Immature NBA Teams That Choke on the Road
Basketball may be a young man's game, but winning games and contending for titles in the NBA is (typically) the domain of grizzled veterans with old legs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder notwithstanding.
The league's young guns have added plenty of intrigue to the early portions of the 2012-13 season. Rising stars like James Harden, Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker have lifted their respective squads back into the ranks of respectability.
But for their teams and others to assert themselves as legitimate postseason contenders, they'll have to learn how to win away from home. Success in new and different environments, hostile and otherwise, requires more than just talent and machismo. Rather, teams that win consistently on the road are those that are experienced and well seasoned.
And I'm not talking about the kind of seasoning you'd find at your local supermarket. The type of seasoning that elevates NBA squads cannot be bought—unless an organization figures it best to spend on elder statesmen. The New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat are among the teams that have churned out positive results with this strategy.
Free of scrap-heap additions of this sort, these five teams will simply have to endure the growing pains that come with learning how to carry positive home results over to situations involving hotel rooms and foreign arenas.
Statistics and games discussed accurate through Nov. 27.
Pity the poor Cavaliers. They lost star point guard Kyrie Irving to a broken finger and, to make matters worse, have played 10 of their first 14 games on the road. Of those 10, they've lost nine, including their last eight away from Quicken Loans Arena.
Not all of that futility can be blamed on Irving's absence, though. The Cavs had dropped six of seven away dates prior to his latest run-in with the injury bug.
Focus in even further, and you'll see a squad—the third-youngest in the NBA, per Hispanos NBA—continuously losing its way in the fourth quarter. Only twice in 10 road games (at the Los Angeles Clippers and at the Golden State Warriors) has Cleveland outscored its opposition in the final frame, and it has only done so by the slimmest of margins (one point) in each case.
On the flip side, five of the Cavs' road losses have come after the team was either tied or leading after three quarters. Those include three without Irving—a four-point loss at the Orlando Magic in which the Cavs were outscored by four in the fourth, a two-point defeat at the Miami Heat that saw LeBron James and Co. end the game on a 9-0 run and a six-point misstep at the Mike Conley-less Memphis Grizzlies wherein Cleveland scored just nine points in the fourth on the way to blowing a seven-point advantage.
Few (if any) expected the Cavs to contend for a winning record, much less a spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. As good as Irving is, it's tough to expect a frequently absent 20-year-old to carry a team for which Anderson Varejao is second on the totem pole.
Nonetheless, Cleveland would clearly be faring far better than 3-11 with more heady, steady leadership when crunch time comes and the home fans are nowhere in sight.
The Houston Rockets started the year off well enough away from the Toyota Center. They rode the “Screw You!” mojo of James Harden to showy road wins at the Detroit Pistons and at the Atlanta Hawks.
Since then, the Rockets have come crashing back down to earth. The NBA’s youngest team has dropped its last four away dates in rather dispiriting fashion. A visit to Memphis saw Houston even the score early in the fourth, cede a 16-4 run over the following five minutes and nearly climb all the way back again before Mike Conley and Rudy Gay sealed it down the stretch. The next time they were on the road, the Rockets relinquished a seven-point cushion with four-and-a-half minutes before forcing—and losing in—overtime.
Perhaps, then, the Rockets figured it prudent to avoid late leads on the road all together. They certainly didn’t have any against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, to whom they lost by double digits after entering the fourth quarter under such circumstances.
Whatever the case may be, the Rockets clearly have plenty of growing pains through which to work. Their young core of Harden, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik has shown considerable promise to this point.
But Daryl Morey’s master plan won’t bear the most desirable of fruits (i.e. postseason success) unless/until these twenty-somethings learn to make the most of the lesser half of their schedule.
Portland Trail Blazers
Contrary to the prognostications of some NBA observers, this season was likely going to be one of rebuilding for the Portland Trail Blazers. Their tank-errific performance during the second half of 2011-12 practically guaranteed as much.
They've shown plenty of promise amidst their 6-8 start. LaMarcus Aldridge has played like an All-Star (when healthy), as has Nicolas Batum. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard has looked like the Rookie of the Year (when he's not defending), and Meyers Leonard appears to be something far better than an NBA draft bust.
Patience will be the order of the day while Terry Stotts works to turn this operation around with the league's fifth-youngest roster. Until that time comes, it'd behoove the Blazers to do a better job of plying their trade away from the friendly confines of the Rose Garden. To date, they're 2-5 outside of Portland, with four of those losses coming by 13 points or more.
In three of those four cases, the Blazers have allowed their opponents to blow the game wide open in the fourth—none worse than when the Dallas Mavericks stretched a three-point advantage into a 23-point victory in the final frame.
As for the other two defeats, the Blazers weren't even competitive through the first three quarters at the Phoenix Suns, and they subsequently allowed the pitiful Detroit Pistons to build a 15-point cushion before narrowing the gap after the game was already well in hand.
The Washington Wizards have yet to find success anywhere this season. They've dropped each of their first 12 games of the season, with John Wall sidelined by injury and Nene only recently returning to action.
As pathetic as the Wiz have been in every aspect of the game to this point, it's not as though they haven't had their chances to win, particularly on the road. In fact, only one of their six road losses—a 92-76 decision at the Charlotte Bobcats—has come by more than 10 points. They were done in on opening night by Kyrie Irving's clutch play down the stretch.
Since then, they've played their way into overtime against the Boston Celtics in a loss, dropped a closely contested slugfest opposite the Indiana Pacers, allowed the once-lowly Bobcats to create separation, made a game of it with the Mavericks before running out of gas and lost to the Atlanta Hawks in a 53-minute affair. All the while, the Wizards have struggled to get to the rim, settling instead for mid-range jumpers and long twos (i.e. the least efficient shots in basketball).
In other words, get well soon, John Wall! Your teammates—who average all of 25.3 years of age—need you.
New Orleans Hornets
Has any team had harder luck this season than the New Orleans Hornets? They've gotten all of six games out of rookie sensation Anthony Davis, which is six more than they've seen from the injury-prone (and well-compensated) Eric Gordon.
Along the way, they've dropped five road games by an average of 7.4 points. Take away their 18-point defeat in Denver this past Sunday, and that margin drops to 4.8 points. Two of those losses—at Indiana and at Phoenix—came in overtime after the Hornets relinquished fourth-quarter leads.
Which, frankly, is better some of New Orleans' other results. They squandered a 28-point, 11-rebound effort by "The Brow" against the Milwaukee Bucks and saw James Harden torch them for 30 in a loss at Houston.
To Monty Williams' credit, his team's only two road wins—against the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers—have come without the benefit of Davis' services in the middle. As such, fans can expect the NBA's second-youngest squad to see better days if/when it finally has its full complement of players on hand.
In the meantime, get used to seeing Austin Rivers, Greivis Vasquez and Ryan Anderson attempt to shoulder the burden...with mixed results.