The 1 Thing Holding Back Every NBA Contender
There is no such thing as a perfect NBA contender.
That feels as true in 2018-19 as it's ever been, with the on-paper juggernaut Golden State Warriors sagging well behind their normal pace and the Houston Rockets, last year's leader in wins, occupying the 13th spot in the Western Conference standings.
Every club has at least one obstacle capable of denying its championship hopes, and we've identified the biggest hurdle facing the latest crop of contenders.
But before we get started, it's important to find just whom these contenders are. For simplicity's sake, we'll lean on the oddsmakers and only examine clubs with better than +4500 odds of capturing the 2019 title.
Denver Nuggets: Injury Woes
Championship Odds: +4500
The Denver Nuggets look terrifying.
Offensive specialists just last season, the Nuggets are suddenly a two-way power. They own the Association's eighth-best offense and fourth-best defense. They're also making a habit of handling top teams; they already own victories over the Warriors, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder (also twice).
The catch is we've yet to really see this squad.
Will Barton hurt his hip in the second game of the season and hasn't played since. Fellow starters Gary Harris (hip) and Paul Millsap (broken toe) are facing their own lengthy absences. The Denver debuts of Michael Porter Jr. (back), Isaiah Thomas (hip) and Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) remain indefinitely delayed.
"I think once we get healthy, we'll be contenders," Jamal Murray told Dime Magazine's Jordan Zirm. "The sky's the limit."
Eventually, the Nuggets will have greater concerns than health.
While dominant now, this defense was dreadful in 2017-18 (23rd), so maybe regression will strike at the least opportune time. Their egalitarian approach helps cover the lack of a tier-one scorer—no one averages even 18 points per game—but that might lead to some wonky moments in crunch time.
Still, we need to catch this club at (or at least near) full-strength to get a clear read on everything it has and what it's still missing.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shooting
Championship Odds: +2100
Conventional wisdom says NBA clubs can't compete in 2018-19 without a reliable perimeter attack. The Association's three-point revolution isn't going away, and point totals can only climb so high without shots finding their mark.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have found winning ways to combat their errant shooting. The Russell Westbrook-Paul George tandem is proving incredibly potent, and when coupled with the club's defensive rise (from ninth in efficiency last season to first), it has given this group a relatively successful formula.
But the Thunder's accuracy issues are real—and they're significant. This team sits dead last in three-point percentage (32.1) and 24th in long-range makes (10.0 per contest). This issue isn't restricted to beyond the arc, either, as OKC ranks a middling 19th in field-goal percentage (45.3) and a troubling 29th at the stripe (70.3 free-throw percentage).
If an internal solution exists, it isn't obvious. George (37.7) and Jerami Grant (37.1) are the only players clearing the league's average conversion rate of 35.1 percent. Finding more minutes for Alex Abrines theoretically helps, although not while he's shooting just 30.5 percent. But given his 38.0 percent mark over the past two seasons, there's at least reason to hope he can be a functional floor-spacer.
Either the Thunder will continue playing with a slim margin for error, or this potentially fatal flaw must be addressed through the trade market. Courtney Lee (career 38.9 percent from three), Wayne Ellington (38.0) and Vince Carter (37.3) would all be logical targets for OKC.
Milwaukee Bucks: Three-Point Defense
Championship Odds: +1900
It's funny to think of the three-ball as a detriment to the Milwaukee Bucks when their embrace of it has catapulted them up the offensive rankings.
With head coach Mike Budenholzer calling the shots, Milwaukee has gone from averaging 8.8 triples (27th) to 14.1 per night (first). Not coincidentally, the team has soared from 10th in offensive efficiency all the way to second.
The Bucks can, will and should continue to let it fly from distance. They just can't keep allowing their opponents to do the same.
No one allows more three-point attempts (35.9 per game) and only Atlanta surrenders more makes (12.8). A lot of these aren't contested looks, either. The Bucks surrender the eighth-most open three-point looks (four-to-six feet of space) and second-most wide-open triples (six-plus feet).
The good news is this hasn't sabotaged their defense, which sits a solid fifth in efficiency. The better news is this might be something Budenholzer and his staff can solve.
"Milwaukee boasts a cast of ball hawks," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote. "They also have Giannis Antetokounmpo, wrecking stuff everywhere. They are defaulting too early, and too eagerly, into helping from shooters one pass away."
