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NBA Daily: Teams That Could Take a Step Back

With all that’s happened this summer, there could be a few teams due to regress thanks to a not-so-happy off-season, writes Matt John.

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Disclaimer: There’s a difference between the words could and will.

The team that most likely will take a step back this upcoming season will be the Cleveland Cavaliers, for obvious reasons. LeBron James’ departure leaves such a ginormous void that it would be surprising if Cleveland makes it back to the playoffs. Fortunately, LeBron has not left the Cavs in anywhere near the pathetic state they were when he deserted them the first time. Still, expectations for Cleveland this season are nowhere near what they’ve been the last four years.

The teams that could take a step back, on the other hand, are in a different state. They didn’t lose a basketball legend like LeBron James, but after what’s transpired this off-season, their roster now begs a question or two.

For all we know, some player(s) from their current roster may play better than anyone expects, or they may get a player(s) who change everything for the better, in which case, they would have nothing to worry about. As their roster currently stands, the following teams currently have specific red flags that they cannot ignore if their aim is to take another step forward this season.

Houston Rockets

It’s been a tough summer for Houston. They didn’t get LeBron. They had to overpay Chris Paul to keep their status as the Warriors’ chief competitor in the west. They added Carmelo Anthony, whose age and decline has made many doubt his fit on the team. The team luckily re-signed Clint Capela for a fair price after his monster season, but their potential regression stems from the wing depth that they lost.

Rockets fans have probably heard it all about losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and for good reason. They were agile, versatile, and best of all, they could shoot the rock. Ariza shot almost 37 percent from three-point land last season while Mbah a Moute shot 36 percent. They are not the easiest players to replace.

The Rockets added James Ennis III in hopes to filling in for their departed wings. Ennis, who shot 33 percent from distance, could turn out to be one of the most underrated additions this off-season, but there’s only so much he can do. Counting on him is risky given that he’s not the most proven player in the league, and Michael Carter-Williams is not making anyone sleep easy in H-Town.

Of all the teams on this list, Houston is the most likely to have the best season. It’s just that losing the little guys that keep the wheels turning may wind up being one of their biggest regrets.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly also had their sky-high hopes derailed this summer. They hoped to win the LeBron James sweepstakes only to come up empty-handed. Nemanja Bjelica backed out of his formal agreement with them and opted to go to the Kings. And now, rookie Zhaire Smith is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

Not all went wrong for them this summer. They acquired another potentially golden asset on draft day when they traded for Miami’s unprotected first-rounder in 2021. Better yet, they kept most of the roster intact while maintaining their cap flexibility. Wilson Chandler brings a tough-minded scorer that the Sixers desperately needed in the playoffs, and Mike Muscala is a capable stretch big.

So why is Philly in danger of taking a step back? Primarily, it’s from their perimeter. Keeping J.J. Redick was the right move, but he is 34 and his defense is slipping. Chandler and Muscala should fill in well for Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, but the latter two brought playoff experience to the team compared to Muscala and Chandler, who don’t have nearly as much.

Philly’s franchise cornerstones also raise concerns. As impressive as Ben Simmons was his rookie year, teams should be aware of both his strengths and his flaws. Now that the NBA has seen what he brings to the floor, teams will continue to take advantage of the absolute zero spacing Simmons provides for the Sixers. While Joel Embiid’s flaws do not stick out as much as Simmons, he still will be an injury risk that Philly has to monitor carefully.

Markelle Fultz could undo all of these concerns, but he remains an enigma. Question, though: Why haven’t they hired a general manager yet?

Minnesota Timberwolves

Remember when the T-Wolves were the team everybody believed had a great future ahead of them? It’s amusing to see how much the script has flipped in Minnesota in just one year’s time.

It’s not what they lost this summer that brings cause for concern. The real story for them this summer has been the reports of contention. First, there was a report that Tyus Jones considered asking a trade. Then it came out that Jimmy Butler had issues playing with Andrew Wiggins. Most recently, it’s come out that Butler may not be fond of playing with Karl-Anthony Towns either. Somehow, Minny’s future may not be as promising as it once appeared.

Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs sooner. Shabazz Muhammad requested to be waived while the team was solidly in the playoff hunt. Later on, reports said Wiggins believed the Timberwolves were holding him back. To top it off, Jamal Crawford declined his $4.5 million option to test free agency, or in other words, he preferred to test a notoriously dry free agency over putting on a Timberwolves uniform again.

Minnesota’s talent and coaching should still be enough to fuel another playoff berth, but contentious locker rooms could accelerate a catastrophe is nothing gets resolved. If things don’t get in order, this could be more than just a setback.

This could be a meltdown.

Portland Trail Blazers

Hey, speaking of flipped scripts, there may not be a team whose script has flipped in as short a span as the Blazers. Back in April, Portland was believed to be a team ready to fight with the best of the west. As we all know, that’d didn’t last long.

Portland’s problems don’t stem from any locker room issues or who they have lost or who they failed to get. They lost Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier, which hurts them somewhat but not immensely. Seth Curry was a good find and Zach Collins should improve next season. Portland’s problem is that, as a team, this might be as good as it gets for them. They certainly have a playoff-caliber roster, but the rest of the conference isn’t slowing down for them.

Portland’s competitors around the conference have either stayed the same or gotten better. Teams like the Lakers and the Spurs have added top-notch players to their teams. Other teams like the Grizzlies and the Mavericks have anteed up to make a run at the post-season. Factoring in the other competitors they already had to deal with and Portland will have their hands tied just trying to make the playoffs.

The Blazers’ problem is not that they aren’t good enough to make the playoffs. It’s that they are good enough to just make the playoffs and that’s about it. Unfortunately, they’re not in a position where they can find any easy improvements. They are teetering at the luxury cap line, and it seems their best players, as good as they are, are about as good as they can get.

Unless they can make a substantial trade, Portland will probably stay where they are, which could hurt them with the improved conference.

Every one of these teams mentioned wants to be better than they were this past season. If they do what needs to be done to fix their problems, that could take them a long way.

If they don’t, then there could be trouble.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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