The Biggest Concern for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2020

The Biggest Concern for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

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    Even the top NBA playoff seeds have their problems. But the farther you trace down the standings, the more issues arise.

    Get far enough down toward No. 8 in each conference, and the real worry becomes the seemingly unbeatable top seed likely to occupy the other side of a first-round matchup. You can only nitpick, say, the Memphis Grizzlies' suspect free-throw attempt rate, ignoring the fact that they'll most likely face LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers for so long before it seems ridiculous.

    We'll chronicle statistical shortcomings, pick out weak links and even include a couple of psychological hurdles that could trip up lower-seeded squads.

    As a general rule, it's cheating to use "health" as a concern for any team. Every postseason entrant needs its best players on the floor. But where there are worrisome trends or specific issues of wear and tear or conditioning (hi there, Joel Embiid!), they're fair game.

    Let's spot some potential playoff trouble.


    Houston Rockets GM and co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Daryl Morey, returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss hate watching games, NBA league innovations and the mid-season tournament, small ball, Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, and the coronavirus.

Milwaukee Bucks: Getting 'Solved' Again

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    The Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to win around 70 games and threaten a new NBA record for average margin of victory. Five of the six teams ranked immediately below them in all-time average MOV went on to win rings, so you could peg The Weight of History as the Bucks' biggest worry.

    If they don't close the deal on this phenomenal season with a ring, they'll be viewed as disappointments. Or worse, chokers.

    That's a hazy concern, though. The failure of their half-court offense is more concrete.

    In last year's conference finals, the Toronto Raptors slowed Milwaukee's transition attack, packed the paint and exposed a half-court offense that couldn't score efficiently. After the Raps "solved" Milwaukee, there was no recovering. Toronto won four straight to eliminate the Bucks and reach the Finals.

    Milwaukee should be encouraged that the defense it couldn't crack in 2019 is missing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Raptors still rank second in defensive efficiency this year, but they don't have the same elite stopping power. Nor do they have Leonard to punctuate those shutdowns with indefensible pull-up jumpers on the other end.

    The road to the Finals is easier this year.

    Milwaukee's second-ranked half-court scoring efficiency this season isn't necessarily a sign the team has fixed its flaws. The Bucks were third in that stat last season.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's improved three-point shot should help, as should the general improvement of Milwaukee's role players. Khris Middleton has never been better, and Eric Bledsoe can't turn in another playoff no-show, can he?

    Plus, if the Bucks suffer scoring droughts again, they can lean on a defense that's even better than last year's. More stops should mean more chances to get out on the break. If someone succeeds in limiting those transition chances again, though, prepare for some "here we go again" anxiety.

Toronto Raptors: They're Maxed Out

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    The Toronto Raptors are one of the great stories of the season: a title-defending team on pace to win exactly one fewer game than it did a year ago, despite the absence of a top-five superstar (Kawhi Leonard) and a critically important starter (Danny Green).

    There's still plenty of talent left over.

    Kyle Lowry is a brilliant tone-setting, edge-seeking menace, a leader who makes massive plays—both conspicuous and subtle—on both ends. Pascal Siakam is an All-Star. OG Anunoby is on the short list of dudes wings do not want to see checking them.

    The Raptors own an elite defense built on collective effort, aggression and the gimmicky string-pulling of master puppeteer Nick Nurse. They compete with an intensity that defies what we've come to expect from most championship-defending coasters. They have to. Leonard is gone, and their margin for error left with him.

    If you value the old-school traits of togetherness, trust, effort and selflessness, it's painful to say a single negative thing about this Raptors team. They're a throwback in all the best ways, upgraded with the shrewd, math-based tactics of the present.

    The problem: the Raptors may not have a higher gear.

    Toronto was 17-5 in games Leonard missed last season, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise that the Raptors own the second-best record in the East and top-five net rating overall. Look closer, though, and you can see signs of potential playoff trouble.

