Each NBA Team's Achilles' Heel This Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2013

Each NBA Team's Achilles' Heel This Season

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    Every NBA team has an Achilles' heel, even if it's sometimes difficult to find. Of course, it's often even more difficult to take advantage of that underlying weakness.

    It's impossible for an NBA team to be perfect. That should be quite clear from the fact that no team in the history of the Association has ever gone undefeated—or swept through the postseason without a blemish, for that matter. 

    Each squad has an area that needs improvement. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from ESPN and Basketball-Reference and are current through Jan. 10. 

Atlanta Hawks: Finding a Go-to Scorer in Crunch Time

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    The suddenly slumping Atlanta Hawks have remained competitive in most of their losses during the 2012-13 season, but they've also had trouble maintaining their level of offensive play in the fourth quarter of close games. 

    Larry Drew might blame this on a lack of mental toughness, but a more realistic explanation involves the conspicuous absence of a true go-to scorer in crunch time. When the defense is ratcheted up a notch by the opposing team as the clock starts to wind down, the Hawks run out of options. 

    There are plenty of capable offensive players—Josh Smith, Al Horford, Lou Williams, Jeff Teague and so on—but most of their scoring output stems from fundamental team play rather than individual isolation prowess.

    This is the area where losing Joe Johnson actually hurts. 

Boston Celtics: Creating Second Chances

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    Four teams in the NBA stand out as particularly impotent on the offensive glass: the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. 

    With a league-worst 20.7 offensive-rebounding percentage, the Celtics have managed to find themselves squarely at the bottom of the barrel. 

    The C's offense in general has struggled at times during the 2012-13 campaign, but things have been particularly problematic when shots are falling at a lower clip than usual. If the ball ricochets off the rim or backboard after a missed shot by a green-clad player, chances are someone wearing a different color will end up with it. 

    Jared Sullinger has been the Celtics' best offensive rebounder with 2.0 per contest, and only Brandon Bass and Rajon Rondo are managing to break past the 1.0 threshold. 

Brooklyn Nets: Defensive Rebounding

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    Brook Lopez gets to run down the court celebrating after going to work on the offensive end of the court, but he has to hang his head when we talk about defensive rebounding. 

    As a whole, the Brooklyn Nets just aren't very good on the defensive glass, even with Reggie Evans coming off the bench to remedy the starting five's woes. The Nets' 72.9 defensive-rebounding percentage places them at No. 19 in the league, which isn't where you want to be as a contender that already doesn't play elite defense. 

    Lopez has taken strides in many aspects of his game during the 2012-13 season, but it's still not exactly a good thing for a seven-footer to average only 7.2 boards per contest in 29 minutes per game. And on average, 2.6 of those fall into the offensive variety. 

Charlotte Bobcats: Inexperience

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    I will refrain from saying that the Charlotte Bobcats' biggest weakness is that they're the Charlotte Bobcats. I will refrain from saying that the Charlotte Bobcats' biggest weakness is that they're the Charlotte Bobcats. 

    OK, now that I've gotten that out of the way... 

    This version of the Bobcats actually has some talent on the roster. Kemba Walker has quickly ascended up the point guard rankings in the Association and is starting to turn some heads. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is impressing during his rookie season and appears to be a player worth building around. 

    However, those two and the rest of the members of this squad still aren't winning games at a very high level. Give them time. 

    Right now, inexperience is rearing its ugly head as the Bobcats continue to adjust, as a whole, to the NBA game. 

Chicago Bulls: Consistent Shooting

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    The eventual return of Derrick Rose will undoubtedly help in this area, as he'll become the primary scoring option while creating easier looks for his teammates. Without the star point guard suiting up, though, the Chicago Bulls have struggled as a whole to hit shots consistently. 

    Luol Deng and Joakim Noah simply shouldn't be No. 1 scoring options, but that's the role they've been thrust into. As a result, their field-goal percentages have dipped. 

