We’ve seen more than our fair share of thrilling performances to start 2019-20, highlighted by a four-man MVP race and one of the more open title chases in recent memory. Los Angeles has a pair of Finals contenders, while the state of Texas now has a second superstar to match James Harden. The Giannis MVP train is fully operational, and in a nice surprise, the East is fairly functional. The season’s first-quarter has been far more enjoyable than the sagging ratings would suggest.
This season hasn’t been all roses, however. Golden State has been wiped from relevancy (at least in 2019-20), while the rookie class has battled injuries and general poor play. The Knicks are the Knicks. The Pelicans can’t catch a break. After highlighting the first-quarter All-Stars on Wednesday, we at The Crossover decided to take a different tune on Friday, examining the season’s most disappointing developments as we approach Christmas Day.
Trae Young’s Supporting Cast
Luka Doncic has built upon his lead over Trae Young in the battle of 2018 draft phenoms, but that’s not the fault of Atlanta’s standout point guard. Young is in the midst of a truly dominant offensive season, entering Friday averaging 27.9 points and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 37.6% from three. Young’s range is truly Curry-esque, and he’s finishing in the paint with greater efficiency compared to 2018-19. His passing is on another level. Young is on the Doncic plane in that regard, slinging passes to the corner with either hand. Hawks fans should be thrilled with Young’s development in Year two.
So how about Young’s teammates? It’s a rough group. Young’s supposed running mate John Collins is currently serving a 25-game PED suspension, and the rest of Atlanta’s supporting cast has struggled mightily. Rookie Cam Reddish is scuffling from the field while fellow lottery pick De’Andre Hunter has seen his production dip over the last two weeks. Atlanta’s offense ranges from middling to poor. It’s defense is downright disastrous. The Hawks rank No. 29 in defensive rating, only ahead of the hapless Wizards. Young holds some culpability here on this end, and his teammates aren’t helping. Pairing Young with Jabari Parker is a certified defensive disaster, and none of the young wings are ready to be upper-echelon defenders. There’s no true rim protection and few athletic defenders. Travis Schlenk hasn’t landed his Draymond for “Warriors East” quite yet.
Atlanta won 29 games last year, and expectations were relatively muted approaching 2019-20. But the Hawks aren’t on pace to finish .500, let alone sniff the eight seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has taken a collective step back as its franchise point guard continues to ascend. Young’s frustration is warranted.
Mike Conley and the Jazz
Where’s the Utah team that expected to compete for the Finals in 2020? The Jazz won 149 games in the last three years, re-establishing the franchise as a perennial playoff team in the West. This season was supposed to mark a leap into the conference’s top tier. Utah traded for Mike Conley and signed Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason, creating one of the league’s most talented five-man units. The new additions joined Donavan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, and the Jazz appeared to have the requisite talent to compete with Houston, Denver and the two powerhouses in Los Angeles. That talent hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far.
Conley fits the profile of key piece in Utah’s potential ascent. The 32-year-old provided a significant spacing upgrade over Ricky Rubio, and an All-Star level point guard should have lessened the considerable playmaking load on Mitchell’s shoulders. But Conley has struggled to find his footing through 21 games. His turnover rate is at its highest mark since 2014-15, and his assist rate has dropped nearly 10% compared to last season. Conley may also be a victim of some bad luck. He’s shooting a career-worst 36.9% from the field this season, ranking No. 83 of 84 players to attempt at least 250 shots. Some positive regression could be in store after Christmas.
Utah may still battle some stylistic issues even if Conley returns to form from the field. The Jazz aren’t quite running the offensive symphony they did last season, with more stagnant, isolation play mixed into their attack. I’m not quite sure Conley or Donavan Mitchell will thrive in heavy doses of 1-on-1 play. Joe Ingles’ efficiency has dipped as Utah’s offense evolved, and Rudy Gobert has suffered from the lack of ball movement. It’s still early in the season, but Utah appears to have taken a step back despite its offseason additions.
The 2019 Lottery
The first 14 picks of the 2018 NBA draft landed the league two future MVP candidates (Doncic and Young), along with likely future All-Stars Jaren Jackson Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The top of the 2019 draft hasn’t been so kind, at least outside of Grizzlies sensation Ja Morant (stay healthy, Ja!). Zion Williamson hasn’t stepped on the floor this season. R.J. Barrett is mired in a disastrous situation, and the rest of the top 10 has been largely middling. Jarrett Culver hasn’t moved the needle in Minnesota. Can Darius Garland play with Collin Sexton in Cleveland? A saving grace for the 2019 class could by Tyler Herro, who has immediately become a quick-trigger cog for the new-look Heat. Perhaps Morant will ascend to All-NBA status and Williamson will take the league by storm. Barring that, we may look back at the 2019 lottery with a collective shrug.
The Bulls are a team with too many mouths to feed, and their 22-year-old big man has been the player most affected by Chicago’s overcrowded crop of scorers. Lauri Markkanen continued to grow in his second season last year, rising to 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game. The 7’0” Finnish phenom was beginning to embrace his interior prowess, and a silky three-point stroke gave the Bulls a potential Baby Unicorn. Chicago is presently squandering that potential.
Markkanen is averaging just 11.7 shots per game this year compared to 15.3 last season, and he’s often relegated to little more than an overqualified floor spacer. He’s too skilled to abandon his post-up potential. Head coach Jim Boylen holds some culpability for Markkanen’s slow start, but Markkanen must ultimately assert himself as the fulcrum of Chicago’s attack. The Bulls are a team with too many selfish offensive players. Markkanen needs to take a page from Zach LaVine’s playbook and let it fly.
Trail Blazers’ Finals Hopes
The Blazers reached their first conference finals in nearly two decades last season, but their roster entering 2019-20 didn’t mirror a team ready to make the next step toward the Finals. Part of Portland’s regression has been out of their control. Center Jusuf Nurkic is out for potentially the entire season as he recovers from a leg fracture, and fellow big man Zach Collins may also be out for all of 2019-20 due to shoulder surgery. The injuries–and the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless–have left Portland with a roster short of contention for the Western Conference crown. The enigmatic Hassan Whiteside is the Blazers’ center, and too many minutes are given to Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja. Carmelo Anthony’s return to the floor has been a heartwarming story, though nobody confuses the 10-time All-Star for a franchise savior at this point in his career. Portland is simply bereft of the bodies necessary to compete with the top of the West.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum continue to post strong offensive numbers, and the bottom three seeds in the Western Conference playoff spot are certainly up for grabs. Can Portland’s ramshackle roster rally into the playoffs? Of course. But anything beyond a first-round exit is very unlikely.