The start of an NBA season is always intriguing, whether you’re looking at a team’s overall performance, how a new acquisition is fitting in a team’s rotation, or if a player is turning all that off-season work into production.
But as we all know, there are many players who are off to disappointing starts thus far in the young season. That’s where the overreaction comes in. The average NBA team has played five games this year, which would be the same as about 3.5 quarters of a football game in terms of a 16 game season. Would you jump overboard if Adrian Peterson started off his first game slowly? Of course not. That's why it’s vital to keep the sample size in mind when reacting to an NBA player’s slow start.
However, when digging deep into statistical trends in a small sample, sometimes things stick out that indicate future success or failure. Or it could be a simple case of bad matchups, shooting slumps, or lack of minutes.
That’s where I come in. Anyone can point out players with slow starts, but I’m going to not only point out why, but if they will continue. Without further ado, the Slow Start Starting Five:
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls
The former MVP is back in action after missing last year recovering from a torn ACL, but has been quite disappointing in his first four games. Is this a case of a player shaking off a year’s worth of rust, or should we be worried?
On the defensive end, Rose has missed simple rotations and looks a bit hesitant on his first step, both of which can be attributed to not playing in over 500 days. The real concern comes on the offensive end. Through four games, Rose is averaging career lows across the board, including points, assists, rebounds, FG%, and turnovers. When looking at more advanced metrics, it doesn’t get much better. Despite a career high in usage rate (32.4%), he is turning it over on 22.2% of his possessions, posting career lows in both true shooting percentage (41%) and effective field goal percentage (35%). This all contributes to his offensive rating of 75 (points per 100 possessions) which is a steep fall from his MVP season of 113.
I think a lot of this has to do with his lack of aggression. Rose is taking a career high five 3-point attempts a game, and is getting to the line at 45% less frequently then in 2010-2011. These are both disturbing trends that perhaps signify that Rose doesn’t have faith in his knee and lack of explosiveness, causing him to settle for inefficient shots.
I believe that with more games under his belt, Rose will start to look like himself again. He will start being more aggressive, improve his shot selection, and get to the charity stripe more. However, we could be in for a career high in turnovers due to the increase in usage and the Bulls lack of a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler.
Tyreke Evans, SG-SF, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans science experiment of an offseason is having mixed results, especially among its backcourt. Entering the season, it was believed that Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans would all be in the starting rotation, but Evans has been relegated to 6th man duties as the more defensively sound Al-Farouq Aminu has taken over at small forward.
Through five outings, Evans is averaging a mere 24.6 minutes per game, over 10 less than his career average of 34.9. However, in his limited time 'Reke has actually played considerably well. With a usage rate that is comparable to that of his time with Sacramento, Evans is putting up career highs in AST% at 26.3, showing his development as a ball handler. Even though his TS% and eFG% are at career lows as of now, they will likely positively regress as there is no indication as to why he is shooting poorly.
While his per-minute stats are on par with career norms, the raw totals look to be a thing of the past. Evans should be able to creep back up towards 30 MPG, but the fact that he plays with two ball-dominant guards will limit scoring opportunities as he hasn’t shown progress as a spot up shooter or off-ball cutter. Evans seems to be in for another frustratingly inefficient season despite his talents, but with less minutes.
Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard’s play throughout the playoffs last year, and particularly in the finals, gave us a glimpse of what to expect this season, especially with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker getting that much older. The third-year wing out of San Diego State was pegged to make a third year jump similar to that of Paul George, but where is it?
Leonard’s numbers are all just about in-line with those of last year, averaging 12 points and 5.6 rebounds. So we can’t exactly say he has been disappointing, but when one accounts for the expectations and off season hype, owners and fans alike can’t be too happy. But the advanced metrics give mixed results when predicating the rest of the season.
In a shooting slump to begin the year, shooting 46% from the field and 20% from deep, his efficiency should return to his career averages. Throw in the fact that Leonard is rebounding 19.1 of the available defensive rebounds when on the floor, 2% higher than last year, and it’s not hard to argue that he could make the “leap” with more games.
But it’s also believable that he just isn’t the high usage ball handler we thought he could be. Leonard has a USG% of 20.6%, a similar number to Paul George last year, which is about as high as owners would have asked for. With that increase in usage however, comes a career high in turnover percent and a career low in assists, leading to a pitiful ORtg of 91.
He might not be the offensive hub that was expected of him, but a career high in usage and a positive regression in shooting should result in a career year for Leonard.
Pau Gasol, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
With Kobe Bryant out to start the year, Gasol was expected to be the center point of an inside-out, fast-pace offensive attack, in route to putting up his numbers before Dwight Howard came to town. So what is with the slow start?
Despite being on pace for a USG% (25.1%) higher than any of his seasons as a Laker, Gasol is only scoring 12.5 ppg. What gives? His efficiency. Like Rose, Gasol is settling too often, taking 1.2 3-pointers per game while getting to the line at a career low rate. This type of shot selection is also taking a toll on his shooting numbers, as the Spaniard is trending towards career lows in TS% and eFG%. For a big man who should be making his living in the paint despite being pushed outside last year, this is alarming.
But there are some positive signs. The first one being his rebounding. With Howard gone, Gasol is back to his ball-snatching ways. Gasol leads the NBA with a DRB% of 37.6, which is almost double his career average. And in addition to his usage rate, Gasol is fourth in the league in elbow touches per game (according to SportVU player tracking on NBA.com), which will give him increased opportunities as both a scorer and a facilitator.
I’d fully expect Gasol to bounce back from an early shooting slump and post some of his best numbers in years as he will be the go-to option on offense until Kobe comes back in a fast-paced system suited for him.
Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
Like Leonard, Hibbert seemed to make a leap during the playoffs not only as the best big man defender in the NBA, but as a very potent offensive force. He averaged 17 ppg during last year’s playoff run with a TS of 58%. Was that a fluke?
As the young season is under way, Hibbert is proving that he is still an elite defender. Leading the league in block percentage (12.5%), and ranking second in opponted FG% at the rim at 29.8% (per SportVU), Hibbert is off to an incredible defensive start. But the success hasn’t continued offensively, averaging 8.2 ppg on a career low 48% TS.
Hibbert tends to start of seasons slowly, and his scoring should comeback up to around 12 ppg, but I think that the expectations based on last year’s playoffs were premature. Hibbert has a career ORtg of just 103 compared to his playoff number of 117, and David West is the Pacer’s premier pick-and-roll big. Not to mention his USG% is over 4% lower this season than over last year’s playoffs. Hibbert’s playoff success was likely due to the matchups, playing a poor defensive team in the Knicks and a small-ball team in the Heat. The 7 foot, 2 inch behemoth should be able to bounce back a bit, but likely won’t produce relative to the expectations.