The Biggest Concern for Every NBA Playoff TeamAugust 18, 2020
The Biggest Concern for Every NBA Playoff Team
During the regular season, NBA teams rarely have enough time to tailor their game plan to specific matchups. They often work on perfecting their own systems rather than targeting their opponents' weaknesses.
But in a seven-game playoff series, teams tend to target weaknesses until their opponent comes up with a counterpunch.
No NBA team is perfect. Each one has at least one major area of concern heading into the playoffs.
Here, we'll explore which ones could develop into a fatal flaw in the coming weeks.
Boston Celtics: Interior Presence
Losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes this past offseason was always going to be an issue for the Boston Celtics. Though they ranked fifth in center net rating this year, Daniel Theis and the rest of Boston's big men have been toyed with in the bubble.
In his second game back from a major leg injury, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic dropped 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists on Boston. Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds against the Celtics two days later.
This isn't a bubble-only concern, though. Back in December, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid erupted for 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a six-point victory.
The Celtics are deservedly favorites in the first round given both their standout performance in Orlando and the Sixers' injury troubles. However, it would behoove them to find a solution down low for later rounds, where skilled big men like Adebayo, Marc Gasol, and Anthony Davis may await.
The deeper Boston ventures into the postseason, the less realistic it will become to expect Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker to score 75-plus points per game.
Brooklyn Nets: Depth
No playoff team is as depleted as the Brooklyn Nets.
Kevin Durant hasn't played all year as he continues to recover from an Achilles tear. Kyrie Irving mustered only 20 games before undergoing shoulder surgery. Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Price all opted out of the season restart after testing positive for COVID-19, and Wilson Chandler likewise opted out.
The shorthanded Nets have surpassed expectations in the bubble, going 5-3 in their seeding games, including wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. (Granted, Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out the second half of that game, while Paul George didn't play at all.)
Still, Caris LeVert averaged 25.0 points, 6.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds across six seeding-game appearances, while unheralded contributors such as Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeremiah Martin, and Donta Hall made the most of their newfound playing time.
However, that feel-good story is likely coming to an end against the defending champion Toronto Raptors. With a slimmed-down Marc Gasol leading the way, Toronto's defense is in peak condition right now, and the Nets don't have the depth to keep this series competitive.
Dallas Mavericks: Crunch-Time Play
The Dallas Mavericks have been a pleasant surprise this season, but they've consistently faltered when the lights got brightest. They rank 23rd in net rating in clutch situations, and Luka Doncic has a putrid 45.0 true shooting percentage in those moments.
However, the Mavericks seem to have partially solved their clutch issues in the bubble. Over their eight games in Orlando, they recorded a 10.8 clutch net rating, while Doncic had a 55.8 true shooting percentage.
Going up against the vaunted Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, Dallas will face one of the greatest possible tests in this regard. With the game on the line, the Clippers can put Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr. or Patrick Beverley on Doncic, so it'll be understandable if he gets flustered.
But if the second-year phenom is able to put his late-game issues to bed against defenders of that caliber, he and the Mavericks will be ready to compete both now and for the foreseeable future.
Denver Nuggets: Defense
Michael Porter Jr.'s emergence as a double-double machine was a long time coming. However, his emergence has coincided with a steep defensive decline from the Denver Nuggets.
No team has had a worse defensive rating in Orlando than the Nuggets, who gave up at least 120 points in six of their eight seeding games. The absence of Gary Harris and Will Barton didn't help matters, but they still have long, intelligent defenders like Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and Jerami Grant.
Porter was routinely benched in part for his defensive shortcomings in the regular season, but he has the Nuggets' second-best individual defensive rating in the bubble. That says more about Denver's lack of resistance on that end than his improvement, though, as he once again was sidelined for the stretch run of the team's first playoff game.
With Porter now in the fold seemingly for good, the Nuggets may have enough offensive firepower to outlast the Utah Jazz in the first round (though Donovan Mitchell's historic Game One performance could indicate otherwise). But if they face the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round and haven't fixed their defensive issues by then, Kawhi Leonard and Co. could knock them out quickly.
Houston Rockets: Rebounding
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey effectively conceded that his team would be among the NBA's worst rebounding clubs when he traded Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks. But he also likely believed that a James Harden-led offense would be able to make up for that deficiency, which has sort of proved true.
Harden was spectacular in the seeding games, averaging 34.1 points, 8.9 assists, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.7 steals per game while recording a 73.0 true shooting percentage and leading Houston to wins over the Mavericks, Bucks and Lakers. If nothing else, The Beard looks ready for the playoffs.
However, rebounding remains a serious issue, in part because of the Rockets' first-round matchup.
In the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston is meeting one of its worst possible opponents. Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker might quickly lose steam fast against Thunder center Steven Adams, who's widely regarded as one of the NBA's toughest and most physical players.
If you thought the Rockets were getting gashed on the boards already, wait until Adams wins just about every single boxout and snags 20 rebounds per game in this series.
