After the free-agency dust settled last summer, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the NBA's three best teams were the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. The Bucks brought back their core minus Malcolm Brogdon. The Lakers landed Anthony Davis via trade, while the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George.
All three are eyeing the Larry O’Brien Trophy and will probably have to face one another during the postseason.
Bleacher Report spoke with three NBA scouts about the strengths and weaknesses of these teams ahead of Thursday's NBA trade deadline.
The Bucks have been the best team this season, and it hasn't been close. They have an impressive 12.4 point differential to lead the NBA. They aren’t just winning; they are dominating.
Scout No. 2 says it's more than just MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo: “They have incredible depth. They really got 11 guys who can play. Say they have an injury at the wing spot, they have depth there. They rotate three bigs.”
When second-leading scorer Khris Middleton missed seven games early in the season with a thigh bruise, the Bucks won each contest by an average of 10.9 points. Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo and Wesley Matthews all picked up the scoring load during that stretch.
Scout No. 3 looks at their offense and says, “It is the simplest [yet] most complicated to defend in the NBA, as you will have five players spread out and playing multiple positions.”
That’s the style head coach Mike Budenholzer brought when he arrived in 2018. The Bucks spread the floor to give Antetokounmpo space to operate. If the defense helps on his drives, he’ll find the shooters. If it doesn't, he’ll be at the rim in two steps. They lead the league in scoring, averaging 120 points per game.
The Bucks offense should not overshadow their stingy defense. They lead the NBA in defensive rating (102.0), points allowed in the paint (38.4) and second-chance points allowed (11.3). They are third in the NBA in blocks at 6.4.
Scout No. 2 says the key to the Bucks defense is size and “great defensive versatility. Eric Bledsoe and George Hill can be very good defensive players and give you something different. Bledsoe, obviously a great steals player, can put pressure on the ball. George Hill gives you the length you need, I’ve seen him guard 1s, 2s, 3s and be really effective. ... Then obviously you have Giannis, who can guard 2, 3, and 4.
As Scout No. 3 says, once you figure out how to stop them, “Then you have to try and score against them with all the length on the floor.” Playing on both ends at a high level has made Milwaukee the NBA's best team.
Every squad has a weakness—even one as dominant as the Bucks.
Scout No. 2 thinks their first flaw comes from Antetokounmpo: “Giannis at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. He’s gonna get fouled. They are going to make him go to the line and knock down free throws. So when it comes to the playoffs, that’s going to be a concern for them.”
During the regular season last year, he hit 72.9 percent of his free throws, but in the playoffs that dropped to 63.7 percent. Those free-throw woes have carried over to this regular season, as he is shooting a career-low 60.6 percent.
Even though Milwaukee has the NBA's best defense, Scout No. 3 thinks the team's style can be compromised. By defending the paint so vigorously, the Bucks leave the three-point line open.
Scout No. 3 says: “They will let you shoot threes, which in the new NBA, if you can hit over the length, they will be in trouble. They tend to camp out on the nail, so open threes will be open if you’re willing to take 45 attempts on them.”
The Bucks have given up 36.3 percent from three during the season, but in their seven losses, teams have hit 43.9 percent from deep. That is the highest percentage a team has allowed in losses. This defensive philosophy hurt them last season in the playoffs when the eventual champion Toronto Raptors exploded from three, shooting 37.4 percent against them.
Even as the NBA's best team, Scout No. 3 says “they need another top player that they can pair with Antetokounmpo and Middleton.”
In particular, the Bucks could use a secondary playmaker behind Antetokounmpo, who leads them in scoring and assists. He has created 658 points off his assists, the next closest player is Bledsoe with 514 total points. This puts a large burden on Antetokounmpo, who leads all players in usage percentage at 36.8.
This could be an issue for the Bucks in the playoffs should Antetokounmpo wear down.
The Lakers' sheer size is awesome. They start games with JaVale McGee (7’0”) at center, Anthony Davis (6’10”) at power forward and LeBron James (6’9”) at small forward. That dwarfs most frontcourts, and they can bring the 6'10" Dwight Howard off the bench.
Scout No. 1 told B/R: “They’re a really good defensive team with their length and size. I think it helps they have so much depth at the 5 position. To me that’s their biggest strength.”
Scout No. 2 said: “Add Anthony Davis with those other 7-footers and LeBron James and Danny Green; the thing that jumps is just how big they are. They are huge and a physically imposing team.”
