The Biggest Reason to Doubt Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 28, 2021

The Biggest Reason to Doubt Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Making the NBA playoffs is an achievement worth celebrating, but the 16 squads that get in can't let the revelry last too long. After the thrill of postseason admission wanes, a harsh reality sets in.

    Fifteen of the 16 entrants will go home in defeat.

    Elimination can stem from any number of familiar sources: lack of top-end talent, broad weakness on one end or the other, a rotation hole, inexperience. Don't rule out combinations, either. There are tons of reasons why all but one of the teams that win enough to make the playoffs will end their postseasons with a loss.

    All of these projected playoff teams are good, and some of them even belong in the "great" category. In some cases, we'll pick nits and seek out the tiniest cracks in what appear to be pristine facades. In contrast, many lower seeds have more than one obvious reason for us to doubt them. In a few situations, we'll even be able to point to the same lingering flaw that earned them a postseason boot in 2020.

    This exercise is going to skew toward the negative. We're looking for shortcomings. But maybe the positive spin is that there's nearly a month left for each of these teams to address these problems and replace our doubt with faith.

1. Brooklyn Nets: Defense

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    If you know one thing about the Brooklyn Nets, it's that they aren't any good on defense.

    Well, actually, if you know one thing, it's that they have Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving making up one of the greatest offenses in league history (when healthy, which has been rare so far). But if you know two things, it's that the Nets are going to need that unstoppable, superstar-driven scoring punch to offset a crummy defense.

    Brooklyn's attack might be good enough to get the job done. But if the Nets pull this one-way run off, it'll be historic.

    Raheem Palmer of the Action Network compiled the data, and the summation is jarring:

    "Only three teams since the merger have won the championship despite having a defense that was ranked lower than 10th in Defensive Rating in the regular season: 2018 Golden State Warriors, 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and 1995 Houston Rockets. All three teams had won the title the previous season and played below their actual ability in the following regular season."

    The Nets aren't a defending champ, and their rank in defensive rating (24th) is worse than any of those three teams listed above. The hope has to be that, like the title-defending Rockets, Lakers and Warriors, they're playing below their ability.

    If they're playing at or above it, winning a ring will be impossible.

2. Philadelphia 76ers: Turnovers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid's health is the obvious pick for the Philadelphia 76ers, but it feels cheap to lean on injury risk in this exercise, even if Embiid's history is one giant red flag in that regard.

    There's also a crunch-time offense concern: Can the Sixers balance the floor, find a place for Ben Simmons and get the ball to Embiid consistently enough to score against half-court defenses that can throw several bodies at the big fella?

    So far this season, though, there's no statistical support for that concern. Philly ranks seventh in clutch offensive rating.

    That leaves us with the Sixers' turnover troubles. They're in the bottom 10 in overall giveaway frequency and dead last in close-and-late situations. 

    Postseason defenses are more intense and better prepared to take away an offense's pet actions. It stands to reason that if the Sixers have a hard time ending possessions with a shot during the more relaxed regular season, their struggles could worsen against dialed-in (and generally better) playoff competition.

    That clutch turnover rate is a small sample, but if it's a signal of how the Sixers might fare in the moments that matter, it's a scary one.

3. Milwaukee Bucks: Flexibility

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    The narrative of the last two years is undeniable: The Milwaukee Bucks used a rigid system to crush the regular season and then saw that system fail in the playoffs. They couldn't adapt.

    Those series-specific adjustments great postseason teams make? Absent from Milwaukee's limited repertoire.

    That the Bucks haven't dominated the 2020-21 season like they did the prior two is actually a source of hope. They're experimenting, switching more on defense, leaning on new addition Jrue Holiday to diversify their two-man game options with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and are generally showing a greater willingness to tinker.

    Developing flexibility comes at the cost of regular-season dominance, but the Bucks are wise to pay it. They've learned—twice—that the price of failing to implement different looks is far higher.

    This is as optimistic as expressions of doubt get. Milwaukee knows what its issues are, and it's working on them. Still, until we see the Bucks actually succeed in practice at the playoff level, we have no choice but to remain skeptical.

4. New York Knicks: Offensive Efficiency

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    If you only focus on the last two weeks, during which the New York Knicks have produced the highest offensive rating and third-best point differential in the league, there's no reason to doubt this season's most pleasantly surprising team.

    Take the larger sample of the entire year, though, and you have some options.

    Despite the scorching shooting that drove a nine-game winning streak, New York ranks in the bottom 10 in both offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage. Both figures are tied to a three-point attempt rate that ranks 24th in the league. It's hard to score efficiently when you eschew efficient shots.

    The Knicks' offense sings with Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley on the floor. Randle is legit, but it feels dangerous to rely on a rookie sustaining his performance under playoff pressure. Quickley has blown past expectations to this point, though, so who knows?

