How Every NBA Contender's Season Could Crash and Burn

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 8, 2017

How Every NBA Contender's Season Could Crash and Burn

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    Pessimism is really just another form of disaster preparedness.

    If your outlook on the world skews gloomy, you've already spent mental energy anticipating the worst. So at least you won't be surprised when the storm clouds darken the horizon.

    If calamity strikes the Golden State Warriors (or the Cleveland Cavaliers, or the San Antonio Spurs, or the contender of your choice), what form will it most likely take?

    How, specifically, might this thing go bad?

    For purposes of our analysis, a contender is a team that wouldn't upend the planet by winning a title. As it is, we're stretching to include six clubs in a world where the Warriors exist. Injuries are off limits because, duh, if LeBron James or Russell Westbrook or Kawhi Leonard can't play, their teams are cooked.

    We'll focus on the problems many foresaw ahead of time, and the ones we've already watched develop in this young season.

    Nobody's saying the following crash-and-burn scenarios are sure to materialize. All we're saying is all of these teams have an obvious trouble spot worth watching, one that could prevent them from reaching their goal.

Boston Celtics: Inexperience

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    First of all, welcome back, Boston Celtics!

    You didn't make the cut last time we talked about things going wrong with contenders because you'd just lost Gordon Hayward, and nobody took you seriously as an elite team. So even though we're about to shine a spotlight on a potentially critical flaw, don't take it too hard. You're here! You made it back.

    About that flaw...

    The Kyrie Irving-Al Horford tandem is special. Both are highly intelligent, multi-skilled hubs who've forged impressive chemistry in a short amount of time together. But in the moments that matter, who'll be orbiting that fulcrum?

    Kids and guys with glaring weaknesses, probably at the same time.

    Jaylen Brown is only 21. He's a dynamic on-ball defender in the midst of a leap. But he's only a second-year player—one whose tunnel vision (10 assists in 11 games) makes him easier to guard than anyone with his athleticism should be. Credit Brown for trying to finish everything inside and understanding his role as a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-attack support piece, but know that his limited offensive game is, for now, a potential problem.

    Jayson Tatum is two years younger than Brown, and though he's vastly exceeded expectations as a shooter from long range (52.9 percent from three) and as a defender, it's still too early to expect he can perform in the hothouse of the playoffs. Not consistently, anyway.

    He and Brown have been terrific as starters so far; both look like viable rotation pieces going forward—at minimum. But asking them to play this well when the stakes spike and defenses can dial in on the tiniest deficiencies is unrealistic.

    And if those two can't be counted on, what does that leave? Nobody's going to guard Marcus Smart and his shaky jumper when he's off the ball. Marcus Morris isn't a surefire difference-maker.

    Boston lacks the reliable role-fillers of a true contender. If it goes deep in the playoffs and can't quite get over the hump, it'll be because its youth and other limited reserves weren't ready for the big stage...yet.

    We've already gone way too long on the Celtics, but a closing shout out to them for eliminating what once seemed like obvious crash-and-burn culprits. This team has become an elite rebounding group that also happens to lead the league in defense. Those were supposed to be major weaknesses. Brad Stevens is doing dark magic.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Defense

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    It was tempting to say "collective mental fatigue induced by four team meetings per week," but defense feels like the safer bet.

    And, just...man, are the Cavs ever horrible on D.

    Per Cleaning the Glass, they're dead last in points allowed per possession and permit the highest opponents' effective field-goal percentage in the league. Cleveland is also getting blitzed in transition—allowing far too many corner threes—and can't force turnovers, hallmarks of a team that isn't mustering much effort.

    "Have to keep showing film and continue to keep talking about it," head coach Tyronn Lue told reporters. "Make sure we're aware of it, and I think guys are embarrassed and should be embarrassed of how we're getting beat."

    Embarrassed or not, this isn't unusual for the Cavs. They've coasted through regular seasons throughout James' second stint. They've also made the Finals every year. Maybe they'll do it again.

    But the defense has never been this bad this early, and the offense Cleveland counted on to bail it out a year ago isn't the same. Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade offer no spacing, Tristan Thompson is hurt, JR Smith can't hit anything (and may still be ticked about Wade initially starting ahead of him), and the team is only hitting 33.4 percent of its threes.

    You could talk yourself into any number of issues bringing about Cleveland's downfall: James slipping a bit in his 15th season, an ill-conceived cast of one-way reserves, general fatigue after three consecutive runs to the Finals, the formation of bad habits while in pre-switch-flipping regular-season mode...

    But defense is the glaring weakness here. If the Cavs can't perform somewhere near the league average on that end, they won't make the Finals. And if they don't crank up the intensity even higher in that ultimate round, they don't have a prayer of winning a ring.

