The Argument Against Every Top NBA Title Contender
For a variety of reasons, this year's preseason contenders aren't at the top of the standings. The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers had injury troubles, the Milwaukee Bucks were keen on in-game experimentation, and the Los Angeles Clippers were inconsistent, so the 2020-21 season produced less dominant regular seasons than we're used to from the league's best.
Of course, this isn't a bad thing. Exciting clubs emerged this year and played their best ball, including the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns. Add the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers, the reigning East champion Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, who boast MVP favorite Nikola Jokic, to the aforementioned teams, and we're looking at the most competitive title race in years.
Only one of these teams can win the Larry O'Brien Trophy, though, and so the postseason will be about exploiting weaknesses, whether they're on-court, psychological or something else. Let's look at each title contender's potentially fatal flaw, defining title contenders as teams with odds better than +4000, per FanDuel.
Brooklyn Nets (+210): Defense
Despite Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving only playing in eight games together, the Nets are presently favorites to win the title. It's right to dismiss that line of criticism, though, because that Big Three has been elite when together, even in limited action, and is only going to get better (be very, very afraid).
The defense, however, is another story. It's been a concern all season, and the team hasn't done much to abate such worry, giving up at least 120 points 22 times (Brooklyn was 9-13 in those games) and finishing with the league's ninth-worst defensive rating. The Nets have several intriguing stoppers, including Durant when he's engaged, Bruce Brown and Nicolas Claxton, but who knows how much playing time Brown and Claxton will get.
Plus, even if they impress Steve Nash enough to get minutes, it's not like three players can create a dominant defense, especially when the rest of the team is made up of disinterested or incapable stoppers.
It's possible this concern won't matter, whether that's because the Nets have shown an ability to be competent on that end in clutch situations or because the offense is just that historically excellent. We're bringing it up because winning a title in these circumstances is incredibly rare, so if the Nets did it, they would deserve significant praise (yes, even from superteam haters).
Denver Nuggets (+3600): No Murray
For a moment there, it looked like the Nuggets might become the favorites. In their first 10 games after they acquired Aaron Gordon, they went 8-2 and claimed the fifth-best net rating in the league over that time. But Jamal Murray tore his ACL, leaving the team without its second-best player for a potential return trip to the Western Conference Finals.
To the great credit of Nikola Jokic, coach Michael Malone and Co., Denver has still been a top-10 team since Murray went down. Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 23.5 points per game on 56.0/48.9/85.4 shooting in that time, looking ready to assume Murray's role of secondary creator. PJ Dozier and the 36-year-old Paul Millsap have become dominant defenders. Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo are helping to balance the offense. This is what "next player up" looks like.
Despite Denver's inspiring run over the past month, though, it feels like the team is going to come up short. While expecting Murray to replicate his 2020 postseason would have been asking too much, he would have been a problem for opponents. And while Porter poses his own issues as a three-level scorer with rare on-ball fluidity, it's hard to imagine anybody will step into the role he previously played.
Prove us wrong, Jokic. Take your undermanned team to the promised land.
Los Angeles Clippers (+600): Close-Game Situations
Between Paul George and Patrick Beverley going at Damian Lillard on social media and blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets, the Clippers made themselves an easy target last year. But they've eliminated most reasons for doubt this season.
Criticizing this team for being too reliant on jumpers is looking at it the wrong way. Los Angeles is actually 14th in attempted threes per game but first in efficiency by nearly two full percentage points. The second-worst clutch team in the NBA at one point this year, the Clippers have improved drastically in that department too, boasting a 12.0 net rating since March 1. And any concerns about regular-season defense must be tempered by the possibility that George, Beverley, Kawhi Leonard and Co. were just pacing themselves for, well, right now.
However, despite the aforementioned recent success in close games, that is still the team's biggest question mark. Even since March 1, Ty Lue's club ranks 22nd in the league in clutch assist percentage, supporting the idea that the Clippers largely depend on old-school iso ball by Leonard and George to win late.
Obviously, the duo has mostly delivered if the team's stats have improved so much in such a short time, but the failure against Denver last season left such a profound mark that we'll need to see L.A. do it in the postseason before we believe the Clippers' fortunes have turned.
Los Angeles Lakers (+500): Health and Continuity
The Lakers were 21-7 when Anthony Davis went down with Achilles soreness, and no team seemed like a true challenger to their throne. Now, after months of hand-wringing, LeBron James finally looks healthy and Davis posted 78 points in a two-game stretch against the Suns and Trail Blazers earlier this month. We might be right back where we started.
It's a trite thing to say—but the only players who can stop these Lakers are themselves.
Whether it's LeBron's and AD's inability to maintain their health—LeBron rolled his right ankle in the season finale, and while he appears to be fine, reaggravation does tend to be an issue with lower extremity injuries—or chemistry problems with newer players Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell, there are plenty of potential issues that Frank Vogel's team will have to overcome to repeat.
It's possible this won't matter. If LeBron and Davis stay healthy and perform at their usual levels, they're the league's superlative duo. However, even last year, the Lakers needed stellar contributions from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard to get over the hump and clinch their 17th title, so getting the most out of the rest of the roster is Vogel's chief project as the playoffs begin.
Miami Heat (+3000): This Ain't the Bubble
The Heat represented the Eastern Conference in the 2020 Finals, returned much of their roster for the 2020-21 campaign, have won 18 of their last 26 games and are set to face the Bucks, a team they embarrassed in the playoffs last year, in the first round. Why aren't we talking about them more?
Well, despite Miami's recent surge and talent, it has two issues.
