The Celtics are 7-6, sixth in the East, lost handily at the hands of the 12-2 East-leading Raptors and finished a road swoon at 1-4. Brad Stevens said they’re not a well-coached team, Irving called for a veteran like the PSNY Jordan hoodie and recently the team addressed rumors that Terry Rozier is unhappy with his role.
Boston isn’t teetering on disaster, but things could be better through 15 percent of the schedule. The C’s offensive rating sits at 104.2, sandwiched between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls for 26th in the league. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford’s early struggles from the field, Marcus Smart’s immense difficulties hitting shots and Jayson Tatum’s volume of mid-rangers are all reversible trends but so far, have devolved the offense from mediocre to bad.
Nevertheless, Boston features the league’s best defensive rating (102.7), Irving is on fire from the field and the team boasts a significant win over the sweltering 10-3 Milwaukee Bucks. Much like their record, floating around .500, the Celts have plenty of cause for concern, but still stand far from any drastic moves to shake up the roster. Danny Ainge preached patience recently in a radio interview.
The Celtics are far from alone in a league that’s been incredibly balanced to start the ‘18-19 season. To salvage some strands of hair, its worth looking around the league at other debacles for reference. I’ll rank the panic meter through the first 13 games from 1-10 — with 1 being the least cause for concern.
1 — Toronto Raptors (12-2)
The Raptors — and to a lesser degree Los Angeles Clippers — provide hope league-wide to teams seeking to reinvent themselves in moments of crisis without completely blowing it up. The Kawhi Leonard trade, Nick Nurse’s promotion to head coach and first post-LeBron James run at claiming the east couldn’t be going any better. All of it extends from their systematic adjustments that began in 2017-18.
Only one thing lands Toronto on this list. Leonard is a free agent at the end of the season, placing immediate pressure on succeeding now. But with 49 percent of the league potentially free agents of some form next summer, what roster is static?
Toronto has set themselves apart with a 115.9 offensive rating and top-10 defense in their first month, but the Philadelphia 76ers’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler is another loud declaration that the East is no joke, at least at the top.
Leonard is back, Serge Ibaka is thriving closer to the basket in small lineups and Kyle Lowry has played productively following early disdain over the Demar DeRozan exodus. Winning cures all, and Toronto is poised to win a ton of games. They may even have snatched conference favorite status from the Celts. They play on Friday.
2 — Golden State Warriors (12-3)
All was well in Warriors World. The rest of Earth rooted for any semblance of fracture in the locker room that could break up their fairly young, legendary core that’s won three titles in four years and had their wishes granted this week.
At 11-2, with Steph Curry leading the NBA in scoring, little hope of Golden State landing on this list existed. The Lights Years Podcast debated breaking their own wins record, before everything changed in a 121-116 overtime loss to the Clippers and it became apparent what the challenges David West described after their 2018 title were real.
“The future might point back to this moment as the end,” Marcus Thompson II wrote for The Athletic.
Before overtime, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant engaged in a heated argument that Shams Charania reported involved Green challenging Durant on his impending free agency, and more. Golden State subsequently suspended Green for one game.
Anybody praying for Golden State’s demise now has at least a seed of hope. It may only grow a strand of grass, especially with Klay Thompson, Green and Curry still remaining following any impending Durant departure. But it improbably puts the Warriors on the panic meter while remaining NBA Finals favorites. Durant holds leverage over Golden State with one-year deals, a position Green apparently challenged, as the odd Durant-Curry era divide remains on a team now dealing with the spoils of winning.
3 — Utah Jazz (7-6)
The Jazz get leeway on the Celtics for their respective 7-6 start. They play in the juggernaut Western Conference and defeated the C’s in Gordon Hayward’s long-awaited return to Utah. Unlike Boston, they stand outside the playoff picture with the ninth seed in the West.
While their offense has surprisingly popped into the top-10 in offensive rating, behind hot starts from Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, the defense has lagged to middle of the league through their first 13. Only three of their regular rotation players have defensive ratings below 110, Mitchell is a -1.7 defensive box plus minus and they’ve lost twice to the Grizzlies, who are currently fighting with them for playoff position.
