The Panic Meter
Each NBA team has played around 20 games this season. It’s a small sample size, but there’s enough evidence to officially debut the Panic Meter. On a scale of 1–10, how worried should these teams be?
Oklahoma City Thunder
Panic Meter: 6.5
I think Russell Westbrook is overrated. There, I said it. When he won MVP last year, a main pillar his endorsers stood on was that he had no help. I see it a different way: maybe Russell Westbrook is just a bitch to play with! It’s no coincidence that many of the players who left the Thunder last year are now having career-years elsewhere. Russ was the first, second, and third option for OKC last year, relegating talents like Victor Oladipo to the “stand in the corner and watch the Russ Show” role. Now in Indiana, Oladipo is on pace to be an All-Star who averages 23 a night. Also shipped to Indiana in the Paul George trade, Domantas Sabonis has proved he has more to offer than he showcased in Oklahoma City. He’s averaging 13/9/3 off the bench, making 56 percent of his shots, and thanking Sam Presti for getting him the hell away from Russell Westbrook.
Same goes for Enes Kanter. He’s starting, getting the Knicks 14 and 10 a night, irking LeBron, and trying (albeit not really succeeding) to be like Joel Embiid on social media. Most of all, he’s been accepted in New York. That’s saying something. Even Doug McDermott is playing better than he did during his stint in OKC.
The common denominator between all those guys is Russ. His unwillingness to get his teammates involved neutered the team last year and is having the same effect this season. Russ didn’t have help because he didn’t want it.
I take that back. Russ wanted help with rebounds so that he could average a triple-double, and his teammates obliged by letting him scalp missed free throws. What did Russ do in return? Jacked shots at a historic rate, broke every usage rate record, and won an individual award despite his team winning 47 games. (The Thunder also got badly trounced by the Rockets in the first round. James Harden: the real MVP!)
This season has started as embarrassingly as last year’s ended. Oklahoma City is off to the most underwhelming performance of the last 25 years: they’ve been favorites in 19 of their 20 games, but have lost 12 times. The previous record for losses when favored through 20 games was nine (13–14 Nets and 16–17 Wolves). (It’s never good to be in the company of the Nets and the Wolves. Minny is at a 6 on the Panic Meter scale.)
So if that’s the case, why is the Panic Meter not higher? Because I’m still a believer in teams cobbling together as much talent as possible and rolling the dice. And the Thunder are definitely talented. They have two-and-a-half All-NBA talents (Russ and PG, plus Carmelo on some nights), a capable center who knows his role in Steven Adams, an elite defender in Andre Roberson, and a mix of interesting vets.
The season is still only about a quarter through and most people expected growing pains with this group. The good news is that their defense has anchored them so far. In nights where its shots aren’t falling, OKC can win games by getting stops. The offense has struggled out of the gate, but OKC’s Big Three is too potent to continue to rank 24th in points per game.
I was bullish on the Thunder coming into the season, and I’m sticking by my guns. For now.
Los Angeles Clippers
Panic Meter: 9
The Clippers need an exorcism. Maybe drink some voodoo juice or concoct a magic potion or something. The franchise is cursed. Injuries have derailed yet another season for L.A.’s “other” team, they’re in the cellar of the Western Conference, and Doc might be the next coach to go.
The CP3 era was marred by injuries, dysfunction, and failing to get past the second round of the playoffs. Now Paul is out the door, but the Clippers’ fortunes haven’t changed. It’s December 1 and they have one Opening Day starter still standing. Blake Griffin is out two months, Patrick Beverley is shelved for the year, Milos Teodosic won’t be back until Christmas, and Danilo Gallinari’s ass doesn’t seem to heal. That leaves DeAndre Jordan, who is a star in his role but far from a go-to guy.
The Clips lost nine in a row and 11 of 12 (only beating their fellow Western Conference cellar-dwellers, the Mavericks) and seemed destined for disaster. But the tides turned, Griffin hit a game-winner against the Kings, the Clips staked their claim in the battle for L.A. and had suddenly won three straight.
But in true Clippers fashion, the success couldn’t last. In the Laker win, Austin Rivers tumbled awkwardly into Griffin’s knee, resulting in an MCL sprain and two months without the franchise’s star. Classic Clips, building people up to tear them down. Now they trot out Rivers, Lou Williams, Wesley Johnson, Montrezl Harrell, and Jordan as their starting lineup. Not great, but the bench is worse. Second-round pick Jawun Evans, G-League alum CJ Williams, and second-round pick Sindarius Thornwell comprise the backcourt for L.A.’s second unit, with Sam Dekker and woman-batterer Willie Reed rounding out the frontcourt. Woof.
