Early Season Panic Meter: The Most Disappointing Starts in 2018-19 Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 25, 2018

Early Season Panic Meter: The Most Disappointing Starts in 2018-19 Season

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    Overreacting to the start of the 2018-19 NBA season is fine so long as we admit knee-jerk takes are fragile and subject to abrupt reversals.

    No one's hiding any intentions here. The regular season is in its infancy. Reading too much into four- or five-game samples is an amateur's exercise. But voicing our doubts and fears is not taboo, especially for teams who are supposed to better than they appear at the moment. 

    Certain slow starts demand across-the-board suspicion. Others are limited to singular, impactful glitches. 

    Our job is to identify why these letdowns exist at all, and whether they're drawbacks or full-on failures that warrant large-scale concern.

Boston Celtics

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    So much for the Boston Celtics cruising their way to the NBA Finals following LeBron James' relocation to Los Angeles.

    The early returns are not discouraging enough to forecast the Celtics' imminent doom. They remain new to each other.

    Gordon Hayward is fewer than 10 games into his Celtics tenure and remains on a maintenance program. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are still kids, something largely forgotten in the wake of their postseason breakouts last year. Kyrie Irving is not used to shape-shifting offensive roles on a night-to-night basis.

    Boston isn't a case study in your-turn, my-turn effectiveness. It has five to six players who can legitimately take over a game on their own.

    Nearly all of the Celtics' issues lie on offense, which is encouraging. Scoring is easier than defending at a high level. They will bounce back. Some of their offensive struggles are too egregious not to normalize.

    The Celtics are 24th in accuracy around the rim and 26th in three-point percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. Brown, Irving, Tatum and Al Horford are all canning less than 34 percent of their long-range attempts. Boston is dead last in free-throw-attempt rate and is once again turning the ball over at an unsettling clip. Brown, Irving and Terry Rozier are shooting a combined 14-of-59 on pull-up jumpers (23.7 percent). 

    Most telling: Boston's vaunted starting five has mustered a nightmarish 88.1 points per 100 possessions in limited action. That won't hold.

    The Celtics might be a touch overrated. They won't run away with the East. Growing pains won't let them, and head coach Brad Stevens is charged with juggling a rotation that may demand too much egalitarianism. 

    But the offense will be fine. Boston has too much talent to be a below-average dud. Hayward's form is coming along nicely, and the execution should improve once his mobility catches up and this group gets more full-strength reps.

    Avoid cobbling together Hayward- or Irving-headlined trade proposals unless the Celtics are still stumbling about come December.

    Panic Meter: Barely active

Houston Rockets

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    Writing off the Houston Rockets' underwhelming start as nothing more than a temporary hiccup is perfectly fine.

    They ran into a buzzsaw on opening night—aka the New Orleans Pelicans' still-league-best offense—while nailing only six of their 22 wide-open three-point looks. They didn't have Chris Paul for their loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday or Utah Jazz on Wednesday. Eric Gordon will shoot better around the basket and from beyond the arc. Carmelo Anthony shouldn't be Michael Carter-Williams-esque on offense forever.

    Reconciling the Rockets' defensive warts is far more difficult. They've played two of the NBA's 10 best offenses—Lakers and Pelicans—but look ill-equipped to rival, let alone match, last year's top-seven finish in points allowed per 100 possessions.

    Only three teams are coughing up more points off turnovers, and no squad is surrendering more scores in the paint. The latter was an issue last year, but not nearly to the same degree. Only the Sacramento Kings are giving up attempts at the rim with greater frequency, and the Rockets are 30th in overall protection around the basket, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Leaning on three-guard lineups can have this effect. Playing two wings with Clint Capela has helped but isn't style-proof. PJ-Tucker-at-the-5 units have thus far crumbled on defense. 

    Losing both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute threatened to dampen Houston's switchability. Their absences already loom large.

    The Rockets have the utility to escape the bottom 10 and perhaps creep closer, if not above, the league average. Capela, Carter-Williams, Paul, Tucker and James Ennis assure them of that much. But they won't enjoy last season's lineup flexibility without striking gold on the trade or buyout market.

