Wednesday November 11th, 2015

"The Point Forward All-Stars" centers on a single shared trait that brings together its team members. This week: highlighting five players who are off to rough shooting starts in 2015-16.

At this time last year, the best comparison for Kobe Bryant, when it came to the aging guard’s shooting woes, was Wizards-era Michael Jordan. So far this season, Bryant’s top comp is a World War II veteran who worked at a Kentucky prison after he retired from basketball. That’s not a joke.

Life has come at Bryant so fast that even many of his most pessimistic observers are struggling to process the results: the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer is shooting just 32% on 16.2 attempts per game and just 20.8% from deep. Bryant has yet to hit 50% of his shots in any game this season, he was a late scratch for L.A.’s loss to Miami on Monday night because he needed rest, and the 1-6 Lakers are already mired in questions about their coaching and direction.

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​How bad has Bryant’s start been? Historically bad. No player in the shot-clock era has shot as poorly as Bryant is shooting on a similar number of attempts per game. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1951-52 to find a minutes-qualified player who completed a season with a worse efficiency/volume combination. That man: “​Jumpin' Joe” Fulks, one of the NBA’s first high-volume scorers and a Hall of Famer who is credited with popularizing the jump shot.

Fulks shot just 31.2% on 17.7 attempts per game for the Philadelphia Warriors that season, a rough showing that nevertheless managed to land him on the 1952 All-Star team. “When I was hot, I was really hot,” Fulks said, according to his official Murray State University biography. “But when I was cold, sometimes it was bad.” Hmm… who does that sound like?

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To fully comprehend the scope of the Bryant/Fulks comparison, here’s a “highlight reel” of Fulks’s deliberate set up and wonky two-handed delivery in glorious black and white.

While Fulks was on the cutting edge of his time, pioneering a form of scoring that would change the game forever, Bryant looks to be reaching back to a past that is gone for good. Everything looks difficult this season: Bryant is throwing up an uncomfortable amount of airballs, he’s settling for three-pointers at a career-high rate, he’s not consistently getting to his spots off the dribble, he’s generating little offense in the basket area, and he’s regularly beaten back in transition. Nevertheless, he’s still posting a 28.7 usage rate, tops among Lakers rotation players, and he’s leading the Lakers in shots per game.  

Take that all together, and Bryant has been one of the league’s most damaging shooters this season, falling far short of his long-established standard. Lakers coach Byron Scott has repeatedly said that Bryant is the “last guy” he’s worried about. Scott really needs to rethink that position, especially if he actually believes it. The age-related trend in Bryant’s shooting, influenced by three straight season-ending injuries, couldn’t be clearer.

While it might not stay quite this bad over the course of an 82-game season, it’s hard to envision Bryant orchestrating a remarkable turnaround. No one wins—not the Lakers, not Scott, not Bryant, and certainly not young building blocks like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle—when Bryant takes and misses this many shots.

These four players join Bryant on SI.com’s early-season All-Brick Layers Team.

Derrick Rose, Bulls

Aside from a strong closing effort during Chicago’s nationally-televised win over Oklahoma City last week, Derrick Rose’s early-season play has been as confounding as his preseason comments about his upcoming free agency. Rose is averaging a career-low 12.9 points on 36.8% shooting and Chicago’s offensive rating has been four points more efficient when he’s off the court. The most damning stat, of course, is Rose’s performance from downtown: through eight games, the 2011 MVP has connected on a grand total of one three-pointer in 16 tries.

Here’s how Rose’s three-point marksmanship compares to the top names at his position. Feel free to give Rose credit for being more selective in his outside shooting. Go ahead and ascribe some portion of his struggles to the broken orbital bone that left him with blurry vision and has caused him to wear a mask this season. Regardless, his perimeter showing to date is almost unbelievable.

There’s a second layer to the damage done by Rose’s shooting that is less obvious. Through Monday, Rose was shooting just 40.9% in the paint and ranking well below-average in the basket area. Contributing to that performance: Rose’s desire to draw contract and his love of acrobatic—often well-contested—shots.

What makes these misses tougher to swallow than usual, though, is new coach Fred Hoiberg’s shift towards smaller lineups. Throughout Tom Thibodeau’s tenure, Chicago ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebound rate. This year, the Bulls rank No. 28 as they have experimented with moving Joakim Noah to the bench and using Nikola Mirotic at power forward.

That rebounding trade-off is easily discernible when watching tape of Rose’s unsuccessful drives: there is often just one Bulls player, and sometimes none, in position for an offensive rebound. Rose’s wild shots regularly turn into easy defensive rebounds and, sometimes, they key transition opportunities for the opposition.

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It’s not all bad for Rose. He’s making a noticeable effort to use a rhythm dribble when he shoots in the midrange, and he’s had some success with that. His newfound reluctance to chuck from deep probably counts as positive development, too. Still, Rose potentially represents a fundamental problem for the Bulls going forward. If they want to play the “pace and space” style, doesn’t their point guard need to be either a proficient outside shooter or a proficient finisher at the hoop (and preferably both)?

