It's been six weeks since the 2015-16 NBA season began in earnest, and big changes, rumored and otherwise, are already afoot.
The Houston Rockets, sluggish out of the gate, sacked their head coach, Kevin McHale, 11 games into the campaign. The Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans, among others, have been embroiled in trade banter. The Philadelphia 76ers, no strangers to chaos, have deviated from their "process" by bringing Jerry Colangelo aboard their sunken ship.
Not every team has been so quick to shake things up. The Golden State Warriors are humming right along without a loss. The Cleveland Cavaliers have scuffled a bit but are still awaiting the season debut of their starting backcourt. The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are coming into their own out West, just as the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are in the East.
For these seven teams, even if they've already attempted to freshen up their respective formulas, more tweaks could—and probably should—be coming around the corner.
The Rockets have improved somewhat since they fired McHale. They've won a slight majority of their games under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff (7-5) and have started to put the ball in the basket more frequently and efficiently:
The team's defense, though, remains a sore spot. Houston has defended at an elite level (97.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com) when Dwight Howard and Clint Capela have shared the floor. But the Rockets' perimeter defense remains suspect, with James Harden and Ty Lawson among the flailing. And starting Capela at the 4 next to Howard points to a bigger issue in Space City, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe explained:
This is a classic case of an underperforming team shrugging, and starting its five best players regardless of position. Capela has been fantastic as Howard's backup, and he has probably outperformed Terrence Jones on balance; Jones' shooting has dipped, his rim protection comes and goes, and teams are filleting the Rockets on the glass with Jones on the floor.
In other words: For what feels like the umpteenth year in a row, Houston has a problem at power forward—on top of its emergent struggles with Harden's return to lackadaisical defense and Lawson's ineffectiveness at the point. Jones has been spotty, Donatas Motiejunas has been banged up (again), and Capela is practically a sitting duck on the offensive end.
It's no wonder, then, that the Rockets have kicked the tires on disgruntled Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris. According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, such a deal would probably involve Jones, though Houston isn't trying to give him up just yet, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins.
Whatever the case may be, the Rockets had better figure it out sooner rather than later. At 11-12, they're hanging on to the final playoff spot out West by a thread.
And with each day that passes with the team in a rut, Houston will find itself further from the title contention for which it once seemed destined.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Rockets aren't the only team in the market for Morris. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania, the New Orleans Pelicans are also interested, with Ryan Anderson as a potential return for the Phoenix Suns.
Why would New Orleans swap out a 27-year-old who averages 18 points and seven rebounds per game for a 26-year-old whose issues, both on and off the court, have dropped him to third on Phoenix's depth chart at power forward? Follow the money. Per Yahoo Sports:
The Pelicans are willing to consider moving Anderson as a part of a potential deal for Morris, especially if Anderson doesn’t show an interest in signing a new contract with New Orleans, sources said.
Anderson is making $8.5 million in the final year of his contract. He could become a free agent in July.
It doesn't help Anderson's case that the Pelicans have surrendered 109.1 points per 100 possessions whenever he's filled the frontcourt next to Anthony Davis, per NBA.com. Omer Asik hasn't been much better on that end and has dragged down the New Orleans offense alongside The Brow.
|Pelicans' Frontcourt Combos|
|Off Eff||Def Eff||Net Rating|
|Davis and Anderson||106.1||109.1||minus-3|
|Davis and Asik||90.0||105.0||minus-15|
Whether or not Anderson (or Asik) gets the boot, the Pelicans may already have in-house solutions to what ails them. As ESPN's Lowe noted, New Orleans could kick things up a notch by slotting Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans into the starting lineup, now that Evans is healthy and Holiday's not as restricted in terms of minutes.
"Evans is a bit undersized as a small forward, but he can hold up," Lowe wrote. "Stagger the minutes properly, and either Evans or Holiday can help Norris Cole run bench units. They should probably do this even if they promote Alexis Ajinca over Asik."
Ajinca could be the other element of a more successful new equation for the Pelicans. According to NBA.com, they've outscored their opponents by 18.7 points per 100 possessions when he and Davis have played together.
