Despite the anguish that occurs each time LeBron James misses two shots in a row or his team loses back to back, nobody is really worrying about the Heat. The Larry O’Brien Trophy still travels through Miami. We figure the Bulls will get everything sorted out whenever Derrick Rose becomes totally comfortable back out on the floor. Golden State will be entertaining and dangerous as long as Stephen Curry stays healthy. The Spurs will grind on. The Thunder will roar. Those are the stories for the long haul.
Then there are the teams that even two weeks into the season might as well have a fire pole and a Dalmatian inside their home arenas, because the alarm bells are already ringing:
Utah Jazz: It was always going to be a transition year in Utah as the team cleared out Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap and made a full commitment to the youth movement. But with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks finally getting their shot, the transition was not supposed to be a crash all the way into the basement. The Jazz have been missing first-round Draft pick Trey Burke (broken finger) at the point, but that’s hardly an excuse for their rarely even competing. They just completed a winless four-game road trip where they trailed Brooklyn by 26, Boston by 25, Chicago by 29 and Toronto by 38. This is the worst offensive team in the league by any measure — points (86.9), rating (90.4) and shooting percentage (40.1) — and are barely better on defense, ranking fourth from the bottom. They give up layups, dunks and wide-open 3s. It’s the worst start to a season since the Jazz moved to Utah in 1979 and if there aren’t at least signs of this bunch becoming regularly competitive, this always-patient franchise could push coach Tyrone Corbin out the door.
New York Knicks: What’s more embarrassing: Losing by 31 points at home to a Spurs team that might as well have been floating on its back while sipping an umbrella drink in the third quarter? Or having team owner James Dolan make a bold guarantee that the Knicks would win their next game over the thoroughly mediocre 3-3 Hawks? Really? We’re at the promising-our-guys-will-show-up-and-remember-to-tie-their-sneakers point in the season already? Look, when you go “all-in” with your pile of old chips last season and once more get only as far as the East semifinals, the talk of being a championship contender is just so much self-deluding smoke. Yes, J.R. Smith is back after missing the first five games of the season due to suspension under the league’s substance abuse policy, but center Tyson Chandler is out four to six weeks with a broken leg. The highest paid player on the roster, Amar’e Stoudemire, can’t help a lick and is more dead weight with another $23 million owed next season. Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is shooting a career-low 41.3 percent from the field, and calls the Knicks play “embarrassing.” Coach Mike Woodson called the effort against the Spurs “unacceptable.” Get ready for Woodson to pay the price is it doesn’t change quick. Never mind beating out Indiana, Miami, Chicago and Brooklyn for one of the top four seeds in the East. The bigger question is how the Knicks do it after next season and beyond?
Los Angeles Lakers: After #bearhunt and #blackout, maybe Kobe Bryant’s next hashtag on Twitter should be the not-so-cryptic #lottery. It is one thing to hope — maybe even expect — the ultra-competitive Black Mamba to not only return to the Lakers lineup from Achilles’ tendon surgery sometime in the next month or two, but to do so at All-Star form at 35 years old. But it is more than a bit unrealistic to think he’ll be able to do much more than simply pull this purple and gold limousine out of the ditch. Anybody who’s given just a glance this season already knew the Lakers didn’t play anything resembling defense (as a 47-point first quarter against Minnesota on Sunday night proved). The hobbling Steve Nash (back) is out at least two weeks. Coach Mike D’Antoni is fiddling desperately with lineups and combinations. They got their only road win of the season when old buddy Dwight Howard gift wrapped it by clanking seven missed free throws in the fourth quarter. When Pau Gasol has to body up and play defense for a full game in the middle, it leaves him sapped on offense. Knowing Bryant, he’ll come galloping back in at full speed and do everything he can to keep his team on the periphery of the playoff race. Even if he beats the odds and succeeds, the Lakers are going nowhere next spring. If the intent is to re-sign Kobe going forward, it would be better off to get him fully healthy for the rebuilt roster in 2014-15.
Brooklyn Nets: Oh, nobody’s saying it’s time to write off owner Mikhail Prokorov’s big, expensive plaything just two months into the season. But this is a team and a whopping payroll that wasn’t assembled to show patience and slow growth. With geezers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce holding down key spots, the Nets have a window of two seasons at most — and maybe even just this one — to make a real Finals bid. The vital cog in the whole machine is point guard Deron Williams, who has been unable to get back to the level where he was one of the league’s top three at his position in his Utah days. His numbers looked good on Saturday night against the Pacers, but down the stretch he committed a big turnover, then a foolish foul on a George Hill 3-pointer. He looks like anything but the strong quarterback this team needs. Brooklyn stumbles late and can’t close games. Garnett is saying that he’s got to take charge of the team and that’s not practical with the limited minutes he’ll play, no matter his Hall of Fame resume. At 2-4, the Nets can’t afford to dig themselves too deep a hole in the race at the top of the East with Indiana, Miami and Chicago and need some urgency to their game.
Memphis Grizzlies: We know former coach Lionel Hollins got to clean out his desk when he left the FedExForum, but couldn’t a security guard or somebody have stopped him from taking the defense? You can talk about Memphis’ need for a consistent perimeter scorer, solid backup guard or anything else. But the reason the Grizzlies are below .500 (3-4) is they’ve lost their claws and their identity, the part that made them the Grizzlies and carried them to the 2013 Western Conference finals. They’ve gone from the second-rated defense in the league last season to 21st. They’ve fallen from among the leagues in steals and forced turnovers to ranking in the bottom third in the league in both categories. They’re simply being outscrapped, outhustled, outworked. That rarely happened under Hollins and it’s becoming too much of an early trait under new coach Dave Joerger. “We have to get it together,” said Grind House founder Tony Allen, “and get it together soon.” The alarm bells are ringing.