Monday, January 24, 2022

Lakers among biggest disappointments at halfway point, but LeBron James still looks like a playoff cheat code

And just like that, we’re nearing the halfway point of the 2021-22 season with the the trade deadline a month out and the All-Star break shortly thereafter. It’s still technically early in the NBA calendar, but it’s not that early. We’ve seen enough to make some honest evaluations, which look great for some teams and awful for others. 

I’ll be getting to the most pleasant surprises later this week. 

Right now, we’re looking at the five biggest disappointments, beginning with a Lakers team that could be on the upswing. 

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1. Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James is on a tear, but there’s only so much he can do with a supremely flawed roster and Anthony Davis in street clothes. Entering play on Monday, the Lakers are 21-20 and below the play-in line in the Western Conference. The Russell Westbrook deal looks borderline disastrous, and not because Westbrook has been all that terrible relatively speaking. This is just who he is, and it serves the Lakers and LeBron right for chasing a guy whose name has, for quite some time, far outweighed his game. 

The Lakers have found some success playing LeBron with four shooters sans a traditional big of late, but let’s keep their recent four-game win streak in perspective: It came against the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Kings and Hawks, who have a combined record of 62-90. The second they played an actual good team — the Grizzlies on Sunday — it was right back to losing. The Lakers are 6-12 against teams with winning records and bleed points defensively with LeBron at center. 

To be fair, they’ve been hit by the injury/illness bug like everyone else, and if Davis finds his jumper upon his return, the Lakers can maintain a lot of their small-ball advantages — better shooting and an open lane for downhill James and Westbrook basket attacks — without giving up so much defensively. 

The best news: LeBron, with a modicum of help, still looks like a cheat-code star who can disguise a mediocre team as an actual good one and the next thing you know it’s the conference finals and he’s the best player on the court. The recently soft schedule notwithstanding, there have been real flashes of a good team here. If you’re not here for Malik Monk, we can’t be friends. Austin Reaves can just play. I will go down with Carmelo Anthony, even if I know, one hundred percent, that I’m indeed going down. 

Still, this is all about LeBron, who has more 30-point games than any other player in the league. It’s just incredible how great he still is, and as such, this evaluation could look a lot different in a month, if not before that. 

But so far, there is no way to categorize a team with the likes of James, Davis and Westbrook that is operating at a .500 level — and even this could be a lot worse as the Lakers have won five overtime games — as anything other than a major disappointment. 

2. Portland Trail Blazers

When since-fired GM Neil Olshey said the Blazers’ 29th-ranked defense last season was not a product of the roster he put together, everyone knew that wasn’t the case; Terry Stotts, who led the Blazers to eight straight postseason appearances, got thrown under a bogus bus. Chauncey Billups was Olshey’s savior, and what do you know: The Blazers, who again took the route of adding peripheral guys rather than changing a meaningful core component, are once again the 29th-ranked defense. 

But with Stotts, they still won games despite this horrific defense. With Billups, the Blazers are struggling everywhere. They’re a mediocre offensive team with the seventh-worst net rating in the league. Entering play on Tuesday, they’re 16-24 and hovering at the play-in line. Yes, CJ. McCollum and Damian Lillard have missed a combined 24 games, but it’s not like they’ve been world beaters with those two in the lineup — 10-10 with a minus-2-3 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass. 

I didn’t see this coming. I’ve been programmed to believe the Blazers can overcome their defensive deficiencies with elite individual shot making enough to thrive in the regular season and represent at least a scary threat in the postseason. I picked them to finish as the No. 2 team in the West, and I predicted Lillard would win MVP. Instead, Lillard is having probably the worst season of his career. It’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine the Blazers not blowing this thing up in some capacity. 

3. Atlanta Hawks

After a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals last season that had everyone thinking they were on the cusp on contention, the Hawks are 17-22 and currently outside the play-in. Their defense is the culprit, 28th in efficiency per CTG, and GM Travis Schlenk is not happy about it. Some kind of trade feels likely. Atlanta has reportedly emerged as a strong suitor for Ben Simmons

It would make sense. Atlanta has a lot of third- and fourth-option-type wings that could be consolidated into a bigger two-way piece to the title-chasing puzzle. Last season, Clint Capela covered for a lot on the backend; this year he hasn’t been the same. Offenses put Trae Young and Capela in pick-and-rolls for pretty much any shot they want. 

Again, Atlanta has been hammered by COVID and injuries. You’d like to see how much difference De’Andre Hunter could make to the defense once he returns, but it doesn’t feel like Schlenk has the patience for that. Besides, there’s a lot more evidence that this team isn’t ready to compete even at full strength than there are reasons to believe in the core. 

Remember, the Hawks were just a .500 team when they made the coaching switch from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan last March. They beat a very mediocre Knicks team in the first round and their defense looked good against the offensively challenged Sixers. Young is a star and he nearly put them in the Finals, but the pieces around might need a boost. I say might because there are a lot of very good players on this team, and I believe in Trae’s impact come postseason time to lift the Hawks above their statistical profile. 

But at 17-22 with a doormat defense, there’s obviously reasons for strong concern. 

4. Boston Celtics

The Celtics have lost four games this season in which they’ve led by as many as 19 points, the most such choke jobs in the league. They blew another lead on Monday, up 11 on the Pacers in the fourth quarter. Jayson Tatum bailed them out with a low-percentage pull-up jumper in the corner to send it to overtime, where Boston escaped with the win, but that type of game has gone the wrong way for the Celtics most of the season. 

The Celtics are an awful fourth-quarter and clutch team. It’s been that way dating back to last season. They devolve into a stagnant collection of one-on-one jumpers. New coach Ime Udoka seems to be from the Mark Jackson and Mike Singletary school of making everything about heart and effort and poise and “wanting it more than the next guy” with little regard for putting his players in actual good positions to succeed. In his defense, he wants ball-and-player movement but has a roster full of guys who want to play out of their own bag. 

However you slice it, the Celtics are not a good team: No. 10 in the East at 20-21 entering play on Tuesday. The COVID qualifier applies, but only goes so far. This has been a perplexingly underwhelming team for going on a season and a half now. It simply doesn’t add up to the sum of its pretty considerably talented parts. Out of draft assets, might a trade of either Jaylen Brown or Tatum be the last card Boston can play

5. New York Knicks

Last season’s top-four seed was deceiving — this was a bad offensive team that got a good amount of defensive luck. Julius Randle played the best basketball of his life. This season everything has regressed to what probably is New York’s true center as an absolutely average basketball team. In that way, this season isn’t as much a disappointment as last season was a surprise. 

Still, hopes were higher than this. The Knicks are 20-21 and currently lottery bound. The rank 18th in offense and 16th in defense with a basically neutral minus-0.5 point differential, per CTG. Again, average everywhere you look with a starting lineup that’s been decimated to the tune of minus-73 for the season, the worst mark of any lineup that has played at least 250 minutes together. 

Kemba Walker was benched. Evan Fournier is extremely hot and cold and can’t guard his shadow. Randle is back to being a bad shooter who takes bad shots and has the inefficient marks to prove it. If you’re waiting on RJ Barrett to turn into something more than a rotational piece that occasionally gets your hopes up, you better make yourself comfortable. This is another team that feels ripe for some kind of big-name trade. 

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