One Tweak Every NBA Team Must Make to Get on Legit Playoff Contender Track
Every NBA team has its very own flaws and weaknesses and only a dedication to making adjustments in those areas can help the team make a run at the title.
Whether it be a free agent signing, a lottery draft selection, a blockbuster trade or just practice, every team has to develop and evolve to put themselves in contention.
The Hawks have an undersized starting frontcourt to begin with when looking at the combination of Josh Smith and Al Horford. Smith has been impressive thus far but he is still a combo forward as opposed to a true power forward and Horford is at very best an undersized center.
Vladimir Radmanovic and Zaza Pachulia round out the Hawks frontcourt but they don’t supply the necessary consistent rebounding and post presence to make a run at the title.
The Hawks will either need to make a play for a big through trade, or pick up one of the remaining veterans on the market such as Joel Pryzbilia.
If this team continues to play at a high level they could be serious competitors for the crown this season with the acquisition of one more veteran big.
Solution: Frontcourt Depth
Route: Sign or Trade
Paul Pierce has been struggling ever since his return from an injury that sidelined him for the first three games of the season.
Pierce, a career 22 points a game guy, is putting up only 14 points and on a measly 37 percent shooting.
Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Celtics squad has to find a way to manufacture high quality looks and easy opportunities for Pierce to get both his rhythm and confidence back.
Once the Celtics get Paul Pierce back on track they will have another offensive threat to compete in a loaded Eastern Conference.
Solution: Getting Pierce Back on Track
Route: Doc Rivers/Rajon Rondo Offensive Structure
I don’t think anyone in their right minds would refer to the Bobcats as viable contenders for the NBA trophy this season, but that shouldn’t stop them from attempting to make moves towards that ultimate goal.
The Bobcats are very clearly missing a star player. The market and location of the franchise makes it difficult to make a move for a player of that caliber, but they will either have to take a big risk on a free agent, get lucky with a trade opportunity or do it the old fashioned way: through the draft.
Each franchise’s success starts and ends with the leadership and production of its superstar, and without one you are already removing your team from contention.
Solution: Star Power
Route: Draft or Sign
Its hard to say that the Bulls are missing a significant piece considering they are currently, in my opinion, the second best team in the league, but they do need another offensive option.
Rip Hamilton was a great pickup and adds another dimension to their offense, but they are still missing Carlos Boozer’s paint presence.
They need Boozer to be what all of Chicago was expecting him to be after the Bulls signed him to that lucrative, long-term contract in the 2010 offseason.
Boozer’s stat line of 13 points and eight rebounds would be phenomenal if he were playing third fiddle to a duo comparable to Kobe and Pau or Durant and Westbrook, but it isn’t adequate enough when he is expected to get at least 18 points while simultaneously drawing defensive attention away from reigning MVP Derrick Rose.
Solution: The Emergence of Carlos Boozer
Route: By Whatever Means are Necessary on Tom Thibodeau’s Behalf
Franchise point guard Kyrie Irving has been solid with averages of 17 points and five assists a game on 47 percent shooting, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that he is performing the typical rookie mistakes.
Co-draftee Tristan Thompson has been playing well in limited minutes so far, putting up almost eight points and five rebounds a game, but still needs to mature extensively.
The two haven’t been the saviors of Cleveland but they are a good start to a franchise still feeling the after affects of the LeBron James’ debacle.
They’re a star player and mentor away from making run at the playoffs, but far from title contention.
They’ll have to continue to rebuild in order to contend but a good start would be another young, star player to compliment Irving.
Solution: Potential Star
Tyson Chandler left a gaping hole in the Mavs’ frontline following his exit this offseason. I don’t know whether Dallas expected the acquisition of Lamar Odom combined with some sort of solid play out of Brendan Haywood to fill that void, but so far that experiment has failed miserably.
Odom is averaging a shad under seven points and five rebounds a game on 31 percent shooting in arguably his worst season ever, while Haywood is only putting up five points and six rebounds.
If the Mavs’ have any hopes of repeating they’ll have to somehow mask their frontline—at least for the rest of this season.
Solution: Defensive Big
Route: Dwight Howard
The Nuggets legitimately have four guys who can score 20 on any given night. They boast threats from nearly every position and have the perfect mix of youth and experience.
The one thing they are missing is their depth from last season.
Denver went ten deep last season and could toggle between two starting lineups. With the losses of J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and especially Wilson Chandler, who I felt was their best player at the end of last season, they are missing that depth.
