Four NBA Teams That Must Correct Crunch-Time Flaws
It's a mostly inherent tendency—or perhaps a superstition—for many fans to turn the television off or change the channel when their favorite NBA team is playing like poo or generally getting the snot beat out of them.
And that's understandable, given the source of frustration these beatings become and the relative calm one may feel by separating themselves from an abhorrent feeling caused by a silly basketball game.
Still, there remains a loyal faction that will refuse to desert the programming regardless of whether or not they'll be subjected to further disappointment. Typically, it's all for naught, as there are many teams in this league not well-suited to overcome large deficits, and still a handful more that rarely give up big leads.
But there is a group of teams that doesn't fit in this category, that routinely gives up huge advantages or fails to execute when the game gets tight. Unless the deficit just becomes preposterous, don't grab the remote too early when your squad is playing any of the following listed here, especially considering the clutch-time problems that plague them.
We're going to eliminate the NBA's bottom-feeders from this piece, as most of them aren't exactly capable of running out to insurmountable leads. Instead, we'll focus—in no particular order—on the bubble playoff contenders that have maintained solid health this season and the harmful flaws they exhibit. Teams like the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Nets and Pelicans have suffered too many crucial injuries. And the Knicks are just bad.
It's not particularly difficult to identify the issues that plague the Dallas Mavericks. A resurgent Dirk Nowitzki and a relatively efficient (by his standards) Monta Ellis have spearheaded an offensive attack that ranks third in the NBA with a 108.2 offensive-efficiency rating (points scored per 100 possessions), but a turnstile defense has haunted a team that's been on the playoff bubble all season long. And it only gets worse as the game winds down.
The Mavericks allow opponents to score 106.1 points per 100 possessions, good (err, bad) for seventh-worst in the association; but it the second half of games, that number becomes even more egregious. Dallas' defensive rating drops to 108.5 after halftime, and three of their 21 losses this season have come after the team has led by more than 10 points in the third or fourth quarter.
And then there's crunch time. The Mavericks have actually done fairly well in clutch situations this season (ahead or behind by five points with five minutes remaining in the game), going 15-14 in such instances this season. They boast a net-efficiency rating of 8.3 (up from their average 2.2 on the season), which is top ten in the league, and their defensive rating improves to 104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions when the game gets tight.
It's a different story in those 14 'clutch' losses, however. Dallas gives up a defensive rating of 113.4 in those games as the offense usually plummets (79.4 ORtg), which doesn't make for a good combination.
This is likely an issue the Mavs will have to deal with for the rest of the season, barring any sort of roster shakeup prior to the Feb. 20 trade deadline. With Nowitzki, Ellis, Jose Calderon, DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert (who used to be a decent rim-protector) playing meaningful minutes, the defensive options are limited. Shawn Marion can't do it alone, and unless this team finds a way to give him some help, its topsy-turvy season will almost assuredly continue.
The Charlotte Bobcats have been a great story this season, rising from the cellar of the league to become challengers for the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
And it's been their defense that has cemented this status. Steve Clifford has taken this unit from dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency last year (108.9) to seventh in the league this season with a 100.8 defensive rating.
But struggles on the offensive end put an enormous amount of pressure on this bubble team's defense. When the defense gives, problems arise. (The Bobcats barely fit into the 'maintained solid health' category with various injuries to Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker and, more significantly, to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but it's slim pickings in the East).
Like the Mavericks, Charlotte has dropped three games this season after leading by more than 10 points in the third or fourth quarter. In these three instances, the Bobcats have put up a dreadful net-rating of -73.8 points per 100 possessions, something that has much more to do with limited offense than it does a lack of defense.
But for a young team that's lost 28 games, three losses of this kind is absolutely something you can live with. Really, it's not much of an issue at all. All three of these losses happened back in December, so progress is tangible.
More problematic is the team's struggles in clutch situations. The Bobcats are 13-16 when the game is within five points with five minutes remaining, and their defensive-efficiency rating drops to 106.5, a number that sits in the bottom third of the NBA in such instances.
But there's something fairly remarkable about that statistic: In those 16 "clutch" losses, Charlotte has allowed 136 points per 100 possessions in those final five minutes. It's it not due to turnovers, either—they're giving the ball away on only 6.8 percent of clutch possessions. But in the 13 clutch wins, the Bobcats have posted a minuscule 74.4 defensive rating.
