The summer of 2019 will forever be remembered for the changes it made to the NBA landscape.
The league watched as an unprecedented number of players hit the open market. However, it wasn’t just the quantity of players changing teams but also the quality that moved the needle.
All-Stars swapped conferences and teamed up with other talented pieces and created a much more balanced landscape leaguewide. For the first time in years—and also due to the demise of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty roster—the path to the NBA Finals appeared virtually wide open.
Two months into the year, we have enough information to see how these changes have worked out around the league. For the five players listed below—four former All-Stars and one future one—we noticed that, to date, they likely haven’t met the expectations of the money committed to them by their new franchises.
Yet, how these chosen few play the rest of the season will have a big impact on how their teams fare in pursuing some big goals.
Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz
It seems like the Utah Jazz has been one piece away from legitimate contender status for a long while.
This offseason, they made a trade before the 2019 NBA Draft that many believed finally netted them that final player. Mike Conley Jr. left the Memphis Grizzlies franchise as the all-time leader in games, points, three-pointers, assists and steals.
Combining him with Donovan Mitchell in the Jazz backcourt looked to be a perfect match on paper. Each would help ease the offensive burden on the other, and they could be just as strong together on the defensive end.
Unfortunately, the 32-year-old has gotten off to a poor start. He’s played 22 of the team 28 games and just recently went down with a left hamstring injury that will force him to miss more upcoming games.
After years of being the head of the snake for the “Grit N Grind” era, the transition to Salt Lake City has not gone smoothly for Conley. His current field goal percentage (36.5) would be a career-low by a landslide if it lasts the rest of the way. The head-scratching part is that his ineffectiveness on two-pointers is the biggest problem.
But Conley was a 47 percent shooter from inside the arc over 12 seasons in Memphis. Now it’s at 36.9 percent.
Before the season, this team was expected to be a real threat to other teams at the top of their conference. But the Jazz are 17-11 and sit in sixth place in a highly-competitive Western conference.
That’s not terrible, and we’ve seen them make runs up the standings in the second half of the season the past two years. However, if this team is going to repeat that success, they need to gel sooner rather than later.
Conley joins the team’s woefully underproducing bench as the biggest sticking points so far.
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Kristaps Porzingis was brought into the Dallas Mavericks last year before the trade deadline. Yet, he sat out the entirety of last season as he recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in February of 2018.
Though he entered free agency at the end of the year, the Mavericks quickly retained their prized acquisition with a five-year max contract over the summer. With Dirk Nowitzki retiring and Luka Doncic emerging as a superstar, the hope was that Porzingis would slot in as a much-needed second star alongside the teenage phenom.
So far, The Unicorn has looked more like a horse with a horn loosely tied to its head.
If you look at Porzingis from afar, you see the outlines of what he once was amid continued flashes of the talent. But when you look more closely, you see he’s not the same.
The leap Doncic has taken from year one to year two is part of the reason for the change in Porzingis’ role. In New York, he often was relied upon to be the team’s primary shot creator. He would get touches in the mid-post and elbows; he would be asked to put the ball on the floor and get into the lane. If the Knicks were going to score, it was going to be because of Porzingis.
In Dallas, that responsibility is given to the Slovenian wunderkind.
This has forced the 7’3” Latvian to become an ancillary option. He’s now attempting a career-high 6.1 three-pointers per game, often camping around the perimeter and occasionally running a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with Doncic.
For most players, averages of 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks would be borderline All-Star numbers. But more is expected of you when you’re prophesied to be the player that breaks the mold of the modern 5.
Of course, these expectations are a bit unfair considering the health factor.
Though he was never an overpowering presence, Porzingis’ combination of size and athleticism made him one of the best rim protectors in the league. He’s missed nearly a year and a half of action after injuring his knee. There is going to be rust all season while acclimating to his first stints with Doncic and the rest of the Mavs.
Though Porzingis just doesn’t look the same physically yet, how quickly he rounds into form could determine whether or not Dallas can make a deep run in the playoffs this year while knowing that next year is when the real expectations kick in.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
In terms of pure basketball talent, there are few players in today’s NBA who are better than Kyrie Irving. He has the best handles in the entire league and can break down any defender in a one-on-one situation. This skill helped bring the Cleveland Cavaliers their only NBA title. He’s a pure scorer that is dangerous the moment his team crosses halfcourt.
Yet, he’s on his third team in four years.