    The Raps are 34-4 against teams with losing records but just 10-14 against opponents over .500.

    Can they elevate their play against top playoff competition without Leonard taking over for key stretches? Right now, the numbers suggest the answer is "no."

Boston Celtics: Depth

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    Up until Jayson Tatum's midseason breakthrough, the Boston Celtics' greatest weakness was their lack of a transcendent star. Even if the third-year wing has spent the last several weeks playing like one of those, it may still be fair to question whether he can sustain that level of play in the postseason hothouse.

    But let's assume Tatum keeps this up.

    In that hypothetical, Boston's main worry should be its short bench.

    Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are one of the league's better top sixes. Enes Kanter's defensive struggles have been well documented, but he has his uses. He feasts on second units that lack an interior force to keep him off the offensive glass.

    Beyond that group, the Celtics are thin. Brad Wanamaker, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye are fine soaking up low-leverage minutes during the year, but they're unproven and/or inexperienced and shouldn't be counted on from April to June.

    Like every coach in the playoffs, Brad Stevens will shrink his rotation and lean harder on his best players. But with Walker's balky knee and Hayward prone to the occasional dip in confidence, there may be times when a reserve has to contribute meaningful minutes.

    That may not go so well.

Miami Heat: Clutch Scoring

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    Among players with at least 50 clutch attempts this year, Jimmy Butler's effective field-goal percentage of 33.0 percent is dead last. It helps that he's an elite foul-drawer, but the Heat can't necessarily rely on free throws to save them down the stretch of every close game.

    Butler was much better in the clutch last year, which could mean this season's struggles are unreliable. But key changes in Butler's year-over-year scoring profile indicate he's much less of a threat than he used to be. Defenses don't honor guys making just a quarter of their threes, which makes scoring from everywhere else harder.

    Miami has a top-10 offense and a middling defense. It always plays hard, and it has had success against several of the East's best teams. But to exceed a postseason ceiling that feels somewhere around the conference semifinals, the Heat will probably need to win a handful of close games. Though they're 15-12 in the clutch this year, that dreadful net rating mentioned earlier says they've been lucky.

    That luck may run out against playoff-caliber defenses that don't get suckered into fouling.

    When Miami needs a late-game bucket, Butler will get the ball. He just hasn't put it in the basket often enough this year.

Indiana Pacers: No Freebies

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    A team doesn't have to be great at everything to succeed in the postseason, but any time a playoff-bound squad ranks near the very bottom of a key statistic, there's a good chance its eventual elimination will have some tie to that glaring weakness.

    The Indiana Pacers rank 29th in free-throw rate, ahead of only the lottery-bound Cleveland Cavaliers on the season.

    High-efficiency offense is harder to come by in the playoffs, and a team that doesn't pump up its scoring with enough foul shots has to shoot an unreasonably high percentage from the field to survive. While there's a balance to be struck in this regard—James Harden, for example, has struggled in the playoffs before because he's too reliant on getting to the line—Indiana's scoring profile is too off-kilter to breed confidence.

    On the year, the Pacers are right in the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency. But that's with a top-10 effective field-goal percentage propped up by uncommonly accurate shooting from tough, ill-favored ranges. They lead the league in accuracy from the non-restricted paint and rank sixth in mid-range field-goal percentage.

    That's no way to live against the keyed-in defenses of the postseason.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid's Health and Conditioning

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    Some stats are unforgettable.

    While the Philadelphia 76ers' plus-minus splits with Joel Embiid on and off the floor in last year's conference semifinals against Toronto don't quite rise to the indelible level of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, you can bet Philly fans know which numbers determined the Sixers' fate in 2019.

    During Embiid's 237 minutes on the court in that seven-game loss, the Sixers were plus-90. In the 99 minutes he sat, they were minus-119.

    Focus on the relatively minor flaws of this year's Sixers if you want. Yes, they still need a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Yes, they could use more perimeter shooting. And yes, it'd be nice if Al Horford didn't look washed most nights, or if Simmons and Embiid had better chemistry, or if Simmons' back injury weren't currently clouding his future.

