All-Atrocious Team: NBA’s worst starters
This week, SI.com names the All-Atrocious Team, an attempt to construct the worst five-man starting lineup in the NBA assembled solely from players who are currently full-time starters.
The All-Atrocious Team
The goal here is simple: to build the worst five-man lineup from players who start around the league. “Worst” is clearly subjective to a degree, so I formed my guiding principles by first asking what I look for in great players and teams. At the top of that list: excellent shooting, versatility, athleticism and a demonstrated defensive impact. Unselfishness and competitiveness are nice, too.
Pinpointing “worst,” then, meant identifying players who lacked these specific qualities. As I hunted through the bottom of the Player Efficiency Rating charts and the depths of the negative net ratings, I looked for players with serious limitations, major holes, a poor performance résumé this season and, in some cases, age-related shortcomings. In particular, I wanted my All-Atrocious Team to be terrible at shooting, lacking in physical tools and stocked with minus defenders, and I didn’t want the individual pieces to somehow accidentally fit well together. A secondary goal was to amass a fair share of bad contracts to deepen the pain. Here are the results.
Note: Starters who have missed a significant number of games due to injury and their stand-in replacements were not considered. All stats and records are through Dec. 10.
PG: Raymond Felton, Knicks
Settling on the right point guard was clearly the toughest roster decision, which says a lot about the quality of depth at the position. Injuries complicated this one, too: Players such as John Lucas III, Jamaal Tinsley and Tyshawn Taylor were ruled out because they were/are stand-ins; Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight, a very strong candidate thanks to his 10.3 PER, 34.8 percent shooting and 17.1 turnover percentage, was ruled out because he just hasn’t played that many minutes. Ditto for the Lakers’ Steve Nash.
Felton has dealt with injuries this year, but he’s played in all but four of New York’s games. His fundamental credentials are strong: He’s shooting just 39.4 percent from the floor and a pitiful 27.9 percent from three-point range, his PER is well below average at 12.1 and he’s a starter for one of the NBA’s three worst defenses. More important, though, he’s not going to accidentally win games with his offense or defense. Other poor early-season PER performers such as the Lakers’ Steve Blake or the Celtics’ Avery Bradley offer legitimate value with their three-point shooting and on-ball defense, respectively. That Felton is averaging a career-low 10.3 points and that he has never averaged at least 16 points for a season are both big: The last thing I want is a point guard capable of putting a team on his back.
While the 5-15 Knicks have been better with Felton on the court than without him (New York went 0-4 when he was out), the biggest key to this selection is turning him into a fish out of water. In New York, Felton plays a majority of his minutes alongside ball-dominant, high-usage players like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. On this team, he will have no shooters to bail him out and the full responsibility of running an offense will be on his shoulders. That’s where his shaky outside jumper, inconsistent decision-making and poor finishing at the rim will come in handy.
Much like the real Knicks, but taken to the extreme, the All-Atrocious Team will squander Felton’s ability to work in transition by playing at a snail’s pace and surrounding him with inferior athletes who won’t be able to keep up when he pushes the pace. Get ready for a bunch of failed one-on-three fast breaks that end with Felton’s sprawled out on the baseline beseeching the officials for a call.
The puffy-chested over-confidence, side-eye scowls, emphatic frustration dribbles and a total willingness to speak his mind — no matter how bad things get — are the icing on this cupcake. Unlike his teammates on this squad, Felton isn’t dramatically overpaid at $3.6 million, but, all things considered, he’s still the right guy for the job.
SG: Richard Jefferson, Jazz
There are plenty of euphemisms for tanking — “Developing young talent,” “rebuilding for the future” and “transitioning to a new era” are three popular ones — but my favorite, by far, is “starting Richard Jefferson.” The 33-year-old Jefferson is an honorary co-captain of this team, and his selection requires little explanation. Yes, I’m fudging things slightly by shifting Jefferson from small forward to shooting guard, but doing so helps me get the absolute most out of this group and puts Jefferson into even more difficult spots defensively. (While we’re on the subject of positions, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin’s decision to start Jefferson has relegated 22-year-old shooting guard Alec Burks to a bench role, a move that makes little sense given Utah’s outlook.)
There’s nothing particularly funny about age-related decline, but it is downright impressive that Jefferson has started every game for the 4-19 Jazz even though this is the sixth straight year that his PER has decreased. Jefferson boasts a 111.9 defensive rating, one of the very worst marks on the league’s worst defense. His 9.4 PER ranks among the very worst starters at his position, and Utah has a minus-2.8 net rating when he’s off the court compared to a minus-18.4 rating when he’s on the court. That’s the type of seepage the All-Atrocious Team is desperately seeking.
