Every NBA Playoff Contender's Most Glaring Weakness

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

Every NBA Playoff Contender's Most Glaring Weakness

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    No NBA team is ever perfect, but the group still competing for the final playoff spots in each conference is filled with particularly imperfect squads. 

    Each team has a glaring flaw. After all, the absence of one would probably mean that the team already belongs in the category of playoff locks, even though all of those teams still have weaknesses that can be exploited by other contenders. 

    So which teams are we talking about? 

    In the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets and everyone above them in the standings are free from being called "playoff contenders." Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and the rest of the Nets have an eight-game lead on the field of lottery teams, and both the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks are in between them. 

    Things are a little trickier in the Western Conference. 

    The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers are certainly going to be excluded from this article, but what do we do with the Golden State Warriors? 

    Arguments could be made that a four-game lead on the Phoenix Suns isn't safe, especially since each of the teams competing for the final spots is so strong. However, the Dubs are currently rolling through a five-game unbeaten streak and looking sharper than ever. 

    Consider them hesitantly excluded, though their glaring weakness would be the inability to hold onto the ball during the closing portion of a tight contest. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come courtesy of Basketball-Reference and are current as of March 12.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    Glaring Weakness: The injury bug has cursed this team.

    It's hard to remember now, but the Atlanta Hawks seemed like favorites to land the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference before injuries absolutely wrecked their chances of remaining competitive. Al Horford went down with yet another shoulder injury, and that was about the end of the Hawks' hopes and dreams for the 2013-14 season. 

    But it wasn't the end of the injury bug's tenure in Atlanta. 

    Paul Millsap missed time, and at one point so many frontcourt members were gone from the lineup that Mike Budenholzer had to give Elton Brand major minutes and bring in Mike Muscala, the team's second-round pick who had been playing overseas. 

    Injuries aren't exactly "glaring weaknesses," but they have consequences.

    A lack of continuity has led to poor communication on defense and an interruption of the ball movement that allowed the offense to thrive at the beginning of the season. It's the former that is the biggest problem, as the Hawks have sunk all the way to No. 19 in defensive rating while they've simultaneously fallen down the standings in the East. 

    Injuries clipped the wings of these Hawks, yet nothing was done to keep them flying high. 

Charlotte Bobcats

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    Glaring Weakness: There are too few offensive options.

    Outside of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, who can the Charlotte Bobcats rely on for consistent offensive production? 

    The trade-deadline acquisition of Gary Neal has helped add an element of outside shooting to the equation, but it's still not enough. He's shooting an unbelievable percentage from beyond the arc (45.8 percent) that likely isn't sustainable. Plus, he only spends 25.4 minutes on the court per game. 

    As a whole, the 'Cats are scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks No. 25 among the 30 teams in the Association. 

    That's not going to cut it. 

    Of the 10 teams at the bottom of the offensive rating leaderboard, only four are either postseason contenders or postseason locks: 

    • The Bobcats
    • The Cleveland Cavaliers, who will be discussed on the next slide
    • The Indiana Pacers, who rank No. 21 in offensive rating but boast the best defense in the NBA
    • The Chicago Bulls, who follow in the Pacers' footsteps and win through a brutally dominant defense

    The Bobcats do rank No. 6 in defensive rating but are still well behind the Pacers and Bulls. Their point-preventing prowess is potent enough to keep them in the playoff picture but there's a reason they haven't been omitted from this article. 

    That would be their offense. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Glaring Weakness: They can't shoot.

    Of the four factors that indicate offensive excellence—or impotence—the Cleveland Cavaliers are elite in two of them and decent in another. Few teams are better at maintaining control of the ball and creating second-chance opportunities through offensive rebounds, and the Cavs are in the middle of the pack when it comes to earning attempts at the charity stripe. 

    But when we're talking about shooting the ball? Yikes. 

    Cleveland's effective field-goal percentage, which takes three-point shooting into account, is 46.8 percent, which ranks dead last in the NBA. The Chicago Bulls are in danger of falling behind them, but it's unlikely any other team will join them in the race to the bottom. 

