The 1 Area Every Remaining 2014 NBA Playoff Team Must Improve
The NBA Conference Finals are set to determine the two teams that will compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2014. While the candidates still competing can’t be seen as much of a surprise, each respective roster still has at least one area where it can stand to improve.
With the San Antonio Spurs facing off against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers readying for a showdown with the Miami Heat, both No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each conference are represented.
These four squads finished with the top four records in the Association during the regular season. Now they’re the last men left grinding for a championship.
The Heat are on a mission to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year and win a third straight title.
San Antonio is out for redemption after a gut-wrenching series loss against Miami a year ago. It came one defensive rebound away from winning it all for the fifth time during the Tim Duncan era.
OKC is trying to cap Kevin Durant’s MVP season by emulating 2011-12 when it became Western Conference champions. The Pacers, meanwhile, are attempting to get over the hump that is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat.
Clearly these teams don’t have many—if any—weaknesses. Otherwise they would have been sent home before reaching this point.
With that said, even the league's best teams aren’t perfect.
Indiana Pacers: Bench Scoring
Quite frankly, the Pacers could stand to improve their scoring efficiency across the board—bench and starters included.
While they finished with the Association’s best defensive efficiency during the regular season by surrendering just 96.7 points per 100 possessions, per ESPN.com, the offense left a lot to be desired. Indy ended the regular year ranked 22nd with an offensive rating of 101.5.
Winding up in the bottom 10 in terms of offensive efficiency is a weakness that the Pacers can hide through defensive dominance. With that said, the production from the team’s second unit has been downright negligible.
During 2013-14, Indiana’s bench finished 28th by scoring just 25.7 points per game, according to HoopsStats.com. Only the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers were worse in that category.
That same narrative has played out during postseason play. Per NBA.com, the Pacers reserves are scoring 20.5 points per contest in the playoffs. Again, only Portland and Washington were less productive.
Not surprisingly, the Wizards and Trail Blazers have gone fishing.
Guys like C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola have made contributions, but nothing that makes opponents respect Indy’s second unit when they provide the starting five with rest.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Adaptation
The Oklahoma City Thunder will continue to ride Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as far as the two superstars manage to take them. While that formula has translated to a great deal of success, OKC still hasn’t attained championship glory.
In order for that to happen—either in the coming weeks or down the road—the Thunder need to get better at adapting to various game situations.
In the second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, for instance, Chris Paul took on the responsibility of guarding KD in halfcourt sets. Instead of game-planning around that adjustment from Doc Rivers—perhaps by posting up Durant down low—OKC continually forced the ball to the MVP at the top of the key and the elbows.
From there, double teams would swarm the lanky superstar, forcing him to give up the ball. That often resulted in poor passes and turnovers.
“We can’t just sit there and just try to force it to me because that’s what they want me to do,” Durant said, per NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan.
He added, “We’ve got to move it.”
Oftentimes Oklahoma City’s offense gets stagnant when it depends on Durant and Westbrook to isolate and score. It simply doesn't have a balanced attack.
That hasn’t been a deathblow to this team in the 2014 playoffs, but head coach Scott Brooks has to discover ways to adapt to certain situations on the fly. His ability to do so will be even more pronounced now that Serge Ibaka is expected to miss the remainder of the postseason.
Miami Heat: Rebounding
Suggesting an area where the Heat could stand to make improvements is rather silly, considering that they’re the two-time defending champs.
Sporting a roster with LBJ, D-Wade and Bosh will cover a lot of weaknesses, but one that stands out on a year-to-year basis despite team success is rebounding.
With a distinct lack of interior size, Miami has continued to be disadvantaged on the glass.
It ranked 21st in 2011-12 by grabbing 41.6 boards per contest. During 2012-13, the Heat finished last in that category (38.6). That Achilles’ heel continued to crop up throughout 2013-14, as James and Co. once again positioned 30th with 36.9 rebounds per game, according to ESPN.com.
Again, that shortcoming didn’t prevent Miami from winning back-to-back titles and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in four straight seasons. Still, it’s an area that can (and should) be addressed.
Bigger teams cause the Heat some problems, which will be a key storyline in the ECF against Indiana.
San Antonio Spurs: Sealing the Deal
Where exactly can the Spurs—a franchise that hasn’t missed the playoffs in an astounding 17 straight seasons—stand to improve?
Head coach Gregg Popovich could mend his demeanor with sideline reporters, but honestly it’s just too fun to watch as is.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal jokingly suggested to me that San Antonio could improve via an acceptance of colorful uniforms or by making the delightfully hilarious H-E-B commercials a nationwide phenomenon.
I’m all for the latter option, but the overall point here is that the juggernaut Spurs don’t have many areas that can get better.
They compete in the playoffs every year. Coach Pop always gets the most out of an ever-evolving cast of role players. Additionally, the team’s balance of young guys (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green) with veteran leaders (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) is a marvel to behold.
At the end of the season, however, San Antonio has to find a way to seal the deal for the championship trophy. It came agonizingly close to doing so last year, but Ray Allen proved that it wasn’t meant to be.
Critics continue to write off the Spurs due to Duncan’s age and Ginobili’s injury woes. While they’re wrong for doing so, San Antonio hasn’t shut them up completely with yet another title.
Perhaps that will change in 2014, but they'll have to get through Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder first.