The Biggest Strength and Weakness of Each 2014 NBA Title Contender
Heading into the final portion of the 2013-14 NBA regular season, it's time to sort the true championship contenders from the pretenders.
What makes a team a legitimate NBA title contender? I looked back at the 10 most recent champions and runners-up to find out.
Of the 20 teams that have advanced to the NBA Finals since 2004, all but three had a win percentage above .650, and all but five had a point differential above plus-four. Miami is the only team to have won a title with either a win percentage below .650 or a point differential below four (.634 and plus-3.9, respectively, in 2006).
Using those cutoffs as a reference point, only seven teams qualify as a true title contender this season. That's not to say one of these seven teams is guaranteed to win the championship, but at this juncture of the season, it's difficult to argue against these seven as the prohibitive title favorites.
Here, with the help of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats, let's look at the biggest strength and weakness of the seven main title contenders. For team-based stats, a squad had to be among the top five in a given stat for it to qualify as a "strength" or in the bottom 10 (ideally bottom five) for a "weakness."
Portland Trail Blazers (43-23)
Win Percentage: .652
Point Differential: Plus-4.4
Biggest Strength: Offensive efficiency
The Portland Trail Blazers have exceeded all reasonable expectations this season by becoming a well-oiled offensive machine.
Fueled by a breakout season from LaMarcus Aldridge and the continued development of sophomore point guard Damian Lillard, Portland is tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the league lead in offensive efficiency (111.8 points per 100 possessions). All five of their starters are averaging double-digit point totals per game and have above-average player efficiency ratings, led by Aldridge (21.7) and Lillard (19.2), per ESPN.com.
With Lillard and Aldridge providing a majority of the offensive punch, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have slid into complementary roles. Matthews is the team's second-best three-point shooter behind Lillard, while Batum serves as the jack-of-all-trades.
Being able to avoid offensive droughts is key to any prolonged NBA playoff run. Portland should be well-equipped in that regard.
Biggest Weakness: Interior defense and bench scoring
Portland has two major concerns heading into the playoffs, either of which could prove its undoing.
The Blazers allow opponents to score 46.1 points per game in the paint, according to TeamRankings.com, which is tied with Phoenix for 27th in the league. Center Robin Lopez trails only Roy Hibbert in terms of opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim among players who face five or more attempts per game and have played 25 games, but Portland lacks a reliable interior defender to back him up.
That brings us to Portland's second potential Achilles' heel: bench scoring. The Blazers bench averages only 18.5 points per game, per HoopsStats.com, which is by far the worst mark in the NBA. They're nearly six points per game behind Indiana, the league's second-worst team.
Either one of these issues could prove fatal to Portland once the postseason begins. The combination of the two is almost certain to keep the Blazers from representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Houston Rockets (44-21)
Win Percentage: .677
Point Differential: Plus-4.4
Biggest Strength: A well-established offensive identity
The Houston Rockets are who we think they are. They're a pace-and-space, three-point-heavy squad—they take a league-high 32.5 percent of their field-goal attempts behind the arc—that isn't willing to compromise its values based on matchups.
As an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, that defined offensive identity could prove beneficial when the postseason rolls around:
All the top teams [in the West] have certain flaws and the Rockets are no exception. But I like that they stay true to themselves. They don't hesitate about who they are. So as a result the players' minds are free to just go play.
They run, they shoot a lot of 3s, they want to get to the rim ... and anything else is post-ups for Dwight [Howard]. And they're not going to make a lot of adjustments.
Most teams would kill for having two bona fide offensive stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard. With Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Jordan Hamilton ready to bomb away from deep, opponents must be sure to close out on Houston's shooters at all costs, lest they plan on taking an early summer vacation.
Biggest Weakness: Free-throw shooting
As any fantasy basketball owner can attest, Dwight Howard can single-handedly cripple a team's free-throw percentage. If the Rockets find themselves holding onto a narrow lead in a late-game situation during the playoffs, their opponent will assuredly attempt the Hack-a-Dwight strategy.
Howard, a career 57.5 percent shooter, is only knocking down 54.8 percent of his freebies this season. He has attempted 110 more free throws than the next-closest Rocket, James Harden (600 and 490, respectively). Opponents know that they're better off sending him to the line than letting the Rockets offense get off a shot.
He's not the only weak link in terms of free-throw shooting, however. Houston's starting power forward, second-year man Terrence Jones, is only knocking down 56.7 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.