    But absolutely nothing matters more to Philadelphia's chances than Embiid's fitness.

    The superstar big man, currently out with a sore shoulder, is almost certainly conditioning less than he was prior to his injury. He also had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his finger earlier in the year, which limited his workouts. Alarm bells should be sounding.

    It's possible Embiid, recognizing the need to be in peak shape, works like never before to reach the playoffs ready to rock for 35-40 minutes per game. He dominated while lumbering around for 33.9 in that fateful Toronto series.

    But if Embiid can't get himself to a new level of fitness, or if he's hobbled for any reason in this year's playoff trip, the Sixers are cooked. Possibly as early as the first round.

    That'd be a massive shame, as it still seems like a fully healthy Philly squad could pose the biggest challenge to the dominant Bucks.

Brooklyn Nets: Turnovers

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    The Brooklyn Nets are neck and neck with the Jazz for the title of "most careless playoff-bound team."

    Not every giveaway has been as cringe-inducing as the one Spencer Dinwiddie flung into the stands against Miami on Feb. 29. That gaffe prevented Brooklyn from even attempting a game-tying trey in the waning seconds.

    But ball security has been an issue in Brooklyn all year, and the team's errors only exacerbate the issues created by its sputtering offense.

    When you rank in the bottom five in three-point accuracy and are just barely better than that at the rim, you can't also waste possessions with turnovers.

    Of course, Brooklyn's specific frailties won't matter if things continue the way they're going and the Nets wind up finishing eighth in the East. That'll mean a date with the Bucks.

    If that's what comes to pass, the Nets' biggest playoff concern will be getting the tire tread marks out of their jerseys after Milwaukee runs them over four straight times.

Orlando Magic: Offense. Yes, It's That Simple

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    The Orlando Magic have, by far, the worst offense of any projected playoff team. On the year, only the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors have scored less efficiently.

    With a bottom-three true shooting percentage and a bottom-10 free-throw rate, the Magic don't generate enough high-efficiency opportunities. And even when they put themselves in position to capitalize, they whiff. 

    They're 28th in accuracy on wide-open threes.

    Quick question: Does scoring points make it easier to win playoff games?

    It does? OK, great. Glad to have that cleared up.

    The Magic are in trouble.

Los Angeles Lakers: Secondary Playmaking

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    Though his career regular-season average of 38.4 minutes per game is highest among active players, and though his postseason average of 42.1 minutes is 12th in league history, even LeBron James can't spend every second of the postseason on the floor.

    He'll have to rest occasionally, and when he does, the Lakers won't have anyone else to keep the offense humming.

    On the season, L.A.'s offensive rating is worlds better with James on the floor, effectively improving by a margin that matches the difference between a top-three and a bottom-three full-season figure.

    Anthony Davis cures many ills, and it's true he's the best teammate James has ever had. But the Lakers can't necessarily turn to AD as an answer for their playmaking issues. Rajon Rondo hasn't scared a defense from the perimeter at any point in his 14-year career, and smart playoff opponents know how to lay back and dare the notorious assist-hunter to score.

    Alex Caruso isn't going to run a successful show for a few minutes a game against a postseason defense.

    The Lakers' lack of a reserve facilitator has been an issue all year, and they didn't address it at the trade deadline. Perhaps they're confident in their sky-high free-throw rate when Davis is the offense's focal point with James off the floor. The best way to survive James' rest periods might be to dump the ball into AD and count on him drawing fouls, allowing James to recuperate without time ticking off the clock.

    There's no clean answer here, so L.A. may just need to ask even more of its iconic superstar. In light of James' long history of superhuman playoff workloads, it might not be an unfair request.



Los Angeles Clippers: Lack of Familiarity

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    If the Los Angeles Clippers win a ring, it'll be another massive blow to the significance of the regular season.

