Every NBA Title Contender's Biggest Question Mark
Who's ready to fuss over the most pressing variables for the NBA's top contenders?
Before you say yes, consider what this entails. The subject matter is going to come off as preachy and nitpicky and, at times, anti-fun.
Can't we just appreciate nice things?!?!? you'll think.
And we sure can! But nobody's perfect, not even the Association's creme de la creme.
If it helps any, the faultfinding is aimed at question marks and wild cards with the best chance of thwarting each team's championship hopes and dreams. So the magnitude of these potential hiccups will vary by the case. The most crucial Catch-22 won't be all that damning for the more polished squads. Remember that before grabbing your pitchfork.
Contenders will be singled out based on their ability to make it out of their respective conferences and presented in order of improving record. This is supposed to represent an exclusive clique. More than half the league already makes the playoffs.
We're here to search for uncertainty in the cushiest situations, not dole out participation trophies.
Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz
It initially looked like Markelle Fultz wouldn't play again this season, but he made his triumphant—and productive—return after missing 58 consecutive games. Now, Philly gets to see how much he'll matter.
The Sixers rank among the most one-on-one-averse and -inept teams in the league. No squad turns to isolation sets less, while only the Golden State Warriors have pick-and-roll ball-handlers finishing a smaller share of their offensive plays.
Play-type distributions are often a matter of preference. But they're also shaped by personnel. The Sixers don't have a bunch of capable pick-and-roll initiators or on-an-island enthusiasts. That's not the end of the world. (Exhibit A: They're third in crunch-time offense.)
Still, having another dependable shot-creator would give the Sixers another dimension to their resurgent 2017-18 campaign. They've already started to find themselves outside Joel Embiid's minutes. A fully healthy Fultz diversifies their offense in a way befitting marquee contention.
He also, as a rookie with fewer than 10 games under his belt, isn't close to a sure thing. He might not be what Philly needs right away. And worse, the quest to get him reps could lower its postseason ceiling.
Hence why the Sixers aren't yet mentioned alongside the most esteemed championship hopefuls.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
If Kawhi Leonard returns from a right quad injury, the Spurs are a team no one will want to face in the playoffs.
If he doesn't, the Spurs are still a team nobody will want to see, sans any real chance of making it past the second round.
Utah Jazz: Go-To Scoring
Oh, and they're also second in crunch-time pace. Seriously.
Go-to scoring still figures to be an issue. Donovan Mitchell is a viable hub, but the inexperience factor must come into play. He's also hit something of a rookie wall in recent weeks; he's shooting 40.7 percent overall and 30.3 percent from long range over his past 22 games.
Where do the Jazz turn after him? Joe Ingles is their most lethal pull-up option, but he's more reluctant shooter than go-getter alpha. The thought of Ricky Rubio ferrying this responsibility is harrowing. Alec Burks isn't a Quin Snyder favorite. Royce O'Neale is an adequate off-the-bounce creator only in small doses.
Mitchell alone may be enough for the Jazz to get by in years to come. Banking on that now, so soon, just doesn't feel right.
(For those peeved by the Jazz's inclusion, please write your qualms down on an index card. And then set said index card on fire. Utah has the NBA's sixth-best net rating on the season—not over a specific stretch, but for the entire year. The Jazz deserve an honorable mention.)
Oklahoma City Thunder: Carmelo Anthony
Clamoring for the Oklahoma City Thunder to move away from Carmelo Anthony is futile. They aren't knifing into his minutes to give Jerami Grant or Josh Huestis more court time. He still carries star-power cachet, even if he no longer warrants it.
Oklahoma City must, however, worry about Anthony crimping its style when he plays.
The defense is giving up a disastrous 109.8 points per 100 possessions in the time he's spent on the floor since Andre Roberson's season-ending patellar injury. And while the offense is outpacing that number, it does so in spite of the starting power forward.
Anthony is slashing 36.8/34.2/68.8 in the post-Roberson era. His efficiency off the catch has waned, and he's been ice-cold in the clutch, shooting 32.1 percent overall and 23.5 percent from downtown.
Again: Replacing him isn't a realistic option. The Thunder's only available alternatives all force them to sacrifice at one end of the floor.
