Ranking the NBA's Biggest Disasters of 2015-16 So Far
The NBA is as good a place as any to test Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion—and not just because human bodies and basketballs are subject to the same gravitational forces.
For every action, for every historic start by teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, there is an equal but opposite reaction by, say, the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, both of whom are still scraping the bottom of the barrel.
That's the kind of chaos sewn into the fabric of any zero-sum game. There's just something more dramatic, more soap-operatic, about the way the Association goes about its business from week to week, month to month and season to season.
Few situations in basketball (if any) are more tragicomic than these 13, ranked subjectively according to the size and scope of the calamity each contains.
13. The Grit and Grind in Memphis
There was no ceremony celebrating the life and times of the "grit and grind" for the Memphis Grizzlies. No burial rite. No flowers on a headstone. Certainly no Viking funeral.
Just a jarring lineup change against the Miami Heat on December 13th. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen went to the bench, replaced in the starting lineup by Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee.
Head coach Dave Joerger had his reasons. At the time, the fivesome of Randolph, Allen, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Jeff Green (i.e., Memphis' starting five) had been outscored by 22.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Grizzlies' lack of shooting was a particularly tough nut to crack—and one that needed to be if Gasol and Randolph were going to thrive.
So far, the switch has worked out splendidly for all involved. Assuming he racks up enough substitute appearances, Z-Bo's averages of 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds should put him in the thick of the Sixth Man of the Year race. According to NBA.com, the new starting five has been 6.1 points per 100 possessions better than Memphis' opposition since Joerger pulled the trigger.
The Grizzlies aren't dominating the competition, but their defense—long their backbone—is coming along, and their offense is no longer quite the wheezing windbag it was earlier this season.
Still, there's something sad about seeing a style of play that proved so successful for so long in the River City get tossed aside. It was a not-so-subtle admission that the NBA may have passed Memphis by and that the Grizzlies probably don't have the personnel to catch up to the pack leaders out West.
12. Clippers Cut Bait on Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith
The Los Angeles Clippers are hitting their stride, with nine wins in a row to end 2015 and begin 2016. They've done all this despite missing Blake Griffin for their last eight outings and getting little to nothing out of Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson.
Granted, Griffin's absences are mandatory, the products of a quadriceps tear. On the other hand, Doc Rivers has left out Smith and Stephenson by choice.
Outside of the DeAndre Jordan circus, the additions of Smith and Stephenson looked like the biggest victories of L.A.'s offseason. So far, they've proved to be poor fits for the Clippers in their own ways.
Smith's shooting (38.5 percent from the field) is the poorest it's ever been. His playmaking, once his signature, hasn't been much better, with nearly as many turnovers (38) as assists (39) to date.
As for Stephenson, he's been tugged between the starting lineup, the top spot on the second unit and the end of the bench to underwhelming avail. His grasp of when to attack and when to dish within the confines of the Clippers offense remains a work in progress, to say the least.
Not that the Clippers miss either one. According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, the team tried to trade them both back in early December.
Since then, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has done yeoman's work on the wing, with Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson providing support. Where once the skill of Smith and Stephenson was expected to shine off the bench, the will of Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni has breathed new life into L.A.'s lagging second unit.
"For me, I'm just worried about who I'm playing and then when someone else is not, then we'll put Josh in or someone else in," Rivers said, per the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch. "But right now, why would you want to touch what's going on?"
11. Kyle Korver Loses His Touch
Last season, Kyle Korver was, in some respects, central to the Atlanta Hawks' historic season. His three-point shooting (an NBA-best 49.2 percent) and ability to run for days on end opened up both the floor for his teammates and the door for the Hawks on the way to 60 wins and a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But Father Time has a way of taking all players down a peg or two. So does Mother Nature.
Both have come hard after Korver. The 34-year-old hasn't seemed the same since coming back from offseason surgery to repair an ankle injury suffered in the playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Through 36 games, Korver has converted a career-low 35.8 percent of his 5.2 threes per game.
Atlanta, on the whole, hasn't been that much worse for wear. According to NBA.com, the Hawks offense is still a top-six outfit, though the team's overall output has declined by 1.8 points per 100 possessions.
And, in truth, the loss of DeMarre Carroll to the Toronto Raptors probably hurt the Hawks more on both ends than Korver's decline has on the offensive side.
But he is as close to a canary in the coal mine as you'll find in Atlanta. When Korver is doing well, Jeff Teague's driving lanes are a little bit wider, Al Horford and Paul Millsap have a little more space to operate in the middle, and the game becomes a bit easier for everyone in a Hawks uniform.
