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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: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform, he clearly has his eyes open. On Silver’s watch, the league also eliminated the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, and it’s become clear that he simply gets it. Silver isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in order to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

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