The NBA season is always filled with early-year surprises. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers led by Collin Sexton are currently sitting as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The always consistent Utah Jazz have won seven games in a row and were tied with the Clippers in the Western Conference standing at one point. Even the Knicks are sitting pretty as the eighth seed! There’s always unexpected events and performances that NBA fans simply don’t see coming. But with surprises, there are always disappointments as well. We’ll be looking into the four of the most disappointing teams in the NBA and why they’ve been struggling to start the season.
The Miami Heat
Fresh off an otherworldly playoff run that had them squaring off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have started off the season just 6-9 and have lost five of their last seven games. I wasn’t too high on Miami coming into the season, but I still thought they would easily be a playoff team. However, they’ve really struggled to start out the year and there are some controllable and uncontrollable issues that they need to solve quickly.
Covid-19: The Heat haven’t been the same ever since they lost their best player, Jimmy Butler, to the coronavirus. Butler has only played six games this season and even though he wasn’t spectacular (15.8 PPG on 52.9 TS%), he makes multiple plays per game that don’t show up on the statsheet and he’s a terrific defender. Miami has also missed guys like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro for a couple of games and has relied on guys like Gabe Vincent and Kelly Olynyk to play major minutes. Luka Doncic famously said at the beginning of the season that the team that stays the most cautious and protects themselves from the virus the best will have the most success, and so far that statement has held up.
Rebounding: Miami is getting slaughtered on the offensive and defensive glass, as they rank dead last in both total rebounds and offensive rebounds per game. They weren’t a great rebounding team last year but they weren’t the worst on the glass; they weren’t even bottom ten for that matter. Miami runs a relatively smaller lineup with Adebayo playing center and Olynyk playing power forward. This has caused some major issues, as Olynyk is mainly a perimeter player as a near seven footer, and Adebayo is only 6’9. This could be something that hurts them for the rest of the season or it could be something that could be fixed by having more players crash the glass.
Three Point Shooting: The Heat have been a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to perimeter shooting this season, as they rank fourteenth in for both 3PA per game and 3P%. They ranked fourth in terms of 3P% last year and that number has fallen off due to certain individual Heat players struggling from distance. Duncan Robinson has still been a flamethrower from long range, but his partner in crime Tyler Herro is only shooting 30% from long range this season. Goran Dragic has seen a slight decrease in percentage, Olynyk went from a 40% shooter to a 32% shooter, and Vincent is shooting a miserable 24% from distance. Miami needs these guys to pick it up, as their bubble run was primarily based on their ability to get scorching hot from three. I expect them to pick things up a little bit, but this is something worth monitoring.
Overall, I think it’s too early to give up on the Heat. They’ve been hit hard with coronavirus problems this year and have played more than half their games without their best player. Butler won’t solve all the issues they have (he certainly won’t solve their shooting woes), but his scoring punch and playmaking instincts should help them get back on track when he returns.
The Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors may not have had the best roster coming into this season, but their consistent regular season success had given me hope that this team could still be a high level playoff team. However, it’s evident now that the Raptors have not been the same without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol and there have been a multitude of other issues that have plagued them. I was high on the Raptors coming in for a variety of reasons but it’s clear that they have more problems than I realized and they may not have a lot of solutions.
Pascal Siakam: After a year where we saw Pascal Siakam win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, Siakam took another big step forward to become an All-Star and All-NBA teamer. He averaged 23 PPG on 45/36/79 shooting splits and helped Toronto to the second seed in the East. However, Siakam was absolutely terrible in the bubble setting and was a no-show in the playoffs. He was exposed for his lack of scoring versatility and teams were able to limit his effectiveness on the perimeter. I had hoped that this was perhaps an example of a young player not being able to handle a massive scoring load in the postseason, but his terrible play has continued in this regular season. He’s averaging just 19 PPG on 44/25/77 shooting splits and his defense hasn’t been up to par. He seems to have lost all of his confidence in himself. I really don’t know what you do if you’re the Raptors here. Perhaps you commit to VanVleet and Lowry as the two main scorers to simplify Siakam’s role? I really don’t know, but they need to figure things out quickly.
Half-Court Offense: When watching the Raptors, their brutal half-court offense is perhaps the reason why this team is a middle-of-the-pack squad. It starts with their complete lack of creativity. They abuse the pick ‘n’ roll, but they don’t have an efficient roll man to pair with their guards. Aron Baynes has been a nonfactor as a scorer and shooter and is very close to getting benched for Chris Boucher, their backup big. They also tend to settle for three-pointers a lot, hence why they’re second in threes attempted per game. And lastly, too often it seems as though they have one guy isoing and four other guys standing around. They don’t have any great isolation scorers, and it really shows. Their offense is going to need to improve if they want to make a run for the playoffs.
The Raptors have obviously not lived up to my expectations, but I have faith that they will turn it around. After a 1-5 start to the season, they’ve gone 6-4 in their last 10 games and have the 11th highest NET rating. These numbers suggest that despite their issues, the Raptors are a fairly good team. I think this team will gain momentum as they continue to gel and I think they finish somewhere in the 5-7 range in terms of seeding.
The Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards made a blockbuster deal this offseason to acquire NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook while giving up their former franchise player John Wall. After this deal was made, the Wizards started to gain a bit more hype as a potential playoff team. Adding Russell Westbrook to a squad that already had Bradley Beal alongside a surplus of contributing role players was bound to work, right? Not exactly. The Wizards have been atrocious so far with a 3-8 record and have looked like one of the worst teams in the league. But who’s to blame for this disaster? Well, I think everyone could use a bit of improvement, but there are specific things that must get better.
