Finding the Weakest Link on Every NBA Contender

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 25, 2017

Finding the Weakest Link on Every NBA Contender

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    Tagging vulnerabilities in NBA title contenders is an exercise in relativity.

    If you're in the contender clubmeaning you could win a ring without stunning the worldyour weaknesses aren't like everyone else's. These teams could wind up being average (or even above-average) in the trouble spots we're about to highlight, but that one vulnerability could still be the squad's undoing.

    Winning a title means firing on all cylinders. The slightest hiccup could ruin the whole enterprise, much like how a single grain of sand can compromise a microchip.

    We're not going to highlight specific players here. That's mean, and it would be misleading. Teams don't lose out on titles because one guy didn't do his job. If you succeed collectively, you also fail collectively. So while we'll have to zero in on a few individuals who contribute to a team's key shortcoming, this won't be about pointing fingers.

    If you've landed on this list, good news! You have a legitimate shot to win a championship this season. Not even the likes of the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors can make that claim, as it would require doing the unthinkable: sending LeBron James home before his eighth straight Finals appearance.

    There's bad news, too, though: If you're on this list, you have a major problem to solve.

    Get to work.

Golden State Warriors: Complacency

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    Head coach Steve Kerr saw this coming back in September.

    "The biggest challenge is complacency," he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic. "We've been to the Finals three years in a row. And for our core group, I guess that would be four or five guys—Shaun (Livingston) and Andre, Steph, Klay (Thompson), Draymond (Green)—that's a long haul and you just cannot lose your edge in this league."

    Then came an opening-night loss to the Houston Rockets, a ho-hum win against the New Orleans Pelicans, a stack-blowing hissy fit of a defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies and zero signature wins through four regular-season games.

    Like Kerr predicted: edge lost.

    Those three deep playoff runs and a grueling preseason China trip have conspired to manifest Kerr's biggest concern. The Warriors are half-stepping. It's a forgivable offense, and one they'll rectify as they settle in to the grind of the season and, hopefully, get tired of appearing mortal.

    Snoozy transition defense, careless turnovers and a general lack of mental acuity are symptoms of a team that is a) physically worn down, and b) not particularly concerned about the strength of its competition.

    Draymond Green made that second part clear in his interview with GQ's Clay Skipper: "It's pretty f--king sick to see how everybody is just in a f--king panic about what to do. You sit back and think, like, these motherf--kers, they know. That's the fun part about it: They know they don't stand a chance."

    This was always the only concern (injuries aside) for the league's reigning champs. There's no lack of depth at a particular position. No glaring strategic weakness smart opponents will exploit.

    For some teams, you'd worry about this early lack of urgency becoming habit-forming. But Golden State is prideful, which you can deduce from Green's comments, and it won't allow itself to keep dozing like this. Sooner or later, the Warriors will wake up. 

Houston Rockets: Leadership

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    The Houston Rockets can go big with Clint Capela rolling to the rim and swatting shots as a conventional 5, or they can downsize and spread the floor with four wings and a point guard. They've already had success with the latter approach, using PJ Tucker at center alongside Luc Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza, James Harden and Chris Paul.

    This is a roster capable of winning in several ways, although all of those ways involve shooting tons of threes.

    Before the season, there were concerns about Harden and Paul sharing the ball, but two guys with such high basketball IQs were bound to figure out how to be effective without the rock. Paul may be the team's weakest link in something close to a literal sense, insofar as his health tends to deteriorate over the course of the year. He's already missing time with a bone bruise in his knee, which isn't a great omen.

    But the real issue with this team, the principal frailty that could fell an otherwise formidable group, is leadership—specifically of the postseason variety.

    Harden's failures in that regard are still fresh. Former Rockets head coach Kevin McHale explicitly said Harden came up short in that department, and a conspicuous disappearance in Games 5 and 6 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals means he's a suspect galvanizer until he proves otherwise.

    Paul's list of playoff failure is extensive. And though he may not be entirely to blame for the Los Angeles Clippers never getting out of the second round on his watch, it's impossible to ignore postseason collapses in 2013 against the Memphis Grizzlies, 2014 versus the Oklahoma City Thunder and when Harden's Rockets erased a 19-point fourth-quarter lead and overcame a 3-1 series deficit in 2015. (Maybe we give Harden some credit for that one?)

    As his team's alpha in L.A., Paul bears the most responsibility. His late-game gaffes against OKC in 2014 were particularly egregious.

