Which underperforming teams should hit the panic button?
The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and the team they beat to reach the Finals, the Atlanta Hawks, are both under .500 to start the season. Can the Bucks get healthy and begin a climb toward the top of the Eastern Conference, and can the Hawks right the ship on defense in time for another magical run?
The Boston Celtics have been one of the most unlucky teams in the league so far this season, dropping two double-overtime games and another on a buzzer-beating 3. The Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, have been up and down as star guard Damian Lillard tries to break away from one of the worst shooting slumps of his career.
And then there are the New Orleans Pelicans, mired in an early-season slide as the franchise waits on the season debut of star forward Zion Williamson while also dealing with a handful of other injuries to key players.
There’s plenty of season left to turn things around. Which teams will? Our NBA insiders are breaking down where five teams fall on the panic meter.
Atlanta Hawks (6-9)
Panic meter: 3/10
The Hawks had high expectations for this season, but so far they have been a disappointment. However, if there’s one team that should not panic after a lousy start, it’s these guys, who endured a terrible stretch last season before turning it around and marching to the Eastern Conference finals.
Before Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach on March 1, the Hawks were mediocre at best, winning 14 of 34 games. But after March 1, the team went 27-11 to close the regular season before upending both the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers in intense postseason series.
This season, they’re off to another bad start, winning just six of their first 15 games thanks to Atlanta’s poor defense.
The Hawks are sixth in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency — point guard Trae Young is a key reason for both of those rankings.
Young deserves credit for helping Atlanta get buckets, but he also needs to improve on the defensive end. Opponents love to attack Young in the pick-and-roll for good reason. Whether he’s defending the action with Clint Capela or with John Collins, the results haven’t been great.
Out of 50 players who have defended the ball handler in at least 500 pick-and-roll actions this season, Young ranks 49th, allowing 1.11 points per chance on those plays.
It’s not an accident Young led the league in picks defended last season, and he’s leading in that category again this year — opponents know he struggles at the point of attack and they exploit that weakness.
Atlanta might never be a defensive juggernaut, but in the 38 games McMillan coached last season, the Hawks ranked 12th in the league on defense. That’s the stat to watch for Atlanta. With Young at the helm, the offense will be good — the question is can the defense become decent?
— Kirk Goldsberry
Boston Celtics (7-7)
Panic meter: 4/10
It’s easy to look at Boston’s .500 record entering Wednesday’s game at Atlanta and see it as a disappointment. But when you consider this team has blown two double-digit, fourth-quarter leads, lost two double-overtime games and lost another on a last-second shot by Luka Doncic in Dallas, it wouldn’t have taken much for things to look a lot rosier in Beantown than they do at the moment.
That’s especially true when you factor in Jaylen Brown missing six of those 14 games because of COVID-19 and a sore hamstring, and Jayson Tatum mired in what easily is the biggest shooting slump of his career.
All of that is to remind things should end up fine in Boston — eventually. Brown has to get back on the court, which should happen soon, and Tatum needs to get back on track.
Tatum, who is shooting career lows of 38.6% overall and 31.6% from 3-point range, has also seen his shot profile decline this season. In each year of his five-year career, his average shot distance has increased from 12.7 feet as a rookie to 15.1 feet this season. He is taking 26.5% of his shots from 10 feet away from the rim out to the 3-point line — the dreaded long 2 — after taking 23% of his shots from that range last season and 21.5% the year before.
More alarmingly, he has seen a drastic drop in his shooting percentages within 3 feet (from 73.5% last season to 54.5% now).
While Tatum needs to be more aggressive in attacking the rim, he’s not going to shoot like this all season. He has too much of a track record of success to think he has reverted to a below-average volume scorer.
And, once he gets back on track — and Brown stays on the court — Boston’s offensive woes should be rectified.
The Celtics are ranked 10th in the NBA in defensive rating — right around where they were projected during the preseason. It is the offense, which is down to 24th, that has held them back.
