The Knicks, Hawks, Cavaliers and Warriors, the worst teams in the NBA, are a combined 40-120. Is there hope for the dregs of the league? Let's examine.
New York Knicks (11-29)
Point Differential: -7.9
Biggest problem: With a roster full of young players and veterans who played elsewhere last season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Knicks are struggling defensively. New York is 27th in defensive rating, giving up a whopping 112.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s important to note, however, that the Knicks' defensive woes may be attributed partly to bad luck. Opponents are shooting a league-best 38.9 percent from beyond the arc against New York, more than a full percentage point higher than the next-closest team. Still, even with a few more wayward shots from deep by opponents, the Knicks' defense would still likely only improve from dreadful to just plain bad.
Where did it go wrong? The Knicks went into the summer of 2019 hoping to make a big splash in free agency. Unfortunately, they whiffed on every big name and instead divvied up their cap space on veterans Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Elfried Payton and Taj Gibson. They hoped that quintet would combine with RJ Barrett, the team’s 2019 lottery pick, and fuel a successful campaign.
Yet neither Randle nor Portis has played good defense, and Gibson, 34, is far removed from being a cornerstone of those Tom Thibodeau Bulls teams. Payton in particular was a curious signing given he’s been associated with eye-opening defensive drop-offs in previous stops. Barrett, whose game I analyzed before the draft, has struggled, averaging just 13.8 points and 2.4 assists and putting up woeful shooting numbers (38.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from beyond the arc). Barrett’s struggles and stalled development from other New York prospects have produced this mess.
Is there hope for 2020? Despite their team's woes, there's good news for Knicks fans ... sort of. Morris (19.1 ppg, 46.9 percent from 3) has played well. Because he has a tradeable contract, he’ll likely fetch the Knicks a decent asset and/or a solid young prospect at the deadline in February. Also, with the team far, far, far from a playoff spot, the Knicks can give Barrett a ton of playing experience. Plus, the Knicks can get a better assessment of frustrating but talented prospects Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If they were in a heated playoff race, their minutes would be drastically curtailed. Great silver lining, eh?
Atlanta Hawks (8-32)
Point Differential: -10.4
Biggest problem: When Trae Young is on the floor, the Hawks do a respectable job scoring. The team’s 107.6 points per 100 possessions with Young at the controls would put them just inside the top 20 in the NBA. When he sits, Atlanta’s offense craters to 91 points per 100. That latter number wouldn’t just be bad in terms of this season, it’d be historically horrendous. The Hawks clearly have serious issues building a team around their gifted point guard.
Where did it go wrong? For the most part, Atlanta hasn’t made any egregious errors in its rebuilding process with young players. Young is clearly a talented creator, and big man John Collins and wing DeAndre Hunter look like long-term pieces. Kevin Huerter, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, has flashed potential as well. Only Cam Reddish, drafted 10th overall in 2019, has failed to impress. But with just 35 games under his belt, there’s plenty of time for Reddish -- who averages only 8.0 points on 32.5 percent shooting from the field -- to turn things around.
The issue for Atlanta is chiefly the veterans tasked with supporting this young core. Vince Carter, in his fourth decade in the NBA, is past even the twilight of his career. Allen Crabbe, a salary throw-in, has failed to replicate his breakout years in Portland. Evan Turner is hanging onto his NBA life. Even Jabari Parker, a semi-productive, prime-age veteran, has failed to be a good fit because his shortcomings (defense, outside shooting and positional ambiguity) exacerbate the flaws of the Hawks' young core.
If the Hawks had done a better job rummaging through the veteran bargain bin or even simply taken fliers on several undrafted youngsters, they likely would be much more competitive. Or, at the very least, not so reliant on Young to provide offense.
Is there hope for 2020? There’s little evidence to suggest Atlanta will be successful the rest of the season. And with all the team’s veterans either on bloated contracts or underperforming (or both), trades for enticing assets aren’t happening. Atlanta's best hope is for its young core to improve over the next several months. Momentum heading into 2020-21 would be a good thing.
Cleveland Cavaliers (12-27)
Point differential: -8.2
Biggest problem: Throw a dart at any stats category and you’ll hit on a problem area for the Cavs. They struggle scoring (24th in offensive efficiency), play lousy defense (29th in defensive efficiency), pass poorly (26th in assist percentage) and don't shoot well from three (23rd). This is just an all-around bad team.