They’ve won three straight games to get above .500 and still hold opponents under 110 points per game — the new benchmark with this year’s scoring explosion (NBA averaging about 111 PPG). If their defense isn’t in top form, the west is so loaded with offensive powerhouses that it’ll be tough for them to compete through winning scoring battles, even though they’ve done that so far.
There’s no roster concern or impending free agencies here, but their window to compete at the highest level in the conference is volatile.
4 — New Orleans Pelicans (7-6)
What would this team do without Anthony Davis? Celtics fans would love to find out. Davis openly wondered himself in an interview with Yahoo, the faintest rumbling of discontent from New Orlean’s superstar.
Minus Demarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, the roster took steps back after a brief step forward into the postseason with a win over the Trailblazers in Cousins’ absence. Now Davis is back to a 26.6 percent usage rate. Considering those losses, 7-6 isn’t bad. Until you realize that puts them among 11 teams within four games of each other.
“I got to play almost perfect every night to give us a chance to win,” he said. “I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself, but I know it’s there.”
There’s plenty of silver lining for Alvin Gentry’s group. Julius Randle is playing where Cousins isn’t. They have five players averaging double figures. They’re third in PPG and pushed their pace into top five territory, something the Celts could learn from.
But with a superstar’s clock ticking and living in the west they’ll continuously rise up the panic meter if they fade from the West playoff picture.
5 — Boston Celtics (7-6)
Over the course of month, the Celtics haven’t overreacted but likely already watched their assumed top position in the East ceded to Toronto. Philadelphia picked up Butler following their opening-night loss to the Celtics, the Bucks are the NBA’s biggest surprise and as everybody asks what’s wrong with Boston — the conversation of whether they could beat the Warriors has transformed into a comparison with their fellow east contenders.
As some predicted, Boston is not alone in their conference.
While all eyes fixate on the Celtics’ struggles, less have followed the soaring successes the Clippers, Grizzlies and — gasp — Kings pulled off last month. All three won more than they lost, sit inside the west playoff picture and the C’s tentatively own all their picks.
The news that Irving will stay in Boston long term supersedes all of those developments, but Hayward’s difficulty returning places the largest cloud over the team. Hayward volunteered a bench role, but while marginalizing his role could provide better returns immediately it ultimately lowers their ceiling of a playoff run with him back in form.
They may have no choice but to ride the wave, despite the risk that he never fully regains his old game.
6 — Los Angeles Lakers (7-6)
“I almost cracked,” LeBron James said, discussing the Lakers’ slow and frustrating start.
The Lakers won the off season landing James, then immediately signed a bunch of short-term deals that turned heads and immediately struggled. Before long, Lavar Ball opened his mouth and Magic Johnson met with coach Luke Walton about “defense.” Still, the Lakers are out of the playoffs, and even second in LA to the Clippers.
It’ll be an uphill battle for the Lakers to make the playoffs but they’ve won five of six now and cemented some center depth and veteran leadership by signing Tyson Chandler — a NBA champion who already won a game for LA with a controversial block.
Stakes, pressure and attention will always fixate strongly on a James team and for himself and his teammates some of that turbulence appears to be fading. They’re 26th in opponent PPG in a conference where they’ll play excellent offenses regularly.
It’ll be hard for this team to stay off the panic meter with that defense, but they’ve minimized the noise early.
7 — Cleveland Cavaliers (2-11)
Back in LeBron’s former stomping grounds, this group exemplifies the panic meter. They entered 2018-19 intending to compete, they maintained veterans like Kyle Korver and JR Smith, re-signed Kevin Love to a massive contract and Tristan Thompson declared them East favorites until further notice.
The Cavaliers started 0-6, Love got hurt, and the team fired Tyronn Lue, apparently in part for not integrating young talent. Smith created a stir at one point. Then to top it off, they apparently didn’t think past the Lue firing because interim choice Larry Drew didn’t want the role without a commitment beyond 2018-19 — instead opting for the title of “The Voice.”
The voice is upset— Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada) October 30, 2018
All that happened within one month on a team that held promise in a weak conference. While the perennial losers, Nets and Magic, have taken that opportunity to break into the playoff race, the Cavaliers appear as hopeless as the first group James left.
