The Step Back

Is it still too soon to hit the panic button on the Cavaliers?

The first two weeks of the NBA season haven’t gone as expected. The Cavaliers and Warriors aren’t dominating the league in ways we’ve come to expect, and they’ve been overshadowed by the likes of the Magic, Pacers, Grizzlies and Pistons — four teams many believed were at risk of missing the playoffs altogether heading into the season. Is it still too early to panic or are there legitimate concerns to be had?

Which team are you most worried about?

Chazz Scogna (@chazzscogna): As long as Thibs is coaching the Timberwolves, and as long as they have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, I’ll always worry. I think he’s a good coach, but I worry about his control over young talent.

Through seven games, he’s held Towns and Wiggins’ minutes down, which is good, but it’s following the same pattern as last season. Thibs implicitly doubled down on his method of playing his guys monster minutes, and while I can’t say for sure he hasn’t changed, nothing has shown me he would.

Ben Ladner (@bladner_): The Nuggets. I was all aboard the Denver bandwagon last season. I’m as big a fan of Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris as any reasonable person. I love Paul Millsap. Things have just been off with this team. Denver has been a middle-of-the-pack team on both ends of the floor and isn’t generating the same number of easy baskets as it did last year. Jamal Murray has been awful and Millsap has had a rough start.

I tend to think they’ll get it turned around, but I was high on the Nuggets because of their ability to overpower opponents with their offense. So far, they do not look like the team that made me believe that was possible.

Rory Masterson (@rorymasterson): Not that we held especially high expectations for them coming into the season, but the Pelicans. I yearn for the day when DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are both free from tyranny. The redemption game against the Kings felt cathartic, and the Pellies threw all they had at an admittedly still-rounding-into-dominant-form Warriors, but it isn’t enough.

Some of the problem is that Jrue Holiday is doing exactly what is required of him, which management seems to have thought was enough balance in the backcourt. Part of the problem is that they cut Jordan Crawford, who actually looked like a nice addition in his two games with New Orleans. Part of the problem is that Davis is the team’s third-leading shooter from distance, and he can’t space for himself. This isn’t Alvin Gentry’s fault at all, but I feel like he’s going to catch the heat sooner rather than later.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): This is probably too much of a hot take, but I’m worried about the Cavaliers. Shrug aside concerns about their defense — they’re a veteran team, they’ll defend when they need to — but they’ve lost three home games already. They just look like a team with serious chemistry issues. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have their thing, James and J.R. Smith have their thing, Channing Frye is losing minutes, Iman Shumpert looks like he doesn’t care about basketball some nights and Tristan Thompson looks injured. Are we sure Ty Lue is a good coach? I’m not concerned about them being a playoff contender, I’m more concerned that they won’t get homecourt, and they’ll just lose to a team that wants it more and can give more energy. That’s a long ways away, but right now, this team looks like a unit that will not be returning to the playoffs.

Matt Cianfrone (@Matt_Cianfrone): The Cavaliers for sure. At a certain point just James was not going to be enough to make the NBA Finals. While I thought the Kyrie Irving trade was good, I had other major concerns about Cleveland’s offseason and so far they have proven correct. Derrick Rose is not good. Wade looks his age at times. Thompson is now hurt. James may or may not be leaving at the end of the year. This could all look dumb in a few months, but it sure feels like we can’t just pencil the Cavaliers into the NBA Finals anymore at the very least.

Which team are you not worried about at all?

Scogna: The Cavaliers. I have this twisted theory James should sell out for a chance to win his fifth MVP and then get beat in the first or second round of the playoffs. In the RINGZ culture, that’s the best move for his legacy, since I don’t know how they don’t get swept by the Warriors, let alone beat them four times in seven games. And with major minutes going to Rose and Wade, it’s going according to plan!

Ladner: The Cavaliers. They do this every year. They play terrible defense, rely too heavily on James, who then coasts until the playoffs. It’s a little surprising that it’s happening this early in the year, but they’ll go on a run in December or January to vault back into the top three in the East. This team is playing for April and June, and they’re not close to fully healthy. I won’t fall for this again.

Masterson: Stock answer, but a reliable one: Cleveland. Until and unless things change, James is the guy who gets the most out of everyone around him, and these things take time. Except maybe for Jeff Green, who’s living a Carlos Kaiser-esque existence in terms of his ability to repeatedly hoodwink upper management. Godspeed you, Play-Doh Emperor.

Lewis: The Mavericks. They’re 1-8, look like the worst team in the NBA that isn’t Phoenix or Chicago and are well on their way to a top five pick in the lottery. At least Dirk Nowitzki and Dennis Smith Jr. are entertaining. They’re definitely on their way to another run at a star free agent in Cousins, and they can advertise how fun it would be with two exciting young players on the roster, and Harrison Barnes seems likeable.

Cianfrone: The Wizards. The Wizards are supposed to be a team that finishes in the top three in the Eastern Conference and could possibly get the No. 1 seed if the Cavaliers keep floundering. So losses to the Suns and Lakers are not great. But I think when they get Markieff Morris back from injury the Wizards will be just fine. They just don’t have the depth to easily overcome an injury to a starter.

Which team has been the biggest surprise?

Scogna: The Raptors because their bench units are still some of the best in the league. And it’s a good thing we’re doing this during the second week because I can use high numbers before they fall back to what they’ve been in the Dwane Casey-Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan era. They’re shooting 3-pointers! The Raptors have attempted at least 34 from deep three times so far this season. Last year, it wasn’t until Dec. 26, 2016 they matched that number. For now, they’re third in the league in 3-point attempts, despite ranking 29th in making them, so it’s probably short-lived. And since their 44-attempt explosion the second game of the season, their number of 3-pointers has decreased each game. Ah well.

