The 1 Thing Holding Back Every NBA ContenderApril 6, 2021
The 1 Thing Holding Back Every NBA Contender
The best thing about looking for potentially critical flaws among NBA contenders is that it's so difficult to finish the first step of the process: defining who's contending and who isn't.
As many as a dozen teams have semi-realistic shots at making the conference finals, and advancing that far means, almost by definition, that a championship is within reach. From there, it only takes a couple of good breaks to go all the way. We'll cull the herd a bit, removing four fringe options whose point differentials are markedly below the eight more serious chip-chasers.
But even that quartet of also-rans could go on surprising runs down the stretch. This 2020-21 season is long on parity. By extension, that makes it long on intrigue.
Several factors hold contenders back. It could be a positional issue, a troubling stat that compromises a playoff series or even something more esoteric. Good vibes and the right leadership/chemistry mix can sometimes be just as vital to winning a ring as, say, defensive rating.
The one common obstacle facing every team featured here? The sheer volume of competition. But we can do better than that. Let's get specific.
The Celtics are a .500 team 50 games into their season, and that's not the only reason they have to settle for honorable mention. Kemba Walker's knee may not hold up over multiple playoff series, the offense ranks in the bottom 10 in free-throw attempt frequency (while the defense puts opponents on the line too often on the other end), and there are real depth issues behind an admittedly dangerous first unit with Evan Fournier.
Dallas' defense doesn't force turnovers and ranks in the bottom 10 overall for the season, according to Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time. In addition, the Mavs have yet to win a playoff series in the brief Luka Doncic area. That doesn't preclude them from advancing a round or two this year, but it's a bit much to expect them to go from last year's first-round exit to serious contention. An up-and-coming team's progress is usually more incremental.
Finally, Dallas still has a hard time scoring when Doncic isn't on the court. He'll see more minutes in the postseason, which should mitigate the damage. But if this year is any indication, the Mavs' offensive inefficiency without Doncic—even if it's only for about six-to-eight minutes per postseason contest—could be crippling.
The Heat have a minus-0.6 net rating this season, easily the worst figure among any team considered for this exercise. Victor Oladipo is a tantalizing wild card, and we have to give the Heat some benefit of the doubt after last year's run to the Finals. But Miami was 41-24 when it entered the bubble last year. At 26-24 right now, it hasn't posted anything close to the statistical profile of that 2019-20 team—and that group was a surprising Finals entrant.
Portland Trail Blazers
It's a terrible idea to doubt Damian Lillard's clutch play, but his theoretically unsustainable late-game heroics are the main reason the Blazers, who've outscored opponents by less than a point per 100 possessions this year, are 30-19. Based on point differential, Portland should be much closer to .500.
If Lillard isn't a superhero every night—against better scouting and playoff-caliber defenses—the Blazers will struggle to get out of the first round.
And if that's not enough of a concern, turn your attention to Portland's defense, which ranks 29th. There's no path to a title with so little stopping power.
Brooklyn Nets: Defense
The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers are the Brooklyn Nets' blueprint. That team, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, finished the regular season with the league's best offense and the 22nd-ranked defense.
Those Lakers are the only team this century to win a title with a defense ranked worse than 11th. Brooklyn currently checks in even lower on D than the '01 Lakers, though it's possible its offensive punch is more powerful.
Point being: The Nets may be able to collect a ring as the most lopsided offense-defense outfit in recent memory, but it's not going to be easy.
The Nets will try to survive by switching liberally, a must for any team that includes James Harden. LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin will make that more difficult as neither seems likely to hold up against the guards who'll hunt mismatches in a playoff series.
The more mobile Nicolas Claxton profiles as Brooklyn's best defensive option up front, but he doesn't have the clout of Aldridge, Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. If pre-signing promises were made to those vets about playing time, Claxton might not see anything close to the minutes he deserves.
Assuming good health for Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Brooklyn really might have the scoring strength to offset its weak defense. When faced with questions about how they'll stop Player X or Team Y in a playoff series, the Nets are one of the few teams in history who could credibly answer: "By scoring 140 points every night."
That's a dangerous way to operate. If the Nets don't make good on their current status as title favorites, it won't be because they struggled to score. It'll be because they can't keep the opposition from getting whatever it wants on the other end.
Denver Nuggets: Defense at the Point of Attack
We went with the broad "defense" shortcoming for the Nets, and that could also apply here. But the Denver Nuggets have a chance to finish the year right around the league average in defensive efficiency (thanks, Aaron Gordon!), and they have a narrower issue to address anyway.
