Nearly one month into the 2016-17 NBA season, here are 10 early disappointments that are worth keeping an eye on.
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Oct 20, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) drives past Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) during the first quarter of a basketball game at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA is one of the more predictable professional sports leagues, with the title contenders and bottom-feeders being fairly easy to peg entering each new season.
However, there’s always plenty of room for surprise over the course of an 82-game season, and each year there are both enjoyable cases of overachievement and unexpected disappointments to pour over.
Though we’re only three weeks into the season, several summer narratives and predictions already feel off-base. The Chicago Bulls are winning despite their lack of shooting, the Los Angeles Clippers have the best record in the NBA and the Los Angeles Lakers have a winning record 12 games in.
The pleasant surprises are easy to peg, however. The question is, after nearly a month of NBA action, which teams, players and coaches have been slight letdowns so far?
These early season trends are by no means guaranteed to continue throughout the 2016-17 season. They could just be a case of small sample size, injuries play a role in several of them, and in some situations, a rotation change could very easily set things back on the right course.
Sep 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons (25) during media day at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
This is one of the worst aspects of professional sports, and the start of the 2016-17 NBA season has been no different: Injuries to entertaining players keeping them off the floor and preventing their teams from reaching their fullest potential is always a downer.
Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons has yet to play a single NBA game due to a fractured bone in his foot, which will sideline him for 3-4 months and ensure the Philadelphia 76ers enter their third straight season with their top rookie being injured.
Khris Middleton may miss the entire year because of a hamstring injury, limiting the Milwaukee Bucks‘ ceiling before the season even started and prompting the front office to swing some early trades whose text equivalent would be a 2 a.m., “U up?”
Good win here for the Bucks as they move to 5-4. Anything above .500 is great for this team without Khris Middleton.
Jeremy Lin has only missed six games and was originally diagnosed with a two-week timetable before being reevaluated, but Linsanity being put on pause by a hamstring injury is obviously disappointing, especially since the Brooklyn Nets have been surprisingly competitive without him.
The Denver Nuggets‘ youngsters are taking their licks, but you never like to see them come in the form of something like Gary Harris‘ foot injury that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks.
Nov 11, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with guard Tony Parker (9) during the first half against the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
9. San Antonio’s Home Dominance
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs were an NBA-best 40-1 within the confines of the AT&T Center, tying the 1985-86 Boston Celtics for the best home record in NBA history. They beat teams by an average margin of 14 points per game, second to only the Golden State Warriors (+14.4).
This season, however, the Spurs have looked awfully mortal at home. Maybe it’s the absence of the greatest player in franchise history now that Tim Duncan is retired. Maybe it’s early injuries to Danny Green and Tony Parker. Or maybe it’s just an early season fluke that will correct itself as the season goes on, much like this one is starting to correct itself:
Despite some hiccups, Spurs currently have the No. 7 defense in the NBA. In first quarters at home, however, they rank dead last.
So far, however, you’d expect San Antonio’s immaculate road record (6-0) to be flipped with their paltry home record (3-3). Six games is a small sample size in either case, and the Spurs’ three home losses have come against the Jazz, Rockets and Clippers — three likely playoff teams. No one should be panicking about a 9-3 team.
But let’s not act like the Spurs posting a -1.3 point differential at home and almost dropping a fourth home contest to the lowly Miami Heat is in keeping with the status quo for Gregg Popovich and company.
Nov 16, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic (15) dunks the ball during the second half against the Phoenix Suns at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 120-104. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
8. Nikola Jokic
Coming off a remarkable first season in which he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, Nikola Jokic quickly overtook Emmanuel Mudiay as the likely cornerstone of the Denver Nuggets. So far in 2016-17, however, he’s teetered on the edge of the dreaded sophomore slump.
After averaging 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game as a rookie, Jokic’s numbers have dropped to 8.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, despite his playing time actually increasing from 21.7 minutes per game to 22.7 per game.
Watching DEN-PHX. Even at C, Jokic just hasn't looked as comfortable on D this season. Always love a Wilson Chandler outburst. Solid season
Jokic has mostly played out of position as a 4 alongside Jusuf Nurkic, and with Nurkic playing so well, Jokic asked head coach Michael Malone to come off the bench behind Kenneth Faried. His field goal percentage has dropped (51.2 percent as a rookie to 47.5 percent this year), as has his three-point percentage (33.3 percent to 20 percent).
This 21-year-old was a diamond in the rough last season, and it’s far too soon to say we jumped the gun on his future, let alone that he’s heading for a sophomore slump. But even if the Nuggets are trying to boost Faried’s trade value, it’s been a fairly underwhelming start for Jokic.
