Pacers and Clippers Among NBA’s Most Surprising and Disappointing Teams in 2023-24 Season

By Scott Kacsmar

The NBA has been in full swing for over three weeks now as most teams have played 11 games of the 2023-24 season. We have already seen LeBron James defy his age with some great performances, Victor Wembanyama improve his odds for Rookie of the Year, and Draymond Green has been suspended for five games for choking Rudy Gobert in a clownish fight this week. Perhaps the only thing funnier than that fight are the highlights of the Washington Wizards, a deeply unserious team right now.

We have also learned that the colorful courts for the in-season tournament games are hard on the eyes, and the league may want to wait until at least December before starting these games to get fan interest a bit higher. It’s just not there yet.

But some things we have seen already were exactly what we expected to see. We said before the season started that the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets were the favorites in their respective conferences to win the NBA Finals this year. Sure enough, both have been dominant with league-best 9-2 records and the top two teams in Net Rating so far.

But what about the teams that are going against their expectations so far? Who has surprised? Who has disappointed? Who are we worried about? We wanted to take a look at those teams after three weeks and remember, this is only based on the games already played. There is plenty of time for these teams to turn it around (or to get worse).

Pleasant Surprise Team in the East: Indiana Pacers (7-4)

After a 35-47 finish last year, expectations were not high for Rick Carlisle’s Pacers this year. In fact, the Pacers were tied for the fourth-longest odds (+25000) to win the NBA Finals this season.

Through 11 games, the Pacers have been a fun, high-scoring team to watch. They started the season with a 143-120 win over the Wizards, and while they did get absolutely crushed 155-104 by the Celtics, the Pacers have won both In-Season Tournament games, including a 132-126 win over the 76ers on Tuesday.

The Pacers also survived a 54-point effort from Giannis Antetokounmpo in a 126-124 win over Milwaukee last week. These are quality wins over competitors. Last season, the Pacers were 0-4 against Philadelphia and 1-3 against Milwaukee, so they already have more wins against those teams this season.

In his fourth season, point guard Tyrese Haliburton is playing better than ever in leading this very efficient offense. Indiana is No. 1 in Offensive Rating (122.0), No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.40), No. 1 in eFG% (58.2%), and No. 2 in lowest turnover rate (12.4%). Haliburton, who made his first All-Star team last year, is averaging 24.7 points and an NBA-high 12.5 assists per game. He is also shooting 52.8% from the field and 43.6% from 3-point territory.

The Pacers are favored to return to the postseason (-178 at FanDuel) for what would be their first run since the 2019-20 season.

Disappointing Team in the West: Los Angeles Clippers (3-7)

When we did the outlook for the James Harden trade two weeks ago for the Clippers, it certainly felt like a team that would be there deep in the playoffs this year. That still may happen but it has been an awful start with a 3-7 record.

The Clippers had the ninth-best NBA Finals odds (+2200) going into the season, but they better be a grower and not a shower, because this has been bad. The idea behind this team was that it just needed its best players, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, to stay healthy. Tyronn Lue is one of the best coaches in the game, Russell Westbrook showed some improved play when he went to the Clippers last year, and this team was pushing Phoenix in the playoffs even without those stars available.

Add Harden to the mix, who has already played with Westbrook on other teams, and this would seem to work well. It still could, but the Clippers are only 3-7 despite Leonard, George, and Westbrook playing in all 10 games. Harden has played in five games already and he is only averaging 4.2 assists, a shockingly low number for him.

George has been the more aggressive scorer, leading the team with 24.7 points per game. Leonard is averaging 20.5 points per game, but his .458 FG% would be the lowest of his career.

If there is a silver lining, then it would be that the Clippers are statistically closer to a 5-5 team as they rank 15th in Net Rating (+1.1). Every Los Angeles win has been by double digits, but the Clippers have a 2-point loss in Utah, a 5-point loss in overtime to the Lakers, a 4-point loss against Memphis, and a 3-point loss in Denver against the defending champions. The Clippers’ biggest loss was 144-126 in Dallas in an in-season tournament game against old playoff nemesis Luka Doncic, who dropped 44 points.

Despite the 6-game losing streak, it is not time to panic yet for the Clippers given the close losses and good teams faced. But things are going to have to start picking up here before this goes down as the latest super team flop. The good news is the Warriors (6-6) and Lakers (6-6) are both .500, and Phoenix is only 5-6, so it has been a slow start for other contenders in the Western Conference.

On the other hand, you can argue LeBron James and Steph Curry are older than the stars on the Clippers, and they have to carry those teams more than any one player does in LA. Phoenix has also had injury issues with Devin Booker and Bradley Beal both missing games.

The best is still to come for the Clippers, but we expected better than a 3-7 start.