Ladner: Orlando or Detroit, not just because they’re at the top of the East, but because they’re actually fun. While evaluating each team’s entertainment value before the year, I really struggled to come up with good reasons to watch these two teams consistently. But both have found ways to be compelling. The Jonathon Simmons/Aaron Gordon/Nik Vucevic trio is super compelling, and Jonathan Isaac is intriguing as a long-term piece.

Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond aren’t particularly enjoyable players to watch for me, but Avery Bradley doing Avery Bradley things has injected some spark into the Pistons. Tobias Harris is lighting it up. I have no reason to be invested in Stanley Johnson, but here we are. The Pistons were widely projected as a fringe playoff team before the season. They probably still will be, but their hot start could end up really mattering if they find themselves in a tight playoff race down the end of the season.

Masterson: I’m equally surprised by Detroit — Drummond’s free throw shooting, in particular, although he’s cooled off a little bit — and the Knicks, who began as we all suspected they would only to beat Cleveland and launch Godzingis into extremely preliminary MVP conversations.

The Pistons boast above-average offensive (11th) and defensive (13th) ratings, complete with solid wins over the Warriors, Clippers and Timberwolves. [Insert your obligatory, fun-killing small sample size comment here], but Stan Van Gundy has made a coaching career out of getting the most out of any roster he has. He’s a legitimately great coach in a league in which it’s tough to determine the relationship coaches actually have with their players’ output.

As for the Knicks, my only gripe thus far would be to give more minutes to Willy Hernangomez, who is good (cc: Jeff Hornacek). Otherwise, Tim Hardaway Jr. will be streaky, but he seems to have found his groove. Frank Ntilikina has shown some nice flashes, especially on the defensive end. Jarrett Jack is making the most out of non-garbage minutes! Enes Kanter has been spotted playing defense! I feel like I’m in a decadent bath just thinking about all this, and that’s without going too deep into Kristaps Porzingis, whom I assume will be the mayor of New York after Tuesday’s election. Holding on to beat the Nuggets was a show of wherewithal that prior, Melo-era teams would certainly not have carried out.

One more note to Jeff Hornacek: don’t win too many games, but keep things competitive.

Lewis: The Pacers. I never expected a squad coached by Nate McMillan to be scoring over 30 points per quarter in a game, and I’d be even more surprised if you told me Myles Turner was going to be out. They’re definitely enjoying playing basketball together, and all their starters are averaging double figures in points. The Eastern Conference doesn’t have too many exciting players, but if you like a team just cutting loose, the Pacers aren’t a bad choice to watch right now.

Cianfrone: The Magic. I’m still skeptical it lasts but I expected a tire fire this year. And they are far from that. They even shoot and make 3-pointers kind of often now. This world is weird and I am not sure I like it.

Which team has been the biggest disappointment?

Scogna: The Knicks because they’re hurting my bet right now with a friend that the Nets would finish with a better record.

Ladner: It honestly might be the Warriors. I’m not worried at all about Golden State, but I was kind of looking forward to the Warriors maximizing its weapons and rampaging through the league. There’s still time for that I suppose, but my enthusiasm about it has waned.

Masterson: Because of the way the Clippers were so excellent through the first four games of the season only to come out flat against the Pistons, and then to fully show face in a blowout loss to the Warriors that compounds how far behind they still are after this offseason, I’m inclined to say it’s them. Here comes another second-round playoff exit.

Lewis: I don’t think I can pick a team that is truly disappointing after 10 percent of the season has passed, but I’m disappointed in the Bucks defense. They’re allowing teams to shoot open shots, and opponents have a 53.6 eFG% mark against them, 27th out of 30 teams in the league. It’s great that they’ve developed Giannis Antetokounmpo into a top-10 player, but I think we know that having a supernatural player but a bad defense doesn’t get teams to where they want to go.

Cianfrone: The Cavaliers are 3-5 with losses to the Knicks, Nets and Pacers. That is bad and they should feel bad.

Have your preseason expectations changed at all?

Scogna: Not much, if at all. I wasn’t worried about the top of the league so much. I mostly focused on the rookies and young players. They’ve all had flashes, especially Ben Simmons, but they’re still having their struggles. But that’s normal.

Ladner: Not really. I don’t think we’re far enough into the season to really glean anything super meaningful about most teams. Sample sizes are too small to draw any conclusions, and I anticipate some regression back to expectations over the coming weeks.

Masterson: I wouldn’t say so, no. I expected the Wolves to be a little better, and the Warriors to be a little cleaner early, and the Knicks to be 0-∞. Simmons has been way better than I thought, but he also had a year of being very close to action, or at least much closer than he was in college. Aside from that, we’re still not even 10 games into this thing. I’m not shifting expectations until at least Christmas

Lewis: Simmons is way better than I expected. I began the season expecting an Eastern Conference team to be better than I expected ‚— Orlando and Indiana might burn out, but maybe they won’t — and I figured one of the Western Conference contenders for a playoff spot would drop out early. It was sad to see Gordon Hayward go down in the first game. I think a lot of people expected a big season from the Celtics, and now their ceiling is lower than it was in the preseason.

Cianfrone: The Pelicans have held up through injuries a bit better than I expected, though getting Jameer Nelson has helped. But outside of my belief that the Cavaliers may not waltz into the NBA Finals anymore, nothing else has really changed. It is a bit too early for that still.

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