Eastern Conference All-Letdown Team
“The Point Forward All-Stars” will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. Last week featured the Thanksgiving-inspired All-Grateful Team. This week, SI.com presents the Eastern Conference All-Letdown Team, composed of five notable players who symbolize just how disappointing the East — which included two winning teams entering Wednesday — has been through the opening month of the regular season.
Eastern Conference All-Letdown Team
PG: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
Here we are reminded that even the hottest stocks deal with plateaus and the occasional dips. Irving entered the league as a prodigiously talented teenager, guaranteeing that he would get the cocoon treatment when it came to setting his initial expectations; the chief concern during his first two seasons was his durability, and everything that happened on the court — many, many exciting things, All-Star things — was gravy to be lapped up without a second thought.
To be clear, Irving isn’t to blame for Cleveland’s 5-12 start. He’s not the guy who drafted Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with top-five picks. He’s not coach Mike Brown, who has openly admitted that his team hasn’t competed at times. He’s not Waiters, who has had an eventful start to his second season. He’s not Bennett, the 2013 No. 1 pick, who ranks last in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and win shares. He’s not Andrew Bynum, who has shown flashes of his pre-injury form (including a season-best 20-point, 10 rebound performance against the Bulls on Saturday) but has also given “serious thought” this season to retirement because of knee problems. In sum, Irving is still very clearly the best thing — and possibly the only thing — this Cavaliers roster has going for it in the big picture.
But that context doesn’t excuse him from the “letdown” feeling, not when The Point Forward pegged him as the No. 20 player in our preseason list of the top 100 for 2014, and not when he ranked fifth in my point guard rankings last March. Yes, Irving remains the most dazzling player to watch dance with the ball. But his third season began with playoff hopes and some help (Jarrett Jack, Bynum and a returning Anderson Varejao), and yet so far it’s been a brickhouse.
Here’s a look at Irving’s shot charts from this season and last season side-by-side. (Click to enlarge.)
If those new, large swathes of red on the left weren’t enough to raise a little concern, consider that Irving is one of just three players (along with Toronto’s Rudy Gay and Washington’s Bradley Beal) averaging at least 19 shots while shooting less than 41 percent. Gay certainly deserves his status as everyone’s least favorite master of inefficiency, but Irving’s slow start from outside (a career-low 30.5 percent on three-pointers) and sky-high usage rate thrust him into the conversation for No. 1 possession squanderer. He hasn’t made meaningful progress with his assist rate, either.
Irving is being asked to do too much, he’s doing too much, and it’s not translating into victories, even if he’s still posting averages of 20.6 points and 5.9 assists. He has dropped from the top five in PER among point guards to the middle of the pack this season, and Cleveland, in turn, ranks 28th in offensive efficiency.
How much of this will be fixed if Irving gets his shooting numbers back on track? How much of this is unavoidable until Irving gets some help that he trusts? Has owner Dan Gilbert seen enough — on both sides of the ball and in the locker room — to pursue a shake-up? Those will be key questions to track as we move through December and beyond.
Irving, 21, is so gifted and so young that there’s no reason to panic. That said, the first month of Irving’s season lacked team progress and fell short of external expectations and the baseline that he set in his All-Star season of 2012-13.
SG: J.R. Smith, Knicks
What’s that phrase we hear during every end-of-year award presentation? “This is a team award; I couldn’t do it without my teammates.” Ah, yes, that applies to Smith and the Knicks (3-13), who are challenging for the worst record in the East. Those expecting New York to make more noise after finishing 54-28 last season and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2000 — and I was among that crowd — can feel legitimately let down by many players on this roster.
Raymond Felton? Pathetic shooting numbers and little influence on New York’s no-flow offense. Andrea Bargnani? His defensive breakdowns have become a daily source of guffaws across the Internet, but he’s not just a highlight (or lowlight) guy. He’s lived up to his reputation as a play-to-play sieve, made even more obvious in Tyson Chandler’s absence, and sports an acid-in-the-face 108.4 defensive rating (more than eight points worse than when he’s on the bench). Amar’e Stoudemire? His minus-0.3 win shares is second worst in the league among players with at least 10 appearances.
Let’s not allow Carmelo Anthony off the hook here, either. Anthony is shooting a career-worst 42.3 percent from the field on an NBA-high 22.2 attempts, including 27.7 percent from three-point range, and hasn’t shown much as a distributor. The six-time All-Star forward is the alpha dog on a roster that’s sniped at each other during timeouts and generated more than its fair share of turmoil talk. Even that “I want to be a free agent” declaration, which seemed fairly innocuous in October after he covered his tracks, now hovers as one more destabilizing variable in this mess.
Smith emerges from that deep “letdown” pack because he has neatly combined the worst of New York’s worlds. This is an impressive checklist. Dismayed by the Knicks’ health struggles? Smith underwent knee surgery in July that sidelined him for much of the preseason; he admitted this week that his knee is bothering him. Frustrated by the Knicks’ lack of ball movement, especially compared to last season? The Wall Street Journal noted this week that Smith is in a class by himself when it comes to operating in isolation. Fed up with New York’s never-ending off-court nonsense? Smith was suspended five games for violating the league’s drug policy and fined $25,000 for threatening Detroit’s Brandon Jennings on Twitter. Bummed about owner James Dolan’s allocation of resources? Smith’s numbers (11.7 points, 33.1 percent shooting) just happen to be in the tank after he signed a three-year, $17.9 million deal in the wake of his Sixth Man Award-winning season. Oh, and his no-game brother somehow wiggled into a package deal.
When things have gone right for this Knicks era, Smith has earned recognition as a valuable X-factor with rare shot-creating and shot-making skills. With the Knicks off to a dreadful start this season, he’s a worthy candidate to stand as the face of the dysfunction.
