Judging how a team will fare based on its performance in the preseason—when players and coaches are trying to familiarize themselves with one another, and the best players have their minutes reduced in favor of guys who may or may not be on the roster in one month—is both difficult and imprudent.
Preseason basketball is nothing like the regular season. It's a test tube experiment where coaches deploy unconventional methods in an effort to see what they have. Wins and losses are dismissed as a low priority, and new players in new environments aren't even close to identifying their roles.
For this article we're throwing all that out the window. Even though the games "don't matter," two teams are still out there competing against one another, and some are playing better than others.
In the grand scheme of things, this is insignificant (if the Miami Heat failed to outscore their opponent at the end of every quarter this preseason, their championship odds wouldn't move a millimeter), but in the short term there might be bits of information hiding in the mud.
Here are five teams that haven't been playing their best, ranked by their preseason expectations.
Considering the fact that this franchise is coming off an inept two-season stretch that might be the worst in NBA history, it’s a little silly to declare anything about Charlotte’s preseason a disappointment.
But after signing Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million contract (the most significant signing in franchise history), expectations for this team are higher than before.
Unfortunately, Jefferson hasn’t been able to coalesce with his new teammates. He appeared in only two games before suffering a low ankle sprain that’ll sideline him until the regular season begins. The preseason’s fundamental purpose is to cultivate timing and familiarity amongst new players and new coaches, and Charlotte won’t get to do so.
Making matters worse, last year’s second overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, has yet to show any improvement on the offensive end, shooting 30 percent and averaging 5.5 points per game. Those numbers are actually worse than the disappointing effort he displayed during his first preseason last fall.
Despite going 3-2 in their first five preseason games, somehow the Bobcats have managed to disappoint yet again.
The Celtics don’t have high expectations this season, but if they maximize their potential, a seven or eight-seed in a top-heavy Eastern Conference isn’t out of the question.
The team has played six preseason games and won only one of them (a blowout victory against a Knicks squad that basically sat all its starters). Rookie forward Kelly Olynyk has been promising on offense, taking defenders off the dribble and flashing some real nice interior passing. Coming back from a back injury that cut his rookie season in half, Jared Sullinger has been perhaps the team’s best player, showcasing decent range and serving as an immovable object near the basket.
But other key members of Boston’s rebuilding project haven’t been nearly as successful. After melting down in last year’s playoffs, Avery Bradley is shooting 36.9 percent from the floor and averaging less than 2.5 assists per game (in nearly 25 minutes). He’s as tenacious as ever on the ball, but unless he’s launching a wide open corner three, Bradley doesn’t threaten defenses.
Jeff Green’s been unable to create for himself without Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett beside him, and Courtney Lee doesn’t look competent enough to play in the NBA, let alone take minutes from presumed malcontent Jordan Crawford (who’s a few missed free-throws away from breaking the 50/40/90 barrier).
The Celtics are expected to struggle this season, but that’s much different from getting blown out by the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s tough to include the team that drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo on this list, but after spending their offseason making it clear this would be an eight-seed-or-bust type of season, the Milwaukee Bucks have been discouraging.
Through their first four preseason games, of which they’ve won zero, the Bucks are averaging just 87.8 points per game, which is less than everyone except the Atlanta Hawks.
(Full disclosure: I understand how inaccurate “points per game” is to measure a team’s offensive production, but I wasn’t able to find any preseason team “points per possession” figures.)
Fresh off his hefty contract extension, Larry Sanders has been static on offense, scoring four points in 15 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves, zero points after missing all eight of his shots from the field against the Charlotte Bobcats and six points against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Incoming franchise point guard Brandon Knight is shooting 11 percent from the three-point line, which is a tad concerning. Over the summer Milwaukee's upper management assembled a roster that should be good enough to make the playoffs, but they've done little so far to show that's a realistic goal.
New York heads into the season in an unenviable position—locked into a roster that’s very talented, but not quite good enough to compete for a championship.
Apart from Iman Shumpert, who appears ready to take an evolutionary leap forward in his third season, the roster has no assets other teams would be interested in exchanging immediate skill for. It’s a dire situation, and their preseason hasn’t helped.
Carmelo Anthony has been as good as advertised in the three games he's played (New York won the first, dropped two straight against the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics—the latter contest sans Anthony—then defeated the Washington Wizards), but his recent comments regarding offseason shoulder surgery are worrisome for a team that requires his scoring presence.
Elsewhere, head coach Mike Woodson has yet to name Shumpert as his starting two guard, playing Pablo Prigioni with the first unit instead. This might prove to be the correct move over time, but right now it’s curious. Shumpert might be the team’s second most important player, and he should be on the court with Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and other starters as much as possible.
In their first three preseason games, the Knicks posted an average point differential of minus-12.7 points, which is worst in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers were 24 minutes away from a trip to the NBA Finals—or one Roy Hibbert substitution, depending on how you view Game 1—before collapsing against Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
For that entire series, Indiana looked more than qualified as worthy successors to the defending world champions. Their only real weakness was the bench, a unit that quivered whenever placed under a spotlight.
This offseason the organization wisely revamped the bench entirely by signing Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson to replace D.J. Augustin and Sam Young (who played vital minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals but isn’t on an NBA roster right now). The Pacers also traded for Luis Scola who, when healthy, is a quantum leap past the offensive contributions of Tyler Hansbrough.
Also, Danny Granger, the franchise’s best player over the past five years, is back from a knee injury.
But through their first four preseason games things haven’t been so smooth. The team is winless in four tries, including two against the Rockets in Taiwan where Indiana’s parade-worthy defense made Jeremy Lin look like Kevin Johnson.
(In one contest, they allowed Houston to attempt 33 three-pointers and assist on 27 field goals.)
Granger is shooting 27 percent from the floor, Copeland is somehow worse at 23.5 percent, Scola is sub-40 percent and rookie Solomon Hill is at 16.7 percent (seriously, none of these are typos). Paul George is playing like the soon-to-be-megastar he is, picking up right where he left off last year, but they’ve yet to get him any real offensive help.