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The NBA's Biggest Disappointments
Ding-dongs, injury lies, and more
Well, time to send everyone off to the weekend with a healthy serving of schadenfreude and/or a glass of sadness: it’s time to talk about the biggest disappointments of the NBA season. Maybe I should’ve written this article earlier and the happiest surprises of the season afterward, for a palate cleanser, but too late now!
Disappointment #1: Underachieving Knicks
I admit, the Knicks had me fooled. I’ve never been a big Coach Thibodeau guy, believing he runs his players into the ground and refuses to update the fossilized defensive scheme he popularized in the late 2000s. But the Knicks’ run last year had me believing that they would at least be a competent, seven-ish-seeded team this year, even if some regression seemed likely.
It started with a (*Mike Breen voice*) bang! The Knicks won their season opener in overtime against Boston on the back of some late Evan Fournier heroics and 35 points from Julius Randle. Bing-Bongs were ringing out across the land:
Alas, the good times swiftly came to an end after an initial 5-1 start. Julius Randle remembered that he’s not Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose (somehow the Knicks’ most important player) got hurt, major offseason acquisition Kemba Walker proved to be washed and got sidelined permanently (twice!), the starters were consistently one of the worst units in basketball… the list of things that went wrong this year is long and varied.
Add it all up, and the Knicks are 11th in the East with no chance of climbing back into the play-in tournament. Julius Randle telling his own team’s fans to “shut the f*ck up” beautifully summarizes the year for New York.
Now, the only thing the Bing-Bong Ding-Dongs have to look forward to is some Ping-Pong balls.
Disappointment #2: Selfish Hawks
Let’s not let Atlanta off the hook here. In many ways, the Hawks have been an even bigger disappointment than the Knicks. Fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals run (in which they mercilessly dispatched the Knicks in dramatic fashion) that had Atlanta two wins from the championship round, the Hawks entered the year with high hopes.
Like the Knicks, Atlanta has been a bitter disappointment and currently sits 10th in the East, the final play-in spot.
Unlike the Knicks, however, Atlanta only has one problem: the entire team stinks at defense.
Atlanta has the fourth-best offense in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. They also have the fifth-worst defense, however, and sit at 39-37 on the year: a perfectly mediocre team, not a championship contender.
Point guard Trae Young averages 28 points and almost ten assists per game, but he might be the worst high-minutes defender in the NBA today.
He’s tiny, short-armed, and slow; he has no chance of ever being even an average defender. But would a little effort hurt? Watch as his man screens for Anthony Davis while Young (#11 in yellow, top-right corner) just sort of… stands there:
Trae Young is unlikely to stop AD in the post, but if he had bumped AD or provided any resistance at all, center Clint Capela might’ve been able to get there in time to prevent the easy layup.
Early in the season, Young admitted that the regular season is “a lot more boring than the playoffs.” Unfortunately, that laissez-faire attitude has a trickle-down effect on other players. Atlanta’s regular rotation players have looked less engaged on defense this year outside of De’Andre Hunter, who has missed much of the season due to injury.
Capela cleaned up a lot of the mess last year, when Atlanta had a middle-of-the-pack defense, but he’s looked older and slower this year to an alarming degree. He (and second-year backup Onyeka Okongwu, who has been pushing for more of Capela’s minutes) can’t cover up for all the mishaps happening everywhere around him anymore.
The unexpected success of Atlanta last year changed expectations for the team, both externally and internally. Pat Riley has famously said that winning creates a “disease of more,” in which returning players want more playing time, more money, and more shots. That’s been the case this season, even as the Hawks are proving that last year’s run was, in fact, a fluke.
There have been reports of infighting, allegations of selfishness, and competition for minutes and shots. Shipping out malcontent Cam Reddish to the Knicks for a first-round pick helped a little bit, but it’s clear that this team doesn’t have many players willing to sacrifice for the greater good. If the Hawks lose in the play-in tournament, expect big changes for next year.
Disappointment #3: Injury opacity
Injuries have always been a part of the game, but something fishy has been going on in the NBA this year. There has been an unprecedented surge of teams and players misrepresenting situations, omitting information, or outright lying about injury statuses.
Zion Williamson is the most notable name here. The Pelicans’ GM, David Griffin, announced just weeks before the season that Zion underwent serious foot surgery before promising he’d be ready at the start of the season. Griffin admitted that the timeline was still up in the air just days later.
We’re at game 74, and Zion still hasn’t played.
Griffin has since claimed that the Pelicans kept Williamson’s surgery under wraps due to Zion’s desire for privacy. This is understandable, from Zion’s perspective. But the NBA can’t have it both ways. In a league that actively promotes gambling and relies heavily upon marquee players playing nationally televised games, injury transparency is essential to maintaining fan, sportsbook, and broadcast partner trust. They’ve fined other franchises for less.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that the Pelicans knew the injury would be more severe than they initially disclosed. Zion did suffer a series of setbacks in his rehab, but the Pelicans have continually pleaded the fifth regarding his injury.
