Sports

Klein ’20: Do these NBA underperformers have any hope?

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, November 29, 2018

We are over a month into the NBA season and not much has gone according to expectation. Yes, the Golden State Warriors remain in position to win another championship. But a couple of other contenders have looked shockingly vulnerable. Almost everyone predicted that the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets would enjoy strong seasons. Boston was a popular pick to be the Eastern Conference champion, while the Rockets seemed poised to enter the playoffs as a high seed in the Western Conference. Yet neither of these 2018 final four teams has looked all that impressive, playing average or below-average basketball much of the way so far. Can the two franchises turn their fortunes around?

The Celtics have plenty of depth. The names on their roster jump off the page: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, etc. Adding in role players like Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes makes Boston’s 11-10 record all the more inexcusable. There’s no way a team this talented should have the same record as the Charlotte Hornets. But the Celtics have a lot of very real and scary problems. Hayward and Horford appear to have declined considerably, lacking their former explosiveness. Hayward has struggled coming back from a severe leg injury and can’t defend, get to the rim or shoot well right now. Horford, meanwhile, isn’t getting enough lift on his jump shot and might have lost some lateral quickness over the offseason.

The declines of these two cornerstones have furthered the confusion over team roles. Should Hayward be allowed to play crunch time minutes in his current state? Is Brown a starter and an offensive contributor beyond standing off to the side and waiting for the ball? How many ISO midrange jump shots should Tatum take? Everyone is jostling for minutes. It’s a cliché to say there’s only one ball, but it’s proven shockingly apt for the Celtics so far — there are simply too many talented players to share the ball effectively.

The Celtics should be a much improved team at the end of the season, even though their start has not impressed. Irving is playing like a new man on the defensive end, putting up much more of a fight than he has in years past. Pair that defense with his usual stellar offensive output and you have a superstar. Hayward should improve a little — while his contract has turned into an albatross, he can help shoulder more of the offensive load once he adjusts to his new decreased level of athleticism. Tatum, meanwhile, just has to rein in his shot selection a little. And it’s hard to imagine Brown continuing to play this poorly. While the Toronto Raptors have established themselves as the best team by far in the Eastern Conference, all the other contenders have their own issues. The Milwaukee Bucks have gone 8-6 after their 7-0 start. The Philadelphia 76ers narrowly escaped some defeats to poor teams. The Indiana Pacers have been inconsistent. The Celtics can still claw back to a two seed, but this is starting to look like another year where Boston falls in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Houston Rockets, however, are in major trouble. The middle of the Western Conference possesses a lot more firepower than the middle of the East, so the Rockets don’t have the luxury of waiting for a hot streak. The team has a 9-11 record, second-worst in the entire conference (which just goes to show how tight the standings will be down the stretch). Every win matters in the West. One game could decide a playoff appearance. The Rockets are mired in a four-game losing streak and seem headed in the wrong direction. I don’t have a lot of faith left in this bunch.

Chris Paul’s hamstring issues continue to bite after costing him dearly last season. Paul’s body broke down in the playoffs under the strain of heavy minutes and now those problems are back after only a few games. He hasn’t played like his usual self even when on the court. At 33 years of age, Paul simply cannot be relied upon anymore as a consistent second star next to James Harden. And he has a lot more money headed his way: $160 million over four years. That contract could get really ugly.

Houston made the right decision in quickly ditching the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment, but depth continues to be a major problem. After Harden, Paul (when healthy), Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, who can play big minutes in a playoff series? James Ennis III? Gary Clark? Michael Carter-Williams? While Ennis III has filled in admirably, there are simply not a lot of players on the Rockets I would trust to play 30 minutes against the Warriors. Or even the Oklahoma City Thunder, for that matter.

Harden continues to be phenomenal. But in the last few minutes of the game, he can’t take every single shot. That formula doesn’t work. Harden gets tired and worn down, then makes mistakes with all the opposing defensive intensity channeled toward him. Can he lead Houston to a four seed? Yes. But if the Rockets want to move past the second round of the playoffs, they need to make a trade. And fast.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.