    Ultimately, when an offense gives its postseason opponents such a clear optimal strategy—pack the paint and dare the Knicks to shoot the threes they've turned down all year—it's a problem.

5. Atlanta Hawks: Non-Trae Young Minutes

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks' lack of a shutdown defensive wing is an issue, but it's possible De'Andre Hunter will finally get through his worrisome knee injury by the postseason. If he's ready to go, Atlanta will have a good option against the most dangerous scorers at the 2 and 3.

    Besides, the most glaring reason to be skeptical about the Hawks is more fundamental. They just can't score when Trae Young isn't on the court.

    If the All-Star point guard is in the game, Atlanta cranks out 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Take him out, and that number plummets to 104.6. Among players who've logged as many minutes as Young, only Nikola Jokic and Bradley Beal have a larger positive impact on their team's scoring efficiency.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic will be one of the biggest swing factors in the entire postseason. Atlanta scores just fine when he's in the game without Young and is actually winning the "Bogdanovic on, Young off" minutes overall. Lou Williams can help, too, but he might give up even more on defense than Young.

    With that said, Bogdanovic and Young have exactly zero combined career postseason minutes, and we have yet to see how playoff opponents will scheme to reduce the latter's touches. If the Hawks aren't quite as offensively dominant with Young on the court, the pressure on Bogdanovic will intensify.

6. Boston Celtics: Inconsistent Focus and Energy...Maybe

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    In the 2020 postseason, only the Toronto Raptors were stingier on defense than the Boston Celtics. That wasn't much of a surprise, as the 2019-20 Celtics ranked fourth in defensive efficiency during the regular season. 

    This year's Celtics rank 12th, and that's only after a dominant but unsustainable first half of April.

    Much has been made of Boston's defensive slippage this year, and the struggle to explain it only produces half-satisfying answers. Anecdotally, the Celtics appear a half-step slow. They rotate without the same crispness and botch simple sequences (like this blown switch) because of miscommunication. Boston also fouls too often, putting opponents on the free-throw line more frequently than all but four other teams. But that was a problem in 2019-20, too.

    We've spent time discussing what looks like a reason to doubt the Celtics, but here's the thing: Based on the types of shots they allow, they should rank fifth in opponent effective field-goal percentage. Instead, they rank 18th. The Celtics are allowing the right kinds of attempts; they're just going in at a higher rate than expected.

    It's hard to accept after several months, but the best explanation for Boston's defensive slippage may be bad luck.

    Of course, it's also possible that the lack of focus, grit and urgency the team has shown this season is tied to the defensive decline. This is one of those cases where your eyes tell you Boston just doesn't have it, but the underlying numbers say your eyes are wrong.

    The playoffs will settle that disagreement.

7. Miami Heat: Leveling Up Will Be Harder

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat's experience, toughness and reliable defense are all reasons to believe they can shake off a mediocre regular season and become a threat to reach the Finals. It also doesn't hurt that they did something like that last year.

    Jimmy Butler is quietly playing even better than he did a year ago, and it's reasonable to write off some of Miami's more troubling habits (like playing down to the level of competition) to fatigue. The Heat joined the Lakers as the last teams out of the bubble in 2020. If they're taking nights off, they've earned the right.

    Miami leveled up once, so it can do it again. Except, maybe not.

    Last year's Heat finished the 2019-20 regular season with a winning percentage of .603 and a plus-2.7 net rating. They're at .516 and minus-1.0 so far this season. If they're counting on making a leap in the playoffs, it'll have to be even bigger than the improbable one they made a year ago.

    With Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala a year older, Tyler Herro enduring a sophomore slump and defensive keys Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. gone, the Heat's personnel is weaker now than it was in the bubble.

    Speaking of which, few teams were better equipped for the spartan conditions in Orlando than the no-nonsense Heat. That "advantage" won't exist this time around.

    Don't count the Heat out, but be careful expecting them to flip the switch as effectively as they did during last year's remarkable run.

8. Charlotte Hornets: Clutch Luck

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    If you've been following along over the last several weeks, I've been expressing my undying faith in the Toronto Raptors' ability to grab this last playoff spot in the East. But the Raps' conflicting incentives and related failure to close the gap on a play-in spot means we have to trust the numbers a little more.

    That means forecasting the Charlotte Hornets as the team most likely to fill the East's final postseason vacancy.

    However, they aren't likely to stick around long. Their crunch-time luck has produced a league-best plus-35.9 net rating and 3.4 more wins than their overall differential suggests they've earned.

    The Hornets have already banked those wins, which is partly why they earn this spot in the first place. Past performance in clutch situations doesn't tend to say much about the future, though, so we should assume the Hornets will play like a normal team when the score is close down the stretch from now on.