    Not that they've had a bad year or mailed it in, but the Clips have mostly treated the first season of the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George era as a warmup. They rest stars liberally, manage loads, shake up the roster with trades and shake it up again with buyout additions—all, seemingly, without much concern for building chemistry or logging the reps most teams prize.

    The idea used to be that the bonds forged and battles fought during the season were vital to surviving the higher stakes of the playoffs. But the Clippers haven't exactly embraced that approach.

    Maybe that's because whenever they've had their full roster, they've been dominant.

    Per The Athletic's Jovan Buha, they're "essentially unstoppable when they're healthy: the team is now 8-0 with its full roster this season and 4-0 with its new core healthy." Wins this past week over the Rockets and Thunder ran those numbers to 10-0 and 6-0, respectively.

    Leonard may be the first guy you'd want on a roster in pursuit of a title, and the supporting pieces are as perfect as you could ask for. The only potential hiccup will arise if they haven't been sufficiently stress tested prior to do-or-die time.

Denver Nuggets: False Progress?

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    Denver played a pair of seven-game series last spring, gaining valuable experience and advancing incrementally after falling short of the 2018 postseason with a loss in its 82nd regular-season game.

    That's generally how you expect a young team to progress, proving itself with small steps until, hopefully, breaking through with a deep playoff run.

    It also helps that Michael Porter Jr. is a rotation factor now. He wasn't healthy enough to make a difference last year, and even if he's not at the level yet where he can swing a series, he might change the result of a game or two if Denver is lucky. Jerami Grant could be a similarly valuable weapon.

    In a lot of ways, the Nuggets seem different this year. In a few others, they're the same. On pace to add just two wins to last year's total of 54, and sporting a net rating lower than they managed in 2018-19, the Nuggets must bank on the intangible value of their limited (which is better than "nonexistent") postseason experience.

    Maybe Jamal Murray won't run scorching-hot or ice-cold, with no moderate temperature in between. Maybe Nikola Jokic won't pass up open threes in clutch moments. Maybe Paul Millsap's reliable toughness and guile will prevent Denver from lapses in intensity, one of which cost it dearly in a Game 6 loss in last year's conference semifinals.

    But we have to see it happen.

    The Nuggets are this year's "prove it" playoff team. So the obvious concern is: they won't.

Houston Rockets: Will Small Ball Work?

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    All of the more specific worries you'd catalogue for the downsized Houston Rockets fold into the general one in the header above.

    Opponents scheming to exploit Russell Westbrook's jumper, defensive rebounding, rim protection and even James Harden suffering another postseason disappointment are really just concerns that sprout from Houston's embrace of centerless lineups.

    The results in the regular season have been stellar. The Rockets are 10-4 since excising conventional bigs from their rotation, and they've beaten the Mavs, Lakers, Jazz and Grizzlies in that span. Even before the lineup tweak, Westbrook was on a scoring tear. The extra space and wider driving lanes by a permanent five-out look have only increased his impact.

    But there's been a cost. For one thing, Houston ranks dead last in rebound percentage since shrinking. That's going to be a problem.

    This is a franchise with a long history of postseason failures. And until Harden reverses the trend of diminished efficiency and decreased scoring volume that has defined his Rockets career to this point, it'll be fair to question his and his team's capacity to dominate the games that matter most.

    It's entirely possible Houston has unlocked something special, that it'll run teams off the floor and force opponents to play on its demanding, downsized terms. But it's so much easier to imagine the Rockets' extreme approach failing against focused game-planning and superior size.

Utah Jazz: Defense

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    Defense? A problem? For the Utah Jazz?

    If you've been following Utah for the last several seasons (but, for some reason, not this one), none of this makes any sense. Anchored by two-time DPOY Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have long been one of the most imposing shutdown operations in the league. They ranked third or better in each of the three seasons prior to this one.