Coaching: Scott Brooks has been the Washington Wizards’ head coach since 2016. The Wizards, with Wall and Beal, had long been a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference team that was a threat to win a round or two, but nothing more. However, his tenure in D.C. could be over very soon if he doesn’t turn this team around. A coach is supposed to get the best out of their players, and it’s clear that Brooks can’t do that. Whether it’s his atrocious rotations, or their unbelievably bad defense, or their blown fourth quarter leads, he could perhaps be the root of a lot of their issues. If Washington is smart, they will get rid of Brooks as soon as possible and they need to look for a coach that can actually get the best out of this team. They have too much talent to be sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Defense: The phrase “defense wins championships” may not hold as much merit as it once did, but you still have to play defense to win games. Bradley Beal said the other day that the Wizards “couldn’t guard a parked car”, and he’s absolutely right. The Wizards are the 29th ranked defense in terms of defensive rating and they allow 121.3 PPG. The Wizards philosophy is to try to outscore you, but they don’t have the ridiculous offensive personnel to do that. They play at the highest pace in the league and shoot as many times as possible in order to make up for their lack of defense, but it doesn’t work. Beal himself certainly has to work harder on that side of the ball, but guys like Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, and Russell Westbrook also have to get better.
The Wizards actually have a really potent offense. They’re 6th in 3P%, 11th in TS%, and 3rd in PPG. They share the ball and generate open looks on the perimeter. But, they still aren’t good enough on that end to win by just scoring as many points as possible. The players clearly don’t respect the coaching staff enough to try on defense. The Wizards are not a lost cause but I don’t think they make the playoffs this year. Unless they fire Scott Brooks and bring in a good head coach, I don’t know if they turn things around. Their defense is just so bad and their offensive output isn’t making up for it at this point in time.
The New Orleans Pelicans
After a disappointing bubble performance from the Pelicans, they came into this season with expectations of a team that could make the playoffs, but were more likely to settle in as a play-in team. So far, they haven’t even been that. They just lost to the 4-11 Timberwolves and now sit as the 14th seed in the West (right in front of the Wolves). They’ve been massively disappointing so far and in the competitive Western Conference, they’re going to have to turn things around real quick if they want a shot. The problems are pretty clear in New Orleans. Some of them are (theoretically) easy fixes, but there are other concerns that may haunt them for the rest of the season if they don’t make changes.
Roster Construction: The Pelicans have two budding young stars in Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson that they tried to construct a good roster around. However, the fit of the starting lineup has proven to be horrible so far. It’s apparent that you need a floor spacing center around Zion Williamson, and Steven Adams is the complete opposite of that. Adams doesn’t space the floor and doesn’t protect the rim well enough at this point in time. Then, they acquired Eric Bledsoe who hasn’t actually been that bad from beyond the arc, but I’m not sure if that can continue for much longer. And Lonzo Ball has just been flat-out bad. There’s no spacing surrounding their two stars, and Zion especially needs shooters around him to be maximized. Neither him nor Ingram are the most portable players and when you surround them with inconsistent shooters like Ball and Bledsoe, the results aren’t going to be pretty.
Defensive Effort: The Pelicans rank 23rd in defensive rating and when you watch the games, it’s no secret as to why they’re so bad on the defensive end. They have two great perimeter defenders in Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe, a solid defensive big in Steven Adams, and a defensive-minded coach in Stan Van Gundy. So why are they this bad? Their lack of effort and intensity is killing them, particularly by Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Ingram has never been a terrific defender but he was at least serviceable last year due to his length and quickness at 6’10. However, he’s not exerting much energy defensively and will look lost at times. Williamson deals with the same issues, but to an even greater extent. He’s lazy on closeouts, unfocused off-ball, and unwilling to defend on-ball. This is a major issue, as he was projected to be a high level, All-Defensive caliber player coming out of college. I don’t know what’s happened in the NBA, but he needs to pick it up fast. Van Gundy even called the two of them out. He said “Some guys have to start taking individual responsibility here to come out and play hard. You can’t have the guy you’re playing against be playing harder than you on a consistent basis. Your best players have a responsibility to defend, play harder, and take care of the ball. I think these guys will turn it around. I have confidence in them. But I would say it’s more that I have faith in them because faith is a belief in things unseen.” This quote is clearly a shot at the former number one and number two overall picks. They need to be better on that side of the ball, and only they can unlock the tools to get better.
Offensive Function: The Pelicans rank 14th in FG%, 28th in 3P%, 25th in APG, 21st in TS%, and 19th in offensive rating. I talked about the roster construction earlier and these numbers only backup everything I’ve said. They lack shooters on the perimeter, they don’t share the ball well, and they aren’t a very efficient team. They have two go-to scorers with three below average offensive players that crowd the paint and miss open jumpers. In the modern NBA, that’s just not going to be a recipe for success. They need to look to trade Adams or Bledsoe for a legitimate shooter. Or perhaps they can start JJ Redick and have Bledsoe run the bench unit. Regardless of what they decide to do, they need to make a change to help maximize their two stars.
Time is running out for the New Orleans Pelicans. The West doesn’t wait for you to catch up. There are at least ten teams if not more that are chasing a playoff spot, and they are doing everything they can to make a run at a high seed. The Pelicans have the talent to at least be a play-in, but they aren’t executing on either side of the ball. Should the Pelicans just tank the rest of the year and make a run at a top pick next year? I’m really not sure, but they need to establish a sense of direction before it’s too late.
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