This is not a list of unproductive NBA players or bench-warmers. This is a list of people who break our hearts with untapped potential or sudden decline, guys who make us sigh in frustration as we’re watching the Jazz at midnight when we should be sleeping instead. (Also: As we’re watching the Nets on YES when we should be doing anything else instead, even staring at the wall and drooling).
PG: Devin Harris, Nets. He’s battled a handful of injuries and missed 16 games, but when he’s in the line-up, Harris is playing like a guy who just wants this season to end and not someone trying to emerge as the leader of a young team. He’s shooting 39 percent from the floor, and the Nets defense is giving up 11 more points per 100 possessions with Harris on the floor versus with him on the bench. His numbers are down across the board, but he can still get to the line and pass the ball. Hopefully this season is an aberration.
SG: Vince Carter, Orlando. We all know about the horrible shooting numbers, though we should acknowledge that Orlando’s defense is actually playing quite a bit better with Carter on the floor versus with him on the bench. (That may have a bit to do with Carter’s tendency to play alongside the best defensive player on Earth).
You know what bugs me about Vince the most? Why are his assists down, both in raw numbers (assists per game) and assist rate (the percentage of Orlando baskets Vince assists on while on the floor)? I understand he’s not the point guard, but he wasn’t last year in New Jersey, either, and he’s handling the ball about as much this season as last.
And he’s handling it in an offense designed (at times) to make him its primary distributor in crunch time. So why is he averaging just 3.3 assists per 36 minute (down from 4.6 last season and the lowest number since his rookie season) and assisting on just 16.7 percent of Magic hoops while he’s on the court (a career low and down from 23.7 percent last season)?
Some of this may be due to the fact that Dwight Howard is fouled so often, perhaps robbing Vince of some deserved dimes. But still: Orlando expected more than a 15.5 PER, Carter’s worst mark ever by a whopping 4.1 points.
SF: Josh Howard, Mavericks/Wizards. It’s hard to believe Howard was an All-Star just two seasons ago. He’s putting up career-worst numbers in just about every category save free throw attempts, and his plus/minus numbers reflect that decline. His PER is 12.2, which puts him in the same area as Yi Jianlian, DeMar DeRozan, Shelden Williams and Courtney Lee.
PF: Boris Diaw, Charlotte Bobcats. Maybe the most frustrating player in the league, having perhaps his most frustrating season ever. Diaw is on pace to put up his worst numbers since leaving Atlanta in 2005, and his plus/minus totals are among Charlotte’s worst. He alternates between games in which he looks like an elite all-around force and near-total disappearances. Some of this is to be expected with the addition of a ball-dominator like Stephen Jackson, and the defensive metrics we have (see here and here) indicate that Diaw’s head-to-head opponents aren’t scoring much. (Then again, no one scores much against the Bobs). Still: He flashes the potential for so much more.
C: Mehmet Okur, Utah. What in the hell happened to Memo Okur? The Jazz crew still calls him the “Money Man” because of some clutch shots he hit in, like, 2006, but Okur this season is scoring just 12.3 points per game on 43 percent shooting (38 percent from deep) after dropping 17.0 per game last season on 48.5 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three. He’s never been what you would call a good defensive player, so if Okur isn’t scoring the ball, he’s hot helping much.
• Mario Chalmers, Heat: Chalmers has declined slightly after showing serious potential as a second-round steal in his rookie season. Chalmers’ sophomore year has been more of a step sideways than a step backwards, but the failure to show positive development has cost him his starting job and serious minutes. And it has probably made Dwyane Wade uneasy about the point guard position in Miami going forward.
• Trevor Ariza, Houston: Amid all the Ascendancy of the Scrappy Role Players! stories about Houston’s season, it seems sometimes as if no one (except perhaps Rahat Huq at the Rockets blog Red 94) has noticed how badly Ariza’s transition from role player to would-be top dog has gone. Ariza is shooting a sub-Iversonian 38 percent from the floor and 30 percent from deep, an early indication that his 40-of-84 mark from three in the playoffs last season may have been a fluke. His defensive numbers are so-so, but he hasn’t been a wizard of plus/minus like Anderson Varejao or Lamar Odom. The lone bit of good news: He’s proven a decent passer, and his turnover rate hasn’t increased along with his offensive responsibilities.
• Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia: Thad’s only 21, so this may be holding him to a stricter standard than he deserves. But Thad looked ready last season to emerge as a physical small forward with range or a quick power forward that could cause major problems in small Philly line-ups. It hasn’t happened. His scoring and shooting percentages are down, he still doesn’t rebound enough, and he’s unproven on defense. You have to wonder how much all the change in Philly—the new coach, the return of Iverson—has impacted his development.
• Tyson Chandler, Charlotte: Chandler has a sub-10 PER and has played just 27 games this season. He will earn $12.6 million next season in the final year of his contract, which means that every team in the league will want him and that he might earn, say, $2 million per season in his next deal. The NBA is weird.
• Caron Butler, Wizards/Mavericks: How Butler responds to the Dallas trade will be one of the more fascinating subplots of the second half of the season. He has spent the first 50 or so games in D.C. chucking contested 19-foot pull-up jumpers off the dribble instead of attacking the rim like the beast he was last season. He’s shooting his worst percentage from the floor since leaving Miami, his foul shots and assists are down and you never know what you’re going to get from him defensively (though the numbers here and here are good). Some of the decline in his numbers is obviously due to the (brief) return of Gil Arenas, but Dallas will rightfully be expecting a lot more from Butler than what he gave the Wiz this season.
• Richard Jefferson, Spurs. It just hasn’t worked out. Jefferson is shooting 45 percent, which is better than last season, but if you watch San Antonio, you realize quickly that Jefferson looks more like a tentative role player picking his spots than an assertive force ready to take the pressure of Duncan/Parker/Manu. It’s not so much that Jefferson has been bad, though a PER of 12 for a guy earning $14.2 million per season qualifies as bad. It’s that Jefferson just isn’t as good, on either end, as we all thought he would be at this stage of his career. And that’s one reason some really smart Spurs fans have called for the team to raise the white flag this year.
HONORABLE MENTION/WATER BOYS:
• Hakim Warrick
• Jason Richardson
• Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
• Rasheed Wallace
• Emeka Okafor
• Andris Biedrins
• Spencer Hawes/Jason Thompson
• Brandon Bass