We're into the second week of the NBA season, which, reasonable people would tell you, is obviously too early to draw conclusions. Perhaps I'm not reasonable. To varying degrees, I have concerns about a handful of teams that expect (however illogically in the case of the Lakers) to contend for a championship this season.
On a scale of 0-10, with zero representing absolutely no concern whatsoever and 10 being a hysterical 911 call, let's take a look at how panicked I would be if I were a fan of the 0-4 Los Angeles Lakers, 2-4 Miami Heat, 1-4 Brooklyn Nets or 1-4 Philadelphia 76ers.
Los Angeles Lakers: 10
This is a house on fire. Tell me one single thing about this team that gives you even a semblance of hope that it can be a top-six seed in the Western Conference. Don't say the defense. That ain't holding up. For starters, Anthony Davis will almost certainly get hurt and the collective early season effort, which has admittedly been admirable, will wane.
At best, this is a play-in team, and that's if LeBron James and Davis stay healthy for the majority of the season, which is extremely unlikely, particularly least in the case of Davis, who grimaces up and down the court like a former running back getting out of bed.
This is simple: Either Rob Pelinka concedes and attaches the 2027 and 2029 draft picks to a Russell Westbrook trade package to outfit this roster with some actual good NBA players around LeBron and Davis, or the unintentional tank is on. My guess is Pelinka won't hold up to the heat and a deal will get done sooner rather than later, because this is just too painful to watch.
Miami Heat: 4
It's not the 2-4 start or even the up-and-down play of Kyle Lowry that concerns me. It's mostly the loss of PJ Tucker. Moving Caleb Martin into the starting lineup detracts from the bench lineups, as does Tyler Herro's promotion to the first five. Covering for Herro defensively, which is an even harder assignment without Tucker, is no longer an issue the Heat can do away with by simply sitting him in closing stretches. It would be tough to do that after a guy has started for you all season, particularly considering how much Miami is going to depend on Herro for half-court creation if Lowry's consistency isn't there.
In addition, not having Tucker to play small-ball five makes life difficult in the non-Bam Adebayo minutes, which are killing the Heat in the early going. For as much as I want to believe in Omer Yurtseven, there is little reason to believe much will change in that regard.
I know it's early, but I just don't think the Heat have the horses to keep up with the top of the Eastern Conference, though I'm fully prepared to look foolish on this when Jimmy Butler unleashes his annual postseason assault on anyone and everyone who ever had the audacity to question his team-carrying powers.
Philadelphia 76ers: 4
James Harden has looked fantastic and Joel Embiid will come around. Tyrese Maxey is already good enough to swing a playoff series, maybe even two. There are genuine concerns, however. The defense, particularly in transition, has been awful, and Doc Rivers, for better or worse, appears committed to a pretty heliocentric Harden offense. That's great for Harden, who is controlling the ball for nine seconds per possession, second only to Luka Doncic's 9.9 seconds, per NBA tracking data. But how great is it for the Sixers?
Long term, you have to be at least mildly concerned how much this will neutralize Maxey, who actually puts more downhill pressure on a defense, which in turn, opens up secondary-creation opportunities for the likes of Tobias Harris and even PJ Tucker -- who showed last year with the Heat that he can still attack closeouts and finish floaters or find the next open shooter -- against shifting defenses.
With Harden doing his solo thing (albeit in half the isolation possessions we saw during his final Houston season of relevant record), Harris and Tucker largely become spot-up shooters. Does a lack of offensive involvement lead to a lack of defensive energy? Steve Kerr would say yes. That's why Stephen Curry doesn't play like Harden. And the Warriors win.
Now, perhaps Rivers is relying on Harden this heavily in hopes of preserving Embiid for the stretch run and playoffs, but frankly, I'd be more concerned about preserving Harden.
In the end, if teams take on the identity of their star player(s), I fear that this is fast becoming a James Harden team: One that wants to do all the fun things but ultimately does not care enough about defense and off-ball movement to be considered a serious threat. The talent is there, on both ends. The Sixers have played a tough schedule, so I wouldn't panic too much. Yet. But, as I said, there are genuine concerns with any team running everything through Harden while trying to cover for hims defensively, and if things are still like this in a month, we'll be revisiting this panic ranking.
Brooklyn Nets: 3
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been terrific. Ben Simmons, not so much. But I still think the fit for Simmons on this roster is too good for him not to get his game back relatively quickly. Brooklyn is 1-4 with losses to the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Bucks and Mavericks, all good-to-great teams. The Nets can play a lot of lineups that no longer have to sacrifice offense for defense, or vice versa. They're loaded with shooting and are still waiting for Seth Curry to return. These are all reasons for optimism.
My only real concern with this team are the Simmons-Nicolas Claxton lineups. Two non-shooters really jams the spacing, and at this point in time, Brooklyn's offense doesn't look like much more than KD and Kyrie trying to score. But that's not the worst plan. Put shooters around those guys and get Simmons on track, and the Nets are going to be a good team.
So why even register a panic rating? Because the Nets have no desire to be a good team. They are only interested in being a championship team and, to me, they fall short of that standard. I don't think their lack of offensive creativity is an early season thing. I think it is what it is, and The KD & Kyrie Show feels like we should expect a second-round flameout. Also, the defensive issues could be here to stay -- notably if Simmons has to play center with a bunch of small shooters already making life difficult from a matchup standpoint.