The Biggest Weakness for Every Team in the 2014 NBA Playoffs
During discussions of the 2014 NBA playoffs, the natural impulse is to accentuate the positive—to focus on the strengths of these incredible teams comprised of world-class athletes.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat's high-flying and ruthlessly efficient offense. The stifling defense that Paul George and the Indiana Pacers still play on their best nights. The San Antonio Spurs' dead-eye three-point shooting. All these have rightly been brought up as discussion points—stanzas in the paeans to the greatness of these groups that will be written, recited and rewritten in the next two months.
But this isn't that kind of article.
The 16 teams that populate the 2014 NBA playoffs, skilled as they are, are pockmarked with weaknesses, shortcomings, maladies and malfunctions. Nobody's perfect, and neither is this bunch.
Below is a look at the greatest weakness—the Achilles' heel—of every team.
Indiana Pacers: Offense
There are 30 teams in the NBA. By the end of the regular season, the Indiana Pacers were playing offense at a lower level than nearly all of them.
It was a tale of two seasons for Paul George and company. Before Feb. 8—when Indiana had a league best 39-10 record—the Pacers were in possession of a good enough offense, scoring 102.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. In tandem with an uber-stingy defense, Indiana was outscoring opponents by a league-best 8.1 points per game at that point.
Things have changed. Since the above-mentioned—and, admittedly, arbitrary—start date, the Pacers have posted an offensive rating that’s worse than everybody but the Philadelphia 76ers, according to NBA.com. They've also scored the fewest points per game in the NBA in that time.
Jared Wade, a Pacers blogger at Eight Points Nine Seconds, surveyed the wreckage that is the Indiana offense and could muster only this:
Teams play bad during an 82-game season. Even teams with as much talent as the Pacers can stumble over their own feet for awhile. And mediocre play from a team that has been largely unimpressive since February began has become routine.
But not this.
This is something else. This is just some unexplainable, Bermuda Triangle-like phenomena that has sucked all life from the players on this team. They now roam the court like husks of once-talented humans who can no longer complete even the simplest of basketball tasks.
Miami Heat: Rebounding
The Miami Heat are an organization with a lot to recommend them. In LeBron James, Miami has a superstar who is at the apex of his considerable powers. In Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, the team has two All-Star performers. There are at least three Hall of Famers on the roster, maybe more. But here's the thing about the Heat: They can't rebound. At all.
According to ESPN.com, the Heat finished the 2013-14 regular season ranked 29th in the NBA in offensive rebound rate, 24th in defensive rebound rate and 27th in total rebound rate.
While some of this is by design—Miami, like a handful of other teams, chooses to get back on defense rather than chase offensive rebounds—it is nonetheless a problem for the Heat. It requires them to be nearly perfect in others areas of the game.
The Heat led the NBA with a bonkers true shooting percentage of 59, according to ESPN.com, but despite this, they only outscored opponents by 4.8 points per game—over three points off their pace from last season. The lesson: It's hard to win games when your opponent gets more possessions than you. And Miami, for all its greatness, consistently gives its opposition this advantage.
Toronto Raptors: John Salmons
John Salmons is an egregiously bad shooter.
Last week, Hickory High awarded the forward its annual Darrick Martin Award, which goes to the player with at least 300 field-goal attempts who posts the lowest field goal percentage. Ian Levy explained the dishonor:
While the shooting struggles of everyone’s favorite floppy-haired Spaniard have been the narrative du jour, John Salmons was toiling away in the anonymity provided by a place in the Toronto Raptors’ rotation. This season Salmons threw up enough bricks to build himself a charming three-bedroom Tudor in the quiet suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. He finished the year having made just 36.3% of his 413 field goal attempts, 10 percentage points lower than any other qualifying player and a full 18 percentage points lower than Rubio. Below, courtesy of Vorped.com, is the shot chart from Salmons’ award-winning season.
Salmons has played 21.4 minutes per night for the Toronto Raptors since he was acquired from the Sacramento Kings, and according to Basketball-Reference, he has posted the lowest win shares per 48 minutes of any player in the rotation in that time.
The Raptors have a John Salmons problem, guys.
Chicago Bulls: Easy Scoring Opportunities
The Chicago Bulls played tremendous basketball in the final few months of the regular season, rallying from a 12-18 record to finish with 48 wins and the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But it hasn't come easy for the effortful Bulls. In fact, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, that's precisely the problem:
Sunday's game was close to a worst-case scenario for a Bulls team that has hidden its weaknesses very well since Jan. 1, the biggest weakness being that they can't always find easy ways to score. It has been an issue for the Bulls all season -- and it appeared at the worst possible time again on Sunday as the Bulls went through long droughts during which they couldn't buy a basket.
