The Weakest Link in Every Projected NBA Playoff Team's Starting 5

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 25, 2021

The Weakest Link in Every Projected NBA Playoff Team's Starting 5

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The NBA playoffs are when the league turns mean.

    Teams ruthlessly exploit opponents' every frailty, and the search for edges, however small, takes on top importance.

    After a regular season full of rest, a little coasting and the unavoidably diminished urgency that comes with a months-long slog where every game doesn't really matter, this postseason baring of fangs shows the kind of total commitment to winning we all want from sports.

    In a way, this is refreshing. It's also cruel.

    For the players that fall into the prey category, the impending attacks are also opportunities—a chance for perceived liabilities to prove they're actually assets.

    We'll focus on the projected top eight teams in each conference, making educated guesses as to who'll emerge from the play-in round to secure those last two spots in the East and West.

    All of these teams are dangerous, so we'll have to stretch on some of them. Fortunately for us, none of them are perfect. And the playoffs are where imperfections matter most.

1. Utah Jazz: Bojan Bogdanovic

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz are going to see plenty of threatening opposing wings if their playoff run is as long as they hope.

    Royce O'Neale is a great option against the superstars that populate that position; his strength and intensity on defense are the main reasons he's in the league. But the task of handling a second high-level threat may fall to Bojan Bogdanovic.

    Though he possess good size at 6'7", Bogdanovic, 32, has lost some mobility this season. He's always been among the worst at his position in terms of block and steal frequency, and he has had a harder time than ever this year simply staying attached to his man.

    Rudy Gobert's towering presence on the back line limits the damage any one defender can do in Utah's system. But the Jazz aren't going to overtax Donovan Mitchell by asking him to check a high-usage star (especially considering he'll hit the playoffs coming off that ugly ankle sprain), so we should expect Bogdanovic to face plenty of difficult assignments.

    The veteran wing is tough and competitive, but he hasn't looked much like a stopper on D this season.

2. Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton is a quality starting center—one with obvious upside considering his draft pedigree, steady improvement and youth. But we can't say Chris Paul or Devin Booker are potential weak points with a straight face, and Mikal Bridges is already among the league's top three-and-D options.

    Jae Crowder? He's a savvy vet who defends multiple positions and has fantastic chemistry with Paul. His streaky shooting in the 2020 playoffs was key to helping the Miami Heat reach the Finals. Maybe you worry a little about his career 33.0 percent postseason hit rate from deep, but Crowder is willing to fire, and opponents honor him beyond the arc.

    That leaves Ayton, who plays a critical defensive role in the middle with no credible backup centers behind him. He hasn't seen playoff action before, and his inability to get to the foul line could produce plenty of inefficient scoring nights. Compounding the problem, the Suns also tend to put opponents on the line much more often when he's in the game.

    Ayton deserves credit for progressing from "totally lost" to "solid" to "pretty good" on defense over his three years in the league. He's among the NBA's better rim-protectors when he's in position to contest a shot inside six feet, limiting opponents to a 51.7 percent hit rate at that range. But he'll be tested against the pick-and-roll, forced to guard in space on switches and attacked by more experienced players who know how to sucker youngsters into fouls.

    He may prove he's up to the challenge. But Ayton will be challenged.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    "The disaster that was the 2020 postseason" isn't part of the Los Angeles Clippers' starting lineup, so that removes what would have been the easy choice. L.A.'s leadership and chemistry are still its great unknowns.

    Let's go with the starting point guard position, which will most likely be manned by the currently injured Patrick Beverley.

    Though a notorious irritant on D, Beverley's tendency toward aggression results in too many fouls. In a postseason atmosphere where every point matters, you can't be putting teams into the bonus early by bodying up 40 feet from the hoop in hopes of intimidating the opponent. Among guards who've logged at least 300 minutes this year, Beverley ranks first in the league with 6.6 fouls per 100 possessions.

    That's bad.

    Rajon Rondo got the job done for the Los Angeles Lakers last year, and Reggie Jackson has quietly had a stellar season in a limited bench role. Either one of them might provide more value at the point, but Beverley has started each of the 31 games he's played this season.

    If his hand heals and he's back in his usual role for the playoffs, the feisty guard could hurt the Clips more than he helps—particularly if his latest injury and previous knee problems this season mean he's a step slower than usual.

4. Denver Nuggets: Monte Morris

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo have both started at the point since Jamal Murray went down with a season-ending torn ACL, but this is a bet that Morris' hamstring injury is only creating the illusion of a competition.

