Disappointing NBA teams: Why these underachievers have taken step back
Just over a third of the way into the 2015–16 season, there are plenty of pleasant surprises around the NBA. Almost the entire Eastern Conference has been better than expected thus far, as have West squads like the Mavericks and even the Timberwolves (at least in the early part of the year, for Minnesota).
But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. With so many teams showing improvement, there are just as many, if not more, that have taken a step back. In fact, there are eight different teams currently on pace to post at least 10 fewer wins this season than they did last year. Below, we’ll identify the biggest factor in each of those teams’ backward slides.
Portland Trail Blazers: Free agency
The Blazers won 51 games and took home the Northwest Division title last season, but their current record stands at 15–22, putting them on a 33.2-win pace this year. That prospective 17.8-win drop is the largest in the NBA. There’s not much need to go in-depth here when searching for reasons why: Portland lost four of its five starters from last season over the summer. LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the Spurs, Robin Lopez left for the Knicks, Wesley Matthews departed for the Mavericks, and Nicolas Batum was traded to the Hornets.
The Blazers seem to have found solid (or better) contributors in C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee, but those guys can’t match the production of the players that left. Portland may not be down for long with Damian Lillard and a versatile crew of role players already on board, but that doesn’t change the trajectory of this season.
New Orleans Pelicans: Injuries
New Orleans crashed the playoff party with a 45-win season last year, but they’re on pace for only 27.3 wins through the early part of the 2015–16 campaign. Only the 76ers have missed more games due to injury so far this year, and the Pelicans have been without Ryan Anderson for two games, Anthony Davis for three, Jrue Holiday for six, Omer Asik for seven, Alexis Ajinca for 10, Luke Babbitt for 16 and Tyreke Evans for 18. And that’s just their regular rotation players, of whom only Eric Gordon and Alonzo Gee have been active for every contest. Add Holiday’s minutes restriction—he hit 30 minutes in a game for the first time on Jan. 2—and it’s not hard to see why New Orleans hasn’t been quite as good this year, even with Davis still (mostly) doing Davis-type things.
Houston Rockets: Chemistry
The reasons for Houston’s backslide from their 56 wins last season to their current struggling state are more amorphous, but would all seem to fall under the umbrella of “chemistry.” Ty Lawson has not fit well on this roster at all, as he has been completely lost on the floor and out of the rotation altogether for most of the season. James Harden started slow and has since rounded into better form, but it sure seems like most of the other guys on the team don’t enjoy watching him pound the ball away until he finds a driving lane. Donatas Motiejunas has been hurt. Terrence Jones has just been plain bad. Corey Brewer has been even worse. Dwight Howard’s missed a bunch of games.
And none of these guys—save maybe Dwight—tried all that much at the start of the year, which got Kevin McHale fired and pushed J.B. Bickerstaff into the head coach’s seat. Houston’s been a bit better since that point, but regression to the mean was probably coming anyway. And it’s not like Houston’s effort has been much more consistent since the change. You never know which Rockets team you’re going to get on any given night.
Brooklyn Nets: Talent
Look at the list of players on the Nets last year, and then remove Deron Williams, age Joe Johnson a couple of decades in only a year’s time, add Andrea Bargnani and take one of the few bright spots of the early part of the season—rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—and give him a probable season-ending injury. That’s your recipe for the Nets being on track to win 13.9 fewer games than last season.
Phoenix Suns: Everything
Let’s start over the summer, when the Suns traded Marcus Morris (plus Reggie Bullock, Danny Granger, and a future draft pick) to Detroit in order to free cap space for a doomed run at LaMarcus Aldridge, angering his brother Markieff in the process. Markieff tried to get himself traded all summer, then showed up to play anyway but has been largely ineffective. He’s probably the Suns’ second-best player and he’s getting DNP-CDs semi-regularly. That’s a problem. Also a problem: the Suns’ defense has collapsed to just outside the bottom five of the league, even after adding Tyson Chandler.
On top of that, the Suns can’t seem to figure out how to make the rotation of Chandler and Alex Len work on a consistent basis. The Brandon Knight-Eric Bledsoe duo was outscored before Bledsoe went down for the year with a torn meniscus, and a bunch of these guys do not seem to be all that fond of playing for head coach Jeff Hornacek. Pretty much nothing has gone right for Phoenix all year, which leaves the Suns 12.4 wins off last year’s pace.
Atlanta Hawks: Regression
The Hawks surprised everyone by winning 60 games last season. They did so with the point differential of a 56-win team, though, and teams generally decline when they outperform their point differential the year before (see also: the Rockets). In fact, the 37 teams that outperformed their point differential by two to four wins from 2010 to 2014 saw their win total decline by an average of 3.6 wins the following season. That’d only pin the Hawks at about 56 wins for this year, though, and they’re currently on pace for 47.8, a 12.2-win drop. It doesn’t help that, as a team, Atlanta is shooting 3.9% worse from beyond the arc, or that Tiago Splitter, who was brought in to essentially replace DeMarre Carroll, has been out for 13 games dealing with various injuries.
Memphis Grizzlies: Age
Zach Randolph just can’t bully defenders in quite the same way down low anymore, Marc Gasol has seemingly lost half a step on defense and Tony Allen’s defense is just a smidge worse than it used to be, which makes him just that much more unplayable on the other side of the floor. Matt Barnes’s shot hasn’t shown up yet and neither has Jeff Green’s (that last one is less age-related than Green being who he is). All of that, combined with Brandan Wright being out since the beginning of November, has caused Memphis’s defense to slip from its typical top-five perch to 15th in the league so far. Without a top-five D to make up for it, Memphis’s bottom-five offense is a much bigger problem than usual. Add that all up and you’ve got a team on pace for 43.3 wins after hitting 55 a year ago.
Milwaukee Bucks: Defense
The Bucks surprised everyone by making the playoffs on the strength of the NBA’s second-best defense last season. One of the youngest teams in the league, it was shocking to see Milwaukee rank that high defensively. Swapping Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley out while bringing in Greg Monroe and Greivis Vasquez, and incorporating Jabari Parker into things, has seen their D slide all the way to the bottom of the NBA. Even the returning players don’t seem to have the same manic (but somehow organized) scrambling down, and it’s created wide-open shots all over the floor. Only five teams have allowed a greater percentage of shots with the defender at least six feet away, per tracking from NBA Savant. Add to that the fact that they’ve allowed opponents to snipe away on corner threes and have constantly sent teams to the free-throw line (only Memphis has fouled more often as a percentage of field-goal attempts), and you’ve got a defense that has declined enough to put the Bucks on pace to win 10 fewer games than a year ago.