Identifying the Biggest Need for the Top Contenders in the NBA
Through the first quarter of the 2014-15 NBA season, the top title contenders have begun to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Though there's still time for other teams to force their way into the conversation—the Oklahoma City Thunder should be there before long—the league's top contenders have two major things in common. All 12 of them stand at least .600 or better and have a point differential of plus-3.5 or greater through Monday, Dec. 15.
Beyond that, however, each squad has its own distinct set of strengths and weaknesses, the latter of which threaten to jeopardize its pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Some tout elite offenses and brutal defenses or vice versa, while others rely far too much upon key contributors to keep them afloat.
Certain contenders could pursue trades over the coming months to shore up their biggest weaknesses, while others will largely rely upon internal improvement. Regardless of how each addresses these particular flaws, failing to fix them will likely thwart any legitimate title aspirations.
Based on the criteria laid out in the previous slide, these squads don't meet the definition of a "top contender" at the moment. However, all three could force their way into the conversation with the following tweaks.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Increased Defensive Pressure
Two weeks ago, analysts were openly questioning whether the Oklahoma City Thunder could feasibly make a playoff run, given the team's 5-13 record at the time. The return of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant from their early-season injuries certainly crushed that narrative, as the Thunder reeled off six straight wins to force their way back into the playoff race.
If they're going to vault into the No. 8 seed (or better), they'll need to ramp up their defensive pressure in the coming weeks. Currently, OKC is tied for 23rd in steals per game (6.6) and ranks 22nd in opponents' turnovers per game (13.4).
Things have been far better in the past five games—OKC is tied for 11th in steals per game (8.4) and 19th in opponents' turnovers per game (14.0)—but a team with Westbrook, Durant, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka has no excuse not to rank among the top 10 in both categories. Generating a few extra turnovers per game will only help the Thunder in their playoff push, as those giveaways should lead to easy transition opportunities for Durant, Westbrook and Co. on the other end.
Phoenix Suns: Clearing Out the Backcourt Logjam
The Phoenix Suns have quite a first-world problem on their hands this season. Thanks to Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, they're too well-stocked at point guard and could be forced to trade one of those three to shore up their needs elsewhere.
Notably, Phoenix is getting little reliable production out of the starting 5 spot, having benched Miles Plumlee for second-year center Alex Len on Monday night. The move didn't really make waves for the Suns, as both players combined for 10 points and nine rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck noted Monday, the Suns "badly need a big man who can score in the low post, rebound and protect the rim." At least two rival executives suggested the Suns could look to move either Bledsoe or Thomas in the coming weeks—a move that makes simply too much sense not to happen.
New Orleans Pelicans: An Eric Gordon Replacement
The snakebitten New Orleans Pelicans couldn't dodge the injury bug for the second straight season, as starting 2-guard Eric Gordon suffered a full labrum tear in late November. He hopes to return within the next month, per Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune, but the Pelicans have started to free-fall in his absence.
Since Gordon went down, New Orleans has trotted out four different starting lineups in the past 11 games, largely relying upon Luke Babbitt as his replacement. Just five Pelicans have positive plus/minus ratings in that span.
New Orleans is relatively short on tradable assets, but that won't stop the team from trying to shake things up, per Beck. The Pelicans have made available everyone not named Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson, per Beck, speaking to their need of a reliable two-way wing option.
Atlanta Hawks: The Return of the 'Old' Al Horford
Fresh off two season-ending pectoral tears in the past four years, Atlanta Hawks big man Al Horford hasn't quite looked like himself in 2014-15. Entering Monday night's action, the Florida product was averaging 13.7 points, a career-low 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in just 29.5 minutes.
Against the Joakim Noah-less Chicago Bulls on Monday, though, Horford looked like his old self, exploding for 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes. Toward the end of the game, Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney tweeted, "Shades of a healthier Al Horford on the floor in Atlanta tonight. Just delightful."
Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer is wisely limiting Horford's minutes in the early going—he's played more than 35 minutes per game just once so far this season. Many of his below-average per-game statistics (aside from the paltry rebounding totals) should balance out once he's back up to 34-36 minutes per game.