The sooner the Bucks get this straightened out, the scarier they'll become.
Los Angeles Lakers: Three-and-D Shortage
Championship Odds: +1600
Credit the Los Angeles Lakers for appearing better than expected during LeBron James' debut season in Hollywood.
Despite seemingly neglecting the long-range game in free agency, the Lakers have been competent on the perimeter—16th in makes (10.8 per game) and accuracy (35.0 percent). Sure, those aren't stellar marks, but this isn't the group of bricklayers some expected to see.
Despite playing plenty of youngsters and first-year Lakers, this group is already just about championship-ready on defense. Most banner-raisers are top-10 stoppers, and L.A. sits 11th in defensive efficiency.
So, what's the problem? For starters, this team needs more shooters. Of its five players who attempt at least three triples per game, only two are converting more than 36 percent (James and Josh Hart).
Going one step further, a lot of the average-to-good shooters they have are minuses at the defensive end. Kyle Kuzma (second-most attempts), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (fourth) and Lance Stephenson (sixth) all have negative ratings in defensive box plus/minus. Same goes for rookies Svi Mykhailiuk and Moritz Wagner, who might be two of the top natural shooters on the team.
The Lakers need to upgrade their three-and-D collection, hence the interest they had in reuniting with Trevor Ariza. While the Washington Wizards beat them to the punch there, the Lakers will need to land an Ariza-type if they hope to make a lengthy playoff push.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Markelle Fultz Fiasco
Championship Odds: +1600
Admittedly, this probably isn't the first concern that comes to mind for Philadelphia 76ers fans. When the team's two best players are struggling to connect, we probably seem foolish for pointing to a second-year player who's yet to hold a permanent rotation spot.
But given the combined talents of Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid, that situation seems most likely to be solved with time. The situation with Markelle Fultz, though, is as strange as it gets and threatens to keep Philly from realizing its full potential.
Theoretically, 2017's top pick could address some of the club's clearest voids. The need for a secondary shot-creator is obvious; Embiid averages the second-most assists with 3.6, and he almost cancels all of them out with 3.3 turnovers. The floor balance is off with a lack of shooters in prominent roles; Butler doesn't take many, Embiid doesn't make many, and Ben Simmons never launches.
The college version of Fultz effectively completes this roster. His 5.9 assists per contest highlighted his abilities as both a lead and supporting ball-handler. Then, you have his 2.1 triples per game at a 41.3 percent clip to maintain proper spacing and keep the scoreboard moving.
Even if his NBA version couldn't meet both challenges, you'd think his trade value would be enough to bring someone who can. We're not even 18 months removed from most evaluators placing Fultz ahead of players like Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Lauri Markkanen.
And yet, Fultz's trade market hardly seems capable of bearing any usable pieces for Philly. The Phoenix Suns—who have one of the worst point guard groups in recent memory—aren't interested, per Arizona Sports 98.7's John Gambadoro. The Detroit Pistons might be, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News, but they have almost nothing that could help the Sixers right now.
Philly's hands are tied. The organization can only hope Fultz's latest diagnosis is the one that finally gets his NBA career on track. If not, this club might be stuck trying to work around some potentially critical deficiencies.
Houston Rockets: Defense
Championship Odds: +1400
The 2018-19 Rockets are a .500 team sitting outside the current playoff picture, still good but no longer great on offense (fifth) and suddenly atrocious on defense (28th).
A ton of factors play into their sluggish start. If injected with truth serum, they might admit to having quiet concerns about Chris Paul potentially beginning his decline, the offense looking listless at times and a lack of reliability among their role players.
But if we're choosing one thing giving this group fits, the answer is obvious.
"We gotta play better defense," Paul told reporters. "Our defense isn't consistent right now, and rebounding has been a big issue for us. Coach has been on us about that, and just gotta be better at it or it's going to be a long season."
The Rockets were elite on the defensive glass last season (fourth in defensive rebounding percentage). Right now, they're disastrous (29th). Given their past success, though, and the fact that they've barely had Nene available, their rebounding woes might not be a season-long struggle.
That said, fixing the defense as a whole almost assuredly requires some type of trade. Any available wing with a pulse should attract Houston at this point.
