Biggest Threat to Every NBA Title Contender in 2012-13 Season
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Congratulations to the New York Knicks, the Golden State Warriors, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks! You're all leading you're respective divisions when few (if any) thought you would.
Enjoy it while it lasts, though, because that's about as close to NBA title contention as you are likely to come this season.
In the meantime, it's too early to remove any of the five preseason hopefuls—the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs—from the equation. Some have looked great and some haven't, but all boast the requisite talent and experience to scrap their way through the race until the bitter end.
Not that there isn't room for concern regarding the initial returns. There's still a ton of basketball to be played between now and the day that the Larry O'Brien Trophy is hoisted in June.
And even more work for the five aforementioned contenders to get done therein.
Miami Heat: Inside Job
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The Miami Heat went all in on their small-ball scheme this summer. Rather than fruitlessly pursuing one-dimensional bigs, they threw most of their money at shooters (i.e. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis).
So far it shows—for better or worse. The Heat rank at or near the top of the league in just about every statistical category on offense, including scoring, efficiency and shooting.
That's all well and good, except they've yet to prove that they can actually stop anyone. At present, the Heat rank 29th in points allowed and dead-last in defensive efficiency as well as in the bottom-third in field goal defense, per Team Rankings.
Not exactly a good sign for a squad whose calling card the last two years has been smothering defense, particularly on the perimeter.
But the bigger concern is on the interior. After four games, the defending champs check in 18th in rebounding differential and 22nd in rebounding rate. They've also allowed the third-most points in the paint per game, according to Hoops Stats, including a whopping 72 in the key surrendered to the Denver Nuggets.
The Heat were bound to have some issues up front, what with Chris Bosh playing center and LeBron James and Shane Battier sharing time at power forward. Still, it's never a good sign when a team gives up easy baskets on the inside as frequently as Miami has so far.
And, as Heat president Pat Riley once said, "No rebounds, no rings."
Boston Celtics: Ummm...Everything?
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Then again, at least the Heat looked great against their chief competition in the Eastern Conference.
As for said competition (the Boston Celtics), where to begin? The offense has been abysmal, but that's nothing new for the C's, who have struggled to put the ball in the basket with any consistency for years now.
The performance of the bench has been disappointing—24th in scoring, per Hoops Stats—given how much money the team sunk into the likes of Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, who has since ceded his starting spot to rookie Jared Sullinger.
But, again, offense has never been Boston's strength, and turning the beat around on that end of the court will take time with so many new faces.
As is the case with the Heat, though, the C's are struggling on defense, where the team has traditionally buttered its bread. To date, Boston ranks in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per game, points per shot, field goal defense and defensive efficiency.
Those numbers should improve in time, as the roster gels and Avery Bradley regains his fitness. But if they don't, the C's could be in for a long and frustrating season in the Eastern Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers: Defensive Indifference
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Have you noticed which other much-hyped contender has fallen into the basement of most defensive metrics?
If you guessed the Lakers, then...well, you win nothing, but good work nonetheless!
Not by them, of course. In theory, a team led by Mike Brown, a noted defensive guru, and Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, shouldn't be struggling so mightily to stop people as have the Lakers so far.
Yet, that's been precisely the problem—or at least it was through L.A.'s first three games. Pick-and-rolls, dribble drives and even post-ups—you name it, the Lakers have had issues with it. They have been particularly porous in transition, though that's not entirely unexpected given their old legs and penchant for turnovers—18.5 per game so far.
Some would point the finger, rightly or wrongly, at the Lakers' attempt to institute a Princeton-like offense. As it happens, though, the Purple and Gold are having little trouble putting the ball in the basket—sixth in offensive efficiency, third in field goal percentage—and should cut down on the giveaways once their players, old and new, get on the same page.
However, what doesn't figure to change is L.A.'s inability to apply pressure on the perimeter. The Lakers were dead-last in turnovers forced last season and rank in the bottom third of the league to this point in 2012-13.
This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the Lakers lack length, athleticism and youth among their guards and wings. Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace were All-Defensive performers once upon a time, but are now vastly overrated in that regard.
As far as Steve Nash goes, he's long been more of a matador than a stopper.
Howard and Pau Gasol will do plenty to make up for the Lakers' mistakes on the outside, but this team is going to wear down quickly if it can't keep the opposition from using up clock to get good looks at the basket.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Good Russ vs. Bad Russ
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are 2-2. Russell Westbrook has had two good games and two bad games so far.
Coincidence? I think not.
Some nights, he drops 32 points (as he did against the Portland Trail Blazers) or dishes out eight assists with just one turnover (as he did against the Toronto Raptors). Other nights, he misses most of his shots, racks up turnovers and gets lost on defense, as he did against the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks during the first week of the season.
The struggle between Good Russ and Bad Russ is nothing new. What is new, though, is how violently OKC's fortunes swing from game to game depending on which Westbrook shows up. In recent years, the Thunder could count on James Harden to pick up the slack as a scorer, playmaker and ball-handler whenever Westbrook wasn't fulfilling his sidekick duties next to Kevin Durant.
Now, Harden is gone, and has taken his brilliance as a Bad Russ buffer with him. Kevin Martin has shown that he can be a solid third scorer off the bench as Harden was, but he's nowhere near the all-around offensive terror that The Beard was for OKC, and is for the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder will have to find other ways to cope with Westbrook's on-court swings. Whether that means squeezing more out of Eric Maynor, dishing out more playing time to rookies Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb, or simply asking Durant to do more, this will likely determine the team's fitness for contention this season.
San Antonio Spurs: Getting By Without Bigs
Another season, another fantastic start for the San Antonio Spurs, who are a perfect 4-0 for the first time in franchise history, believe it or not.
As well as the Spurs have played to this point, the same concerns with which they've been plagued in recent years—most notably, lack of size up front—are bound to haunt them as the season progresses.
Tim Duncan has been playing like Ponce de Leon, averaging 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks in a shade over 31 minutes per game, but the Spurs can hardly expect the 36-year-old to produce at a 20-10 rate over the long haul. Timmy will remain productive, maybe even All-Star caliber, but he can't be asked to carry a team like he once did.
Which brings us to the paucity of pivots behind The Big Fundamental. Duncan aside, San Antonio has but one low-post player with any noteworthy verticality in Tiago Splitter. DeJuan Blair can bang in the paint, but he's undersized for his position and plays below the rim.
As for Matt Bonner, the dude may be big, but he loathes to venture inside the three-point line, much less into the paint.
The Spurs' perimeter play, particularly on the defensive end, is strong enough to withstand the ebb-and-flow of the regular season. But what happens to Gregg Popovich's squad when it's matched up against a team with considerable bulk on the interior like, say, the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets or Memphis Grizzlies?
Coach can't be too happy about that thought.