A new year brings a new set of gripes for every NBA team.
Some squads, like the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, saw strong starts to the 2015-16 season squandered during the holidays. Others, like the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, began the campaign on the wrong foot and aren't likely to find the right one anytime soon.
For the rest, there are always nits to pick if you look hard enough and in the right places.
That's what we're here to do once again. No team has yet been mathematically eliminated from title contention, but each one offers (at least) one reason or another to think the Larry O'Brien Trophy might be out of reach.
Last month, we organized all 30 squads according to phases of the Black Mamba's career moon. This time, we've categorized them according to New Year's readiness, from those at the bottom that think it's still 2015 to those at the top that should be excited about what 2016 has to offer.
Still Waiting for the Ball to Drop
The Sixers ended 2015 with a bang, winning two out of three on the road against the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings.
Then 2016 happened, and the losing continued. Back-to-back losses in L.A., to both the languishing Lakers and short-handed Clippers, dropped Philadelphia to 3-33. It'll need at least six wins over its final 46 games to avoid "besting" the 1972-73 Sixers for the worst record in NBA history at 9-73.
How much Elton Brand, the team's latest addition, can change is questionable at best. The 36-year-old forward hasn't been a steady contributor on an NBA team since 2011-12, when he last suited up for the Sixers.
What he can do, though, is teach some of Philly's young building blocks, Jahlil Okafor included, how to comport themselves as pros. As Brand wrote for The Cauldron:
I’m not coming here to hold Jahlil’s hand — or anyone else’s, for that matter — because that’s not what he needs. But I do believe my experience and wisdom can benefit him and my other young teammates. It’s about communicating with them like men, starting to grow together, and — hopefully, eventually — winning some ballgames. That’s what Sam Hinkie and I talked about when he approached me about joining the team, and what has me so excited about this opportunity.
Los Angeles Lakers
It's not all bad in Lakerland these days. If anything, there's reason for fans of the Purple and Gold to feel chipper about their squad.
Los Angeles has won three games in a row for the first time since late February 2015. Sure, the last two of those three came against the sad Sixers and the flailing Phoenix Suns (more on them in a bit). But for these lackluster Lakers, who'd already lost to Phoenix and Philly this season, a win's a win.
As bad as L.A. has been, it can take comfort—if not organizational pride—in the team's improved health compared to the last two seasons, when the Lakers led the league in games missed to injury. Per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes:
Entering Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers (7-27) remain one of the league’s healthiest teams, having lost just 12 games due to injury, which places them third behind the Oklahoma City Thunder (seven) and the San Antonio Spurs (nine), according to [Jeff] Stotts.
While that's all undoubtedly good news for the Lakers, none of it can quite lift them out of the Western Conference cellar, let alone return them to their historic perch in short order.
The Suns are a mess. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe recently explained, some of the team's big-picture problems come down to the front office's attempt to build a contender on the fly after a shocking 48-win campaign in 2013-14:
There are so many variables pulling in different directions. That is the consequence of how the Suns have churned the roster after their shocking success two years ago. They've come out of that chaos with a cleaner long-term picture than a lot of franchises would manage, but chaos can rip a team apart.
Adding to the chaos: Eric Bledsoe's season-ending knee surgery, Brandon Knight's ongoing struggle to become a pure point guard, the reshuffling of Jeff Hornacek's coaching staff and Markieff Morris' malcontent turn.
To that last point, Suns owner Robert Sarver sees some other, larger forces pulling apart the Suns, per the Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley:
I’m not sure it’s just the NBA. My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can’t seem to recover from it.
I’m not sure if it’s the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I’m not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it’s like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations. We’ve had a number of setbacks this year that have taken their toll on us, and we haven’t been resilient. Therefore, it’s up to our entire organization to step up their game.