Double-dipping with two of Grant, Huestis, Alex Abrines, Corey Brewer, Terrance Ferguson and Patrick Patterson while sitting Anthony has almost always torpedoed the offense or defense, per Cleaning The Glass. The lone exception: A Huestis-Patterson-Russell Westbrook-Paul George-Steven Adams lineup...that has played all of 47 possessions.
Olympics Melo isn't making a cameo in the postseason. It was foolish, in hindsight, to hope for Anthony to even partially channel that version of himself. He isn't surrounded by a dozen top-25 stars, and Oklahoma City isn't playing inferior competition at every turn.
Luckily for the Thunder, they don't need Anthony to enter playground mode. They just need him to be an efficient ancillary device—a role he has, by many measures, accepted but yet to master or even grow comfortable in.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Fabled 'Defensive Switch'
No surprises here.
The Cleveland Cavaliers defense has been a fiery source of debate all season. That they rank 18th in points allowed per 100 possessions since the trade deadline is actually encouraging.
Just barely staving off bottom-10 status still isn't good. The Cavaliers' detonative offense can get them out of the Eastern Conference. They're pumping in 135.7 points per 100 possessions during the short time (86 minutes) George Hill, LeBron James and Kevin Love have shared the court. No singular defensive stand, however impressive, is overthrowing that planetary production.
Stingier stopping power is needed almost solely to leave a mark in the NBA Finals. The Western Conference will send in a superpower representative, be it the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets—both of which are, at full strength, equipped to match Cleveland bucket for bucket.
If the Cavaliers don't iron out the wrinkles in their pick-and-roll coverage or general tracking of shooters, they will fall in five games. But does that extra level of engagement exist?
For James specifically, it does—if only because he cannot be anymore disengaged. He flashes the occasional interest with a block, passing-lane grab or clinic in space, but he's spent a large chunk of the year almost aimlessly wandering around.
His closeouts are especially revealing, because they don't exist. He's allowing 1.13 points per possession as a spot-up defender, the ninth-worst mark among 96 players to guard at least 150 of these plays. He won't champion the same lackadaisical demeanor in the playoffs, which drives up Cleveland's defensive ceiling by default.
It doesn't work that way for the rest of the roster. Guys like Love, Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver (he tries hard!) and JR Smith cannot level-up on command. Rodney Hood is among the league's most overrated defenders. Tristan Thompson hasn't looked right all year.
Knowing they won't suddenly morph into an elite defensive outfit, the Cavaliers must instead focus on more fundamental issues. Can they cobble together half-competent defensive units when Love plays the 5? Can Larry Nance Jr. cover up for him in a way Thompson no longer does? Which lineups give them the best chance of yielding consistently average returns?
Cleveland has some silver linings. Love-at-center lineups are mostly hopeless—though a few combinations that don't include Smith are worth additional exploration, per Cleaning The Glass. The returns on a Love-Nance duo are promising through 30-something minutes of action. And playing James next to Jeff Green while also sitting Smith has been found money for the Cavaliers almost since Day 1.
They just need to see whether these breaks in the clouds hold over larger samples against superior opponents.
Portland Trail Blazers: Offensive Firepower
The Portland Trail Blazers match up just fine with pretty much all of their possible first-round foes. But later-series tilts with the Warriors and/or Rockets (probably) loom if they plan to advance.
Do they have enough raw firepower to combat the juggernauts ahead of them?
This feels like a stupid question for a team touting Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two of the NBA's premier tough-shot makers. But Portland's offensive distribution raises some red flags when looking at best-of-seven sets with Golden State or Houston.
The Blazers are 17th in three-point-attempt rate. That won't fly against a Rockets contingent launching more than 42 triples per 100 possessions—not even with the Blazers canning a respectable 37.6 percent of their outside looks. They've vaulted themselves into the top eight of downtown frequency since the All-Star break without sacrificing much efficiency, but a demonstrative chasm remains between them and Houston.
Modest three-point volume doesn't hurt the Blazers as much against the Warriors. They're 16th in frequency on the year and 19th since the All-Star break.
Good luck trying to make that quantitative deficit mean something. The Warriors override it with unrivaled accuracy and transition blitzes. No team shoots a better clip from behind the rainbow, and only the Los Angeles Lakers dedicate more of their offense to fast breaks.
