What's the biggest thing stopping the Spurs from winning the NBA title?
The first round of the NBA playoffs has already begun, but it's not over by a long shot. That means the title dreams of every team—from the favorites to the total underdogs—are still alive.
Even this season's best teams have their weaknesses. Some teams obviously have fewer or less-glaring holes, but everyone has them. Maybe it's some shoddy three-point defense, an injured player or a lack of depth. Maybe it's something else.
The point is that no one is unbeatable. That's what makes this time of year so fun.
Without Sanders, the Bucks have been dreadful on the defensive end.
Like most of the teams on this list, there are a few reasons that the Milwuakee Bucks hypothetically won't win the title, starting with the fact that they're facing the Miami Heat in the first round.
Let's go with this one—they can't play defense. Like, at all.
Larry Sanders is a rim-protecting menace, but when he's off the court, the Bucks have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league (per Basketball-Reference). Sanders can't play all 48 minutes. Outside of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and sometimes Marquis Daniels, Milwaukee has literally no one who can hang with elite wing scorers. Because of that, they give up the most shots per game close to the rim (per NBA.com).
That's perfectly fine when Sanders is on the floor, but when he's not—or when teams have a big man who can lure him away from the rim—the Bucks give up points at an astronomical rate.
Milwaukee has some good players as the scoring explosions of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are a blast to watch, but until that defense improves, they'll never be a threat to take more than a few games in a playoff series.
These guys just can't be the best offensive guys on a championship team.
You had to know that this one was coming, right?
The Chicago Bulls are still capable of being a headache for other playoff teams to deal with. They're gritty, they do pretty much everything extremely well on defense and if Joakim Noah gets back to 80 percent or better, they protect the rim as well as anybody.
Nevertheless, even with that being said, there's just no offense here.
The Bulls had the worst offense of any postseason team by a wide margin and things have only gotten worse in the playoffs (per NBA.com). Somehow, Chicago is actually putting up less offense against a usually subpar Brooklyn Nets' defense, which doesn't bode well for them even if they do make it through to the next round.
Having a top-notch defense is important and there's something to be said about grinding out victories, but the Bulls' No. 1 offensive option is Carlos Boozer, with No. 2 being Luol Deng.
Partnered with a great defense, that might be enough to win a team a playoff series, or even two, but that's certainly not enough to win an NBA championship.
They'll have to defend the arc much better if they want to be champs.
The Los Angeles Clippers started the year strong defensively, but since the All-Star break, they've ranked in the bottom half of the league (per NBA.com).
There are a few reasons for that, including an inconsistent defensive scheme and a lack of rim-protectors, but the biggest problem is the Clippers' terrible three-point defense.
The Clippers are 25th in the league at defending the three-point line, letting opponents shoot 37 percent from outside. That's a huge problem when you consider how prolific most playoff teams are from three-point land.
Seven of the top eight three-point shooting teams (percentage wise) are in the playoffs as well as eight of the top 10 teams in attempts (per Basketball-Reference). There are teams that have an entire offensive game plan (hello, Houston Rockets) based around the three-point shot. If you can't defend from behind the arc, then you can't win a championship—period.
The Memphis Grizzlies aren't a particularly good team from the outside so the Clippers don't have to worry about that in round one and have time to tighten up the screws. If they get by Memphis, however, they'll be in for a world of hurt if they don't start limiting teams from scoring deep.
Jason Terry and crew have struggled as primary ball-handlers.
This is a problem that's become increasingly apparent ever since the playoffs started. Without Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics just don't have anyone who can handle the ball.
The Celtics have been running some “point guard by committee” over the past few months. All three of their “point guards”—Jason Terry, Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford—are essentially converted off-guards who have been relegated to the point position.
And it shows.
Terry and crew looked almost incapable of running a half-court offense in Games 1 and 2 against the New York Knicks, struggling with even the simplest of entry passes. In fact, the only Celtics capable of actually creating shots in the half-court were Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, and they're not the ideal people to have running the show, either. In Game 1, they combined for 10 turnovers.
The best teams in the league have multiple shot-creators, and without Rondo, the Celts are stuck with one, maybe two.
The defense will always be there for Boston, but the offense, which in previous playoff runs was only “adequate” even with Rondo, is beyond a concern at this point. The Celtics just can't get any easy shots.