    The Bulls in general are shooting only 43.3 percent from the field, the 24th-best mark in the league. It becomes even worse when you dig deeper: Their effective field-goal percentage of 46.8 drops them to 25th. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: Too Much Youth and Not Enough Talent

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    There just really isn't a lot of established talent present in Cleveland right now. 

    Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao definitely qualify, but the former can't completely carry the team on both ends of the court, and the latter is out for a prolonged stretch. 

    If you look at the rest of the roster, where are the wins going to come from?

    Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller have all shown flashes of potential, but none of them are ready to produce at a high level over the course of a season. They'll get there one day—at least Cavaliers fans hope they will—but that day has not yet arrived. 

    Other than that, and with the possible exception of Alonzo Gee, none of the other players are guys you'd want on a championship roster. 

Dallas Mavericks: Top-Heavy Squad

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    Even when Dirk Nowitzki rounds into his pre-surgery form, the Dallas Mavericks don't have enough quality supporting pieces to re-enter the Western Conference elite. 

    Dirk and O.J. Mayo have both asserted themselves as great players—Dirk through historical precedent, and Mayo through his stellar start to the season—but the rest of the roster lags behind to form a rather top-heavy bunch. 

    It's time for Mark Cuban to hit the giant red button in his office and blow up the team. 

Denver Nuggets: Three-Point Shooting

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    The Denver Nuggets do a lot of things well. Shooting three-pointers is not one of them. 

    So far during the 2012-13 season, the Nuggets have made 227 treys, good for 20th in the NBA. However, they've attempted the 15th most, and their 33.0 percent shooting from downtown leaves them perilously close to the bottom of the rankings in 27th place. 

    Danilo Gallinari has been the leading marksman for the squad, but he's only making 34.7 percent of his 5.3 attempts per contest. 

    Maybe George Karl should run more plays that result in JaVale McGee letting fly from long range. After all, he's the only Nugget shooting better than 40 percent from downtown, and he has yet to miss during his first full season in Denver. 

Detroit Pistons: Don't Force Turnovers

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    Turnovers have been a problem on both ends of the court for the Detroit Pistons, but their inability to force their opponents into making mistakes stands out above their own tendency to cough up the rock. 

    While the Pistons actually play fairly good defense when it comes to contesting shots and forcing tough looks, their opponents' 11.5 turnover percentage is better than only the Orlando Magic's mark. 

    Brandon Knight and the rest of the guards on the team could stand to be a little bit more aggressive, both when playing on-ball defense and when trying to anticipate passes by jumping into the lanes. 

    If you look at the Pistons' steals-per-game numbers, they boggle the mind. The top six thieves are all part of the frontcourt: Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko, Andre Drummond, Khris Middleton, Charlie Villanueva and Kyle Singler (in that order). 

    Will Bynum's 0.54 steals per game pace the backcourt, and that's a bit problematic. 

Golden State Warriors: Depth

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    It's worked so far, but Mark Jackson's tendency to employ a short bench could come back to bite the Golden State Warriors down the stretch. The 82-game campaign is a grueling one, especially if the Dubs plan on making a deep postseason run. 

    Andrew Bogut's eventual return will help this, but the Warriors still only go about seven deep on a consistent basis. The starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Festus Ezeli usually earns quite a few minutes, and Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack both earn a lot of run off the pine. 

    Other than that, though, Jackson doesn't turn to the rest of the roster all that often. Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Andris Biedrins and others play some, but they aren't consistent members of the rotation. 

Houston Rockets: Turnovers

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    Wait, a team with Jeremy Lin is actually having trouble with turnovers? I know you're just as shocked as I am. 

    Although Lin's turnover problems were a little bit overblown last year for the New York Knicks, he does have the frustrating tendency to end possessions far too early by coughing the ball over to the other team. 

    And sadly for the Houston Rockets, Lin isn't the primary culprit. That would be James Harden, whose 3.6 turnovers per game outpace even Lin's 3.2. 

    Between the two starting guards and the rest of the turnover-prone lineup, the Rockets are sporting a turnover percentage of 14.9, which makes them the absolute worst in the NBA in that regard. 