The team will either have to find a way to get these guys back from China, sign similar players or make a play for a superstar to round out this explosive squad.
Solution: Added Depth
Route: Getting Guys Back from China
Their signing of average players like Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to superstar-like contracts was the beginning of a downward spiral for this club, but they hit an all time low last season when they experienced a near mutiny while players protested coach Jon Kuester.
Now, although they have gotten rid of Kuester, they are still in need of a strong-willed and structure-based coach who can draw them out of this depression and into another Pistons’ golden age, and unfortunately, their current coach isn’t the guy.
The Pistons are going to experience a magical turnaround if they get a high profile and successful coach, but it is a good start for a team in the midst of turmoil.
Solution: New Direction
Route: Signing a Proven Coach
Golden State Warriors
Surprisingly, the team does have a package of players to send to Orlando that could compete with that of the Lakers, Mavericks and Nets. Monta Ellis and David Lee would most likely be the centerpieces of this prospective trade, but only time will tell as to whether or not the Magic plan on holding on to Dwight or opening up the trade talks again.
Regardless of whether or not this trade goes through, the Warriors need to find a strong, defensive, but not offensively inept, center to round out their roster.
The team will probably have to find this player through trade since they currently don’t have a player of this caliber on their roster and their draft picks tend to be too high to find a franchise player.
Solution: Defensive Center
Whether that identity should be brought through a coach, veteran or leader is insignificant, but the fact of the matter is that they do in fact need a paradigm shift on the defensive end of the court.
They are currently 25th in the league in points allowed, and while their offensive production is adequate enough, it is being offset by their lack of defensive prowess.
Solution: Defensive Dedication
Route: Coach or Veteran Defensive Player
I am very high on the Pacers. They proved themselves worthy of attention during their first round playoff stand last postseason against the Bulls, and have made themselves upset nominees after the acquisitions of George Hill and David West.
The team has been phenomenal through their first 12 games and has shown a lot of dedication on the defensive end. They currently rank third in points allowed and fourth in rebounds.
Danny Granger and David West—the team’s supposed foundational players—haven’t lived up to expectation so far.
Granger, the team’s franchise player, has been putting up 15 points a game on only 33.5 percent shooting. He’ll have to look for higher quality shots considering he is the team’s primary source of offense and playmaking.
The team’s other experienced centerpiece, recent signee David West, is averaging a little under 11 points and seven rebounds a game, despite being a highly touted acquisition this offseason. He’ll have to return to his pre-Indiana form to become a threat.
The Pacers have a shot at finishing third in the Eastern Conference this season if they stay healthy and continue playing with confidence and defense, but if they want to make a run at the title they will have to instill a sense of and need for leadership in Danny Granger and David West.
Route: Danny Granger and David West
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have narrowed the margin between ordinary and extraordinary by acquiring Chris Paul this offseason. The tandem of Paul and superstar Blake Griffin could be enough to catapult them to the top of the Western Conference, but they will first have to show cohesiveness and defensive commitment to become true contenders.
They rank 21st in points allowed and 28th in rebounding.
DeAndre Jordan will have to become more selective on shot blocking attempts and more dedication to defensive rebounding. He is getting in foul trouble far too often and too quickly considering the amount of responsibility the Clippers have imparted on him.
There is no denying that Blake Griffin is a high flying acrobat and human highlight reel, but he hasn’t been effective enough on the defensive end at this point in his career to give him the title of an all-around and complete player.
Solution: Defensive Maturity
Route: Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have come out just as I thought they would at the beginning of the season: sluggish yet somewhat successful.
The team is first in the Pacific Division and boasts arguably the league’s best defense. Mike Brown’s defensive strategies and philosophies have been evident so far, but then again, so has the lack of offensive options besides the Black Mamba.
Bryant has been a surprising bright spot for the team so far, putting up over 32 points a game on over 46 percent shooting, despite playing with a torn ligament in his shooting hand.
Being the biased, blind-to-the-facts Laker fan that I am, I am somewhat obligated to say that the team still has a shot at the title with this current roster, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t.
There are two routes to the ultimate solution, but both revolve around the same idea: more scoring options.
The compacted schedule will eventually take its toll on Kobe and when that happens somebody else will have to step up. This individual could be a player on the current roster or could be acquired over the following months.
Either way, an offensive-minded change has to be made.
