1 Reason Not to Trust Every NBA Title Contender

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2020

1 Reason Not to Trust Every NBA Title Contender

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    The NBA's Florida reboot is mere weeks away. And as July 30, when the regular season is set to resume, approaches, title prognostications are starting to float around.

    FiveThirtyEight's projection system is up and running again, with eight teams sporting a 1 percent or better shot to win the title:

    • Los Angeles Lakers (31 percent)
    • Los Angeles Clippers (23 percent)
    • Milwaukee Bucks (15 percent)
    • Philadelphia 76ers (14 percent)
    • Houston Rockets (7 percent)
    • Boston Celtics (7 percent)
    • Toronto Raptors (2 percent)
    • Denver Nuggets (1 percent)

    We'll save analysis on whether to believe those projections for another day. For now, let's focus on reasons to distrust each of those eight contenders.

    What's the fatal flaw that could doom each of the above?

Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics and Rockets

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    Denver Nuggets: Inexperience

    Paul Millsap is the obvious exception, but most members of this Nuggets core are relatively inexperienced as postseason performers.

    Nikola Jokic was brilliant in the 2019 postseason, but the team was eliminated in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers. And moving from upstart to full-fledged contender typically takes more than one year of battle scars in the NBA.

    It wouldn't be surprising if Denver advance a bit further than it did last postseason, but it may have a tough time matching playoff nerves with Western Conference powerhouses such as the Lakers or Clippers.


    Toronto Raptors: Lack of Superstar Power

    Despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard in the offseason and a seemingly season-long wave of injuries, the defending champion Raptors have the same record (46-18) through 64 games as they did last season.

    Still, under the bright lights and heightened intensity of the playoffs, having the best player in a series can go a long way toward winning it. And with Kawhi, Toronto always had an argument on that front.

    This is still one of the deepest and best-coached teams in the NBA, but one-on-one battles against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler or other Eastern Conference stars could prove difficult.


    Boston Celtics: Shot Selection

    Boston seems tailor-made for a modern playoff run. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum can take over individual possessions. Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis can switch all over the floor. And Marcus Smart remains an effort-and-defensive spark plug off the bench.

    A little too much reliance on mid-range jumpers could be a problem, though. The Celtics take 29.3 percent of their shots from the mid-range (16th in the league) and hit 40.8 percent of them (13th).

    Part of Tatum's star leap this season was cutting out a big chunk of his mid-range attempts and upping his three-point volume. Playoff defenders may be looking to chase him and other Celtics off the line and into less efficient jumpers.


    Houston Rockets: Playoff Demons

    Statistically speaking, James Harden is a much better playoff performer than his detractors would like you to believe. Over the course of his postseason career, his teams are plus-3.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-8.9 with him off.

    Having said that, he has had some moments when he seemingly ran out of gas. In his final playoff game in 2017, he scored 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting against the San Antonio Spurs. In 2015, he exited the postseason with a 14-point, 12-turnover effort against the Golden State Warriors.

    Perhaps time off and a remade physique will make such letdowns less likely, at least for Harden.

    His teammate, Russell Westbrook, has a habit of going out in much different style. In his last four postseason-ending losses (three of which came in the first round), Russ has averaged 35.3 points on a whopping 32.3 field-goal attempts and 13.5 three-point attempts. His teams were outscored by seven points with him on the floor in those games.

    If Harden disappears in a big moment and Westbrook looks to take over, the latter could very well shoot the Rockets out of the game.

Philadelphia 76ers: Spacing

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    Among the 22 teams in the ESPN Wide World of Sports bubble, Philadelphia ranks 19th in threes made per 100 possessions and 14th in three-point percentage.

    Those numbers may not seem dire, but for a team built around Ben Simmons (2-of-6 from three this season) and Joel Embiid (a below-average 34.8 percent from deep), they might just be.

    If you're going to play two stars who do the bulk of their damage inside the three-point line, spacing from every other player on the floor is critical. And for much of this season, Philadelphia hasn't gotten that.

    In the 908 possessions the Sixers have played with Simmons, Embiid and Al Horford on the floor, they've scored 99.3 points per 100 possessions (third percentile) with a 50.2 effective field-goal percentage (14th percentile).

    Compare that to the offensive rating of Simmons, Embiid and JJ Redick over the course of 2017-18 and 2018-19. When those three shared the floor, Philadelphia scored 117.0 points per 100 possessions.