Indiana Pacers: Shooting the Basketball

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    Although the Indiana Pacers are climbing up the standings in the Eastern Conference, they still haven't figured out how to actually shoot the basketball effectively. Instead, they're winning games with a stifling defense that shows up on almost every night. 

    The biggest Achilles' heel for this squad is undoubtedly their ability to put the ball in the basket. While the 98.5 defensive rating is tops in the Association, the 46.0 effective field-goal percentage is on the opposite spectrum. Only the Washington Wizards have posted a more putrid percentage. 

    Lance Stephenson and David West have the top field-goal percentages on the squad at 48 and 47 percent, respectively. No one else has even managed to top 45. 

    Someone will have to step it up offensively for this team to pose a true threat when the playoffs roll around.

    Here's looking at you, Roy Hibbert. 

Los Angeles Clippers: Novelty

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    Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are playing better basketball than anyone else in the NBA. You could make an argument for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Clippers have emerged as the cream of the crop during the first half of the 2012-13 season. 

    It's hard to pick out a glaring weakness simply because none actually exist. This is a deep team that plays well in nearly every facet of the game on any given night. 

    If there is going to be an Achilles' heel that rears up, it's the novelty of this situation. The Clippers haven't been here before. 

    None of the primary contributors know what it's like to be top dog. Not even Chris Paul, who spent the early portion of his career laboring away for average New Orleans Hornets squads. 

    Learning on the fly can work, but it's the biggest question mark for this particular resident of the Staples Center. 

Los Angeles Lakers: Defensive Rotations

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    You can blame a lot of things for the Los Angeles Lakers' entirely underwhelming start to the 2012-13 season. They've quite possibly been the most disappointing team in the league's lengthy history, due to a combination of poor performances and modern-day media hype. 

    Even more detrimental to the team's efforts than the constant stream of injuries has been the inability to perform fundamental defensive rotations. 

    Kobe Bryant looks completely unenthused on defense, often watching the ball, failing to rotate to the open man and appearing all too unwilling to help out his teammates. Dwight Howard doesn't even resemble the D12 of old, flailing away with his arms instead of shifting his base into position. 

    Offense hasn't been the problem for the Lakers; the league's 22nd-best defensive rating has. 

    Until everyone fully commits to that less glamorous end of the court, this season won't contain a magical turnaround. 

Memphis Grizzlies: Big-Ball Style

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    The roster makeup that makes the Memphis Grizzlies so deadly in the regular season could prove to be the team's Achilles' heel when the postseason comes rolling along. And yes, we might as well already accept that the Grizzlies will be around during the playoffs. 

    While most of the NBA is starting to adopt the small-ball strategy—see Tim Duncan playing center, LeBron James/Kevin Durant/Carmelo Anthony playing more power forward to varying degrees, etc.—the Grizzlies employ a more traditional lineup. 

    Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol all play their traditional positions. The Grizzlies *gasp* actually use two legitimate big men!

    While this works tremendously in the regular season, it's something that might be exploited during a seven-game series as teams adjust and start to pinpoint the weaknesses with a much higher level of precision. 

Miami Heat: Title Hangover

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    As a team, the Miami Heat have a number of weaknesses on the court. 

    They struggle tremendously on the boards, thanks no doubt to the tendency to let Chris Bosh serve as the biggest player on the floor most of the time. LeBron James is a tremendous player, but his 8.4 rebounds per contest should not be pacing the Heat. 

    Defense has also been an issue, at least compared to last year's campaign. During the 2012-13 season, Miami has posted middling numbers on that end of the court. 

    However, these are issues that can be overcome. After all, Miami is still an elite team and had no problem dealing with rebounding problems during 2011-12's playoff run. 

    More problematic could be a title hangover. If there's going to be an Achilles' heel, it will be the decline in motivation that stems from winning a ring. Playing with that bullseye on your back is tough, and a less motivated LeBron could be exactly what the rest of the Eastern Conference needs when the regular season concludes. 

    I'm not saying there will be a title hangover. But if there is, that will be the biggest problem. 

