The NBA Draft has become an annual event of hope and disappointment. Unlike most other drafts, the teams that receive picks this year have all been characterized by underperformance during their respective seasons. The Cavaliers had a 27-55 record last season while the Clippers were only 3 games over .500 at 43-39 on the season. These stats underscore how each team is in transition and they will be looking to rebuild following these unsuccessful years on top of some incredibly loaded draft classes coming into this summer’s draft
Which teams should worry if they aren’t doing well?
Both the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks, whom they defeated in the Finals, are off to a.500 start this season. Can the Bucks get healthy and start climbing the Eastern Conference standings, and can the Hawks get their defense back on track in time for another spectacular run?
The Boston Celtics have been one of the league’s unluckiest teams so far this season, losing two games in double overtime and another on a buzzer-beating three-pointer. Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers have been up and down as star guard Damian Lillard attempts to shake off one of his worst shooting slumps.
The New Orleans Pelicans, meanwhile, are stuck in an early-season slump as they await the season debut of star forward Zion Williamson while also coping with a slew of other important player ailments.
There’s still time to turn things around this season. Which teams do you think will win? Our NBA gurus analyze where five teams rank on the fear scale.
Hawks of Atlanta (6-9)
3/10 on the panic scale
The Hawks had great hopes for this season, but they have been a letdown so far. However, if there’s one team that shouldn’t worry after a bad start, it’s these guys, who went through a rough patch last season before rallying to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hawks were poor at best until Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach on March 1, winning 14 of 34 games. However, following March 1, the squad finished the regular season with a 27-11 record before upsetting both the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers in difficult playoff series.
They’ve won only six of their first 15 games this season, courtesy to Atlanta’s terrible defense.
The Hawks are sixth in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency, thanks in large part to point guard Trae Young.
Young gets credit for assisting Atlanta in scoring, but he has to work on his defense. For good reason, opponents prefer to target Young in the pick-and-roll. The results haven’t been fantastic, whether he’s defending the action with Clint Capela or John Collins.
Young is ranked 49th out of 50 players who have guarded the ball handler in at least 500 pick-and-roll actions this season, allowing 1.11 points per opportunity.
It’s not a coincidence. Last season, Young led the league in interceptions defended, and he’s dominating that statistic again this season; opponents are aware of his troubles at the point of attack, and they take advantage of it.
Atlanta will never be a defensive powerhouse, but the Hawks were 12th in the NBA on defense in the 38 games McMillan coached last season. That’s the figure to keep an eye on in Atlanta. The offense will be terrific with Young at the helm; the issue is whether the defense can catch up.
Kirk Goldsberry’s remark
Celtics of Boston (7-7)
4/10 on the panic scale
It’s easy to consider Boston’s.500 record as a letdown heading into Wednesday’s game versus Atlanta. When you consider that this club has blown two double-digit fourth-quarter leads, lost two double-overtime games, and lost another in Dallas on a last-second shot by Luka Doncic, things in Beantown might have looked a lot brighter than they do right now.
That’s particularly true when you consider Jaylen Brown’s absence from six of those 14 games due to COVID-19 and a strained hamstring, and Jayson Tatum’s shooting slump, which is arguably the worst of his career.
All of this is to say that things in Boston should ultimately work out. Brown must return to the floor as quickly as possible, and Tatum must get back on track.
Tatum’s shot profile has deteriorated this season, with career lows of 38.6 percent overall and 31.6 percent from 3-point range. His average shot distance has grown each year of his five-year career, from 12.7 feet as a rookie to 15.1 feet this season. He’s shooting 26.5 percent of his jumpers from 10 feet out from the basket out to the 3-point line, which is the dreaded long 2, up from 23 percent last season and 21.5 percent the year before.
Worse, he’s witnessed a significant dip in his shooting percentages inside 3 feet (from 73.5 percent last season to 54.5 percent now).
Tatum has to be more aggressive while hitting the rim, but he won’t be able to keep shooting like this all season. He has far too much success on his resume to believe he has regressed to a below-average volume scorer.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a professional basketball team based in (6-8)
4/10 on the panic scale
The Bucks are off to a shaky start in their first championship defense in 50 years. They’re two games under.500 heading into Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers (7:30 ET on ESPN), and they’re mediocre in both offensive (18th in the NBA) and defensive efficiency (20th).
Since Mike Budenholzer came over as coach, regular-season problems have become unheard of in Milwaukee. Budenholzer’s Bucks have won 58 games in each of his first three regular seasons, and the club hasn’t fallen below.500 this late in the season since November 2017, when coach Jason Kidd was in charge. So it’s reasonable if you’re curious about what’s going on.
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 17: Lakers against. Bucks 10 p.m., Mavericks vs. Suns
Friday, Nov. 19: 7:30 p.m. Lakers at Celtics; Mavericks at Suns; 10 p.m.
All timings are in Eastern Standard Time.
Milwaukee’s main problem is availability, since the team hasn’t had a full roster since the beginning of the season.