Right...because the Internet is to blame for Phoenix's league-worst plus-minus since mid-December, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh pointed out Monday:
As if things weren't bad enough in Brooklyn, the Nets could spend the rest of the season seesawing between Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan at point guard. According to ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo, Nets GM Billy King isn't rushing to find a replacement for the injured Jarrett Jack (torn ACL) until he's seen what the team's incumbent guards can do.
Not that King isn't doing his due diligence—and then some. Per the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett, the Nets don't intend to surrender their 2016 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics without attempting to improve their own prospects:
But Brooklyn is apparently very determined to make things less rewarding for the Celtics. According to league sources, the Nets have been walking up and down the aisles in the NBA marketplace, looking for deals that could make them better in the short term as well as in the distance.
Killing those two birds may require a bigger stone than any that Brooklyn can chuck. If the Nets aren't careful, they might only deepen the hole they've dug for themselves in recent years.
It's one thing for the Nuggets to lose six in a row and nine of 10, which they have since Dec. 18. This squad didn't exactly have the makings of a playoff contender to begin with.
But it's another thing to see all these opportunities for growth squandered by injuries. Emmanuel Mudiay, the team's prized rookie, is still recovering from a sprained ankle. Jusuf Nurkic, Denver's promising second-year center, only recently returned from offseason knee surgery.
Nurkic's debut, though, came in the same game that saw Kenneth Faried, a staple in the Mile High City, lost to a scary neck injury.
Faried almost shockingly returned the next game, but the Nuggets won't be able to move the needle much in their rebuild until all their young prospects have found their footing again.
Too Much Bubbly on New Year's Eve
A young team like the Bucks, without much in the way of wise old heads who can lead and mentor, needs its coach on hand to set the tone.
That makes Jason Kidd's December hip surgery all the more pertinent to Milwaukee's immediate prospects. Without Kidd guiding the way, the Bucks have turned to assistant coach Joe Prunty to fill the void.
The early results weren't good. The Bucks lost three of their four games following the announcement of Kidd's absence before bouncing back with wins in Indiana and Minnesota.
Kidd's setback cuts deep beyond the bench for Milwaukee, as the Racine Journal Times' Gery Woelfel told Hoops Rumors' Chuck Myron:
I think it’s pretty apparent to people around the NBA that deal with the Bucks that Jason Kidd is calling all the shots. … He decided that he didn’t want to pay Brandon Knight going forward. It was a very controversial trade. At the time the Bucks were seven games over .500. After the trade they were seven games under .500 and now of course they’re several games under .500 again this year.
Given Kidd's spotty track record, maybe the Bucks will be OK without him.
New Orleans Pelicans
There are some glimmers of hope sprinkling across the Crescent City these days. Jrue Holiday is no longer constrained by minutes restrictions. Quincy Pondexter, a key floor-stretcher, could be back in a few weeks.
But the Pelicans are hardly out of the woods. They're still languishing near the Western Conference cellar, with Tyreke Evans battling tendinitis in his surgically repaired right knee and Anthony Davis needing an extra push to play hard.
"I thought he was coasting a little bit," head coach Alvin Gentry said after New Orleans' 105-98 win in Dallas, per the Times-Picayune's John Reid. "We really discussed playing a little bit harder during one of the timeouts. I thought he got upset and that triggered him. So I told him that I am going to yell at him every day now to keep him going like that."
All of which makes it appear as though Davis and the Pelicans need a bit more seasoning before they're truly ready to build on last season's successes.
A new year hasn't yielded any new results for the Rockets.
Houston rang in 2016 with an 18-point pounding at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs to extend the team's skid to four games. Donatas Motiejunas, the Rockets' top hope at power forward, is back on the shelf with, well, back problems. All the while, the offense slipped out of the top 10 as of Monday, and the defense remains among the bottom 10, per NBA.com.
It's no wonder that NBA.com's David Aldridge is so down on last year's Western Conference finalists: "It's getting close to panic time in Houston, wouldn't you say? Nothing's working—at least for very long. The Rockets are letting the Kings and Blazers hang around in the race for the eighth playoff spot out West."
