Ranking the 7 Most Volatile Teams in the NBA

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 7, 2012

Ranking the 7 Most Volatile Teams in the NBA

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    Streakiness is a staple of the NBA. As anyone well-versed in NBA Jam knows, a player can have a blazing-hot hand one moment and need a GPS to find the bucket the next. Basketball on the whole is a game of runs, in which teams rip off points in bunches between long scoring droughts.

    It only figures, then, that teams would be prone to such volatility. Roster changes, injuries, tough schedules and peculiar playing styles can and often do contribute to squads looking like title contenders one night and lottery-bound bums the next.

    Very few teams in the league (i.e. the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs) have been consistently solid (if not excellent) through the first quarter of the 2012-13 campaign. Those at the other end of the spectrum, where playoff dreams are already dead and gone, are much easier to spot in the standings.

    These seven teams, though, have thus far performed as though they're dealing with split personalities, be it during or between games.

    *All stats current as of Dec. 5

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    On the whole, the Los Angeles Clippers, at 12-6, have looked like legitimate title contenders.

    And for good reason. They're about as complete a team as you'll yet find in the NBA today. They have great size, in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and fantastic guard play, chiefly from Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford.

    They score (106.5 points per 100 possessions) and defend (99.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) at a top-10 level. They sport a strong starting five and arguably the league's best bench, including blogosphere boy toy Eric Bledsoe. They have plenty of young athletes and wise veterans.

    Those combinations have allowed the Clips to manhandle the likes of the Miami Heat, the rival Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs (twice), the Memphis Grizzlies and, most recently, the Dallas Mavericks.

    And yet, there's no ignoring home losses to the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Orleans Hornets (sans Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon).

    On their most recent road trip, L.A. pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to overtime despite a poor performance by CP3, but couldn't put together a coherent fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets and were annihilated through the first three by the Atlanta Hawks thereafter.

    The lack of a strong head coach may have something to do with it (sorry I'm not sorry, Vinny Del Negro). So, too, might the streaky makeup of their roster. They've relied a bit heavily at times on three-point shooting, particularly from gunners like Crawford, and occasionally seem more concerned with putting on a show full of highlight-reel dunks than with getting down to the brass tacks of playing winning basketball.

    Even with these issues, the Clips should continue to rise. Chauncey Billups has only recently gotten back on the court (though there is recent tendinitis in his foot to worry about), Grant Hill has yet to join him, and Blake Griffin finally seems to have shaken off the ill effects of an early-season elbow malady.

6. Miami Heat

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    Why are the Miami Heat on this list, you ask? After all, at 12-5, they're only behind the Knicks for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James is enjoying another MVP-caliber campaign and has been supported rather sterlingly by the trio of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and, off the bench, Ray Allen.

    Collectively, they're scoring at the third-highest clip in the league, hitting threes at a 41.3 percent rate (second best) and are tops in field-goal percentage at 49.3 percent.

    So their recently-fangled small-ball arrangement must be working to perfection, right?

    Not exactly. As devastating as the Heat are and have been offensively, they ultimately fought their way to the 2012 NBA title with a smothering pressure defense that created turnovers and fueled a fleet-footed fast break.

    If King James and company want to keep their crown for another year, they'll have to get back to their defensive roots before long. They're 20th in defensive efficiency and 18th in opponent turnover percentage thus far, and, on the other end, are only the 13th-most frequent visitors to the free-throw line in the league.

    Miami's issues on the boards are to be expected given Erik Spoelstra's undersized machinations. So, too, are early-season inconsistencies from a defending champion.

    It's not at all unusual for a team in the Heat's position to be more interested in future outcomes in April, May and June while their opponents, motivated by the opportunity to upend the NBA's top outfit, push them to the limit in the meantime.

    It's no wonder, then, that they've needed miraculous finishes to avoid defeat against the Denver Nuggets (twice), the Houston Rockets, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the shorthanded San Antonio Spurs, and that their lack of interest caught up to them in recent losses to the Washington Wizards and New York.

    Simply put, the Heat haven't gotten up for all (or even most) of their games, and it's shown. They seem to take their own superiority for granted at times and have hardly given the proper effort and energy to make Coach Spo's defense hum as it once did.

    Come spring, the Heat figure to have these beats turned around. Otherwise, they'll have more than ring sizes to worry about. 

