As we enter December, the NBA season is really starting to take shape. There is still a long way to go, but we are beginning to see how things may play out as the season progresses. The Memphis Grizzlies have jumped out to a terrific start, making a case that they should be viewed as serious title contenders and as one of the best teams in the West. The East, on the other hand, again appears to be the inferior conference, anchored by the winless Philadelphia Sixers, who have seemingly refined tanking into art form. In terms of what’s working and what’s not, you could say the Sixers and the Grizzlies represent opposite ends of the spectrum.
This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly around the NBA to break down what has gone right, what has gone wrong and what has failed miserably. Yesterday, we kicked it off with The Good. Today, we take a glance at a number of situations that haven’t worked out quite as well.
Here are a few of the more disappointing storylines early on in this NBA season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Obviously much of Thunder’s poor start can be attributed to the absence of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. No team has been decimated by injuries more. In addition to Durant and Westbrook missing games, Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow among others have been sidelined as well. Those three players were playing a vital role in filling the early season void left by Durant and Westbrook, so their injuries were devastating for the team too.
With so many of their key offensive weapons sidelined, the Thunder have slipped to the bottom of the league in points scored, averaging only 90.9 points per game. Coach Scott Brooks has been forced to play a much more deliberate pace in order to give his team a chance to win on a nightly basis. Brooks has always had the Thunder near the top of the league in pace, finishing in the top 10 the last three seasons; however this season, the Thunder are ranked near the bottom at 28th. Their struggles on the offensive end have made wins tough to come by as the Thunder currently sit at 5-12 and in 12th place in the West.
The Thunder have clearly missed their two stars and have struggled to keep their head above water while they recovered from injury. The good news is that Westbrook and Durant are back. The Thunder’s poor start is predominantly out of their control, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are currently positioned near the bottom of the West. For comparison’s sake, last season the Dallas Mavericks needed 49 wins to secure the eighth seed in the West. For the Thunder to finish with 49 wins, they would need go 44-21 over their remaining 65 games. It’s not impossible by any means, but it won’t be easy.
If they were in the East, their unfortunate start would be much less of a concern, but in the West climbing out of an early season hole and back into playoff contention may prove to be a monumental task.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have been very busy in recent months. First, the team made Phil Jackson their new team president, allowing him to oversee all basketball operations. Then, over the offseason, the organization re-signed Carmelo Anthony to a long-term deal and brought in a fresh young face as their new head coach in Derek Fisher. Finally, the team acquired some new players such as Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Quincy Acy, Samuel Dalembert and Cleanthony Early. All signs pointed to a much needed culture change in New York and the Knicks appeared poised to turn things around.
Just over a month into the season, all of the positive momentum accumulated this offseason has disappeared. The Knicks find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only four wins through their first 18 games.
The transition early on to Jackson’s famed triangle offense hasn’t gone nearly as smoothly as many would have hoped. While Anthony continues to put up big numbers – 23.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists – his supporting cast has struggled to provide much help. J.R. Smith has been unable to consistently knock down perimeter shots, shooting only 27.8 percent from three. Also, despite starting every game, Dalembert hasn’t been much more than a big body in the middle, only averaging 4.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. And after a standout rookie season, Tim Hardaway Jr. has found himself playing less minutes, as his 23.1 minute average last season is down to 17.8 minutes this season, and he hasn’t been able to find his shooting touch in those minutes.
Unlike the Thunder, there is no savior returning from injury for the Knicks, they will have to work quickly through their issues if they have any intention of salvaging their season.
Kemba Walker has always relied more on his quickness and ball-handling than his outside shot when looking to score. For his career, Walker is only a 39.6 percent shooter, which is one area of his game that he must improve.
This past postseason, in Charlotte’s four-game series with the HEAT, Walker flashed the type of shooting ability many have longed to see. During the playoff run, Walker was dynamic, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and an even more impressive 50 percent from three, while attempting on average six three-pointers per game. Walker finished the postseason with a team-high PER of 19.6.
Walker was able to parlay his strong postseason play into a lucrative four-year, $48 million contract extension with Charlotte. Surely, the Hornets hoped that Walker’s playoff performance would carry over to this season and be something he could build upon going forward.
Early on this season, that has not been the case. While Lance Stephenson has been the team’s biggest magnet for criticism and struggled mightily himself, Walker has earned his fair share as well. He is shooting a career-low 36.4 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three – a far cry from the player that many had expected to see break out this year. The Hornets are currently in a free-fall, losers of nine straight games since starting 4-5, and now more than ever need Walker to bust out of his funk to help right the ship.
Much like the Knicks, the Pistons made big changes in the offseason with aspirations of changing the culture within the organization. Stan Van Gundy was brought in and given tremendous power as he is serving as both the head coach and the president of basketball operations.
With many talented pieces already in place and the addition of Van Gundy, many viewed the Pistons as a dark horse to make the playoffs in the East. However, through their first 17 games, the Pistons haven’t looked like anything close to a playoff team. Currently the only team with a worse record than the 3-14 Pistons is the winless Philadelphia 76ers.
Despite having weapons like Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the league. Offensively, they have only been able to muster up 91.9 points per game and are 28th in offensive rating. While they have done a little better on the defensive end (18th in defensive rating) it has not been nearly enough to overcome their ineffective offensive attack. They have been one of the worst shooting teams in the league, shooting only 41.2 percent from the field as a group. Two of the team’s most prevalent shot takers, Caldwell-Pope and Smith, are each shooting well under 40 percent from the field at 37 percent and 37.7 percent, respectively.
Also, the Pistons have looked to use Drummond as more of a back-to-the-basket scorer, with little success thus far. Drummond, who was near the top of the league in field goal percentage a season ago when he shot 62.3 percent, has seen his shooting numbers plummet this year – dropping down to 44.8 percent.
If the Pistons continue to pile up losses, they are one team that could be very active prior to the trade deadline (either trading for help or trading away assets in a fire sale).
The Warriors are off to a fantastic start, as they are currently 14-2 and in first place in the Pacific Division. By all accounts, new head coach Steve Kerr is pushing all of the right buttons. One noticeable change that Kerr has made is bringing veteran forward Andre Iguodala off the bench, a change Iguodala has not responded well to.
It should come as no surprise that Iguodala has had difficulties making the transition to the bench. Outside of this season, Iguodala had started in every game of his pro career, dating all the way back to his rookie season in 2004 with the Philadelphia 76ers. Although he is no longer in the starting lineup, Iguodala is still playing significant time, logging just over 27 minutes a night.
Even though his minutes haven’t dropped off severely, Iguodala has been far less productive as a bench player. He is averaging career-lows in points (6.9), rebounds, (2.5), assists (2.4) and field goal percentage (44.1). What may be most concerning is that among the Warriors’ regular rotation players, Iguodala has the worst PER at 9.
What’s scary is that the Warriors have been dominant even with the rough start from Iguodala. They are winning with Iguodala struggling now, but come playoff time they will need their versatile forward to be much more effective.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.