    Questions about Paul's capacity to lead a team are at least as pressing as the ones facing Harden. And Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni hasn't gotten over the playoff hump yet, either.

    When the going gets tough, who will push the Rockets forward?

Cleveland Cavaliers: Defense

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers finished last season with the 22nd-ranked defense in the league, and they were 29th after the All-Star break. After fooling everyone into thinking they had flipped a switch in the playoffs, they surrendered an unfathomable 117.5 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors in the Finals.

    Spacing concerns when Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade share the floor don't even register in comparison to that glaring weakness.

    Kevin Love's defensive shortcomings at center? LeBron James' high minute totals? Forget those, too.

    Nothing else matters if the Cavs can't stop the best offenses they'll face in pursuit of a title.

    Cleveland's own attack can still hit brilliant crescendoes whenever James shares the floor with a handful of three-point shooters. But this roster lacks a full-time, lockdown defender not named Jae Crowder. And whatever boost he provides disappears if/when he shares the floor with Isaiah Thomas, perhaps the worst defender at his position in the league.

    Credit the Cavs for leaning into an all-offense approach. Slotting Love at center is an act of honest, admirable self-assessment. It's Cleveland saying it intends to outscore opponents because it can't win by stopping them.

    Against almost everyone, the strategy is sound.

    Against the Warriors, it produced a gentleman's sweep.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Diminishing Returns

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    Everybody's immediate reaction to the superteam formation in Houston was to trot out the one-ball concern. The Oklahoma City Thunder, though, figure to contend more seriously with that issue.

    Last year, it seemed at times like Russell Westbrook needed more than one basketball for himself. And though we shouldn't have expected him to re-break his own year-old record for usage rate under any circumstances, he's still the league's most notorious ball-dominator.

    The Paul George acquisition made sense, as PG13 is a fine shooter off screens and provides excellent value as a spot-up weapon. Carmelo Anthony's value in a second-option role is less certain. "Team USA Melo" may only be a small-sample anomaly; we haven't seen Anthony satisfied with anything but being a team's offensive fulcrum. So even if Anthony is a useful catch-and-shoot player, it remains to be seen whether he's cool with that role.

    Westbrook has never been particularly dangerous off the ball, where he tends to float, waiting for his next chance to touch the rock. If he committed to cutting aggressively, it would help. If he would more readily move the ball in the flow of the offense, that wouldn't hurt either. To his credit, he shot 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season.

    Ultimately, OKC's collection of top-end talent should be able to overcome a good fit made trickier by the Melo acquisition. But there's also a chance Westbrook and Anthony provide diminishing returns, as neither has much history creating value without the ball in his hands.

    Does this lead to the return of "your turn, my turn" basketball that always held the Thunder below their potential and contributed to Kevin Durant's exit? Do egos get bruised, leading to discord?

    Anything's possible, but if the Thunder—a dangerous and skill-laden team, for the record—don't wind up making a deep run toward the Finals, expect the reason to have something to do with three stars not quite figuring out how to share that one basketball.

San Antonio Spurs: Quads and Age and Size

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    Other than the quadriceps tendinopathy that still has Kawhi Leonard out without a return timetable, it's difficult to pinpoint the weakest link in the San Antonio Spurs' chain. (That chain, for what it's worth, hasn't broken in two decades.)

    If Leonard isn't his MVP-contending self when it matters, the Spurs are sunk.

    Assuming he gets right eventually, that leaves the usual concerns for this group: age, a lack of secondary playmaking and the remote possibility that whatever Faustian bargain Gregg Popovich struck in 1997 finally runs out.

    Pau Gasol is 37 and may be among the least mobile bigs in the game. His development as a three-point shooter means he can stay on the floor offensively, but he's virtually unplayable on D against smaller, speedier opponents.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is "only" 32, but he's similarly difficult to keep on the floor unless he's playing center against undersized groups. And then, he's a substandard rim protector who gets into trouble when switching onto perimeter threats.

    The Spurs will excel during the regular season because they're wired tighter than any other team, and they rarely give away games due to lack of effort or focus. But since we're concerned with shortcomings that could derail a contender, it's probably best to assume the same things that prevented the Spurs from reaching the Finals last year—a Leonard injury coupled with a dearth of athleticism due to age and frontcourt size—will remain the biggest stumbling blocks this time around.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

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