Solution: Other Scoring Options
Route: Development of Current Player(s) or Trade
The Grizzlies have the right personnel to make a title run, but only when everyone is healthy.
Last season it was Rudy Gay who suffered a season-ending injury and this season it is the Grizzlies’ postseason hero Zach Randolph who could be out for another month and a half. In this year’s compacted schedule that could mean nearly 20 missed games.
This is one of the only teams that I don’t think has to make any big changes, moves or acquisitions to be competitive; they just need everyone to be healthy come playoff time.
Route: Zach Randolph
I honestly believe that regardless of any circumstances that could possibly arise, the Heat will win the NBA Championship this year.
They currently have the best offense in the league bar none, and have already shown their defensive dominance on multiple occasions.
They have two of the greatest and most complete perimeter players in the game today, and one of the league’s best bigs in Chris Bosh.
Their only flaws are a lack of an interior presence and fourth quarter production, but they seem to mask those deficiencies extremely well through a high-octane offense and an extremely quick, rotating defense. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will have to figure out the fourth quarter situation though, in order to close out games successfully.
Unless two of the Big Three get hurt for a significant part of the postseason, the Heat should have no problem coasting—and yes, I said coasting—through the playoffs this year.
Solution: Closing Out Games
They run about eight players deep (maybe further), but have been subpar through their first nine games.
There is no doubt that they are still lacking a superstar, but they aren’t as far away from contention as many might think given their performances in recent seasons.
Brandon Jennings is an elite point guard and Andrew Bogut has proven himself to be one of the best bigs in the league when healthy.
Drew Gooden, Mike Dunleavy and Stephen Jackson, when he’s not complaining about his salary, are proven and experienced veterans.
Give them a player of Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala or Danny Granger’s caliber and see what they're capable of.
The team has been average for very long, which might hurt their ability to get this player through the draft, but a big singing or trade isn’t far-fetched. Most likely, a trade is necessary given the market and location of the Bucks franchise, though.
Solution: Young Superstar
Route: Trade or Signing
They have put up fights against the Thunder, Heat and Grizzlies and have five losses of four points or less.
What this all translates to is a lack of maturity and experience. They don’t have the knowledge or wisdom late in games, let alone in the postseason, to pose a threat night in night out.
The pieces aren’t quite there yet either, but the most glaring blemish on the otherwise electrifying squad’s resume is a lack of experience. That experience will come with time, like most knowledge and skill does, and, as unfortunate as it is, it won’t just develop out of thin air.
New Jersey Nets
Deron Williams is without a doubt one of the league’s top five point guards, but he won’t be residing in Brooklyn next season if he has to compete with a crew that doesn’t have Dwight on it.
The Nets have an attractive offer for the Magic with Brooke Lopez, two draft picks and other considerations, but unfortunately Lopez is currently hurt.
It is also an attractive destination for Howard considering the team’s move to New York next season.
The Nets will have to somehow manufacture a deal that lands Dwight in Brooklyn next season or they will not only miss out on one star, but lose their current one too.
Route: Dwight Howard
New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets unfortunately got rid of a once in a generation point guard in Chris Paul, but considering the circumstances and David Stern’s reluctance to allow the Lakers to receive CP3, the team came away with as good of a deal as possible.
They now have a franchise guard in Eric Gordon, a rising forward in Aminu and a potential lottery pick in this year’s upcoming draft to start the rebuilding process with.
Considering the location of the franchise and the fact that it is a small market, it is unlikely that any big name free agents will be drawn to the Big Easy. This means that the team will have to look first and foremost to the draft to begin manufacturing a young, exciting team in hopes of future playoff contention.
The only way they are going to lure Eric Gordon back after his contract expires is with the prospect of a promising future.
Don’t expect the Hornets to be back into contention anytime soon, but do look for them to make intelligent and savvy drafting moves over the next several seasons.
Route: Intelligent Drafting
New York Knicks
The Knicks are the most peculiar team in the league in my opinion. They have an abundance of talent, but seemingly no direction, structure or enthusiasm. You never know which team is going to show up on a night-to-night basis.
‘Melo is arguably the best scorer in the league when hot and Amare is a powerful and explosive threat from 15 feet in, but neither show signs of life on the defense end. I truly question their motives and commitment to winning considering they display such a blatant disinterest in leading a lifeless ‘D.’
Tyson Chandler was an exceptional pickup but one man cannot anchor a defense that shows very little signs of commitment and/or interest in stopping scoring.