Milwaukee Bucks: Frontcourt Offense

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    Larry Sanders has been one of this season's biggest breakout players—both in terms of sheer height and performance on the court. 

    However, no matter how many shots he can send in the direction from which they came, Sanders doesn't fill the gaping void in the frontcourt on offense. Everything on that end of the court still flows through Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt. 

    Between Sanders, a struggling Ersan Ilyasova, Samuel Dalembert and the rest of the players that the Bucks employ in the paint, there aren't too many points to be found. 

Minnesota Timberwolves: The Injury Bug

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves were a trendy pick to stay alive past the end of the regular season in the brutally tough and deep Western Conference, but someone has had quite a bit to say about that. 

    That someone would be the injury imp. Or Lady Luck, if that's what you want to call her. 

    While Ricky Rubio was still rehabbing his torn ACL, Kevin Love broke his hand, leaving the Wolves without two of their key players. Love eventually returned, but he was just a shadow of his pre-injury self and then promptly re-injured the same hand. 

    We have yet to see the Wolves live up to their full potential, and we might never get a chance to see them do so in the playoffs now. 

New Orleans Hornets: Controlling the Pace

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    The New Orleans Hornets love to slow down basketball games and grind out possessions. Their average of 87.9 possessions per 48 minutes is the lowest mark in the NBA, barely beating out the Brooklyn Nets for the spot. 

    When opponents can control the pace of play and turn it up a few notches, the Hornets struggle more than normal. This could change as Eric Gordon is fully incorporated into the plan, but it's been problematic so far. 

    Anthony Davis is a threat in transition, so the Hornets should look to start running more and becoming comfortable playing at a quick pace. Of course, when you just don't have as much talent as other teams, maybe you don't want as many possessions so that the talent differential doesn't become quite as clear. 

New York Knicks: Transition Defense

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    The New York Knicks have played great half-court defense, but it's just another story in transition. 

    Remember when Jeremy Lin showed how much he loved playing against the Knicks' transition "defense" (in quotations because it might be an abstract, imaginary concept) by absolutely dominating that facet of the game? 

    Yeah, that hasn't changed over the early portion of the 2012-13 season. With the Miami Heat looming as a potential playoff opponent, this needs to start to trend in a positive direction before the postseason gets here. 

    It's hard enough to stop NBA opponents from scoring in half-court sets. When you give them easy layups and dunks, you're only making things tougher on yourself. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Turnovers

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder sure have a lot of talent present in the lineup, but turnover issues can often rear their ugly head. 

    Only the Houston Rockets boast a less impressive turnover percentage than the Thunder's 14.8 during the 2012-13 campaign. 

    Neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook helps the cause here, as the dynamic duo averages 3.3 and 3.5 turnovers per game, respectively. Of course, you often have to accept the bad along with the good, especially as both superstars put forth a whole lot of good. 

Orlando Magic: Creating Easy Points

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    The Orlando Magic don't have many players who are particularly skilled at creating easy shots for themselves, and Jameer Nelson can't always produce for everyone with his passing skills.

    Things don't get any easier, either.

    Sometimes teams have the ability to draw contact and work their way to the free-throw line often enough to negate the effects of this problem, but the Magic are not one of those teams.

    As a whole, Orlando attempts only .151 free throws per field-goal attempt during the 2012-13 season. That's good for 29th in the NBA, topped—in a negative way—by only the Philadelphia 76ers and their lack of interior presence.  

Philadelphia 76ers: Interior Scoring

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    Speaking of the Philadelphia 76ers...

    The Sixers have quite a bit of trouble producing offense through their interior scoring. Point guards, shooting guards and small forwards make up the top five scorers on the squad, led by Jrue Holiday and his 18.3 points per contest. 

    Spencer Hawes checks in as the highest-scoring big man, and he's only putting up 9.5 points per game. 

    Fortunately for Philly, there's an easy fix. See that picture? 

Phoenix Suns: Unfamiliarity

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    Michael Beasley's role in the offense was the Phoenix Suns' biggest Achilles' heel during the early portion of the 2012-13 campaign, but now the team is plagued by a new set of problems. 

