NBA Playoffs: Biggest Question Mark for Every Contender
It's playoff month.
Every NBA team will spend the next 3-4 weeks of April cramming in the remainder of their condensed schedules before the onset of the postseason. And while there are plenty of tightly contested races as we get into the stretch drive, the true contenders for a title have long since been clearly established.
There are probably 10 teams that have a shot at a title—five of whom actually have a real shot, but that's another column—but even though they are the cream of the crop, they all have at least one flaw, one question mark, that could derail their championship hopes.
Let's take a look at each NBA title contender and what ails them.
1. Memphis Grizzlies: No Alpha Dog
It's true. The Grizzlies are a fringe championship contender. Even a gigantic media conglomerate spin-off site thinks so.
The thing with the Grizzlies, who stunned the top-seeded Spurs then gave Oklahoma City everything it could handle in last year's playoffs, is that they have no real go-to guy.
Zach Randolph, last year's star, is coming off a major knee injury. Rudy Gay is really good but not a superstar. Marc Gasol is one of the league's top centers but often fades into the background when Randolph is out there next to him.
Memphis will run seven or eight very good players at you. But none of them are among the upper echelon of NBA talent. No one takes over. Randolph is capable, but it's too soon to see if he's his former self coming off knee surgery.
In the playoffs, you need at least one guy to give the ball to and get out of the way of in isolation. Dallas has Dirk. Oklahoma City has Durant. Chicago has Rose. Boston has Pierce. Miami has LeBron and Wade.
Who does Memphis have?
2. Boston Celtics: Age, Depth
It seems hard to fathom that the Celts are actually contenders given their truckload of shortcomings. However, they're playing as well as they have at any point this season and yesterday's destruction of the Heat was certainly the high point.
The C's have won five straight—all without Ray Allen—and are 15-5 since the All-Star break, the league's second best mark over that stretch. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two of the team's senior citizens, are enjoying their best runs of the season. Rajon Rondo, as he proved against the Heat, is capable of being the best player on the floor in any given game.
Still, the same problems that have plagued the Celtics all year remain. They still have very limited depth and a questionable bench. The only time Miami even had a sniff of a chance on Sunday was in the first six minutes of the second quarter when Rondo, Pierce and Garnett were on the bench.
And those aged legs aren't getting any younger. The next couple of weeks, in which the C's play a bunch of back-to-backs against top quality competition with few off-days, will tell us a lot about what to expect come playoff time.
If they can hang on to the No. 4 seed, thus avoiding a seven-game series against the Bulls or Heat until later on, their chances of doing some damage increase.
Of course, if Avery Bradley can handle Dwayne Wade the way he did on Sunday, who knows?
3. Orlando Magic: Immaturity
Does anyone know what the Magic are going to do on a given night?
Even their coach Stan Van Gundy has to be completely perplexed. Maybe they'll win three in a row against Chicago, Indiana and Miami, like they did a couple weeks ago.
Or maybe they'll lose to the Knicks by 22 on a night both Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin don't play, like they did last week.
The point is, the Magic, as a group, are immature. Dwight Howard has the market cornered on that quality, as evidenced by his behavior all year regarding his impending free agency. But it certainly looks like the rest of his teammates have fallen in line.
It can't help that Orlando's coaching staff now has to babysit Glen Davis on a daily basis. Or that Big Baby, Howard and Jason Richardson—having by far the worst season of his career—were reportedly out partying in New York until 3 a.m. the night before that hideous loss to the Knicks.
There are other issues as well. The Magic just don't seem as engaged on a regular basis as a team with real title hopes needs to be. And that will be their undoing.
4. Dallas Mavericks: Focus
The defending champs have had, to be kind, an up-and-down year.
Dirk Nowitzki missed games because he wasn't in shape. Shawn Marion has missed games with a knee injury. Jason Terry has openly groused about his role on the team beyond this season. Rumors of Dwight Howard and Deron Williams coming to Dallas have circulated. Vince Carter plays for them.
All this noise and it's not hard to see why the Mavs have followed up their first ever championship season with an unfocused, inconsistent campaign. Dallas is currently the No. 5 seed in the hotly contested Western Conference and are much closer to being out of the postseason (three games) than in first place (10.5 games).
The Mavs still have Nowitzki and he's still a killer. Terry can still take over a game in the fourth quarter. And Rick Carlisle, easily one of the league's five best coaches, is still at the controls.
But their slow start and lack of consistent focus to this point means they may have to start the playoffs on the road against tougher competition, which means a tougher run to get back to the Finals.
5. L.A. Clippers: Coaching
The ship has steadied somewhat for L.A.'s other team, which has won five in a row since rumors of coach Vinny Del Negro's imminent departure were running rampant.
But why? Is it because the players had a collective change of heart and suddenly got behind Del Negro? Or is it because the Clippers had a five-game homestand, four of them against cupcakes?
Regardless, Del Negro is on more solid ground now thanks to the winning streak and a public vote of confidence from owner Donald Sterling. The Clips head into April fourth in the West, just a game behind their in-city rivals.
