The Biggest Issue Every Title Contender Faces Going into 2015 NBA Trade Deadline

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2015

The Biggest Issue Every Title Contender Faces Going into 2015 NBA Trade Deadline

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    While the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors may argue otherwise, no NBA title contender is perfect.

    Within the Association's tiers of championship-caliber excellence, personnel and tactical concerns affect even the most polished clubs to varying degrees. 

    In some cases, those voids can be filled via acquisitions at the Feb. 19 trade deadline. But in others, stylistic adjustments will rule the day.

    Whether it's the Chicago Bulls finding some semblance of defensive equilibrium, the Dallas Mavericks searching for reserve bigs or the Houston Rockets pining for offensive upgrades, contenders have a vast array of areas to shore up before the trade deadline officially passes. 

    In order to qualify as a title contender, teams had to enter Saturday night with a win percentage greater than .600. However, the Cleveland Cavaliers (.596) received a justified exemption after rattling off 12 straight wins and working within 3.5 games of the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed.

Atlanta Hawks: Sixth Man

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    All season long, the Atlanta Hawks have thrived by embracing an all-for-one approach that has pushed the franchise to glorious new heights. 

    "Give me four or five really good players over one superstar. I will take that any day," forward Paul Millsap said, according to The Washington Post's Michael Lee. "It gives you a lot of comfort. When things aren’t going right and you are having one of those 3-of-10 or 1-of-7 nights, you know somebody else will pick up the slack. That is what a full team does."

    And while the Hawks' rotation goes 10-men deep, there's a clear absence of an established volume-scoring sixth man on the wing. Yes, Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore have performed admirably, they're doing 51 and 30 percent of their damage via catch-and-shoot opportunities, respectively, according to SportVU. 

    Factor in Thabo Sefolosha's calf injury and DeMarre Carroll's nagging Achilles pain and the Hawks could use a slight bench upgrade. Since the second unit ranks just 22nd in scoring, per HoopsStats.com, it wouldn't hurt to go on the hunt for a dribble-drive creator as the Feb. 19 trade deadline approaches.

Chicago Bulls: Defensive Consistency

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    In a strange twist, the Chicago Bulls offense has done the bulk of the heavy lifting this season, while the defense has struggled to find its footing. 

    Tom Thibodeau's defense hasn't been flat-out bad, to be sure, but it's performed well below expectations after ranking No. 2 overall in efficiency last season. Now posting the league's 12th-best defensive rating, the Bulls have displayed some uncharacteristically lackadaisical tendencies. 

    "If the Bulls don't turn it around and win a championship this season, the obituary will lead with their inability to play defense like they did in the first four seasons of Tom Thibodeau's tenure," ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell wrote. "The Bulls used to punch teams in the mouth during games."

    Failing to flash their trademark demeanor, the Bulls have recorded an average scoring margin of minus-1.8 since Jan. 1, smack dab between the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers. 

    And unfortunately, this isn't a trend that looks like it can be bucked with a deadline move.

    The Bulls have constructed a championship-caliber roster, but they don't own a trump card to pull out in times of distress as a way to combat regression. At this stage in the season, it's simply a matter of finding a rhythm that's eluded the former Eastern Conference favorites for more than a month now.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Frontcourt Depth

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    The acquisition of Timofey Mozgov patched up a major hole at center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but there's a need for one more burly body that can slide into the rotation and provide some reinforcements in the restricted area. 

    It's clear Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are working their tails off to protect the paint, but Kevin Love's allowing opponents to shoot 0.6 percent better than the league average when he operates as their primary defender, according to SportVU.

    In search of one last complementary piece to the championship puzzle, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reports Cleveland is exploring its options with the trade deadline less than two weeks away:

    The Cavs ideally would like a big who can defend and doesn’t need the ball to be effective. They were talking to the Phoenix Suns about Miles Plumlee before acquiring Mozgov and would still be open to adding him, particularly since he’s making less than $1.2 million this season. But the asking price might be beyond their means.

    Lloyd also identifies backup point guard as a potential area of need for the Cavaliers, but with Cleveland grading out as the league's third-worst rim-protecting team this season, per SportVU, making a run at power forward or center safety nets to play nominal roles would be a wise decision.

Dallas Mavericks: Lack of Reserve Bigs

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    Ever since the Dallas Mavericks parted with Brandan Wright to acquire Rajon Rondo, the franchise's lack of frontcourt depth has been under the microscope. 

    With little in the way of reliable rim protection behind starting center Tyson Chandler, head coach Rick Carlisle has turned to smaller pairings that have regularly featured Al-Farouq Aminu and Charlie Villanueva. To date, Aminu has played 48 percent of his minutes at the 4 while Villanueva has split his time evenly between power forward and center, according to Basketball-Reference.com

    To his credit, Aminu has been a plus/minus wizard, with Dallas nearly six points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, according to NBA.com. 