John Wall's honor as Eastern Conference Player of the Month for December was more than well-deserved. In 16 games for the Wizards, Wall averaged 22.6 points, 11.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals with solid shooting splits of .460/.377/.836.
Despite his extraordinary efforts, Wall couldn't will the Wizards to anything better than a .500 mark on the month. That's what happens when seemingly half of Randy Wittman's rotation—including Bradley Beal, Nene, Drew Gooden, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson—is on the shelf with one injury or another.
If Washington isn't made whole soon, this squad could find tough sledding against a January scheduled jam-packed with dates against other Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.
It's not a good sign for the present or future of your squad when your heart and soul have to be relegated to the bench. That's where the Grizzlies find themselves now that Zach Randolph and the Grindfather himself, Tony Allen, are spending most of their time with the second unit.
Memphis has played better, particularly on the defensive end, since head coach Dave Joerger made the switch:
But those upticks haven't yet translated to the results that really matter. The Grizzlies went 5-6 in their first 11 games with Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee in the starting lineup, as opposed to 13-11 prior to the change.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard had the makings of an NBA iron man before plantar fasciitis struck. The All-Star point guard had powered through the first 275 games of his pro career prior to the setback.
Surprisingly, the Trail Blazers have held the fort without their All-Star point guard. They went 4-3 in their seven games sans Lillard.
Not that those victories came without caveats. Portland pasted the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that came at home after the reigning Eastern Conference champs had exhausted themselves in Oakland on Christmas Day. The other three wins were earned at the expense of Denver and Sacramento—not exactly the cream of the crop.
A stretch of five straight home games against current Western Conference playoff contenders may well pull Portland away from the postseason picture.
Dreaded Going Back to Work
New York Knicks
The Knicks roster has proved surprisingly sturdy at every position but point guard. While Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo have entrenched themselves at the other four spots, head coach Derek Fisher has yet to find a sturdy option to serve up top in the triangle offense.
Jose Calderon has shot well (48.3 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from three) but has long proved a liability on defense. That hasn't stopped him from starting every game for New York, in large part because his chief competition (Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant) has scuffled through the season so far.
According to the New York Post's Marc Berman, the Knicks are in the market for another guard.
Their top options? Jimmer Fredette, Tony Wroten Jr. and Brandon Jennings—not exactly a murderers' row of floor generals.
In today's NBA, and with Kyrie Irving back to steering Cleveland's ship, New York would be hard-pressed to be a factor in the East without a solid option at the point.
Jennings has played three games (four, if you count his brief stint in the D-League) since returning from a torn Achilles. Yet, he's somehow become the center of attention in Detroit, from trade rumors to musings about his partnership with Reggie Jackson.
That's a lot to throw at Jennings from the jump, especially in light of his production (6.0 points, 3.3 assists, 33 percent shooting in 19.0 minutes).
The Pistons—and the rest of the Association, for that matter—could get a good, long look at Jennings. Jackson's tender ankle could thrust Jennings into more prominent minutes, which could pose problems for Detroit if the California native isn't yet up to snuff.
The honeymoon is officially over for Minnesota. The Timberpups followed up a stunning 8-8 start with a floundering 4-14 stretch. That included a 95-85 loss to Milwaukee during which Minnesota squandered a 17-point lead.
"We played too cool, thinking we don't need to be aggressive all the time," Ricky Rubio said afterward, per the Associated Press' Jon Krawczynski. "This league is built for men. We weren't men tonight."
Nor will many of the young Wolves be men in the NBA sense anytime soon. Three of Rubio's most important teammates (Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine) are still shy of legal drinking age.
Rajon Rondo's back to leading the league in assists, at 11.3 per game, and was tied for tops in triple-doubles until Draymond Green's productive week. The Kings, then, must be better off with Rondo running the point...right?