But five of their next seven are on the road. Four of those five road games are against the Mavericks, Lakers, Grizzlies and Thunder.
Now that the home cooking of the past week is gone, some of the Clippers flaws that got Del Negro into hot water in the first place—inconsistent rotations, disorganized, unimaginative offensive looks—could be magnified again.
And if they lose a couple in a row, who's to say some of the players who were reportedly none too thrilled with Del Negro 10 days ago will suddenly sour on him again?
6. L.A. Lakers: Fatigue, Coaching
This week on As the Lakers Turn...
Hands wrung over how many minutes Kobe Bryant is playing. Andrew Bynum, continuing to prove that his childish behavior in last year's playoffs was no fluke, got himself benched by coach Mike Brown for hoisting a three-pointer at a crucial juncture of a game.
And more and more evidence mounted that the team, apparently disinterested in listening to anyone who's name isn't Phil Jackson, has tuned out Brown, in his first year at the helm in L.A.
Kobe may be tired. He may be shooting too much. Bynum may be an overgrown 11-year old. Pau Gasol may still not be over all the trade rumors. The owner's son may be ruining the team.
But amidst all the drama, the Lakers are still atop the Pacific Division. They are still the No. 3 seed in the West. And with the exception of two road games against San Antonio and a couple home dates against Dallas and Oklahoma City, their schedule in April is cake.
This team could still make some real noise down the stretch and in the playoffs. It just needs to turn down the volume a little bit.
7. Miami Heat: What's Beyond Their Big 3?
It would wind up costing them a title. And they haven't done anything to remedy the problem.
On Sunday against the Celtics, Dwayne Wade showed flashes of taking over the game. LeBron missed a dunk and a bunch of threes and never seemed truly engaged. Chris Bosh added to his standing as one of the softest, most fraudulent players in the league by not going within 15 feet of the basket all game long and allowing Garnett, eight years his senior, to physically dominate him on the defensive end.
The point is that if there comes a day when these three players are all not clicking in unison with one another or, more specifically, if more than one of them doesn't show up, they are finished. Shane Battier made a couple threes in the first half on Sunday, but his 11 points made zero impact. After that, no one did anything.
We could examine some more material about LeBron and Bosh and how neither of them seems to have a true will to win—as opposed to Wade, who remains a killer—and probably get several pages about it.
But instead, let's just say that right now, the Heat don't look nearly as close to a title as they (a) did last year, and (b) should.
8. San Antonio Spurs: Recent History
Fascinating stuff all year long from the Spurs.
They came into the year having been wiped out in the first round as a top seed last year in what seemed like a clear sign that their mileage over the past decade had caught up to them.
But instead, they are somehow one of the best teams in the league. With Tim Duncan nearing the end and playing far fewer minutes and Manu Ginobili suffering through two big injuries over the course of the season, the Spurs are still 36-14, in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and firmly rooted in this year's championship contender pool.
It helps that Tony Parker is having arguably his best season to date—19.3 points per game, career-high eight assists per—and that so many guys are chipping in. With Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Kawhi Leonard all contributing in big ways, the Spurs are as deep as any contender.
But it's hard to forget last year. San Antonio won 61 games, and given its pedigree, looked like a lock to reach at least the Conference Finals.
It's unlikely, but it could happen again.
9. Chicago Bulls: Alternative Options
Derrick Rose, the defending league MVP, has missed 19 of the Bulls' 53 games, but Chicago is 14-5 in those games and are pretty much locked in as the No. 1 seed in the East.
Winning without their best player has to breed a great deal of confidence in the Bulls players, but until they show that they can step up not necessarily without him, but when he's bottled up, doubled or otherwise slowed down, as he was in last year's Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Heat, the jury is out.
Luol Deng is having his best season and seems to be the most logical second option for the Bulls. But until we see him excel in that role in on the biggest stage, there's no reason to assume he will. Beyond that, there are probably hopes that Carlos Boozer can become the player he was in Cleveland and Utah, and they can't be high ones.
The Bulls still look like they will only go as far as Rose takes them.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder: Playing in the Half Court
The Thunder are currently the best team in the league and their complete destruction of the Bulls on Sunday did nothing to refute that notion.
They've now won six in a row by an average of over 14 points per game. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both easily among the league's 15 best players and are giving Dwyane Wade and LeBron James a run for their money as the league's best duo.
James Harden steps right in after those two and will likely win the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. They are sound defensively, are very well coached and have a nice homecourt advantage.
But if there's a weakness, it's in their frontcourt offense. Neither Kendrick Perkins nor Serge Ibaka, both stellar defenders, are polished, low-post scorers. In the playoffs, when the game slows way down, not having a viable option down low when playing so many half-court sets can be a problem.
Jump shooting teams are at a real disadvantage in the playoffs and the Thunder were just that in their Western Conference Finals loss to the Mavs last year. They haven't done anything to upgrade their offense up front since then, and that could wind up bringing them down.