    Morris is one of the league's best backup point guards and is a better overall player than Campazzo, so we'll assume he gets the gig. If and when he does, he may be in over his head.

    The best descriptor for the 25-year-old is "steady." Morris never fouls or turns it over, and he's been an efficient, low-usage offensive player with a career 47.8/39.2/81.5 shooting split. He is also a suspect defender with the worst D-LEBRON figure among regulars on Denver's roster. That his size prevents him from putting up much resistance against any position but point guard is also an issue.

    Nuggets opponents will have nothing but good options when involving him and Nikola Jokic in pick-and-roll defense.

    Again, Morris is a quality player. Just like everyone we've listed so far. But Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton are regular starters. Denver's backup point guard is being thrust into a position above his pay grade, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he's the pick here.

5. Los Angeles Lakers: Andre Drummond

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Lakers won a title by playing big last season, so it's hard to fault them for gifting large human Andre Drummond the starting center job after signing him in late March.

    But guess what? We're going to fault them anyway. A lot.

    Drummond's 46.3 field goal percentage is almost incomprehensibly inefficient for someone whose shot range is "dunk." Just for fun, note that Stephen Curry nearly shoots as accurately on tightly contested threes (defender 0-2 feet away) as Drummond does on two-point shots overall this season. Cleaning the Glass has Drummond in the sixth percentile in effective field goal percentage for his position. Sixth percentile!

    But wait, doesn't Drummond dominate the boards?

    Sure, but the best research now suggests defensive rebounding doesn't really matter anymore. Opponents are also shooting 59.5 percent inside six feet with Drummond as the primary defender, a brutal number.

    If the Lakers value Drummond's passing from the elbows, they should value Marc Gasol's superior skill in that area (and ability to shoot from deep) more. If they want rim protection, Anthony Davis should be the man at the 5.

    Actually, we've buried the lede. Davis should play every meaningful minute at center in the playoffs. The rest should go to some combination of Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and even Markieff Morris. Yet Drummond is going to start, it seems, and all the numbers above indicate he's not going to help L.A.'s efforts to repeat.

6. Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    It may seem like we're picking on centers here, but guess what: so will playoff offenses.

    Jusuf Nurkic's inclusion here is mostly about trusting Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington. But it's also an acknowledgment that Nurk has been leveled by injuries in recent seasons. He had a wrist issue this year, and he played just eight games in 2019-20 following a broken leg toward the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

    He'll be attacked in the pick-and-roll, where Lillard's defense has also been a problem area for years. Those two won't be the only weak points, as the Portland Trail Blazers rank 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions and will easily be the worst playoff defense in either conference. They will, however, be the opponent's primary targets.

    Nurkic is a good passer for a center, ranking in the top quartile in assist percentage at his position every year since 2015-16. But Lillard and McCollum can create their own looks, and Nurkic is also a woefully poor finisher.

    Unless Portland goes very small, the alternative at center is Enes Kanter. His defensive shortcomings are the stuff of legend, so most of the critical stops will have to come with Nurkic on the floor. If the Blazers intend to put up a first-round fight, he'll have to raise his game to levels not seen for almost three years.

7. Dallas Mavericks: Josh Richardson

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Josh Richardson's serviceable secondary playmaking, last glimpsed when he averaged 4.1 assists per game in 2018-19 with the Miami Heat, has little value on a team that runs through Luka Doncic on offense. And with J-Rich hitting a career-worst 31.6 percent of his threes, opposing defenses are going to make him prove he's a threat before they give him any serious attention.

    Normally, you'd live with Richardson's limited, low-usage offense because of his chops on the other end. His acquisition this past offseason was part of a theoretically sound plan to populate as many spots around Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis with capable stoppers.

    Richardson hasn't lived up to expectations on that end either. He's posting the lowest combined block and steal rates (let's just call it stock rate) of his career. And though on/off splits can be noisy, it's jarring to see the Dallas Mavericks defend far better with him off the floor.

    Dorian Finney-Smith used to be the Mavs player opponents could ignore on the perimeter. But in addition to being Dallas' rangiest wing defender, he's also draining 38.5 percent of his threes. With Maxi Kleber also providing two-way value, Richardson is the only option for the weak-link nod.

8. Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Draymond Green is a genius, All-Defense-worthy stopper with extreme versatility and anticipation. His general intelligence and specific mind-meld with Stephen Curry are key to unlocking the best version of the Dubs' attack—which is to say, "seek out every possible avenue to get Steph the ball."