Golden State Warriors: Black Hole Opens, Sucks in Earth, Extinguishes All Life

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    Come on, what do you want to hear?

    Complacency?

    These guys mailed in three out of every four quarters for the first two weeks of the season, and they still have the league's highest net rating.

    Turnovers?

    They've kicked the ball around for years and really doubled down to start the 2017-18 campaign. The fifth-worst turnover rate in the league doesn't matter when you lap the field in effective field-goal percentage. Because, see, the thing about wasting possessions is: You can get away with it when you get more points than anyone else on the ones you don't waste. 

    Draymond Green going nuclear?

    Tom Izzo told him to cool it, and what Izzo says goes.

    There is no non-injury scenario in which this Warriors season crashes and burns. You're fooling yourself if you think otherwise.

Houston Rockets: Small Ball Fails

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    The Houston Rockets have the right approach. If you're trying to beat the Warriors, you need to compete with them on their terms.

    It's an unfair proposition and an invitation to destruction, but getting past the Dubs and into the Finals means surviving when they go small. And unless you have some as-yet-unseen big man combo that can defend lightning-quick ball movement, dominate in the post on offense and keep up in transition, you need to downsize and hope for the best.

    When healthy, the Rockets can trot out Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker together. They used that fivesome with Eric Gordon in Paul's place when they beat the Warriors in Oakland to spoil the Dubs' home opener. But that unit—Gordon, Harden, Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker—got smoked. The Warriors won that admittedly tiny four-minute sample of a small-ball showdown by 12.5 points per 100 possessions.

    Houston won the game, but when it tried to run, gun and defend with the best, it lost.

    The simplest way to explain why the Rockets won't succeed with this approach involves going down the line and acknowledging that at four of the five positions when playing small ball (Harden is better than Klay Thompson), the Warriors have the edge in talent. That means Houston is depending on luck—Tucker getting hot from three, Iguodala and Green failing to knock down their shots, Paul matching Curry's impact—while the Warriors know they just need to do what they've always done to win.

Oklahoma City Thunder: A Great Deal of Standing Around

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    Nobody passes less than the Oklahoma City Thunder, and nobody devotes a higher percentage of its possessions to isolation plays.

    Those aren't necessarily signs of imminent doom, but when one of the key concerns surrounding the construction of a new roster was the potential for stagnant offense and limited ball-sharing, they're not encouraging.

    They were, however, foreseeable. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew his roster might get a little iso-heavy way back in October, telling Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript: "The problem comes in when you throw it to those guys and now everybody just stands and now there’s no movement and they're taking difficult shots. So, there’s definitely got to be a balance."

    OKC hasn't struck it yet.

    So while the Thunder have proved to be a dangerous defensive team in the early going (second only to the Celtics), and while they still profile as a tough matchup for anyone that can't field at least three excellent one-on-one defenders in response, they're merely average on offense. They don't make use of spot-up shooters, don't force switches and don't get production at a rate commensurate with their raw offensive talent.

    It may just be that Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, together, can't play in a movement-heavy offense. Paul George remains a solid theoretical fit, but the Thunder still have two players who've made careers out of dominating the ball while others watch.

    If these guys don't win big this season, it'll be because they never figured out how to work together.

San Antonio Spurs: Talent Deficiencies Mount

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    This one's especially tough because we said up front that injuries weren't part of the deal...but Kawhi Leonard's absence due to a quad injury is so clearly the reason for the San Antonio Spurs' present struggles that it's impossible to ignore it as an issue down the line.

    Every other contender or pseudo-contender has at least one star. San Antonio has Leonard and the occasional appearance of LaMarcus Aldridge as a No. 1 option.

    Rules are rules, though. Injuries are out.

    Realistically, the Spurs' season isn't going to come crashing down spectacularly. That'd be off-brand and probably impossible given the strength of the infrastructure. What's more likely is age and an offseason that didn't infuse much new talent combine to make the Spurs just a touch worse than they were last year—when they lost Leonard in the conference finals and got swept.

    Even with Leonard, the thinking here is that Aldridge (32), Pau Gasol (37), Patty Mills (29) and Manu Ginobili (40) all take a small step back as they age. At the same time, youngsters like Dejounte Murray may not be ready. Rudy Gay (31) has been a nice story as a standout sixth man, but even he can't be expected to perform like his old self for a full season—not at his age, and not coming off that torn Achilles.

    This team wasn't quite good enough last year, and it didn't get better. The math's not hard on that one.

    If you think about it, this is perfect. The Spurs' demise won't be flashy. It'll be subtle. Understated. Dignified.

    Everyone will execute and adhere to the system, but the talent level just won't be there—with or without Leonard.

          

    Stats are current entering games on Tuesday, Nov. 7 and courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise specified.

    Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

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