Lionel Hollins needs Tony Allen's defense, but Allen hasn't gotten defenders to respect him.
What happens when two players who can't shoot play at the same time? The Memphis Grizzlies' offense happens.
Memphis has put up surprisingly OK offensive numbers against the suddenly-poor-defensively Los Angeles Clippers in their series so far. However, that's no thanks to Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen, who have alternated between steadfastly refusing to shoot or simply shooting poorly. They've completely mucked up the Grizzlies' offense.
Grantland's Zach Lowe recently wrote:
The Clippers strangled the Grizzlies' starting lineup in Game 1, mostly because they played far off both Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen; Memphis scored just 91.9 points per 100 possessions in the 16 minutes those two shared the floor, well below Washington's league-worst overall mark, per NBA.com.
Basically, the Clippers are sagging off Prince and Allen and daring them to make outside jumpers. So far, they haven't paid for it at all.
The Grizzlies' offense, which was supposed to have better spacing since Rudy Gay was traded, has looked a mess when Prince and Allen are on the floor at the same time. That puts Lionel Hollins, who needs Tony Allen on Chris Paul at almost all times, in a tough situation.
This isn't a problem with an easy fix unless Allen and Prince start hitting their jumpers, and that's not looking great at this point. If those jumpers don't fall, then it's hard to picture Memphis squeaking into the second round, let alone into the Finals.
Kyle Korver just can't stick with guys like Paul George.
The Atlanta Hawks don't have any strong wing defenders, which have pretty much become a necessity in today's perimeter-oriented NBA.
Defense is a team concept and one guy can never do it alone. It is important though, to have someone who can at least stop star wings from doing literally whatever they want, but Atlanta doesn't have a player like that.
The Hawks really only have two choices when they're faced with a LeBron James or Kevin Durant-type player—hope that they aren't totally abused if they throw Kyle Korver or DeShawn Stevenson at them or play small with Josh Smith at the 3 spot.
Neither option is very appealing. Paul George has eaten Korver alive in the first two games of the Hawks-Indiana Pacers series, racking up a triple-double in Game 1 and dropping 27 points in Game 2. Smith would appear to be a better option, but the Hawks' offense has been brutal when he's been at the 3 spot (per 82games.com).
Can the Hawks get through series against teams like the Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder with this weakness? Maybe. Is it likely? Not at all.
The Heat are surprisingly vulnerable on the boards.
The Miami Heat's biggest strength doubles as their biggest weakness (though it's a pretty small one)—their small-ball lineups.
Going small with LeBron James or Shane Battier at the 4 spot and Chris Bosh at the 5 spot is what makes the Heat so good. They force turnovers, get out in transition and whip the ball around for corner threes. Basically, they become a nightmare to defend.
Those same lineups also make the Heat vulnerable inside.
The Heat were 20th in the league in rebounding percentage and 24th in defensive rebounding percentage (per NBA.com). The defensive rebounding is particularly troubling for the Heat, as only two playoff teams (the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks) ranked lower this season.
Obviously, taking advantage of this weakness is easier said than done.
Any team that has the size to kill the Heat on the offensive boards also has to be able to defend them and not get torn apart by constant pick-and-rolls and corner threes. The teams that can do so (the Indiana Pacers probably have the best chance out East), have a shot at dethroning the defending champs.
The Knicks won't go far without a healthy Chandler.
Taking an inordinate amount of three-point shots is a fine offensive strategy, particularly if Carmelo Anthony isolating and posting up is Plan B.
The New York Knicks have proven that.
Unless Tyson Chandler gets better in a hurry, however, the Knicks won't have the defensive chops to go far in the playoffs.
Chandler declared himself perfectly healthy before the playoffs began, but he certainly hasn't looked it so far. In his two games and 40-plus minutes against the Boston Celtics, Chandler has taken just five shots (hitting one) and snagged 10 rebounds—one board less than Knicks guards Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton.
Chandler's pick-and-rolls have been ineffective and he's also looked a step slow on the defensive end. He's been out of position more than a few times and has seriously lacked energy in both games.
That's all well and good against a team as weak offensively as the Celtics, especially if New York keeps getting quality minutes from Kenyon Martin. The Knicks, however, will get shellacked by a team like the Miami Heat if Chandler doesn't look like himself soon.