    Green is not a weakness overall, but his refusal to shoot and his inaccuracy when forced to let fly? Yeah, those are problems.

    He's overcome the issue in seasons past, when it was less extreme, by contributing in so many other ways. It also didn't hurt that the best Warriors teams in recent years had multiple top-flight scoring threats.

    Andrew Wiggins is not Klay Thompson. Kent Bazemore is not Kevin Durant.

    The Warriors can still succeed when Green rumbles downhill in 4-on-3 situations after opponents trap Curry. But Green won't have a credible lob threat to hit on those short rolls, and he's finishing shots at the rim at a rate that ranks in the 26th percentile among bigs. He's been even worse on short mid-rangers. Those deficiencies are just as problematic as his 25 percent accuracy mark from long range.

    Opposing teams will play Green to pass, practically beg him to shoot and ignore him every second he's off the ball. The Warriors will counter by making sure he handles to rock or sets ball screens as often as possible, but no tactical adjustment will change the fact that Green's atrophied offense is a critical flaw in Golden State's makeup.

1. Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    It's appropriate that we're featuring Ben Simmons right after Draymond Green. Both are objectively good players who have many more strengths than weaknesses, but both also share limitations that give scheming playoff defenses obvious areas to exploit.

    Simmons has spent his whole career working around his lack of shooting, and he's found success juicing the Philadelphia 76ers' transition attack. His defense is unimpeachable: versatile, smart and consistent.

    But Simmons makes it harder for Joel Embiid, the Sixers most important player, to dominate. Philly can't station Simmons on the perimeter because nobody will guard him out there. Put the ball in his hands, and (duh) it's not in Embiid's. When Simmons is in the dunker spot, he brings a second defender into Embiid's path.

    To Simmons' credit, the Sixers' offense is better when he plays with Embiid than when Embiid goes it alone. But you'd better believe teams facing the Sixers will look at him first when plotting out tactics and hunting advantages.

2. Brooklyn Nets: Whoever Plays Center

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets have several different types of centers to turn to if they want to play the matchup game during what they hope is a deep playoff run.

    It's just that none of their options come without problems.

    DeAndre Jordan is immobile and has no range. Blake Griffin probably can't be counted on for significant minutes, and though he has looked better defensively than in Detroit, he's certainly still a negative on that end.

    Nicolas Claxton has some zip and might deserve the starting spot over the two aforementioned vets, all things being equal. But he's inexperienced and lacks the heft to hold up against the East's burliest big men—Joel Embiid and Brook Lopez come to mind.

    Bruce Brown isn't much of a spacer, which is concerning because he's also not really a center. The 6'4" guard has had intriguing success as a roll man in the Nets' dangerous offense, and he gives Brooklyn a badly needed shutdown wing defender. But it's hard to imagine the gimmick of a guard playing center working against the best playoff defenses.

3. Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Donte DiVincenzo might seem like the easy option here, as he's the most unproven player in a Milwaukee Bucks starting five with a ton of veteran clout. But the third-year guard is a stellar on-ball defender who rebounds well and generally plays bigger than his size. His 37.9 percent shooting from deep means he's a threat off the ball, and he won't be asked to do much shot creation with so many other options better suited to the task.

    With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all offering two-way punch, Brook Lopez stands out as the most exploitable Buck.

    Milwaukee has built terrific defenses around schemes designed to wall off the paint, and Lopez is a hulking deterrent inside. But teams will do what they can to pull him out into space in the pick-and-roll, where his lack of foot speed means drop coverage is his only option.

    We've seen plenty of playoff series in which opposing point guards get a steady diet of pull-up threes with Lopez two steps away in the lane. This year, Milwaukee is surrendering the third-most opponent three-point attempts per game in the league. That's not all on Lopez, but some of it is.

    The Bucks have worked on varying their looks on both ends, must in the wake of two straight playoff ousters tied to tactical inflexibility. Getting comfortable with switches will pay off broadly, but Lopez, specifically, can't survive consistently that way.

4. New York Knicks: Elfrid Payton

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Based on the way Immanuel Quickley and Derrick Rose have played lately, Elfrid Payton looks like the third-best point guard on the New York Knicks. Yet by season's end, he's likely to have started 10 times as many games as his two backups combined.

    Payton is shooting 28.6 percent from distance, and his true shooting percentage is 48.8.

    Some context: Of the 116 players who've attempted at least 500 shots this season, that latter accuracy rate ranks dead last.