Indiana Pacers: Late-Game Scoring
The Indiana Pacers were surprisingly competent pre-hiatus, transcending Victor Oladipo's absence and eventual return to clinch a playoff berth. But they were never considered a serious threat, in part because of a lack of elite shotmakers.
Indiana has three potential endgame options: Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon and bubble standout T.J. Warren. However, all have clear limitations.
Before his injury, Oladipo would have been the answer to this question, but he's struggled to stay efficient since returning, shooting only 39.4 percent from the field. Brogdon, despite ranking in the 63rd percentile in isolation scoring, lacks the handle or burst to effectively create space against elite defenders.
And though Warren got off to a scorching start in Orlando, he slowly came back to earth, scoring 16 and 12 points in two of his final three appearances. Plus, their beef aside, it makes sense for the Heat to counter the 26-year old with Jimmy Butler, one of the NBA's preeminent perimeter defenders and a Warren stopper.
Miami may have its own problems on offense this postseason. But head coach Erik Spoelstra always has his teams ready on defense, and that's troubling for a Pacers team that can't settle on an offensive hierarchy.
Los Angeles Clippers: Chemistry
The Los Angeles Clippers' biggest concern all season long—players shuffling in and out of the lineup—followed them to Orlando.
Montrezl Harrell left the bubble to attend his grandmother's funeral, while Lou Williams left for...well, he probably gave the NBA a good reason. Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet both arrived late to the bubble, too.
Given the Clippers' sheer amount of talent, this is a relatively minor concern. Lineups featuring Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley posted a 14.6 net rating in 537 minutes this year, while lineups featuring George, Leonard, and Marcus Morris Sr. recorded an even gaudier 19.5 net rating in 314 minutes.
However, many of the Clippers' potential postseason opponents were able to use the seeding games to deepen their chemistry. Meanwhile, the Clippers were forced to give minutes to deep bench players like Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder.
Facing the ascendant Dallas Mavericks in the first round, it's possible that head coach Doc Rivers and his team rue their lack of on-court time together when facing a finely tuned, historically efficient offense.
Los Angeles Lakers: Offense
A team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis should never have trouble scoring, but that's been the Los Angeles Lakers' main issue as of late. They made a bubble-worst 30.2 percent of their threes and averaged only 106.9 points per game, above only the Washington Wizards.
If you want a scapegoat, LeBron isn't quite himself yet, averaging only 22.0 points on 44.9 percent shooting, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. It's a testament to the four-time MVP that such a stat line is concerning, but that's the standard he's set for himself.
On the bright side, Kyle Kuzma has been more consistent in Orlando, averaging 15.4 points per game while making 44.4 percent of his threes. That may not be sustainable long term, but at the very least, now is an amazing time to have a hot streak.
The Lakers have been top-heavy all year, and the cracks are showing. If peak LeBron doesn't emerge and Kuzma regresses, Anthony Davis may have to become a superhero to help the Lakers win this year's title.
He may be capable of such a feat, but we won't believe it until he does it.
Miami Heat: Offensive Efficiency
During the regular season, the Miami Heat ranked seventh in offensive rating, as All-Star wing Jimmy Butler helped steer defensive attention away from shooters such as Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro.
But in the playoffs, the Heat's offensive efficiency may start to decline.
While Butler was never a great shooter, he's regressed badly this year. He had the NBA's worst effective field-goal percentage among all players with a usage rate of 24 or higher, and made only 24.4 percent from three.
All-Star big man Bam Adebayo is likewise a non-shooting threat, which puts Miami in dangerous territory. Contenders are now experts at exploiting teams with one non-shooter, let alone a team whose offense revolves around two subpar shooters.
The Heat have six long-range snipers in their rotation, so this may be an overblown issue, just like it was in the regular season. But don't be surprised if a rangy team like the Milwaukee Bucks gums up their offense.
Milwaukee Bucks: Supporting Cast
The Milwaukee Bucks have the NBA's best record, have reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on their roster and boast a transcendent defense.
Why aren't they the overwhelming title favorite? Because they aren't much different from their 2018-19 iteration.
The Bucks also had the league's best record last year, and though they've become even more analytically-friendly this season, all of their main players except Malcolm Brogdon remain. And while that core has been elite in the past two regular seasons, it didn't rise to the occasion in the 2019 playoffs.
When faced with the long-armed defense of the Toronto Raptors, who packed the paint with big men and forced Giannis to rely more on his teammates, players like Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe buckled. The Raptors are still a threat this year, as are similarly modern defenses like those of the Heat and Celtics.
With players like OG Anunoby, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James primed to at least limit Giannis, his supporting cast remains vital. And with the Greek Freak nearing a contract extension, their performance could be the difference between him signing an extension this offseason or keeping his options open ahead of free agency in 2021.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Lack of Big Wings
With Russell Westbrook injured, Chris Paul facing former teammate James Harden and Steven Adams boasting a clear matchup advantage, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in prime position to defeat the Houston Rockets in the first round.