Doc is fidgeting and adjusting his collar from the heat under his seat. It always seems like Steve Ballmer is on the verge of exploding and going berserk, but he might actually at some point this season. The outlook is bleak in L.A.
Panic Meter: 10
A perfect 10 for the Memphis Grizzlies! They have lost nine in a row and panic-fired David Fizdale. It wasn’t a well-kept secret that Marc Gasol and Fizdale didn’t get along, so the Grizzlies chose between the two. And they completely butchered it! Whenever you have to pick between Gasol, a doughy guy who was nicknamed “Man Boobs” during the 2007 Draft process, who you owe over $25.5 million in 2020 (when he’s 35) and a coach with a sterling reputation among the league’s best, you have to choose Gasol, right? Especially when Gasol had major foot surgery a year ago? Especially when your team is bound for a rebuild? Way to go, Memphis!
Even worse, Gasol was pissed off after Fizdale benched him for the fourth quarter against the Nets: “At the end of the day… I hate not playing. That’s what I value most. I’m not on the floor, it means I’m not valued. I’m sure they knew that would hurt me the most. I’m sure they wouldn’t do it to Mike (Conley). It’s just the way it is, and you have to deal with it.” Whoa! Gasol just blatantly said Memphis treats Conley better than him! You have to trade Gasol, don’t you? Look at the state of the team.
Gasol is livid, Conley is on his annual injury hiatus, the coach is gone, and the rest of the roster is trash. Rookie Dillon Brooks, a second-round pick, is third on the team in minutes per game. Tyreke Evans is channeling his inner Dion Waiters, but is still Tyreke Evans. James Ennis and JaMychal Green are question marks. Ben McLemore and Andrew Harrison are known quantities and bad ones at that. Mario Chalmers is over the hill and Chandler Parsons has one functioning knee.
Blow it up! Trade Gasol AND Conley to contenders and devour the young assets/draft picks you get in return. How about Conley to Denver for some combination of Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, Malik Beasley, and picks? Can you send Gasol to Toronto for either Lucas Nogueira or Jakob Poeltl, plus a pick? There are options available.
Instead, Memphis has doubled down on Gasol and Conley by firing Fizdale and publicly stating that they won’t start a rebuild. What a mess.
To make matters worse, the team is up for sale and will have to go through the always-awkward ownership change. Maybe the new white guys in charge will have an idea of what they’re doing. They’ll have their hands full.
Man, it made me sad just writing all that. I can’t imagine being a fan of the team like my good friend Connor LaGrone. Shut this team down!
Here’s another new section, and this one is as fake as Warriors fans. It’s similar to prop bets, where people can risk money on stupid things like how long the Super Bowl national anthem will last. Except here, you can’t even invest your fake money. It’s just a chance for me to rant about things I notice around the league. Here we go.
Stock Up: NBA fashion
NBA players take their image seriously. Arm/leg sleeves, headbands, and tattoos are aplenty. Something tells me I’m not going to see any team in my lifetime that looks like the 1958 NBA champion St. Louis Hawks:
Turns out there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in those days! While I’m (sort of) on the topic, here’s a gallery featuring a few of my favorite bad looks:
TV stations dedicate precious airtime to reviewing what players wear in the pre-game walk into the arena and in press conferences. Draftees get asked about their draft-day attire. Guys like Russell Westbrook have fashion alter-egos and their own clothing lines. With all that attention, players nowadays have personal stylists and brand managers that basically ensure we don’t look back and laugh at their clients. It’s less fun for us, but it boosts the NBA Fashion stock.
Stock Down: Keeping your cool
Mike Malone and Nikola Jokic were tossed by noted hothead Rodney Mott in a scene that seemed destined to mimick the Alabama-Minnesota “five on three” fiasco. As everyone knows, fans come to games to watch the refs, not the players, and Mott put on a show worthy of Broadway. He went on a technical foul tirade and made sure the spotlight was squarely on him.
Malone’s ejection was justified. He stormed onto the court and made contact with an official. But Jokic? More like Joke-ic. Maybe that’s a technical, but there’s not a chance in hell he should’ve gotten the boot. All the man wanted was an explanation. Mott wasn’t done, because moments later he handed out yet another T to Jamal Murray. Come on, man.