However, as Peachtree Hoops' Jason Walker recently noted, the eighth-year big man is drawing fouls at a career-low rate:
Historically, Al has been getting to the line a little more than one every four times he shoots the ball (.253). This season, over the first 21 games, Al is getting to the line once every 10 times he shoots the ball. Only one time this season has Al attempted more than two free throws in a game. Al, through his Age 26 season of 2012-13, drew 1.36 shooting fouls per game. This season, so far, Al is getting 0.57 shooting fouls per game, more than half his historic rate.
As Horford continues to get up to speed—the big man told Walker a few weeks back that his conditioning remains a work in progress—he should only grow stronger as the year goes on. The Hawks—one of the NBA's biggest early-season surprises at 17-7—will need him at full strength by April if they hope to make some serious waves in the playoffs.
Chicago Bulls: A Good Bill of Health
This year's iteration of the Chicago Bulls appears to be the deepest and most talented squad in the Tom Thibodeau-Derrick Rose era. The offseason additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks and Doug McDermott have proved a godsend for the oft-overworked Bulls, as Thibs can go nine or 10 deep without batting an eye.
Accordingly, the Bulls' biggest need isn't a tangible on-court improvement such as a more efficient offense or stingier defense. Instead, it's simply a good bill of health.
Through 24 games, Chicago has trotted out eight different starting lineups, as four of its five typical starters have already missed multiple games due to injury. Two sprained ankles and a strained left hamstring caused Rose to sit out eight contests. A handful of ailments knocked Noah out for seven games. A sprained left thumb sidelined Jimmy Butler for the Bulls' first two tilts, and a strained left calf cost Gasol three games in mid-November.
The injury bug hasn't just ravaged Chicago's starters, either. A sprained left ankle knocked Taj Gibson out for seven games, and a bruised chest cost Kirk Hinrich two contests. Additionally, McDermott is now sidelined indefinitely after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Saturday.
The Bulls have somehow withstood this litany of injuries en route to a 15-9 record, the fourth-best in the Eastern Conference, while maintaining top-12 marks in both offense (11th) and defense (ninth). Just imagine how dangerous they'll be come April if all of their main contributors enter the postseason healthy.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A True Rim-Protector
The Cleveland Cavaliers have righted the ship after stumbling out to a 5-7 start, winning their next eight games before deflating losses against the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans. Though they won't be challenging the 1995-96 Bulls for the league's best-ever record, their status as title contenders appears secure.
If there's one thing that can trip up LeBron James and Co. between now and June, it's the lack of a legitimate rim-protector. The Cavaliers are allowing opponents to shoot 56.4 percent at the rim, which is the league's third-worst mark, ahead of just the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Opponents are averaging 23.4 shots at the rim against Cleveland—the seventh-highest mark in the league—and are converting 13.2 of those looks, the second-most allowed by any team. If the Cavs can't start preventing their foes from generating a plethora of easy looks at the rim, they stands little chance of even making it out of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, much less taking home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
That glaring weakness has Cleveland sniffing around the trade market, per multiple reports. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst (via CBSSports.com's James Herbert), the Cavs tried to trade for Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov this past summer. More recently, Cleveland inquired about the availability of Memphis Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
To land a legitimate rim-protector, the Cavs are reportedly willing to give up reserve 2-guard Dion Waiters in exchange, per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. Though Waiters provides a much-needed scoring punch off Cleveland's bench, the team's glaring need for rim protection could win out over what the Syracuse product brings to the table.
Dallas Mavericks: Three-Point Defense
If the Dallas Mavericks win the title this year, their offense will likely be to thank. They're scoring a league-high 113.4 points per 100 possessions, nearly three more points than the next-closest squad (the Toronto Raptors).
Their defense, however, leaves much to be desired. Despite reacquiring a former Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler this summer, the Mavs are coughing up 105.5 points per 100 possessions, tying with the Denver Nuggets for the league's eighth-worst mark.
Pitiful three-point defense is contributing to those woes for Rick Carlisle's crew. Opponents are shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc against the Mavericks, the highest mark in the league, which is even more problematic when considering Dallas is also allowing the second-most three-point attempts per game (24.4).
Given the Mavericks' backcourt personnel, the team's struggles guarding against long-range bombs should come as no surprise. Jameer Nelson, Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons—all three of whom rank among the top six Mavs in playing time—have a defensive box plus/minus of minus-1.2 or below and have contributed a grand total of one defensive win share combined.