Portland's machine is closer to the extra-methodical side. Half-court sets are the emphasis. The offense is dead last in transition frequency and 29th in points scored per fast-break possession.
Both the Warriors and Rockets would invariably force the Blazers to deviate from their wheelhouse. They're built to play an array of styles, but they're also experts at dictating terms. So even if the Blazers effectively combat their offensive genre, it could come at the expense of their defense—just like it has through six meetings with Houston and Golden State during the regular season.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving's Knee
A three- to six-week timetable doesn't guarantee his return before the end of the first round, let alone the start of the playoffs altogether. And if he's unable to suit up, the Celtics face the prospect of an immediate exit.
It doesn't matter that they have the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed. Possible matchups with the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards (assuming John Wall returns) have close-call potential even if the Celtics are at full capacity.
Remove Irving from the equation, and Boston may forfeit favorite status in any one of those hypothetical series.
Indeed, the Celtics have shown they can survive without Irving. Al Horford continues to headline units that outscore opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions whenever he plays without the All-Star point man. And the defense remains sturdy in the time rookie Jayson Tatum logs on his own.
But generating consistent offense without Irving is a chore the Celtics aren't fit to complete in a playoff setting. They score like a bottom-three attack when he's on the bench and don't have a proven face-up alpha on which to lean in crunch time.
Tatum will be that player one day, just not now. Ditto for Jaylen Brown. Horford can helm an offense by himself for 43 minutes or so, but he's not the from-scratch dribble-driver needed to excel with the game on the line. (Most big men aren't, by the way. Boston is lucky Horford is nimble and effective at pump-and-drives from above the break.)
The Celtics have turned to Irving during high-pressure moments accordingly.
Among the 328 players to make at least five crunch-time appearances, only LeBron James has a higher usage rate or averages more shot attempts per 36 minutes. And just as the Cavaliers would have no way of offsetting his absence, the Celtics don't have the experience, one-on-one maestros or healthy 6'8" All-Star safety nets to last without him.
Golden State Warriors: Health, Health, Health
Stephen Curry suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his first game back from nursing an ankle injury that will sideline him through at least the first round of the playoffs. And head coach Steve Kerr doesn't seem too concerned about it.
"Regular season or playoffs," he said, per the Bay Area News Group's Melissa Rohlin, "we can beat anybody in the league without Steph."
Good point. Probably. Maybe. But what about beating a first-round opponent without Curry and another All-Star? Or two?
Golden State's daily injury reports have recently read like a nightmare scenario come to life. Kevin Durant is recovering from a rib cartilage fracture. Draymond Green is on the shelf with a hip injury and illness; he's now unlocked the "variety of issues" truancy designation.
Klay Thompson is expected to return from a broken right thumb at the beginning of April, but any sort of fracture on the shooting hand can hardly be considered an afterthought. Omri Casspi is coping with a sprained ankle. On the semi-bright side: Patrick McCaw is back from his broken wrist. Woo-hoo!
Maybe everyone not named Wardell will be ready to rock by the start of the postseason. That doesn't entirely immunize the Warriors against concern. Their first-round opponent won't be a pushover, and as Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey pointed out, they're a net minus when playing without Curry against the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Potentially telltale still: Since Jan. 1, the Warriors are getting outscored by nearly two points per 100 possessions when Durant, Green and Thompson wage battle minus their megastar floor general.
That tide can easily turn. These three were a plus-6.5 per 100 possessions on their own beforehand, and Golden State's playoff switch is real. Plus, this isn't 2016. The Warriors have a workaround if Curry is less than himself upon return. His name is Kevin Durant.
Except, what happens if he's not right? What if Thompson's form and accuracy is impacted ever so slightly by his thumb? What if Green's hip problems flare up later on, or if his annual postseason shooting uptick breaks tradition?
The Warriors already face a genuine threat to their throne at full strength. The Rockets have earned that much respect. Facing off against them in the Western Conference Finals with their own nucleus compromised in any capacity opens the door for disaster. And that's assuming a could-be shorthanded or could-be underperforming Warriors squad doesn't get thrown by the surging Blazers, Kawhi-clad Spurs or forever-feisty Jazz before then.
Toronto Raptors: Postseason Rotation
Penalizing the Toronto Raptors for their league-lording depth is hair-splitting to the trillionth power. That doesn't make it an invalid concern.
