The Biggest Question Each 2014 NBA Title Contender Must Answer

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

The Biggest Question Each 2014 NBA Title Contender Must Answer

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    With the NBA playoffs quickly approaching, title contenders find themselves searching for solutions to some significant problems that have cropped up over the season's final weeks. 

    Whether it's identifying the root causes of late-season malaise among the Eastern Conference's elite or determining how prominent Western Conference teams will overcome serious injury concerns, there are myriad questions that need to be answered as the 2013-14 campaign nears a close. 

    But before we get started, there are some ground rules that must be established. 

    In order to qualify as a true title contender, we consulted Basketball-Reference.com's playoff probabilities report. From there, teams with a 5 percent chance or greater of winning the NBA Finals were selected as true title contenders. The odds that you will see listed throughout the slideshow were drawn from that report. 

    As a result, you'll notice that squads like the Chicago Bulls (0.7 percent title odds), Toronto Raptors (3.8 percent title odds), Portland Trail Blazers (2.4 percent title odds) and Golden State Warriors (2.3 percent title odds) were all omitted. 

     

    All statistics and title probabilities courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and current as of Sunday, March 30, unless noted otherwise. 

Houston Rockets

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Question: Can the Rockets overcome the loss of Patrick Beverley? 

    Title odds: 5.6 percent

    The Houston Rockets' title hopes were looking brighter before Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that point guard Patrick Beverley will be sidelined indefinitely with a meniscus tear: 

    Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley could be lost for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

    Beverley, 25, will get a second opinion on the injury soon, sources said, and then it'll be determined whether there's possibly a rehabilitation process that could expedite his return before the end of the NBA playoffs, sources said.

    With Beverley likely out for an extended period, the Rockets will be scrambling for solutions. 

    It's no secret that Beverley is the team's most reliable and aggressive perimeter defender. His value is evident on tape, as he's constantly hounding opposing ball-handlers, but the numbers reflect Beverley's impact too. 

    According to NBA.com, Houston's defense has surrendered 1.7 points fewer per 100 possessions with Beverley on the floor this season while the offense has been 3.8 points better. 

    Not only that, but Beverley has been tremendous when guarding opponents in isolations this year, surrendering a meager 0.6 points per possessions (No. 25 overall), according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

    And with talents like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and Mike Conley running the show for various Western Conference playoff contenders, the loss of Beverley has the potential to sting tremendously. 

Indiana Pacers

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Question: Can Indiana's offense make a quick turnaround? 

    Title odds: 11.9 percent 

    If the Indiana Pacers are going to live up to their billing as title contenders, they're going to need to experience some sort of epiphany on the offensive end of the floor. And fast. 

    Although Frank Vogel still owns the league's preeminent group of defenders, his offense has been an absolute train wreck since the calendar flipped over to 2014. 

    According to NBA.com, only three teams have posted lower offensive ratings than Indiana since the start of the New Year. And the company the Pacers are keeping is not pretty.

    Only the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have been more inept offensively over the last three months, as the Pacers entered Sunday night generating a meager 100.1 points per 100 possessions. 

    But that's not all. 

    Since the All-Star break, the Pacers' offensive rating has dipped fractional points below 100. Only the Sixers have been worse during that span, according to NBA.com

    And following Sunday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, ESPN's Brian Windhorst provided this startling observation: "Pacers offense is in crisis, they failed to crack 80 for 4th time in 5 games today. They scored 84 in 1-point win over Heat."

    In the end, an elite defense is only going to carry the Pacers so far.

    Matched up against the Miami Heat in a seven-game series, Indiana will need its offense clicking in order to match the explosive production of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But thus far, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert have proven incapable of producing adequate results on a regular basis. 

Miami Heat

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    AJ MAST/Associated Press

    Question: Can Miami's defense crank things up a notch? 

    Title odds: 12.5 percent 

    Since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami, Erik Spoelstra's club has never ranked worse than ninth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). 

    In Year 1 of the Big Three experiment, the Heat clocked in at No. 5 overall. The following year they ranked fourth and won the title. They then proceeded to rank ninth in 2012-13 en route to a third straight finals appearance and second straight championship. 

    This year, though, one could argue that defense has been Miami's Achilles' heel. 

    As of Sunday night, Miami ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, surrendering 105.5 points per 100 possessions while allowing opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three. Those shooting splits rank 12th and 14th overall, respectively. 

    In the four years of the Big Three's existence, Miami has never finished outside of the top six in terms of opponent's field-goal percentage. 

    Lapses on both ends led Bosh to drop some ominous words to reporters a week ago, according to the Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman, but the anger was laced with some very sobering truth: 

    "We don't talk about it. We're not expressing ourselves in the locker room or on the court. So I figure I'll be the first one to say it, 'We suck.' "And we need to turn it around. And if we don't turn it around, we'll be watching the championship at home."

    And after being gashed by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert last Wednesday to the tune of 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting, it's hard not to be hyper-aware of Miami's defensive deficiencies. 

