Yesterday, we took a look at some of the NBA’s fast starting players. Today, let’s flip that coin and take a look at those who have started cold.

James Harden

Brooklyn Nets

Harden carries many nicknames: The Beard, Jimbo Slice, El Chapo. Perhaps there should be one more: The Poster Boy.

Over the years, Harden has been The Poster Boy for many, many things: the heliocentric offense; the centre-less lineup; three shot fouls; processions to the charity stripe; how the hold out without holding out; NBA players proclivity for (ahem) adult entertainment; and of course truly epic facial hair. Well, we can now add another narrative that Harden has assumed Poster Boy status for: the NBA’s crackdown on ‘unnatural’ foul drawing.

The change in the NBA’s refereeing directives have been theorised as primarily responsible for Harden’s dramatic scoring plunge to 17.7 points from 24.6 last season. The apparent proof of Harden’s inability to garner the same calls he was previously comes in from the drop in his free throw attempts from 7.3 to 4.7 per game.

However, there are a few other theories that could explain Harden’s relative (remember, he’s still producing close to a triple double with more than a block and steal per game – numbers most point guards might literally kill for) lack of production. One will be music to the ears of Nets fans, the other not so much.

The man himself – not one to usually disclose much to us media types – has publicly stated that he’s essentially had no off season, instead of rehabbing the hamstring that troubled him so much last campaign. Much like prime Shaquille O’Neal, Harden is essentially using the opening weeks of the NBA calendar as his own personal preseason.

That lack of conditioning would certainly explain other drop offs in Harden’s game. He has clearly lacked his usual burst of the dribble, further harming his ability to finish at the hoop. Though he is shooting a sparkling 41.2% from deep, his signature step back threes have consistently drawn front iron late in games, suggesting a lack of stamina. His passing hasn’t been as pinpoint as it usually is, either. All of that points towards not being fit and/or match fit. That is a very fixable problem.

The more concerning theory? Perhaps Harden has aged out of his prime?

The 32 year old is in his 13th season. He’s played over 35,000 minutes when factoring in his multiple playoff runs. Harden has never struck this writer as the most naturally fit athlete and he’s certainly not pumped the resources into his body that LeBron James has. As the old saying goes, ‘Father Time remains undefeated’. Perhaps Harden is simply starting to lose that particular war?

We’ve covered the differences in his production between this season and last, but what of his numbers from the 2020 campaign – his last full season in Houston – to last season? His scoring fell from a lead leading – by a long way – 34.3 to 24.6 and free throw attempts dropped from 11.8 to 7.3.

Sure, there were the mitigating circumstances of Harden playing the early part of the year in Houston physically out of shape and mentally checked out/openly hostile (delete as appropriate). He naturally took somewhat of a back seat as a scorer when lining up alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as a Net. However, it’s undeniable that there was a drop off in what made Harden special last season.

Harden will without a doubt get fitter, but is there a chance that what we’re seeing is closer to his new normal?

Jayson Tatum

Boston Celtics

Th 4-6 Celtics currently sit outside the play-in places in the Eastern Conference, with a numbers of players unable to make an impact offensively. Defensively, the team is god awful, ranking in the bottom half of the league in just about every defensive metric.

In that context is it unfair to single out Jayson Tatum for his generally poor play? Perhaps. But when you’re the anointed next Great Celtic, playing on a $195 million deal, then you encounter elevated expectations. To be fair, Tatum has had some excellent outings this season; his 41 point evisceration of the Hornets springs to mind. More often that not, though, he’s been relatively poor.

On the surface, Tatum’s numbers don’t appear too alarming. He’s putting up 23.6 points, not too far below the 26.4 he averaged last season. His rebounds are marginally up, his assists slightly down, his steals just about the same. Where Tatum has struggled this season is in his efficiency numbers. In layman’s terms, he’s in an almighty shooting slump.

Since entering the NBA in 2017, Tatum has proven a remarkably consistent scorer from all over the floor with career shooting splits of 46/40/85. This season, however, those splits stand at 39/32/75 at the time of writing – a most dramatic reduction.

Boston’s offense under rookie head coach Ime Udoka hasn’t helped matters, nor have the personnel at his disposal. The closest thing Boston has to a natural distributor is 35 year old big man Al Horford, which clearly isn’t ideal. Neither of their big name point guards in Marcus Smart of Dennis Schroder are noted for their play making. Tatum and fellow young stud Jaylen Brown are almost net negatives as far as distribution in concerned, with neither possessing either the natural vision or frankly the inclination to keep the ball moving.