The Lakers can force drives into shot-blockers without fear of easy buckets. They lead the league in blocks with 7.1 per game, and according to Synergy Sports, they give up the fourth-fewest points per possession around the rim.
In their Christmas Day showdown with the Clippers, it showed. They had 10 blocks in that game—five from McGee.
Of course, none of the scouts missed the other obvious strength: James and Davis' talent. Scout No. 1 said: “On any night LeBron can give you a triple-double, sometimes a 30-point triple-double. Then AD can score huge when you need him to. So it is kind of a one-two punch. You are talking about two top-five guys in the league on the same team.”
The scout added, “LeBron being a natural facilitator and playmaker and AD with his scoring ability and defensive prowess.”
Scout No. 2 remarked how much James has focused on getting Davis going. “LeBron is clearly trying to feed AD and get him going at the expense of his own offense. One of their strengths is the best player on this team is smart to know, 'We got to get this guy [Davis] going.'”
To that point, James has been distributing at a league-high 10.7 assists per night, with 2.7 of them finding Davis. AD receives 23.0 percent of James’ passes, by far the highest on the team.
At this point in the season, the Lakers seem to have everyone’s role defined, and players look like they're buying in. Scout No. 3 said, “Their biggest strength is, right now, everyone is set in their roles.”
Scout No. 2 agrees: “The Lakers have a better pecking order. ... It is pretty obvious who the main guys are and who the rotations are, and those guys know their roles and what types of minutes they're going to get, kind of know the patterns. It helps them a lot.”
With roles established, the Lakers know what is expected of them. There has not been any griping about roles and touches, at least not publicly.
The scouts all observed holes, which begin and end with their depth.
The first concern is the lack of perimeter shooting. In their 11 losses this season, they shot 31.1percent from three versus 37.7 percent in their wins. The Lakers rank 11th in three-point percentage in the league at 36.1percent but make only 30.9 attempts per night.
Scout No. 2: “The thing is with their bench crew. I’m not sure they shoot the ball really well. [Kyle] Kuzma has been really inconsistent. I look at their bench, and their scoring off the bench—it doesn’t feel like it’ll hurt a lot of teams. That’s a big weakness for them. I think they need more shooting.”
Scout No. 3 added: “You can always add shooting if anything. If you can add another piece in the arsenal that would be great.”
The other big issue plaguing the Lakers offense is the lack of a secondary playmaker. Scout No. 1 says: “They need someone that can create scoring opportunities for others more so than relying on everything from LeBron or AD kick-outs. I think another playmaker and more outside shooting would help.”
The Lakers offense stalls nearly every time James subs out. Their offensive rating falls from 114.3 to 103.6 when he is out, which is a 10.7-point drop. The Lakers’ assist numbers go down from 19.6 per game with James on to 7.2 with him off.
Without James on the court, the Lakers struggle to get the ball to Davis. In this example, a poor entry pass leads to a Landry Shamet transition three:
Even on possessions when Davis gets the ball, defenses can collapse since most teams are less concerned about the Lakers' ability to knock down shots.
And their defense has slipped. One big issue scouts have noticed is the lack of size on the wing, as Scout No. 2 noted, “Wing players that can really take you off the dribble and attack closeouts I think can give them problems.”
This presents a huge issue against Leonard and George, dynamic wings the Lakers will likely have to face in the playoffs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Green both drew the assignment against Leonard in their first matchup. Neither could stay with him.
So on Christmas Day, the Lakers tried putting Davis on Kawhi, but that pulled AD away from the rim, which weakened their defense in that area. Leonard in space is just too hard of a cover for Davis.
There is one offensive change the Lakers can make that can highlight their size advantage: They should post up James and Davis more often.
Scout No. 2 suggested: “They should run more post plays for LeBron when he gets down there and gets it. If you double him he’s going to pick you apart. If you don’t, he’s got the strength and moves to make you pay as long as he’s going to the rim. ... One thing I don’t see them doing enough of is posting him. Trust me, as coaches go to game-plan, and you are seeing six or seven post-ups for him, that’s a problem.”
In the Lakers' first game against the Clippers on opening night, James punished any smaller guard or wing who was matched up on him by taking them into the post. On the first possession, Patrick Beverley drew James, who immediately went to the block and drop-stepped to the rim:
On the next possession, James went back to the post. As the Clippers came to double he found an open Green for three:
Davis usually has an advantage in the post as well. In the same game, the Lakers had 33 post-up possessions and scored 41 points on those possessions, for an average of 1.24 points. They went away from that in their Christmas Day game with 11 post-up possessions for just 10 points.
