The worst starters in the NBA? We pick out our starting five and take a look back at last year's group.
"The Point Forward All-Stars" will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week: the All-Atrocious Team, an attempt to construct the worst five-man lineup from players that are starting around the NBA.
Welcome to the second annual All-Atrocious Team, a twisted exercise that aims to build the worst starting lineup from players who have been starting for their respective NBA teams for a majority of the 2014-15 season.
In selecting the “worst” players, extra attention was paid to players who lack desirable attributes like versatility, athleticism, unselfishness, competitiveness, shooting ability and a defensive mindset. Just like last year’s iteration, this team is seeking players with major holes in their games, players that have gotten off to slow starts and, in some cases, players that are suffering from age-related or injury-related declines. In particular, it was important that this team struggle to shoot, create individual offense, make good decisions, and play consistent team defense. A secondary goal was to amass bloated contracts to deepen the pain.
Before running down the 2014-15 All-Atrocious Team, let’s take a look at where the members of the 2013-14 squad find themselves these days.
PG: Raymond Felton: A bad start only got worse for Felton, who was arrested on gun charges (he would plead guilty) before getting dumped in a trade as fast as humanly possible by new Knicks president Phil Jackson. Felton has yet to play this season for the Mavericks due to an ankle injury and he will be buried scuba-diver deep on coach Rick Carlisle’s depth chart, anyway.
SG: Richard Jefferson: After inexplicably starting in favor of Alec Burks for former coach Tyrone Corbin on a rebuilding Jazz team, Jefferson has found a more appropriate role (12.2 minutes per game off the bench) in Dallas after signing for the veteran’s minimum over the summer.
SF: Tayshaun Prince: The lanky wing is still with Memphis and he began the season as a starter. He has since ceded that role to Courtney Lee; the Grizzlies also brought in Vince Carter this summer to give coach Dave Joerger more wing options. Prince is surely headed towards the “veteran’s minimum deal to play for a contender” route next summer.
PF: Kevin Garnett: At 38, Garnett’s numbers are up from last year – way up from his abysmal start -- but he remains a shell of his former self. Retirement beckons.
C: Kendrick Perkins: Perkins finally lost his starting job to second-year center Steven Adams this year after dutifully filling space in the middle for coach Scott Brooks. Although the role adjustment hasn’t significantly reduced his minutes, Perkins is headed for a massive pay cut when his contract finally expires this summer.
In summary: the bleak mostly got bleaker over the last 12 months.
OK, without further ado, on with this year’s picks.
Note: Starters who have missed a majority of their team’s games due to injury and their stand-in replacements were not considered. Rookies also were not eligible. Also note: All stats and records are through Dec. 9.
PG: Brandon Jennings, Pistons
Surely, there are already arguments being formed against this pick: “He has a PER of 16.8! His numbers are a bit better than last year! He has the potential to win a game by himself!”
All points duly noted -- and rejected. The reality of losing and losing and losing simply must trump the “potential for winning” by some point, right? This is year six (time flies) for the 2009 first-round pick and he’s well on his way to a fifth straight season playing for a really bad team. For all his flair and occasional flashes, Jennings has evolved into a very reliable loser: he can shoot his teams out of games (37.6 percent this season, his fifth time in six years under 40 percent), he is a defensive liability at his position (he ranks No. 72 out of 80 points guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus), and he wasted no time this season publicly bickering with new coach Stan Van Gundy over his role. The depressing Pistons are off to a 3-19 start including losses to the Sixers, Lakers, Magic, Timberwolves and Jazz; their last win came almost two weeks before Thanksgiving. (Hanukkah begins next week.)
Importantly for the purposes of this exercise, Jennings has failed to get the most of his teammates in two straight seasons and he’s overrated as an individual scoring threat. He’s topped 30 points just four times since arriving in Detroit, even though he’s played big minutes and dominated the ball for a team that would love for him (or anyone) to take over. Remarkably, Jennings has guided Detroit to the second-worst offense in the league – besting only tank-hard Philadelphia – and that’s with the benefit of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe on the roster.
On the All-Atrocious Team, Jennings will be facing extra defensive attention because he will be surrounded by bad shooters and post players who can’t space the floor or finish above the rim. That’s a recipe for disaster, as Jennings would likely revert to either A) self-destructive one-on-five basketball, or B) pouting. Or both.
Here's a taste of how Jennings handled extra attention inside during an overtime possession against the Sixers.
SG: Eric Gordon, Pelicans
Gordon barely squeezes onto this roster because he’s missed eight of the Pelicans’ 20 games due to injury (he’s currently sidelined with a torn labrum), but he’s a must-have selection all the same.
In theory, he should thrive in his role in New Orleans because he is surrounded by players who make his life easier: Anthony Davis is an A-list superstar who draws tons of attention from all sides and fixes problem after problem for any team that he’s on; Omer Asik is a skilled rim-protector who provides another layer of help on wing attacks; Tyreke Evans is an off-the-dribble scoring threat who allows Gordon to play a spot-up role with less defensive attention; and Jrue Holiday is an above-average starting point guard who can run an offense without assistance.