The pieces are there in the Big Apple. Mike D’Antoni will just have to find a way to put it all together and foster a passion for defense considering his stars won’t do it on their own. If he isn’t able to, Dolan will have to find someone who will.
Route: Mike D’Antoni
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are probably the team with the biggest upside in the league today. They are freakishly athletic and have two marquee players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. James Harden is a solid third option and bigs Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are familiar and comfortable with their respective roles.
For a team that has already proven themselves as an elite squad and shows such great chemistry on and off the court, it is sad to say that the solution might be shipping off Russell Westbrook.
There is no question that he is one of the league’s most talented, athletic and explosive guards and is in the ranks with Derrick Rose as far as statistics go. But he is far too inconsistent, ball dominant and removed from the Thunder’s game plan to thrive in their system.
Kevin Durant and Westbrook have clashed on several instances, resulting in heated exchanges and shouting matches—and that’s just what we see on national television.
Westbrook takes away from Durant’s scoring ability and leadership and veers them away from the potential potency of the Thunder’s offense.
I thought that a great opportunity for the team would’ve been trading Westbrook for Chris Paul this past offseason, but now that that possibility has passed they need to look elsewhere. Westbrook is one of the most valuable assets in the league today considering his potential, experience and talent, and the Thunder could receive a lot in return for him.
Not only will this move create a more cohesive and productive on-the-floor unit, but it will solidify Durant’s title as the franchise player and leader.
I’m not saying that this move needs to happen this season, but if the experiment continues to hit a wall, I say Westbrook needs to go.
Route: Trading Russell Westbrook
This is a tough one, especially considering the Magic’s recent success.
There are two routes you could go with this team:
A) Start the rebuilding process, ship off Dwight Howard for a multitude of pieces (pieces that owner Otis Smith has said wants to be veteran players capable of competing this season) and make a run at the title with a different squad,
B) Somehow get Dwight to stay by making a blockbuster deal that brings in another all-star to compliment Dwight and give them a chance at a ring for the next 5-7 years.
It is hard to say which route is the best but a path needs to be chosen before the trade deadline or else the Magic run the risk of losing the best big in the league for nothing. Orlando will undoubtedly experience the LeBron James effect that Cleveland fans have become so accustomed to over the past year plus.
Any time you have the chance of keeping arguably the most valuable player in the league, you do it without hesitation. But when that possibility becomes complicated by the player’s indecision and hesitation to resign, it’s probably time to ship him off.
Route: Trading Dwight Howard
The 76ers have made a huge leap from last season. They’ve gone from average to elite in the matter of months. And the good news is that it doesn’t seem as if they’ve climaxed just yet.
They stun opponents with their length, athleticism and quickness both on the offensive and defensive ends.
This young 76ers squad is just exactly that: young. In order to take the next step to being one of the top four or five teams in the league though, they’ll need to mature.
Maturation comes with experience, and experience is developed over time through trials and tribulations.
I don’t think that the 76ers need to make any major moves or acquisitions, although it would only benefit them to get a younger cast that could grow with the core cast, but instead need to be patient and resilient.
Route: Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young
The Suns have been a competitive team in the west for the past decade but have never really threatened the throne. Steve Nash has pushed them to the brink of success, but they haven’t had the necessary pieces to catapult themselves to a championship.
After Amare Stoudemire left the deserts of Phoenix for New York City, the Suns have been struggling to find a big to replace his production and impact. Steve Nash is arguably the greatest and most efficient playmaker in NBA history, but one man can only do so much.
My best suggestion for the franchise to is start fresh. Not only does the team need to develop a new identity and head in a different direction, but also they owe it to veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill to give them a shot at an NBA title.
Route: Trading Steve Nash and Grant Hill
This Blazers team has been absolutely riddled by injuries. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are the primary recipients of these injuries, although Lamarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby and others have experienced unfortunate circumstances as well.
Brandon Roy was at one point the second best shooting guard in the Western Conference, and now he’s restricted to watching NBA games from the couch.
The other potential star, Greg Oden, has never lived up to the hype of being an elite big man in the NBA. He has played the equivalent of one NBA season in four years, and that’s not even including this season that he’s already set to miss. This situation is complicated by the fact that the Trailblazers could’ve had superstar forward Kevin Durant in his place.
What it ultimately boils down to for the Blazers is a combination of keeping the current roster healthy and drafting players who don’t have a history of injuries (i.e. Greg Oden) or a playing style which contributes to the possibility of getting hurt.