Irving’s ability is unquestionable, but what he brings to chemistry and camaraderie has been questioned ever since he asked out of Cleveland. Last season, the Boston Celtics were supposed to be the Eastern Conference’s true threat to the Golden State Warriors. But that never materialized, and a lack of leadership from Irving was given as a big reason why the team struggled.
Brooklyn comes as a fresh start for the All-NBA guard. He and his two best friends (Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan) all chose to join the Nets this summer. However, Jordan has played the most games (25) out of the trio. Durant is out for the season after rupturing his Achilles in the NBA Finals, and Irving has been out since the middle of November with an ailing shoulder.
The Nets have gone 11-6 in his absence, continuing a recent pattern of his teams playing better without him in the lineup. Spencer Dinwiddie has filled in about as well as anyone could have expected, and Brooklyn looks more like the scrappy upstart team of a year ago since Irving has been out.
On the flip side, this season was going to be a wash regardless since Durant is sidelined for the year.
Irving’s shoulder and how the Nets have handled it only made that clearer. Though now-refuted murmurs of discontent have followed Kyrie, the rest of the team and coaching staff have stood behind him.
It will be interesting to see how Irving integrates himself when he finally is back on the floor. His soloist act is great to watch, but it might not be the most effective way for the others around him to operate. There was naturally going to be some give and take between the Nets style of play and Irving’s, but how will coach Kenny Atkinson get this to work?
They haven’t had a real opportunity to successfully figure that out yet.
Julius Randle, New York Knicks
The New York Knicks had high hopes for the previous summer. Owner Jim Dolan went on a local radio station and boasted about high-end talent wanting to come to play for his franchise. As has been the case for the past two decades, the team didn’t deliver.
Instead, the marquee name they brought in was Julius Randle.
He’s been a good NBA player and was in the running for the Most Improved Player award last season. However, he’s not the kind of talent Knicks fans and Dolan envisioned coming aboard for the 2019-20 NBA season.
Randle would’ve been a smart back up plan for the team on his own. Yet, New York compounded its inability to bring in elite talent by signing two other free agents that play the same position as Randle while also having second-year 5 Mitchell Robinson on the roster. The self-created logjam has already cost David Fizdale his job and the lottery is all but secured with a current 7-21 record.
The six-year pro has regressed this year. Randle’s big season in New Orleans saw him average 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists while shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 34.4 percent on three-pointers. Through 28 games, he’s at 17.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists, shooting 44.6 percent from the field and just 26.2 percent on three-pointers.
An awkward fit and a poor record have led to rumors about the team already trading away Randle. He would be a solid pickup for a potential playoff team if used in a similar role to Los Angeles Clippers energizer Montrezl Harrell.
Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers
Al Horford’s impact often went overlooked for years. He was a steadying presence and an eventual All-Star for the Atlanta Hawks. He then parlayed that success up the East hierarchy when he joined the Boston Celtics in 2016. He was that team’s backbone as different pieces surrounded him yearly.
In the end, he opted to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent after three seasons.
Many foresaw Horford and Joel Embiid anchoring one of the stronger defensive units in the league this year. That has been partially true, as the Sixers’ 103.7 defensive rating ranks sixth according to NBA.com.
However, any lineup featuring those two on the court together is just plus-1.7 for the season. Philadelphia simply lacks perimeter shooting that could properly space the offense around these two bigs—even though they can both occasionally knock down outside looks as well.
Horford was shooting 38.2 percent on three-pointers during his time with the Celtics, but that has dropped down to 34.3 percent with the Sixers. Embiid has always been a willing shooter, but he’s got a career 31.4 percent three-point average with only has one season shooting above 30.
The five-time All-Star has never been a dynamic offensive player—Horford hasn’t averaged over 15 points for a season since 2015-16—but he operates best by excelling at the little things. However, this Philly group needs more than just the little things or else their postseason time will not last long.
Philadelphia has tried several different iterations after completing The Process around Embiid and Ben Simmons.
With Horford, the Sixers are trying to prove that defense still wins championships. They haven’t been able to keep up with the Milwaukee Bucks so far but are still right in the mix in the East’s next tier.
Their newest addition must show up big when the team needs him most.
Brandon Jefferson is a staff writer at TBW. He covers the Atlanta Hawks for The BBall Index and is a contributing writer at Fansided. Brandon is the founding and only member of the Kevin Durant Stan Club.