Gordon’s job, then, is to knock down wide open shots, to occasionally attack the hoop against a defense’s weak side, and to be somewhere in the realm of average on defense. None of those things has happened with consistency this season, leaving Gordon frustrated and forcing coach Monty Williams to consider his (mostly undesirable) alternatives. So far this year, Gordon is shooting a career-low 39.8 percent, he’s getting to the line a career-low 1.7 times (this was once a real strength of his game), and he’s grading out as a minus defender by Defensive Real Plus-Minus. His 8.6 PER ranks dead last among two guards averaging at least 30 minutes a night and dead last among the NBA’s top-25 highest-paid players (with at least five appearances). The simplest way to put this: Gordon looks an awful lot like a 6-foot-4, $14.9 million anchor dragging Davis out of the West’s playoff picture now that New Orleans (10-10) sits in the Southwest Division basement.
Clearly, a series of knee injuries have taken their toll on Gordon’s athleticism, mobility and confidence. After going scoreless in 34 minutes against Dallas, he admitted on Twitter that he was “sick to my stomach” and that he “can’t remember playing this bad… EVER.” He pledged to improve, but he went 0-for-6 in 28 minutes against the Hornets just two games later. Gordon’s numbers have been in a steady, rapid decline for five seasons now, and his ongoing struggle to adjust to his new reality has Brandon Roy written all over it. The Pelicans won’t be free of Gordon’s grasp until after next season; at least the timing of the end of his deal should position New Orleans nicely for the free-agency bonanza of 2016.
Here's a peek at some Roy-esque tentativeness/flailing as Gordon tries to create off the dribble in tight quarters with the shot clock running down.
SF: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, 76ers
Mbah a Moute is absolutely the most anonymous member of this roster. Don’t let that fool you: he deserves inclusion. Everyone knows that the 2-18 Sixers are a joke. The most damning evidence of that fact was provided, ironically, by Michael Carter-Williams, who decided to write an essay for “The Players’ Tribune” in which he pointed out that he wasn’t losing games on purpose. If you have to tell people that…
In any event, Mbah a Moute is a valuable member of Philadelphia’s tanking mission and, in hindsight, that should have been clear from the start. The most obvious way to tell a guy can’t play is when the words “He will be a good mentor” appear in the first two paragraphs of every single piece of analysis that is written about him when he is traded. That’s especially true when the player is 28, like Mbah a Moute, and not 38. That’s especially, especially true when he’s earning nearly mid-level money rather than the veteran’s minimum. The words “He will be a good mentor” appear because other go-to phrases for marginal players like “he just hasn’t found the right fit” or “he’s a worthy low-cost flier” can’t be finessed into the description.
The cold, hard truth: Mbah a Moute has a startling minus-17 net rating, the lowest mark among any Sixers player who has logged at least 150 minutes this season. There are four Sixers that you probably didn't know existed (Robert Covington, Chris Johnson, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson) who are significantly outperforming Mbah a Moute by that metric while playing big minutes. On a roster of misfit toys, Mbah a Moute stands out for his total lack of an offensive game (his offensive rating is a team-worst 85), his decrepit 23.9 percent three-point shooting, and meh-level defense that hasn’t lived up to his past reputation on that end.
How big of a deal is Mbah a Moute's shooting? Here, Miami gives him 15 feet of room to launch a brick. Chris "Birdman" Andersen decides to simply clap from the paint rather than close out.
This is a perfect fit for the All-Atrocious Team. Mbah a Moute closes the floor for Jennings, he ensures that Gordon’s open looks are minimized, and he provides no kick-out opportunities for this roster’s shaky big men. It’s really too bad Sixers GM Sam Hinkie beat us to the punch.
As with the Jefferson/Burks dilemma last season, starting Mbah a Moute over rookie K.J. McDaniels makes little sense. His “veteran presence” doesn’t matter for Philadelphia. McDaniels, a 2014 second-round pick, has looked like one of the most promising players in his class so far, even if there’s still plenty of work to be done. Sixers coach Brett Brown should get on with that promotion sooner rather than later, especially given the fact that McDaniels will be a free agent next summer.
PF: Carlos Boozer, Lakers
Everyone, please, a slow clap for Lakers coach Byron Scott, who finally decided to demote Lin and Boozer this week. It took 20 games, but Scott came to the conclusion that trotting out the NBA’s single worst heavy-minutes lineup – by a mile – probably wasn’t a good idea.
Really absorb this: prior to Scott’s lineup adjustment, the Lakers’ starting five of Lin, Kobe Bryant, Wesley Johnson, Boozer and Jordan Hill posted a whopping minus-15 net rating in a league-high 337 minutes together. Now, only 16 lineups up to that point had logged even 150 minutes, and 14 of those 16 lineups enjoyed positive net ratings. Utah’s starters were the only other group with a negative net rating, but it was a much, much healthier minus-1.6.
