Biggest disappointments of 2012-13
The Point Forward has already run down the most spectacular offensive performances and the best dunks of the season. Now, we continue our look at the 2012-13 season by focusing on the teams and players who haven’t measured up. I put together the NBA’s All-Disappointment team in late December, but let’s widen the scope to examine the biggest disappointments for the full season — be they individual players or teams.
Los Angeles Lakers
Hyped as the next great super team, the Lakers have been far and away the season’s biggest disappointment. There were questions of fit, but such a prodigious collection of talent seemed destined for greater things — a high playoff seed, a chance to win the Western Conference and possibly even the potential to play foil to the Heat’s small-ball evolution. None of that has come to pass, as what seemed to be a sure thing has sagged to the very edges of the postseason picture. These Lakers aren’t even remotely relevant from a contention perspective, and frankly haven’t been a very good team even when healthy.
Los Angeles’ offense has been stilted this season, but it’s to Kobe Bryant’s amazing credit that scoring hasn’t been much of an issue. Bryant has been good enough to bear the burden of solo shot creation through injuries to Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Blake, among others, and though he’s as voracious a shot-taker as ever, he’s at least getting to the basket a bit more frequently than in seasons past and masquerading as something of a playmaker on the occasions he feels it appropriate.
Yet defense — and especially transition defense — has lingered as a team problem all season. Even the added stakes of potentially making (or really, of missing) the playoffs hasn’t done a ton to radically change L.A.’s level of effort or focus on that end. Tuesday’s game against New Orleans provided a fine example: The Lakers ultimately pulled out the game (and took a half-game lead on the Jazz for the eighth seed) thanks to a combination of heady fourth-quarter play and good fortune, but they nevertheless allowed various Hornets players to score on wide-open cuts to the front of the rim. The defense is better but still so unglued that it struggles to maintain a cohesive rotation against even an average offensive team.
Some players adapt to the NBA game more gradually than others, but Turner — now a 24-year-old former No. 2 pick — has run out of his developmental grace period. His do-it all game remains a riddle to Sixers coach Doug Collins, who unfortunately hasn’t been much help in repurposing this clutter of skills into a useful player. For that reason alone, it’s unfair to heap all of the blame on Turner himself, but this has nevertheless been a season of inertia for a confounding talent.
Turner has improved in spots, perhaps most dramatically as a three-point shooter, an area in which he has vaulted from 22.4 percent to 36.9 percent this year. But even that change seems almost accidental: Turner conceded that his recent three-point proficiency came without practice or adjustment, a candid admission that doesn’t exactly bode well for the sustainability of his shooting stroke. Turner is more or less the same player he’s been for the past two seasons — a bit better schooled in the ins and outs of the league, but still without anything resembling a comfortable role.
If anyone knows what it is exactly that coach Tyrone Corbin is doing in terms of managing his rotation, I’d love to know. This was supposed to be a year of gradual change, with the Jazz better incorporating the emerging Derrick Favors, 21, giving a chance to second-year players Alec Burks and Enes Kanter and seeing the next step in the development of third-year swingman Gordon Hayward. Instead, Utah worked its offense through Al Jefferson to a fault and compounded its problems through Corbin’s baffling lineup constructions.
His choices have been a bit better of late, but I fail to trace the logic in Corbin’s strategic decisions — namely his reluctance to balance out the offense away from Jefferson’s post-centric work and the seeming lack of defensive direction that makes matters worse for a team that needs more schematic help than it gets. The Jazz’s young players have produced some fantastic showings when compensating for teammates’ injuries, but otherwise this team has accomplished so amazingly little in the way of legitimate progress.
Gordon spent the first 205 games of his career shooting around 45 percent while toiling on terrible teams, but this season has seen a sharp dip in his percentages from the field (40.3) and the three-point line (32.5) — all while playing for the best offensive team he’s been a part of yet. It doesn’t make much sense, frankly, but in that way it manages to fit perfectly with the other befuddling elements of Gordon’s tenure in New Orleans.
