The average NBA game features roughly 200 possessions, meaning that the die-hard fan has something on the order of 3,000 plays to sift through on busy nights around the league. Some of those plays are electric and spread online like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wingspan; many more are mundane, unmemorable, a missed pull-up jumper or a sloppy pass into the second row. Still others are comically terrible: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s self-pass over the backboard, DeMarcus Cousins’s two-way blunder, Mario Hezonja’s immediate transformation from Harlem Globetrotter to Washington General.
And then there are the uncomically terrible — the dregs of each NBA night, which produce not points nor laughs but exasperated cries. They will never set Twitter aflame, but they raise broader questions about the teams and players who execute them. Here are the five saddest play types of the 2017–18 NBA season.
Andrew Wiggins Isos
This season, 94 different players have finished at least one possession per game with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul on an isolation play. Among that group, Wiggins ranks 94th in points per possession with just 0.56, which is less than half the rate at which the league’s elite isolation artists — Anthony Davis, James Harden, the currently unguardable Lou Williams, who’s first in the league — score. (All play-type numbers in this piece come from Synergy’s tracking system.)
Wiggins is shooting an unfathomably poor 22.2 percent on isolation possessions, he’s rarely getting to the line, and he’s struggling from all angles: He ranks in the 14th percentile of all isolation scorers from the left side, the second from the right side, and the fifth from the top of the key.
On isolation plays after a pick-and-roll switch — in other words, when matched against a defender who’s theoretically ill-suited to combat Wiggins’s combination of size and on-ball fluidity — he’s made just one basket and drawn one foul in 14 possessions. The most effective way to attack Golden State — a potential second-round opponent for the Timberwolves — is to force Steph Curry into unnavigable matchups with bigger ball handlers, but Wiggins doesn’t fluster the Warrior guard on this possession.
Nor does he exhibit much ability to finish in traffic against opponents of all sizes.
Amid an otherwise breakthrough season for the playoff-starved Wolves, Wiggins has struggled to find a flow alongside new teammate Jimmy Butler, and his play has cast some doubts about the max extension he signed before the season. In the long term, it’s hard to bet against a 22-year-old with a career average of 19.9 points per game, but for the moment, it’s strange that a player with as much pure talent as Wiggins possesses is the worst in the league at the sport’s purest individual test: beating his man, one on one, to score.
Oklahoma City Handoffs
The Thunder are closer to being out of the West’s playoff field than they are to catching any of the conference’s top four teams, and, even after a hot stretch over the holidays, Oklahoma City’s offense still seems stuck. The Thunder rank 26th in half-court scoring, and, since eclipsing 110 points in five of six games straddling New Year’s, they’ve hit that number just once in six games.
The Thunder’s offensive system lacks creativity, and it shows in the numbers and on the court. Imagined ideally, with ingenuity, OKC’s offense could be a whir of activity and constant motion; it might never be the Spurs in terms of ball and player movement, but the Thunder have four players who can serve as legitimate offensive hubs and plenty of scorers capable of exploiting mismatches if the defense is forced into inopportune rotations.
But Billy Donovan’s offense has fallen into the thorniest Scott Brooks–era traps. It’s stationary and eminently predictable — as ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted recently, the team typically runs only one play, a basic pick-and-roll set, in crunch time — and Russell Westbrook in particular shows little inclination to move without the ball. Westbrook has recorded just six screen assists all season, for instance, which is well below the totals for other top-tier point guards: Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry have 24, Kyrie Irving 18, and James Harden 17.
But this issue glares brightest with handoffs. No team uses handoffs less frequently than the Thunder, and no team comes close to optimizing them as poorly: The Thunder score just 0.57 points per handoff possession, and the 29th-place Suns are closer to the seventh-place Hawks than they are to OKC.
Westbrook has shot just 11-of-38, with eight turnovers, off handoffs — many of them static jumpers — and Paul George has managed an even worse 6-of-22. Carmelo Anthony has curled off four handoffs all season. More frequent and inventive use of sets involving handoffs isn’t the only possible solution to OKC’s offensive stagnation, and that may not mesh with Westbrook’s preferred brand of ordered chaos. But the Thunder need to try something to get unstuck.
Plus, there’s an extra kicker: The best team in the NBA in scoring off handoffs is the Pacers, whose All-Star candidate, Victor Oladipo, didn’t receive much opportunity to create last season in Oklahoma City. But players generally improve upon leaving OKC, and this year, Oladipo ranks sixth among high-volume handoff users in scoring efficiency (1.10 points per possession), just behind Irving. He’s already used 48 percent more handoffs than he did all of last season, and this one is just halfway over.
Dwight Howard Post-ups
This one is sad in the same fashion as the second Peverell brother’s resurrection stone; every plodding post-up from Howard, now languishing in Charlotte, is a dim reminder of his formerly bright self. Unlike with Wiggins or the Thunder, the sorrow Howard induces speaks to the past, rather than the present or future. Laugh at him (or with him) now, on his third team in three seasons, but Howard was a menace in Orlando — even on offense, as Stan Van Gundy’s four-out, 3-happy squad razed the league nearly a decade before that strategy was the norm.