Surprise Streaking Team in the West: Houston Rockets (6-3)

After a 0-3 start, some probably were ready to write off Houston as the “same old lousy Rockets” after 55, 62, and 60 losses the last three seasons. But in Ime Udoka’s first season as coach, the Rockets just ripped off a 6-game winning streak, including a clutch 107-104 win over Denver where they outplayed the defending champs down the stretch and handed them only their second loss this season. The Rockets overcame a 36-point effort from Nikola Jokic.

It has definitely helped that Houston was at home for the last seven games, but the Rockets blew out LeBron James and the Lakers 128-94 after winning back-to-back games against Sacramento.

Fred VanVleet was an underrated player in Toronto and he is doing well for Houston, averaging a career-high 7.9 assists per game and shooting a high volume of 3s as always. The Rockets are even getting solid play out of ex-Memphis villain Dillon Brooks, who is shooting a league-high 53.3% from 3 and averaging 13.7 points per game.

The Rockets are No. 4 in Defensive Rating as opponents have shot a league-worst 32.2% from 3-point territory against Houston this year.

Maybe things will falter on this upcoming road trip, but it will be interesting when the Rockets take their 6-game winning streak on the road to face the Clippers this Friday, who have lost their last six games.

But 6-3 is exciting for a team that needed 22 games to get its 6th win last season.

Disappointing Team in the East: Cleveland Cavaliers (5-6)

The Cleveland Cavaliers were a 51-31 playoff team last season that succeeded with the addition of Donovan Mitchell from Utah. Expectations were a little higher this year, but so far we have yet to see Cleveland win back-to-back games.

The Cavaliers started the season with a 1-1 record in two coin-flip games that came down to the final seconds. But they lost by at least 12 points at home to both the Pacers and Knicks, lost another game in Indiana in the in-season tournament, and the only wins to really celebrate at this point have been the pair against Golden State.

We’ll get a good test of where the Cavaliers are with upcoming games against the Nuggets and 76ers, but first, they will host Detroit on Friday night in another in-season tournament game.

In Cleveland’s defense, Darius Garland has a neck injury and has missed five games. But even when he’s played, he is only averaging 17.2 points and 6.2 assists per game. He was at 21.6 points and 7.8 assists last season. The Cavaliers are just +1 with Garland on the court this season.

Cleveland is No. 19 in Offensive Rating and No. 16 in Defensive Rating, so both sides of the court have been mediocre this season. The Cavaliers were already in a lower tier in the Eastern Conference behind the likes of the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers. But their start is not going to impress any skeptics.

Surprisingly Disappointing Team: Milwaukee Bucks (7-4)

Our final team is in a class of their own as we are both disappointed and surprised by the way the Milwaukee Bucks have played so far this season. Yes, 7-4 is a solid record, but this team was 10-1 to start last season. The experiment of adding Damian Lillard to this team in place of Jrue Holiday probably should have raised some concerns over the start of the season and building chemistry.

But if you have been betting on player props for Milwaukee games, you can’t help but feel a little disappointment here. Lillard had that incredible 39-point debut in a close win over the 76ers on opening night, then he scored 6 points on 2-of-12 shooting the next game in a 17-point loss to Atlanta.

While Lillard had 13 assists in his last game against Toronto, he is only averaging 5.7 assists per game, which would be his lowest season since 2013-14. Lillard’s FG% (.386) and 3P% (.286) would be the worst seasons of his career, though it was just two years ago in Portland when Lillard had a similar slow start. Through 12 games that year, Lillard was shooting .380 from the field and .254 from 3. We’d like to say he snapped out of it, but injury limited Lillard to 29 games that season.

Even Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed like he was hesitant to shoot in this new offense, but he has since scored at least 35 points in three straight games, including a 54-point night.

Load management has also come for Khris Middleton, who averages 19.1 minutes per game – seven Milwaukee players average more minutes – despite still being a starter. His role has been greatly reduced in this new look for the Bucks.

Statistically, the Bucks do not look like a 7-4 team, let alone a dominant title contender under new coach Adrian Griffin. Milwaukee is 24th in Defensive Rating, 18th in Net Rating (-0.7, the worst for any team with a winning record), 29th in assist rate, and 26th in rebound rate.  

Maybe this is sour grapes about the player props being so hard with this team right now, though the lack of assists in this offense does seem like a genuine concern. Maybe our expectations were too high for Lillard to smoothly transition into a new team with a new coach after spending his entire career in Portland.

But the Bucks have not been must-see TV just yet this season. We’ll check back later in the season to see where these teams are after they’ve had more time to adjust to the changes this offseason brought.

However, our eyes probably still won’t adjust to the bright courts used in the in-season tournament games.

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