Let's be clear: this is a very young team that has made massive strides from previous seasons. But these issues are likely to continue. It's actually kind of amazing that a team playing Jefferson big minutes at center has been so good defensively. Once they accrue some more talent and experience, the Bobcats' future will only brighten.
The struggles Minnesota has endured in the clutch have been well documented, and they're killing a team that's been so solid in many other aspects of the game. The Timberwolves are a top-ten offensive team, and on the defensive side of the ball they're sitting eleventh overall.
They're a hell of a front-runner, too.
Minnesota has posted second-half leads of 11 points or more in 14 of its 24 wins this season; and in its two losses after leading by more than 10 points after halftime, it maintained that margin for a total of only three minutes. So when the T'Wolves get out in front by double-digits in the final 24 minutes of the game, it's quite difficult to catch them.
And then there's the other issue...
The Timberwolves are 9-17 when ahead or behind by five points entering the final five minutes of the game, and their performance drops precipitously on both sides of the ball in these situations. Minnesota shoots just 37 percent from the floor and allows its opponents to shoot better than 48 percent, including 68 percent at the rim.
And it gets worse. When the Wolves are ahead or behind by three points in the final 30 seconds, they're a pretty unbelievable 2-12 on the season. They shoot only 20 percent in these instances while allowing opponents to shoot 50 percent, though that's a very small sample-size, given the lack of minutes involved.
But the biggest problem for Minnesota is its propensity to foul in the clutch.
The Wolves foul just 17.7 times per 48 minutes, which is the best in the league. In the final five minutes of those close games, however, they commit 34.4 fouls per 48 minutes. That's the second-worst number in the league behind the Toronto Raptors in clutch situations. As a reference point, the San Antonio Spurs are second in the league in terms of personal fouls drawn by opponents, but that ranking drops only ten spots in the final five minutes of close games.
Minnesota's rim-protection issues are a major concern, and it's unlikely they correct themselves with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic patrolling the paint. The Timberwolves thrive off forcing turnovers with Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio wreaking havoc in the passing lanes, but teams typically tighten things up in the waning moments of games. In those late half-court settings, Minnesota struggles mightily to defend any attempt at the rim.
If your team falls behind big against the Wolves, it might be lights out; but if the game is close, consider your chances decent.
The fact we're talking about a 19-29 team on the playoff bubble sitting just one game back in the loss column of the eighth seed is hilarious, but here we are.
Yay, Eastern Conference!
The Detroit Pistons just shouldn't be this bad. Even with the clunky gigantic frontcourt of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, there's enough talent in Detroit to make you look twice at that nasty record.
There's an egregious lack of perimeter shooting, which isn't helped by the fact that Smith is jacking up threes at a historically bad rate given the frequency at which they fly. Detroit is shooting 30 percent from deep, the worst mark in the league, and that prevents the Pistons from keeping pace with and staying ahead of all the three-point happy teams in the league.
The Pistons have jumped out to second-half leads of 11 points or more in 21 different games this season; they've lost five times in these situations, shooting a frigid 29 percent from the floor in the process.
What's even more shocking, given the aforementioned data, is that 16 of the team's 19 wins have come after building leads of more than 10 points after halftime. That leaves three wins—THREE—during which the Pistons have managed to come from behind or protect a second-half lead of up to 10 points.
Which brings us to their clutch statistics. Considering Detroit is 10 games below .500 this season, its 11-13 record in games with a margin of five points or fewer heading into the final five minutes is pretty respectable.
But the numbers do not reflect that.
The Pistons are scoring 84.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing 108.1 at the same rate in these situations, which is just brutal. Their 59.7 defensive-rebounding percentage in the clutch is awful—down from a per-game average of 74.1 percent—and their true-shooting rate drops to 43.4 percent while opponents are shooting better than 46 percent from the floor, including 42 percent from the three-point line. In losses, their net rating in the final five minutes of games is an ugly -52.3 points per 100 possessions.
Long story short: Teams that don't allow Detroit to run way out in front haven't exactly had the most difficult time notching victories.
The good news, if this even counts, is that it can't really get much worse. But without the requisite perimeter shooting it takes to win in this league, on top of the funky predicament brought about by playing three frontcourt players at once, it might take a trade of Smith (highly unlikely given his bloated contract) or Monroe—Drummond isn't going anywhere—to bring in the kind of pieces this team needs to capitalize on the talent that exists on this roster.
All statistical support provided by media.nba.com/Stats (subscription required).