The Lakers have a post advantage on most nights but tend not to take full advantage of it.
The Clippers have one of the league's deepest teams after signing Leonard and trading for George while keeping their bench intact.
Scout No. 1 said: “Their biggest strength is obviously their depth—their versatility they have offensively and defensively—but I think some of it is they definitely have the personnel that makes a lot of sense in the modern NBA.”
They have the ability to play many different ways. Leonard and George are capable of creating their own shot in isolation sets. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell form one of the NBA's best pick-and-roll duos. The Clippers can spread the floor and place shooters on the court, such as Shamet. This type of offensive versatility makes them difficult to defend.
In Scout No. 3’s opinion: “They have the best player in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard. I don’t think there’s anybody who can stop him, and I think he can stop anyone.”
“Then you got Paul George, who last year when he was healthy was a top-three MVP candidate, so that’s your starting point, and then you got the most elite bench in the NBA when it comes to scoring with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.”
Their strength goes beyond offensive firepower—it also brings the heat defensively. Scout No. 1 said: “I think effectively when you look at the three guys they have in Beverley, George and Kawhi, you are talking about three of the best and most versatile defenders in the league. So they should be a great team defensively in terms of their individual personnel.”
Because of injuries and load management, those three have not seen much simultaneous court time. In the 17 games they’ve played together, they have a defensive rating of 104.8. In addition to that trio, head coach Doc Rivers has Maurice Harkless and Rodney McGruder to deploy in different ways to keep their defense shored up.
Depth is a big reason this team is 35-15 despite all the caution.
All of this depth does create a small issue: Who plays?
Scout No. 1 thinks one of their biggest challenges is “trying to get guys to figure out their roles and the coaching staff [to] figure out how to play those guys.”
He went into further detail: “Last year everyone was comfortable in their role, and now you add two highly ball-dominant players to that group. And you know, I think it is ... very difficult to assimilate those kinds of players. ... Now, of course, they are better, but it isn't necessarily getting them to buy in but getting them comfortable to fit in both ways. It just changes everyone’s role when Kawhi is dominating the ball; that’s just not how they played last year.”
Getting comfortable playing with Leonard can become difficult with the load-management plan.
Another issue that Scout No. 1 and Scout No. 3 both pointed out is their lack of size and rim protection. According to Synergy Sports, they give up 1.18 points per possession around the rim. The Clippers start Ivica Zubac at center most nights, but the bulk of those minutes go to Harrell.
Scout No. 1 says of the Clippers defense: “They struggle a little bit because rim protection is an issue. Zubac is OK in my opinion, but I don’t think he’s there yet to be a real defensive force.”
Zubac does not have the reputation of a shot-blocker, so opposing players have no fear of him when driving the lane. Davis took him off the dribble for the and-1 layup on Christmas Day:
Harrell, who is an undersized center at 6’7”, does not provide a much better defensive option. James drives right by him for an easy layup when Harrell matches up with him:
Scout No. 3 believes they have to upgrade center, saying, “They are going to need someone who can keep [Nikola] Jokic, Davis, [Rudy] Gobert, [Steven] Adams, [Clint] Capela, [LaMarcus] Aldridge off the glass.” The Clippers rank 10th in defensive rebound percentage at 73.2 percent.
According to a pair of tweets from Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Clippers have begun to explore the market for a big man and a wing, considering the big men they will have to face in the West:
Both the Lakers and Clippers have been linked to Andre Iguodala and Darren Collison to help plug some of their holes. Because of the Davis trade, the Lakers don't have many assets, so it will depend on how much a team values Kuzma. The Clippers have a few more trade assets in their cupboard—most importantly their 2020 first-round draft pick. The Bucks own the Indiana Pacers' 2020 first-rounder, and Ersan Ilyasova’s contract could attract interest.
Even if no one finds a trade, expect all three teams to be active on the buyout market—depending on who becomes available.
The Bucks won the season series against the Clippers and have a 1-0 lead on the Lakers. The Clippers hold a 2-0 series lead against the Lakers with two more battles to come. It seems like both L.A. teams are destined to meet in the conference finals, and then the winner could meet the Bucks in the NBA Finals.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on twitter @MoDakhil_NBA