NBA Panic Meter: Which Teams Can Turn Around Their Disappointing Starts?
Despite no longer being the consensus title favorite, the Golden State Warriors remain one of the most discussed teams in the NBA. However, the discussions around them now revolve around an unfortunate slew of injuries that have set the stage for a depressing first season at the Chase Center.
The Warriors are far from the only team to stumble out of the gates in the 2019-20 NBA season.
For various reasons, numerous teams start slowly every year. Some soon shake off their early-season blues, but others never seem to transcend it, settling in for disappointment-filled campaigns.
If you're a fan of one of the following teams, you may be concerned about their rocky start. Should you panic, or should you take it easy? Let's talk through that here.
Fans of the Boston Celtics are likely loving the past few weeks of Brooklyn Nets basketball.
Kyrie Irving has been marvelous offensively, but the Nets have been below average on the other end of the court, ranking 18th in defensive rating. In addition, ESPN's Jackie MacMullan recently reported that Irving's mood swings are already of concern to Nets officials not even one month into his tenure with the team.
However, let's take a step back before panicking.
First, the Nets haven't played even 10 games yet, and they're trying to integrate five new rotation members—Irving, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple and David Nwaba. Developing chemistry takes time, and we should give head coach Kenny Atkinson a few more months to figure out his rotations and tactical systems before sounding any alarms.
Additionally, no team is going to give up 120 points per game for an entire season, even if pace continues to increase leaguewide. Besides, the Nets have a handful of good defenders between Prince, Temple, Nwaba and Caris LeVert on the perimeter to Jordan and Jarrett Allen protecting the rim.
Yes, they gave up 134 points to a rebuilding Grizzlies team and 113 points to a Blake Griffin- and Derrick Rose-less Detroit Pistons club, but regression to the mean is almost inevitable, especially when they play hapless offenses like Chicago, Charlotte, Sacramento, New York and Cleveland over the next month.
Panic Meter: Low
For the first time in several years, the Chicago Bulls had a productive offseason. They brought in competent veterans like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky and drafted sparkplug scorer Coby White. That gave Chicago a 10-man rotation filled with NBA-caliber players, which is enough to set postseason expectations in the Eastern Conference.
While some Bulls have played well so far—notably second-year center Wendell Carter Jr., who's averaging 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game—this season has otherwise not gone according to plan.
White has been predictably streaky, and third-year big man Lauri Markkanen has also been inconsistent. Otto Porter Jr. is slumping hard, shooting only 38.5 percent from the floor, and Satoransky isn't much better at 39.1 percent, though he's at least been decent as a lead ball-handler.
Porter and Markkanen could regress positively to the mean, but offensive struggles are from the Bulls' only concern. Out of their six losses, five have been ugly. They've already lost to the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, scored 95 points against an Indiana Pacers team without Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and blown a 19-point lead at home to the Los Angeles Lakers.
If the Bulls can't handle their business against less talented teams, it will spell doom for their playoff hopes.
Panic Meter: Moderate to high
Golden State Warriors
The phrase "life comes at you fast" was invented long ago, but it rarely has been as apt as it is right now regarding the Golden State Warriors.
Five months ago, they were in their fifth straight NBA Finals, competing for their fourth title in that time span. Since then, Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles and left in free agency, Klay Thompson tore his ACL, Andre Iguodala was traded, Stephen Curry broke his hand, Draymond Green suffered a torn ligament in his left index finger and Kevon Looney is out indefinitely because of a nerve issue.
The Warriors' starting point guard is now Ky Bowman, which is a name that sounds like it came straight from the 2K auto-generator. Their starting 2-guard is rookie Jordan Poole, who's shooting a robust 26.9 percent from the field. They've given up at least 120 points in five of seven games this year.
Considering Curry is expected to be out for at least three months, the Warriors should dedicate this year to player development and boosting D'Angelo Russell's trade value. Russell and Green are good enough to win this team some games, and Eric Paschall might even be a dark-horse All-Rookie candidate.
But Warriors fans better start watching James Wiseman, Deni Avdija and other top prospects, because this team isn't making the playoffs.
Panic Level: Very high
Well, it's not a total disaster like some thought it could be, but the first two weeks of Houston Rockets basketball have been concerning.
Their defense has been as porous as it gets. They gave up a staggering 158 points to, of all teams, the Washington Wizards and rank last in opponents' field-goal percentage. On the personnel side, role players such as Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers have struggled, shooting 23.3 and 32.0 percent from three, respectively.
However, there's one key reason the Rockets are bound to turn the corner soon: James Harden.
The seven-time All-Star has been ice cold to start the year, shooting just 38.1 percent from the field and a cringeworthy 25.3 percent from three on nearly 14 attempts per game. He's somehow averaging even more points than he did last year, a testament to his machine-like ability to draw fouls whenever he pleases.
But we've all seen the Beard play these past few seasons. He's going to catch fire at some point, and precious few defenders will be able to slow him down when that happens.