SF: Josh Smith, Pistons
I didn’t particularly care for the Pistons’ signing of Smith, but some allowance had to be made for the prospect of new surroundings propelling him to new heights after nine seasons in Atlanta. The Point Forward’s Rob Mahoney detailed how Detroit is adapting to life with Smith, outlining its success scoring inside and its progress in forcing turnovers. Detroit (which improved to 8-10 with Tuesday’s victory at Miami) is in the playoff picture, a rosy development compared to the plights of other teams with players on this list.
And yet, Smith is as frustrating as ever. The fit at small forward was questioned from the start, but Smith’s response to the role is bordering on self-parody. Long admonished for his poor shot selection, Smith is attempting a career-high 4.6 threes while connecting on just 27.7 percent. That’s led to career worsts in field-goal percentage (40.2) and true shooting percentage (46.1). Smith also has the lowest PER (a below-average 13.7) and offensive rating of his career, and his 14.2-point scoring average is his lowest since 2005-06.
Through Monday, Smith was one of just 27 players who had played 15 games and averaged at least 4.6 threes. His accuracy (29.1 percent before Tuesday’s game) ranked last in that group, as the chart below illustrates. (Click to enlarge.)
As you can see, such prolific shooting opportunities are available to the truly adept and the truly delusional. There is no excuse or explanation for Smith’s placement in this group, as he’s never shot better than 33.1 percent from deep in a season. Watching an otherwise-talented player defined by his inability to control his greatest vice — or his submission to said vice — is the mark of a true letdown.
PF: Kevin Garnett, Nets
Just as J.R. Smith embodies the Knicks’ circus, Garnett’s opening month — worse than anyone could have possibly imagined — is a nice testament to the overall “bait-and-switch” vibe to the Nets. From top to bottom, with few exceptions, this Brooklyn group has been a giant rip-off, like a counterfeit pair of Air Jordans or a magic weight loss pill that can only be purchased from a late-night infomercial.
All-Star point guard Deron Williams? Missing in action. Potential Sixth Man Award candidate Andrei Kirilenko? Hasn’t played in nearly a month. Paul Pierce? Sidelined with a broken hand after spending November shooting like he had two broken thumbs. First-year coach Jason Kidd? A game manager only a janitor could love. Key Kidd mentor and veteran assistant coach Lawrence Frank? He just got sent to Belize to room with Mike from Breaking Bad.
Even with those many, many issues, Garnett’s rough month has been the foundation-shaker. The 37-year-old was viewed as the reliable defensive backbone who gave this group its shot at contention. He was considered the elite, experienced, tough-minded tone-setter who would cover up the flaws and give Brooklyn a fighting chance against just about anybody come April and May. So far, however, it’s numerical carnage. The 19-year veteran is averaging 6.5 points and 7.6 rebounds, he’s shooting 36.3 percent, his offensive rating is the worst of his career and his defensive rating is the worst it’s been in 16 years. His net rating of minus-11.7 is the worst among Nets rotation players with the exception of soda-spilling second-year reserve guard Tyshawn Taylor.
Garnett is struggling in just about every lineup configuration, too. Brooklyn’s ideal starting five — Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Brook Lopez — has a minus-5.4 rating, and the next three most commonly used lineups that include Garnett all have produced negative net ratings. Things are so bleak that Andray Blatche, a budget signing who has done well to resuscitate his career since being amnestied by the Wizards in July 2012, is a bigger fixture than Garnett in Brooklyn’s best-performing units.
Garnett’s minutes would always need to be managed, and his age loomed as a concern. But this is a totally different Garnett than we saw in 2012-13, when he was the standout performer on a Boston defense that ranked sixth in the league. That Brooklyn has been saddled with an opposite-day version of the dominant Garnett we’ve come to know and love (and hate and respect) has been an unavoidable early-season letdown.
C: Larry Sanders, Bucks
There’s not much to say about Sanders’ body of work because there isn’t really a body of work to examine. Milwaukee’s franchise center has played 52 minutes all season (fewer than he would have liked when healthy, to be sure), the same number logged by Magic guard Arron Afflalo during Tuesday’s double-overtime thriller against the Sixers. Holding a legitimate injury against a player would be unfair, which is why Bulls guard Derrick Rose doesn’t appear on this list. Unfortunately, hurting your thumb during a late-night club brawl so badly that you require surgery and a six-week absence does not qualify as a “legitimate injury.” In some ways, Sanders is lucky to be playing in Milwaukee: Imagine what would happen if a Knick, Net or Laker found himself in the same situation.
Sanders’ life story is heartbreaking and his basketball story is great: He went from being a seldom-used, little-known mid-first-round pick to receiving a four-year, $44 million contract extension thanks largely to his ability to protect the rim. The letdown here is simple: Sanders, after enduring so many hard times, had everything he could ask for and a team to call his own. After embracing a leadership role upon signing his extension, he put himself before his team and his organization with his poor decision-making. After pledging to Bucks fans this summer that he “[wouldn't] let you down,” he did exactly that, and now Milwaukee is limping along at an NBA-worst 3-14. To his credit, Sanders offered a sincere, public apology. As he hopefully has realized, apologies don’t block shots or grab rebounds.
It’s important that Sanders does not allow his injury and Milwaukee’s rough start to snowball to the point where his whole season goes to waste. Sanders is still just 25, and he’s clearly a work in progress on offense. Whether the Bucks can regain respectability or not, the burden will be on Sanders to prove that his many advocates last season were right to believe in his long-term potential, which could one day include a Defensive Player of the Year award or All-Star recognition.