Route: Rehab and Drafting
This is no longer the Kings of the early 2000’s that was able to sign solid free agents and assemble competitive squads.
Their market and current cast make it difficult to both attract and afford a big name free agent, which is why they have primarily put this team together through the draft.
They have very valuable assets like Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson and Marcus Thornton, and with the recent request of DeMarcus Cousins to be traded, I’m surprised they haven’t attempted to put together a deal for a star—maybe one Dwight Howard?
A package of DeMarcus Cousins, J.J. Hickson, Marcus Thornton and a draft pick or two would rival any other deal out there currently. I understand the issue would be getting him to resign, but if they were able to keep Tyreke, a proven 20 points, five assists and five rebounds guy, while picking up another solid prospect or proven veteran they might have a shot at a title immediately.
Route: Trade or Draft
San Antonio Spurs
They have continued to disprove the experts by staying competitive despite an aging roster. Eventually though, that age will catch up with them and will force them to start the rebuilding process.
My recommendation is that they make a decision to either definitively start that rebuilding process sooner than later while veteran players still have value, or bring in a few more pieces to put them at the top of the west.
If they were to go the rebuilding route they have valuable pieces in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Richard Jefferson; players that are coveted on already competitive teams.
If they were to go with the “win now” mentality, which is the path that they currently seem to be on, then they need to bring in more pieces to support Parker, Ginobli and Duncan, especially during Ginobli’s absence.
Solution: Making an Ultimatum
Route: Bringing in Veterans or Blowing Up the Roster
The Raptors have one of the most unpromising lineups in the league today. DeRozan and Bargnani are the bright spots of this club, but on a traditional team, they would probably be the second and third options—at best.
Even before losing Chris Bosh to free agency, it was hard to say that they were challenging the crown each year. They were a slightly above average team in the east riding the efforts of the typical superstar.
This is the first team that I am going to make this recommendation for, but I think it is a valid solution. The Raptors need a change of scenery.
There is no arguing that the NBA’s experiment in Canada has been great and has allowed the league to expand its influence and level of interest, but they haven’t ever had a shot at a title because of their location. Unless the team is aiming Canada natives like Steve Nash and Joel Anthony, it’s hard to bring in free agents and keep draftees long-term.
The team has ranked in the lower half of attendance for several years and it isn’t about to change.
This isn’t a situation that can change with a different owner, coach or another substantial draft pick like Chris Bosh. The team will always struggle to be competitive unless they make a move to a more desirable location.
Now, I understand the outlandish nature of this statement and how unlikely it is to occur, but it is something that should seriously be considered if the NBA wants to improve competition across the board. Isn’t that what Commissioner Stern was trying to achieve with this year’s collective bargaining agreement, and wasn’t that what he was doing when he vetoed the Lakers trade for Chris Paul?
Solution: Attract Free Agents
Route: Location Change
The Jazz have exceeded expectations so far this season, posting a record of 7-4.
They have a phenomenal young cast, primarily based around their depth at the power forward and center position. Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap and Devin Harris are the leaders of this team, but forwards Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter might be the most desirable prospects.
The team has attempted to draft wing players over the past two drafts by selecting Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks, and although they are both still young and developing, neither has shown signs of being the team’s answer on the perimeter.
They are far too one-dimensional on the offensive end and tend to pound it in the paint without keeping the defense honest with strong outside shooting and penetration.
Devin Harris is the team’s only true ball handler and playmaker.
In order to put together a more well-rounded and dimensional offense, they should look to trade one or two of their big men for either proven perimeter players, or for high draft picks that could potentially land them a prospect in this year’s draft.
Solution: Perimeter Player
Route: Trade One of the Young Bigs
I don’t even know where to start with the Wizards. They are a long way out from championship contention.
John Wall is a supreme point guard, but is still making rookie mistakes and turning the ball over far too much.
Nick Young, Andray Blatche and Javalee McGee are players who have all hit their ceilings as far as development goes and exhibit no signs of wanting to participate in the team’s game plan.
They are a long way out from even getting back to playoff contention, let alone winning a ring, but they need to start by purging themselves of everything that currently has to do with the Wizards franchise with the exception of John Wall.
This process should start with the firing of Flip Saunders, and end with the trading of the aforementioned players in hopes of creating a different atmosphere in the nation’s capital.
The rebuilding process will be slow and painful, but it has to be done.
Route: Blowing Up the Roster