Since Dallas won't suddenly sprout a smothering wing presence overnight, the best options for this squad are either a trade or a tweaked defensive system. The Mavs need to focus on funneling opponents into the paint, where Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright can make life hell for them, instead of conceding wide-open treys.
Golden State Warriors: Backcourt Bench Scoring
If anything can trip them up between now and June—aside from the brutality of the Western Conference playoff bracket, that is—it's their lack of a microwave scoring guard off the bench. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson might be the most unfair one-two punch in the league, but Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa don't quite inspire the same fear of God in opponents.
Golden State's bench ranks 19th in the league in scoring (31.3 points per game), according to HoopsStats.com, but more than one-third of that production comes from Marreese Speights (12.0 points per game). Whenever David Lee returns from his hamstring strain, that balance of bench power is likely to only tilt further toward the frontcourt.
If Thompson and/or Curry suddenly go cold come playoff time, the Dubs don't appear at first glance to have a backcourt reserve capable of picking up their slack. ESPN.com's David Thorpe recently voiced this concern on Twitter when discussing a potential trade for Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson, writing, "You think [the Warriors] can win it all with their current guards off [the] bench? I don't."
To Golden State's credit, the squad appears to be pursuing options to bolster its backcourt bench depth. General manager Bob Myers recently confirmed during a radio interview that the Warriors have reached out to free-agent guard Ray Allen, according to ESPN.com: "We threw our team out there at his representation, and I think they're vetting what they want to do. Obviously you've got to look at a guy like that. He's a smart enough guy. He's going to look around the league to see what's best for him."
In that same interview, however, Myers also admitted, "We don't have enough minutes as it is, so it's a question of chemistry, too." If the Dubs do somehow convince Allen to take his talents to the Bay Area, they could well enter the postseason as the overall favorite to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Houston Rockets: Fewer Turnovers
The Houston Rockets withstood a bevy of early-season injuries to three of their typical starters—Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard—and have rolled to an 18-5 record, the third-best in the West. Though their defense has been smothering this season, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions (behind only Golden State), their offense hasn't been nearly as lethal.
Houston is only scoring 101.9 points per 100 possessions, the 12th-lowest mark in the league, ahead of just the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder in the West. A large part of those offensive struggles can be chalked up to the team's affinity for turning the ball over.
The Rockets tout the league's second-highest turnover ratio, coughing up the ball on an estimated 17.9 times per 100 possessions. They only trail the bottom-feeding Philadelphia 76ers in terms of turnover ratio and giveaways per game (17.5), which could prove problematic come playoff time.
Granted, some of those giveaways are likely a result of the injuries among Houston's starting line. With Beverley back in the fold, Harden won't have to act as the team's de facto point guard as much, and getting Howard and Jones back will cut down on the Rockets' reliance on younger, less experienced reserves who have been thrust into larger roles.
Houston also had the league's second-highest turnover ratio last season, suggesting this problem isn't a small-sample-size anomaly. With each possession taking on more importance in the playoffs, coughing up the ball at that high a rate could lead to yet another earlier-than-expected postseason demise for the Rockets.
Los Angeles Clippers: A Wing Stopper
After stumbling out to a 6-4 start this season, the Los Angeles Clippers have caught fire in recent weeks, winning 11 of their past 14 contests. They currently tout the league's third-best offense, scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions, and after having a bottom-10 defense through their first 10 games, their D is back among the top half of the league.
The Clips still have one glaring weakness defensively, though—the lack of a true wing stopper. Given that they could have to battle through Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and/or James Harden just to make it to the NBA Finals, not having a shutdown option on the wing could be the death of LA's title dreams.
Opposing small forwards are averaging 20.8 points per game against the Clips, per HoopsStats.com, which is the fourth-highest mark in the league. The Clippers are coughing up the fourth-highest three-point shooting percentage to opposing 3s (.401) and the seventh-most three-point attempts per game (6.2).
ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan dove into the Clippers' defensive struggles on the wing earlier this season (subscription required):
Doc Rivers' cost-cutting decision to jettison Jared Dudley (and a future first-round pick) should have been performed in congress with the acquisition of a viable backup defensive wing, as relying on 34-year-old Matt Barnes to play the sole stopper role is an untenable situation. Barnes brings toughness and some defensive rebounding, but at this stage of his career, it's unrealistic to expect him to defend even decent wings. J.J. Redick is a solid team defender, operating within schemes, but he lacks the size, length and athleticism to be relied upon as a stopper. And Jamal Crawford, although an explosive offensive player, is more a detriment to the defensive cause.
With the Clippers lacking major trade assets—they've already traded away their 2015 and 2017 first-round picks, making their 2016 and 2018 first-rounders untouchable—they could be forced to rely upon internal improvement to solve this issue. Ideally, they would love to land someone like Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Corey Brewer, who can chip in as a complementary offensive option while locking down opponents' top wing scorers.
Memphis Grizzlies: A Heavier Reliance on Threes
Point guard Mike Conley bailed out his Memphis Grizzlies with a last-second three-pointer Saturday night, helping them complete an 18-point comeback against the woeful Philadelphia 76ers. Though the Grizz buried Philly in a barrage of three-pointers—they hit 8 of 12 from downtown in the fourth quarter alone—it was hardly a reflection of their preferred style of play.
On the season, Memphis ranks third-to-last in the league in three-point field goals attempted (15.0) and fourth in made treys (5.7) per game. The Grizzlies actually have the third-most efficient offense from downtown, drilling 37.9 percent of their attempted triples; they simply just don't take enough of them to matter.
Vince Carter, Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and Quincy Pondexter account for the majority of Memphis' three-point attempts (12.6 per game in total), but both Carter and Pondexter are shooting below 30 percent from deep. The lack of a true knockdown shooter outside of Lee (55 percent from downtown) could come back to haunt the Grizzlies if they need to overcome a large deficit come playoff time.
Memphis has expressed interest in free-agent shooting guard Ray Allen, who has "no timetable to make a decision on his playing future," according to RealGM's Shams Charania. CBSSports.com's James Herbert explains why the Grizzlies' reported interest in Allen makes perfect sense:
Memphis is elite on both ends of the floor. There are already capable marksmen on the wing, in Courtney Lee, Vince Carter and rookie Jordan Adams. Tony Allen is still starting. Tayshaun Prince is still playing. Why do the Grizzlies need Ray Allen, then?
For starters, only the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves attempt 3s at a lesser rate than Memphis. The offense is still awesome, but Allen could provide a boost. Also, Adams doesn't play, Prince is in the last year of his contract and could be moved, and Carter has struggled with his shot. The Grizzlies have long had a shortage of shooters, so it's about time they had the opposite problem.
The Grizzlies' paint-heavy approach hasn't failed them yet, but establishing more offensive balance will only help their title aspirations.
Portland Trail Blazers: More Free Throws
The Portland Trail Blazers are seemingly intent on proving last year's success was no fluke. Though they are two games behind their sizzling start to the 2013-14 season, their 19-6 record is not one to be trifled with, especially given their top-eight ratings in both offense (eighth) and defense (sixth).
Terrifyingly, they have the potential to improve that offensive rating even further. Through the first quarter of the season, they're one of the worst teams in terms of drawing fouls and generating free-throw attempts.
To wit, the Blazers have drawn the fourth-lowest number of personal fouls per game (19.2), and not surprisingly, they rank third-to-last in terms of average free-throw attempts (19.6). Portland also has the league's second-lowest free-throw rate, averaging just .229 free-throw attempts for every one field-goal try.
As Shane Young noted on HoopsHabit, only half of last year's top-10 teams in terms of average free-throw attempts made the playoffs, so this issue isn't necessarily a death knell for Portland's title chances. However, only one champion in the past 21 years has conceded more free-throw attempts than it attempted, per Young, which spells bad news for the Blazers. (They're allowing 22.0 freebies per game.)
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are doing their part from the charity stripe, averaging 5.0 and 4.7 attempts per game, respectively, but no other Portland player is averaging more than 2.4 free-throw attempts. The Blazers don't need to transform into the freebie-loving Houston Rockets overnight, but averaging a few more trips to the line each game will only help down the line in a tight playoff game.