Nov 12, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague (44) dribbles the ball in the first half of the game against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 105 to 99. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
7. Jeff Teague
You could probably just change this one to “the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers” since they’ve been one of the East’s most disappointing teams, and, in defense of Jeff Teague, he’s been much better over the last few games.
Given that Teague was the most hyped summer acquisition for Paul George‘s squad, however, his paltry season averages of 14.4 points and 6.4 assists per game on abysmal .393/.273/.855 shooting splits have been disappointing to say the least.
Again, Teague has looked better of late. He’s posted 17.7 points and 6.0 assists per game on .500/.385/.938 shooting splits over the team’s last seven games, so perhaps his ugly numbers are just a byproduct of his rough start in October.
Paul George: “We’re all out of whack. There’s no trust, there’s no chemistry, there’s no belief. We’re kind of just lifeless right now.”
That being said, it’s hard to look at Teague — and the Pacers’ underwhelming 6-6 start — and NOT look back fondly on George Hill, especially now that he’s posted 20.4 points and 5.0 assists per game on .541/.432/.875 shooting splits in his seven appearances for the Utah Jazz.
Teague still has plenty of time to prove himself, but until Indiana proves its recent uptick in defensive efficiency is no mirage, he’ll continue to be the Pacers’ poster child for a possible summer gone wrong.
Oct 19, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes (40) lays on the floor during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
6. The Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki missing seven of his team’s first 10 games has undoubtedly played a factor in the Dallas Mavericks‘ ugly 2-8 start, and it’s probably the only reason we’re not ready to give up on a mastermind warlock like Rick Carlisle just yet.
That being said, the Mavs have some serious ground to make up in the playoff picture, and that’s assuming a 38-year-old in the twilight of his career can come back healthy and be more effective than he’s been in his first three games of the season (12.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 35.9 FG%, 28.6 3P%).
There’s no question a Mavericks legend like Dirk deserves a better career send-off than this. But even if he were healthy, injuries to Deron Williams and J.J. Barea have left Dallas shorthanded at the point guard position, Wesley Matthews is a shell of his former self and the Mavs just don’t have the same talent they’ve had in the past.
Harrison Barnes is quickly proving he’s capable of accepting more responsibility on the offensive end, proving a lot of naysayers wrong about how good he actually was with the Golden State Warriors. He’s averaging 22.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and has topped the 30-point mark three times already this season.
Unfortunately, Barnes’ career-best numbers haven’t prevented this disastrous start for the Mavs, and with their only wins on the season coming against the Lakers and Bucks, Dallas has been one of the biggest disappointments in the West.
Nov 16, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Serge Ibaka (7) points after he made a basket against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
5. Serge Ibaka
Take a look at Serge Ibaka‘s game log and you’ll notice a disturbing trend: Aside from a revenge game against his former team, the 27-year-old power forward’s output has continued its steady decline.
So far though, he’s averaging just 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game on 46.5 percent shooting from the field. He’s shooting 41.9 percent from three-point range, sure, but aside from that 31-point, nine-rebound, one-gamewinner explosion against OKC, Ibaka has failed to show much on a 5-7 team.
Ibaka no longer has Russell Westbrook to set him up, but he’s also not playing in his or Kevin Durant‘s shadow anymore. His steady, statistical decline has been a recurring trend since 2013-14, and though his numbers are slightly better than they were last year, what was supposed to be an expanded role has been shackled by Orlando’s frontcourt logjam.
With Ibaka set to hit free agency this upcoming summer and the Magic showing very little signs of being a playoff team in 2016-17, the Oladipo trade could quickly come back to haunt Orlando if an Ibaka extension can’t be reached.
Nov 12, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to his team in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center. The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
4. Prominent Head Coaches In New Situations
Over the summer, a number of high profile coaches were brought in to lead quite a few promising young rosters. But in an offseason that featured new jobs for Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks, Frank Vogel and Dave Joerger, it’s funny that guys like Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Hornacek and Kenny Atkinson have found more immediate success.
The New York Knicks and Houston Rockets have a decent amount of talent to work with, sure, but it’s been slightly disheartening to see the Washington Wizards stumble to 3-8 out of the gate under Brooks.
Frank Vogel can only do so much for such a mismanaged roster like the Orlando Magic‘s, but he hasn’t exactly installed an elite defense as expected, with his team ranking 15th in the association in defensive rating. Through 12 games, the Magic are 5-7 have surrendered exactly the same number of points per 100 possessions as they did last year: 104.6.
Most people predicted the Sacramento Kings would still be a dumpster fire outside of DeMarcus Cousins, so we have to cut Joerger some slack for his team’s 4-8 record given his impossible task.