Absent Derrick Rose, a certified playmaker, and with only the 28th fastest pace of play in the league—teams that spend a lot of time in transition tend to get easier looks at the hoop—the Bulls have to do a lot of work for every bucket.
Consequently, Chicago has the worst offense in these NBA playoffs by a wide margin. According to ESPN.com, the Bulls scored 99.7 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14, which tied them for 27th in the NBA.
Washington Wizards: Depth
John Wall had a banner season for the Washington Wizards, and the starting lineup acquired itself well throughout the regular season, but beyond that, the team gets very thin very fast.
Mike Elworth and Josh Morgan, writing for HoopStuff, identified this lack of depth as the Wizard's greatest postseason liability: "Thirty seven year old Andre Miller is the backup at the point and Drew Gooden is the primary backup in the post. If they get into foul trouble or someone should happen to get injured it could be disastrous."
It certainly could be disastrous. Granted, Washington does have 2013 No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter Jr. to lean back on if things go awry. Wait, what's that? He played only 319 minutes and shot 36.3 percent from the floor? Huh. Never mind, then.
Brooklyn Nets: Rebounding
The Brooklyn Nets, as you may have read, played top-notch basketball once the calendar turned to 2014, racking up a 34-17 record that would have been better had they not tanked the last couple of weeks to secure a first round playoff matchup with Toronto.
But, alas, this is a flawed bunch. And the most glaring of the Nets' weaknesses is their collective work on the boards.
Get a load of what they did in January, according to Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk:
The Brooklyn Nets grabbed 17 rebounds in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
That set a new NBA record for fewest rebounds in a game, breaking the 18 the Detroit Pistons had against the Charlotte Hornets on November 28, 2001.
This dreadful performance wasn't totally out of whack with their season, either. According to ESPN.com, the Nets finished 29th in the NBA in rebounding rate in 2013-14, ahead of only the lousy Los Angeles Lakers. With the way that Brooklyn has been shooting the three-pointer, it can afford to lose a few possessions but not this many.
Charlotte Bobcats: Shooting
Under head coach Steve Clifford, the Charlotte Bobcats have developed into a fierce and fearsome defensive unit, finishing sixth in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, according to ESPN.com.
Unfortunately for the 'Cats, the offense has not been nearly as productive.
HoopStuff's Mike Elworth and Josh Morgan homed in on the problem at the start of the postseason:
They are 22nd in three point percentage, 27th from inside the line and 24th at the free throw line. This could come back to haunt them come playoff time as the Heat are one of the best offensive teams in the league and if they can’t keep up they could be run out of the gym.
The primary culprit appears to be Kemba Walker. While the former Huskie is credited in some circles for developing as a credible offensive threat this season, the numbers beg to differ. The guard finished second on the team, to Al Jefferson, in field-goal attempts in 2013-14 but shot just 39.3 percent overall, the shabbiest mark of any Bobcat who played more than 1,000 minutes.
A pro tip, guys: Tell Walker not to shoot it so much.
Atlanta Hawks: Being the Atlanta Hawks
Bad teams make the NBA playoffs from time to time.
The 1967-68 Chicago Bulls sneaked in despite a 29-53 record. In 1985-86, Chicago got in despite a 30-52 mark. In 1987-88, the San Antonio Spurs and their 31-51 record made the dance (h/t SBNation).
So the Atlanta Hawks aren't necessarily a historically bad playoff team, but coming off a 38-44 regular season, they're the worst of the 2014 bunch. But, if they top the floundering Pacers in Round 1, they do have a chance to make some bizarre history, according to Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk: "If they hold on, they’d be the worst team to win a playoff since series since the NBA expanded its postseason to 16 teams in 1984."
It would be quite an achievement.
San Antonio Spurs: Getting to the Line
The San Antonio Spurs are good at nearly everything. "Nearly" being the operative word.
Tim Duncan and company averaged just 20 free-throw attempts per game in 2013-14, the worst mark in the NBA. This matters.
According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (insider access only), favorites who didn't get to the line in the regular season have tended to struggle in the playoffs. This analysis makes what's currently happening in the Lone Star State more explicable.
Free throw rate is also an important indicator for favorites, but in the opposite direction. Not getting to the line on offense can signal impending doom. The top quartile of favorites in terms of free throw attempts per field goal attempt have won 86.4 percent of their first-round series compared with just 68.2 percent of teams in the bottom quartile. This might serve as an indicator of consistency, since free throw attempts tend to be more consistent night-to-night than shooting from the field.
This year, only one higher seed -- the Spurs, who ranked 27th -- was even below average in terms of free throw rate.
Nobody expected San Antonio to be down 2-1 to the Dallas Mavericks. Maybe we should have.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Bench
Not long ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder had now-superstar James Harden coming off the bench in the postseason. Today? Not so much.