When Korver's shot falls flat, the Hawks can no longer soar so high above the crowd of competition in the East.
10. The Emmanuel Mudiay Experience in Denver
Rough play from rookie point guards is more the rule than the exception, especially in today's NBA. In Emmanuel Mudiay's case, poor shooting and a shoddy ankle were central to the scouting report when the Denver Nuggets picked him seventh in the 2015 NBA draft.
But that doesn't mean the Nuggets should be pleased with all that they've seen (and not seen) from their young floor general. According to NBA.com, no rotation regular (i.e., minimum 15 minutes per game across 20 appearances) has shot as poorly as Mudiay has from the field (31.2 percent).
Among those who've attempted at least two threes per game this season, his three-point percentage (25 percent) falls in the bottom 10. By hitting 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-3 from three in his return against Charlotte, Mudiay actually improved his percentages on both counts.
The condition of his ankle remains a concern. He missed 14 games while recovering from a deltoid sprain in his right ankle—the same injury that sidelined him for three months in China last season.
"Steph (Curry) went through it, how he kept reinjuring his ankle," Mudiay told the Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey. "So you've just got to be careful with that type of stuff, because I don't want it to linger. I know I'm 19, young, but at the same time still got to take care of myself."
That's the good news for the Nuggets: Mudiay is still just 19 years old. In the absence of any outsized expectations, the team can afford to let him work his way back into proper playing shape and, hopefully, into a reliable jump shot.
9. New Season, Same Cousins and Kings
The 2015-16 season was supposed to be a turning point for the Sacramento Kings. A summer spent packing the roster with reliable veterans, led by Rajon Rondo at the point, would beget a calmer DeMarcus Cousins and a squad committed to executing and playing hard on both ends.
That hasn't been the case in California's capital.
Boogie, for one, remains a foul machine on all fronts. He leads the league with 3.8 personal fouls per game, is tied for third in technical fouls with seven and has an ejection and a suspension on his record to boot.
And that doesn't include any of his backroom tirades.
Meanwhile, the Kings remain as much of a mess as ever on the defensive end. According to NBA.com, they've allowed the fourth-most points per 100 possessions (106.1) and the second-highest opponent effective field-goal percentage (52.3 percent).
NBA.com's David Aldridge detailed some of Sacramento's shortcomings on that end:
But it's a combo platter of awful -- starting with the bad screen-and-roll coverage, which leaves Cousins exposed having to protect the front of the rim time and again. It's left Karl to give Seth Curry bigger minutes of late, because Karl believes Curry is the team's best on-ball defender. Karl also wants to play Koufos and Cousins together and put Gay exclusively back at the three, but couldn't use that lineup while rookie big Willie Cauley-Stein was out with a hand injury.
The sooner the Kings shore up their defense, the sooner they'll start winning. And the more of that they do, the happier—and, thus, less combustible—Cousins figures to be.
8. Ty Lawson Crashes Before Takeoff in Houston
Daryl Morey has taken his share of big swings as general manager of the Houston Rockets. But never has a potential home run turned into a foul ball as quickly as the deal he swung for Ty Lawson.
Asset-wise, the Rockets didn't give up much: a collection of cap fodder (Joey Dorsey, Kostas& Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, Nick Johnson), a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2016, a 2017 second-rounder and some cash.
The bigger cost in Space City appears to be whatever chemistry went out the window once Lawson brought his baggage on board. He and James Harden struggled to share the backcourt right from the jump—enough so to cost Kevin McHale his coaching job 11 games into the season and Lawson his starting gig immediately thereafter.
The North Carolina product hasn't been much better since then. In between bouts with ankle soreness and DUI-related suspensions, he's averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 40.8 percent from the field.
With Patrick Beverley healthy, the Rockets have even less reason to "let a dude (i.e., Lawson) ball out." Instead, they've tried shopping their scuffling point guard to little avail, per CBS Sports' Ken Berger.
Houston can't pin all of its slippage, particularly on the defensive end, on Lawson. But for a team that went from 56 wins and a spot in the Western Conference Finals last season to hovering around .500 in 2015-16, the former Denver Nugget makes for a convenient scapegoat.
T6. The Snake-Bitten Pelicans and Wizards
You know what they say about the best-laid plans? The New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards sure do.
Both teams came into the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes following playoff appearances this past spring. Both have seen those hopes swallowed up by swarms of injury bugs.