5. New York Knicks

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    There's a lot to like about what the New York Knicks have done in 2012-13. They own the best record in the Eastern Conference at 14-4 and boast the NBA's second-most productive offense, despite having seen Amar'e Stoudemire in nothing but street clothes to this point.

    Carmelo Anthony is playing like an MVP as an undersized power forward at both ends of the floor, J.R. Smith's gunnery has generally done more good than harm, and the trio of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni has rendered Linsanity little more than a distant (if glorious) memory.

    Not that the Knicks don't still have their foibles. New York's success from three-point land (40.8 percent, third best) has thus far helped to mask the fact that they don't have much going for themselves on the interior, be it scoring or rebounding. In fact, the Knicks are 28th in rebounding percentage (27th in offensive rebounding) and dead-last in points in the paint by percentage.

    Rather predictably, the league's oldest team has, in some ways, played like just that. The Knicks are 27th in pace and score just 8.9 percent of their points on the break, the lowest mark in the league.

    More troubling, though, is the way these Knicks have struggled away from Madison Square Garden. Before the beatdown of the Heat Thursday night, they were allowing 10.1 points per 100 possessions more on the road than they do at home and have struggled to force turnovers when Spike Lee hasn't been on hand to cheer them on.

    Such a divergence simply shouldn't be the norm for a squad as experienced as New York is. Yet, they've lost away to the short-handed Dallas Mavericks and the young-gun Houston Rockets (by 28 points, no less), and needed a miraculous shot from J.R. Smith to take down the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday.

    Give their track record on the road, the Knicks just might need to secure the top seed in the East if they're to emerge as bona fide title contenders.

4. Boston Celtics

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    Something (but not everything) is clearly amiss with the Boston Celtics these days.

    Everyone and their mother had them pegged for a strong campaign, despite losing Ray Allen to the rival Miami Heat over the summer. They were deeper and both younger and more experienced after signing the likes of Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa; drafting Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo; and welcoming Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox back into the fold after missing some or all of the 2011-12 season.

    But Lee and Green have both stunk to the extent that each has since seen his role reduced. The C's have been marginally better offensively than usual but have also seen their scoring defense slip from elite to merely middling.

    The former makes some sense, what with Rajon Rondo leading the league in assists, Paul Pierce once again leading his team in scoring, and JET contributing a measure of dynamism to Boston's backcourt.

    As does the latter. Kevin Garnett has yet to recapture the magic that made him look like the imposing presence of yore during the 2012 playoffs, and Rondo hasn't exactly been a consistent deterrent at the point.

    Not that it's been all bad for the C's. They've yet to lose more than two games in a row. Then again, they've also yet to win more than three consecutively.

    It's hardly unusual for Boston to get off to a slow start; they stumbled out of the gate last season, as well. Still, Doc Rivers can't be particularly pleased with the way his team has defended thus far. If the Celtics are to make some noise in a surprisingly deep Eastern Conference, they'd better start playing to their strengths rather than stumbling around in search of more scoring.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Remember when the Denver Nuggets were going to be dark-horse contenders in the Western Conference? Remember when Andre Iguodala was going to shore up Denver's porous defense and add another jolt of athleticism and star power to George Karl's fast-break machine?

    Well, let's just say it's been a slow process to this point. The Nuggets have already strung together a pair of four-game winning streaks and a trio of three-game skids. They crash the offensive boards better than anyone and push the pace at a top-five rate, but have thus far struggled to take care of the ball or space the floor with any semblance of three-point shooting.

    Oh, and their defense still stinks. Denver ranks 24th in the league in defensive efficiency (i.e. points allowed per 100 possessions), 24th in opponent turnover percentage and 22nd in opponent effective field-goal percentage.

    Offensively, the Nuggets clearly miss the outside shooting formerly provided by Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington, who were sent to the Orlando Magic in the Dwight Howard deal.

    Iguodala, the player for whom those two were sacrificed, has been solid overall and spectacular on a few occasions, but has yet to look consistently comfortable playing under Karl. That's somewhat excusable for a new guy coming off an eventful summer at the 2012 London Olympics.

    What's tougher to explain, though, has been the play of some of the key holdovers. Kenneth Faried has been a beast on the boards (as expected) and JaVale McGee has been a sieve at the defensive end (also, as expected).

