The 1 Thing Killing Every NBA Team This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2021

The 1 Thing Killing Every NBA Team This Season

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The only commonality shared between every NBA team, regardless of where it sits on the quality spectrum, is imperfection.

    The worst teams often have too many problems to count, and the best always have at least one point of concern that keeps its fans (and coaches) up at night.

    Think of this as a troubleshooting exercise. If you were trying to fix every NBA team, where would you start?What's the obvious weakness holding it back?

    Whether it's a statistical shortcoming, a lack of positional depth or something more tactically based, all 30 teams have an Achilles heel.

Atlanta Hawks: Backup Point Guard

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    There's nothing new about the Atlanta Hawks' offense cratering whenever Trae Young is out of the game.

    Atlanta couldn't score without Young last year, which prompted the offseason acquisitions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo. Those three were supposed to provide varying paths to respectability when Young rested. Bogdanovic made sense alongside the Hawks' high-scoring guard and as a capable second-unit lead ball-handler; Rondo would inject steadiness and experience; and Dunn would ratchet up the defense, giving the Hawks another way to succeed without their best offensive player.

    All three have missed significant time, though, and Atlanta is suffering through the same issues that plagued it a year ago.

    Really, we could just cite injuries as the killer in Atlanta. Danilo Gallinari has barely played, and De'Andre Hunter, a breakout sophomore, has had knee trouble as well. But to keep things specific, we'll go with the Hawks' poor performance in their non-Young minutes.

Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker's Pull-Up Shooting

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    This one is a little more future-focused than most of the weaknesses we'll highlight. But if Kemba Walker's cold pull-up shooting from deep (29.8 percent) persists, we already know how difficult it will be for the Boston Celtics to generate enough offense to truly contend.

    Walker has only been active since Jan. 17, so we're judging a small sample. Still, he's hitting pull-up threes at his lowest clip since 2014-15, denying the Celtics a critical component of their offense.

    When Walker is draining treys as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, it opens the floodgates for Boston's offense. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have more room to work, and an attack that can get stagnant stays in deadly motion as defenses scramble.

    But when Walker isn't posing a threat, everything changes.

    His sore knee turned him into a shadow of himself for stretches last year and clearly limited him in the bubble. When healthy and hitting, Walker is the key to Boston reaching its potential. This reduced version is little more than a defensive liability. That's a big swing.

Brooklyn Nets: Lack of Defensive Force

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Everyone knows the Brooklyn Nets stink at getting stops, but we need to dig a little deeper to keep this interesting.

    Brooklyn, led by offensive stars and lacking the kind of grit and hustle you'd normally get from a deep bench (which it doesn't have), plays with an alarming lack of force on D. It starts with a switch-heavy scheme, in and of itself a nonconfrontational approach—a concession that, no, we will not be fighting through screens.

    The Nets recover the fewest loose balls in the league, which is another indication that they aren't deigning to get dirty. When you can hang 150 points on any given night, collecting floor burns in pursuit of extra possessions probably seems unnecessary.

    Brooklyn is also in the bottom 10 in forcing turnovers and offensive rebounds allowed, two more hints that this roster succeeds through finesse and skill rather than two-way effort.

    Nobody would ever contend it's easy to play against the Nets. But the numbers and the eye test show Brooklyn fails to make life hard on opposing offenses.

Charlotte Hornets: Corner 3s

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Over the last few seasons, several strong defenses allowed a high number of three-point attempts. That seemed counterintuitive, and it sparked discussion about whether clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks, who surrendered deep shots to protect the rim at all costs, were ahead of the curve.

    That trend has reversed a bit this season, with the Bucks and Miami Heat, just to name two high-volume three-point allowers, struggling to stick in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Maybe Milwaukee and its copycats didn't crack the code after all.

    As we continue to work through the relationship between three-pointers allowed and defensive efficiency, one thing has remained clear: Good defenses don't permit looks from the deep corners. Maybe it's possible to get away with opponents firing off loads of above-the-break treys, but the danger of leaving that short corner uncovered is beyond dispute.

    The Charlotte Hornets give up more corner triples than any other team and force the fewest mid-rangers. That's a disastrous combo that could, if sustained, keep an exciting Hornets team out of a playoff spot.

Chicago Bulls: Points Off Turnovers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls defense is in the bottom 10 overall, but their statistical profile on that end wouldn't be nearly as bad if not for the gobs of points they give up when their own offensive possessions go awry.