First, while the Heat deserved to make the Finals relative to their East opponents last year, the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the 2020 playoffs made it tough to discern if they were genuinely the best team in the conference or if the combination of their culture and the fact they were closer to home than all but one playoff team made them more equipped to thrive in the bubble than their competitors.
More importantly, though, the East is deeper this year. Brooklyn is now the favorite, Philly has made clear strides, and Milwaukee addressed its disappointing 2020 postseason with tactical and personnel changes. It's a much tougher field than the one Miami outlasted less than a year ago, and so its path to return to the Finals is exponentially more difficult.
Of course, the Heat weren't a favorite last year either. But hedging against the team's success this spring seems like a safe bet.
Milwaukee Bucks (+800): Inflexibility
The Bucks' previous two seasons followed the same pattern. They rode the combination of an MVP campaign by Giannis Antetokounmpo and seamless cohesion throughout the rest of the rotation to the top seed in the East. However, when the lights got brighter and defenses tightened the screws on Giannis, neither he nor his teammates could rise to the occasion, resulting in a conference finals defeat to the Toronto Raptors and an even more shocking conference semifinals loss to the Heat.
So, that formula is what we've come to expect from Milwaukee, and we're at that point of the season wherein things are going to get tough again. Sure, the team spent much of the regular season trying out new tactics, Giannis seems to be asserting himself when coach Mike Budenholzer won't, and the addition of Jrue Holiday is undoubtedly going to help ease Giannis' shot-creation burden in the playoffs.
It seems unlikely the Bucks will fail as hard as they did last postseason. That defeat was so embarrassing that you have to imagine they'll do some things differently this time around, especially considering they can avenge last year's defeat against the mostly unchanged Heat. But these same concerns will apply throughout the playoffs, especially in a potential series for the ages against the Nets.
Philadelphia 76ers (+800): Half-Court Offense
After a disappointing 2019-20 season, the 76ers overhauled things, hiring Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers away from the Rockets and Clippers, respectively, and trading poor fits in Al Horford and Josh Richardson.
The ensuing season has easily been the best one of The Process era, resulting in the East's top seed and the league's fifth-best net rating. Joel Embiid is widely considered the runner-up in the MVP race, and Ben Simmons is a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Things are good in the City of Brotherly Love.
But despite Embiid's offensive improvement—he's shooting more efficiently and turning the ball over less on a per-minute basis than ever—interior-oriented players are just at a disadvantage in this iteration of the game.
Yes, Embiid can shoot jumpers, and, yes, he's improved as a shot-creator, but if Philly is playing a close game against Brooklyn, Milwaukee or the L.A. Lakers, are you really going to trust Embiid in a shot-making contest with the Nets' Big Three, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or LeBron James and Anthony Davis? The numbers suggest you shouldn't, as the 76ers' 13th-ranked offense is third-worst among any of the nine teams listed here (and worst among teams who didn't make the 2020 Finals and have the shortest offseason ever).
It would be exciting if Embiid dominated the postseason. After everything he and the franchise has been through, we're rooting for it. But let's wait to see him do it before assuming he will.
Phoenix Suns (+2400): Size
Yes, most of the Suns' core players have no postseason experience, and the ones who do are Chris Paul, he of the famously checkered playoff background, and Jae Crowder, an inconsistent role player. That's a real concern, and it certainly doesn't help that their first-round matchup will come against LeBron James or Stephen Curry, perhaps the two most decorated playoff performers of the last decade.
But such a shortcoming is not interesting to talk about, particularly since Phoenix has been so surprising this year. So, let's look elsewhere.
One tactical issue the Suns will likely run into is their lack of big-man depth. Now, it's not like they don't have NBA-caliber players at center: Deandre Ayton's rise this season has been well documented, and Dario Saric has quietly become a solid option down low. But they pale in comparison to the slate of bigs in the Western Conference alone. Anthony Davis may await as soon as this weekend, Nikola Jokic could be there the round after that, and Rudy Gobert may be in the round after that.
We may have an answer to this question very soon, because if the Suns play the Lakers and are able to outmaneuver Davis, then they've clearly found a solution to this problem and should be considered with the utmost respect going forward. But that's far from a guarantee.
Utah Jazz (+600): Donovan Mitchell's Health
At full strength, the Jazz have concerns. But they're not at full strength, so we must start there when interrogating their playoff outlook.
Since two-time All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell sprained his ankle April 16, Utah hasn't provided many updates, only ruling him out for the remainder of the regular season with three games to go. There are just two ways to interpret that cryptic message—either the team wanted to give him ample rest before the postseason begins, or he's nowhere close to a return.
If it were the former, don't you think we'd have heard something along the lines of "Donovan's taking his time" or "we don't want him to reaggravate the injury" rather than the formal tone that was projected?
It would be a bummer if Mitchell can't return right away or isn't himself when he does come back, not only because it would be a letdown after the team's dominant regular season but also because he has been excellent when it matters most.
As a rookie, Mitchell outdueled Russell Westbrook and Paul George in a first-round series, and he famously traded scorching-hot performances with Jamal Murray in last year's bubble. He loves the bright lights, and given that this is the Jazz's best team in over 20 years, it would be thrilling if he put on a show alongside one of the most talented supporting casts in the league.
Mike Conley finally made his first All-Star team, Rudy Gobert may soon win his third Defensive Player of the Year award, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are co-leaders for Sixth Man of the Year, and Bojan Bogdanovic put up 48 points against the Nuggets earlier this month. This team is ready for prime time.
Fingers crossed Mitchell returns soon.
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