The Pelicans have been pummeled from the start. Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole didn't make their season debuts until December. Quincy Pondexter won't make his at all, per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. Jrue Holiday only recently freed himself from a precautionary minutes restriction. Anthony Davis has been banged up a few different times and in a few different ways, as had Omer Asik earlier on.
And yet, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson—two of the more injury-prone Pelicans—have somehow managed to stay healthy.
Not that they've been able to stop New Orleans' slide under Alvin Gentry. The Pelicans began the season 1-11 and, at 11-25, remain closer to the cellar than the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Things aren't quite so dire in Washington, D.C. The Wizards are well within striking distance of the East's postseason picture.
But who, pray tell, is going to get them over the hump? Bradley Beal is back on the shelf with yet another leg injury. John Wall is holding his own while gritting his way through knee issues. You can't swing a dead cat through Washington's frontcourt without hitting someone who isn't already hurt.
According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the Wizards won't make any drastic changes until their walking wounded are back: "You could be the Washington Wizards (16-19), who league sources say are hoping to put together a rare 10-12-game stretch at or close to full health before deciding whether they're going to be sellers in the trade market with the deadline approaching Feb. 18."
For both New Orleans and Washington, it may already be too late to hope for enough reinforcements to march past the deepening pools of competition in their respective conferences.
5. Jason Kidd's Power Play in Milwaukee
Maybe Jason Kidd should stick to coaching the Milwaukee Bucks rather than meddling in general manager John Hammond's affairs.
During a recent episode of The Vertical Podcast with Woj, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski and former Nets executive Bobby Marks discussed Kidd's turn toward a full-time gig on the personnel side. As Wojnarowski said, per Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman:
Jason Kidd has left the team for apparently six weeks to two months to have hip surgery. A lot of people around the league and people I talked to in the aftermath of this wonder, given Kidd’s penchant in the past to bail on things when they get difficult – could this be the beginning of Kidd’s escape hatch to maybe just moving up to a full-time role in the front office, whether he finishes up coaching this year and then tries to move up next year?
Trouble is, Kidd's track record on that side is shoddy at best. Per Feldman, he reportedly had a hand in swapping out Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams, unloading a slew of valuable veterans (Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova), drafting Rashad Vaughn over Bobby Portis in 2015 and giving up a first- and second-round pick for Greivis Vasquez, who's been out since late November after undergoing ankle surgery.
The team Kidd assembled slumped to 15-24 through its first 39 games—five games worse than last season's playoff-bound squad at the same point.
It's one thing for Milwaukee to score so poorly; the Bucks were short on shooting last season and haven't gotten any better therein on account of Kidd's moves.
But it's another for this squad to slip from second-best to second-worst in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. These young Bucks were bound to regress to some extent, but they'll be hard-pressed to mature the way Kidd (or anyone else) wants them to until their head coach comes back.
Assuming he returns in that capacity at all.
4. Lakers Try to Have Their Cake, Eat It Too, Wind Up with Neither
First, the Los Angeles Lakers tried to put winning basketball games ahead of grooming their youngsters for the future.
"That is the reality," head coach Byron Scott said back in November, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "But the second part of that goal is you’ve still got to develop the young core of guys that you have. That’s my job, to try to win basketball games and in the meantime try to develop young people."
Once the ruse about winning went out the window, the Lakers came clean: This campaign is about Kobe Bryant, not prepping his successors.
"This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history," general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPN in early January, with the Lakers sitting at 8-28. "And, God willing, he's going to want to play every game and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that's just the way he is."
Now that Bryant is battling discomfort in his Achilles and shoulder—each of which has ended a season to injury in the last three years—what's 2015-16 about for L.A.? Boosting Lou Williams' trade value? Hoping Roy Hibbert ever plays like an All-Star again?
Or are the Lakers finally ready to prioritize player development, with D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. stepping to the fore?
3. Sixers Shirk Team Building, Stumble to Horrific Start
The Philadelphia 76ers looked like they'd spend the foreseeable future in search of a savior. This season, they got one—not on the court but in the front office, where Jerry Colangelo has been installed as general manager Sam Hinkie's boss.
Since Colangelo arrived, the Sixers have traded for Ish Smith, an honest-to-goodness point guard who has already been a boon to rookie big man Jahlil Okafor. And they brought in Mike D'Antoni, whose input could clear up Philly's logjam up front, per NBA.com's David Aldridge: "Don't be surprised to see more Nerlens Noel at center than him playing at the four alongside Jahlil Okafor going forward for the 76ers. Mike D'Antoni, the team's new associate head coach, has been a big Nerlens-at-the-5 advocate since coming aboard."
