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Which Struggling NBA Teams Should be Concerned?

Even though it’s early, is it time for teams like the Knicks, Thunder, Pacers, Lakers and Nuggets to be worried?

EJ Ayala

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Every offseason is full of optimism and promises of improvement from everyone up at the top of NBA front offices all the way down to the players. We are now a little over a month into the regular season and are able to gauge the reality of how teams are starting to shape up. Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves were expected by many to have a rough go of things this year due to having rosters filled with younger players, lack of superstars, coaching changes, and/or very little team continuity. Today here at Basketball Insiders we are going to take a look at some of the teams whose early season struggles were a little more unexpected and need to be looked at further. These are teams with losing records that had higher expectations that we may need to keep an eye on later for possible player movement and coaching changes later on as the season progresses.

Los Angeles Lakers

The good news is Kobe Bryant still looks like Kobe Bryant. As the highest paid player in the NBA, earning $48.5 million dollars over the next two years, many questions lingered about whether he could still play at high level. He has once again proved his doubters wrong. The bad news is the rest of his supporting cast leaves much to be desired. The Lakers had hopes that Steve Nash could help propel the team back to the playoffs, but with news that he’s done for the season with nerve damage it will be up to Jeremy Lin to shoulder the load, so far the results have been mixed to say the least. There was also talk of rookie forward Julius Randle getting plenty of playing time this season and having the potential to be a Rookie of the Year candidate until he unfortunately fractured his leg during the first game of the season. The expression of disappointment on his face as he looked over at Kobe, in what ultimately is a season ending injury was heartbreaking. Carlos Boozer, one of the bigger acquisitions this summer, has also been underwhelming and has continued to bring little to the table on the defensive side of the court.

Byron Scott was said to be instilling a smash mouth, physical style of play into the Lakers’ identity on both ends of the floor. So far early returns show the Lakers are dead last in opponents points allowed with 109.4 as their defense has been atrocious. For a franchise with a history of Hall of Fame players, division crowns, championship banners and just being a winner period, expect tensions to increase if the losses keep mounting. It would not be surprising to see the Lakers looking to make some creative moves if the opportunity arises later on in the season.

New York Knicks

Patience. That is what everyone from Knicks President Phil Jackson all the way down to franchise superstar Carmelo Anthony has been preaching since the beginning of the season. Everyone knew it would be a process for rookie head coach Derek Fisher to instill the complex triangle offense, which requires a high basketball IQ to fully utilize properly, into a team that was so used to playing heavy isolation basketball in years past. In a New York market where the media scrutinizes every word and action a player makes it was hard not to notice Anthony pounding the ball against his head in frustration after the Knicks suffered their seventh straight loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz on a buzzer beating shot by Trey Burke at Madison Square Garden Friday night. Will this team be able to continue to buy into the triangle and what the coaching staff expects if the losses keep piling up? Right now the Knicks are near the bottom of the league with 92.4 points per game scored – good for fifth worst. They are also the slowest paced team in the NBA with a pace rating of 88.6, granted this is with their best playmaker Jose Calderon still out with a calf strain.

Despite all of this it’s time to hit the panic button quite yet. This team should improve in time and with Calderon back on the court. His impact as a leader and a teammate cannot not be underestimated. Amar’e Stoudemire has been surprisingly reliable this year and has been looking healthy, so perhaps the vinotherapy treatments have been been helpful after all. Even Andrea Bargnani’s eventual return later on in the season could really help this team’s spacing as the season continues to unfold. Iman Shumpert has also taken advantage of the time he’s spent on the court this season, averaging a career best 12.4 points, on 50.5 percent shooting from the field, and 53.3 percent three point shooting per game. The Zen Master has this right: the team needs time, and there will be some serious growing pains.

Indiana Pacers

After the devastating loss of franchise cornerstone Paul George with a leg fracture he suffered over the summer playing with Team USA, the Pacers knew they were going to be in for a tough season. That loss was only compounded by their inability to retain Lance Stephenson, who left as a free agent as he was swayed by rival team owner Michael Jordan to join the Charlotte Hornets. If that wasn’t bad enough, everyone from David West, Roy Hibbert, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Watson and the list goes on, have been sidelined at some point or continue to be out with various injuries.

So who does that leave picking up the slack? Initially it was thought that C.J. Miles could step in and help fill in, however, that has been far from the case as he’s been averaging a paltry 7.7 points per game, on 24.6 percent shooting from the field, and 16.7 percent shooting from three point land. After Miles went down with injuries himself the silver lining has been that 2013 second round draft pick Solomon Hill has proven to be serviceable with some impressive glimpses of potential he’s flashed when given the opportunity. Another thing the Pacers have going for themselves is they are holding their opponents to 94 points per game, which means head coach Frank Vogel is still getting this team to play defense as that’s good for fifth best in the league. The bad news is the Pacers were already known to have offensive struggles, even last year with most of the team healthy. Without a go-to scorer on the roster look for them to continue to struggle if they aren’t able to put enough points on the board as a balanced unit.

Denver Nuggets

Coming into the season there were high expectations for the Nuggets as they finally appeared to be healthy. The general consensus for this team was we didn’t really get to see what they were capable of last year due to various injuries suffered throughout the season. One of those was the ankle and hamstring injuries suffered by starting point guard Ty Lawson. It seems those same issues that plagued Lawson last year have continued onto this year and that is a major problem for the Nuggets. He is the team’s engine as the primary playmaker and scorer; the Nuggets will only goes as far as Lawson can take them. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, their early season struggles has landed them at the bottom of their division.

The pressure is already starting to mount in Denver and head coach Brian Shaw knows it. “It’s a tough situation that we’re in,” Shaw said to Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post. “If we don’t have that kind of effort from everybody, then we’re not going to ever get out of this situation, and I won’t survive it. And it’s that simple. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, then my head is going to be the one that’s on the guillotine. I understand that. I accept that. It’s all part of this whole thing in what we do. As long as I’m willing to accept that, I’m going to go out swinging.” If they don’t break out of their early season slump soon look for Shaw to end up in the hot seat or a roster shakeup down the road.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been snake bitten from the start of the season this year. If it wasn’t enough for them to lose last season’s MVP and the league’s top scorer Kevin Durant for an extended amount of time with a Jones fracture in his foot, Russell Westbrook is also out as he recovers from a hand fracture. The Thunder are a deep team, but unfortunately even the notable guys they thought could fill in to keep the ship afloat like Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson and Reggie Jackson have missed significant time so far this season. It got so bad that they were even granted a hardship exception that allowed them to carry 16 players on the roster to sign Ish Smith to help fill in at the point guard spot. This is not the type of start the Thunder envisioned prior to the beginning of the season and it puts their title hopes in serious jeopardy to start the season.

In a tough Western Conference where every game matters in terms of the standings, this may be a hole that proves too big to dig out of. The lone bright spot has been the stellar play of Reggie Jackson, who has been eager to prove he is starter material. After he failed to reach a deal on a contract extension with the team he is going to take advantage of every opportunity to show that he is worth a big payday and a starting role to teams with cap space next summer. So far he’s been looking phenomenal, posting averages of 22.4 points, 8.1 assists, and four rebounds per game. He may just get what he’s looking for, but will this team still be able to pull things together enough when the franchise stars return to action? It’s tough to see that happening.

Overall it’s still too early in the season to say any of these teams can’t turn things around. There’s a saying that it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish, but when you start off as bad as these teams have, it may not matter how well you finish.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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