The Washington Wizards came into the 2015-16 season with one clear stylistic goal in mind: push the pace.
This past spring, playing smaller and faster had helped the Wizards sweep the Toronto Raptors in the first round and nearly knock off the Atlanta Hawks in the second, if not for John Wall's mid-series hand injury. Extending that philosophical shift into a full season, then, was bound to turn Washington into a true powerhouse in the Eastern Conference...right?
Maybe not. So far, the Wizards have turned up the tempo, but doing so seems to have degraded their operation on both ends of the floor:
Absences from Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Nene and Drew Gooden have added bumps in the road of an already rocky transition. But the directives themselves may be to blame for Washington's sluggish 9-11 start, as Gortat told the Washington Post's Jorge Castillo:
It’s tough also because in the system we play — four outside, one inside — I’m by myself in there fighting for rebounds, and usually we got two, three guys inside the paint.
So it’s a little bit different without Nene being at the four. Jared [Dudley] is a different player. He’s giving a lot to the team and I love to play with him, but just as Jared is giving us offensively great opportunities, we are suffering on the rebounds a little bit.
More than a little bit, actually. According to NBA.com, the Wizards have slipped from the fourth-best rebounding team by percentage last season to the seventh-worst in 2015-16.
In theory, Washington should be re-orienting its style of play to better suit Wall and Beal, who now constitute the bedrock of the franchise. But if this team is going to win now, falling back on old habits might not be the worst thing, if only for the time being.
In years past, the Grizzlies could afford to shoot poorly from the perimeter. Their frontcourt tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph was so good, and their defense was so stingy, that they could score enough points against paint-packing defenses to allow their own stopping units to carry them to 50-plus wins every season.
But Gasol and Randolph aren't as imposing as they used to be.
Z-Bo's shooting 44.5 percent—the second-lowest mark of his career—and averaging his fewest points per game (14.1) since an injury-riddled 2011-12 campaign, while Gasol's scoring has dipped a bit from his career best in 2014-15.
According to NBA.com, the Grizzlies have been outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions whenever those two have shared the floor. On the whole, the Memphis defense, once the team's calling card, has slipped to 24th in efficiency.
Those concurrent declines have left the Grizzlies with an even smaller margin for error and an even greater need to expand it from the perimeter. ESPN's Lowe suggested swapping out Tony Allen and Jeff Green, the team's current starters on the wings, for Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee.
"That proposed starting five has logged only 12 minutes together, and the Barnes/Lee combination has been a disaster overall," Lowe wrote. "But lots of those minutes have come among patchwork small-ball units; Barnes has done well with the core starters, and he needs a Lee type to defend quicker shooting guards."
If that doesn't pan out, the Grizzlies could experiment with Mario Chalmers, who scored in double figures in nine of his first 14 games with Memphis. Whatever the solution may be, the Grizzlies would be hard-pressed to extend their playoff streak to a sixth year while ranking 28th in three-point attempts and 29th in percentage from beyond the arc.
Los Angeles Clippers
Like the rival Grizzlies, the new-look Clippers are suffering from the same old problems that plagued this squad last season.
Their rebounding has slipped from perplexingly bad to worse. According to NBA.com, only the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have collected fewer caroms by percentage than have these Clippers, despite the best efforts of Blake Griffin (a double-double machine) and DeAndre Jordan (a two-time rebounding champ):
|NBA's Worst Rebounding Teams by Percentage|
|Total Reb %||Off Reb %||Def Reb %|
According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, the Clippers have already called around the league to gauge trade interest in Stephenson and Smith, the latter of whom reportedly got into a verbal spat with assistant coach Mike Woodson in late November.
Meanwhile, the situation at small forward is as unsettled as ever. Pierce, Stephenson, Johnson and Mbah a Moute have all gotten opportunities to start, but none has yet seized the role by the horns.
As ESPN's Lowe mused, that might change if head coach Doc Rivers were more willing to roll the dice with one of his younger, more athletic options:
The Clips have put up Warriors-level scoring margins with either Wesley Johnson or Lance Stephenson alongside the core four starters. They need to invest regular-season time in those lineups. You can almost understand Doc Rivers's hesitancy. Johnson is limited, and Stephenson is irritating. They are risky, and Mbah a Moute is a warm blanket vet -- a safe, known commodity.