    So far during the 2013-14 campaign, the league-average effective field-goal percentage is 49.9 percent. 

    Now here's the complete list of players on the Cavaliers who have topped that mark: 

    • Spencer Hawes, 55.9 effective field-goal percentage
    • C.J. Miles, 53.7
    • Tyler Zeller, 52.3

    That's it. 

    Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Luol Deng and everyone else are below the league average for this team that just can't seem to find the bottom of the net. And even more problematic, the three on the right end of 49.9 are, in order, a new acquisition, a guy playing less than 20 minutes per game and a big man scoring only 5.1 points per game. 

    Cleveland has to find a way to put the ball through the hoop more efficiently...and more often. 

Dallas Mavericks

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    Glaring Weakness: Gambling on steals and lazy defense make it hard to prevent points. 

    The entire 2013-14 season has been a constant battle between offense and defense for the Dallas Mavericks. 

    While they're scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions, a number that leaves them trailing only the Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, they're also failing to prevent opponents from posting enough points to keep things close. When it comes to defensive rating, the Mavs rank No. 23. 

    So what's the problem? 

    Really, there are two of them. Laziness abounds from some of the players who have decided it's more worthwhile to exert energy on offense than defense. Dirk Nowitzki is one of those players, though he has the excuse of being old. 

    That said, Dirk did speak up about the laundry list of defensive issues after the Mavs allowed the Denver Nuggets to post 41 points in the fourth quarter of a March 5 loss. Via ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon:

    We’ve just got to keep people in front of us. They’re very good in transition. It felt like somebody shot and we just had four guys watching. Our guards have got to sprint back. There were just layups after layups. We’ve got to keep the ball in front of us. We’ve got to be better on pick-and-roll coverage. We’ve got to find the shooters. 

    But also problematic is the sheer amount of gambling on defense. 

    Monta Ellis is the poster boy for players who rack up steals but play ineffective defense because they're caught out of position so often. And under his influence, Dallas has followed suit, going for possession-ending plays at the expense of maintaining good defensive positioning. 

    "That’s not to ignore the flaws of a roster that pairs two poor defenders in the starting backcourt, asks a 35-year-old to be a multi-position stopper and counts on a journeyman big man picked up off the free agency scrap heap to be the backbone," wrote MacMahon. 

    It's just not a recipe for success. 

Detroit Pistons

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    Glaring Weakness: Josh Smith's role is problematic.

    As long as Josh Smith is lofting up shots, the Detroit Pistons aren't going to win games. 

    The former Atlanta Hawk has seemed intent on making history throughout the 2013-14 season, averaging 16.7 points per game but shooting 42 percent from the field and 24.5 percent beyond the arc. And so far, it seems like he's going to set a new record. 

    Throughout NBA history, 2,455 players have qualified for the scoring title while shooting worse than 25 percent from downtown. Of those, here are the players who have taken the most attempts per game: 

    1. Josh Smith, 3.3 three-point attempts per game during the 2013-14 season
    2. Tony Wroten, 2.7 in 2013-14
    3. Jared Sullinger, 2.6 in 2013-14
    4. Jerry Stackhouse, 2.5 in 1997-98
    5. Mike Evans, 2.2 in 1985-86

    First of all, it's a little weird that inefficient three-point shooting has been so pervasive this year. But more relevantly, Smoove is a ridiculous outlier, as he's not even close to the rest of the people at the top of this ignominious leaderboard. 

    The experiment leaving him at the 3 has been a complete disaster, and the Pistons aren't going to make any noise in the playoff race with him playing small forward like he has throughout the season. This team should belong to Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, but there's been a stubborn insistence to avoid treating No. 6 like a sunk cost. 

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Glaring Weakness: Where does the outside shooting come from?

    No team in the NBA has made fewer three-pointers than the Memphis Grizzlies, who have dropped in only 321 triples through the first 63 games of the season. Now granted, they've played one time fewer than the Detroit Pistons, who sit at No. 29, but it's unlikely the Grizz make 49 three-pointers during their next game and pass the Pistons. 

    They've also taken over 100 fewer attempts from downtown than any other team in the Association, and their 36.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc leaves them in the middle of the pack. 