A healthy Chandler is, by far, New York's best defender and the only one who can really protect the rim and snuff out pick-and-rolls. The Knicks also rely on Chandler's own pick-and-roll to get easy stuff at the rim and to draw opponents away from the corners and into the paint, giving shooters like Steve Novak plenty of space to operate.
If Chandler is just rusty, then the Knicks had better hope he rounds back into form soon. Otherwise, they're going to find themselves going home very early.
You don't often see these guys without Kobe Bryant.
It's not just losing Kobe Bryant's production that hurts the Los Angeles Lakers, it's the fact that the core of this team has almost never seen the court without Bryant.
Guess how many minutes Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were on the court together without Bryant (pre-injury).
The answer is five minutes. That's not a typo.
Gasol, Howard and Nash had been on the floor together for five Bryant-less minutes this season (per NBA.com). That's unbelievable.
How is this team supposed to have any direction now? It's hard to overstate how much Bryant did for them offensively. He scored the most points, dished out the most assists and ran the offense for the better part of the year—even when Nash was in the game alongside him. Bryant even ran more pick-and-rolls than Nash this year (per Synergy Sports Technology).
The Lakers were given exactly two games to switch up an offense built around one guy and gear it towards three players who have never played without him. That was before being thrown into a playoff series with a near-60 win team. Well then.
Even Andray Blatche doesn't always show up for the Nets.
You need good role players to win a title. The Brooklyn Nets don't have good role players.
You do the math.
With the rejuvenation of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez playing at a higher level than ever before, Brooklyn has real top-shelf talent. Almost everyone else, however, with the exception of maybe Joe Johnson and Reggie Evans is a complete question mark.
It's impossible to tell what Brooklyn's other rotation guys will give them on a given night.
Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson are probably the Nets' most consistent bench guys, but even they don't always come to play, Gerald Wallace has been living out the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man for the past month, Jerry Stackhouse recently submitted his bid for the “most air-balls in one playoff game” award and even Keith Bogans has to be wondering why he's getting playoff minutes.
When everyone shows up and is clicking, Brooklyn can be downright scary, but that almost never happens, and until it does, the Nets can't be considered a real championship contender.
Without a healthy Hill, the Pacers' defense has been in the tubes.
Of course, the Indiana Pacers would love to be better offensively, but they had the best defense in basketball throughout the regular season and have actually been well above average on offense since the All-Star break (per NBA.com).
So that's not too bad.
No, the important thing for Indiana is maintaining that No. 1 defense, which tumbled all the way down to 14th since George Hill suffered a hip injury in a late-March loss to the Chicago Bulls (per NBA.com).
It doesn't matter if the Pacers have improved offensively—14th won't cut it. You know what happens to playoffs teams that are just OK on both sides of the ball? They get eliminated, fast.
Hill isn't a wing-stopper by any means, but he's an above-average defender—much more than can be said for his backup, D.J. Augustin. He's also become very good at funneling players towards Roy Hibbert, who's locked down the paint for Indiana all season.
From the sound of it, Hill is playing in a lot of pain, so this problem might not be resolved anytime soon, but the Pacers sure need it to be. If Hill isn't at his best, or if Augustin is playing serious minutes, then it's pretty much over for them.
When the Nuggets aren't getting out in transition, they become much easier to stop.
When the Denver Nuggets can get out in transition, they're one of the league's best two or three teams. When they can't, they're decidedly mediocre. It's as simple as that.
Roughly 20 percent of the Nuggets' offense comes in transition, more than from any other play type (per Synergy Sports Technology). They're an elite scoring team in transition, but in almost every other aspect, they're average to just plain bad—especially off of screens, in spot-up situations and when posting up.
In losses, Denver scores almost six fewer points per 100 possessions in transition and off of turnovers—roughly equivalent to the point differential between their offense and the Indiana Pacers offense (per NBA.com).
Leaning on a transition offense isn't so bad against a team like the Golden State Warriors, who like to play fast, but what happens when they face a team that forces them to execute in the half court? Can Denver really be counted on to score enough when they can't run?
So far, the answer has been an emphatic “no,” and there's not much time for the Nuggets to figure it all out.
If only James Harden and the Rockets hadn't drawn OKC.
Here's what the Houston Rockets love to do—go small at almost all times, play ridiculously fast-paced basketball, shoot an ungodly amount of threes, attack the rim and run the pick-and-roll like crazy if they ever do have to play in the half court.