Short of scrapping the bench or trading away a chunk of the core, carving out more defined roles on the wing may be the Clippers' best bet to get moving in the right direction.
Los Angeles Lakers
As bad as things may be for the Clippers, they can at least take comfort in knowing they're better off than their Staples Center co-tenants.
Even three years into the Lakers' historic doldrums, that still feels strange to type.
Head coach Byron Scott hasn't been shy about shaking things up before the calendar turns to 2016. He's already demoted D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, the two purported tent poles of the team's future, to the bench.
This, in addition to Scott's propensity to keep Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, tethered to the bench in crunch time. According to Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee, not everyone in Lakerland is happy with how Scott has handled his latest rookie point guard:
Scott's decision to sit Russell late in games is confounding even for some members of the Lakers’ front office who were swayed to bypass Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor because Scott favored the flashy point guard from Ohio State, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The season already is lost for a franchise that desperately needs to hold on to its top-three protected first-round pick, and Russell would like the chance to find some solutions on the floor.
Scott's approach to Russell has caused many a head to be scratched, but if tough love is what it takes to light a fire under the 19-year-old phenom, so be it. But if Scott were really keen to win more games now and build for the future, he would do well to heed the advice of Sporting News' Ian Levy and implore Kobe Bryant to assume more of a supporting role during his farewell tour:
Take better shots, shoot less, move the ball and be flexible with your role — these are all hypotheticals and fairly obvious ones at that. There is nothing groundbreaking in their design, and expecting them to happen is pretty silly. If historic levels of inaccuracy and inefficiency haven't changed his behavior to this point, it's hard to imagine anything is going to shove Kobe off course.
Unless, of course, Bryant does it himself.
On a chilly Wednesday night in Minneapolis, he did just that. With the Lakers going tit for tat in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant, one of the game's most prolific crunch-time assassins, insisted that Scott "let the kids play," per the Associated Press. Those kids—Russell and Randle in particular—helped to force overtime against the T-Wolves before falling just short of victory, 123-122.
It was the first hint of an honest-to-goodness rebuild for the Lakers this season. The youngsters gained some valuable, late-game experience, and the team moved one game closer to retaining its 2016 first-round pick, which it will convey to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top three in the lottery.
How is it that a team with a solid record (11-8) and a ton of talent wound up on this list? That team, the Bulls, has been maddeningly inconsistent in the early going, particularly on the offensive end.
While the defense (97.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the NBA) remains as stingy as it did during Tom Thibodeau's heyday, the offense (97.4 points points per 100 possessions, fourth-worst) has yet to pick up under Fred Hoiberg.
Some of those problems are to be expected when Mike Dunleavy Jr. has yet to play this season due to back trouble. Others are natural for a squad getting acclimated to a new coach and his new system, as Jimmy Butler told ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson:
We have a lot of guys that haven't played a significant amount of minutes under Thibs [former coach Tom Thibodeau], and when it gets to [coach Fred] Hoiberg and he gives you all of that freedom on offense, going up and down the court and they are playing, getting their confidence up, that's a totally different role to adjust to.
What hasn't changed, though, is how off-kilter this jumbled roster feels and how the clutter has affected its constituents.
Joakim Noah (3.4 points on 36.8 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists) hasn't adapted well to coming off the bench behind Pau Gasol, who's posted his own low numbers in points (14.8) and field-goal percentage (44 percent). Butler (21.2 points) is clearly Chicago's best player, but Derrick Rose (13.6 points on 35.9 percent shooting, 22.7 percent from three) still leads the team in attempts at 15.4 per game. Nikola Mirotic's starting and Noah's playing with the reserves mean fewer minutes for Taj Gibson, an effective two-way big.
At some point, the Bulls will either have to figure out how to make these talented pieces fit or swap some of them out for others—preferably a sturdier option at small forward.
All stats are accurate as of games played on Dec. 9, 2015.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.