    Teams feast on Chicago's live-ball giveaways, generating transition opportunities at league-high rates following steals. As a result, the Bulls rank 29th in points allowed off turnovers.

    Chicago's offense is a mid-pack enterprise, though Zach LaVine tends to produce fourth-quarter takeovers once every week or so. If the Bulls had something in the neighborhood of consistent top-10 offensive punch, their failure to get back on D after their own mistakes wouldn't be such a problem. But because they aren't exactly a well-oiled machine when they have the ball, their inability to limit opponents' transition success hurts a little extra.

    This isn't a team with much margin for error.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Offensive Efficiency

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The good news is that the Cleveland Cavaliers will not repeat as the league's worst defense. After finishing second-to-last in points allowed per possession last season, they've become an energetic, handsy bunch. Nobody likes playing against them, and if the Cavs keep it up, it'll be one of the league's better year-over-year improvements in any statistical category.

    Offense is the issue this season.

    Cleveland ranks 30th in scoring efficiency. It turns the ball over a ton, doesn't generate free throws and takes the league's lowest share of its shots from behind the arc. The Cavs attack the rim often, which is a positive, and that shows up in their expected location-based effective field-goal percentage, which indicates they should be scoring at a better clip than they are.

    Credit the Cavs for remaking themselves on defense. Now all they have to do is rehabilitate themselves on the other end.

Dallas Mavericks: Reliance on Luka Doncic

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks have shot it poorly from deep, and their defense ranks among the worst in the league, but neither problem matters as much to their big-picture outlook as their growing reliance on Luka Doncic.

    It's a blessing to have a player capable of carrying the burdens Doncic does, and you could certainly do worse than leaning so heavily on a guy who threatens to post a triple-double more often than not. But Doncic's time of possession has ticked up for the third straight year, and he leads the league in assist percentage—two indications that Dallas depends entirely on him for its offensive success.

    Dallas' clutch scoring lagged well behind its overall rate last season. Though the statistical drop-off isn't as steep this year, the Mavs still have a losing record when games reach close-and-late status.

    The Mavericks either need Kristaps Porzingis to round into form or a reliable secondary playmaker (Jalen Brunson, maybe?) to emerge. Otherwise, their reliance on Doncic will continue to wear him down while also making them too predictable in high-stress moments.

Denver Nuggets: Rim Defense

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Opponents shoot a ridiculous, league-high 70.5 percent at the rim against the Denver Nuggets. That figure is too high to last all season, but it goes a long way to explaining the team's suspect defense to this point.

    If you're looking to poke holes in Nikola Jokic's MVP case, this is where you start. Centers are generally the most important piece of a quality defense, and protecting the rim is their primary responsibility.

    It isn't all the Joker's fault, but opponents shoot better at the rim when he's in the game than when backup Isaiah Hartenstein is manning the middle. Denver's perimeter players have to do a better job of containing drives and shutting down the off-ball cutting game, but there's only so much the Nuggets can do with Jokic as their defensive fulcrum.

    His efficacy on that end has been debated at length in recent years, but it's undeniable that Jokic's lack of mobility makes it hard to use him in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll. When drivers get downhill against him, he isn't quick enough off the floor to meet them at the bucket. Bringing him up to the level of the screen mitigates that issue, but it also pulls a 7'0" player well away from the rim.

    Neither scenario is ideal.

    Whether the Nuggets can sort this out will go a long way to determining if they're serious contenders or something less than that.

Detroit Pistons: Point Guard Play

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    After trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks over the weekend, the Detroit Pistons' woeful production at the point won't get better any time soon.

    Delon Wright, better utilized as a secondary playmaker on the wing, has been the best of a thin and mostly bad bunch in Detroit. His reluctance to shoot from deep off the dribble shrinks the floor for a Pistons offense that needs all the space it can get. Wright has been better (and probably will be better) than rookie Killian Hayes, whose return date from a hip injury remains uncertain.

    Perhaps the clearest indicator of Detroit's weakness at the 1 shows up in its pick-and-roll numbers. The Orlando Magic are the only team getting fewer points per possession from the pick-and-roll ball-handler. When the roll man gets the rock, things turn out better. Unfortunately, the Pistons rarely conclude possessions with the roll man getting the ball.

    One of the surest ways to stick at the bottom of the standings is to play without a lead ball-handler who can either stretch the defense with shooting or pierce it with drives. Detroit lacks a point guard who can do either of those things consistently.

Golden State Warriors: Too Many Fouls

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors started the year with James Wiseman, a rookie center, in the first unit. So we should have known heaps of fouls were in the offing.