The Denver debacle was the lowlight in a bad month for coaches. Malone got suspended a game, David Fizdale got the shaft in Memphis, and for the second time in November, Gregg Popovich was ejected for colorfully telling referees that they are bad at their job. But it wasn’t limited to just coaches.
Boogie, who has been on his (relative) best behavior, relapsed by elbowing Russell Westbrook in the head, earning a flagrant-two foul and hitting the showers early. Teammate Anthony Davis suffered the same fate a few days later. AD got called for a foul on his protege Karl-Anthony Towns, lost his mind, and the entire Pelicans organization had to restrain him from wringing the referee’s neck.
Even LeBron got tossed for the first time in his career. From my seat on the couch, it looked pretty soft. Congrats to ref Kane Fitzgerald for getting his name in the paper. After the game, Fitzgerald said LeBron “threw an air punch directed at me and then he aggressively charged at me and then he used vulgarity in my ear a few times.” Soooft. “Threw an air punch” needs to be a meme or GIF or something. Toss the best player in the world for that? Ref show! (I’m going to criticize people for complaining about referees in like three paragraphs, but I had to get that out of my system.)
What the hell. Guys who are 7'3, 300 pounds shouldn’t be able to do that. (He’s listed at 7'0, 250, but there’s no way Embiid isn’t bigger than that. For comparison, Jusuf Nurkic, the guy guarding Embiid in the GIF, is listed at 7'0, 280. Embiid dwarfs him.)
JoJo is tossing up 23 and 11 despite being at 69 percent conditioning, all while trolling everyone in his path on social media and developing a cult following in Philly. Plus he’s only shooting 26 percent from three (he hit at a 37 percent clip last year). Once his outside shots start falling and he fully figures out what’s he doing, Embiid is going to be a bigger problem than he already is. He’s like the second-coming of Hakeem, apparently with a little Kareem sprinkled in. Please, please, please, Basketball Gods, let this guy stay healthy.
This little running baby-hook is also making a comeback. I had to give some love to the best rookie on the Lakers, too. Kyle Kuzma would be in the mix for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons didn’t exist. Simmons has this shot in his repertoire and it’s effective in tight quarters against longer defenders (even if he doesn’t know he’s right-handed yet).
Down: Local announcers
Skip to 4:07 and listen to these homers. How the hell do you watch that play and your only takeaway is “That should be goaltending!!”? The announcer tried to save it with a “Young kids, that’s why you keep playing” spiel, but it was too late. The moment was ruined. Instead of gushing about the whirling move by Melo and the freakish recovery by Giannis — two stars going at it — the announcers whined about goaltending. Boooo.
Local broadcasters thinly-veil their bias and it’s annoying. (Sometimes they don’t even hide it. Exhibit A: Tommy Heinsohn. I almost can’t watch Celtic broadcasts because of his homerism.) I get it, you’re a fan of the team you call games for and you have emotions like everybody else. But you’re a professional. Don’t you owe a bigger duty to basketball as a whole? Grow the game by drooling over Melo’s footwork and quickness for his size, only to be denied by Giannis’ condor-like wingspan. Blaming the refs is low-hanging fruit and it’s lame. Be better.
Up: Field goal percentage
One of the things that never fails to make me chuckle is how players constantly preach how they “don’t care about numbers” and “just want to win” but then do shit like this. Hey Marc Gasol, SHOOT THE BALL BEFORE THE BUZZER! He clearly waits until he hears the horn and then launches it. Fun fact: the Grizzlies lost this game 95–94. 95 to 94! I think they could’ve used those three extra points.
Players don’t even try to pretend like they made an effort to get a shot off anymore. This is exactly why there should be a four-point line at half-court! Think about it… no player will care about his four-point percentage, so we’ll actually see full-court heaves like this one:
- James Harden — $950 →$1,047 (+$97)
Harden torched everybody he faced in November. For the month, The Beard averaged 35/6/10 while shooting 47 percent from the field, 43 from three, and 89 from the stripe. Those are impressive numbers even for James Harden. Throw in outbursts of 56 and 48 points, 12 wins to one loss, and a closet’s-worth of broken ankles, and you’ve had yourself a month.
2. Joel Embiid — $602 →$684 (+$82)
The Process held his coming out party against the Lakers and officially put the league on “Oh God, this guy’s a superstar” notice. He’s a transcendant talent and personality — there’s not much debate about that. The question is can Embiid stay healthy. He’s done that so far, only missing three games for rest (knock on wood).