Joe Johnson, Nets

Give it up for Joe Johnson, who has so far been more damaging than his two oft-derided Nets teammates: Andrea Bargnani and Jarrett Jack. That’s no easy task.

Brooklyn has struggled to play respectably during its 0-7 start, and Johnson generally appears to be taking advantage of the fact that no one is watching his decrepit team. Always known as a smooth operator, Johnson now simply looks slow and resigned. The Nets rank No. 29 on offense and No. 27 on defense, and Johnson is doing his part to sink those numbers on both ends. The seven-time All-Star is hardly making a contract year kick: he’s averaging just 10.3 points on 32.9% shooting and 17.4% shooting from deep, and his net rating is a whopping -19.7.

Remarkably, Johnson’s 35.4 eFG% (Effective Field Goal %) and his 41.1 TS% (True Shooting %) are both worse than Kobe Bryant’s marks in those categories, thanks to his perimeter shooting woes and his less frequent trips to the line. Given his $24.9 million salary this season, it’s possible that Johnson actually represents a worse value than Bryant. Again, that’s not an easy achievement by any means.

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The clanks from Johnson’s missed jumpers sound an awful lot like a call for help. While Johnson’s end is fast approaching, Brooklyn represents a worst-case scenario for an aging scorer like him. The Nets are going absolutely nowhere, Johnson is getting no help from his point guards, the roster lacks another dynamic perimeter scorer to balance the attack, and coach Lionel Hollins is still asking Johnson to play full starters minutes (33.4 a night) when a smaller role makes all the sense in the world.

After Kevin Garnett relocated to Minnesota and Deron Williams orchestrated an exit to Dallas, Johnson must be wondering whether there’s greener grass out there for him as well. So far, he’s shooting himself out of the trade market. If things remain this sad and pointless, let’s hope that a buyout emerges so that both sides can move forward with whatever comes next.

Markieff Morris, Suns

How is Markieff Morris handling his separation from his twin brother Marcus? By slapping together the infamous “Chinese Flag” shot chart.

To date, Morris is averaging 14.1 points on 36% shooting and 26.1% three-point shooting for a Suns offense that ranks 27th in efficiency. His discipline has left a lot to be desired: Morris has no reservations about launching contested jumpers, off-balance jumpers, or contested and off-balance jumpers. He’s already chucked up at least 20 shots in a game three times this season, and Phoenix’s wins have generally come in spite of him rather than because of him (he’s a combined 16-for-42 in the Suns’ three victories).

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Morris has proven in recent years that he’s better than this—he’s a fairly accomplished “tough shot-maker”—and it’s still very, very early. But after the NBA fined him this summer for publicly making a trade demand, it’s fair to wonder whether a fresh start is still the right resolution here.

Marcus’s start in Detroit—16.7 points on 42.4% shooting for a surprising 5-2 team with a clear offensive vision—only reinforces the argument that Markieff might find greater success in a more structured and stable environment. Ditto with Marcus’s recent comments that Markieff doesn’t look “happy” or “comfortable” or “too excited” in Phoenix. (Who would have ever thought that the Pistons would qualify as “more structured and stable”? But that’s the case, at least for the time being.)

Rajon Rondo, Kings

There's a new game for League Pass diehards. It’s called, “Who Can Be The Most Disrespectful Towards Rajon Rondo’s Jumper?” Sacramento’s point guard has a solid decade of bricking under his belt at this point—he’s a career 26% three-point shooter and a 60.7% free throw shooter—and opposing defenses are as brazen as can be when it comes to ignoring him.

Here’s San Antonio’s Patty Mills a full step into the paint, ready to dive on DeMarcus Cousins and daring him to kick it out. (Cousins did kick it out, and Rondo missed the three.)

Here’s Houston with all five players standing at least 18 feet away from Rondo as he launches a corner three. (He missed.)

Here’s Phoenix on its knees begging Rondo to catch-and-shoot a three-pointer after loading up on the other side. (He took the bait and missed.)

Here’s Clippers guard Chris Paul hilariously pretending to contest a Rondo three-pointer from 10 feet away, but only after he was sure Rondo would pull the trigger. (He missed.)

This goes on and on. Although Rondo has only attempted 16 three-pointers on the season, his non-shooting is a constant drag on his team’s performance. To date, Rondo has posted a -14.3 net rating and Sacramento’s offensive rating has been 7.3 points worse with him on the court. His space-killing consistently creates more problems than his passing solves.

Not to be lost in Rondo’s dreadful perimeter shooting: he’s also on track to break his own record for the worst free throw shooting percentage of any minutes-qualified player standing 6’3” or shorter. Last season, he set that record at 39.7%. This season, he’s at 35.7%. Even if a defender made the mistake of closing out on him too hard, he’s not in a position to do anything about it because he rarely drives hard into traffic.

The Kings reportedly called their first meeting to address internal matters after just eight games. Who knows what they actually talked about, but the first topic of discussion should have been moving Rondo to a reserve role.

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