years running, and — insistence to the contrary aside — would do well to see what it can get for shipping out the last piece of that foundation, too. The Pacers are surging, winning five straight and topping 110 points in their last three Ws, but they’ve been Jekyll-and-Hyde all season long — this hot streak comes on the heels of four straight losses — and, despite dynamite play from established star Paul George and emerging star Myles Turner, haven’t taken the hoped-for leap.
The Hornets and Pistons, two teams whose preseason sights were set on pushing 50 wins and vying for home-court in the opening round of the playoffs, haven’t been able to consistently get stops for a solid month. The Bulls’ “Three Alphas” looks have produced more fiascos than firepower. The Knicks remain, inescapably, the Knicks.
The two most enticing teams below the East’s top tiers are John Wall’s Wizards, who just got over .500 for the first time in 14 months, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks … who, to be fair, are pretty freaking enticing. Barring a major second-half shake-up, though, we’re looking at a status-quo top of the conference unlikely to get meaningfully pushed by the throng of mediocrity churning legs to tread water in the middle of the pack. That, in and of itself, isn’t shocking; given the heights of the autumn hopes in more than a few cities east of the Mississippi, though, it’s still kind of a bummer. — Dan Devine
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