Remember the NBA’s 75th-anniversary ad campaign where Michael B. Jordan drives a bus down the fictional NBA Lane and narrates through the legacies of some of The Association’s impact stars? The NBA Struggle Bus is a rickety old jalopy with torn-up seats driving down that same street, but at night, and the exhaust pipe is smoking. Jordan rode it when he was working his way back into basketball shape during the ‘95 season, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The Struggle Bus isn’t heading down the Google Maps-recommended route to NBA Lane, though. Often it takes a side road, getting lost along the way, stuck in traffic, and causing its riders to show up frazzled for game days. Along the way on its 2023 route, it picked up a few recognizable passengers, such as Julius Randle, Trae Young, and Dame Lillard, a trio that has been hitting potholes since the beginning. They still have over 70 games to turn things around, but their first impressions have been troubling.
Lillard is getting picked up after a rough start during the first few weeks of the season. First, Lillard’s long-time Blazers coach, Terry Stotts, bounced after a practice incident with rookie head coach Adrian Griffin. Now, they’ve had to address Lillard’s starting play. Here’s the rub though. Lillard will always struggle defensively, but he has to show more effort than this.
Griffin has to do a better job masking Lillard’s deficiencies. His attacking defense is more aggressive than what Budenholzer was demanding of his guards a year ago and highlights Lillard’s defensive incompetence. Cleveland has covered up Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland by entrusting Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to be their clean-up men.
Milwaukee is faring better since making adjustments with Brook Lopez that position him closer to the rim. However, if Lillard is going to be an offensive turnstile, he has to pick it up on the offensive end. Averaging 20 a night on 40 percent shooting isn’t getting it done. In pick-and-rolls involving Lillard, the Bucks offense is averaging 1.14 points per possession. However, Freak Time has partnered on pick-and-rolls less often than Eric Gordon and Jusuf Nurkic. This season was Lillard’s chance to finally stake one season where he held bragging rights on Steph Curry. Alas, Curry is lapping Lillard.
Young got picked up after banging on the doors outside Team USA headquarters after they snubbed him for selection to the World Cup roster. Since getting passed over, he’s provided us with a glimpse into why they opted for more stable guards. The discussion of Young as a young Steph Curry knock-off has settled. He doesn’t play off-ball, and he’s a chucker who puts up big numbers. His usage profile compares more favorably to a mini-James Harden. Currently, the Hawks are rolling despite Young playing abominable defense, shooting 33 percent from the field, and 27 percent from distance.
Norman, Okla., recently named a street after Young. That’s the only lane he can drive through authoritatively. Young should have his license revoked because he can’t finish inside efficiently when driving the lane either. Young is a fantastic passer, but he is proving that he cannot be the primary scorer, and distributor on a contending team. Trae Young’s ceiling is higher than Randle’s, so to see him struggling like this is disconcerting. There’s no reason for Scoot Henderson to be scoring more efficiently than Young. He won’t finish the season shooting this abhorrently, but it’s beginning to look like we’ve seen his peak.
The Knicks often play with the joy of a ground war infantry unit, but the vibes have been worse than ever to start out 2023. Evan Fournier is wasting away on the bench and sharing his unhappiness about it and Mitchell Robinson’s trainer is raging about his lack of usage. Meanwhile, Julius Randle’s facial expressions have more range than Denzel Washington. When things are going well, he’s reveling with his family before the clock strikes 0:00. And when he hits a bump in the road, Randle might as well be Sam Jackson delivering a monologue in front of Gene Cousineau’s acting class. I can see him screaming in Sam Jackson’s voice at Jalen Brunson for not passing him the rock after watching his point guard score 45.
This season, Randle has been in a rut like we’ve never seen before. Until his 27-point outburst on Monday, Randle was shooting an NBA-worst 27 percent from the field. There’s a running theme with that number today. Of the three names mentioned above, he’s the only one who could be getting off at a different stop eventually.
All three Struggle Bus riders have a pass for November, but once the calendar flips to December, it’s time to hop off. Because if they’re still riding then, something has gone horribly wrong.
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