    First-year players, particularly ones put in a position of significant defensive importance, get overwhelmed. Wiseman has it all athletically, but he struggled to position himself optimally and fell victim to plenty of veteran tricks. His 5.4 fouls per 36 minutes are the second-most of any player with as many as his 419 minutes this season.

    Veteran role players Kent Bazemore and Kevon Looney also check in among the hack-happiest players on a per-minute basis, and both Kelly Oubre Jr. and Stephen Curry have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar too often.

    In all, the Dubs send opponents to the foul line more frequently than any other team in the league. Golden State has generally defended well, and Curry is playing at an MVP level. But it's hard to compete consistently when the opposition parades to the stripe every night.

Houston Rockets: Offensive Chemistry

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    We should forgive the Houston Rockets for floundering in this new post-James Harden world.

    For years, the franchise generally stood around and watched its MVP candidate produce offense all on his own. Though several of this year's key figures shared the court with Harden for only a few games, it seems like everyone involved is struggling to remember what actual team-oriented offense is supposed to look like.

    Houston's defense is fantastic, and it's still winning the shot-location math game. The Rockets don't shoot two-point jumpers and focus their energy on threes and point-blank looks.

    Though poor conversation rates aren't helping matters, it's more concerning that Houston's assists are low while its turnovers are high. The Rockets are 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio, which gives a statistical underpinning to the visuals showing a frequently disjointed offense lacking flow and chemistry.

    John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Victor Oladipo and Christian Wood (who's currently out with an ankle injury) don't have many reps together since they all joined the team this season. Maybe time is all it'll take to get the Rockets clicking.

Indiana Pacers: Wing Depth

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Justin Holiday, Aaron Holiday and Doug McDermott are fine players in the right role, but they're overextended as the Indiana Pacers' main weapons at the 3 and 4.

    This wasn't part of the plan, of course. T.J. Warren and Victor Oladipo were supposed to man most of the wing minutes, and Caris LeVert was going to slot perfectly into Oladipo's position following the trade that brought him aboard. Unfortunately for Indiana, foot surgery sidelined Warren early in the year, and LeVert had to have a small mass removed from his kidney before he ever played a game with the team.

    Indy has a dominant big-man tandem in Domantas Sabonis, a triple-double threat every night, and Myles Turner, who belongs on the short list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates. With Malcolm Brogdon also playing the best ball of his career, the Pacers have three of the five starting spots performing brilliantly.

    Imagine if Warren and LeVert were rounding out that unit...

Los Angeles Clippers: A Few Too Many Jumpers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    We've mostly moved on from the misguided belief that jump-shooting teams can't win at the highest level, but it's no less jarring to see how reliant the Los Angeles Clippers are on jumpers.

    L.A. is 28th in attempt rate at the rim, and its offense has been propped up by unsustainably accurate three-point shooting. To be fair, if any team could survive on a diet of deep shots and mid-rangers, it'd be one with Kawhi Leonard. But the Clippers' inability to work their way to the bucket leaves them vulnerable on off nights and could be an even bigger issue in the playoffs.

    The Clips are a deep, versatile and dominant team, and they're clearly among the best bets to reach the Western Conference Finals. Their perimeter tendencies ultimately may not matter.

    But if we're picking nits, this is one of the only options.

Los Angeles Lakers: Nothing

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers remain the undisputed title favorites, owners of the best defense in the league and one of only three teams to rank among the top 10 in efficiency on both ends.

    Nothing is killing them.

    If you had to isolate a trouble spot, it'd probably be the Lakers' turnover rate, which is currently in the bottom 10 in the league. But four of the NBA's seven best squads as measured by net rating give the ball up at rates higher than the league average, so it's hard to argue a relatively high turnover rate is fatal.

    Marc Gasol can't really move, Markieff Morris isn't hitting anything and Anthony Davis is still cruising. Those are issues worth monitoring, but you have to be quite the alarmist to believe they're major concerns.

Memphis Grizzlies: Foul-Drawing

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    The Memphis Grizzlies are a "win ugly" team.

    Their 92.2 offensive rating in close-and-late situations is the worst in the league. Remarkably, and in a way that feels appropriate for these descendants of the grit 'n grind Grizz, they still have a 6-5 record in games that reach clutch time because their late-stage defensive performance has been airtight.

    It's never pretty, but Memphis gets the job done.

