The Eastern Conference has featured a variety of intriguing narratives -- including surges to the top from Toronto, Washington and Atlanta and a surprising start from Milwaukee -- but fan bases of the Hornets, Pistons and Knicks can’t be pleased by any of them. Through Monday those three playoff hopefuls had combined for a 16-59 record. Only the 76ers (2-22) have been worse than that trio.
What has gone so wrong? Let's take a look at what ails Charlotte, Detroit and New York.
Charlotte Hornets: 6-18 (12th in East)
Last season Charlotte transformed into one of the best defensive teams under first-year coach Steve Clifford, who improved its defensive rating from worst (108.9 points per 100 possessions) to sixth (101.2). That miraculous turnaround occurred even though the center position was occupied for 35 minutes a game by Al Jefferson, who acknowledged last year, “It ain’t no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense." But with Jefferson anchoring a stout D, Charlotte overcame the NBA's No. 24 offense to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
In 2014-15, however, the defense has deserted the Hornets. Their unadjusted defensive rating of 109.1 ranks 23rd. Coupled with a woeful unadjusted offensive rating of 101.1 (28th in the league), the Hornets aren’t doing anything right. New addition Lance Stephenson hasn't helped, shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 15.7 percent (8-of-51) from three-point range.
In addition, Stephenson's Player Efficiency Rating is only 10.5, down from 14.7 last season, when his PER increased for the third consecutive year. His poor performance has reportedly prompted Charlotte to consider trading the 24-year-old guard, who signed a three-year, $27.4 million contract in July.
Stephenson is hardly the only reason for the Hornets' offensive woes. Charlotte ranks 29th in three-point shooting at 30.8 percent, with no player averaging more than 1.2 threes per game. The Hornets' lack of shooting means that any revival will hinge on their ability to rediscover their defensive commitment and execution from last season.
Detroit Pistons: 5-20 (13th in East)
The Pistons endured a 13-game losing streak before winning two of their last three games. Stan Van Gundy has guided teams to the playoffs in each of his seven full seasons, but the new Detroit coach faces an uphill battle to break the Pistons' five-year postseason drought.
Despite all the negatives, however, Detroit may have a silver lining ready to emerge. Shooting guard Jodie Meeks, who signed a three-year, $18.8 million deal during the offseason, returned last week from a back injury that required surgery. Having a proven three-point shooter in the lineup should boost an offense that is better than that of only Philadelphia and includes three starters -- guards Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and forward Josh Smith -- who are shooting below 39 percent overall.
Last season Meeks posted career bests of 15.7 points, 46.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.1 percent shooting from three-point range with the Lakers. Detroit is desperate for some outside shooting to complement Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in the post. Meeks finished with 20 points on 5-of-10 shooting in Monday's loss to the Clippers. More performances like that will help stabilize the Pistons' offense.
New York Knicks: 5-21 (14th in East)
Positive news is hard to come by for the Knicks, who are off to the worst start in franchise history amid reports of infighting and president Phil Jackson's assessment that the team has a "loser's mentality." Only three players -- Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith -- are averaging more than 10 points as New York adjusts to the triangle offense under new coach Derek Fisher. The defense hasn't picked up the slack, either, ranking just 26th in points per possession.
On top of everything, Carmelo Anthony has been experiencing soreness in his left knee. (The seven-time All-Star missed one game last week but played at least 39 minutes in each of the last two.) Despite dealing with pain since the second game of the season, Anthony has rebounded from a rough start and is hitting 45.6 percent from the field and 35 percent from beyond the arc -- both in line with his career averages.
As the Knicks continue to fade from playoff contention, the idea of shutting Anthony down for rest or surgery in hopes of getting him back at 100 percent makes the most sense. Jeopardizing the 30-year-old forward's long-term health for a lost season would be a big mistake.
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