    So while the results haven't been disastrous by any stretch, it's safe to say Dallas could still use sturdier low-post presences to provide a little relief in rotational stretches. 

    As a way to alleviate some of the team's reliance on small-ball lineups, the Mavericks could pursue New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire if he winds up receiving a buyout later this month. 

    According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon, Dallas would be the odds-on favorites to acquire Stoudemire's services if he is eventually bought out: 

    The Dallas Mavericks would be considered front-runners to sign Amar'e Stoudemire if the 13-year veteran opts to pursue a contract buyout from the New York Knicks, according to league sources.

    Stoudemire made it clear in his public comments that he's not yet sure if he wants to seek a buyout from the Knicks to join a contender for the stretch run, but sources told ESPN.com that Dallas has quickly emerged as a prime landing spot if he becomes a free agent.

    Additionally, Stein and MacMahon indicate Dallas would also be amenable to clearing space in order to sign center Jermaine O'Neal as another reserve anchor.

Golden State Warriors: Nothing Behind Andrew Bogut

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    The only thing that can seemingly stop the Golden State Warriors at this point in their quest for immortality is an injury—specifically to center Andrew Bogut. 

    Dating back to 2010, Bogut has only played in more than half of his team's games once, and that was last season. And after he underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy on his right knee back in December, there's precedent for concern here. 

    Not only has power forward David Lee ceded a player efficiency rating of 23.2 to opposing centers this season, according to 82games.com, but Festus Ezeli is also the team's only known commodity at center outside of Bogut. 

    However, with centers recording a PER of 21.3 against Ezeli, it's hard to get too excited about the 25-year-old's ability to fill in for extended stretches should Bogut miss extended action.

    As a way to provide some insurance, perhaps the Warriors could chase a reunion with center Jermaine O'Neal, who has been linked to the Dallas Mavericks for some time now, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein.

Houston Rockets: Point Guard Potency

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    The Houston Rockets have been on the hunt for an upgrade at point guard since early January, according to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher.

    That's not a major surprise, either, considering Houston ranks 25th overall in point guard scoring at 16.9 points per game, according to HoopsStats.com

    Although Patrick Beverley is shooting a steady 37.2 percent from three, he's not a major threat to penetrate off the dribble or knock down pull-up jumpers. To date, he's knocking down just 30.9 percent of his pull-up attempts, per SportVU, with a field-goal percentage of 35.8 between three and 10 feet. 

    Beverley is still one of the NBA's most ferocious one-on-one perimeter defenders at point guard, but Houston's offense hasn't displayed an exorbitant amount of scoring punch with him on the floor. 

    With Houston's offensive rating hovering around the league average, an offensive upgrade would aid Houston's title push considerably. Since the Rockets already own the Western Conference's second-best defense, finding a potent and versatile floor general who would allow Beverley to rotate in as the team's third guard off the bench could help immensely.

Los Angeles Clippers: Rim Protection

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    The Los Angeles Clippers have long needed a bouncy rim protector to back up DeAndre Jordan, and signing Spencer Hawes hasn't helped remedy that problem in the slightest. 

    This season, the Clippers rank 23rd in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim, per SportVU, with Hawes failing to hold up his end of the bargain.

    Those problems are amplified when Hawes is paired with Blake Griffin in the frontcourt, which is generally the two-man combination head coach Doc Rivers has turned to when melding his starting lineup and bench.  

    In 238 minutes together, Hawes and Griffin have surrendered 104.9 points per 100 possessions, up three points from the figure Jordan and Hawes post, according to NBA.com. However, the Jordan-Hawes alignment has played 74 fewer minutes since it fails to provide adequate offensive stability. 

    The problem, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, is "playing Griffin and Hawes together leaves the rim unprotected," plus "Rivers clearly doesn’t trust Hawes’ plodding defense."

    What that means is Rivers has been thrust into a pick-your-poison scenario as it pertains to his frontcourt rotation. And that's a self-inflicted problem the Clippers have to deal with after dropping $24 million over four years to snag Hawes at the mid-level exception over the summer. 

    Ironically, Hawes' payday combined with the Jordan Farmar's bi-annual exception hard-capped the Clippers, meaning they have virtually no financial flexibility.

Memphis Grizzlies: Perimeter Scoring

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    It's never been the Memphis Grizzlies' style to bombard opponents with a flurry of threes, but in a Western Conference loaded with esteemed artillery gunners, Dave Joerger's club could stand to benefit from an influx of perimeter marksmanship. 

    Owners of the West's sixth-worst three-point conversion rate (34.4), Memphis also ranks 28th overall in threes attempted at just under 16 a night. 

    And this season, Memphis possesses just two reliable spot-up shooters. Mike Conley and Courtney Lee are the only Grizzlies shooting better than 40 percent from distance (min. two attempts per game), with Jeff Green representing the squad's third-best option at 30.2 percent. 

