The four fellows of The Lottery Mafia share some thoughts on the NBA teams that have been the most pleasantly surprising and disappointing.
MOST PLEASANTLY SURPRISING
JC: It’s disappointing that the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are all dealing with the loss of star players, because each has the potential to be something special with all hands on deck. But injuries are largely out of a team’s control. The most disappointing team in the league has to be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, we can point to their strong point differential and suggest this team is better than their record. Their defense has been strong. But this team had the potential to be something special, and they have only demosntrated that a handful of times this season. Russell Westbrook has been inefficient, Paul George passive, and Carmelo Anthony hot and cold. Patrick Patterson has seemingly fallen off of a cliff. And this team has to find a fifth player to close games with. As Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter look like All-Stars out East, OKC has serious bench problems. In all, a team that should be in the mix for home court advantage is many steps outside of the playoff picture right now. They should be better. Shouts: Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat.
JE: Memphis and Los Angeles had playoff aspirations not long ago, but it seems like those dreams have been lost and forgotten already. Reasonable doubt (shouts to Jay-Z) would lead most to assume that a Memphis team without Z-Bo and the Grindfather would end their playoff runs, at least temporarily. And it was a pipe dream to assume the oft-injured Blake Griffin would lead an inspired MVP campaign with DeAndre Jordan as the second option on a defense-first (and perhaps defense-only) team without setbacks along the way. Now, Memphis has fired its coach and Blake will (again) miss at least a month with another injury. Take that for data. However, the most disappointing squad has to be the Thunder, a team that some said (albeit foolishly) would have a possibility of dethroning the Warriors. Meanwhile most assumed they would be an exciting top-4 seed in the supposedly stacked Western Conference. 20 games in, the Thunder have lost 12 of their contests, players are mad, not frustrated, and the team is losing embarrassingly to legitimately bad teams. Outside of a win against the Warriors in a confusing game for Golden State, the only winning teams the Thunder have beaten are the Bucks, Pacers, and Knicks, who all have a combined record of 33-29. Everyone knows that the defense is there for the versatile Thunder, however a group with three primary options is ranked 22nd in Offensive Rating, just above Memphis and Atlanta. Even with Russell Westbrook surrounded by Steven Adams and shells of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis last year, the Thunder still finished with the 17th-best offense. A team with this much firepower should not be so inept at scoring. They still have five months to figure it out, but with Melo and PG13 essentially on one-year deals, it seems like the All-Star break is going to be a more realistic deadline to correct the problems to avoid longer lasting issues into the postseason and beyond.
GA: To avoid Connect Four from taking place, I’m going with the 5-17 Dallas Mavericks. Perhaps it should be no surprise, but rookie Dennis Smith is struggling. Forget being on the same page, Nerlens Noel and Rick Carlisle are not even reading the same book; and Dallas somehow has the worst record in the Western Conference. Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs will very likely lose 50 games for the first time in his 20-year career during what might be his final NBA season. Sad.
IS: The Thunder entered the year with optimism coming off Westbrook’s triple-double heavy MVP campaign that also resulted in 47 regular season wins. That optimism resulted in heightened expectations the moment Sam Presti was able to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Many touted these moves as Executive of the Year-winning before the season even started. Most expected the team to possibly take a few weeks to mesh and eventually slide into a homecourt playoff slot. A couple of months into the season and the “meshing” could not be going any worse. Westbrook is struggling to adapt back to a role he had with former running mate Kevin Durant, where the offense does not necessarily have to revolve through him 24/7. George has oscillated between scintillating and subpar while trying to find his rhythm. Remember this is someone used to having the offense revolve around him. Anthony has probably struggled more than his partners in crime simply because as a pure scorer he has never been a second option let alone a third option. Even in his prime on Team USA, Melo was often the top option on offense. Perhaps they will round into form, and nobody enjoys facing a three-headed monster as talented as them in the playoffs, but don’t expect them to scrap their way back into homecourt advantage in the West. In the long run what most Thunder fans don’t want to hear but are certainly well aware of is the fact that only Westbrook is locked in past this summer. There is an immediate sense of urgency for this team to turn things around.