Rotations usually shrink during the playoffs. Coaches want their best players on the floor as much as possible when the stakes are so high. And without the promise of a tomorrow, distributing minutes like a jacked-up Tom Thibodeau becomes acceptable, if recommended, practice.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is, it seems, bent on deviating from that trope.
"I'm still looking for the manual that says you have to play eight guys," he told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "Until someone shows me otherwise, we gotta be who we are."
Pleasantly deep, and proud of it. That's who the Raptors are.
Their second-most used lineup is an all-bench mob consisting of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. And it happens to be eviscerating opponents by 21.3 points per 100 possessions—second-best in the league among 57 lineups to log at least 175 minutes.
Will that dominance hold when they're going up against starter-heavy packages of fellow playoff teams? What happens if it doesn't? Where should Casey pare down?
VanVleet is out of the question. He's become a crunch-time staple; he's fourth on the team in clutch minutes played. Wright might be more expendable, but he offers additional switchability on defense, at 6'5", and Casey likes to use him beside both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The latter holds true for VanVleet as well.
Siakam is too integral to maintaining the Raptors' frontcourt mobility. He'll be particularly useful if and when they square off against Cleveland's Kevin-Love-at-the-5 combinations. Poeltl is Toronto's best offensive rebounder and, arguably, diver out of the pick-and-roll. Cutting Miles' minutes is fairly risky for an offense that places 17th in three-point success rate.
Matchups will dictate a lot of what the Raptors do. Playoff series are days-long chess matches between coaches, and Casey has exhibited a nice feel for rolling with the punches all year. But the postseason is a different beast, and a likely Eastern Conference Finals date with Cleveland will throw his newly established inclinations for a whirl or 20.
Most tend to worry the Raptors will revert back to their old, boggy habits—that DeRozan and Lowry will ebb into slumps as the offense strays from spacing, movement and fluid reads. Really, though, their biggest roadblock lies with the possible marginalization of their greatest weapon: an enviously deep rotation that has come to typify everything they are.
Houston Rockets: Sustainability of Super-Small Lineups
Ringing the "Iso-heavy offenses can be vulnerable in the playoffs" bell is tempting here. The Cavaliers sleepwalk their way to the NBA Finals every year milking one-on-one artistry, but the Rockets don't have the luxury of playing in the Eastern Conference.
They, unlike Cleveland, are also iso-ing their way to unprecedented production. They average a league-best 1.13 points per possession in these situations. The Cavaliers led the way in 2016-17 at 0.99 points per iso. The Warriors paced the NBA at 0.93 in 2015-16.
Neither one of those squads turned to one-on-one sets nearly as often as this year's Rockets. James Harden and Chris Paul rank as the two most efficient island scorers in the game (minimum 75 possessions). A sense exists that this could, to some degree, fall apart in the playoff crucible. But it shouldn't, at least not for these specific purposes.
"The proof is in their standing," SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote. "The Rockets' isolation offense alone—without the easy looks that come from fast breaks and put-backs—would rank as the most efficient offense in the league this season. The blunt simplicity of the format is overwhelmed by the force of talent involved."
In the event they do hit a postseason snag, the Rockets get to use unguardable pick-and-roll combos and transition weapons as a crutch. For a team with so few weaknesses, it makes more sense to harp on something a little less battle-tested—such as Houston's wing-loaded lineups.
Though the Rockets have generally destroyed opponents when trotting out "Death Squad" knockoffs, they don't turn to them often. Their most used arrangement that doesn't feature a traditional big is the Harden-Eric Gordon-Trevor Ariza-Luc Mbah a Moute-PJ Tucker grouping. This gaggle owns a net rating north of 46—which is unfathomably high—but has played out just 58 possessions all year, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Meanwhile, the vaunted quintet of Harden, Paul, Ariza, Mbah a Moute and Tucker has run through 22 possessions. Protracted absences from Paul and Mbah a Moute haven't helped the cause, and Houston could merely be saving this unit for postseason crunch time. Losing sleep over this is pointless. Mentioning it qualifies as nitpicking alone.
And hey! That's why we're here: to quibble over the micro. And given the Rockets' dearth of tangible defects, the relative scarcity with which they've deployed their Warriors-proof rotations is worth carping over.