NBA Teams That Will Fall Below Expectations in 2018-19
Optimism has a tendency to snowball over the NBA offseason.
For the most part, that's a good thing. It makes every fanbase feel like it has a chance—or at least a reason to get excited—and virtually ensures that every season hits the ground running.
But believe it or not, we can all get a little carried away at times. And no, we're not talking about firing up the #HotTake cannon and getting the social media world riled up.
The problems occur when teams are tagged with unreasonable expectations. If you think a non-contender has a realistic chance at the crown, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment.
We're getting ahead of any potential complications by serving doses of realism to five fanbases who probably want more than their clubs are capable of providing.
The Charlotte Hornets are paying at least $120.2 million for next season's roster. Two of their most significant summer additions were a 64-year-old executive (Mitch Kupchak) and a 36-year-old point guard (Tony Parker). They've given every indication they'll keep Kemba Walker through his final contracted season, which means risking losing their lone All-Star for nothing next summer.
The Hornets are apparently all-in on the 2018-19 season. But why? What makes this group any different from the ones who finished the past two campaigns with identical 36-46 records?
Dwight Howard is gone, and maybe they can reasonably expect a positive chemistry bump. Then again, he was also their leading rebounder and shot-blocker and No. 2 scorer last season. That's tangible production that must be replaced, and please forgive us for not thinking Bismack Biyombo will be up to that task.
There's better depth behind Walker (in addition to signing Parker, they drafted Devonte' Graham), but good luck finding a squad crediting a playoff trip to its backup point guard. If Parker and/or Graham are logging major minutes, something probably went horribly wrong. The former last had an average player efficiency rating in 2015-16, and the latter just shot 40.0 percent from the field against collegiate defenders.
Rookie Miles Bridges should help, but he looks more like a complementary piece than someone capable of sharing the spotlight with Walker. Maybe the players will respond to hearing a new voice in the locker room, but Charlotte is still moving from a proven commodity (Steve Clifford) to someone with 30 games of NBA head coaching experience (James Borrego).
There's enough talent to complete for a playoff spot in the watered-down Eastern Conference, but that's been true for some time. Besides, if you look at the cost and composition of this roster, you'd see that a brief postseason appearance wouldn't satisfy internal hopes.
Los Angeles Lakers
Imagine an alternate universe where the Los Angeles Lakers can afford to practice patience. Where signing LeBron James doesn't require using the championship-or-bust grading scale on the upcoming season. Where more immediate goals of player and chemistry development serve as smaller positive steps before the franchise seeks out its championship difference-maker next summer.
Sounds serene, doesn't it? Oh well, we know that's not how the Purple and Gold operate.
"There is one goal, and we've talked about that: It's to win a championship, and we're going to play for that this year," general manager Rob Pelinka said on ESPN LA 710, via Silver Screen and Roll's Christian Rivas.
Look, we've all seen LeBron work miracles before, but even the King has his limits.
While he's been to the Finals nine times, he's had at least one All-Star alongside him in seven of those runs. (Five times, he had two supporting stars.) The Lakers can't even give him a 17-points-per-game scorer. He's done his best work recently when surrounded by shooters. L.A. was last season's second-worst club in three-point shooting accuracy and basically neglected that issue all summer.
Plus, let's not undersell the challenge of moving from the East to the West. James rarely met resistance in the Association's lesser half. Now, his playoff route could include three of Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah or several other heavyweights just to reach the championship round.
That's why he and this team deserve time to figure this out and try to make things work. But when the Lakers themselves are accelerating expectations, you can see the challenges awaiting James and Co.
Portland Trail Blazers
Regression has long threatened the Portland Trail Blazers.
Their 49-win breakout in 2017-18 probably wasn't what it seemed. Even though they had the West's third-most victories, they ranked eighth among their conference foes in net efficiency (plus-1.9, 11th overall). They were the only squad swept out of the first round, and those four defeats pushed Portland's playoff losing streak to a whopping 10 games.