With Gary Harris gone in the trade that brought Gordon back from the Orlando Magic, the Nuggets lost their best defensive option against dangerous point-of-attack guards—of which there's at least one on almost every potential playoff foe in the West.
Harris' play had been disappointing since 2017-18, but most of that had to do with his offensive struggles. Even as his shot abandoned him and injuries sapped what was once a dynamic pass-and-cut game with Nikola Jokic, Harris always brought it on defense. He was integral to slowing down Donovan Mitchell in the first round last year.
If Denver intends to reach the Finals, it'll have to go through some combination of the Utah Jazz (Mitchell), Phoenix Suns (Chris Paul and Devin Booker) and Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum).
This seems like a good place to note that Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant, who spent more time than Harris guarding Mitchell in last year's first round, are also no longer on the roster.
So who takes on the challenge now? Jamal Murray? Will Barton? Monte Morris? No renowned stoppers there, to put it kindly.
Gordon should be able to handle bigger wings, of which there are also plenty in the West. But he'd be stretched too thin trying to wrangle point guards and quicker 2s, and using him there would leave Michael Porter Jr. alone to check tough opposing 3s and 4s.
Combine that issue with Jokic's limited help range (which Denver's tendency to pull him up to the level of the screen further shrinks), and it's easy to imagine long stretches in which the Nuggets have no great solutions against scoring guards, especially those who can get all the way to the rim.
Los Angeles Clippers: Uncertain Leadership
The Los Angeles Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, probably the best two-way wing combo in the league, and they shoot a ridiculous 41.6 percent from deep as a team. Strengths like those can overcome a lot of weaknesses.
But the Clips were similarly loaded and seemingly built to dominate postseason play a year ago, and we all remember their ignominious unraveling. When you blow a 3-1 series lead with the amount of talent last season's Clippers had, you lose the benefit of the doubt.
The stigma of that collapse and its clear ties to a lack of leadership still linger. We don't know if the Clips have the connectivity and general fortitude to handle adversity because they failed in their only opportunity to prove it last season.
Enter recently acquired Rajon Rondo. He's the leadership void-filler, to hear George tell it.
"Rondo's a leader, you know the point guard, he's a leader," George told ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk. "We're going to listen to him. I look at him as a leader, a leader of this group. ... That's what you need in the locker room, somebody that's going to say what needs to be said and get us going."
Rondo proved his worth during the Los Angeles Lakers' 2020 title run, and many seem to agree that "Playoff Rondo" is a real thing. Maybe it is. His career postseason box plus/minus is significantly higher than his regular-season figure. But implicit in George's endorsement of Rondo is a condemnation of both himself and Leonard.
If the Clips are so badly in need of someone to get them going, it means neither PG nor Kawhi is capable of it. We all sort of assumed that after last year, but George basically confirmed it with his comments.
When the two best players on a team aren't up to the challenge of being the best motivators, that's a concern.
Los Angeles Lakers: Superstar Health
You might be tempted to brush off the Los Angeles Lakers' injury worries, to tell yourself nothing happening right now matters as long as they're healthy once the playoffs start.
But the continuing no-timetable status on the returns of both Anthony Davis and LeBron James is hurting the Lakers' championship odds as we speak, to the point that even if AD and LeBron are at full strength by the time the postseason starts, a title may still be out of reach. Currently fifth in the conference with a legitimate shot to fall as far as seventh, the two-stars-short Lakers are making their future path through the playoffs tougher by the day.
Los Angeles isn't unique in its championship chances depending on the health of its best players. But the Lakers are the only contender with two key stars out right now, and they need both at 100 percent to survive the West.
Let's also not discount the significance of James' age (even if he's seemed invincible for almost two decades) and the scary location of Davis' injury. The calf/Achilles area can a) linger and b) portend more serious issues if not fully healed prior to the player's return. Just ask Kevin Durant, whose Achilles injury in 2019 first manifested as a calf strain and ultimately determined the Finals.
Add to that the fatigue of last year's extended stay in the bubble, the quick offseason and this year's condensed schedule, and the Lakers have a lot of factors working against them.
Brass tacks: If James or Davis isn't completely healthy and in top form when the playoffs start, the Lakers will be vulnerable against any first-round opponent. Even if the league's best one-two punch is at 100 percent, the ongoing standings slippage caused by their absences might make the road to a repeat ring too rough to complete.
Milwaukee Bucks: Old Habits Dying Hard
Don't fret about the Milwaukee Bucks giving up the second-most wide-open threes per game in the league. That's not ideal, but they surrendered even more uncovered triple attempts per game last year, and their defensive performance in the playoffs wasn't the problem.