Except for one bounce-back season in Houston, though, Howard’s post-up efficiency has steadily eroded since he and Van Gundy split. In Charlotte this year, Howard scores the second-fewest points per possession and has the highest turnover rate among all players with at least 100 post-up possessions. He also no longer represents a secondary threat who warps defensive rotations and opens shooting lanes for teammates, as his passing numbers (which are included in the below graph) have plummeted as well. The season that Orlando made the Finals, Howard’s passes out of the post yielded 1.44 points per possession; this year, that number has fallen by nearly half, to 0.77.
Andre Iguodala Spot-ups
In each of his first four seasons in Golden State, Iguodala shot better than 35 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. Through 39 games played this year, though, that number has dipped to 21.2 percent (11-of-52), which is the fourth-worst mark among 286 players with at least 20 such attempts. Just better than Iguodala, at 23.5 percent, is Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson, who like Iguodala is a defensive ace on the perimeter but unlike the 2015 Finals MVP has been rendered unplayable in the postseason because of his long-range inaccuracy.
Iguodala’s appearance on this list resembles Howard’s, as a somber reminder of the degrading effects of time, but his decline has been much sharper and is nearly unprecedented in league history. Counting all 3-pointers, not just spot-ups, Iguodala’s percentage from behind the arc is on pace to drop 13.7 points from last year; only eight other players have ever seen their 3-point percentage drop as drastically from one season to the next (minimum of 100 3s taken in each season).
There’s a secondary element of sadness here for the rest of the league, which is that even with one member of the Lineup of Death building a condo with spot-up bricks, Draymond Green playing inconsistently, and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant missing various games with injuries, the Warriors are still the best team in basketball by a significant margin. Even Iguodala’s slump is unlikely to threaten the Warriors’ title quest this spring.
The pinnacle of offensive sadness resides in Atlanta, home of the second-to-last-place Hawks, where the typical post-up looks something like this.
After losing Howard and two-way stalwart Paul Millsap over the summer, the Hawks essentially abandoned that part of their offense. They’re finishing just 1.1 percent of their possessions via post-ups, which, over a full season, would represent the lowest rate for any team on record at stats.nba.com. Even the Rockets, who rank 29th this season in post-up frequency, have nearly doubled the Hawks’ attempts.
But Mike Budenholzer has good reason for straying away from the block: When Atlanta does execute its rare post-up, the possession often goes terribly awry. No team scores at a lower rate on post-ups, no team turns the ball over more, and no team makes a lower percentage of its shots — and in none of those categories is Atlanta particularly close to 29th place.
Combine a lack of frequency with a lack of success, and some dispiriting comparisons emerge. For instance, 73 individual players have scored more points out of the post than Atlanta’s whole team, and 83 have made more shots. The Hawks’ leading post scorer, Ersan Ilyasova, has fewer such points than eight different point guards.
As the Hawks’ main post-up presence, Ilyasova is the chief culprit, as his hurried tempo runs counter to the methodical pace employed by the league’s top scorers down low. Luis Scola is the best herky-jerky post player of the last decade — the Argentine was all subtle fakes and unorthodox maneuvers in tight spaces — but that style rarely works in the NBA, and Ilyasova looks frantic upon finding a defender on his back.
John Collins is Atlanta’s other main post presence, and he too has struggled to score in that position. Collins, at least, will be OK in the long run, since despite falling to 19th in last summer’s draft, he’s posted some of the most impressive numbers for this rookie class. Collins’s per-36-minute averages of 17.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, and better than a steal and block place him in even more illustrious company: Among qualified rookies, only Robert Parish, Marques Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Arvydas Sabonis have hit those marks.
Beyond Collins, though, Atlanta’s roster is bleak, and its post-ups, though they come as infrequently as once per game, serve as a microcosm of the team’s 2017–18 outlook. The Hawks won’t win many games, but that’s the point: They’re likely to hold three first-round picks in next summer’s draft, when, for the first time in years, they’ll have the opportunity to add legitimate young talent.
Along with San Antonio, Atlanta is one of two teams to have reached the playoffs in each of the last 10 seasons, but a decade of picking outside the lottery has left the Hawks with few resources of note as they embark on a rebuild. Atlanta’s first-round picks since Jeff Teague in 2009 are Collins, Dennis Schröder, and a motley group besides: John Jenkins, Adreian Payne, DeAndre’ Bembry, and picks the franchise spun off for Jordan Crawford, Tibor Pleiss, Jared Cunningham, Mike Muscala, Lucas Nogueira, and Tim Hardaway Jr. The Hawks’ second-rounders have been similarly unimpressive since they took Teague: Sergiy Gladyr, Pape Sy, Keith Benson, Mike Scott, Raul Neto, James Ennis, Walter Tavares, Marcus Eriksson, Dimitrios Agravanis, Isaia Cordinier, Kay Felder, Tyler Dorsey, and Alpha Kaba. More of those players haven’t reached the NBA than have accumulated positive win shares.
That list, about the sad draft picks of a sad NBA team with the saddest possessions in the league, might be the saddest of all.