They have one of the Association's premier scoring backcourts in Damian Lillard (26.9 points per game) and CJ McCollum (21.4). But other elite (or even near-elite) strengths are hard to find, which is troubling when several major weaknesses are glaring.
Their forward rotation underwhelms at both ends. Their most expensive big man plays a throwback style and might be unusable against the West's best playoff lineups (Jusuf Nurkic). Their best big man might be a youngster blocked by the aforementioned expensive antique (Zach Collins). Even the Lillard-McCollum tandem could be fatally flawed, as it offers the resistance of a wet paper bag on defense.
Portland had a mostly sleepy summer. Its biggest investment came in-house via a $48 million commitment to Nurkic. Its biggest subtraction was high-energy reserve Ed Davis, whose departure is probably notable only if it rubbed Lillard and/or McCollum the wrong way. The draft-night arrivals of Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. potentially add more shooting but do nothing to correct the roster imbalance.
Maybe this has all dimmed expectations for most regarding the Blazers, but that sentiment doesn't seem to be shared within the organization. If they aren't looking to build off last season's success, then why keep the Lillard-McCollum backcourt intact and sign off on a $131.6 million payroll?
San Antonio Spurs
It's impossible to label the San Antonio Spurs as vulnerable when DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Gregg Popovich still form a decorated trio.
But this is no longer an indestructible machine. If you thought the Spurs were perhaps immortal, the offseason exodus of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kyle Anderson debunked that myth.
"The Spurs will be fine, but they figure to be nothing more than that," Tom Haberstroh wrote for Bleacher Report.
That feeling won't be echoed in the Alamo City. The fans will look at last season's 47 victories and think the Spurs are sure to win more when Leonard barely had a hand in that total and DeRozan should be a massive factor in the next one.
But San Antonio's defense will struggle to match that group's fourth-placed finish.
Even if you ignore Leonard, you still lost two disruptive, versatile stoppers in Green and Anderson. DeRozan, meanwhile, is dreadful on that end (83rd among shooting guards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus), and there are obvious questions about versatility (or a lack thereof) with Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Jakob Poeltl factoring into the frontcourt rotation.
Plus, the offense looks claustrophobic. If the Spurs trot out an opening lineup of DeRozan, Aldridge, Gasol, Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gay, they wouldn't have a steady three-point threat in the mix. Three are sub-32 percent shooters for their career, Gasol rarely takes them (173 makes in 1,196 games) and Gay doesn't wow with volume (career 1.0 per game) or efficiency (34.3).
Check out this quote from Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.
"We have been doing this for how many years? You can't keep doing the same thing over and over," he said, via NBA.com.
Sounds dire, right? Here's the thing—the Raptors have gone 166-80 since the start of 2015-16. That's the third-best record in basketball over that stretch and tops in the Eastern Conference. And Ujiri is saying the Raptors can't keep doing the same thing over and over.
Granted, Toronto had some trouble translating those wins into postseason triumphs. The organization has yet to make its first NBA Finals appearance and last made the conference finals in 2016. But the Raptors' biggest roadblock was James, and now that he's out of the picture, maybe they could've corrected their own shortcomings.
That's not the path they took. They gave themselves one year—and quite possibly nothing more—to plot a championship path with Kawhi Leonard at the helm.
Never mind that Leonard hasn't been healthy for a year and might have an eye on Los Angeles. Or the chemistry risks stemming from the sacrifice of an organizational icon like DeMar DeRozan. Or the fact that this make-or-break season will be Nick Nurse's first as an NBA head coach. Or that the frontcourt still looks light on shooting and distributing. Or that Danny Green hasn't had an average PER in three years.
Maybe this all breaks exactly how it needs to. If Leonard is healthy, he's a top-five talent, and Toronto might have enough around him to finally escape the East.
But there's too much risk for us to see a best-case-scenario season awaiting the Raptors, and anything less will fall shy of their astronomic ambitions.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.