You didn't have to have D'Antoni's basketball acumen to figure that would be the best move for the Sixers. But with the way things were going in Philly, there didn't seem to be much of that floating around the organization's upper echelon until Colangelo came aboard.
Until that point, the Sixers were 1-30, with the worst start in NBA history and the longest losing streak ever seen in North American professional sports. Now, Philly is merely run-of-the-mill awful from night to night.
But much of the damage has been done. The Sixers' two best prospects are both centers. Their third-best, Joel Embiid, is also a 7-footer and has yet to play since being drafted third overall in 2014. Their fourth-best, Dario Saric, is still in Europe and has compelling financial reasons to stay there until 2017.
The new regime in Philly has done well to improve the franchise's condition in short order. Beyond Smith, the Sixers have added Elton Brand to act as a mentor to a roster of teenagers and undrafted misfits. Come June, the team could make serious hay on draft day.
But winning back the hearts and minds of disenchanted fans before then may be too tall an order for this all-time terrible team.
2. Phoenix, Returning to Ashes
Jeff Hornacek has a solution for what's ailing his setting Phoenix Suns.
"We need Ronnie Price effort every night," he said during the Suns' recent disastrous stint in L.A., per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.
If only Ronnie Price effort could wipe away all the bad luck and front-office blunders that have sunk Phoenix in the wake of the team's surprising 48-win campaign in 2013-14.
Since then, general manager Ryan McDonough has shuffled and reshuffled his squad's deck with disastrous results. This past summer, he swung for the fences, signing Tyson Chandler and trading Marcus Morris in hopes of luring LaMarcus Aldridge to the Valley of the Sun.
Aldridge, of course, went to San Antonio. Without him, the Suns were left with an injury-prone 33-year-old blocking Alex Len's promising path to playing time and a disgruntled Markieff Morris, who inked a favorable extension with Phoenix in Sept. 2014 so he and his twin brother could stick together.
Now that Eric Bledsoe is back on the shelf after knee surgery, the team has turned its lonely eyes to Brandon Knight, on whom it spent the Lakers' lightly protected first-round pick last season and another $70 million over the summer.
"It feels like they’re always changing something," Goran Dragic, another of the Suns' former pawns, told Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee. "They’re not like Miami, San Antonio, those teams that are really loyal when they find something."
So far, their forays into uncharted territory have yielded little more than turnover on Hornacek's staff and a slide into Western Conference obscurity.
1. Bad Times in Brooklyn
Things have gone from bad to worse to cataclysmic for the Brooklyn Nets.
The team's power structure is in shambles now that owner Mikhail Prokhorov has fired head coach Lionel Hollins and demoted general manager Billy King, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. With Tony Brown stepping in for Hollins, the Nets are now on their fifth head coach since Prokhorov bought the team from Bruce Ratner in 2010.
Brown won't have much to work with as he attempts to drag Brooklyn out of its 10-27 ditch. Jarrett Jack is out for the year with a torn ACL, mere months after the team bought out Deron Williams' contract. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn's most (and maybe only) promising young player, fractured his ankle in early December. Joe Johnson, the last true vestige of the Nets' pseudo-contender adventurism, can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn (36.9 percent shooting from the field) at age 34.
Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young are both viable building blocks. But barring a big splash in free agency, it could be some time before sunny days return to Prokhorov's NBA enterprise. King's attempt to cobble together a contender, at Prokhorov's behest, cost the Nets nearly all of their best team-building assets; Brooklyn won't have complete control over a first-round pick until 2019 and will have to wait until 2021 to command its own second-rounder.
That's not much of a cupboard to leave behind for whoever is charged with cleaning up this mess, be it John Calipari—the top choice of Nets CEO Brett Yormark, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski—or another retread with a polished resume.
Brooklyn's latest shake-up will look like nothing more than expensive window dressing if Prokhorov reprises his previous approach to ownership beyond his chronic absenteeism. As NBA.com's David Aldridge wrote:
The Nets are fixable, if the owner comes to grips with reality. A new GM and/or coach will need time, with almost no Draft picks, to rebuild the roster. They will not need an impatient owner looking to make a short-term splash pressuring them to use even more future assets, or trying to compete with the Knicks, or doing anything other than taking a long-term approach.
Chasing the stars in his eyes is what got Prokhorov in this mess. He has to have clearer vision to start climbing out of the hole his franchise is in.
How much clearer can his vision really be if he only sees his team up close a few times each year?
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.