Ranking Most Unpredictable 2013 NBA Playoff Teams
There's something to be said about predictability in the NBA. It's nice to root for a team that performs consistently on a night-to-night basis.
There's nothing more frustrating than cheering on a squad that looks like the '96 Chicago Bulls on some nights and the Charlotte Bobcats on others (sorry, Charlotte fans). Especially when the playoffs roll around and every game counts that much more.
You can throw quite a few of this year's projected playoff teams into the “unpredictable” category. The inconsistencies vary from team to team, but one thing's for sure—they'll make the playoffs very, very interesting.
All stats current as of 4/11/2013
Honorable Mention: Oklahoma City Thunder
Surprised? The Oklahoma City Thunder can't quite make the cut because they've been relatively consistent in the regular season. But it's still difficult to tell what they'll look like in the playoffs, so they're well worth talking about.
Part of this is the James Harden factor. They're going to miss the Bearded One late in games. Harden's usage rate spiked from 6.1 percent in clutch situations in last year's regular season (less than five minutes to go with the game within five points) to 17.5 percent in the playoffs (per NBA.com). That's a huge swing.
Harden's ability to get to the basket when defenses tightened up won the Thunder more than one game last spring. And though Kevin Martin is a good shooter, he can't get to the rim near as well as Harden. If the Thunder offense devolves into Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking turns shooting rather than the free-flowing machine it was last season, then a Finals return may not be in the cards.
Turnovers could also be an issue. Last season, OKC led the league in turnovers at over 16 per game. But during the playoffs, they turned it over less than 12 times per game, the third-best rate in the postseason (per NBA.com). The swing was near inexplicable, but very important.
There's no way the Thunder could have beaten the San Antonio Spurs last year if they gave them an extra four possessions each game. And unless they cut down on the turnovers (they're at 15.4 per game), they might not beat them this year. The Thunder have been a juggernaut this season, but it's tough to predict what they'll look like in the playoffs.
No. 7: Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are one of the few teams in the NBA that are unpredictable by design.
Unlike most playoff teams, the Nuggets don't have a superstar to get them 25 or 30 points per game. What they do have is the deepest team in the league and the ability to throw all kinds of bizarre lineups at their opponents.
But recent injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson are going to force changes in what the Nuggets do in the playoffs. Wilson Chandler is the team's most versatile player and the piece that really makes the small ball work. But Gallinari's ability to play either forward spots (he excels at the 4) has been important as well, and the Nuggets will miss his ability to stretch the floor.
How Lawson returns from his plantar fascia tear is an even bigger concern. Andre Miller has been his typical steady self, but he can't break down defenses off the dribble nearly as well as Lawson can. And right now, it's hard to say if Lawson will really be ready for the playoffs.
Head coach George Karl recently said (via Grantland's Zach Lowe):
If we get Ty back at 80 percent, I think we’re going to be fine. I think we have enough pieces, and that we can do it like we’ve been doing it all year — with some defense, with our little lineups, and with old man Andre [Miller] at the point.
That’s the variable people aren’t talking enough about. Will Ty be at 60 percent? Seventy percent?
If Lawson's nowhere near the same, then the Nuggets' playoff chances will submarine, but if he's at even 70 or 80 percent, you can't count Denver out. Either way though, without Gallinari and a healthy Lawson, the Nuggets will have to make changes. It'll be interesting to see what Karl cooks up for his squad in the playoffs.
No. 6: Los Angeles Clippers
As you'd expect from a Chris Paul-led team, the Los Angeles Clippers are solid offensively. Defensively, it's a different story.
The Clippers have an interesting defensive strategy to say the least. According to Blake Griffin, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro prefers to change his defensive scheme depending on who the team is playing. When Del Negro said the Clippers' defensive problem was that the bigs weren't closing out shots well, Griffin disagreed, telling ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi:
It depends on our defensive strategy and our defensive principles for that game. We switch them every single game. I don't see that, no, but I'm biased.