Because of Howard and Jones, Houston ranks 29th in the league in free-throw percentage (.698), ahead of only the Detroit Pistons. With every possession taking on heightened importance in the playoffs, such an easily exploitable Achilles' heel could be detrimental to the Rockets' chances of advancing to the NBA Finals.
Miami Heat (44-19)
Win Percentage: .698
Point Differential: Plus-5.3
Biggest Strength: The Big Three
Only one team has a four-time regular-season Most Valuable Player, one of the league's all-time best shooting guards and a stretch 5 who is more than willing to recede into the background as a third option on most nights. With their powers combined, the Big Three present a pick-your-poison conundrum for opponents.
Do you pack the paint and make Bosh beat you from outside? Double-team LeBron or Wade and pray they don't take advantage with pinpoint passes to wide-open teammates? There's no one right answer, as evidenced by the ultimate outcome of the past two seasons.
Assuming all three can enter the postseason healthy, Miami will be considered the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. A three-peat is by no means predestined for the Heat this season, however, with tough competition potentially looming in the final three rounds of the playoffs.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding
Miami's recent fatigue may be drawing most of the headlines at the moment, but rebounding woes should be the bigger concern.
On the season, the Heat rank 28th in the league in rebounding percentage (47.2 percent), ahead of only the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers. They're dead last in terms of rebounds per game (36.7), a full 1.5 boards behind Brooklyn.
A second-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls could prove nightmarish for Miami, as a Western Conference scout suggested to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "Miami's big weakness is rebounding," the scout said. "And that's one area where Chicago obviously excels."
After all, the Heat were one clutch Bosh rebound away from losing the 2013 title to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6. If Greg Oden and Chris Andersen can't consistently pound the boards during the playoffs, it could come back to haunt Miami in a close-game situation at some point.
Los Angeles Clippers (47-20)
Win Percentage: .701
Point Differential: Plus-7.2
Biggest Strength: Overall depth
The Los Angeles Clippers bench may legitimately be more talented than the Philadelphia 76ers starting five.
That's a credit to Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who managed to scoop up Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Danny Granger after both were bought out following the trade deadline. Adding those two to a bench rotation that includes Darren Collison, Jared Dudley and Jamal Crawford gives Los Angeles an embarrassment of riches.
Having 10 rotation-worthy players reduces the stress on Rivers, as foul trouble won't necessarily prove the team's undoing in any given game. The drop-off from Chris Paul to Collison is significant, unquestionably, but it wouldn't necessarily cripple the Clips' chances of winning a close game.
Coupled with the ongoing development of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles' depth has the team primed to make a deep run in the 2014 postseason.
Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt foul trouble
Since Griffin and Jordan are both in the midst of breakout seasons, losing one (or both) of the frontcourt stars to foul trouble could spell doom for the Clippers.
Los Angeles leads the league in terms of frontcourt fouls per game (15.4), per HoopsStats.com, which can largely be attributed to the two burgeoning big men.
Griffin averages a team-high 3.4 fouls per game, and Jordan isn't far behind him with 3.3 fouls. Add in Glen Davis' 2.9 fouls per game, and the words "Ryan Hollins" and "crunch time" could be a real thing at some point in this year's playoffs.
If Jordan finds himself in foul trouble, the Clippers interior defense would suffer greatly as a result. Losing Griffin to foul trouble would put even more pressure to create offensive opportunities on CP3, which could throw the Clippers out of whack.
Big men often can't help but foul as opponents come barreling at them on the way to the rim, but Griffin and Jordan must remain cognizant of their value to the team at all times. Neither can afford to pick up many cheap or unnecessary fouls if the Clippers hope to advance past the first round or two in the playoffs.
Indiana Pacers (48-17)
Win Percentage: .738
Point Differential: Plus-6.5
Biggest Strength: Interior defense
With 7'2" center Roy Hibbert anchoring the middle, it's no surprise that the Indiana Pacers have the league's most dominant interior defense.
This season, Indiana is giving up a league-low 35.3 points per game in the paint, per TeamRankings.com. The Pacers' opponents are converting a league-low 51.4 percent of their shots less than five feet from the basket.
That's largely thanks to the behemoth Hibbert. Of all the players who have played at least 25 games and face five or more field-goal attempts at the rim per night, Big Roy ranks first in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim (41.6 percent).