The on court relationship between Brown and Tatum is also interesting. By all reports they get along famously away from the hardwood, but it’s clear that both former #3 overall picks have aspirations of being the Main Man. In the end, there can be only one.

For the Celtics to succeed, Udoka will have to work with his two young stars to find a balance between not only their individual offensive needs, but also their combined requirements with those of their teammates.

The Celtics situation is pretty messy and clearly isn’t helped by Tatum’s first extended shooting slump of his professional career. Though it must be asked: are Tatum’s struggles caused by the team’s malaise, or is it the other way around?

Damian Lillard

Portland Trailblazers

Dame Time has been more than a little late in Portland this season.

The veteran flamethrower has struggled mightily, his scoring average falling a full 10 points (28.8 to 18.5) so far this season. Should that hold it would be a low water mark for Lillard, falling below the 19 points he averaged as a rookie back in 2013 (an aside, how good has your career been when 19 points per game is your worst scoring season?).

Like Tatum, Lillard is mired in an epic shooting funk. His FG% has dropped from 45.1% to 35.1%, he’s making his free throws at an excellent 85.3%, though still well down on last campaigns incredible 92.3% mark. Most concerning, the man nicknamed Logo Lillard can’t buy a basket beyond the arc, shooting a ghastly 24.7%.

Like the Celtics, the team are struggling on the whole, particularly with the ‘show’ defensive system implemented by new coach Chauncey Billups. But it’s not as if the Blazers were a defensive juggernaut in years past, so picking the ball out of the basket is nothing new. In any case, Lillard’s limitless range and craftiness getting to the cup are supposed to be a half court skeleton key.

As well as the shooting slump, Lillard’s struggles also share some similarities with Harden’s. Namely, free throws.

Whilst Lillard isn’t as notorious as Harden or even Trae Young in throwing himself into contact, he has in seasons past drawn more than his share of fouls that are now going uncalled under the new interpretations. That’s lead to a drop in free throw attempts from 7.2 to 3.4 per game. He’s also lacked a little of the quickness he usually demonstrates in beating his man, leading to more contested layups and floaters than in previous years.

Lillard has also quietly struggled with an abdominal injury that he carried through a sub par though ultimately gold medal winning Olympic run. Could the inability to properly rehab and refresh be adversely effecting Lillard’s numbers?

The reassuring element of Lillard’s struggles is that this isn’t his first weeks long drought. After each slump he’s recovered just fine.

Of course, there is another theory: Is Lillard deliberately playing beneath himself in an effort to get his name back into the Ben Simmons trade talks?


(I jest, I jest!)

Nikola Vucevic

Chicago Bulls

The 6-3 Bulls have been one of the nicer stories of the NBA season thus far, with the once fabled franchise at long last looking like it’s returning to respectability. The additions of Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and cult hero Alex Caruso have all paid off handsomely. Resident star Zach Lavine has continued his ascendancy towards true super-stardom.

However, all of those additions have resulted on one significant subtraction: the form of Nikola Vucevic.

The two time All Star is giving the Bulls 13.4 points per game, well below the 23.4 he scored last season. This is not what the Bulls gave up Wendell Carter Jr and a pair of 1st round draft picks (one of which has become Franz Wagner) for.

With all of the Bulls off season moves, there was always going to be a redistribution of shots and Vucevic has suffered from that, shooting 14.3 times per night against 19.9 last season. But Vooch’s efficiency has plummeted. He had 48/40/84 shooting splits last season. This time around: 38/26/72.

This is a slump that dates back to the preseason, where Vucevic connected on a barely believable 6.2% of his trey’s. No, that is not a typo.

To this writer, it looks as through Vucevic’s main issue is one of rhythm. In Orlando, the big Montenegrin had the offense run through him for six seasons. After joining Chicago at the last trade deadline the Bulls lost Lavine to injury. Again, Vooch had the offense funnelled through him.

With Lavine back, a true point guard on board in Ball and the last of the mid range Maven’s in DeRozan, Vucevic is finding himself as one of the last to eat offensively. To his credit, he’s said all the right things publicly, though one can’t help but wonder that if the Bulls form starts to drop will he maintain the same cheery facade?

Zion Williamson

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion has yet to suit up in season 2021/22. So how does he end up on this list?

By proving that sometimes, more is less.

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.