    This team just isn't made to hoist the ball up from the perimeter, which is problematic. The offense is already limited, and an inability to space the court usually comes back to bite teams during the postseason. 

    Mike Conley (1.5), Mike Miller (1.3), Courtney Lee (1.1) and Beno Udrih (1.0) are the only four players on the roster making more than a single triple per gameand Udrih has a smaller sample size, seeing as he's only suited up in a Memphis uniform twice.

    That's just not enough outside shooting. It puts an inordinate amount of pressure on both the interior scoring and the tough-as-nails defense boasted by David Joerger's squad. 

    Defense wins championships, but not when an offense isn't accompanying it. 

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Glaring Weakness: They consistently underperform in close games.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are better than their record would indicate. 

    Not only have they outscored opponents by 3.9 points per game throughout the 2013-14 season—which is better than the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies—but a simple rating system looks favorably on them. 

    That metric takes margin of victory and strength of schedule into account, and it ranks the 'Wolves No. 9 in the Association. Not in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA, which would indicate that they deserve the seventh seed for the postseason. 

    Minnesota's Pythagorean record—based on points scored and allowed—is 40-23, which is a far cry from its actual 32-31 mark. 

    So what gives? How has this team underperformed so drastically? 

    It's pretty simple—Minnesota just can't close out games successfully. 

    Twenty-three games have seen the Timberwolves separated from their opponents by less than five points with less than five minutes remaining. In those outings, the team is shooting only 39 percent from the field and has been outscored by 1.9 points per game, according to NBA.com's statistical database

    The same story occurs regardless of which definition you use for "clutch." 

    In the last 30 seconds of one-possession games, the 'Wolves are making only 20 percent of their attempts. In the final 10 seconds of games with the same margin, they're hitting only 8.3 percent of their looks. 

    And they've found themselves in that situation on 12 different occasions, so this isn't just a huge fluke. 

New York Knicks

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    Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

    Glaring Weakness: What is this "defense" thing?

    Well, this one is pretty obvious. 

    Even though the New York Knicks have run into quite a few problems throughout the miserable 2013-14 campaign—poor shooting from everyone but Carmelo Anthony, dysfunction and negative headlines throughout the organization, injury woes, etc.—defense has been the biggest problem. 

    By far. 

    The Knicks are allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions on the season, which ranks them No. 25 in the NBA. Only the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz are behind them, and that's not exactly a group you want to be a part of. 

    Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin provided a fantastic breakdown of the Knicks' defensive woes, but here's the conclusion: 

    It's not easy to pinpoint a specific thing that is wrong with the Knicks defense, simply because there are just so many things wrong. There's the personnel, the scheme, the execution, the communication, the effort and the coaching. And then there's the fouling, especially, and the complaining about being called for fouls (looking directly at you again, Felton).

    None of it is good. None of it is going away any time soon. This is a bad defensive team with a bad defensive coach, one who has built up a false reputation as a defensive tactician despite having never coached a team to a top-10 defense in a full season. 


    Let's just move on before anyone gets too depressed. 

Phoenix Suns

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Glaring Weakness: There isn't any interior scoring.

    The Phoenix Suns don't have any trouble producing points in the paint because they do such a nice job cutting to the hoop and scoring in transition, but they can't just throw the ball into a back-to-the-basket player and watch him go to work.

    Miles Plumlee and Alex Len aren't scorers at the center position. Channing Frye and Markieff Morris play power forward but both prefer to do damage with their jump-shooting, not their work on the interior. 

    According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Suns are scoring 0.82 points per possession in post-up situations. That's the 20th mark in the Association, which isn't too shabby, but the Suns rarely go to this type of play. In fact, they do so only 11.4 percent of the time. 

    Compare that to a team like the Memphis Grizzlies, who go to the post 16.9 percent of the time. 

    This is the very reason why the Suns were pursuing Pau Gasol before the trade deadline, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein. Gasol could have added a new element to the Suns' offensive efforts. 

    Well, they didn't get Gasol. Nor did they land anyone who could help shore up the back-to-the-basket play in the desert.