Indy's defense hasn't been as stringent of late—the squad ranks 12th in defensive efficiency over its past 10 games—but it's still the team's meal ticket.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive stagnancy
Assuming the Pacers rectify their recent defensive struggles by the start of the playoffs, their offense is most likely to hold them back from a trip to the NBA Finals.
On the season, they rank 21st in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 105.1 points per 100 possessions. That mark trails the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers by nearly seven points per 100 possessions.
Indiana also ranks 25th in assist percentage (55.1 percent), which is the percent of players' field goals assisted by a teammate. Over their past 10 games, they rank 27th in assist percentage (53.1 percent), behind only the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings.
If Indiana gets bogged down offensively in the playoffs, it would place even more pressure on the defense to generate stops. Swingman Paul George, who has only averaged 16.0 points on 38.2 percent shooting over his past five games, needs to break out of his mini-slump to give the Pacers a puncher's chance against Miami.
Oklahoma City Thunder (48-17)
Win Percentage: .738
Point Differential: Plus-6.9
Biggest Strength: Kevin Wayne Durant
Just like with the Miami Heat, there's no need to overthink things when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder's biggest strength. Only one team in the league has a player on a mind-boggling 30-game streak with at least 25 points per contest.
"KD is in that extraterrestrial scorer category," a Western Conference advance scout told NBA.com's Sekou Smith on Thursday. "There are plenty of guys who can fill it up and get you 20 a night. The number of guys who can get you 30 a night, though, shrinks considerably."
Here's what's truly scary: Durant isn't just satisfied with falling back on his prolific scoring abilities. He's averaging a career-high 5.6 assists per game to go with his 31.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. In essence, he's becoming more LeBron James-esque with every passing year.
At only 25 years old, KD is one of the league's few players with a seemingly limitless ceiling. If OKC is ever to win a championship, it'll be on his lanky shoulders.
Biggest Weakness: Perimeter defense
Renowned sports gambler Haralabos Voulgaris has been sounding the alarm on OKC's perimeter defense lately, saying, "They leave shooters open all over, rarely contest jumpers."
While it might sound crazy on the surface—the Thunder are tied with the Dallas Mavericks as the fourth-best team in the league at defending the corner three-pointer (opponents only hit 35.7 percent of their corner threes) and are fifth in defensive efficiency (103.2)—he has a point.
In March alone, OKC gave up 128 points to Phoenix, allowing Gerald Green to go off for a career-high 41. That was followed by a 114-110 loss to a Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers squad. Jodie Meeks did his best Mamba impersonation that game, lighting the Thunder up for a career-high 42 points.
Part of the recent defensive malaise can be attributed to the injuries to Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, those injuries have a trickle-down effect: "new lineups, more minutes for inexperienced players, and zero adjustment period for Caron Butler."
If the Thunder can't get their perimeter defense back on track once Sefolosha and Perkins return, a team like the Houston Rockets could be primed to take advantage and send OKC packing.
San Antonio Spurs (49-16)
Win Percentage: .754
Point Differential: Plus-7.1
Biggest Strength: Three-point efficiency
No one can accuse the San Antonio Spurs of not keeping up with the times.
Overall, the Spurs are shooting 39.6 percent on three-point attempts this season; they are first in the league by a full percentage point over the next-closest team, the Washington Wizards. They're also second in the league in corner three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and eighth in corner three-point attempts.
With marksmen such as Danny Green, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli spotting up at the corners, the Spurs are content to space the floor and bomb away from deep. That's the benefit of having four rotation players who are all shooting at least 40 percent from three-point range, with a fifth (Green) just missing the mark (39.9 percent).
Biggest Weakness: Age and health
Like clockwork, the Spurs are first in the Western Conference in mid-March yet are once more flying almost completely under the radar. They're one win away from their 15th straight 50-win season, but injuries have made this year's squad hardly recognizable throughout most of the season.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted: "Almost every rotation player has missed significant time because of injury or "a variety of maladies"; the Spurs are one of just four teams without a lineup that has logged at least 200 minutes, and with three or fewer that have even cracked 100 minutes together, per NBA.com."
This is the risk that older squads run, which San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich fully acknowledges. There's a reason his longtime veterans rack up the occasional "did not play—old."
If the Spurs can stay healthy, they're going to be a bear to take down in the playoffs. However, relying on older players can be a risky strategy (as the Los Angeles Lakers learned the hard way this season), which leaves San Antonio open to being burned.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com/Stats. All stats are current through games played on Thursday, March 13. Teams are sorted in reverse order based on their records through Friday, March 14.
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