The 13-year veteran landed in Utah as part of the three-team deal that sent Andre Iguodala from Denver to Golden State. The Warriors had to give up multiple draft picks to unload his $11 million contract and the $9 million owed to Andris Biedrins, and many assumed he would play only sparingly and assume a full-time “veteran leader” role for the rebuilding Jazz. There’s still plenty of time to fully commit to the youth movement, but Corbin, who is in a contract year, isn’t exactly rushing into the future.
Jefferson is shooting a dangerously-close-to-competent 35 percent from three-point range this season, slightly below his career mark of 37 percent. I’ll live with that because his mid-range game is nonexistent and he’s only a mediocre finisher around the basket. Much of Jefferson’s offense comes from spot-up shooting, anyway, and there aren’t exactly a lot of players on the All-Atrocious Team who will command the double teams needed to free him up.
SF: Tayshaun Prince, Grizzlies
There are plenty of bigger-name options that come to mind at this position. Rudy Gay, who was traded from Toronto to Sacramento this week, and Detroit’s Josh Smith are two popular ones. Again, I don’t want anyone capable of accidentally winning a game by himself. Gay has the proven ability to occasionally stop missing in crucial situations, and there’s always some sliver of hope that the light will magically turn on for Smith when it comes to his shot selection. And, anyway, both are far too athletic for what we have in mind here.
Prince is the straw that stirs the drink for the All-Atrocious offense. He’s averaging 6.7 points and 1.6 assists (his worst numbers since his rookie season), he’s shooting career lows of 40.6 percent overall and 21.4 percent from deep, and his 7.7 PER ranks No. 54 out of 58 qualified small forwards. The absolute lack of three-point shooting is key: Opponents can completely abandon Prince to load up on Felton, double-team the bigs and generally wreak havoc against this team’s spacing. Our goal is to make life even more difficult for players who are already struggling, and the fact that Prince’s shot chart looks like the Chinese flag should definitely help accomplish that goal. As is, the Grizzlies’ offense ranks No. 23 in points per possession and No. 22 in three-point percentage; the All-Atrocious Team should have no problem finishing below that.
Yes, there is a bit of a risk in selecting the 33-year-old Prince because his defensive numbers aren’t totally in the tank. Memphis is actually 6.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he’s on the court compared to when he’s off, and his length and instincts will always have some value until he retires. Here’s betting that those numbers take a hit without the All-Defensive likes of Mike Conley, Tony Allen and pre-injury Marc Gasol surrounding him.
One other (somewhat surprising) name considered for this spot: Jared Dudley. I liked the Clippers’ decision to cash in Eric Bledsoe for shooters over the summer, but Dudley has failed to deliver the career 39.9 percent three-point shooting that helped him earn a reputation as a valuable three-and-D guy. His per-minute production is down across the board, and L.A. has been way better on both sides of the ball when he’s off the court compared to when he’s on.
The Prince vs. Dudley decision ultimately came down to age (Prince is five years older) and Dudley’s established track record as a shooter (five years in a row shooting at least 38 percent on threes). The last things we want here are younger legs and a player capable of opening up the offense by unexpectedly busting out of a month-long slump.
As a footnote: Prince is making $7.2 million this season and $7.7 million next season, a fact that is sometimes forgotten in the trade analysis surrounding the deal that sent Gay from Memphis to Toronto.
PF: Kevin Garnett, Nets
Oof. Garnett was selected to last week’s Eastern Conference All-Letdown Team, and try as I might to find a replacement for him, there just weren’t any completely worthy candidates. The Lakers’ Pau Gasol is a shell of his old self, shooting a career-low 41.7 percent and posting a career-low 15.5 PER, but he’s still nearly averaging a double-double (14.4 points and 9.5 rebounds) and the Lakers have been hovering around .500. Some of the other top options — Orlando’s Jason Maxiell and Sacramento’s Jason Thompson, for example — didn’t quite hit the full-time-starter standard.
That leaves Garnett, whose inclusion is pretty bulletproof. His “Beats By Dre” headphones might be able to drown out the criticism, but they aren’t erasing that footage of Andrea Bargnani blowing by him to the basket and then punking him with some trash talk during last week’s Knicks-Nets showdown. That matchup signified everything that’s gone wrong this season: Garnett is no longer a stopper, no longer an enforcer and no longer able to keep opponents honest with his offense.