San Antonio Spurs: Finding Regular-Season Motivation
There's no sense getting up in arms about the San Antonio Spurs having dropped three of their past five games, including losses to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers. After all, before that five-game stretch, they had won 13 of their past 15 tilts, handing the Golden State Warriors one of their only two losses to date.
San Antonio currently touts the league's ninth-best offense and third-best defense, the two major hallmarks of virtually every recent champion. In all likelihood, the Spurs are en route to their 16th straight season with 50 or more wins and a playoff berth. As a result, complacency is the biggest obstacle between them and their first-ever back-to-back title run.
Following San Antonio's overtime loss to the Lakers, head coach Gregg Popovich lit into his team, telling reporters:
I thought our performance was pitiful. Of the regular game, the 48 (minutes), we probably played six or seven, eight minutes of competitive, execution-type basketball. The rest was pitiful. We should be embarrassed by the way we played. I mean, a lot of it had to do with the Lakers, (they) were great. But that's beside the point. We didn’t have enough people that had the focus to take the game seriously and go after it. So it was a disappointing night.
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili echoed those concerns following the Lakers game, speaking to the underlying challenge facing him and his teammates this season.
"We've just got to step up and be more humble, knowing if we don't play hard and humble and do every little thing that is needed to get those wins, we are going to struggle," he told reporters. "We are not that good that just because of being out there we are going to win or intimidate opponents. We've got to fight for it."
The doggedly competitive West is wide-open this year, which makes playoff seeding that much more important for any title hopeful. San Antonio can't afford to sleepwalk against lesser opponents, even if it's increasingly difficult to conjure motivation for each regular-season game, given the implications in home-court advantage.
Toronto Raptors: Weathering the DeMar DeRozan-less Storm
No team ever wants its star player to go down for a significant period of time with an injury. For the Toronto Raptors and DeMar DeRozan, however, the timing couldn't have been much better.
DeRozan suffered a torn left adductor longus tendon in a Nov. 28 game against the Dallas Mavericks and is sidelined indefinitely. Per USA Today's Sam Amick, the USC product hopes to return in four weeks or fewer, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey told reporters Thursday that he is still a ways from returning, per Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.
Frankly, given the Raptors' schedule over the next few weeks, there's little incentive to rush DeRozan's return. In their final seven games of 2014, they'll face only three teams with records currently above .500 and have a four-game home stretch against Eastern Conference bottom-feeders Charlotte, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia in early January.
Things get serious for the Raptors once the calendar flips to February, as they'll face off against just three teams currently under .500 in their 11 contests that month. They'll also take on Cleveland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the span of a week in early March, and they have two tilts against the Chicago Bulls in six days toward the end of that month.
Toronto holds the East's best record, putting the No. 1 seed legitimately in play so long as it can weather the storm until DeRozan returns. With a roster that legitimately goes 10 deep and one of the league's best home-court advantages, the Raps could be poised to thwart the once seemingly predestined Chicago-Cleveland Eastern Conference Finals matchup if they don't crumble in DeRozan's absence.
Washington Wizards: More Drives to the Basket
Fresh off a surprising conference semifinals appearance last season, the Washington Wizards appear destined for yet another deep playoff run this time around. At 17-6, they have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and currently tout the league's fourth-stingiest defense, allowing just 98.8 points per 100 possessions.
Offense, surprisingly, is the weak spot for this squad. The Wiz rank 13th on that end of the court, scoring 104.0 points per 100 possessions, despite averaging 19.3 dimes per 100 possessions, the second-highest rate in the league.
A paltry number of drives to the basket deserves some of the credit for Washington's offensive struggles. The Wizards are averaging the third-fewest drives per game (17.3)—defined on NBA.com as "any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop," excluding fast breaks—and the fifth-fewest points per game on drives (20.7).
A team featuring a starting backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal has no business ranking so low in terms of drives to the basket, but those two are actually doing their part. Combined, Wall and Beal are averaging 11.2 drives per game, with Paul Pierce (2.8) and Andre Miller (2.6) the only other Wizards recording at least once drive per game.
Without a consistent driving threat outside of Wall, Washington could struggle to put pressure on opposing defenses, diminishing the threat of an inside-outside game. The Wizards need to increase their offensive aggressiveness if they hope to truly make noise this spring.