    Panic Meter: Modestly high

Los Angeles Lakers

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    LeBron James isn't sweating the Lakers' hard-knocks opening to the season.

    "It's all about the end game," he told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "I want what's best for this team, and it takes going through some ups and downs. I know what I signed up for. This was all expected. I'm up for the task."

    Patience has never been James' strong suit. This project in Los Angeles feels different because the Lakers didn't sell off their youth upon signing him. He can't possibly expect instant success while surrounded by so many sophomore and third-year players. 

    To the Lakers' credit, they began 2018-19 by facing three of the league's top 11 offenses—the Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. Los Angeles lost all three games but wasn't blown out in any of them and took care of business Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns. If they weren't one of the NBA's worst three-point and free-throw shooting teams, the Lakers wouldn't have so much action in the loss column.

    However, they are struggling to find nylon from deep and the charity stripe. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder are shooting a lower percentage from distance, and the Lakers are putting in fewer than 70 percent of their foul-line attempts (24th).

    A LeBron-led team should not be swishing an unimpressive number of its wide-open threes or placing 29th in catch-and-fire effective field-goal percentage. And while head coach Luke Walton is free to bemoan the officiating all he wants, JaVale McGee cannot be one of Los Angeles' five most accurate free-throw shooters.

    On the bright side, the Lakers are not a complete disappointment on offense. They're treading water inside the top 10 of offensive efficiency. Lonzo Ball isn't hesitant to fire away from deep, and Josh Hart is an offensive treasure. At least two of James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma should inevitably bolster their three-point marks.

    Improvement has to come there because the Lakers don't profile as a much better defensive team. They're too small to curb volume around the rim, and their manic help defense has opened the floodgates from behind the rainbow. They have not shown an enthusiasm for getting back in transition after turnovers, and James-Kuzma frontcourts are hemorrhaging points.

    Los Angeles could be in line for minor upticks somewhere. James-Kuzma-McGee arrangements would arm them with the size to fight on the glass and, long term, shouldn't jeopardize the offense's mojo.

    Looking at the roster, though, the defense sort of is what it is. And given the razor-thin margin for error in the Western Conference, that's enough to wonder how much longer James and the Lakers will embrace the patience and process cards.

    Panic Meter: Lottery watch

Philadelphia 76ers

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    There should a push to exclude the Philadelphia 76ers. Getting blown out by the Celtics in their season-opener is forgivable, and they didn't have Simmons (back) for their loss to the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday or most of their close call against the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

    Still, the variance with which the Sixers play is frustrating. Blowing a 14-point lead against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday is less pardonable. They're trying to straddle contention with the big picture, but the inability to favor one approach has created an awkward product.

    Breaking up last year's starting five, perhaps the league's best high-usage lineup, is admirable in many ways. It suggests a commitment to Markelle Fultz's development and acts as a vote of confidence.

    Yet, the Sixers have yet to make a full-fledged investment in his learning curve. They have not used his ball-handling to appreciably bump up their pick-and-roll volume, and pulling him for JJ Redick at halftime while leaving him on the bench during crunch time sabotages whatever faith they've shown in him.

    This wouldn't be a big deal if the Sixers were humming on all cylinders. They're not. They're hovering around the middle of the pack at both ends of the floor. They aren't reaching the rim as frequently, and they're again punting on corner threes. Milking Simmons, Joel Embiid post-ups and Redick dribble handoffs won't get them too far.

    Things might turn. Opponents are shooting 43.4 percent against them on non-corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass. That won't hold. And the Sixers are still whizzes at coaxing rival offenses into junky pull-up jumpers.

    Offensive gains are harder to envision with the current rotation. A healthy Wilson Chandler will increase the Sixers' depth, but they'll be more shallow than not unless Fultz finds his footing without strings attached. It'd be great if Embiid and Dario Saric could start converting some of their threes, too.

    Panic Meter: Relatively low, but on the cusp of climbing higher

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Oklahoma City has a mess of built-in excuses after dropping its first three games of the year. 