    Late-game standout Terry Rozier may have a different opinion on that issue, but we could also list a litany of other reasons why we should doubt Charlotte, which seems likely to enter the playoffs with the worst record and net rating of any team in either conference.

    But we don't need to get mean about it.

1. Utah Jazz: Solving Switches

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz have been the league's best team for most of the 2020-21 regular season. They're the only squad with a top-five ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

    They've dominated by dictating the terms of engagement on both ends. They pummel opponents with high-frequency pick-and-rolls against drop coverage (no team leans harder on its pick-and-roll ball-handlers) that create open shots for guards or draw help off of three-point shooters on the wings. Utah also leads the league in three-point attempt frequency by a mile.

    The ball hops, defenders reel in a vortex that sucks them in and spits them out—confused and behind the action. On the other end, the Jazz close out on spot-up shooters and play drop coverage that funnels everything toward Rudy Gobert, where offensive possessions go to die.

    The problem with all the beautifully efficient work the Jazz do on both ends is that it hasn't held up in the postseason—particularly against switching defenses that short-circuit the pick-and-roll. Against Utah's defense, smart opponents with the right personnel get comfortable against drop coverage and either rain threes or penetrate and kick to open shooters.

    This has been an issue for years, and the Minnesota Timberwolves (of all teams!) exposed the same familiar problems twice last week.

    Solutions exist. Gobert could punish teams that switch smaller players onto him by dominating in the paint. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, who wasn't available to bust switches against Minnesota due to his ankle injury, could score more efficiently against the bigs they'll face when opponents switch ball screens up high.

    The Jazz are better, deeper and more refined this season than they've been in a long time. But they'll have to prove they can solve the tactics that have gotten them bounced from the postseason year after year.

2. Phoenix Suns: Too Few 'Easy' Buckets

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    Jim Rassol/Associated Press

    If you had to rely on a player making inefficient mid-range shots to sustain an offense, you'd probably pick Chris Paul. Pull-up maestro Devin Booker wouldn't be far behind.

    The former lives at the right elbow and ranks in the 95th percentile at his position in mid-range accuracy. Booker, 96th percentile among wings from the mid-range, is just as deadly. Both are basically off the charts relative to their positional peers in attempt frequency from those ill-favored, in-between spots that most good offenses have all but outlawed.

    The Suns' two best players are exceptional in this regard. Their ability to hit the exact shots defenses have been conditioned to yield immunizes them against most basic schemes. It's almost impossible to imagine a playoff opponent having success denying Paul and Booker those short jumpers because that effort would surrender more open looks at the rim and from three.

    If you're feeling bullish on the Suns' playoff offense after considering all that, you should be.

    One drawback to Phoenix's approach looms: It generates very few free throws and offensive rebounds. Booker excels at drawing contact all over the floor, but putting pressure on the rim and coaxing contact is not a clear strength for anyone else on the roster. Phoenix ranks in the bottom five in foul-shot frequency and in the bottom 10 in offensive rebound rate.

    You need every little edge you can find in the postseason, and the Suns aren't great at generating cheap points. That may come back to haunt them in the unlikely event that their scorching mid-range scorers go cold.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: Chemistry and Leadership

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    No stats here. No number-crunching or fixation on the Los Angeles Clippers' reliance on three-point shooting or limited ability to force opponent turnovers.

    None of that matters when compared to one of the most discussed postseason concerns in the league. You know, the one that resulted in the Clips, theoretically a 2020 title favorite, gagging away a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals and collapsing in spectacular fashion.

    Doc Rivers shouldered much of the blame for L.A.'s perceived crisis of leadership. It cost him his job, but one source told The Ringer's Ryen Russillo that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were the bigger problem. George, in turn, laid responsibility at the feet of his deposed coach.

    Former players pointed fingers at Leonard and George for failing to set the right tone—both during a season of coasting and amid the startling postseason implosion. Meanwhile, Lou Williams cited poor chemistry.

    Can the Clips shake off last season's failure? Leonard and George undeniably have the talent to succeed, but are they the leaders that this team needs?

    We'll find out soon enough.

4. Denver Nuggets: No Jamal Murray

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Plenty of top players have injury question marks ahead of the playoffs, but Denver Nuggets star and noted postseason scoring dynamo Jamal Murray is the only one who definitely won't be involved. 

    Denver is a stunning 6-1 since Murray went down with a torn ACL, and Nikola Jokic has continued to create the kinds of clean looks that can make decent offensive teammates more effective than they'd otherwise be. He could keep that up against postseason competition, and Michael Porter Jr. looks ready to shoulder a larger load.