    In past years, scoring concerns followed them into the postseason...and struggles to get buckets pushed them out. Now, the offense is working just fine while that old mainstay, defense, seems broken.

    The downward trend is troubling. 

    The Jazz rank 18th in defensive efficiency since Dec. 1, 20th since Jan. 1 and 27th since Feb. 1.

    No one factor is responsible for this. Some combination of Gobert's penchant for pouting about his offensive role, the Bojan Bogdanovic-for-Derrick Favors tradeoff, trouble making things work with Mike Conley and focus on the wrong s--t have teamed up to flip the Jazz's identity.

    Credit Utah for addressing the scoring woes that limited its playoff success in the past. It's just that sometimes solving one problem creates another.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Luck Running Out

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have the NBA's top clutch net rating, which has helped produce almost weekly instances of nail-biting drama and skin-of-their-teeth wins.

    Success in close-and-late situations can overstate a team's true quality, and while the Thunder, led by the indomitable Chris Paul's heroics, have been one of the season's best success stories, we know clutch performance is unreliable.

    Take last year for example.

    The Los Angeles Clippers were the top clutch outfit by net rating in 2018-19, at plus-17.4 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Clips' clutch net rating is plus-1.8. Does anybody really want to argue that the current version of the Clippers is worse than last year's team, which didn't have Kawhi Leonard or Paul George?

    Of course not. We're clearly dealing with randomness here.

    Clutch play is misleading. It doesn't necessarily say anything about future performance in similar situations, and it can also falsely elevate a team's profile. Those thrilling close-and-late victories stick in our minds, and we build narratives about certain teams knowing how to win in crunch time.

    It's true that Paul gives OKC an experienced decision-maker who has seen every end-of-game defense imaginable. But it'd be a mistake to assume the Thunder will continue coming out on top in tight contests just because they have in the past.

Dallas Mavericks: Clutch Offense and Luka Doncic's Fatigue

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    We've cheated a bit and picked a pair of concerns for the Dallas Mavericks, but they're closely related enough to deserve simultaneous mention.

    One of the qualities that makes Luka Doncic such an impressive young player is his ability to shoulder immense usage. His first two seasons in the NBA are the highest-usage years we've ever seen from a player in his age-20 or younger campaign. That Dallas' offense is currently on pace to be the best in league history says he's worthy of such a massive role.

    Still, just as breakdown concerns shadow James Harden, they also dog Doncic. And when you see the Mavericks' clutch offense producing so much less efficiently than it does overall, it becomes even more reasonable to worry about the toll Doncic's role takes on him.

    Over the course of single games and entire seasons, Doncic tends to wear down.

    Per The Athletic's Tim Cato

    "This happened to Doncic last season—his efficiency falling even as his counting stats and raw numbers rose. ... But there were also visible moments when Doncic looked tired and where the Mavericks pointed to his short offseason as the culprit. During his final season at Real Madrid, similar trends dominated the second half of his year. And despite a better offseason spent working on his conditioning, there have been moments in games lately where Doncic looks exhausted, at least."

    Last Wednesday, Doncic completely controlled the final few possessions of Dallas' offense in an overtime win against the Pelicans. So clearly, he doesn't always struggle to sustain high levels of production as he tires. But there's pretty compelling evidence that a player with as many responsibilities as Doncic has is vulnerable to fatigue.

Memphis Grizzlies: Happy to Be Here Syndrome

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    Realistically, the Memphis Grizzlies' main playoff worry is the near certainty that if they make it, they'll face off against LeBron James and the Lakers. 

    That'll be curtains for Ja Morant and his fellow upstarts.

    But in addition to the immovable object likely obstructing their path, the Grizzlies will also have to contend with their own satisfaction.

    They weren't even supposed to be here.

    Ahead of schedule in their rebuild, the Grizz will hit the playoffs already having exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. It's possible the freedom that status grants will allow them to steal a game, but playing with house money, ultimately, is more likely to dull edges than sharpen them.

                 

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Thursday, March 5.