Don't let the historically dominant Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs pull one over on you; even teams that are chasing championships have their problems.
It's just that instead of lamenting poor shot selection or late-game execution like we can with most normal NBA squads, we have to dig a little deeper for shortcomings that might impede a title pursuit.
In a league full of superteams, there's still some kryptonite out there.
Neither of these first two teams is a true title threat yet, but both are on the fringes of the conversation. So we'll pick some quick nits with them.
Los Angeles Clippers: Re-integrating Blake Griffin
This used to be an easy one: single out the Los Angeles Clippers bench and move on.
This season, though, the backups haven't been all that bad. And since Blake Griffin went down with a quadriceps injury (and then had his absence extended by a broken hand), the reserves have done more than spell the starters. They've dominated, posting 58 points to beat the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 31 and outscoring opposing second units by a margin of 184-78 during a four-game winning streak from Jan. 26-31.
With the bench no longer an obvious target, we have to isolate Griffin, which seems crazy. All we know about the Griffin-Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan trio is that when it's healthy, the Clips play elite offense and run up huge win totals.
But L.A. has gone 15-3 since Griffin went down, and there's a sense the personnel groupings work a little better without the superstar power forward involved, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe highlighted:
Griffin is a tricky piece in the modern NBA: a big man who doesn't shoot 3s or protect the rim. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that you can remove those players, even the ones with killer post-up games, replace them with skilled shooters who make less money, and lose basically nothing.
This is a nuanced issue, as Griffin is clearly a great player. It's just that he fundamentally changes how the Clips operate, and it's no longer a certainty the team is more effective with him than without him.
Still, if you have a player as talented as Griffin is, you have to figure out how to make it work.
Toronto Raptors: Forgetting About Last Year
At 32-16 through Feb. 1, 2016, all of this feels familiar.
On Feb. 1, 2015, Kyle Lowry and friends were 33-15, ranked second in the East and looking like a true threat to take over the conference's top spot.
The Raptors have to hope the deja vu doesn't extend to the second half.
Last year, they followed their strong start with a feeble 16-18 finish and a brutally abrupt first-round postseason exit at the hands of the Washington Wizards.
The good news is the Raptors roster is better. Backcourt mainstays Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both in the midst of their best seasons, and Jonas Valanciunas continues to improve in the middle. Cory Joseph and Luis Scola add depth. DeMarre Carroll, the organization's top offseason acquisition, will hopefully return from knee surgery, ready to inject the three-and-D skills that earned him a $60 million contract.
This Raptors team seems stabler than last year's, but all of the key actors in The Great Second-Half Flop of 2015 are still there. They must avoid an encore.
The Big Boys
Golden State Warriors: Complacency
Sometimes, the Golden State Warriors get comfortable, and then they get complacent, and then they lose—like they did on Jan. 16 to the Detroit Pistons.
Per Paul Flannery of SBNation: "Slippage is inevitable during the course of an 82-game season and when travel and fatigue mix with boredom, it can often result in what coach Steve Kerr calls 'human nature' games."
Those games haven't cropped up often (the Warriors have lost four times all year). And following losses, the Dubs destroy the rest of the NBA with renewed vigor—like they did in running up massive victories over the Bulls, Cavs and Spurs after what CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole called a "wretched mess" of a loss to the Pistons.
This is the kind of thing that will probably happen in cycles for the rest of the year. Golden State, fully aware it has a gear no other team can match, will coast to sloppy wins, drop a game it shouldn't and then refocus its attention for a while afterward. But boredom can always creep in again.
The good news is that this feels like a regular-season problem and not one likely to surface in the playoffs, where maintaining interest isn't a chore.
You could cite the sometimes shaky bench or Festus Ezeli's bothersome knee, but the only thing standing between the Warriors and another championship is their own collective attention span.
Historical dominance can be a real snooze sometimes.
San Antonio Spurs: Age
You can trace everything wrong with the Spurs (insofar as anything can really be wrong with a team that is likely to finish with one of the top five net ratings in NBA history) to Father Time. In fact, it's always been about age with San Antonio—even if it seems like its problems are more specific.
Example: Tim Duncan's current knee soreness, which could keep him out until the after the All-Star break, is a blow to the team's interior defense, according to what head coach Gregg Popovich told Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com: "Well, he’s our base from which everything else emanates. Everybody else knows how to operate based on where he is and what he does. That’s my biggest concern with the game really is him not being there for everybody to move around because he’s the center of what goes on defensively."
This is not an exaggeration. Duncan ranks first in the NBA by a huge margin in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric, and the Spurs are on pace to finish with one of the best defensive ratings (relative to league average) in NBA history.
That's a simple problem: San Antonio isn't nearly as good on defense without Duncan in the middle.
But age is really the underlying concern because if Duncan weren't 39, and weren't playing his 19th season, a little knee discomfort wouldn't be such a worry. In the same sense, San Antonio's shift to a less efficient offense centered on Kawhi Leonard isolations and LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups wouldn't be a concern if age hadn't made using Tony Parker as a full-time pick-and-roll fulcrum an unsustainable practice.
The Spurs can absolutely win a title. But if they don't, it'll probably be because the concessions forced upon them by age finally became too much to overcome.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The Limited Accessibility of Gene-Splicing Equipment
Imagine if the Oklahoma City Thunder could toss Anthony Morrow and his laser-sighted jumper into a transmogrifier (I'm not clear on the exact science) with Andre Roberson and his top-notch wing defense. Upon flipping the switch and combining those two players into one, OKC would have the league's absolute best three-and-D perimeter star.
Sadly, the Thunder can't do that, and they're stuck with one-dimensional, deeply flawed role players throughout the roster.
Enes Kanter scores a ton and dominates the offensive glass, but he's a constant pick-and-roll target on defense. Dion Waiters has the talent and mentality to score, but he can't do it efficiently.
That's not to say head coach Billy Donovan won't find a way to leverage the strengths and hide the weaknesses of his bit players. It's just that the other true contenders know where they can attack OKC, and critically, the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs don't have similarly flawed pieces in high-visibility roles.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Being Out of Excuses
If the offense ever looked clunky, the Cavaliers could blame injuries or the uninventive strategy of former head coach David Blatt. If effort waned, if the defense slipped, if the rotations were suboptimal—everything wrong with the Cavs over the past year-and-a-half had an explanation. An excuse, really.
Not anymore, according to Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, who laid out Cleveland's new reality after Blatt's firing in January: "David Blatt is gone, and with him the easy target on which to pin all of Cleveland’s issues. That target now moves to James. This is what he asked for when he came home, and now he has to deal with it."
If things go badly now, blaming new coach Tyronn Lue isn't really an option. The immediate multiyear extension he got suggests he's the guy LeBron James and the rest of the roster wanted. If it's his fault, it's their fault.
Even if it appears true that Blatt's personality was a legitimate source of friction, his exit means all the heat is now on the roster.
There's nowhere for James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to hide now.
Maybe they'll excel in this exposed environment. Or maybe they'll miss the luxury of a scapegoat. Either way, the pressure is on the players in a way it wasn't before. How they respond will determine their fitness for contention.
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