Our main focus of practice and our theme of practice has been defensively making sure we're executing our game plan. Because like I said, we switch it up every game, depending on who we're playing and who has the ball and who's a threat for them.
The best teams in the NBA have a specific defensive scheme. For example, the Miami Heat like to blitz pick-and-rolls in order to trap guards and force turnovers. Having a set plan helps everyone know where to be and what to do—something that the Clippers often struggle with.
That's not to say that Del Negro's strategy is awful. But it's way against the grain and leads to an extremely inconsistent defense. The Clippers are all over the place. In March, they held the New York Knicks to 80 points, were blitzed by the Sacramento Kings (of all teams) for 116 points and then allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to score just 72 points. In back-to-back-to-back games. Crazy.
Right now, you go into every Clippers game not knowing how they'll fare or even what they'll look like on defense. And the playoffs are even harder to project. How will the Clippers adjust to playing the same team in a seven-game series? Will their defense pick up if they don't have to switch strategy and principles every single game? Everything's up in the air for L.A.
No. 5: Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics have made some deep playoff runs despite mediocre regular-season showings recently. But can they do it without Rajon Rondo?
Boston has improved on both ends of the ball in Rondo’s absence—particularly offensively, where they’ve shot from 99.6 points per 100 possessions to 102 points per 100 possessions (per NBA.com). But playoff Rondo is a game-changing force, and the Celtics have been all over the map recently.
The Celtics are a jump-shooting team, which makes their offense pretty unpredictable by nature. Boston is taking almost 30 mid-range or deep twos per game (via HoopData). They’re shooting well from those distances, but outside of Jeff Green’s ability to get to the rim, there’s no real backup plan if those shots aren’t falling.
Now, they have been a top-five defensive team since Rondo’s been out and would maybe be even higher if Kevin Garnett didn't miss some time. Even the defense is spotty, though. There are times when this team looks like the old Celtics—snuffing out pick-and-rolls, closing out hard on shooters and being a general nightmare defensively. But there are other times when the team just looks old.
Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Garnett are all on the wrong side of 35 years. Even worse, Pierce has had to play heavy minutes this season because of injuries to other players. When they’re locked in, the Celtics can play with anyone. But eventually, age has to catch up with Pierce and Garnett...or so you'd think.
If these Celts have shown us anything, it's the ability to defy Father Time. Well, that and their inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.
No. 4: New York Knicks
Any team that relies on the three ball to do most of its damage is going to be unpredictable. Seeing as the New York Knicks are set to shatter the record for three-point attempts in a season, you could say they're unpredictable, too.
The Knicks have shot 2,251 three-pointers this season, already close to the current record of 2,284 set by the 2008-09 Knicks. It's not that they're a poor shooting team from deep—they actually rank fifth in the league at 38 percent. But any team that relies that much on threes is bound to have some big hot and cold streaks.
There's also the fact that the most unpredictable player in the league—J.R. Smith—is the Knicks' biggest X-factor come playoff time. When Smith is driving to the hoop and getting to the line, the Knicks create a ton of problems for teams defensively. When he's settling for mid-range jumpers...not so much.
It's no coincidence that during the Knicks' recent win streak, 45 percent of Smith's attempts came in the paint, compared to just 26 percent before the streak (per NBA.com). When he's getting to the basket, those corner threes become a whole lot more open.
It's as easy to picture the Knicks riding some hot shooting to the Finals, as it is to picture their being upset in the first round because they can't buy an outside shot. That's just the way they are.
No. 3: Houston Rockets
James Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets' run-and-gun offense is a blast to watch, but that same offense makes the squad one of the most hit-or-miss teams in the league.
Like the New York Knicks, the Rockets are set to easily break the record for three pointers in a season. They've launched 2,248 shots from deep (28.8 per game)—just three shots shy of what the Knicks have done. And, like the Knicks, the team's defense lies on the shoulders of a rim-protecting big man (Tyson Chandler for New York, Omer Asik for Houston).