It was the Bucks' inability to score against the Miami Heat in the second round (106.6 offensive rating) that did them in. Once Milwaukee's transition chances dried up, it struggled mightily to score against a set defense that knew what was coming.
If the Bucks haven't added enough diversity to their attack this year, and if they revert to the same predictable tactic of launching Giannis Antetokounmpo at a wall of prepared defenders, the same offensive failures could doom them once more.
The good news is Milwaukee's offense looks better and more varied this season. In addition to a 116.4 offensive rating (111.9 last year), the Bucks are making tweaks like stationing a player in the dunker spot more frequently. That occupies a rim-protector, which gives Giannis an advantage when barreling downhill.
They are also using pick-and-roll sets slightly more often, and Jrue Holiday gives them an extra shot-creator when things bog down.
Overall, Milwaukee is getting about one more point per 100 possessions out of half-court situations than it did last year. The Bucks still thrive when defenses can't stop them from playing high-frequency transition ball, but they badly need to prove they can win when the game slows down.
Philadelphia 76ers: Turnovers
The Philadelphia 76ers are a balanced outfit, ranking 14th or better in each of the four-factor metrics (effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound rate and free-throw rate) on both ends...save for one glaring exception.
Philly turns the ball over on 15.0 percent of its offensive possessions, which ranks 24th in the league.
The fallout hurts the Sixers across the board. Obviously, holding onto the ball leads to more successful offensive possessions. It's hard to score when you don't shoot. But the Sixers, who can suffocate opponents like few others when they get their Joel Embiid-anchored defense set, do themselves no favors by fueling the scattered situations that result from turnovers.
Only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers, on the short list of the league's worst teams, allow opponents to get out in transition more frequently.
Transition opportunities yield more valuable scoring chances, and the Sixers have a bad habit of giving their opponents too many of them. That's no way to win in the playoffs when even the tiniest edges can make the difference.
Phoenix Suns: Not Enough Free Throws
Early this year, the most alarming (and least explicable) issue facing the Phoenix Suns was the team's underwhelming performance with Devin Booker and Chris Paul on the floor together. Through Jan. 31, Phoenix had a minus-5.2 net rating with those two on the court.
Since then? Plus-12.3. Problem solved.
That leaves few places to turn for Phoenix beyond the trite "they haven't felt the intensity of the playoffs yet" caveat. The 35-14 Suns are deep, built to score in tightly contested half-court settings and encouragingly feisty.
They could stand to put a little more pressure on the rim, though. Phoenix ranks 28th in attempt frequency at point-blank range, which it makes up for by being exceptionally accurate in the mid-range area. CP3's elbow sniping has everything to do with the Suns ranking first in hit rate on short jumpers. Still, the upshot of so few looks at the rim is an anemic performance at the foul line.
The Suns are in the bottom 10 in free-throw rate, which keeps key opponents out of foul trouble and lowers their opportunities to pick up cheap points at the stripe.
Stylistically, this might be tough to change. Center Deandre Ayton is allergic to contact, and both Paul and Booker are comfortable pulling up outside the restricted area. Maybe Phoenix can get the job done playing this way, but its failure to draw shooting fouls trims its margin for error on offense.
Utah Jazz: The Altered Reality of the Playoffs
The Utah Jazz are comfortable leaders in record and net rating, which makes it tricky to find critical flaws in their statistical profile. If you win as much (and by as much) as they do, the numbers always wind up looking excellent.
Thing is, the Jazz have looked dominant in the regular season before, which ESPN's Tim MacMahon noted back in February when Utah was in the midst of a 22-2 stretch: "Utah won 21 of 23 in a 2018 run that lasted from late January to mid-March. The Jazz had an 11-2 stretch in January 2019 and a 12-1 run a couple of months later. And Utah went 19-2 from mid-December until late January last season. But those editions of the Jazz combined to win only one playoff series."
Recent history says that what works well for the Jazz during the regular season tends to fail in the playoffs, where things are just...different.
Will Utah's egalitarian, pass-and-move approach falter when opponents invariably switch ball screens? Donovan Mitchell will put up big numbers, but he has yet to prove a steady diet of isolation attacks can sustain his team's offense for a full series.
Might the Jazz's elite, Rudy Gobert-driven defense struggle against opponents with more than one top-end perimeter scorer? Royce O'Neale can handle one such player, but the idea of Bojan Bogdanovic, Mitchell or Joe Ingles tangling with the other should raise real concerns.
This Jazz team is better than any of the ones referenced above, but it shares the same fundamental makeup. It'd be encouraging to see balanced, committed, team-first ball work in the playoffs. If that happens, it'll be the first time these Jazz have carried their season-long success into the altered reality of the postseason.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Monday, April 5. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.