Things have been dour since Gordon was acquired in the Chris Paul trade and have only grown stranger through the 24-year-old guard’s flirtation with the Suns last offseason (he received an offer sheet from Phoenix that New Orleans matched) as well as his public disputes and miscommunication with Hornets coach Monty Williams. Their relationship came to a head over the weekend, but it’s kind of amazing that Gordon’s issues have lingered this long. He’s a good, well-compensated player on a young, promising team. But unrest has ruled every stage of Gordon’s career in New Orleans and may well compel general manager Dell Demps to peruse the trade market for lower-maintenance alternatives.
Several offseason moves gave coach Dwane Casey an interesting group from which to cobble together a rotation, and a sound defensive foundation from which to work after last season’s successes. In a single year, Casey had taken one of the worst defense teams in the league to a few clips above the league average — all without anything resembling a traditional defensive anchor and while relying on players generally viewed as unreliable individual defenders. It was a master class in collective effort and better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts execution, and another season with better resources figured to march the Raptors a bit closer to Casey’s defensive ideal.
Few of the offseason’s additions have panned out, however, and the defense has slipped to 22nd in points allowed per possession. Kyle Lowry, once an incredibly tenacious on-ball defender and relentless power-driver, has relaxed his bold game to very clear detriment. Andrea Bargnani continues to be one of the greatest sources of frustration in the league, whether through injury or inefficacy. Landry Fields has returned miserable value on a mid-level contract. Terrence Ross, the eighth pick in 2012, hasn’t had the chance to provide much of a lift on either end of the court. And fellow rookie Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth pick in 2011, will clearly take some time to round into the kind of defensive difference-maker whom Casey desires.
It could be worse, considering that the Raptors have still managed the 10th-best record in the Eastern Conference. But some thought the Raptors were a fringe playoff possibility based on their continued defensive improvement, a thought that now seems like some sort of cruel joke.
What is worse: After the acquisition of Rudy Gay, Toronto is now limited by cap troubles over the next two seasons. If there’s an easy way out of this mess — a mess that Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo more or less created, I might add — I know not of it.
Wealth of injuries
Injuries are an unavoidable drag on every season, but this year far too many intriguing teams have been saddled with far too many significant injuries. The Timberwolves may be the most glaring case. An alluring, high-octane offense came off its hinges without the steadying presence of Kevin Love and the shooting of Chase Budinger, not to mention the periodic absences of most every rotation player. The Lakers and Knicks have both suffered injuries aplenty, though in part because of their reliance on aging talent. Derrick Rose’s absence continues to define Chicago’s play and limitations. And Danilo Gallinari’s torn ACL may well dash Denver’s title hopes.
The Celtics are doing fine without Rajon Rondo and the Pacers are peachy without Danny Granger, but injuries to those two stars has sapped the Eastern Conference playoffs of some of their intrigue. The Sixers likely would have earned a postseason berth if Andrew Bynum had been available instead of sidelined the entire season. Kyrie Irving (who has missed 23 games) and Anderson Varejao (52 games) could have made the Cavs’ play more redeemable, and a full season of Dirk Nowitzki may have rendered the current bubble battle between the Lakers and Jazz irrelevant.
The absences are — and have been — glaring across the league. Active teams and players have done a terrific job of making us forget about what’s been lost to torn ligaments and arthroscopic surgeries, but the collective impact of those maladies has made an indelible mark on the season.
It can often be intriguing to chart the growth of a young coach. Every year brings new challenges and different kinds of opponents, each pulling a coach further out of his comfort zone. Some adjust to those changes and some don’t, and I worry that the Thunder’s Brooks may well fall into the latter category.