Tatum isn’t the only player struggling. Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith are off to cold starts, with the those four all shooting below 30% from deep on multiple attempts per game.
One cause for concern is if Robert Williams III, who has been a big-time bright spot as Boston’s starting center, has to miss extended time because of the left knee soreness that forced him to exit Monday’s win in Cleveland. The loss of Williams for an extended period could be a big blow to Boston’s strong defensive showing.
Still, this team should remain near the top 10 defensively and shouldn’t stay in the bottom 10 offensively. Once the offense picks up, the Celtics will look better and perhaps win some of those close games.
— Tim Bontemps
Milwaukee Bucks (6-8)
Panic meter: 4/10
The Bucks’ first title defense in 50 years is off to a rocky start. They enter Wednesday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers (7:30 ET on ESPN) two games under .500, middling in both offensive (18th in the NBA) and defensive efficiency (20th).
Such struggles during the regular season have become foreign in Milwaukee since Mike Budenholzer took over as coach. The Bucks have won at a 58-win pace through Budenholzer’s first three regular seasons, and the team has not been under .500 this late into the year since November 2017, the last season under coach Jason Kidd. So, it’s understandable to wonder what’s going on.
Milwaukee’s biggest concern is availability — its roster hasn’t been whole since the start of the season.
Through their first 14 games, the Bucks have used eight different starting lineups; they needed only 12 different starting units to get through all of last season. Three players — Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Jordan Nwora — have appeared in all 14 games. Brook Lopez has not played since opening night because of a back injury. Jrue Holiday is still getting his legs under him after missing six games with an ankle injury. Khris Middleton is expected to return Wednesday against the Lakers, but he missed eight games in the NBA’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.
It has left Giannis Antetokounmpo facing double teams nightly. Still, Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 26.5 points per game, while grabbing 11.3 rebounds with a career-best 6.0 assists.
With injuries and illnesses depleting their rotation, the Bucks haven’t expressed much worry about their early-season skid. Besides, Milwaukee has played its best basketball early in the season before, only to get bounced prematurely in the playoffs. In the aftermath of their championship, they have the confidence to pull it together as the season progresses.
Reinforcements should arrive at some point for Antetokounmpo. Middleton is likely to be eased back into action on a minutes limit, but he’ll help take attention from defenses. The Bucks have been unclear about a timeline for Lopez or Donte Divincenzo, who is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in last season’s playoffs. Milwaukee doesn’t have a reason to rush anybody back right now.
“We will play better,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after Sunday’s 20-point loss to the Hawks. “Once everybody comes back, Khris comes back, we start to play well, everybody goes to his role and we are aggressive and get into the paint and move the ball and we defend and we rebound and we crash the paint and all that, we’re going to be where we want to be.”
— Jamal Collier
Portland Trail Blazers (7-8)
Panic meter: 5/10
The panic meter was escalating in Portland after a noncompetitive 124-95 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday without star Damian Lillard, as the Blazers fell to 1-7 this season on the road. Afterward, first-year coach Chauncey Billups expressed his frustration with his team’s effort level, telling reporters, “I don’t think we came to compete in this game.”
A night later, back in the Moda Center with Lillard in the lineup, Portland bounced back with a 118-113 win against the Toronto Raptors that highlighted the team’s potential this season thanks to the development of Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons and addition of Larry Nance Jr.
The funny thing about the Blazers’ sub-.500 start is that much of what they had hoped for entering the season has come to fruition. A combination of better personnel off the bench and a more aggressive defensive scheme installed by Billups has allowed Portland to be more competitive at that end after finishing 29th in defensive rating in 2020-21.
Additionally, recent first-round picks Little and Simons have taken key steps forward. After emerging as a dangerous 3-point shooter during his third NBA season, the 22-year-old Simons has broadened his game in Year 4, averaging a career-high 22.5 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Little, 21, has increased his playing time from 13.3 minutes per game to 21.8 in his third season by translating his physical ability into positive plays at both ends.
