One Key Move to Turn Struggling NBA Pretenders into Title Contenders
Harry How/Getty Images
Those title contenders are the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers have all struggled after projections suggested they too would contend for a title this year.
The 76ers and Lakers would not even qualify for the playoffs if they began today.
To be fair, injuries have played a role in the struggles of each of these teams.
At the same time, however, one key move can still be made to turn each of these struggling pretenders back into the title contenders they appeared to be before this season began.
1. Indiana Pacers
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
2012-13 Record Rank: 13
Preseason Power Rank: 8
Key Move: Create better field-goal opportunities for Roy Hibbert.
The Indiana Pacers need to help Hibbert play closer to the All-Star level he performed at last season.
As a team, this can be accomplished by feeding Hibbert the ball more often in areas of the floor where he can be most effective.
The league average for assisted field goals on shots made at the rim is 52 percent, according to Hoopdata. The Indiana Pacers have assisted Hibbert on only 37.5 percent of his made field goals at the rim.
For Hibbert, that rate is down nearly 10 percent from the previous season.
As a result, he's shooting a career-low 38.9 percent through 24 games. Hibbert is also scoring fewer points per game than in each of his previous three seasons.
This has contributed to the Pacers' 42.1 team field-goal percentage, a number better than only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.
The more Hibbert's field-goal percentage improves, the better Indiana's chances of contending for a title, especially once Danny Granger returns from injury.
*Shot location stats through Dec. 10. Record rank and player and team stats are through Sunday.
2. Boston Celtics
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2012-13 Record Rank: 14
Preseason Power Rank: 5
Key Move: Increase minutes for Jared Sullinger.
It's almost admirable that the Boston Celtics are playing better than .500 basketball while rebounding more poorly than every other team in the NBA.
Boston could improve its struggles on the glass, however, by making a move to increase minutes for Jared Sullinger.
Fellow power forward Jeff Green, for example, is averaging more than five more minutes than Sullinger. In that time, Green is collecting 1.8 fewer rebounds per night.
If all Sullinger does is add four more rebounds per game in extended minutes, the Celtics could move up into the top half of the NBA in rebounding with an average of 42 per game.
That would go a long way toward helping them play like the title contender they were projected to be in the preseason.
*Statistics through Dec. 16.
3. Denver Nuggets
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
2012-13 Record Rank: 15
Preseason Power Rank: 7
Key Move: Defend the perimeter better, collectively.
Andre Iguodala was supposed to strengthen the Denver Nuggets' defense on the perimeter.
It might not be his fault, but his addition has not had the desired result.
As of Sunday, only the New Orleans Hornets and Phoenix Suns are allowing opponents to shoot a better percentage from three-point range.
Corey Brewer is one of Denver's better defenders coming off the bench. Increasing his 23 minutes per game could go a long way toward improving in this area.
Against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, Denver showed signs of improvement by making a better collective effort to defend the perimeter.
The Nuggets held the Kings to 25 percent shooting from three-point range and won by 25 as a result. This needs to occur on a nightly basis for Denver to contend.
*Statistics through Dec. 16.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
2012-13 Record Rank: 17
Preseason Power Rank: 10
Key Move: Start Nick Young at shooting guard.
Nick Young scored 30 points on Sunday starting in place of the injured Jrue Holiday.
When Holiday returns, the Sixers could get a huge spark offensively by making the move to start Young alongside him.
Holiday is doing everything for Philadelphia this season. He's averaging 18.4 points and 8.9 assists.
For Philly to contend for a title, however, Holiday needs help while the team waits for Andrew Bynum's return.
As of Sunday, the Sixers rank 26th in points per game, averaging 92.5. Young could increase that number by playing increased minutes as a starter.
Starting more than half of his games last season, Young shot just better than 40 percent while averaging 14.2 points.
Meanwhile, Jason Richardson, the player Young would replace in the starting lineup, has struggled as the team's starter at shooting guard. He's shooting a combined 10-of-34 in his last four games, averaging 7.8 points per game in that stretch. At the very least, I'd bet Young would do better than that.
*Statistics through Dec. 16.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Lakers Adjustments to Get Them Back to 1st Place in the West
2012-13 Record Rank: 21
Preseason Power Rank: 3
Key Move: Run more offense through Pau Gasol.
As of Sunday, the Lakers have lost five games since Pau Gasol was injured. Their struggles, however, began long before he went down.
Even before he was injured, the Lakers did not run enough of their offense through Gasol in the post.
Upon his return from injury, which is expected to be around Dec. 22, they need to make a move to do that.
Gasol is a skilled player who can create for himself and others in the painted area. The attention he will receive will open everything up for Dwight Howard on the opposite block.
This will help to take pressure off Bryant and give Los Angeles another scoring option it desperately needs.
Right now, its offensive attack is singular and disjointed. It consists of four players standing around waiting for Bryant to do something great.
To his credit, Kobe is averaging 29.3 points and 4.9 assists per night.
But for the Lakers to be a true title contender, they need the extra offense that would be created by running more plays through Gasol.