The Bucks have employed eight different starting lineups through their first 14 games; last season, they only required 12 different starting lineups to go through the whole season. Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Jordan Nwora are the only players who have appeared in all 14 games. Due to a back ailment, Brook Lopez has not played since opening night. After missing six games due to an ankle injury, Jrue Holiday is still gaining his bearings. Khris Middleton is set to play against the Lakers on Wednesday, although he was suspended for eight games by the NBA after testing positive for COVID-19.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is now facing double teams every night. Despite this, Antetokounmpo is the league’s fourth-leading scorer, averaging 26.5 points per game while collecting 11.3 rebounds and dishing out a career-high 6.0 assists.
The Bucks haven’t voiced much concern about their early-season slump, owing to injuries and illnesses that have depleted their rotation. Besides, Milwaukee has previously played its best basketball early in the season only to be eliminated from the playoffs. Following their triumph, they are confident in their ability to keep things together as the season proceeds.
Antetokounmpo should get reinforcements at some time. Middleton will most likely be eased back into play on a minute-by-minute basis, but he’ll help divert defenders’ focus. The Bucks haven’t given a timetable for Lopez or Donte Divincenzo, who is still rehabilitating from an ankle injury sustained in last season’s playoffs. Milwaukee has no need to hurry anybody back at this time.
“We’ll play better,” Antetokounmpo said after the Bucks’ 20-point defeat to the Hawks on Sunday. “Once everyone returns, especially Khris, we start to play well, everyone goes to his job, and we’re aggressive and go into the paint and move the ball, and we defend and rebound and crash the post and all that, we’ll be right where we want to be.”
Jamal Collier’s remark
The Portland Trail Blazers are a professional basketball team based in Portland (7-8)
5/10 on the panic scale
The worry meter was rising in Portland after a noncompetitive 124-95 defeat to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, as the Blazers dropped to 1-7 on the road this season without star Damian Lillard. “I don’t believe we came to compete in this game,” first-year coach Chauncey Billups told reporters afterward, expressing his displeasure with his team’s effort level.
Portland rebounded back the next night with a 118-113 victory against the Toronto Raptors at the Moda Center, highlighting the team’s potential this season owing to the growth of Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons, as well as the arrival of Larry Nance Jr.
The interesting thing about the Blazers’.500 start is that much of what they had hoped for at the outset of the season has come true. After ranking 29th in defensive rating in 2020-21, Portland has improved its defensive rating because to a mix of stronger bench players and a more aggressive defensive strategy implemented by Billups.
Pelicans of New Orleans (2-13)
9/10 on the panic scale
A squad constructed around Zion Williamson hasn’t had Zion Williamson, as shown by its record. Even without the 21-year-old phenom, the Pelicans shouldn’t have been able to get out to a two-win start.
Williamson sustained a right foot fracture in the summer and will not participate in any preseason games, the Pelicans said during media day. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, expressed optimism regarding Williamson’s timeframe, and Williamson himself said that he hoped to return to the floor for the start of the regular season.
That, unfortunately, did not happen in New Orleans. Williamson was allowed to participate in contact exercises on Tuesday.
In his absence, the Pelicans have struggled, having already lost three games this season while leading by 15 points or more.
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So far, New Orleans has had to cope with more than simply Williamson’s ailments. Brandon Ingram was forced to sit out seven games due to a right hip injury. Josh Hart was out for four games due to a quad injury. Herb Jones, a rookie who has alternated between the starting lineup and the bench, has missed one game due to a concussion and three more due to a sprained ankle.
The Pelicans are 0-7 without Ingram and Williamson. They’re 2-6 with Ingram. So there’s a chance that when Williamson returns, he’ll provide a much-needed lift to the team.
When Ingram returned after a seven-game layoff, the Pelicans beat the Memphis Grizzlies and then pushed the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Wizards (without Bradley Beal) to the verge of loss before succumbing in the fourth quarter.
The Pelicans’ meltdown on Monday demonstrated their desperate need for another playmaker. The ball had stopped moving, and the offensive had come to a halt. The Pelicans’ 17-point halftime advantage was squandered as Washington won 105-100.
In his Point Zion form, Williamson could step in and perform ballhandling responsibilities on occasion. It would also help to balance out some of the Pelicans’ units, with Ingram and Williamson leading the way and Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas beginning but assisting the second unit.
Furthermore, a number of Pelicans players are underperforming. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has had a roller-coaster season, shooting 37.7 percent overall and 27.7 percent from three-point range. Tomas Satoransky has taken over as the backup point guard for Kira Lewis, the Pelicans’ 2020 first-round selection. Willy Hernangomez was temporarily benched in favor of Jaxson Hayes, forcing Valanciunas to play more minutes as the team’s primary offensive threat.
Williamson’s arrival should help the Pelicans solve some of their problems. However, as he goes onto the court, he stays suspended in mid-air.
New Orleans has already visited this location. The club went 6-22 in 2019-20 when Williamson was out with a torn meniscus. When he returned in January, the team’s performance and victories improved. Two months later, with 15 games remaining when COVID-19 halted the NBA season, the Pelicans were battling for the last playoff place.
This season, New Orleans must just finish 10th in the rankings to qualify for the play-in round. While Williamson’s return could help, substantial changes might be on the way if the Pelicans continue to struggle as they have this season.