    According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Miami ranks 28th defending post-ups, surrendering 0.92 points per possession while allowing opponents to shoot 48.5 percent down on the blocks. 

    Now, it would be foolish to doubt Miami's ability to crank up the intensity when the lights shine brightest, but we've yet to see the defensive consistency that Spoelstra's title teams flashed en route to hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Question: Will Russell Westbrook have a minutes restriction? 

    Title odds: 13.6 percent 

    Without fail, conversation regarding the Oklahoma City Thunder's title chances with and without Russell Westbrook crops up every season. 

    Unfortunately, the discourse surrounding Westbrook's effectiveness (or lack thereof) in the eyes of detractors is starting to reach new heights: 

    Consider this tidbit from NBA.com's Sam Smith

    Westbrook is undeniably a spectacular talent, one of the most gifted athletes in the game. The problem the Thunder has—and most would love that problem—is they have a more spectacular talent in Durant. The dynamic most miss about the two or three star grouping for a title is there has to be a No. 1 star. It was easy for the Bulls as Scottie Pippen was a natural role playing star. The Heat didn’t win that first year because Dwyane Wade still was too good. Once he stepped back, LeBron James could emerge. Similarly, Kobe had to be restrained for Shaq to succeed. Then Pau was a better fit once Kobe could no longer.

    Yes, Westbrook's shot selection is at times maddening. He averages the third-most pull-up field-goal attempts per game and shoots a shade over 38 percent on such shots, per NBA.com, but the advanced statistical evidence suggests Oklahoma City's offense is at its best when Westbrook's at full strength. 

    According to NBA.com, Oklahoma City is posting an offensive rating of 110.9 with Westbrook on the floor, a mark that would rank first overall among all teams. In addition, Scott Brooks' squad is 1.4 points better per 100 possessions overall with Westbrook on the floor. 

    Should the league's second-most efficient point guard see his minutes cappeda possibility that was reported by The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry last weekOKC's offense has the potential to sputter. 

    As we saw last postseason, Oklahoma City needs its full complement of superstars to make a deep run into the playoffs, and Westbrook is going to be a massive component of the title equation. 

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Dan Lippitt/Getty Images

    Question: Will the Clippers' three-point shooting show up in the postseason? 

    Title odds: 14.8 percent 

    Following a win over the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves comfortably nestled into the Western Conference's No. 3 seed with an outside shot at the No. 2 seed. 

    Doc Rivers' club has stolen the efficiency crown from the Portland Trail Blazers and now boasts the league's premier offense, one that's generating 111.8 points per 100 possessions. 

    Not only that, but L.A.'s defense ranks seventh in efficiency, giving the Clips a net rating of more than seven points per 100 possessions. 

    So where does the emerging Western Conference darling need to improve? 

    Following Saturday's win over the Houston Rockets, the Clippers rank 19th in three-point shooting (35.2 percent). Among projected Western Conference playoff entrants, that mark is tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the worst. 

    That's arguably a nominal concern given the Clippers' success of late, but L.A. has to be worried about reliability from beyond the arc with J.J. Redick sidelined due to a bulging disc in his back. 

    Among Clippers players who have logged more than 500 minutes, Redick grades out as the team's premier three-point shooter, canning 39.6 percent of his looks from beyond the arc.

    And although Redick told reporters that he hopes to return for the regular season's final three or four games, according to NBA.com's Jeff Caplan, there are reportedly no guarantees on his end. 

    Factor in Jared Dudley's diminished role in Rivers' rotation (playing a season-low 10.9 minutes per game in March), and those offseason additions that figured to bolster the Clippers' perimeter attack may be largely irrelevant come playoff time. 

San Antonio Spurs

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Question: Can San Antonio solve the Oklahoma City Thunder? 

    Title odds: 28.5 percent 

    The San Antonio Spurs have been tearing through opponents en route to a 17-game winning streak, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Basketball-Reference.com has them listed as title favorites as we approach the start of April. 

    Heating up at the perfect time, the Spurs have torched opponents thanks to an offense that's generating 110.6 points per 100 possessions and a defense that's strangling opponents to the tune of 102 points per 100 possessions. 

    The one problem? San Antonio's been unable to solve Western Conference enemy No. 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    The Spurs have come up empty in their three games against the Thunder this season, posting offensive and defensive ratings of 100.6 and 110.2 in those contests, according to NBA.com

    Although the Spurs were fortunate enough to avoid Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City's wrecking crew last postseason (they can thank Patrick Beverley for that), they may very well be on a crash course with Scott Brooks' group to meet in this year's Western Conference Finals.  

    Fortunately for San Antonio, it will get a chance to combat its demons clad in blue and orange when it clashes with the Thunder for the fourth and final time during the regular season on Thursday. 

    Taking care of business in a seven-game series will prove far more challenging, but in order to get over the Western Conference hump, the Spurs will need to do what they couldn't two years ago and kick the Thunder while they're down.