Indulge me for a second and imagine that points are water. Scott was arming himself with a 300-foot long fire hose, indiscriminately spraying points in all directions every time he trotted out that group. And yet he still drenched the court night after night for six weeks until he finally tried something different. No wonder even Magic Johnson is waving the white flag harder than ever before.
Again, slow clap to Scott for finally realizing that Boozer was one of the weak links. L.A.’s No. 30 ranked defense has been historically bad this season and Boozer has been an immense help in achieving that standing, posting a 116.2 defensive rating (worst among Lakers with at least 25 minutes played this season) and ranking No. 91 among 96 power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. His standout quality is really his rim-neglecting: the 6-foot-9 Boozer has registered exactly one block in 550 minutes this season. Even Jameer Nelson, a 6-foot, no-hops point guard, has managed to record two blocks.
Feast your eyes on Boozer's only block of the season.
Boozer has been in a fairly steady decline since 2007-08, his most-recent All-Star campaign, and his game at this point is a motley collection of mid-range jumpers, screams, hard fouls, and defensive mistakes. There’s also the matter of his $16.8 million salary, which led the Bulls to release him via the amnesty clause last summer. Chicago has since replaced Boozer with a reinvigorated Pau Gasol and, needless to say, the Bulls aren’t looking back. Add on the fact that Boozer publicly expressed dismay over his lineup demotion and he really has all the makings of an All-Atrocious Team member.
C: Samuel Dalembert, Knicks
There was a vocal segment of Knicks fans this summer who were so disgusted by the team’s play in 2013-14 that they were happy to turn the page and, really, to turn as many pages as possible. Shipping out Felton was a no-brainer, but some members of this disgruntled fan base even welcomed the departure of Tyson Chandler, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year who was severely limited by injuries last year. “Anyone but Chandler” went the cry from some corners some.
Well, “Anyone but Chandler” turned out to be Dalembert, who unsurprisingly has been a major downgrade while Chandler has been resurgent in Dallas. The top-down numbers tell this story: New York (4-19) has dropped from No. 24 last year to No. 27 this year in defense and from No. 11 last year to No. 21 this year in offense. Despite a payroll that is approaching $90 million, New York (4-19) sits just a half-game above Philadelphia in the standings. That’s a sentence that deserves its own groaning sound effect. Meanwhile, Dallas has the league’s top offense, by a wide margin, and is keeping pace in the loaded Southwest Division.
The mess in New York is bigger than any one player, of course, but Dalembert isn’t exactly helping. His minus-9 net rating is among the worst posted by Knicks rotation players, he contributes next to nothing offensively (he ranks dead last among 69 centers in Offensive Real Plus-Minus), and New York is a bottom-five team in rebound rate.
Here's Dalembert doing his best to make something out of a transition opportunity, stumbling and bumbling at every step of the way before failing to catch iron from inside the protected circle.
First-year coach Derek Fisher has tinkered with moving Dalembert to the bench but there just isn’t much else to work with when it comes to interior defensive parts; the end result has seen Dalembert play fairly limited minutes (18 per game) for one of the league’s worst defenses. The only three teams with more porous defense – the Lakers, Timberwolves and Jazz – can blame, in order, a lack of traditional size, an injury to Nikola Pekovic, and a lack of experience. Dalembert is 6-foot-11 and he has cultivated a shot-blocking reputation over 13 seasons, but he’s not equipped at this stage of his career to be a one-man defensive army like the Knicks need him to be.
The All-Atrocious Team needs him to fill that same role and the expectation is that he will be similarly overwhelmed. At the very least, Boozer’s incompetence and the lack of athleticism at the wing positions will force Dalembert into regular foul trouble. Offensively, it’s unclear how any team could survive if it played Mbah a Moute and Dalembert together for long stretches. Boozer would be in for a steady diet of double teams while Jennings would be driving into a very, very crowded paint. What a mess.
The Total Damage
Let's take a top-down look at this year’s All-Atrocious Team.
This group succeeds in achieving most of this exercise’s original goals: as a whole, there’s limited shooting ability (watch those percentages plunge further when the uncontested looks disappear), limited athleticism (outside of Jennings), limited defensive skill (Dalembert’s ability will be muffled), limited success this season (only Gordon has played for a respectable team) and quite a bit of deadweight money. To boil this down: Jennings will be forced to run himself ragged on offense and there are turnstiles at virtually every position on the other end. Gordon’s injury history makes this roster’s average age of 28.8 a bit deceiving, as they would surely “play older” than they appear on paper. This group is almost certainly headed off a cliff together.
For context, the All-Atrocious Team’s average offensive rating of 98.6 would ranks No. 25 in the league, as would its defensive rating of 106.7. Remember, these are the starters, so presumably the bench players that come in to replace them would submarine those marks even further.
Finally, this group’s total salary (including Boozer’s full pre-amnesty amount) is $48 million, or roughly 76 percent of this year’s salary cap. That leaves roughly $15 million – plus exceptions -- to fill out the rest of the 15-man roster. Oof. Pro-tip, courtesy of Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak: try not to spend it all on Jordan Hill.