According to HoopsHype's Mika Honkasalo, not so much:
The Kings have been pretty bad with Rondo on the court. The team has been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor, and surprisingly (for some) the Kings have actually outscored teams by 1.5 points without Rondo – equivalent to the difference in net rating between the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans.
As it turns out, Rondo's never been much of an offensive engine, even during his heyday in Boston. Here's Honkasalo again:
A secret not many people know is that throughout his career, when Rondo has had a major role in the offense, his teams have not been good at that end. Even during the golden years with what is considered to be pretty high-end talent – Paul Pierce, [Ray] Allen and Kevin Garnett – Rondo has never actually been the head of a good offense. During Rondo’s four All-Star seasons, the Celtics ranked just 15th, 18th, 27th and 24th in offensive efficiency, and only their historic defense made the Celtics a contender.
DeMarcus Cousins is a great player, but he's no Garnett, let alone Pierce and Allen as well. Hence, the Kings may once again be condemned to mediocrity, this time with Rondo at the helm.
On Monday, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton did an excellent job of explaining the extraordinary improvement of Charlotte's offense by way of the three-point line. There are, though, some key caveats to consider.
The first, from Pelton: "Unlike Golden State, the Hornets still aren't very good at making threes. Their 34.6 percent accuracy is slightly worse than the league average of 35 percent."
The second, also from Pelton: "Alas, because of the depth of this year's Eastern Conference, these Hornets are hardly guaranteed a playoff spot. At 17-16, they're currently 10th place in the East, one game back of eighth, despite outscoring opponents by 1.8 points per game."
The third: The team's top driver (Jeremy Lin), two of its top three-point shooters (Nicolas Batum and Spencer Hawes) and its best bet to draw double-teams (Al Jefferson) have all been hobbled recently, if not on the shelf entirely, in some capacity.
There is a downside to the Celtics having so many players worthy of significant minutes. When guys like David Lee and Tyler Zeller are scrapping for playing time, head coach Brad Stevens has to take on the role of politician to satiate everyone's concerns.
C's general manager Danny Ainge explained to the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn:
I think that it’s a challenge. This team is in some ways a real challenge to coach. For some guys, it’s a challenge in that we have a lot of depth. That’s good and bad in some ways. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a lot of injuries, but do we need change? No. Can we get better? Sure.
Boston might make a leap if Ainge can thin out his roster to thicken the ranks of superstars at the Garden. If not, Stevens will have to keep up his juggling act with a Celtics squad that, for all its manic energy and intensity, doesn't yet have the talent to scratch at much more than a cursory postseason appearance.
Elfrid Payton has become the barometer for the Magic, as NBA.com's Aldridge noted:
On the nights Payton is on his toes and active, the Magic becomes a very difficult team to play, because they're off and running, and their young legs and hops can carry the day. But when Payton is dog tired (or sick, as he was much of last week), Orlando looks like your typical inexperienced team that can't beat older opponents.
That was the case for Payton and pals against Washington and Cleveland. He notched three points, 11 assists and five turnovers between those two games—the former being a 12-point loss, and the latter being a 25-point drubbing.
The Magic might not be out of those woods just yet, either. Payton bruised a bone in his left ankle against the Cavaliers—an injury that's never easy to shake. The longer he's hobbled, the harder it will be for the Magic to fend off the Pistons, Hornets and Wizards on the fringes of the East's playoff picture.
Anxiously Awaiting the Next Holiday
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers seem to be getting along just fine without Blake Griffin. They've won a season-high six games in a row behind quality guard play. Chris Paul and J.J. Redick have held down the starting backcourt, per usual, while the playmaking trio of Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Pablo Prigioni has sparked a bench renaissance.
NBA.com's Aldridge pointed out all of that while also pouring some water on L.A.'s recent upturn:
To be honest, the Clippers have also cleaned up against some of the league's also-rans during the win streak. Their next six games are more of the same, with only Miami among the likes of Portland, Charlotte, New Orleans, Sacramento and Houston. The Clippers have a chance to put a big marker down just as they're getting their MVP candidate back -- as long as Hero Ball stays on the shelf.