    Russell Westbrook missed the first two tilts, one of which came against the Golden State Warriors and didn't end in a top-down romp. Falling to the Kings is usually inexcusable, but it was Westbrook's season debut and both De'Aaron Fox and Iman Shumpert went boom.

    Granting the Thunder a grace period does not override onset concern. The offense has not looked good, or even close to good.

    Spacing remains a red flag. Their volume is where it needs to be, but they're last in three-point efficiency and are shooting worse on uncontested opportunities. Paul George and Dennis Schroder need to ditch the long twos. And as The Ringer's Dan Devine explained, half-baked offense against the Kings isn't something Oklahoma City can just ignore:

    "The Thunder's effectiveness there improved with Westbrook's return Sunday, as they came in at 107.1 points per 100 against the Kings. But even that barely got the Thunder out of the bottom third of the league on the offensive efficiency charts on the young season. In that game, Oklahoma City also missed 30 of its 39 3-point attempts, and non-Westbrook-and-George Thunderers shot a combined 23-for-63 (36.5 percent) from the floor. Again: This came against a Kings team that had opened the season allowing 123 points on 51.9 percent shooting to the Jazz, and an eyeball-emoji-inducing 149 on 58.9 percent shooting to the Pelicans."

    Paul George will find his sweet spot. Alex Abrines should, too. The rest of the roster is stocked with non-shooters and wild cards.

    Trading Carmelo Anthony was probably the right move, but Oklahoma City doesn't have proven alternatives in place. Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo are young and raw. Patrick Patterson doesn't look like the same offensive player. Jerami Grant may never consistently expand his game. Abrines isn't much of an asset when his three-pointers aren't falling. 

    Using the defense as a crutch won't work this time. Until Andre Roberson returns, the Thunder don't have the stopping-power juice to maximize winning ugly. Their pursuit of offensive boards hurts their ability to ward off transition attacks, and they're fouling in excess. Failure to scrounge up more offensive range could put this team in the lottery-watch boat.

    Panic Meter: High-ish alert

Utah Jazz

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    Good luck walking away from the Jazz's start to the season with a semblance of clarity. They sputtered from the jump before escaping with a win against the pesky Kings to open the year. Then they waged a frenetic shootout with the Warriors and almost won, only to get noticeably out-uglied by the Memphis Grizzlies.

    So, um, what gives? For the most part, the offense.

    True, the defense has been less than fine. The Jazz were 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions before their win over Houston on Wednesday. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They finished atop the league in defensive rating last year, and not much has changed. They're vulnerable against teams with centers who can rip Rudy Gobert outside the paint, but they're forcing the right shots. More than 45 percent of their opponents' attempts are coming inside the arc and away from the rim, per Cleaning the Glass.

    Trusting the offense to stabilize takes a larger leap of faith. Utah entered the season with questions about its viability. Donovan Mitchell is the lone go-to shot creator. A clear No. 2 has yet to emerge. Dante Exum is second on the team in usage. Neither Joe Ingles nor Ricky Rubio is in the top five.

    Mitchell's own struggles have only complicated matters.  His volume around the rim has almost been cut in half, and his three-point splits are cratering. He's shooting under 32 percent on both drives and pull-up jumpers.

    Utah's starting five is suffering from a case of early-2017-18-itis. Among every lineup that has cleared at least 25 total minutes, the combination of Gobert, Ingles, Mitchell, Rubio and Derrick Favors ranks dead last in offensive efficiency. Subbing in Jae Crowder for Favors has helped alleviate the lifelessness but not without defensive concession.

    Losing a little bit of sleep over the Jazz's trippy beginnings is permitted. They were billed as a possible contender for the West's No. 2 seed. But don't overindulge doubt. This team is deep and resourceful and has the infrastructure to withstand initial bumps and bruises. Mitchell might've turned a corner with his detonation against Houston on Wednesday.

    Remember: The Jazz fell to 19-28 last year before closing the season on a tear. Generating offense in gobs will be an interminable struggle, but they have the depth to stave off bottom-10 vibes, and their defense will eventually revert to the mean.

    Panic Meter: On standby 

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Oct. 24. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.