The Biggest Hurdle Every 2013-14 NBA Title Contender Must Clear
Perfection is an unattainable goal in the NBA.
But that doesn't mean each and every contender can't strive for it. An offseason of moves and jockeying for early positioning has left the elite squads in the Association poised to chase an NBA title, even if each one still has a major hurdle to clear before it can even realistically think about perfection.
The number of title contenders changes every year, but this season there are 10 organizations with realistic shots at holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy and winning the last game of the 2013-14 postseason. Some of the remaining 20 teams might think they have a chance, even if they really don't.
And yet, the 10 elites still have to clear those hurdles. While a few of the obstacles are larger than others, they still require work if the team wants to get over them without breaking stride.
Brooklyn Nets: Managing Rotations
While I'm insanely jealous of Jason Kidd for getting to coach an NBA team without any prior experience on the sidelines, I also don't envy him in the slightest. No head coach has a tougher job during the 2013-14 season, and that includes the teams that aren't expected to find even the slightest modicum of success.
Kidd has been handed a title contender, and—just to make things even more difficult during his first season in charge—it's one that needs to be heavily managed.
The Nets are old. That's no secret. And that means that it's up to the recently retired point guard to manage the rotations properly.
He has to be authoritative and realize when he needs to sub out Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He must figure out when Joe Johnson and Deron Williams need breathers, just as he has to understand when he should play Andrei Kirilenko (and at what position).
It's not an enviable position, but it's an important one since the starters' average age is 31.6 years old. That's a low number for a normal set of people, just not for a group of NBA players expected to play major minutes over the course of what will certainly become a grueling season.
Good luck. Here's looking at you, Kidd.
Chicago Bulls: Consistent Scoring Output
The Chicago Bulls were a defensive menace throughout the 2012-13 season, but they struggled to consistently score points.
According to Basketball-Reference, they had an offensive rating of 103.5, which beat out only seven teams in the entire league, not just in the Eastern Conference. Take a look at how the Bulls compared to the other playoff squads in the East:
|New York Knicks||111.1||3|
That has to change if the Bulls want to be truly competitive during the next set of playoffs. A lot points toward them doing exactly that—especially the return of Derrick Rose and the offensive improvement that Jimmy Butler showed throughout the second half of the season—but they still have to make the hypothetical into a reality.
In order to be a true contender without a great offense, the Bulls would have to take the Indiana Pacers' approach: not using any defensive liabilities in the starting lineup.
But as long as Chicago insists on starting Carlos Boozer, it can't fully commit to that method, which makes offensive improvement something of paramount importance.
Golden State Warriors: Finding Offense from the Center Position
The Golden State Warriors' rotation of centers was massively outplayed last year.
As shown by 82games.com, only three teams scored fewer points from the position, and the defensive impact of the Andrew Bogut-Festus Ezeli-Andris Biedrins rotation wasn't enough to make up for the lack of offensive output.
When you look at the amount of points scored by opponents subtracted from the team's points scored by centers, Golden State came in at No. 27. Doing the same exercise with PER (15.1 for, 17.3 against) results in a No. 23 finish.
No matter how you slice it, the 'Dubs needed more offensive production from their big men. Adding Jermaine O'Neal isn't going to truly swing that in the positive direction, which means that Ezeli and Bogut really need to step up their offensive games.
Golden State's backcourt (and David Lee) is just unbelievably loaded. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala can carry the scoring load with room to spare on both ends, but the pressure doesn't need to be on them every night. Plus, defenses are able to key in on the smaller players and neglect the bigger guys.
When play slows down in the postseason and every possession gets tougher, balance is important. The 'Dubs can no longer play for just the regular season. They're title contenders, and they have to find that balance somehow.
Houston Rockets: Figuring out What to Do at Power Forward
The Houston Rockets are set at four of the five positions.
Point guard? Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley have that under control.
Shooting guard? A certain All-Star with a beard is more than capable of handling the responsibilities there.
Small forward? Chandler Parsons is going to play like he wants more respect.
Center? Dwight Howard and Omer Asik are a damn good tandem.
However, there's still a gaping hole at power forward. The rotation currently consists of Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, but none of them are even remotely established as quality starters. That leaves Houston with a number of options, although not even one of them is a guarantee.
The Rockets could attempt to fill the hole internally, letting Smith, Motiejunas or Jones develop into a key contributor by learning on the job. There's enough talent that the regular season isn't highly relevant, and a few crucial mistakes by a young player wouldn't doom the campaign.
Houston could also let Asik and Howard play together, but that's a recipe for disaster. Without a consistent jumper between them, the two big men would be rather redundant and destroy the spacing necessary for Kevin McHale's pick-and-roll offense to maximize its success.
The third—and most appealing—option is to trade Asik for a quality stretch-4, ideally someone like Ryan Anderson.
There's a solid chance that Houston tries at least two of these options during the 2013-14 season, and the team can't rest until it finds the right answer. The championship hopes depend on it.
Indiana Pacers: Depth
The one thing that held the Indiana Pacers back from the Eastern Conference Finals and that caused their eventual exit forced by the Miami Heat was a lackluster bench.
In fact, only the Portland Trail Blazers had a second unit that was on the same level of putridity as the one employed by Indiana.