    Vince Carter's success as an ageless sniper with the Dallas Mavericks hasn't translated to Memphis, either, considering he's knocking down just over 27 percent of his triples. But ever since he sustained a tendon injury in his left foot, Memphis' shooting percentage from beyond the arc has plummeted to 27 percent

    Grinding opponents down with methodical half-court sets initiated at the elbows has always been Memphis' calling card, but it remains to be seen if it can keep pace with the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Portland Trail Blazers over the course of a seven-game series implementing that strategy.

Portland Trail Blazers: Wing Depth

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    To be absolutely clear, the Portland Trail Blazers aren't struggling to hit or defend threes. They rank first in opponents' three-point field-goal percentage and seventh in conversion rate on the other end. 

    However, it's hard not to notice a very apparent lack of compelling depth behind Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum on the depth chart. 

    While C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Dorell Wright aren't slouches by any measure, Portland has the expiring contracts and draft picks necessary to make an upgrade on the wing as it soldiers toward the postseason. 

    Specifically, Portland appears to be sniffing around Denver Nuggets swingman Wilson Chandler, according to Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. A long defender capable of matching up against 3s or 4s who can spot up and knock down threes from the corners in a pinch, Chandler would represent a nice upgrade over Wright—particularly with a mere $2 million guaranteed in the final season of his contract. 

    Since its defense has improved considerably, Portland doesn't have many glaring holes. But provided the opportunity to make an affordable upgrade, general manager Neil Olshey shouldn't hesitate to take action.

San Antonio Spurs: Keeping Legs Fresh

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    Last season, the San Antonio Spurs had the luxury of constantly rotating fresh legs in to keep their most coveted veterans fresh for a fruitful postseason run. 

    This season, the story's changed a bit. Since the Spurs have been forced to make up ground following Kawhi Leonard's hand injury, three players (Leonard, Danny Green and Tim Duncan) are averaging more than 30 minutes after zero San Antonio players did so last season. 

    It's completely understandable given the litany of injuries San Antonio's encountered, but intense jockeying for playoff seeding has hindered Gregg Popovich's ability to manage minutes in an ultra-conservative manner.  

    And truth be told, there may not be an easy solution available since San Antonio can't afford to take its foot off the gas for a moment as it competes with the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks for favorable postseason paths. 

    While Popovich is doing his best to ensure none of his studs' odometers exceed a dramatic barrier, the slight uptick in playing time for a veteran core raises an eyebrow, to say the least.

Toronto Raptors: Interior Defense

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    Dwane Casey's Toronto Raptors rank 22nd in opponents' paint points per game and 21st in total rebounds, per TeamRankings.com, so it makes sense that the team's front office is interested in making an upgrade at power forward. 

    According to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, general manager Masai Ujiri is window shopping for a new 4 to pair with Jonas Valanciunas: 

    The Raptors are one of several teams sniffing around for a roster upgrade, specifically at the power forward spot.

    A few names continue to surface around league sources when talking about Toronto, the biggest being Indiana’s David West, the next is Chicago’s Taj Gibson, then Denver’s Kenneth Faried and then there is a long list of B and C tier names that Toronto might consider at the deadline if all else fails.

    HoopsStats.com also indicates Toronto's frontcourt ranks 22nd in opponents' field-goal percentage (47.5) while allowing 57.1 points per game. On the other end of the floor, Toronto 4s rank dead last in scoring among all power forward units, mustering 14.2 points per game, according to HoopsStats.com

    In need of a versatile, aggressive presence that isn't afraid to launch mid-range jumpers or put the ball on the floor with his back to the basket, it makes sense that the Raptors are in the market for a more polished two-way threat with a fairly wide-open Eastern Conference providing opportunities aplenty for postseason prosperity.

Washington Wizards: Shot Selection

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    Like the Los Angeles Clippers, the Washington Wizards are hard-capped. That means improving a bench that could feasibly benefit from the addition of a proven volume scorer will be rather difficult at the trade deadline. 

    The key to busting out of their slump, then, will revolve around a more efficient offensive approach. 

    It's been harped on all season long, but the Wizards' reliance on mid-range jump shots has reached excruciating levels. Not only do they jack up more mid-range jumpers than threes, but the former shot type is falling through the net at a rate just three percent higher than the latter. 

    And it would be one thing if Washington ranked at the league average or lower in three-point percentage, but its third-place standing makes that distribution exponentially harder to swallow.

    While a cheap veteran free agent such as Nate Robinson fits the bill as a quick energy booster off the pine who could help launch a few more threes, Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post reports the team has no interest in signing him at this time. 

    Desperate times may wind up calling for desperate measures from a personnel standpoint, but for now it's all about playing with a more mathematically driven approach. 

    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise. All salary information retrieved from BasketballInsiders.com.

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