Where did it go wrong? Cleveland seems to have the opposite problem of Atlanta. Its veteran supporting cast is actually quite productive. Kevin Love (16.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg.) is having one of his best statistical seasons since he joined the Cavs in 2014. Tristan Thompson, coming off a 35-point, 14-rebound performance last week against Detroit, is one of the best rebounders in basketball. Jordan Clarkson was playing so well that he was shipped off to a contending Utah team for Dante Exum and two second-round picks. Larry Nance Jr (27 years old) and Cedi Osman (24) have graduated from prospect status to provide solid contributions in smaller roles.
But unlike the Hawks, the Cavs' young core is hardly reason for excitement. Collin Sexton (18.7 ppg. on 45.3 percent shooting from the field and 31.5 percent shooting from 3) has failed to make a noticeable leap, particularly in his ability to run a team. Cleveland’s first-round picks from the summer, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr, have struggled with their shot selection and overall efficiency from the field. (Garland missed virtually all of his lone season in college basketball, so let's cut him a little slack.)
All three flash potential, but there isn’t a bonafide starter in the bunch, must less a franchise-carrying star. Had Cleveland been able to hit on someone performing to Young’s level in Atlanta, this team would probably be fighting for one of the last two playoff spots in a watered- down Eastern Conference.
Is there hope for 2020? The return that Love could fetch on the trade market should excite Cleveland fans. And despite their struggles, it’s important to remember that neither Garland nor Porter Jr has turned 20 yet. Sexton turned 21 at the beginning of January. There’s definitely a chance that over the second half of the season, an exciting development -- whether via a Love trade or leap from one of the team’s young core -- could make Cleveland fans a lot more optimistic.
Golden State Warriors (9-32)
Point Differential: -8.2
Biggest problem: This one is easy: injuries. Steph Curry has played in only four games. Klay Thompson is still on the mend after tearing his ACL in last season’s Finals. Draymond Green has missed 12 games, and D’Angelo Russell, the team’s marquee off-season addition, has only played in 22. With so many games missed due to injury, the Warriors never had a chance.
Where did it go wrong? The moment Thompson suffered a torn ACL in the Finals would probably be the exact second the Warriors' dynasty crumbled. But all the injuries happened to coincide with a perfect storm of departures as well. Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn. Important but declining role players Shaun Livingston (retired) and Andre Igoudala (traded to Grizzlies) are also long gone.
Golden State’s bold gambit with Russell, committing to a long-term deal via a sign-and-trade for Durant, hasn’t panned out. Even when healthy, Russell hasn’t elevated this depleted Warriors team the way he did with the Nets last season. In fact, Golden State is actually better with Russell on the bench (-7.6 points per 48 minutes) than when he plays (-9.1).
Then there’s the slow start by Golden State's 2019 first-round pick, Jordan Poole, who has averaged 21.1 minutes over 33 games. Poole, who hasn't looked anything close to an NBA player, shoots 25.8 percent from the floor and 23.6 percent from beyond the arc -- woefully bad percentages that even a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8 to 1.0) can’t prop up.
All in all, everything that could go wrong has for the Warriors since last June.
Is there hope for 2020? After winning four straight games in late December, there was a bit of optimism around this team. But eight losses in a row have pretty much crushed any long-shot chances of a playoff run (if a healthy Curry returned to action). Golden State trails the 18-22 Grizzlies for the final playoff spot by a whopping 9 1/2 games with a half-season to play.
With a postseason push pretty much out of the question, the best hope for the Warriors lies in the development of their young players. The continued improvement of Eric Paschall (13.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Golden State's second-round pick in 2019, would be a huge positive. Getting Poole on track would also be a major boost.
Unfortunately, the other bright spots for Golden State, Glenn Robinson III (12.3 ppg.) and Damion Lee (12.3 ppg.), may not matter much due to their contract situations. On one-year deals, they may price themselves out of the Warriors' setup next season. Perhaps the best hope would be to flip Robinson for a future asset and open up additional minutes for youngsters Omari Spellman and Alen Smailagic.
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