    That's why it's so surprising that the Grizz don't scrap and claw their way to the foul line more often. They're last in free-throw attempts per game, which helps explain why they rank 21st in offensive efficiency. Maybe when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns and opens up the floor for Ja Morant's drives, it'll trigger an uptick in foul shots as Memphis finds it easier to launch itself at spread-out, off-balance defenses.

    Either that, or the Grizzlies will have to keep winning games on D.

Miami Heat: Turnovers

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat were careless with the ball last year, ranking 20th in giveaway frequency, so it can't come as a total stunner that they have the league's highest turnover rate in 2020-21.

    Still, you'd expect a hard-working, detail-oriented team (that made the Finals last year, by the way) to do a better job taking care of the little things. 

    Inexperience isn't the issue. Goran Dragic (34) and Andre Iguodala (37) have the highest turnover rates on the team among players who've logged at least 400 minutes.

    Call it a Finals hangover, or chalk it up to the downside of running a passing and motion-based egalitarian offense. Whatever the source, the Heat's penchant for coughing up the ball is killing them.

    Miami ranks 11th in effective field-goal percentage, which means it's really hard to stop when it actually holds onto the ball to get a shot up.

Milwaukee Bucks: 3-Point Defense

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Is everything we thought we knew about the Milwaukee Bucks' defensive scheme suddenly wrong?

    The team that fielded the best defensive rating in the league over the last two seasons is suddenly having a hard time sticking in the top 10, and that's forcing a reexamination of the tactics that worked so well in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

    The simplest explanation: Opponent three-point shooting is hard to control. You know, "make or miss league" and all that.

    Milwaukee thrived on D over the last two seasons by walling off the rim and allowing teams to fire away from above the break, often uncontested. It's hard to be sure why—maybe there are more good shooters sprinkled throughout the league, or maybe the Bucks have just been unlucky—but treys are falling against Milwaukee at much higher rates this year.

    Bucks opponents are taking 38.5 percent (down from 39.3 percent last season) of their shots from long range and hitting them at a 39.5 percent clip, way up from the 36.5 percent in 2019-20.

    The "why" remains unclear, but the "how" behind Milwaukee's defensive slippage is clear. Other teams are just cashing in on triples at alarming rates.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Defensive Rebounding

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves have the worst net rating in the league, an achievement that doesn't happen because of any one weakness.

    D'Angelo Russell doesn't defend, Karl-Anthony Towns has missed most of the season, and few teams have less quality at the 3 and 4 spots. Really, it's easier to isolate what is working for the Wolves than it is to run down the long list of what isn't.

    We'll go with defensive rebounding, though, one of several key stats in which Minnesota ranks 30th. Defensive possessions don't end until the ball is secure, and the Wolves aren't doing themselves any favors by allowing opponents to corral 28.8 percent of their own misses.

    Minny is actually respectable in terms of opponent effective field-goal percentage, ranking 15th, which makes permitting so many second-chance looks all the more crippling.

    It's demoralizing to force misses and then have to get right back down in that defensive stance for another possession because you've failed on the glass.

New Orleans Pelicans: JJ Redick's Cold Start

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    JJ Redick is among the greatest shooters to ever live. If you factor in the attention he draws off the ball, he has to be regarded as one of the most dangerous offensive weapons this increasingly space-obsessed league has ever seen.

    But he's 36, and nothing lasts forever.

    It may have been unrealistic to expect Redick, undersized by NBA wing standards and long a target of opposing defenses, to pick up right where he left off last year, when he drained 45.3 percent of his triples and averaged 15.3 points per game. But the New Orleans Pelicans now realize just how much they needed his deadeye shooting and general gravity.

    At 33.7 percent from deep and averaging 8.0 points in only 18.9 minutes per game, Redick is struggling to make a positive difference. His lack of impact is all the more hurtful because the Pelicans give up the most threes in the league.

    If Redick were in good form, he could help offset that with treys of his own. Instead, the Pelicans are allowing nearly four more opponent made threes than they're hitting on the other end.

New York Knicks: Glacial Pace

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Tom Thibodeau probably spends 23 hours a day thinking about defense, 20 minutes on Taj Gibson's work ethic, 20 more minutes on how to make his voice louder—so he can yell at his team to play defense as hard as Gibson—and then, after all that, he gets to pondering the other end of the floor.

    It's hard to argue with his results. Thibs has the New York Knicks capital-W Working on D, and that's been the critical component to one of the more pleasantly surprising campaigns (11-15) in recent Knicks vintage. His penchant for grinding seeps into every other aspect of his team, though, and it's largely why New York gets out on the break less frequently than anyone else.