To review from last week: Garnett, 37, is averaging just 6.7 points on 37.1 percent shooting — both career lows — and his PER of 11.8 is about as bad as it gets for power forwards playing at least 20 minutes a game. He’s started 19 games for the 7-14 Nets and he’s posted a team-worst 95.9 offensive rating. While his defensive rating of 107.6 is now among the best the Nets have to offer, it must be noted that Brooklyn ranks 29th in defensive efficiency and that assistant coach Lawrence Frank, the team’s defensive coordinator, has been
replaced by a soda fountain demoted to report-filing duties. Just about every one of Jason Kidd’s commonly used lineups that include Garnett are in the red.
After averaging 12.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Knicks last season, Garnett has scored in double figures just three times this season and has secured at least 10 rebounds just once. He’s just not the same guy. That makes him perfect for the All-Atrocious Team, as he’s one more floor-shrinker and one fewer guy defenses need to worry about. For much of this season, Garnett has admitted that he’s struggling to find answers, and that’s music to our ears. There’s so much going wrong here that his eight-figure salary ($12.4 million, to be exact) is almost an afterthought.
C: Kendrick Perkins, Thunder
Maybe the most obvious pick of the entire bunch, Perkins joints Jefferson as a co-captain.
The Thunder’s starting center was a must-have for the All-Atrocious Team for a laundry list of reasons: his terrible hands, his turnover issues, his moving screens, his rampant frustration and anger, his lack of agility, his lack of elevation, his poor finishing in the paint, his total lack of shooting range, his penchant for drawing technical fouls and getting into unnecessary on-court scrums, and his occasionally hilarious jump-shot celebrations (hey, even this team needs to chuckle).
It is a bit sad that the Garnett/Perkins tandem, such a fearsome defensive duo for the Celtics four years ago, has come to this, but time waits for no man. The decline has been swift in Perkins’ case: He’s still just 29, even though a knee injury has left him looking a decade older. He is averaging 3.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 18.3 minutes. Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks has finally started to wean himself off of the 11-year veteran, even if he hasn’t yet removed Perkins from the starting lineup. The arrival of promising rookie Steven Adams has helped that process, but years of loyalty from Brooks to Perkins surely has Thunder fans nervous about how the playoff rotations will shake out.
Consider: OKC’s first unit includes two bona fide superstars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) and a star-type (Serge Ibaka), and yet the starting five posts a net rating of minus-10.2, a terrible output that you would expect to see from a conference bottom-feeder. Surprise, surprise: Perkins’ minus-.5 net rating is among the Thunder’s worst, and OKC enjoys a plus-10.4 net rating when Perkins is off the court. The All-Atrocious Team can’t ignore the clear-cut difference Perkins is making.
Although Perkins has been regularly raised as a possible amnesty candidate, general manager Sam Presti has resisted cutting ties, even though the club is on the hook for $9 million this year and $9.7 million next year. If the 20-year-old Adams does emerge more quickly than initially expected, Perkins will most likely serve out the duration of his contract as a cap-clogger and towel-waver. If not, things will stay ugly, as any hope for a career rebirth has dried up over the last year or two.
The Total Damage
Here’s a top-down look at how the All-Atrocious Team stacks up.
So, how did the All-Atrocious Team do in hitting the stated goals of creating a roster that lacks shooting, versatility, athleticism and impact defenders? Pretty, pretty well, if I don’t say so myself. There isn’t a true offensive threat or even a league-average three-point shooter in the group, and the Prince/Garnett/Perkins trio ensures that Felton and Jefferson will be operating inside phone booths when they have the ball. It’s probably better to just close your eyes every time these guys come down the court on offense.
The group’s average age is over 32, which presents self-evident problems in meeting athletic challenges. The Garnett/Perkins duo will not be able to deal with undersized, perimeter-oriented frontcourts or elite interior bigs, meaning it will be open season from beyond the arc and at the rim, the two most efficient scoring locations. Don’t even think about expecting them to regularly cover up mistakes made on the perimeter. Matchup problems aren’t solely an issue inside; Jefferson has nowhere to hide and Prince can only do so much. Expecting Felton to emerge as an offense-disrupting force at the point of attack is unrealistic, too.
For comparison’s sake, this group’s average offensive rating of 97.5 would rank as the fifth worst in the NBA and its average defensive rating of 104.2 would rank sixth worst (ratings not adjusted for minutes played). Of course, if these guys are the starters, things would presumably only go downhill once it comes time to make substitutions.
Even though this quintet includes at least three players who are significantly overpaid, their total salary of $43.2 million winds up equating to roughly three-quarters of the salary cap. That means there’s only about $15 million available under the cap — plus an exception or two — to assemble a bench that can save this group from itself. Good luck!