Every NBA team comes into the season with expectations. Those expectations can range all the way from “hope our young players make progress” to “win a championship,” but every team has goals that run the gamut from realistic to pie-in-the-sky.
Of course, not everybody can meet expectations. Some teams fall short. Others fall way short.
There are currently seven NBA teams on track to finish both below .500 and at least five wins short of their preseason Las Vegas Over/Under totals. In the space below, we’ll walk through how each team got to where they are right now, whether it was foreseeable and what they might be able to do from here.
Los Angeles Lakers
Over/Under: 32.5 wins Current Pace: 27.2 wins Differential: -5.3 wins
The Lakers actually got off to a pretty decent start to the season. They were 8-10 after beating the Bulls on Nov. 21, and they had the NBA’s fourth-best defensive efficiency at that time. Young teams typically don’t stay that good at defense for long, though, and indeed the Lakers have the league’s 26th-ranked defense since Nov. 22. The issue is that the offense has not improved enough to make up for it. Lonzo Ball and company had the 28th-best offense in the NBA on Nov. 21 and check in just 23rd since that point. As a result, the Lakers have won just three of their last 15 games, and have three separate losing streaks of three games or more during that time.
In fairness, the Lakers falling short of expectations was entirely foreseeable. Everybody except Lavar Ball could see that this team was still short on immediately impactful talent, as nearly all young players tend to have muted ability to generate wins even when they are finding individual success. The youngsters have progressed in fits and starts, but the whole has at times been less than the sum of its parts.
The Lakers still have a lot of youth to build their future around, and we know Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will go big-game hunting every offseason until they land a big free agent. Whether that player comes this year, next year or somewhere down the line, the Lakers falling short of expectations this year is not likely to be too big of a setback. More important for them is making sure players like Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma make progress, while the front office figures out which players set to be free agents in the nearer future are keepers and which need to move on.
Over/Under: 32.5 wins Current Pace: 25.7 wins Differential: -6.8 wins
The Magic jumped out to an even hotter start than the Lakers. Orlando was 8-4 after the first 12 games of the season, sporting the league’s eighth-best offensive efficiency thanks to a massive team-wide leap in 3-point shooting. Orlando knocked down an NBA-leading 41 percent of its triples through Nov. 10.
Injuries then started to befell the Magic, with first Jonathan Isaac and then Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Arron Afflalo and D.J. Augustin all sitting out multiple-game stretches due to injury. Orlando is 3-16 since its hot start, the worst record in the NBA during that time. (Naturally, they’re 28th in 3-point percentage at 33.2 percent since Nov. 11.)
We’ve used this space before to write about how the Magic are on the stationary bike of insufficiency, in no better shape now than when they started their post-Dwight Howard rebuild more than five years ago. Gordon appears to have taken a major step forward this year, which is nice, but he’s also dealing with a calf injury and still not necessarily a true foundational star. The Magic are pretty nearly capped out next year already after accounting for Gordon’s cap hold, and his actual starting salary for the 2018-19 season is likely to be even higher than that given his level of play this year.
Orlando can build around his and Isaac’s unique talents at the forward spots, but they need to find a way to generate better looks at the basket.
Over/Under: 41.5 wins Current Pace: 34.2 wins Differential: -7.3 wins
A step backward was expected for the Jazz after they lost Gordon Hayward last offseason. There was some buzz that they might be able to weather the storm by playing elite defense every night, but the idea of that holding throughout the year went out the window when Rudy Gobert suffered not one, but two long-term injuries. (He missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his knee and returned to play six games before getting injured again. Utah went 7-4 in his first absence but is 3-7 since that point.)
The Jazz are 13th in defensive efficiency and 18th in offensive efficiency, and they’ve been outscored by only 0.4 points per game — indicating they’ve been pretty unlucky in accruing their current 15-21 record. Basketball-Reference’s Pythagorean Expectation pegs them as a 17-win team to this point, which would add about 4.5 wins to their projected total over the course of 82 games.
In any event, this season is not nearly a lost one for the Jazz, thanks largely to the discovery of Donovan Mitchell, who looks like he might be another foundation-level player. Mitchell is a crazy athlete and has shown way more diversity of skill than it looked like he had at Louisville. He should be able to develop into a high-level primary ball-handler, and with a player like that plus the league’s best interior defender, the Jazz are in good shape moving forward.