Combine Harden's return to normalcy with similar improvement from Gordon and the continued integration of Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets will be right back where they belong in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Worry about whether they can win the title, not if they'll entertain trading Westbrook in July. One concern is reasonable, and the other is a fool's errand.
Panic Level: Low to moderate
New Orleans Pelicans
The post-Anthony Davis era in New Orleans has been rough thus far. Alvin Gentry's club is 1-6 and already dealing with injuries to key players. Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and prized prospect Zion Williamson have already each missed multiple games with knee ailments.
However, it's for exactly that reason that Pelicans fans should not begin fretting just yet.
New Orleans ranks 21st in net rating, sandwiched between the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic. That's certainly not great, but it suggests they are far from the worst team in the league.
Plus, those aforementioned injuries have led to breakthroughs from several important players. Most notably, Brandon Ingram might finally have arrived, as he's averaging 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists, a stat line matched only by one-name megastars: Giannis, LeBron, Luka and Kawhi.
But Ingram isn't the only player on the rise. Lonzo Ball is up to his usual tricks, running the offense effectively and serving a disruptive defender, but he's also putting a revamped shooting stroke to good use by recording a career-best 38.6 three-point percentage.
The Pelicans shouldn't worry too much. Not only have most of their losses come in close games to better teams, but they've also got a future megastar of their own on the way. Putting Zion into this offense to catch lobs from Lonzo and play alongside a future All-Star in Ingram is a recipe for success, no matter what.
This rough start could hinder their playoff chances, but the long-term plan remains right on schedule.
Panic Meter: Very low
After a surprising playoff berth, expectations were high for the Orlando Magic coming into this year. ESPN's Kevin Pelton even projected them to be the fourth seed in the East, which set a rather lofty bar.
Fourth place is a million miles away from Disney World right now.
Other than a 30-point blowout at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, none of Orlando's losses thus far have been egregious. But further analysis tells a different story. The Magic have the worst offensive rating in the league, and Markelle Fultz is the only rotation player shooting better than 45 percent from the field.
Yes, the 2017 top pick is back. And though Fultz is nowhere close to his predraft hype, it's thrilling to watch him on the court again.
But other than Fultz, most of Orlando's key players have regressed. Fresh off his first All-Star appearance and a nine-figure extension, Nikola Vucevic has played significantly worse than he did in his breakthrough campaign. Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba have all struggled, as well.
The Magic aren't at DEFCON 1 just yet.
Some of the stats (Vucevic shooting 19.2 percent from three and Ross shooting just 28.2 percent from the field) are so rough they are virtually guaranteed to spike. But Orlando's lack of a true point guard has always been an issue, even last year. Unless Fultz can continue improving, the Magic may have a hard time finding their way back to late-April basketball.
Panic Meter: Moderate
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were a logical candidate to regress. They lost several key role players and replaced them with Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver.
Somehow, it's gotten even worse since then.
Portland began this season with Zach Collins as its starting power forward even though he is a natural center. That was a bit of a stretch, but he was also far and away the best option. However, Collins is now out at least four months after separating his left shoulder, and the Blazers will have to make do with a combination of Tolliver, Hezonja, Skal Labissiere and maybe even Nassir Little at the 4.
That may be the worst position group in the NBA, and it serves as a symbol for how alarmingly shallow the Blazers' bench is. Sophomore guard Anfernee Simons is proving a quality contributor, but Bazemore is shooting just 36.4 percent from the field, and Tolliver is even worse. Labissiere and Hezonja are not to be trusted, either.
It feels like we say this every year, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will have to shoulder an immense load for this Portland team to contend, even more so than in previous seasons.
Of course, Lillard has thrived historically when his teams are counted out, and that is the single best reason not to remove the Blazers from the playoff picture. But this year might have to be his magnum opus.
Panic Meter: Moderate to high
Much like the Orlando Magic, the Sacramento Kings vastly outperformed expectations last year, so they were penciled in as a potential playoff team for the 2019-20 season.
But the current Kings look much more like the Kings of old so far this year. They lost two of their first three games by 29 and 32 points, and they are already dealing with injuries to Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. They rank 26th in assists per game, and sixth man Bogdan Bogdanovic might be unhappy with his role.
Insert the "this is fine" meme here.
There were signs the Kings punched above their weight last year. For instance, they had a negative net rating and ranked near the bottom of most every half-court offensive efficiency metric. Those issues were pushed to the side in 2018-19, but they are re-emerging. Sacramento ranks in the 11th percentile in isolation and in the 14th percentile shooting off screens this season.
Yes, those numbers are as bad as you might think.
The Kings shouldn't be written off this early. De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are electric, and Bagley's fractured right thumb should not keep him out for too long or prevent him from making a leap in his second year.
But standout individual play does not equate to well-run offense, and the latter will decide how Sacramento fares this year.
Panic Meter: Moderate