The NBA season is less that 2 months old. Is it too early to panic? For struggling teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and LA Clippers, losing streaks and injuries have seriously dampened hopes at a playoff run.
And although it may be just a matter of time until talented teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards rise in the standings, the current forecast is looking cloudy for three teams projected to be top-four playoff seeds in 2017-18.
Here’s a look at five underperforming teams and where they fall on the panic meter one quarter into the season:
Panic level: 10 (out of 10)
A pretty good sign of panic is firing a head coach coming off a playoff berth in his rookie season on the bench. Goodbye, David Fizdale, the victim of an eight-game losing streak and a frosty relationship with franchise center Marc Gasol. Good luck, J.B. Bickerstaff, who now becomes the interim head coach of a team with major roster flaws and medical concerns.
Mike Conley, their max-salaried point guard, remains out indefinitely with Achilles soreness; the Grizzlies are 6-4 with Conley and 1-8 without him this season. Chandler Parsons, the max-salaried forward who has been productive but overpriced in a limited role this season, left Sunday’s loss to the Nets with soreness in his twice-surgically repaired right knee. Power forward JaMychal Green hasn’t been himself since returning from a high ankle sprain, as the Grizzlies have given up an alarming 113.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Tyreke Evans is the only healthy player on the roster who can create offense off the dribble. But the magnificent individual numbers he’s putting up in November (20.3 points per game, 52.0 field goal percentage) haven’t mattered.
Gasol provides a sliver of hope. Perhaps he’ll flourish after Fizdale’s firing, but make no mistake, the moody Gasol has been a major part of Memphis’ recent problems. His numbers during the losing streak (18.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game) look solid at first glance, but he’s shooting below 40 percent during that span and certainly hasn’t looked like a former Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol has a net rating of minus-13.7 during the skid; the Grizzlies have been plus-3.1 when he sits. Take that for data! — Tim MacMahon
Panic level: 7
If your starting lineup on Dec. 1 contains only one of your five opening-night starters, there’s good reason to panic. Patrick Beverley has been lost for the season. Blake Griffin appears headed for a two-month absence. Milos Teodosic won’t be back before Christmas and Danilo Gallinari‘s status is uncertain. The only true point guard on the roster is second-rounder Jawun Evans, and the Clippers’ most prolific scorers now are Lou Williams and Austin Rivers. There’s little in the way of roster flexibility, and the trade market for DeAndre Jordan may not be as fertile as the Clippers would like.
The current season is likely lost, but if you want to construct a case for the Clippers’ future, it might sound something like this: Once an industry laughingstock, the Clippers of the Blake Griffin era have established themselves as a competent organization in an attractive market led by a deep-pocketed owner, who is eager to invest in the kind of innovation and infrastructure the franchise had been deprived of for decades. The spreadsheet would be rosier had the Clippers not committed $44 million to Gallinari after this season, but should Jordan move on (or be moved on), the Clippers could enter a period soon where they can go shopping in the higher-priced emporium for the first time in a good while. — Kevin Arnovitz
Panic level: 5
The Thunder really shouldn’t be three games under .500 almost 20 games in. The metrics are weird, the close losses are perplexing and the eye test is inconclusive. Most expected the fit between Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony to take some work, but it’s been far rougher around the edges. With the inconsistencies prevailing more than a month in, the grace of “it’s still early” is starting to wear off.
The Thunder have real offensive issues, namely that they isolate far too much and take far too many midrange 2-pointers out of those isolations. Their free throw rate has suffered as a result, which all directly connects to them ranking 22nd in offensive efficiency. Which is shockingly low for a team with that much talent. The worry is starting to creep in: Can those three stars play together?
The reason for panic is sort of the reason for hope — there’s just too much talent to rank that poorly on offense. The Thunder’s expected field goal percentage numbers are way down, they’re shooting just 31 percent on corner 3s (a number destined to rise) and they aren’t finishing well at all in the paint. Even if they didn’t change a thing — which they definitely still need to — their offense is almost assuredly going to improve just based on the law of averages.
What provides the most hope is that they’re second league-wide in defensive efficiency, which is the identity they wanted to lean on. If the offense will just catch up a little, they’re going to start winning. Plus there’s this: They’re 0-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer, which doesn’t make sense for a team with their talent. Just give them three wins in those games, and they’re 11-8 with an emphatic win over the defending champs in their pockets and things look a whole lot better. — Royce Young
Panic level: 5
Aside from the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo got caught on camera exchanging some angry words with an assistant coach, the reality for the Bucks is that the supporting cast around the early MVP candidate just hasn’t been good enough. Eric Bledsoe hasn’t had a huge impact to date since being acquired from the Phoenix Suns. Khris Middleton has had some nice games, but there are also times where he is a nonfactor. There just hasn’t been a lot of consistency within this group.
But there is always hope when Giannis is on your team. He has franchise-changing ability and is only going to get better. The problem is that he can only do so much — several of his teammates have to contribute more if the Bucks want to take another step in their evolution this year. The Bucks can’t rely on the 22-year-old to carry them every night. — Nick Friedell
Panic level: 2
The Wizards hope John Wall will BRB after PRP (platelet-rich plasma), but no Washington fan is going to feel good about having to hit WebMD to figure out what “viscosupplementation injections” are. Coughing up a 17-point lead at home in the first game without Wall didn’t calm any uneasiness. That Washington’s net rating goes from plus-7.3 with Wall on the court to minus-3.3 without him could leave Wizards fans requesting viscosupplementation injections in their eyeballs trying to watch this team the next two weeks.
So long as Wall’s absence is two weeks and not two months, there’s no reason to believe that a team that was one Kelly Olynyk career night away from the Eastern Conference finals won’t be in the mix again come May. The Wizards have plenty of talent and experience; they just need to get healthy. — Chris Forsberg