    In addition, the Knicks defense, its true strength in this breakthrough season, has been markedly better when Payton is on the bench.

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau clearly values Payton's game management and pass-first thinking. But with Julius Randle deserving the lion's share of the playmaking duties, it's difficult to understand why Payton has maintained such a steady role.

5. Atlanta Hawks: Kevin Huerter

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    If De'Andre Hunter makes it back to full health by the postseason, it'll make life much easier on Kevin Huerter. But knee troubles have limited Hunter to two games since Jan. 29, and the Hawks are still  evaluating him day-to-day. It would be unwise to expect the second-year wing, who appeared to have made a leap before the injury, will be at 100 percent come playoff time.

    That could expose Huerter, a sweet-shooting wing with more off-the-bounce game than many think. Assuming Trae Young's ankle is fully recovered, Huerter could enjoy a massive scoring game or two in the first round as defenses fixate on Atlanta's point guard. Unfortunately, with Hunter a question mark and Young sure to be hidden on a nonthreatening option, Huerter could find himself overstretched against premium offensive wings.

    In truth, the Hawks have multiple players to attack defensively. We haven't even hit on John Collins, who's improved this season but still falls far short of the level at which offenses scheme away from him. Clint Capela deserves some DPOY consideration for keeping this group out of the bottom five on D.

    Huerter is a wing, and that's where opposing stars live. He could be in for a rough ride.

6. Boston Celtics: Robert Williams

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Jumpy on defense and a bit too willing to showcase his admittedly exciting passing vision, Robert Williams will be tested on both ends.

    Time Lord can snatch a lob like few other bigs, and his combination of length and bounce make him a serious deterrent at the rim. But as is common with younger 5s, the 23-year-old Williams is often too eager to flash his skills. He gets pump-faked into oblivion, fouls too often and figures to find himself defending pick-and-roll actions with Kemba Walker alarmingly often.

    Walker was another option here, by the way. He was plagued by inconsistency because of knee soreness in the 2020 playoffs, and after a season that saw him rest frequently, he may not hold up under the intensified stress of a postseason slate. The 6'0" guard's lack of size—and the presence of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown on the wings—puts a mismatch-seeking target on his back by default.

    Still, Walker won't be asked to wrestle with Joel Embiid or Brook Lopez like Williams will. If he is, something's gone horribly wrong. And it's generally a safe bet to assume playoff offenses will attack an inexperienced center who's only been a regular starter for part of one season.

7. Miami Heat: Kendrick Nunn

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat offer a challenge, as they could easily lean on Goran Dragic as the postseason starter like they did a year ago. Tyler Herro also has the historic (albeit brief) track record of playing his best in the playoffs, which could earn him starts.

    Kendrick Nunn, 25, has been the most used starter at the point this season, though, so he's getting the weak-link treatment over Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Trevor Ariza and Bam Adebayo.

    The Heat's defensive rating dips by an even larger number this year than last with Nunn on the floor. With Dragic looking unlikely to repeat last year's surprising postseason revival, and Herro's defense representing an even bigger concern, it will be hard to pick favorable matchups for the young guard. Considering the Heat barely used Nunn (who tested positive for COVID-19 last July) at all in the 2020 playoffs, we should add inexperience to the collection of concerns.

    In fairness to Nunn, he's followed up an All-Rookie season with improved accuracy from the field, from three and from the foul line. The lefty guard plays hard, and he'll have defensive help from Butler and Adebayo. He'll be asked to do more this postseason than last, though, and he's proved to be the last among first-unit Heat players.

8. Toronto Raptors: Khem Birch

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    We're making several assumptions here.

    First, even though the Washington Wizards are on fire, having won seven in a row, we're going with the Toronto Raptors as the last playoff seed in the East. This team has too much experience and veteran talent to doubt.

    Second, we're acting as if the Raps will avoid starting games with Pascal Siakam at the 5. They've tinkered with that look a handful of times over the last couple of years, and it remains the best way to get maximum scoring punch on the floor.

    Third, we're trusting in the lineup changes that have recent addition Khem Birch slotted in as the starting 5. Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes have occupied that role at points this year, but Birch's chemistry with Toronto's other starters is hard to deny. With Baynes failing to produce and Boucher lacking the strength to defend most centers, Birch seems like the best option.

    Whichever center is on the floor for the opening tip, he'll be the most exploitable Raptor. Teams know not to mess with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby or Siakam—all of whom have a ring, and all of whom are a handful on both ends.

               

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.

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