Over/Under: 34.5 wins Current Pace: 25.1 wins Differential: -9.4 wins
The Mavericks actually haven’t been half-bad after their epic disaster of a start. They were 2-14 on Nov. 14 and they’re 9-11 since, with wins over Detroit, Toronto and Indiana inside of the last 10 days. Dennis Smith Jr. is back from his injury, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri all look good in their roles, 2016-17 Yogi Ferrell has shown up and order has been restored to the world as Dirk Nowitzki is shooting 49-46-96 over the last 20 games after a 43-36-85 start to the year.
In other words, Rick Carlisle worked his warlock magic and has turned the Mavs into a respectable group out of thin air, like he always does.
Many of these players will not be around for whatever the (presumably) Smith-led future holds, but they can all supplement him in ways that accentuate his strengths and minimize his weaknesses to some degree or another. Carlisle said recently that Smith’s 3-14 shooting game against the Raptors convinced him that Smith will one day be great.
There are intriguing pieces around him that can stay or go, but Smith and whomever the Mavs get near the top of next year’s draft are the future for Dallas.
Over/Under: 45 wins Current Pace: 34.8 wins Differential: -10.2 wins
What’s happened with the Clippers this season was so completely foreseeable that we actually foresaw it in this space before the start of the season:
There seems to be a whole lot of downside risk with this roster, given the less than ideal fit of several pieces and the precipitous injury concerns associated with Griffin (who seemingly misses 20-plus games every year and is coming off yet another serious injury), Gallinari (averaging 23.7 missed games a year over the last three seasons) and Beverley (19.5 missed games per year over his four full seasons in the league) in particular.
The Clippers have been able to weather injuries to Griffin and/or Paul in the past, but that’s because the other guy was usually on the floor to pick up the slack. Losing Griffin for a prolonged period this season would likely prove disastrous, and injuries to Beverley or Gallinari would hamper them considerably on both ends of the floor. What happens if they fall off so far that they’re totally uncompetitive in the first round, or if they miss the playoffs altogether? This is not exactly a team built in such a way that it can improve over the course of the next few seasons. Might there be a belated blow-up if the bottom falls out?
It sure seems like that’s what is in the Clips’ future. Blake Griffin is due back from injury soon but DeAndre Jordan has hired an agent for the first time in years (seemingly to prepare for a trade), Patrick Beverley is done for the year and Danilo Gallinari is out for multiple weeks again. It would not at all be a surprise if Doc Rivers was gone at the end of the year, nor if many of the players currently occupying rotation spots were sold for future assets at some point between now and the deadline.
Over/Under: 37.5 wins Current Pace: 25.7 wins Differential: -11.8 wins
Shortly after we wrote about how the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies would seemingly never die, the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies went ahead and died. Mike Conley got injured. Memphis went on a huge losing streak. David Fizdale benched Marc Gasol. Fizdale got fired. Memphis lost some more. And now the Grizz have the third-worst record in the league. Top brass has maintained that the window is still open for this team, but boy does it look like it’s closed.
Conley and Gasol are both still wonderful players, but their respective contracts might make them difficult to trade. Chandler Parsons has cooled off after getting off to a nice start and still has one of the most undealable contracts in the league. The Grizz owe a future first-rounder to the Celtics (protected 1-8 in 2019, protected 1-6 in 2020, unprotected in 2021) so this might be the last, best time for them to really bottom-out and snag a foundational piece.
Over/Under: 42.5 wins Current Pace: 28.9 wins Differential: -13.6 wins
Yikes, the Hornets.
On track to underperform by a league-high 13.6 wins, Charlotte is in pretty big trouble. The Buzz are a Steve Clifford-coached outfit so of course they are cleaning the hell out of the defensive glass (second in defensive rebound percentage), avoiding turnovers (first in turnover rate) and rarely fouling (third in opponent’s free-throw rate), but the problem is they just can’t shoot from anywhere on the floor and their bench is an abject disaster once again.
MJ’s squad is also WAY capped out for the 2018-19 season, and worse: Kemba Walker’s contract expires at the end of that year. If they don’t find a way to right the ship between now and then (or now and the deadline), they might be better off getting out ahead of things and shipping him elsewhere for young(er) talent and/or draft picks.
Malik Monk, Frank Kaminsky and Dwayne Bacon do not an exciting future core make, and nobody is going to be excited about taking on Dwight Howard’s money. Or Nicolas Batum’s money. Or Marvin Williams’ money. Or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s money. And so on. Yeah. Things are dark.