Boston Celtics: Depth Management
Championship Odds: +950
This sounds like a fake problem, and perhaps time will prove it as such. But the Boston Celtics might have more players than they can effectively use.
Granted, they're figuring this out as they go along, as well as distancing themselves from a 10-10 start with an 8-1 push. But that .500 opening was more grueling than you think. In late November, Irving described the Shamrocks as being "almost at the rock-bottom point where the team is about to blow up," per Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix.
This recent spurt hasn't solved everything, either.
Jaylen Brown, billed as a rising two-way terror just last postseason, has lost his starting spot and had his minutes sliced, calling this "probably...the hardest thing I've had to deal with so far in my career," via ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. Fellow 2018 playoff breakout hero "Scary" Terry Rozier has yet to get himself going and is connecting on a frightening 38.6 percent of his field goals.
Oh, and remember Gordon Hayward? The guy who made the Western Conference All-Star team in 2017? The one who's collecting a team-high $31.2 million salary this season? He's out of the starting lineup, too, and having the second-worst shooting season of his career at 41.6 percent from the field.
Boston's roster is so rich with talent that this group is winning despite the whole being less than the sum of its parts. But that isn't a formula for playoff success. That said, the Celtics don't need to look outside the organization to fix this. The right blend of time and Brad Stevens' coaching genius should be enough to bring this group together.
Toronto Raptors: Complementary Stars
Championship Odds: +700
The Toronto Raptors are seemingly worry-free with the NBA's highest winning percentage (.719) and the distinction of being one of its two teams with top-seven efficiency marks on offense (third) and defense (seventh). They also have a full-fledged MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard and, incredibly, a 7-1 mark in the games they've played without him.
This might be as deep a roster as you'll find in the Association. But in a time when having multiple All-Stars appears to be the primary championship requirement, could the Raptors find themselves coming up short in the game's most critical category?
Kyle Lowry entered this season with a four-year All-Star streak intact, but it might be in jeopardy if he can't reverse his sagging stats. His 18.3 player efficiency rating is the lowest he's had since 2012-13. Same goes for his 14.2 points per night. And while he's distributing better than ever (10 dimes a night), he's also regressing as a shooter (57.0 true shooting percentage, lowest since 2014-15).
Maybe Lowry finds his scoring form or contributes in enough other areas to make another All-Star appearance. Is there any way Toronto would send a third player to the contest? That's hard to imagine. Serge Ibaka is the No. 2 scorer but hardly what one would call an offensive force. Pascal Siakam might be the third-most important player, but he seemingly tops out as a high-level supporting actor.
It feels highly unlikely the Raptors would be able to trade for a third star in-season or even want to. It would decimate their depth and force them to make another big adjustment between now and the playoffs. Chances are, it's something they'll try to address in the future—assuming Leonard sticks around. Their more immediate focus will either be further sharpening their chemistry or searching for modest upgrades.
Golden State Warriors: Question Marks at Center
Championship Odds: -155
Between David West's retirement and the free-agency departures of JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia, the center rotation for the Golden State Warriors was always going to be a question mark. The questions have only grown louder with Damian Jones' torn pectoral, Jordan Bell's slight regression and word that DeMarcus Cousins might still be months away from his Dubs debut.
Kevon Looney might be the sturdiest option so far with career highs nearly across the board. But he's built more like a stretch 4, and he's neither a great scorer nor shot-blocker. Bell, who's another small 5, has struggled with consistency and efficiency. Jonas Jerebko, a part-time 5 in the modern game, helps spread the floor but provides zero defensive resistance at the rim.
The Dubs could look for external help, but they wouldn't find much.
"The most realistic [option] right now would be signing Willie Reed, a 28-year-old NBA veteran who is averaging 22.2 points and 11.8 rebounds for the G League's Salt Lake City Stars," Connor Letourneau wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month.
It's more likely the team just waits this out.
For starters, Looney and Bell are young enough that they should continue developing in their roles. Plus, it's not like them, Reed or any other short-term fill-in would sniff the floor in the Warriors' biggest moments. They have a four-time All-Star waiting in the wings with Cousins, and even he isn't guaranteed to be a part of Golden State's closing group.
But with this team getting healthier and further removed from the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green dust-up, we're back to the point where nitpicking is a must to find faults with the favorites. Looking through that lens, their center rotation could be improved.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.