    That wouldn't be so bad in isolation, but it's a real problem because the Knicks are atrocious in half-court offensive sets, ranking 26th in points per possession. Nobody's suggesting they should abandon the discipline and focus that have produced success this year, but turning it loose in transition once in a while would help juice a lagging offensive rating.

    When the Knicks run, they're still bad relative to the rest of the league. But the league average on half-court sets is 96.0 points per 100 possessions, while it's 124.4 in transition. The Knicks need to generate more of the latter.      

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2nd-Chance Points

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Ultimately, the Oklahoma City Thunder's issues with second-chance points on both ends are a good thing.

    This team is in a race to the bottom, and there are few surer routes to the league's basement than giving the opposition multiple cracks at a bucket while you go the one-and-done route more often than any other team.

    The Thunder are No. 2 in second-chance points allowed and dead last in second-chance points of their own. Poor board work is mostly to blame; OKC is in the bottom five in rebound percentage.

    To give the Thunder some credit, part of this seems to be intentional. Oklahoma City gives up the fewest fast-break points per game in the league because it's abandoned the offensive boards in the interest of getting all five bodies back on D. As for the other end, well...the explanation is less flattering. OKC just isn't any good at securing the defensive glass or getting stops.        

Orlando Magic: Shot Selection

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    No fair evaluation of the Orlando Magic is possible without acknowledging they're operating at far less than full strength. They entered the season knowing Jonathan Isaac wouldn't play because of knee surgery, but the loss of Markelle Fultz (ACL) forced rookie Cole Anthony into a starter's role.

    Perhaps if Orlando had its expected roster, its shot-selection issues wouldn't be so glaring. Then again, Fultz was among the league's foremost practitioners of the mid-range jumper, so it's also possible that he would have exacerbated the Magic's biggest issue.

    No team takes a larger percentage of its shots from the mid-range area. Worse still, the Magic also top the NBA in long mid-range frequency while ranking last in rim and corner-three attempt rates.

    Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross are first and second in field-goal attempts on the team, and both rank in or above the 96th percentile at their positions in mid-range frequency. They like these shots, even if the math has been screaming for years that the alternatives—taking a step back behind the arc or driving it all the way to the rim—have higher expected values.     

    The Magic's continuing preference for two-point jumpers puts them at a disadvantage in every game.   

Philadelphia 76ers: Those Pesky Non-Embiid Minutes

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers can't score when Joel Embiid is out of the game—a fact that bolsters the big man's MVP case and raises concerns about the team's playoff prospects all at once.

    Philly's offensive rating declines by 14.9 points when Embiid rests, and the minutes Ben Simmons plays without Embiid have been almost unfathomably punchless. The Sixers did well to add shooting over the offseason, but it appears no amount of perimeter spacing is enough for Simmons to lead a functional offense on his own.

    That wasn't the case last year, when Al Horford was around to help Simmons during Embiid's time on the bench. But Dwight Howard doesn't offer the same level of offensive assistance.

    Philadelphia's ugly performance without Embiid takes on extra significance because history tells us it won't have the option of leaning on the superstar center for 40 minutes a night in the postseason. Even if his conditioning is better than ever, Embiid has never been a big-minute workhorse. The Sixers need to figure out how to survive without their best player.      

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul and Devin Booker Not Clicking

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    That the Phoenix Suns continue to solidify themselves as a playoff team without their two best players performing as well as expected is actually a major source of optimism.

    How good might Phoenix be once it stops losing the Chris Paul-Devin Booker minutes?

    The whole of the Suns' backcourt tandem has been less than the sum of its parts so far, with a little too much "my turn, your turn" action between Paul and Booker. That's not necessarily unexpected when two players so used to ball dominance come together, and we should trust in the Suns' stars to figure this out eventually.

    When they do, Paul and Booker could help Phoenix challenge for a top-three seed in the West.      

Portland Trail Blazers: No Pressure on the Rim

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Portland Trail Blazers have a bottom-five defense, but we've got two worse underachievers on that end coming up. So we'll pivot to another trouble spot.

    Two related stats collide here, as the perimeter-oriented Trail Blazers bring up the rear in both points in the paint and drives per game.

    That combo is a clear indicator that Portland, for all of its Damian Lillard-based sharpshooting prowess, doesn't put much pressure on the rim.   

    Lillard demands attention 40 feet from the bucket, and it's become commonplace for defenses to send two bodies at him near half court. That scenario should beget tons of advantage situations for the Blazers—four-on-three attacks in space that, for many teams, would produce easy lobs for dunks, cuts for layups and even second-chance opportunities in scattered situations.