What separates the two teams is pace of play. The Rockets play the fastest brand of basketball in the league, whereas the Knicks rank near the bottom (per Basketball-Reference). Harden himself told ESPN's Beckley Mason:
In order for us to have a chance in any game, we can't slow the ball up and try to play half court. We have to impose our will and do what we do.
That's a big problem in the playoffs, where pace of play tends to slow significantly. Last year, the average pace dropped from 91 possessions per game in the regular season to 89 possessions per game in the playoffs. The year previous, the average dropped from 92 to 88 average possessions—a big decrease for teams that love to get out and run (per Basketball-Reference).
The kicker for the Rockets—and what makes them truly unpredictable in these playoffs—is that their two most likely opponents also love to run. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder rank seventh and eighth respectively in pace and are more than willing to get into a track meet. The Rockets have a losing record against the pair (1-3 and 1-2, respectively), but they won their last match-up against each team and can score with the best of them.
Houston is young, and when they're not hitting threes or getting out in transition, they can look really awful. But if they get San Antonio or OKC to run with them, we could be in for some fun.
No. 2: Brooklyn Nets
Just a few days ago, ESPN's Tom Haberstroh found the five most consistent and inconsistent offenses and defenses in the NBA.
Haberstroh looked at each team's points per possession by game and then calculated the standard deviation (per Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game). Guess who showed up on both the offensive and defensive list? Yup. The Brooklyn Nets.
It's all about the starters for Brooklyn's squad, beginning with Deron Williams. There's been a lot of talk this year about Williams not being an elite point guard anymore, and while he does look a step slow, half of his problems are effort-based.
There's the ultra-aggressive Williams who hit nine threes in the first half against the Washington Wizards, and then there's the Williams who only took nine shots in a loss against the Miami Heat. And there's no telling which is going to show up on a given night.
Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace are the exact same way. All too often, Johnson is willing to passively toss up threes. And Wallace, after a strong start to the year, has posted eight games in which he's scored two or zero points.
Heck, even Brook Lopez—the team's steadiest player and a surprisingly solid shot-blocker/rim-protector—has been erratic defensively. Sometimes, Lopez just idles in the center of the paint, letting quicker guards go right around him and letting the Nets get destroyed by interior passing.
It's not all bad—Reggie Evans gobbles up rebounds, and Andray Blatche has been great coming off the bench. But then again, it's probably not good that Andray Blatche is considered one of the Nets' most consistent players. Scratch that. It's definitely not good.
No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers
Obviously. With Kobe Bryant out for the rest of the year (h/t ESPN), everything has changed for the Los Angeles Lakers. It's tough to put into words what Bryant means for the Lakers franchise, the NBA and even basketball as a whole. Horrible, horrible stuff.
But ignoring all of that and just looking at the Lakers in context of the rest of the season...what's going to happen? Is Dwight Howard going to step up and be the player he was with the Orlando Magic? Will Pau Gasol—who's averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven (!!) assists in his last five games—keep playing like it's 2009?
The Lakers as a whole have been incredibly inconsistent this season. Dwight's field goal attempts—though steadier recently—pinball from game to game. Metta World Peace seemingly shoots either 100 percent or zero percent from downtown. Antawn Jamison sometimes looks like the stretch 4 that D'Antoni's system desperately needs and sometimes looks “it might be time to retire” levels of bad. Inconsistent all the way through
Maybe without their best player and spiritual leader, the Lakers just crumble. Wouldn't at all be surprising. But maybe they don't. There's a chance that the Lakers are more fired up then they ever have been this season. For the first time, this team truly has its back to the wall. Even without Bryant, they have real top-tier talent. And there's a possibility—maybe a small one—but a possibility that they finally have the fight, as well.
I'm ready to see anything from these Lakers. I'm ready to see them bow down and get crushed over their next two games. I'm ready to see them give the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder a hell of a fight in the first round. How this team responds to Bryant's injury is the most unpredictable and most compelling subplot of the season.