Caron Butler suddenly can’t hit a shot.
Reggie Jackson suddenly has no rhythm.
Beno Udrih suddenly looks like Manu Ginobili, circa 2008.
And what seemed to be a clear Thunder advantage heading into the series and even more so after a Game 1 mobbing — bench play — has suddenly turned into OKC’s biggest weakness.
Granted, a team with Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka) can withstand more than a few flaws, but the absence of reliable second-unit play has to be a source of great consternation for an organization that's feverishly pursuing its first title since it moved to Oklahoma.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Three-Point Shot
The right idea, the wrong outcome.
So it goes with the Los Angeles Clippers' three-point shooting. While Chris Paul and company attempted 24 triples per game during the regular season, good for eighth in the NBA, they connected on just 35.2 percent of those shots.
That efficiency that put them in the bottom third of the league.
Oh, well. If it's any consolation to Clippers fans, the team finished the regular season with the second-best scoring differential in basketball. Triple or no, LA is pretty good at putting points on the board and stopping opponents from doing the same.
Houston Rockets: Protecting the Basketball
The Houston Rockets don't take very good care of the basketball.
In the regular season, according to ESPN.com, the Rockets turned the ball over on 14.6 percent of their possessions, a mark that was topped only by the Philadelphia 76ers. James Harden had a lot to do with this, finishing tied for third in the NBA with 3.6 TOs per night on his own.
In March, Bleacher Report's David Leonardis pointed out that the Rockets' propensity for giving the ball to the other team is coupled with an inability to steal it back: "Houston is second-to-last in the NBA with an average of 15.6 turnovers per game. They have committed a total of 1,062 turnovers this season and their turnover differential is plus-143, which is the worst in the league."
If the Rockets fail to launch this spring, turnovers could be a culprit.
Portland Trail Blazers: Depth
The Portland Trail Blazers were the team that Western Conference contenders most wanted to play in Round 1, in part because they don't really have much to work with behind an awesome starting lineup.
HoopStuff's Mike Elworth and Josh Morgan summarized the problem aptly:
The Blazers have an excellent, excellent starting 5, featuring All Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, borderline All Star Nicolas Batum and 2 elite role players in Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, but their bench; it’s pathetic. Mo Williams is a solid scoring sixth man, Thomas Robinson plays his energy role nicely, but after them, there is really nobody. No depth means they have no chance at doing much in the playoffs.
A glance at the Blazers' Basketball-Reference page underscores the issue. Portland's starters each have at least 7.5 win shares and a win shares per 48 minutes that's 28 percent above league average or better. Conversely, Mo Williams leads the bench with 2.2 win shares, and his .056 win shares per 48 minutes is well below average.
Golden State Warriors: Harrison Barnes
The Golden State Warriors are a very good, and occasionally great, basketball team that's badly hamstrung by management's commitment to playing an underachieving former first-round draft pick.
Harrison Barnes, prodigious gifts aside, is not a very good professional basketball player right now. Despite finishing fourth on the Warriors in total minutes played in the regular season, he has struggled mightily.
His 48.6 true shooting percentage was the lowest of any Warrior who played more than 300 minutes, per Basketball-Reference, and his .070 win shares per 48 minutes was the worst of any regular member of the rotation. It might be time for the Warriors to move on from Barnes.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Three-Ball
The three-point shot is all the rage in the NBA, so it's a bit of a surprise that a franchise as analytically progressive as the Memphis Grizzlies—former ESPN stat maven John Hollinger works in the front office—eschews the triple. But they do.
Over at SBNation, Doyle Rader explored the problem and identified a potential solution:
Memphis ranks dead last in three-point attempts and makes. Obviously, with anchors like Randolph and Gasol, their offense is predicated on low post scoring and midrange jumpers. This clogs the middle as defenses hedge off perimeter shooters. Mike Miller, though, has come alive recently and gives the Grizzlies a legitimate outside threat.
While Miller helps, it still stands that, given the makeup of the roster, Memphis is ill-equipped to fill it up from long range.
Dallas Mavericks: Controlling Opposing Guards
Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis have been great for the Dallas Mavericks. The two offensively oriented wings, who were both criticized sharply when Dallas acquired them last offseason, have boosted the Mavs attack. Dallas, which finished 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, shot up to third this season, according to ESPN.com.
But then there's defense. Both Ellis and Calderon are sieves defensively, and consequently, the Mavericks routinely get slashed by opposing guards. To wit: According to ESPN.com, the Mavs finished 22nd in defensive efficiency during the regular season.
Despite the Mavs' surprising 2-1 lead over the Spurs in Round 1, they'll be hard-pressed to make a deep playoff run given the murderers' row of guards in the Western Conference.