However, the so-called best hire of the summer — Tom Thibodeau joining the Minnesota Timberwolves — has gotten off to a bit of a bumpy start at 4-7. Known for his defensive mind, Thibs’ new team ranks 25th in the NBA in defensive rating, hemorrhaging 105.9 points per 100 possessions.
They’ve been an elite offense, but the young Timberpups have the personnel to be a far better defense despite their youth. They’ve given up quite a few double-digit leads, and they don’t look prepared to make the jump into the playoff picture as so many trendily predicted over the summer.
It’s still extremely early in the season, of course, but it’s interesting how the more unheralded hires of the summer — D’Antoni, Hornacek and Atkinson in particular — are the ones boasting the best early returns.
Nov 11, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) pushes the basket pads prior to the Wizards’ game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Verizon Center. The Cavaliers won 105-94. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
3. The Washington Wizards
At 3-8, the Washington Wizards are even more disappointing so far than they were last season, when they finished with a 41-41 record and missed the playoffs as the 10th best team in the East.
Under new head coach Scott Brooks, and with Bradley Beal sporting a freshly inked, $128 million deal spread over five years, playoffs were the expectation for D.C.’s basketball team. So far, all we’ve learned is John Wall deserves to be right below Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins on the list of NBA superstars we feel most sorry for.
But as we’re feeling sorry for Wall being unable to carry this lackluster team, we should also send some love to those poor Wizards fans who actually have to watch this team play:
Washington is 3-3 at home, but 0-5 on the road. They’re being outscored by 3.5 points per game, they rank 19th in offensive efficiency and they rank 25th in defensive efficiency.
Despite Wall averaging 22.9 points, 8.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, and despite Otto Porter Jr. enjoying a breakout year at 15.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on .522/.395/.800 shooting splits, the Wizards are as helpless as ever.
Beal is banged up (what else is new?), Markieff Morris hasn’t been the difference-maker the front office thought he’d be when they first traded for him, and despite solid numbers from Marcin Gortat, a knee injury to free agency acquisition Ian Mahinmi has deprived Washington of a defensive rim protector. All in all, the Wizards are the most disappointing team in the East so far.
Oct 15, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) and Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) and guard Avery Bradley (0) battle for a loose ball during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
2. The Boston Celtics’ Defense
There’s an obvious and perfectly valid excuse for the Boston Celtics‘ defense not being up to par: Two of their best starters, who just so happen to be two of the team’s three best defenders, have missed a combined 15 games.
That being said, even in the three games where Al Horford and Jae Crowder were both on the court, the Celtics surrendered 105.8 points per 100 possessions — good for 20th in the league in that admittedly short span of time.
As of right now, Boston’s defense has gotten slightly better, with the C’s giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions (17th in the NBA). To be fair, it appears as though they’re starting to turn things around on that end:
Considering their personnel and their fourth ranked offense last year, however, the Celtics were expected to compete with teams like the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets for the title of stingiest defense in the league.
Boston has plenty of time to right this ship, especially once they get their defensive anchor in Horford and their best wing defender in Crowder back. For now though, this shorthanded Celtics team is having to scrap for stops, which couldn’t be further from what was expected entering the season.
Nov 12, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) holds his back after hitting the floor during the third quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
1. Everything Involving The New Orleans Pelicans
Meet the Washington Wizards of the Western Conference, the New Orleans Pelicans — we thought they’d be good despite how disappointing they were last season, and so far in 2016-17, the bar has been set even lower.
Even with Anthony Davis’ gaudy averages of 30.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 1.9 steals and 1.7 assists per game, the Pellies have won only two of their first 12 contests, and those two lonely victories came against the Milwaukee Bucks and shorthanded Boston Celtics.
Through the first three-plus weeks of the new season, we’ve seen the Brow do some incredible things. He dropped a 50-15-5-5-4 stat line in the season opener…and the Pelicans lost. He put up 45 points and 17 boards on the Golden State Warriors…and the Pelicans lost. He dropped 35 and 15 on Milwaukee and lost, 34 on Sacramento and lost, and another 34 on the Los Angeles Lakers…and lost that one by 27.
Aside from the front office being clueless as to how to build around a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, the Pelicans have had poor injury luck too. With Tyreke Evans still injured and Jrue Holiday barely considering a return to basketball now after tending to his wife over the summer (as he should, since that’s more important than any game), New Orleans’ backcourt has left much to be desired.
No offense to Tim Frazier, but if Tim Frazier is your starting point guard, you’re probably not going to win many games in this league.
Rookie Buddy Hield has been a bright spot off the bench, but even he can’t distract from the team’s 27th ranked offense, how miserably disappointing Solomon Hill has been, or the fact that the dreadful Omer Asik is still owed $31.8 million over the next three years (plus a $12 million player option for the fourth year).