    Right now, the biggest problem in the desert stems from a lack of familiarity. This team is still learning how to play together, and the constantly shifting roles delegated to them by Alvin Gentry aren't exactly helping things. 

    Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and Beasley, three of the six leading scorers for the Suns, are all new faces in Phoenix. Well, Dragic has played there before, but not with this version of the team. 

Portland Trail Blazers: Bench Play

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    If you're just looking at starting lineups, the Portland Trail Blazers would appear to be one of the best teams in the NBA. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge make up one of the top starting fives in all of basketball. 

    However, benches actually matter, much to the chagrin of the Blazers. 

    Meyers Leonard has been the best performer off the bench, posting a PER of 13.0 through the first 29 games of his professional career. Luke Babbitt is second in PER at 10.6. 

    No other member of the bench mob can even break past 9.0. That's simply not conducive to racking up wins when the starters need a rest. 

Sacramento Kings: Filling Roles

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    The narrative simply hasn't changed for the Sacramento Kings. 

    There's a lot of talent to be found on this roster, including a potent frontcourt of Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins, and a backcourt filled with talented guards. However, they just can't put it all together. 

    For evidence, just look at their not-so-sparkling 13-23 record. 

    The problem is that there's no chemistry, cohesiveness or whatever else you want to call it. The guards are all fighting for playing time, and that simply doesn't promote good team basketball. 

San Antonio Spurs: Rebounding

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    Gregg Popovich has ensured that this San Antonio Spurs squad is one without many weaknesses. However, even the terrific coach can't make his players do everything well. 

    If the Spurs have one glaring weakness, it's the fact that they can sometimes be significantly outperformed when crashing the boards. The nights during which the opponents dominate, the rebounding categories aren't infrequent enough. 

    San Antonio struggles tremendously on the offensive glass. The offensive rebounding percentage of 21.5 is the third-worst mark in the league. Defensive rebounding has treated the Spurs much better, and they actually rank sixth in the league, but they're still prone to the occasional off night. 

Toronto Raptors: Foul Trouble

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    The Toronto Raptors seem to really enjoy sending their opponents to the line. 

    And as even the most casual basketball fans understand, free throws—unless you're named Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, etc.—are easier to convert than most shots from the field. I might not be able to enjoy this truism in real life, but dunks are probably a little bit easier. 

    During the 2012-13 season, the Raptors have allowed their opponents to take .257 free throws per field-goal attempt. That's the worst mark in the Association, and it's not even close. The gap between Toronto and the Sacramento Kings—No. 29 in the category—is about as big as the gap between the Kings and the No. 25 team in those standings. 

Utah Jazz: Depth

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    For those of you who are currently scratching your head at the title of this slide, bear with me for a second. 

    When depth is listed as an Achilles' heel for most teams, the Portland Trail Blazers for example, it's because the team isn't very deep and struggles to find quality contributors off the bench. For the Utah Jazz, the opposite is true. 

    The Jazz simply have too much depth. All of the starters are quality players—not superstars, but quality players—and the backups, for the most part, seem like they should be starters in the near future. 

    Take the big men, for example. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are holding down the fort in the starting five, but Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter both deserve some significant run. 

    Whether or not this creates internal strife is up in the air still, but it will probably cause some personnel shifting before the trading deadline, especially with both Jefferson and Millsap set to become unrestricted free agents. If that happens, the chemistry is thrown out of balance and the level of talent might decline. 

Washington Wizards: Overall Talent

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    Saying that overall talent is the biggest problem for the Washington Wizards is akin to saying that they're not very good. Either way, it's impossible to pinpoint one major flaw for this bottom-feeder, simply because there are so many weaknesses. 

    Let's put it this way: If Washington is Achilles, then Thetis completely forgot to dip the Wizards into the Styx. So much for just the heel being vulnerable...

    Nene Hilario and Jordan Crawford have both played well during the 2012-13 season, but that's about it. The availability of John Wall isn't suddenly going to turn things around either.