3. LeBron James — $902 →$979 (+$77)
In year 15, LeBron, who turns 33 later this month, is peaking yet again. The guy is redefining career arcs and defying the laws of science/aging/human nature by the day. His 57 points (on 34 shots) against the Wizards is the second-most ever by a player in his 15th season or later, only behind Kobe when he scored 60 in his last game (on 50 shots). LeBron is not from earth.
4. Kyle Kuzma — $343 →$416 (+$73)
The best rookie in L.A. averaged 18 points on 49 percent shooting to go with 7 rebounds per contest in November. Kuzma has proven that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan in summer league, and he’s the Lakers’ best option at power forward. Start this man!
5. Domantas Sabonis — $350 →$415 (+$65)
I touched on Sabonis earlier. He’s found greener pastures in Indiana and hasn’t looked back. If the season ended today, the Pacers would be in the playoffs. How many people expected that after the Paul George trade? Sabonis has played a major role in Indy’s success.
- Patrick Beverley — $515 →$1 (-$514)
The Clippers are cursed.
2. Blake Griffin — $777 →$560 (-$217)
3. Derrick Rose — $502 →$450 (-$52)
It’s really a shame that Rose’s body has betrayed him. He just can’t stay on the court and the injuries are finally taking a toll on his pysche. Hopefully Rose finds peace with whatever decision he makes.
4. Marc Gasol — $665 →$625 (-$40)
I wrote about Marc Gasol already so I won’t belabor the point here. But he’s a ninny.
5. Jahlil Okafor — $282 →$245 (-$37)
Philly has probably been the big winners of the first month and a half. But Jahlil Okafor has been the big loser. He’s getting DNP-CD’s because Richaun Holmes (the 37th pick in the 2015 Draft, the same draft that Okafor went third overall in) and Amir Johnson (who has no ankles) have passed him in the rotation. He doesn’t even play in garbage time. Okafor has been made very publicly available and should be getting an opportunity elsewhere in the near future.
- Cleveland Cavaliers — $1,021 →$1,154 (+$134)
It’s hard to believe that the Cavs were once 5–7. Now winners of 10 in a row, Cleveland is rolling with LeBron in the thick of things at the quarter pole of the MVP race. Even with that said, there are still question marks surrounding the team. Iman Shumpert is out two months, Tristan Thompson is nursing a calf injury, Derrick Rose may never play again, and the team is still a turnstile on defense. But they have LeBron and Kevin Love, plus they’ll add Isaiah Thomas within the next month. I’d hold on the Cavs for now.
2. Boston Celtics — $951 →$1,073 (+$122)
Cleveland’s biggest competitors in the East only lost twice in November. I think Kyrie’s MVP candidacy is overrated thus far, but there’s no denying his offensive wizardry. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are future All-Stars on the wing and Al Horford is as malleable as they come. The Celtics’ record isn’t a fluke.
3. Houston Rockets — $1,100 →$1,196 (+$96)
James Harden is neck-and-neck with LeBron in the MVP race and doesn’t seem to be affected by Chris Paul returning from injury. Houston is launching 44 (FORTY-FOUR!) threes per game. They have at least a puncher’s chance against anybody.
See “The Panic Meter.”
- Memphis Grizzlies — $782 →$580 (-$202)
2. Los Angeles Clippers — $903 →$765 (-$138)
3. Oklahoma City Thunder — $1,073 →$984 (-$89)
Jack’s Investment Corner
Buy: Tony Parker
TP just returned from a long injury layoff and will be eased back into the swing of things. His play will elevate his stock from the crater his quad created.
Buy: Jahlil Okafor
Okafor will be moved sooner rather than later, and that should allow him to at least see the floor. His stock can’t get much lower and he’s a former third-overall pick. Okafor has ability but just hasn’t gotten the chance to show it this season.
Sell: Los Angeles Clippers
Buy: John Wall
Wall’s stock is lower than usual right now because of (relative) early-season struggles and injury. He’ll be back on the court in a week and December has historically been the best month of his career. Wall averages more assists and a higher field goal percentage in December than in any other month.
Hold: Oklahoma City Thunder
I’m conflicted here. The Thunder have sucked. Their offense is slow and predictable and the vibe surrounding the team just seems off. But OKC’s defense is stellar, they’re loaded from a talent standpoint, and it’s hard to see their stock get much lower. Let’s wait and see with them.