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Which NBA Teams are Underperforming?

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The season is not even halfway over but we have already had more than enough time to see which teams are struggling so far this season. Not everyone has met expectations and even some of last year’s biggest surprises find themselves struggling early in 2021. Here are some of the NBA’s underperforming teams this season.

Washington Wizards

Problem: Westbrooks struggles and stagnant player development

The Wizards didn’t come into the season with incredibly high expectations (although many predicted them to be a fringe playoff team) but they were certainly higher than being among the worst teams in basketball. Through February 14th, they have only 7 wins, tied with the Pistons for the second least in the league. 

NBA's underperforming teams
Westbrook is struggling in DC
Image courtesy of Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook has been the team’s scapegoat so far, and the label has been somewhat justified. Although his three-point shot has finally gotten back into the range of respectability for the first time since his MVP season, it has come at the expense of his shots at the rim. Westbrook made 3rd Team All-NBA last season off the back of his rim-running ability but he seems to have abandoned that playstyle in Washington. A career-high 43% of his shots came at the rim last season which has fallen all the way to just 17% through 16 games this season, a career-low. If he wants to help the Wizards, Westbrook needs to be more aggressive with the ball in his hand.

Another problem is that outside of Westbrook and Beal the team is struggling for quality talent. Young center Thomas Bryant appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season before going down with a torn ACL after just ten games. Davis Bertans signed a massive contract extension worth 80 million dollars only to regress to a league-average shooter after shooting 45% from deep last year. Recent first-round picks Rui Hachimura and Dani Avdija both have shown sporadic promise but aren’t consistently good enough to play big minutes. Outside of them, the minutes have been filled by a motley crew of NBA castoffs and has-beens like Alex Len, Raul Neto and Robin Lopez. What this team needs more than anything is guys who can provide substantial-quality minutes off the bench.

Dallas Mavericks

Problem: Bad three-point shooting and foul-prone big men

After their record-setting 124-73 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, it seemed like Luka Doncic and the Mavericks were making the move towards contention. Instead, the season has slowly deteriorated into a mess and although Dallas is on a four-game win streak, they still have a below .500 record and are without a playoff spot.

NBA's underperforming teams
Luka has struggled with his shot early this season. Photo credited to Reuters.

Although they’ve improved in recent games, the Maverick’s biggest weakness has been their inconsistent three-point shooting. Luka Doncic, while brilliant in almost every other aspect, still has failed to develop as a consistent long-range threat. Out of all players shooting over 7 three-pointers per game, Doncic ranks last in 3-point percentage. 

On the defensive end, the team’s biggest problem is their propensity to foul. They rank in the bottom five in both personal fouls and opponent free throw attempts. A lot of these fouls come courtesy of their forward crew. Five members of their forward rotation (Porzingis, Cauley-Stein, Powell, Johnson, and Marjanovic) rank in the top 100 in the league for fouls per 36 minutes, more than any other team. In close games, free throws often become the deciding factor and the Mavericks could pick up some more wins by fouling less on the block.

Miami Heat

Problem: A turnover-prone offense and lack of offensive boards

In the span of half a year, the Miami Heat have gone from an incredible run to the NBA finals to an 11-15 start which leaves them on the outside looking in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. So the question is what happened?

NBA's underperforming teams
Fresh off a finals appearance, the Heat have come out rusty in 2021

First and foremost the Heat have severe problems on offense. Only three teams average fewer points per game and even with the 7th ranked defense, the Heat still have a net rating of negative 3.4. The new three-headed monster of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro lacks the scoring touch that it truly needs. Adebayo doesn’t appear willing to take on the role of the primary scorer, Butler is having his worst shooting season since 2013-2014, and Herros inability to get to the line consistently makes him an inefficient offensive player. 

It doesn’t help that they’re also the most turnover-prone team in the league, giving away the ball nearly 17 times a night. Although no one player on the squad is to blame, they have a league-leading 11 players averaging more than a turnover per game. If they want to start winning games, a team effort needs to be made to take care of the ball.

Further exacerbating their turnover problem is the fact that they don’t get many second-chance points to make up for it. At just 7 per game, the Heat rank dead last on the offensive glass. Their top rebounders Adebayo, Butler and Kelly Olynyk all get the vast majority of their rebounds on the defensive end. Their best bet to improve on the offensive glass lies with Precious Achiuwa. The rookie big man out of Memphis is third on the team in offensive rebounds despite only playing 15 minutes a night. Giving him more minutes might be the key to solving some of their problems.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com

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