HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — We’re only approaching 10 games in, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to eyeball some concerning trends that could quickly become disturbing. I’ve pinpointed five players I believe have left something to be desired. Each is an established veteran who entered this season with a new and exciting situation, and high expectations.
1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Supposedly happy in Houston, Howard’s stats — 18.2 ppg and 14.9 rpg — certainly look All-Star worthy. But take a deeper look. He’s shooting 53.6 percent from the floor, a mark not seen since his first two seasons in the league — and four percentage points lower than last season when he complained the Lakers didn’t get him the ball in his sweet spots. Yes, he and the Rockets, just 5-4, are adjusting, and this could take time, but Howard has looked awkward on the block and is shooting just 37 percent in the paint, per NBA.com stats. More discouraging is his free-throw shooting. He said he wanted to shoot between 75 and 80 percent — which was laughable. Instead he’s dragging a career-low 47.9 percent. Teams are already employing the Hack-a-Howard tactic and the Rockets are seeing how frustrating it is to have a big man who can’t make free throws in crunch time. They’ve been awful trying to close out games. And Hack-a-Howard isn’t just a late-game tactic anymore. The Sixers intentionally fouled him late in the first half of Wednesday’s game. Howard’s old club, the severely undermanned Lakers without Kobe Bryant, essentially won their game at Houston because Howard couldn’t make free throws when fouled on purpose.
There’s more. Where is the chiseled, 265-pound Howard’s passion? His passivity against the Lakers was mind-boggling, and running away from Lakers players attempting to intentionally foul him was embarrassing.
2. JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets
A forgettable start to the season got worse with a stress fracture to his left shin that will sideline McGee indefinitely. A sluggish start might not rank high on the surprise list for many, but if there was ever a time the 7-footer was going to put it together, this seemed it. His new coach Brian Shaw was moving away from George Karl‘s up-tempo, dribble-drive offense to a more traditional, low-post system. McGee spent much of the offseason working on his game, seemingly determined to bury, on the court at least, his goofball reputation. Prior to the start of training camp he told NBA.com: “It’s up to me to work and everything, and I’m going to do that. So if I work hard and I come prepared and in shape for training camp, there’s nothing that can stop me but the coach.”
It didn’t take Shaw long to apply the brakes, trusting McGee to even fewer minutes than Karl. In five starts, McGee averaged 7.0 ppg and 3.4 rpg in 15.8 mpg. He shot 43.6 percent. Denver, 3-4 after starting 1-4, traded Kosta Koufos to Memphis anticipating McGee’s rise. Recovering from the stress fracture only complicates McGee’s path to improvement. He’s in the second year of a $44 million contract, which so far looks like a very expensive mistake by the Nuggets.
3. Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
Evans’ fresh start away from Sacramento dysfunction was supposed to be a breath of fresh air for the fifth-year combo guard. The Pelicans hyped the sixth-man role behind Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon and it made sense. Evans can score and going against other second units would seem a great idea. An ankle injury slowed him early into the preseason and it’s been slow-going ever since. Evans is averaging a career-low 9.0 ppg and is logging a career-low 24.0 mpg. His shooting has been abysmal, 36.2 percent overall and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. Evans has never truly been a high-volume 3-point shooter and he’s never shot it with considerable accuracy, but really, he could probably make 12.5 percent blindfolded.
This has to concern the Pelicans’ front office if trading Gordon, who always seems to be on the block, is still a consideration later this season. Even Evans’ free-throw percentage is suffering. A 76.4-percent shooter from the stripe over his career, he’s only at 66.7 percent. The team’s overall optimism that sprouted from a successful preseason has been shrouded by a 3-6 start, including Wednesday’s demoralizing loss at previously winless Utah.
4. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
This is Williams’ second season as the maxed-out point guard Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban claims he’s happy to have lost out on two summers ago. Since Williams signed his five-year, $98-million contract to stay with the Nets, he has not produced like a max player, with either injuries or coaching fit being the culprit. Williams is averaging 11.1 ppg — lowest by a long shot since his rookie season) and 7.4 apg. He’s the quarterback of a team built for instant contention with All-Star (Joe Johnson) and Hall of Fame (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett) talent, albeit aging talent outside of center Brook Lopez, yet another All-Star. Williams was again hobbled by an ankle issue during the preseason and he still might be gimpy. Meshing won’t happen overnight, but the level at which the Nets, 2-5, have played (i.e. losing by 21 at Sacramento on Wednesday) should be deeply concerning to Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who will shell out close to $190 million in payroll and luxury tax this season.
If anybody knows how to get Williams going it should be his rookie coach and No. 1 golfing buddy Jason Kidd. Kidd has to figure out how to get Williams in his comfort zone, to allow him to create and use his size to his advantage, while also getting the rest of this cast involved. Maybe then Williams will exude the confident, follow-me persona of a leader that just isn’t there.
5. Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors
Starting from scratch with playoff-hopeful Toronto, Gay still can’t shake the inefficiency thing. Yes, he’s averaging 19.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg, which look great. But with Gay, as the stat geeks remind, you have to look deeper to see that he’s averaging those 19.7 ppg on 19.8 field-goal attempts. He’s connecting at just a 36.5-percent rate. He is shooting 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, a mark bolstered by going 7-for-14 in the last two games, including 4-for-6 Wednesday night to get the Raptors to 4-5 at the expense of his former team, the struggling Memphis Grizzlies. But since he shoots mostly mid-range jumpers, the overall percentage is stark. In an overtime loss at Houston, Gay reached rare inefficient air when he finished with 29 points on 37 shot attempts — 8-for-29 inside the arc; 3-for-8 behind it.
During the offseason Gay had eye surgery to correct a pretty serious vision problem, and, realizing he had to get his shooting percentages up, went to work with his personal trainer for hours each day at his old high school gym in Baltimore. As he put it to NBA.com: “Honestly, I had two bad years of shooting the ball and this last year was really bad, so I just had to go back to the basics. It wasn’t as much my eye sight as it was my form.” Unfortunately for Gay, so far his shooting percentage has only worsened.