Tons of fun.
The problem is that they drew the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The Thunder are capable of doing the exact same thing as Houston, only with a top-five defense backing them up instead of a below-average one (per Basketball-Reference).
Not much the Rockets can do about that.
It's a real shame because the Rockets looked like they could do some real damage if they were playing almost anyone else. You could absolutely see them overcoming the hobbled Denver Nuggets or San Antonio Spurs squads.
When the Rockets went small, they were smashing teams earlier in the year, but OKC with Durant at the 4 is far superior to Houston having Chandler Parsons (or Carlos Delfino) at the 4, turning the Rockets' greatest strength into a weakness. It's just a nightmare of a match-up for Houston all around.
If Parker isn't 100 percent, the Spurs' offense falls off a cliff.
They're still hurting—at least a little bit. That's their biggest obstacle right now.
The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are widely considered the three title favorites, but of the three, the Spurs are the only ones that have been hit with the injury bug so far.
Manu Ginobili looked more than healthy in his awesome Game 1 performance, but injuries to Boris Diaw and Tony Parker still have San Antonio running at about 80 percent.
Parker may be back on the court, but he hasn't been the same top-five guy he was before his ankle injury.
In February, Parker averaged 26 points and eight assists on 61 percent true shooting. In April, he averaged 14 points and seven assists per game on 50 percent true shooting (per NBA.com). Ouch. To be fair, Parker looked fantastic in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Lakers, but it's still too early to call him 100 percent.
Before Parker's injury, the Spurs ranked fourth offensively compared to a meager 17th afterwards (per NBA.com). A hobbled Parker completely ruins the Spurs' offense and Diaw being out doesn't help either.
Diaw may not be a superstar, but he's one of San Antonio's smartest players, and his excellent passing is used to key a lot of the Spurs' sets. If you think Gregg Popovich is loving the idea of giving DeJuan Blair or Matt Bonner serious playoff minutes, think again.
Why is Fisher getting minutes at all?
Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher both have their places—Perkins is one of the best low-post defenders in the league and Fisher is really good at...well...he can hit jumpers sometimes.
The problem is that Brooks often plays them too much or against teams they have no place being on the same court with. For example, Perkins averaged just under 25 minutes in last year's Finals despite the fact that his one calling card—his defense—was actually a detriment any time the Miami Heat chose to go small.
The Heat would either put Perkins in pick-and-roll situations (where he struggled) or toss it to Chris Bosh, who could simply face up at the elbow and blow right by him. It was a nightmare situation for the Oklahoma City Thunder and you could make the case that the Thunder would have won the series had Nick Collison gotten Perk's minutes.
Brooks also gives Fisher around 15 minutes per game despite the fact that there's almost no reason to play him whatsoever. Reggie Jackson is a superior player on both ends of the floor, and even if the Thunder are just looking for a shooter when they play small, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin are always better choices.
Scott Brooks isn't a terrible coach, but he makes some curious lineup decisions that could come back to haunt the Thunder.
On paper, this team can beat anybody, but Brooks needs to have the right personnel on the floor to make that happen.
Without David Lee, the Warriors have their back against the wall.
This isn't the only reason, but it probably brought the Golden State Warriors' title chances down from “long shot” to “pretty much impossible.”
As they proved in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors are still super-fun and a dangerous first-round team, but It's just hard to see them as much more than that anymore.
The Warriors revolve around three-point shooting, but Lee's rebounding, passing and scoring (in that order) were invaluable to this squad.
Andrew Bogut's resurgence means that some of those elements (rebounding and passing) will still be there, but the Warriors are going to miss Lee's scoring. Lee hadn't been playing all that well recently, but he was a key component in the team's pick-and-pop offense and provided a reliable scoring option any time the Warriors weren't shooting well from the outside.
To make matters worse, the Warriors are almost forced to go small at this point. That's certainly not bad in spurts, but it's not something they want to lean too heavily on considering how shaky wing play has been for them this season.
Draymond Green's shooting is almost unspeakably bad and Harrison Barnes hasn't consistently brought it every night, although he was awesome in Game 2.
The Warriors will still be a joy to watch, especially if Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are clicking, but Lee meant too much to the team to think that it can still make a serious run.