All ball? Not this time
A few players have been critical of the new Wilson basketball, but there are more significant culprits when it comes to leaguewide offensive regression early in the NBA season
DETROIT — My first back-to-back set of the season took me to Motown. Sixers at Pistons led things off Thursday, followed by Nets at Pistons on Friday … with ESPN's much-anticipated piece containing myriad allegations against Phoenix Suns majority owner Robert Sarver reverberating throughout the trip.
I will get to all that very soon: Sarver and the Suns on Monday and a detailed diary from my Detroit stay coming Tuesday. Let's focus first on some around-the-league matters, like usual, in our latest TWIB compilation, starting with the grumblings that have begun to circulate about the new Wilson basketball and its potential effect on the offensive struggles endured leaguewide throughout the first few weeks of the season.
With teammate Damian Lillard averaging just 17.8 points per game and shooting 21.7% on 3-pointers amid the most profound slump of his career, Portland's CJ McCollum said earlier this week that, in his new role as union president, he planned to collect more feedback from fellow players in the belief that adjusting to the Wilson rock had become an issue.
McCollum later softened his stance, as evidenced in the above tweet, but the Clippers' Paul George raised his own concerns even though George (until his 0-for-7 showing from deep Friday night at Minnesota) was off to a scalding start as the Clippers' runaway No. 1 option in the absence of the injured Kawhi Leonard.
"Not to make an excuse or anything, [but] it's just a different basketball," George said. "It doesn't have the same touch or softness as the Spalding ball had. You'll see this year, there's going to be a lot of bad misses."
Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, shooting a mere 41.2% percent from the floor while also plagued by persistent knee trouble, offered a similar critique, saying: "I'm always looking for excuses but the ball is different. Still don't feel comfortable with it.”
There's no denying that, entering Saturday's play, leaguewide shooting percentages were indeed down from last season's norms: 44.7% from the field and 76.7% from the free-throw line compared to 46.6% and 77.8% for the full 2020-21 season. The NBA's composite offensive efficiency was likewise down from 112.3 points per 100 possessions last season to 106.9 this season. While we note that offensive numbers picking up as the season goes along is essentially an every-year occurrence, this season’s early slump is more pronounced than usual.
My quibble with the ball-as-culprit concept: Based on consultations with various players and coaches, I would cite at least three factors that have had a greater impact on the offensive downturn than a new ball which really isn’t all that new when it comes from the same leather tannery Spalding used.
1. The increased physicality as an offshoot of the league's determination to eliminate non-basketball moves by contact-seekers angling to make frequent trips to the free-throw line is by far the most significant landscape change since last season. "Guys have to work a lot harder to get open and are absorbing more contact when they're shooting," said one top Western Conference executive.
2. Arenas are no longer empty like they were in almost every NBA city at the start of last season. Shooters are thus readjusting to coping with noise distractions and backdrops that change night-to-night, while also combating those typical offensive struggles known to afflict many teams and players at the start of every season.
3. It was another short offseason after the 2020-21 campaign ran from December through late July. The break between the 2019-20 season and last season was even shorter, but the NBA's return to its usual October-through-June cadence meant that players, especially those from playoff teams, faced a tighter-than-usual turnaround before training camps began in late September, curtailing their time to skills work and fitness training. The Nets' James Harden stands out as a prime example, since his struggles stretch well beyond the decline in his free-throw attempts from 11.8 per game in his final full season as a Rocket to 7.3 per game last season to 4.7 per game this season. Averaging just 17.7 points per game on 38.5% shooting, Harden is also clearly lacking lift and explosion as he plays his way into shape following his summer respite and recovery from last season's hamstring woes.
When it comes to the new ball, as we covered in this recent piece, there was little protest chatter during the preseason, with Wilson using Chicago-based Horween Leather Company in hopes of producing a ball as similar as possible to its beloved predecessor. NBA players are known to detest balls that aren't sufficiently broken in, which raises the following questions: Is that really the root of George's complaint about the "touch and softness?” Or do more players feel like he and Embiid do and just haven’t voiced it?
“I can't talk for my peers, but for me it's still the same,” Brooklyn's Kevin Durant said Friday night when I asked him to compare the new Wilson model to the trusty old Spalding.
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Remember when LeBron James was saying in the preseason that "the narrative about our age" makes him "really laugh" at the Lakers' critics?
You can safely assume that no one in Lakerland is laughing right now.
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