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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?

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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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