The Rockets don't rely on the big wings that have come to define the modern NBA, making them an easy target for the similarly guard-focused Thunder. However, Oklahoma City's potential later-round opponents make far more use of that player type.
From LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to Giannis Antetokounmpo, each of the NBA's main title threats claims a significant matchup advantage over the Thunder, who can only offer up players like Danilo Gallinari, Darius Bazley or Deonte Burton as potential defenders.
None of those teams can match the trio of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, but given the preeminence of defensive switching and a less generous whistle, guards face an even higher degree of difficulty than their bigger counterparts in postseason play.
Oklahoma City has already overachieved, and a series win over Houston would be a fitting result. But the Thunder likely won't make a deep playoff run without a standout wing.
Orlando Magic: Matchup
We could talk about how toothless the Orlando Magic are offensively right now. We could highlight their mediocre bench. We could note how Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon have been in and out of the lineup recently. We could even discuss how Jonathan Isaac is unavailable after tearing his ACL.
All of those are valid reasons as to why they won't succeed in the postseason, but none of them are their biggest concern.
No, the Magic's biggest concern is that they're facing the Milwaukee Bucks.
Even if the Magic were at full health, they'd be dead in the water. Milwaukee swept the teams' four-game series this year, winning every game by at least nine points, and Isaac played in three of the matchups.
Without him, Orlando has even less of a chance to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks should be able to jog through a first-round sweep just like they did against the Blake Griffin-less Detroit Pistons last year.
Philadelphia 76ers: Injuries
Though the Philadelphia 76ers scuffled through an up-and-down season pre-hiatus, they quietly became a reasonable upset pick as they playoffs approached. If they played the Celtics, it was easy to imagine Joel Embiid feasting on Boston's subpar frontcourt, the rest of Philly's lineup playing near its potential, and the Celtics going home much earlier than anticipated.
That is, until Ben Simmons suffered a likely season-ending knee injury.
Though Philly boasts a frontcourt advantage over Boston with Embiid, the team will sorely miss Simmons' dynamic playmaking and defensive versatility. Without him leading the way on both ends of the floor, the Sixers' ceiling is far lower, and they're a much less telegenic team.
Embiid suffered ankle and wrist injuries during the seeding games, although he suited up for Game 1 of the Sixers-Celtics series on Monday. If he's hampered in any way, the Celtics will likely dispose of the Simmons-less Sixers quickly.
Portland Trail Blazers: Defense
From Damian Lillard's out-of-body scoring surge, Jusuf Nurkic's successful return from injury, Carmelo Anthony's resurgence, CJ McCollum playing through a fractured vertebrae to Gary Trent Jr.'s breakout, there are plenty of reasons to root for the Portland Trail Blazers right now.
However, lost in their thrilling run is that they have been giving up just as many points as they score, which explains why all of their games feel unbearably tense.
The Blazers ranked 20th out of 22 bubble teams in defensive rating during the seeding games. While a difficult schedule is in part to blame, they also gave up 133 points to the shorthanded Nets.
Such defensive deficiencies might spell doom against LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
To pull an upset for the ages, Portland might have to score 150 points per game.
Toronto Raptors: Late-Game Scoring
The reigning champions are rolling right now. They recorded the best defensive rating in Orlando by a wide margin and won seven of eight seeding games, including victories against the Lakers, Heat, Bucks, 76ers, and Nuggets.
However, Toronto's success in the bubble hasn't stemmed from consistent offense.
The Raptors averaged only 110.9 points in their seeding games, placing in the bubble's bottom five, and their two leading shot creators have not been efficient. Pascal Siakam shot only 39.4 percent from the field in seven appearances, while Kyle Lowry made just 40.3 percent of his shots in six games.
The lengthy layoff likely contributed to those struggles, but they portend an inefficient offense in clutch situations. Both Siakam and Lowry shot below 40 percent out of isolation plays this season, and neither is anywhere close to the all-around scorer that Kawhi Leonard was last year.
Toronto's spectacular defense figures to carry it far this postseason. But Raptors fans hoping for a repeat may need to aim a bit lower if the offense doesn't improve.
Utah Jazz: Second Unit
With Bojan Bogdanovic sidelined after undergoing wrist surgery, the Utah Jazz were already perilously thin. Mike Conley's temporary departure from the bubble only exacerbated those concerns.
Beyond Jordan Clarkson, Emmanuel Mudiay, and a declining Ed Davis, Utah's bench is full of players so anonymous, they couldn't even appear on "Who He Play For?"
Tony Bradley will get exposed quickly against modern big men, while Georges Niang, Miye Oni and Rayjon Tucker have hardly any regular-season NBA experience, let alone postseason history.
In the playoffs, bench players normally don't matter as much. But foul trouble is a common occurrence, and Utah may need to go small if All-Star center Rudy Gobert gets played off the court by Denver or a later-round opponent.
In that scenario, the Jazz could be exposed and exploited in a major way.
All statistics via Basketball Reference or NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.