    That isn't how things have gone this season. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic are both out, which helps explain some of the problem. But McCollum is a mid-range marksman, while Nurkic's finishing isn't great. This shortcoming wouldn't look quite so bad if the Blazers were healthy, but a lack of points in the paint may just be woven into the fabric of this team. Case in point, the Blazers ranked 27th in paint points last season.

Sacramento Kings: Interior Defense

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Sacramento Kings' best method for preventing close-range looks might be having Tyrese Haliburton sneakily pick off the entry pass.

    Although the Kings are in the midst of one of their better stretches in years (winners in seven of their last nine), they remain near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. The main driver of that is substandard defense near the bucket.

    Despite Richaun Holmes' penchant for highlight spikes off the backboard, Sacramento surrenders more points in the paint per game than anyone else.

    Several factors contribute to the Kings' generosity inside. Marvin Bagley III is too often slow to react (and allows blow-by drives when he's out on the perimeter), Hassan Whiteside gets out of position chasing blocks and Buddy Hield's strengths do not include staying in front of his man. Holmes is doing as much as he can, so it's up to the rest of the Kings to stem the tide of opponent scoring inside.           

San Antonio Spurs: That Awful Starting Lineup

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The San Antonio Spurs are a somewhat surprising 14-11 through their first 25 games, and they've run up that mark in spite of their first unit.

    Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson and LaMarcus Aldridge have shared the floor for more than twice as many possessions as San Antonio's next-most utilized five-man group, and they've been torched to the tune of a minus-12.5 net rating.        

    Defense has been the main issue, and while it's still early enough that bad opponent shooting luck can skew results, it's undeniably difficult for San Antonio to get stops with Aldridge and DeRozan on the court together.

    Aldridge has missed the Spurs' last four games with a hip injury and won't return until sometime next week at the earliest. So San Antonio won't be able to field the lineup that has been hampering it anytime soon.

Toronto Raptors: The Center Spot

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Aron Baynes' three-point shot has been missing in action all season, and the theoretical replacement for Marc Gasol hasn't protected the rim or secured the defensive glass well enough to warrant minutes in the closing lineup.

    Chris Boucher is a shot-swatting, floor-stretching talent, but he's overmatched against conventional bigs and is still a bit too mistake-prone to earn the full trust of the Toronto Raptors coaching staff.

    The Raps are among the league's worst defensive rebounding teams, and their high foul rate is another sign they lack a stalwart presence inside. Teams with solid interior protection tend to avoid compromising defensive positions that lead to fouls.

    The solution might be more minutes for Pascal Siakam at center, though that's not an ideal setup when you're already losing the board battle most nights.     

Utah Jazz: Defensive Conservatism

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    You've got to work hard to find a frailty in the Utah Jazz, who've won 16 of their last 17 games.

    Sure, they could stand to attack the rim more, which would help get their free-throw rate up. But is that really killing the Jazz? Hardly.

    Truth is, nothing's holding Utah back. We'll be resourceful, though, and point out a Jazz statistic that would hurt a normal team: These guys rarely force turnovers or log deflections. Utah is last in both categories this year, yet it ranks second in defensive efficiency.

    Rudy Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the main reason for Utah's strange statistical restraint. Perimeter defenders don't have to gamble, reach or grab when they know all they have to do to win a possession is send the problem toward Gobert. Utah can focus on closing out aggressively against shooters, running them off the line, and then trail at a safe distance as the offensive player heads toward a hopeless end.

    The Jazz's "weakness" is actually a signal of their strength.       

Washington Wizards: Bad Luck

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Based on the shot-location numbers, the Washington Wizards defense should be a whole lot better than it is.

    No team forces opponents into more mid-rangers, and the Wizards also deny access to the rim better than anyone. According to Cleaning the Glass, Washington should be allowing the league's lowest effective field-goal percentage. Instead, perhaps for reasons completely outside of the Wizards' control, they're 28th in opponent effective field-goal percentage.

    Maybe the Wizards' reputation precedes them. Maybe teams just operate more confidently when they see those Washington jerseys. Maybe there's something the numbers aren't catching. But it seems fair to argue, at a minimum, that the Wizards are doing a lot of the things good defenses do with respect to where they let teams shoot.

    Those shots are just going in at ridiculous, seemingly unsustainable rates. Consider this a positive. The Wizards aren't winning games, and their defensive results stink. But their process is actually sound.


    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played through Tuesday, Feb. 9. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.