That team went 5-8 through 13 on their way to 19-63. Drew’s Cavs are 2-11. For the first time, that level of tanking isn’t as beneficial thanks to new lottery odds. Them, the Suns and Hawks all share the same chance of the No. 1 pick — so Cleveland may not escape this that way.
Prized prospects Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman are shooting 42 and 37 percent, respectively, while Rowan’s favorite, David Nwaba, averages 11 minutes per game and former Celtics center Ante Zizic posts 7.7. Things look scary in Cleveland, but they can at least hope for Duke’s Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett.
8 — Minnesota Timberwolves (5-9)
The Timberwolves escaped perhaps the greatest spectacle of division within a team in modern NBA history. Instead of relegating Jimmy Butler’s trade request to the side and swiftly moving him before the season as the Cavaliers and Spurs did with Irving and Leonard, Minnesota let him grab the microphone and air all the team’s laundry.
Butler waving his towel on the bench alongside Warriors fans, breaking in late to practice to whoop the starters with the third stringers and cancelling road trips sporadically provided drama early in the season. Escaping with some level of pride, the Timberwolves received Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a second round pick from Philadelphia.
Now a light shines on Tom Thibodeau. He avoided the temptation to add Joakim Noah to his ensemble of former Bulls, but he boasts few successes outside of that in the team’s 5-9 start which is 14th in the West. This group is worse without Butler, but after fielding a return that complements their superstar Karl-Anthony Towns well, they should absolutely get back into the playoff race. Their situation is tough, but GM’s would go head over heals to start a new team with Towns. All of this should have Thibodeau on the hot seat, but Minnesota marches forward with only the Derrick Rose 50-point game to be excited about through their start.
9 — Houston Rockets (6-7)
Its unbelievable how poorly Houston’s season is beginning following what nearly became the most shocking championship season in NBA history. The Rockets set offensive records and largely redefined team-building in an extreme effort to build a Warriors beater. They pushed Golden State to seven games and, despite losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute appeared, poised to return to the top of the NBA.
Then Carmelo Anthony entered the equation, and while its unfathomable that the experiment could be over before Thanksgiving, the more shocking results stem from their core of James Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul. The defending MVP is shooting 42 percent, Paul’s right there with him at 41.9 and Gordon’s 7.5 player efficiency rating is worse than Gerald Green’s 8.3.
A start this horrific doesn’t feel dooming, but then I remembered the Rockets’ last Western Conference Finals run in 2014-15 was followed by a 41-41 season. Its not beyond the realm of possibility they regress again in a hard conference while posting a -3.7 net rating as a team.
It’s easy to blame Anthony as he likely leaves the picture, but with hundreds of millions of dollars and years dedicated to the core of Harden and Paul, its on them to save Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey’s grand experiment.
10 — Washington Wizards (4-9)
Ever since Kelly Olynyk lifted the C’s past Washington in Game 7 in 2017, these two teams have little in common in terms of functionality and sound decision making.
Washington talked themselves up before 2018-19, following their first-round exit and disappointing finish as the eighth seed last year. John Wall in particular lamented the Wizards’ underrated status in the NBA, and in short order they started 4-9.
Dwight Howard’s presence in a burning building fits a fun narrative, but despite his butt injury that literally kept him from sitting down, he’s factored little into their failure. Instead, their massive contract commitments aren’t living up to their deals.
Dwight Howard says he’s still dealing with the pain from his buttocks muscle injury and still can’t sit down. During games, he’ll have to lay on the floor.— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) November 1, 2018
He doesn’t know about playing under a minutes limit tomorrow.
Wall and Bradley Beal are both posting -7.0 net ratings, Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers are shooting 40 and 42 percent. Markieff Morris and Otto Porter are both averaging less PPG than Jeff Green. Ian Mahinmi, owed $15-million this season and next, is averaging 3.9 PPG.
Washington is in a nearly unfixable debacle where they likely can’t finish bad enough to get a franchise-altering pick in the draft, they have absolutely no cap flexibility, most of their deals are essentially untradable besides their best asset, Beal.
Even in the East, where pretty much everybody except the Cavs are in play to make the playoffs, the Wizards and their 29th-ranked defensive rating appear far from contention.