    On what is perhaps a bright side for 76ers fans, there was some speculation during the hiatus that Shake Milton (45.3 percent from three this season) might start in place of Horford. That could loosen things up a bit. And Horford would seemingly be able to feast against second units.

    Against top-tier defenses such as those of Boston and Milwaukee, though, that may not be enough.

Milwaukee Bucks: Playoff Offense

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    Just about every number on Milwaukee in 2019-20 suggests it's a juggernaut. Its relative defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions minus the league average) is the third-best in league history, trailing only the Bill Russell-led Celtics of 1963-64 and 1964-65.

    The Bucks have been good offensively too, ranking fourth in points scored per 100 possessions this season and third since the start of 2017-18 in points per game. But the 114.1 they've averaged in those regular-season games is pie in the sky compared to what they've done in each of the last three series that closed out their campaigns.

    In 2017, they put up 93.2 points per game in a first-round loss to Toronto. They followed that up with a 101.9 average against the Celtics in 2018. And last season, Toronto held them to 106.7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    When the game slows down, Milwaukee's spread offense around Giannis Antetokounmpo loses much of its pop. Avoiding that slowdown may be the key.

    It'd be nice if Antetokounmpo developed some kind of pull-up game to use as a counter in high-pressure situations against set defenses, but it may be too late to expect that in 2019-20.

    Instead, the Bucks may need to just make a conscious effort to run at every opportunity that presents itself. Even after made baskets, take the ball out and kick it ahead as quickly as possible.

    The opposition will likely do whatever it can to slow things down. Play physical defense, foul, commit more defenders to transition defense than offensive rebounding. But that'll make it all the more important for Milwaukee to pounce on the transition opportunities when they arise.

    Giannis, like a young LeBron, is at his best when attacking on the run a discombobulated defense. He's certainly gotten better at getting all the way to the rim against half-court defenses, but those will be much more locked in during the postseason.

    The Bucks need to make sure they introduce a little chaos into these games.

Los Angeles Clippers: Interior Offense

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    It almost feels nitpicky to discuss a flaw with the Clippers. They may have a worse record than the Lakers, but warning signs are harder to come by when scanning their numbers.

    When Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley are on the floor, L.A. is plus-11.9 points per 100 possessions (97th percentile).

    And if the hiatus provided enough time for the star wings to get healthy and rested for the postseason, the Leonard-George duo could be terrifying.

    Kawhi is coming off a playoff run for the ages. George finished third in MVP voting in 2018-19. And the supporting cast, which includes Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson, Landry Shamet and more, is deep.

    If there is a cause for concern (beyond lingering health issues for the stars), it may be interior offense.

    Many may think of Leonard and George as slashers who get plenty of buckets inside, but the Clippers are 17th in the league in field-goal percentage at the rim and 18th in frequency from that range.

    Harrell is certainly a weapon on rolls to the rim. And perhaps the star wings have been saving their bodies for postseason drives to the rim. If not, too much reliance on jumpers could hold the Clippers back.

    In the postseason, an ability to counter defenses committed to the three-point line is important. History (as recent as last postseason) suggests, at the very least, Kawhi will figure that out.

Los Angeles Lakers: Non-LeBron Minutes

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    Over the course of his career, LeBron James' teams are plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-4.1 with him off.

    That's a massive swing, and he hasn't had a single season in the red in that particular number. The 2019-20 campaign is no exception.

    Even with a No. 2 as talented as Anthony Davis, the Lakers fall apart when LeBron leaves the floor. In fact, they're minus-0.9 points per 100 possessions when AD plays without the future Hall of Famer. And believe it or not, the defense is the biggest culprit for that slide.

    With that configuration, L.A. allows 113.8 points per 100 possessions (26th percentile), compared to 103.6 (95th percentile) when both stars are in.

    LeBron has been locked in this season, playing a more committed brand of defense, rotating and pushing the issue in his one-on-one assignments more than he has in recent years. Without his defense on the wings, the Lakers have struggled to contain on the perimeter.

    And their roster changes during the quarantine probably aren't going to help on that front. Avery Bradley, a solid backcourt defender, opted out of the reboot. And the defense of the two guards L.A. signed, Dion Waiters and JR Smith, has typically only generated attention because of its ineffectiveness.

    LeBron may be able to play the majority of his team's playoff minutes, but the 8-10 per game he sits will be fraught with peril.

    Davis, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and others will need to be laser-focused during those spurts.