According to Hoopsstats.com, the Pacers' bench scored 24.1 points per game, beating out only Rip City and its 18.5 per contest. Contrast that against the Dallas Mavericks, who paced the Association with 41.5. Indiana's second (and third) unit actually managed to shoot a league-worst 39.3 percent from the field.
Frank Vogel just couldn't afford to let the backups play, and it took a toll on the starters. Every time he inserted one of the non-starters into the contest, the team took a significant step in the wrong direction.
That has to be different in 2013-14, and the early indications are promising. By adding C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and Chris Copeland to the second unit, the Pacers ensured that there wouldn't be too much of a drop-off when the bench took the court.
And given the rising status of the Eastern Conference elites, these moves couldn't be more important.
Los Angeles Clippers: Frontcourt Defense
Los Angeles Clippers fans, you might want to avert your eyes before you see the following chart.
It's worth giving a second warning as well. At the very least, mentally prepare yourselves.
|Player||Points per possession allowed||Rank|
Those stats, all taken from Synergy Sports (subscription required), show that Blake Griffin is the best frontcourt defender on the Clippers.
Nothing more needs to be said.
Miami Heat: Health of Dwyane Wade
The Miami Heat's season rests on Dwyane Wade's knees.
LeBron James can only carry the team for so long. While he was able to successfully take on the burden during the 2013 playoffs by going into "Cleveland mode," that's only going to get harder in 2014.
The Heat didn't get noticeably stronger (unless Greg Oden really is a real-life Benjamin Button), and the Eastern Conference got a lot better.
Wade had OssaTron shock therapy to relieve some of the pain and provide temporary relief, but there aren't going to be many long-term effects from the treatment. That includes both positive and negative outcomes.
If the shooting guard isn't still an elite player (and the only thing keeping him from that status would be his mid-leg joints), then the Heat are a much less dangerous team. They'd still be a massive threat to finish the three-peat in successful fashion, but it would be much harder to emerge from an increasingly dangerous East.
It's vital that he stays in that top class.
New York Knicks: Finding a Complementary Scorer
Carmelo Anthony deservedly won the scoring title, and he definitely cemented his place among the best offensive players in the NBA. Efficiency still pushes Kevin Durant ahead of him, but that's beside the point.
The New York Knicks can win a title with 'Melo as the central figure, but only if they surround him with the right players.
And at the moment, Anthony has to shoulder too much of the burden.
The Knicks scored exactly 100 points per game during the 2013-14 campaign, and Anthony's 28.7 points per contest obviously impact that number significantly. But the problem was that no consistent complementary scorer emerged.
J.R. Smith was the closest thing the Knicks had to one, and he had a fantastic season. But he's such a hot-and-cold player that slumps inevitably pop up. Between his early-season suspension and knee injury, Smith is going to be playing himself into game form, and that's not what New York needs.
In fact, Mike Woodson's squad needs one of the other members of the roster to step up, cliche as that may be. I'm looking at you, Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire. It's time for the former to develop quickly and the latter to stay healthy.
Without that, the Knicks will continue to be fringe elites.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Replacing Kevin Martin
During the 2012-13 regular season, Kevin Martin averaged 14.0 points and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from behind the three-point arc. Once the regular season became the postseason, the shooting guard put up 14.0 and 1.3 on 38 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent behind the arc.
Now those numbers are gone, as the 2-guard left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Thunder have to replace that offensive production, and they'll be looking to do so internally.
Serge Ibaka could be the man for the job, but his production didn't take a step in the right direction after Russell Westbrook's knee took a step in the wrong direction. The Congolese big man actually averaged fewer points per game once Westbrook got hurt, and that's a pretty clear indication that he isn't ready for more offensive responsibility.
The onus is on Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb to pick up the slack.
Both young guards looked like fantastic scorers during summer league action, but play in Orlando and Las Vegas is quite a bit different than live NBA games.
They must find a way for their offensive talents to transition successfully to the highest level, or else the Thunder are going to fall behind several elite teams in the Western Conference.
San Antonio Spurs: Transitioning from Manu Ginobili to Kawhi Leonard
It's no secret that Manu Ginobili is declining.
That was readily apparent just from the eye test that the Argentine 2-guard underwent throughout the NBA Finals, but the slipping production is even more obvious when you look at the per-game numbers (especially the efficiency numbers):
|Pre All-Star Break||12.3||3.6||4.5||1.4||0.2||2.0||44.3||37.6||82.9|
|Post All-Star Break||10.5||2.8||4.7||1.1||0.2||2.5||38.6||29.2||72.7|
That doesn't paint a pretty picture.
Ginobili wasn't much of a factor as the season progressed, especially once the playoffs rolled around. He made far too many negative contributions against the Miami Heat, and—sad as it is to say—the San Antonio Spurs sometimes seemed like they were remaining competitive in spite of the shooting guard's output.
Fortunately, Gregg Popovich and Co. look capable of just reloading.
Kawhi Leonard was one of the true emerging studs during the 2012-13 season, and the team will need for his production to remain constant throughout his third professional season.
If he can remain a great two-way player, San Antonio won't skip a beat en route to somehow surprising everyone for the 213th season in a row.
Of course, there's one more hurdle: old age.