Thus far, those upgrades have been necessary to offset the slow start by Lillard, the one anchor the Blazers could count on amid injuries and roster turnover in years past. Lillard began the season in one of the worst slumps of his career, making 34% of his shots and 22% of his 3s over the first nine games. Over the past five games, Lillard’s shooting percentages have returned to normal (47% overall, 39% on 3s), albeit at a lower volume than in years past as he has averaged 24.8 PPG during that span.
No matter how good the supporting cast, Portland is going as far as Lillard leads them.
Assuring Lillard is healthy — he has long dealt with an abdominal issue that caused him to miss Sunday’s game — the Blazers have time to turn things around. They’re two games out of sixth in the West, the final assured playoff spot, and have a better point differential than three of the teams ahead of them in the standings.
Portland does face off-court issues, as the franchise investigates concerns about the workplace environment under president of basketball operations Neil Olshey. And despite his recent comments reaffirming his commitment to the team and city, the possibility of Lillard asking for a trade will remain a long-term concern as long as the Blazers don’t look like championship contenders.
In the short term, however, it’s too early and too much has gone right for Portland to panic.
— Kevin Pelton
New Orleans Pelicans (2-13)
Panic meter: 9/10
A team that was built around Zion Williamson hasn’t had Zion Williamson, and its record shows it. But even without the 21-year-old superstar, a two-win start shouldn’t have been in the cards for the Pelicans.
At media day, the Pelicans announced Williamson suffered a right foot fracture in the offseason and wouldn’t play in any preseason games. Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said the team was optimistic about Williamson’s timeline, and Williamson himself said he planned on getting back on the court for the start of the regular season.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, that didn’t happen. On Tuesday, Williamson was cleared to participate in contact drills.
The Pelicans have struggled in his absence; they’ve already lost a league-leading three games this season when leading by 15 or more points.
New Orleans has had to deal with injuries to more than just Williamson so far. Brandon Ingram missed seven games because of a right hip contusion. Josh Hart missed four games because of a quad injury. Rookie Herb Jones, who has been in and out of the starting lineup, missed one game because of a concussion and three more because of a sprained ankle.
Without Ingram and Williamson, the Pelicans are 0-7. With Ingram, they are 2-6. So there is some hope that when Williamson returns to the lineup, he’ll give them a much-needed boost.
When Ingram returned from his seven-game absence, the Pelicans defeated the Memphis Grizzlies and then pushed the East-leading Washington Wizards (minus Bradley Beal) to the brink before collapsing in the fourth quarter.
The collapse on Monday was proof of the Pelicans’ glaring need for one more playmaker. The ball stopped moving, and the offense stagnated. The Pelicans’ 17-point halftime lead dissipated as Washington pulled out a 105-100 win.
Williamson, in his Point Zion form, could step in and handle ballhandling duties at times. It would also help to balance out some of the Pelicans’ units, with Ingram and Williamson on the front line and Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas starting but helping the second unit.
Also, several Pelicans players are underperforming. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has had a roller-coaster season while struggling from the field, shooting 37.7% overall and 27.7% from deep. Kira Lewis, the Pelicans’ 2020 first-round pick, has lost backup point guard minutes to Tomas Satoransky. Jaxson Hayes was briefly benched for Willy Hernangomez, forcing Valanciunas to play more minutes as the team’s biggest offensive threat.
Williamson’s presence should alleviate some of the Pelicans’ issues. But when he steps on the court remains up in the air.
New Orleans has been here before. In 2019-20, the team started 6-22 while Williamson sat due to a torn meniscus. When he did return in January, the team’s play and wins picked up. Two months later, the Pelicans were pushing for the final playoff spot with 15 games to go before COVID-19 paused the NBA season.
This time around, New Orleans has to get to only No. 10 in the standings in order to make the play-in tournament. While Williamson’s return should make that easier, if the Pelicans continue to falter as they have to start the season, major changes could be on the horizon.
— Andrew Lopez