They aren’t the only ones. The Bucks continually expressed optimism about Brook Lopez’s back injury before showing their true fears by trading for backup center Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline, which took many observers by surprise. The Nuggets claimed Michael Porter Jr. was days away from returning despite knowing he had suffered a setback “weeks” earlier that would keep him off the court for even longer. Kawhi Leonard (of course!) and Jamal Murray’s returns have been the subject of speculation for months, with teams releasing conflicting reports on the rare occasions they address the injuries at all.
There are legitimate competitive reasons why teams might mislead the public. It makes scouting a team more difficult if opponents don’t know who is available. It can protect a player from cheap shots to an affected area. Being vague about injuries may even be what the player wants, like in Zion’s case.
But those reasons suck, and injury uncertainty has real ramifications both macro and micro. Ask the networks how much they liked learning about Zion’s injury after scheduling a billion primetime Pelicans games. Or the dad who bought his daughter birthday tickets to a game months in advance only to learn the main attraction won’t be playing. Or the sportsbook that’s now on the hook for six figures due to misinformation.
I’m not sure what the league can really do about this. They can be more aggressive about fining teams, but it’s a difficult thing to prove. Injury rehab is a notoriously tricky and uneven process that does not always have the linear progression we want to see. But a league that desperately wants to be seen as open and transparent has a real and growing problem.
Disappointment #4: The sad, sad Lakers
Enough has been written about the Lakers this season, so we won’t spend too much time here. That the Lakers aren’t great isn’t a huge surprise. The Russell Westbrook trade looked awkward from the get-go and has aged like a fruit fly. But the constant stream of bad news from La La Land has been exhausting.
It is unlikely that the Lakers will even make the play-in games, and it comes as a relief. I’m tired of hearing about LA constantly.
Westbrook was as bad a fit as even his biggest haters could have hoped for. The Lakers’ score of minimum-wage veterans has largely unimpressed (except for Carmelo Anthony, who is being asked to do too much but at least has shown signs of life). Kendrick Nunn, one of the few promising young guys on the team, hasn’t played all season due to a bone bruise (he’s another guy that was initially supposed to miss 2-3 weeks and hasn’t come close to returning yet). Talen Horton-Tucker, re-signed instead of Alex Caruso, hasn’t developed.
But none of this matters as much as AD’s continued absence. Anthony Davis is still a world-class defensive player and ideal offensive counterpart to LeBron. If Davis is playing 60 games instead of 37, the Lakers would still be a popular upset pick in the West.
Instead, a team with few promising young players and limited assets is stuck figuring out how it can wriggle back to relevancy next year.
Disappointment #5: Stars wearing out franchises
There has been a surge in the number of teams becoming disillusioned with their stars. Two recent major examples involve LeBron James and Jimmy Butler.
Brian Windhorst came out on a podcast and talked about how LeBron “wears his team out” in four-year cycles. We just talked about the sorry state the Lakers are in, and there has been both internal and fan pushback on LeBron using his muscle to force the front office to make win-now moves (such as trading for Westbrook and then trying to trade him away mid-season).
The Lakers were reportedly displeased when LeBron talked openly about how much he respects Cleveland’s and Oklahoma City’s general managers, a perceived slight towards his own front office.
The Heat, meanwhile, have been dealing with their own drama following a startling sideline spat between Jimmy Butler and the normally-unflappable Erik Spoelstra. There have been whispers for years that Butler and Spo have butted heads, but seeing it air out in public (and draw in Udonis Haslem, who promised to “beat [Butler’s] a**”) was a shock.
Butler has already worn out his welcome in several previous stops, as documented here. Winning cures all ills, however, so these playoffs could go a long way towards determining the future of Butler in Miami. If the team falls short of its championship goals, Miami may look to offload the ornery, aging star.
Other franchises have had their issues, too. The Nets have been frustrated for years with Kyrie Irving’s bizarre behavior and tendency to go AWOL for days at a time, even before his refusal to get vaccinated thrust the team into chaos. They refused to offer him a long-term extension earlier this year.
Philadelphia has had its own problems with the just-traded Ben Simmons in a long and strange saga. The story is too long and complicated to cover here, but this article does a great job of breaking down the nitty-gritty details. Suffice it to say that Philly was ecstatic to trade him and other pieces away for a declining James Harden, and they have still withheld Ben’s pay despite his claims of mental health issues (neither side comes out looking good in this story).
The Pelicans’ patience with the aforementioned Zion Williamson is growing thin, as the third-year injured superstar has done everything but publicly proclaim he wants out. He’s reportedly skipped rehab, fallen asleep in video sessions, and decamped to Portland for further injury rehab without any Pelicans medical staff - a bizarre and worrying decision, although he’s recently returned to New Orleans.
No player on a rookie contract has ever turned down a max contract extension. The biggest recent name to be traded this early in his career was Kristaps Porzingis, another gifted young big man with an ominous history of injuries. The Pelicans are right to do everything they can to make Zion happy and healthy, but if they believe Zion will demand a trade in the near future, they may want to sell on him while the value is still high.
I can’t remember a time when so many franchises were souring on their star players. The age of player empowerment is starting to cause friction with team leadership, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see owners try to address this in some way during the next CBA negotiations. No matter what happens, though, it’s a bad look for the league. The off-court soap opera act is a big part of the NBA’s year-round appeal, but it’s taken an ugly turn this year.