The longer Griffin remains in recovery, the more time Paul will spend with the ball and, in turn, the greater the danger of hero ball's return becomes.
Maybe, just maybe, the Heat are finding their footing. They tipped off 2016 with a pair of impressive wins: a 24-point demolition of Dallas and a 22-point whitewashing of the Wizards.
Whether Miami can extend that roll into more than a short trend is another story. The Heat have yet to win (or lose) four or more games in a row this season. At some point, a talented team with some new parts will have to show it can sustain excellence for long enough to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers atop the East.
And in the eyes of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman, the idea of the team being new doesn't pass muster:
I take issue with the notion of this as a "new" team. Wade, Bosh and Whiteside all were together for months last season, as were Dragic, Wade and Whiteside over the final two months. Yes, pieces such as Gerald Green and Amar'e Stoudemire have been added, but that is business as usual in today's free-agency NBA, where supporting players are reshuffled every offseason. As for the addition of Justise Winslow, that is nothing more than a team adding a draft pick, which, again, is NBA business as usual. This is a team that was structured to win this season, based on the one-year contract offered to Wade and the addition of veteran free agents. So that expectation remains legitimate.
For the Bulls, every silver lining comes equipped with a dark cloud.
On one hand, Chicago has won four in a row, bolstered by three straight brilliant games from Jimmy Butler. In his latest outing, Butler broke Michael Jordan's franchise record for points in a half by dropping 40 after the break to beat the Toronto Raptors.
On the other hand, Butler's brilliance has come, in part, as a supplement to Derrick Rose's latest setback. Chicago's favorite son missed those last three games with a gimpy hamstring.
According to the Daily Herald's Mike McGraw, Rose will be a game-time decision against Milwaukee on Tuesday.
Whether that's good for the Bulls is another story. According to NBA.com, Chicago has been 6.2 points per 100 possessions better when he sits compared to when he plays.
The hits keep coming for the Jazz, but not in any way that'll have them topping the charts.
Derrick Favors has been bothered by back spasms since Christmas. Rudy Gobert, Favors' frontcourt partner, hasn't suited up since spraining his MCL in early December and remains without a timetable for return.
Now, Alec Burks is back on the shelf. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Burks will be out for six weeks while recovering from surgery on his fractured fibula.
Throw in Dante Exum's ACL tear over the summer, and you start to wonder what Utah did to upset the basketball gods this time.
DeMarre Carroll went to Canada as the missing link between the Raptors and a playoff series win. This season, he's mostly just been missing.
Carroll logged his 13th DNP of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday while coping with knee and foot ailments. When he has played, Carroll has shot poorly (38.8 percent from the field) and struggled to have much of an impact defensively; according to NBA.com, Toronto has been 4.4 points stingier per 100 possessions without Carroll.
All of this appears to have congealed into a troubling frustration on Carroll's part.
"What can I do? I don’t want to say too much, because you know how the Raptors do, we keep our stuff hush," Carroll told the Toronto Star's Chris O'Leary. "I don’t want to say too much, but at the same time man, only if you knew, you know what I mean? Only if you knew. It’s one of those things."
And it could be one of those things that drags down the Raptors the rest of the season.
The only thing consistent about the Mavericks is their lack thereof.
One game, they beat the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors by 23. The next, they get crushed by the Heat...and the Pelicans after that.
"I don't know," Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews said when asked about the team's inconsistency after the loss to New Orleans, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "This is annoying, though. We didn't play well in Miami, and we didn't play well in too many stretches here."
It's stretches like those that could keep Dallas from scrapping its way back into the West's upper echelon, despite a down year for the conference.
NBA.com's Aldridge posed a potentially problematic question for the Hawks: "What alternate universe are we in when Kyle Korver misses 18 straight three-point shots and doesn't make a three for two-plus games?"