Brooks has made some subtle improvements in his offensive sets over the last few seasons, but his continued reliance on intangible voodoo — be it the lingering presence of Kendrick Perkins or the bizarre insistence on playing Derek Fisher — doesn’t bode well. Perkins is a bit of a drain, but the center has at least proved to be the kind of drain that the Thunder starters can manage in select contexts. But Fisher’s very presence on the roster is confusing, to say nothing of any minute he receives ahead of Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha or even Ronnie Brewer. He is the incarnate form of veteran leadership for veteran leadership’s sake, offering so little otherwise that it’s a wonder the Thunder could reasonably offer him a job.
If Fisher were Brooks’ greatest sin, he’d be golden. But the bigger problem is the lack of schematic help for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. We’ve begun to see the limits of an offense driven largely by work in isolation and impromptu pick-and-rolls, and the time has come for OKC to adopt more order into its offense of controlled, talent-driven chaos. Brooks has to take the lead in that regard, and so far he’s done little to move the Thunder offense forward beyond where it was a few season ago.
I was reluctant to include Wallace’s name on my All-Disappointment team earlier this season on the thought that his performance was bound to improve, but somehow the 30-year-old forward’s shooting percentages and production have only diminished since then. It’s been a miserable season for a player in whom the Nets have invested $40 million over four seasons, as age, context and a lack of confidence have coincided to rob Wallace of all that once made him so capable and compelling.
The motivation behind the Mavericks’ offseason plan made quite a bit of sense, as Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson looked to leverage contract-year incentives along with incredible flexibility to field an immediately competitive team without any long-term salary-cap baggage. O.J. Mayo was snatched off the market at a bargain price. Elton Brand was claimed off an amnesty waiver. Chris Kaman was signed to a one-year contract. Second-round picks yielded NBA-worthy players. Darren Collison was obtained via a sign-and-trade deal with Indiana. Everything looked to be in place for the Mavs to rally around Nowitzki toward yet another playoff appearance … until Nowitzki’s body finally gave way to the first major surgery of his career.
If Nowitzki had been healthy all season, we could undoubtedly look back at Dallas’ campaign in a very different light. But, as it stands, many of the Mavs’ micro-level moves have proved to be disappointments.
Collison has easily been the most underwhelming. A season operating in a freer offense was intended to maximize his quickness in a half-court setting and natural feel as a pick-and-roll scorer. Neither happened. Under coach Rick Carlisle, Collison seemed even less aggressive than before, fundamentally misunderstanding high screens as an invitation to launch low-value mid-range jumpers.
Brand, too, hasn’t quite lived up to his billing, if only because Dallas’ perimeter defense was filled with more holes than he could reasonably account for. Brand had been the interior anchor of a terrific Sixers defense only one year ago, but with Collison and Mayo allowing so much penetration and age demanding a limit on Brand’s minutes, it proved impossible for him to bolster Dallas’ defense in the ways necessary.
Sacramento’s 22-year-old big man is having another strong season by the numbers, generating 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per 36 minutes while improving his scoring efficiency. But all that he produces between the lines is hedged by all that goes on between his ears. Cousins remains as talented as any big-man prospect in the NBA, but he has continued on a self-destructive course of baffling behavior and atrocious body language.
No player is more at the mercy of his own temper, and Cousins has far too often disengaged from a play in progress to sulk on the weak side or argue with an official. High-functioning NBA offenses at the very least demand that all players involved be active participants, and to this point in his career Cousins has yet to prove that he’s capable of that much on a consistent basis — a serious red flag no matter how effective he might otherwise be.
Cousins is far from a lost cause, but the excuses have already worn thin. Confronting broadcasters after a game is not a reasonable course of action. Elbowing opponents in the head in a bout of frustration is not an acceptable response. Deserting teammates on defense, zoning out during a tough game, giving a half-assed effort in transition — none of this is kosher. But it’s what we have come to expect from Cousins in his three seasons, in spite of hopes that he might change for the better. There’s still hope, but for the moment his arrested development puts an added damper on the Kings’ already miserable year.