The NBA is deep into its stretch run, with roughly 15 regular-season games per team on the docket. At the top of the order, the Golden State Warriors dominate headlines in their quest to best the 72-win record set by the 1996 Chicago Bulls. And the San Antonio Spurs are quietly putting together a historic run of their own. Meanwhile, in the East, LeBron’s Cavaliers continue to garner attention (and criticism), while overachieving ball clubs like the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers jockey for playoff positioning to the delight of their fanbases.
The five most disappointing teams in the NBA, however, came into the regular season with playoff or even championship aspirations, but are now struggling to simply remain competitive. These clubs have lost the goodwill of their cities with a litany of ill-timed player personnel moves, fired coaches, and toxic locker room chemistry.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Last year, at this time, the Milwaukee Bucks were about to sneak into the postseason with an eighth seed and go to war against the Chicago Bulls through six hard-fought playoff games in the first round. Jason Kidd was a coach on the rise, running the offense through the 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo and calling out a series of frenetic presses and traps to harass the opposition into costly turnovers.
This offseason, the Bucks won a $50 million bidding war against the New York Knicks for the services of Greg Monroe, kept the sharpshooting Khris Middleton in-house, and looked poised to finally roll out a healthy Jabari Parker on the wing. On paper, these young Bucks were poised to contend for a spot in the semifinals, if not the Eastern Conference crown. In reality, however, Milwaukee was a hodgepodge collection of mismatched parts and atrocious shooting.
The 2016 Bucks stumbled to a 28-38 mark and are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. At times, Milwaukee appears completely lost offensively, with defenses packing the paint and openly daring anybody besides Middleton to shoot. The Bucks did manage to hand the then-24-0 Golden State Warriors their first loss of the season. Based on that game, it looks as if the future for basketball success in Milwaukee will come when they clamp down on defense and run the floor. At least, that’s how they blew the Warriors out of the building.
4. Houston Rockets
As recently as last year, the NBA MVP award was down to the wire in a four-horse race of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and James Harden. In a photo finish, Curry won the official MVP trophy, while The Beard somehow emerged as the player’s choice for the award. However, anyone arguing that James Harden in the best player in the game today has likely not watched much, if any, of the 2016 NBA season.
Harden is now a relative afterthought as he has led an underachieving Houston squad to nowhere. After going 4-7 earlier this year, the Rockets fired Kevin McHale only 11 games into the season — a stretch that saw multiple lapses on defense, Harden jacking up ill-advised shots, and free agent pickup Ty Lawson seemingly lost out on the floor.
Without McHale, the Houston Rockets have continued their maddeningly inconsistent ways deep into the regular season. After the coaching change, Ty Lawson was promptly relegated to the end of the bench before the Rockets bought out his contract. The Rockets are now down to playing .500 ball; at serious risk of missing the playoffs altogether, after going toe-to-toe with the Warriors last season in the Western Conference Finals.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
In 2014, Kentucky head coach John Calipari declared that his former pupil, Anthony Davis, would emerge as the best player in the game, and at last season’s end, The Brow appeared to make good upon this promise — blitzing the Warriors for 32 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks per game through the opening round of the playoffs. At that point, it felt as if AD had arrived to dominate the post, knock down mid-range jump shots, set the tone defensively, and carry his franchise.
In 2016, however, Davis and the Pelicans have sharply regressed. Rather than banging inside, Davis now regularly floats around the perimeter within Alvin Gentry’s newly installed motion offense. The Brow is jacking up two three-point attempts per game, which opposing defenses will happily give up. AD’s field goal percentage has fallen beneath 50% for the first time in his career, and he’s forced to carry the load for the oft-injured Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon.
The New Orleans Pelicans now head into the final leg of the regular season with a 24-41 record and one of the worst defenses in the league, despite having Davis to anchor the middle. The Pelicans lack a real pass-first, playmaker out on the floor to get others involved without pounding the ball out of isolation sets late in the shot clock. This season, Davis let his talents and star power go to waste in a small market for a team that appears to be going nowhere.
2. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns may rival the Sacramento Kings as the most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA. The biggest difference may be in perception; for Sacramento, the drama is the rule, rather than the exception, while Phoenix was assumed to be a team on the rise out of the rugged Western Conference. In fact, Jeff Hornacek was the runner-up to Gregg Popovich for NBA Coach of the Year as recently as 2014. Phoenix fired Hornacek last February, after the team had lost 19 out of 21 games to go 14-35 at that point in the season.
The Suns were dismissed as the laughing stock of the NBA after suffering through a devastating, season-ending injury to Eric Bledsoe that left a weak product out on the floor. Still, Hornacek had clearly lost this team, as evidenced by his game-time shouting match with Markieff Morris, which finally concluded with a towel being thrown into the head coach’s face. 9
By that point, a toxic and pouty Morris had already mailed in the season, after his twin, Marcus, had been dealt to Detroit. The pair described the move as a “slap in the face,” apparently after accepting less money to remain together in the Valley of the Sun. The Phoenix front office finally put Markieff out of his misery last month, shipping the young forward off to Washington for pennies on the dollar. The Suns are now an abysmal 17-49 and looking forward to the draft lottery.
1. Chicago Bulls
In a reversal of fortunes from the Jordan Dynasty, it was the Chicago Bulls emerged as perennial championship contenders, only to be foiled by James time and time again. Last year finally appeared to be The Year. Jimmy Butler was becoming one of the better two-way players in the game, and Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose both showed flashes of the players they used to be. This stacked roster also came with the luxury of bringing three double-digit scorers off the bench, in Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, and Taj Gibson.
Last year, the Bulls were actually up against Cleveland, 2-1, before James nailed a dagger corner jumper to win Game Four as time expired to tie the series up, in front of a shocked United Center crowd. From there, King James and his Cavs went on to humiliate the Bulls 94-73, in a Game 6 elimination game. Tom Thibodeau promptly emerged as a convenient scapegoat for the Bulls’ failure, as critics ripped this former Coach of the Year for his hard-nosed style, which ran his players into the ground, at the expense of postseason execution.
Prior to this season, the Bulls parted ways with Thibodeau and replaced him with Fred Hoiberg. With the new coach at the controls, the Bulls were supposed to flourish offensively and finally own the East. Chicago, however, has lost any semblance of identity, with Hoiberg repeatedly tinkering with rotations, and Jimmy Butler struggling with the demands of stardom. The Chicago Bulls are now 32-32 and one game out of the playoffs. The Bulls, at best, may hope for an eighth-seeded berth, and then LeBron will likely sweep them out of the postseason again.