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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 Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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