    But Ty Lawson has regressed since signing a lucrative extension prior to the Halloween deadline, and Danilo Gallinari, once a noted sharpshooter, has had difficulty hitting the broadside of a barn; he's taking (13.4 attempts) and missing (38.2 percent from the field, 28.4 percent from three) more shots than ever.

    In all fairness, though, the Nuggets have been screwed by the scheduling gods in the early going. They've played 13 of their 19 games on the road and only just began another five-game swing with a 108-104 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 5.

    And as the saying goes (but not really), no practice time and no rest make the Nuggets an unpredictable team.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Just about any team would be expected to fare better at home than on the road, but the splits for the Utah Jazz are a bit ridiculous. They were perfect at home until the Clippers came to town and beat them in early December, but are an abysmal 3-9 on the road.

    The stats certainly bear out Utah's struggles away from Salt Lake City. At home, the Jazz score 105.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be good enough for the fifth-best mark in the NBA, and allow just 96.5, which would be third best. On the road, they score a respectable 102.3 points but surrender a staggering 107.6 points, a number that edges out the league-worst New Orleans Hornets.

    Such fluctuations aren't entirely unusual for a team that features youngsters like Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (20) and Enes Kanter (20) in the regular rotation. But that doesn't excuse the rest of the roster, which is comprised largely of solid players in their respective primes, from Al Jefferson (27) and Paul Millsap (27) to Mo Williams (29) and Randy Foye (29).

    Some of this is due to the tenuous balance between offense and defense that Ty Corbin has to strike from night to night. Jefferson is a fantastic scorer in the low post but struggles to stop his own shadow. Meanwhile, Favors is a young body who blocks shots, cleans up the glass and is generally a plus defender but his rawness as a scorer is troubling.

    Of no help to the cause are the back spasms suffered by Jefferson at the end of Utah's most recent game and the plantar fasciitis that's kept Favors out of action since the end of November. Even with all of that size, the Jazz rank near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding and are merely middle-of-the-pack with regard to scoring in the paint.

    The Jazz have shown that they can compete for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. Whether they wind up in the postseason will likely depend on their ability to strike a more harmonious equilibrium between locations, in terms of home and road as well as on the court itself.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Lakers have been nothing if not inconsistent this season. Whether it's game to game, quarter to quarter, or even minute to minute, it's tough to predict how the Purple and Gold will perform.

    According to NBA.com's stats tool, L.A. is one of four teams—along with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs—that ranks among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

    The Lakers also rank in the top 10 in three of the "Four Factors": effective field-goal percentage (sixth best for themselves, eighth best against), free-throw rate (first and fourth, respectively) and offensive rebound percentage (eighth and fourth, respectively).

    How on earth, then, is it possible for a team as solid statistically and stacked with stars as are these Lakers to own a record of 9-10 to this point?

    For one, the volatility of their performance on the court is reflective of how chaotic things have been in L.A. of late. The Lakers came into the 2012-13 campaign with seven new players, a revamped staff of assistant coaches and a new offensive system (the Princeton-ish) to integrate into a cohesive whole amidst massive expectations.

    Since then, they've fired one coach (Mike Brown) after five regular-season games, played under another (Bernie Bickerstaff) for five more, and now are playing under the auspices of a third (Mike D'Antoni) whose own way of doing things may or may not be a good fit for this particular roster.

    A roster that, by the way, has seen its third- and fourth-string point guards (Darius Morris and Chris Duhon) garner major minutes on account of its top two (Steve Nash and Steve Blake) rehabbing from injury for most of the season. Throw in the slow recovery of Dwight Howard, the decline of Pau Gasol and the subpar integration of the bench, and the source of the Lakers' roller-coaster play is easy to spot.

    On the one hand, the tremendous talent has allowed the Lakers to beat their opponents by an average of 17.2 points in wins. On the other hand, the abundance of tumult and lack of familiarity has left them to fall short by 7.7 points in losses.

    The most violent of those swings came against the Dallas Mavericks, to whom they lost by eight at home on opening night and against whom they later won by 26 points on the road in the second game of a back-to-back.

    L.A. also turns the ball over far too frequently and has recently proven prone to blowing fourth-quarter leads...so there's that.

    Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.