    But the Nuggets were already heading into the playoffs with one key strategic disadvantage. Jokic's suspect defense at the critical center spot was always going to mean Denver's success would depend on outscoring opponents. And now, with Murray and his career postseason average of 24.3 points per game sidelined, the task of winning shootouts is taller.

    In fact, it's probably too tall for the Nuggets to survive the first round without some good luck.

5. Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James' Prolonged Absence

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This will be the last time we trot out an injury-adjacent reason to doubt a playoff team, but you understand why this one was too significant to ignore.

    The Los Angeles Lakers are either title favorites or a possible first-round loser. The difference depends entirely on how LeBron James looks upon his return from a high ankle sprain that has cost him five weeks (and counting).

    Los Angeles is 8-11 since James went down, which isn't bad considering much of that time coincided with Anthony Davis' absence. But it certainly isn't good enough to inspire confidence about serious contention if the four-time MVP isn't at 100 percent.

    AD's fitness is a close second in the worry department. He hit a new level in last year's postseason while draining seemingly every jumper shot he took, and he was probably the playoff defensive MVP—if such an award existed. Really, we could expand this to say the biggest reason to doubt the Lakers is the likelihood that James or Davis won't be as dominant as they were in 2020. Los Angeles needs both of them in peak form.

    James has a long history of durability, but he's 36, and this is already the second-longest stretch on the shelf of his career.

    That's more than a little scary.

6. Dallas Mavericks: Defensive Holes

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks don't have any one glaring doubt-inspirer. They're more vulnerable on defense than offense, but they have a lot of the tools and options you'd want in a solid postseason outfit.

    Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith are both reputed stoppers, though DFS has lived up to that billing more than Richardson this season. Kristaps Porzingis is a capable rim-protector, and Maxi Kleber remains one of the more unheralded defensive weapons in the league. Dallas has long trusted him to handle difficult wing assignments and protect the paint, depending on matchups.

    Those pieces haven't produced great results this year, though. Dallas ranks in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency, with a couple of troubling trends standing out.

    First, the Mavs give up too many threes. They rank 22nd in opponent three-point attempt rate. Compounding matters, Dallas also allows conversion rates at the rim that are above the league average. Porzingis is a deterrent when in position, but he isn't always mobile enough to reach the right spot in time—especially if he's forced out to the perimeter in pick-and-roll coverage.

    These are modest weaknesses, and Luka Doncic gives Dallas a chance to overcome them with unstoppable offense. But it isn't ideal for a playoff defense to habitually allow success beyond the arc and at the rim.

7. Portland Trail Blazers: You Name It

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Start with a defense that ranks second-to-last in the league, and then proceed to an offense that, while effective overall, is too solvable by defenses willing to sell-out blitz Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll.

    From there, note Lillard's diminished form following a hamstring injury. He carried the Blazers when both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum were out, turning in a clutch game-winning stretch seemingly twice a week. After a heroic run like that, it's no wonder Lillard looks a step slow, or that April has been his worst month of the season. He's worn out.

    Jason Quick of The Athletic included the words "hot seat" next to head coach Terry Stotts' name in a recent piece, and Portland has repeatedly fallen flat against exactly the teams it will face in the playoffs.

    "When we play against the top-level teams, we don't play well," Lillard told reporters after a decisive loss to the Jazz on April 9. "We get put away. At Phoenix, we got put away. Tonight, we got put away. At Denver, we got put away. Milwaukee at home, put away. Clippers, got put away. I mean, it's not like it's a small sample size. It's what happens."

    Are those enough reasons to doubt the Blazers, who are currently seventh in the West and sliding?

8. Golden State Warriors: The Gimmicks Are Coming

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Toronto Raptors started all of this, way back in Game 2 of the 2019 Finals. They deployed a box-and-one defense to assure that with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant out with injuries, Stephen Curry wouldn't beat them.

    Curry hasn't seen nonstop repetition of what he calls "janky defenses" since the Raptors got creative to win the title, but they've appeared a few times this season.

    This version of the Golden State Warriors, which we're projecting to emerge from the play-in round due to its league-best net rating over the last two weeks and the presence of Curry, still has less offensive talent than even that depleted 2019 Finals squad. Though Curry's off-ball genius makes it more difficult to deny him touches, you'd better believe playoff opponents will be even more brash in their efforts to force another Dub to score.

    The math demands it. Golden State produces 113.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor and 100.9 when he sits. Taking the ball out of his hands with gimmick defenses doesn't technically remove him from the floor, but it can approximate the same effect.

    Jordan Poole is the team's only other legitimate pass-dribble-shoot creator, but he only reached playable levels earlier this season. He'll see his role increase by necessity, but the Warriors' best bet will be to trust Curry can find shots against defenses designed to keep him from even getting near the ball.

    Even for the best offensive player in league history (for my money), that's a big ask.


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