A universe in which Atlanta is no longer a viable contender in the East, perhaps? Korver recovered from his slump somewhat by knocking down two threes Sunday, albeit in a loss to the New York Knicks.
Even so, Korver's three-point percentage has slipped to a career-low 36.1 percent. Chances are opposing defenses will continue to stretch out in order to contain him, but at 34, his days as an elite marksman may be gone.
And so, too, might the Hawks' time as a legitimate challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Paul George's MVP candidacy has taken a turn for the worse and, along with it, taken down the Pacers' hopes of being an elite team in the Eastern Conference.
As Yahoo's Michael Lee noted: "The 82-game grind has already begun to affect him, with George sliding into a miserable shooting slump the past three weeks. Opposing defenses have been loading up to slow him down, and the shots he hit to start the season are coming up short."
To Lee's point, George's scoring dipped to 18.4 points on 34.1 percent shooting following his career-high 48-point explosion in Utah through Indiana's late-year loss in Chicago.
To his credit, George has picked up the slack since then. He finished off 2015 with 31 points against Milwaukee and followed that up with 32 and 14 rebounds to open 2016 against the Pistons.
Highs and lows like these are to be expected of a talented player coming off a devastating injury like the one that befell George's leg in the summer of 2014. But Indy can't keep pace with the rest of the East's second tier if George can't keep up his impressive production.
Could Get Used to This Whole '2016' Thing
Golden State Warriors
The statistics have long hinted that the Warriors dip from historically great to patently average whenever Stephen Curry sits:
Curry's shin troubles have lent tangible credence to what the numbers have said. In his absence, Golden State got crushed by Dallas, eked out a four-point win over Houston and had to fend off Denver in overtime after Curry left in the second quarter.
"I just reinjured the same thing, so I'll be all right," Curry said after the win over the Nuggets, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "I know exactly what it is. Whenever you hurt something and you try to play through a little bit of discomfort and just get out there, it's usually a magnet for something to happen."
The Warriors aren't in any real danger out West just yet, but if Curry has any further trouble, it could put this team's depth and moxie to the test.
San Antonio Spurs
It's tough to find much fault with the Spurs these days, but there are some ominous signs to keep tabs on. Namely, the impending end of the team's longtime triad of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The 39-year-old Duncan, the league's second-oldest active player, was held scoreless for the first time in his career in a win over the Rockets after missing three games to rest his knee. Parker, 33, missed Monday's game in Milwaukee with a sore right hip.
Ginobili, meanwhile, has held his own in limited minutes—as has his mother, Raquel, who bit the finger of an attempted burglar in Ginobili's hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Good news for the Thunder: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook split Western Conference Player of the Month honors, and rightfully so. Their production for the month, and OKC's sparkling 12-3 record therein, merited that rare share:
The bad news: Durant will be back in street clothes after spraining his right big toe against Charlotte. The last time KD was out, Westbrook held the Thunder together with a 3-3 record. Fortunately for OKC, the upcoming schedule is Charmin soft; just one of the team's next five games is against a squad with a winning record.
But any setback for Durant, especially so close to his troublesome right foot, is cause for consternation in Oklahoma City.
You thought the Cavaliers were done with all the bickering and backroom drama that consumed their 2014-15 campaign? Think again.
According to the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd, head coach David Blatt's handling of the team's veterans, including Richard Jefferson, could be cause for insurrection in Cleveland's locker room: "Jefferson is in a similar category. His DNP-CD against the Warriors did not sit well with a number of the veterans in the locker room, according to multiple team sources. Things that get overlooked in wins aren’t so easily dismissed in losses. This is Exhibit A."
The last thing the Cavs need is for the older guys at the end of their bench (Jefferson, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, among others) undercutting the delicate chemistry that LeBron James and company have worked hard to fashion in pursuit of their second straight Eastern Conference crown.
All stats accurate as of games played on Jan. 3, 2015.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.