1 Flaw Every NBA Team Must Fix Before It's Too Late
Get your red pens ready, folks, because assessment time has arrived for the 2021-22 NBA season.
All teams have played at least 20 games, meaning the sample size is getting big enough to trust. Trends could still change from this point, but clubs are starting to get a clearer idea of what they can and likely can't do during this campaign (just in time for #TradeSZN, no less!).
Not to drown out the optimism that still reigns supreme for most fanbases, but we're following the numbers and, when necessary, picking the nits to uncover each club's biggest flaw that needs correcting sooner rather than later.
Atlanta Hawks: Perimeter Defense
Defense in general has been an issue for the Hawks, who sit just 22nd in efficiency, but it's been particularly problematic at the point of attack.
Granted, maybe that's inevitable with a Trae Young-led team, but the issue is magnified by the loss of De'Andre Hunter to right wrist surgery. It also doesn't help that Cam Reddish's minutes have been sliced since last season, or that offseason addition Delon Wright has only carved out a niche role (13.1 minutes per night).
Seven of the 12 players to score 20-plus points on 50-plus percent shooting against the Hawks so far are guards.
Boston Celtics: Erratic Shooting
It's tempting to narrow the focus here to Jayson Tatum's shooting slump, since this season will never get off the ground if the Shamrocks can't activate their superstar. But history says it's only a matter of time until the career 45.2/38.8/83.7 shooter really elevates his current 39.7/31.9/80.8 percentages.
Besides, widening the lens beyond the All-Star swingman highlights the full scope of the situation.
Collectively, this club is converting just 32.8 percent from range, which ranks 25th across the league. Jaylen Brown is the only player among Boston's top-seven scorers clearing 35 percent from three, while sub-24-percent-shooting sophomores Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have apparently bricked their way out of the rotation.
Brooklyn Nets: Underwhelming Bigs
LaMarcus Aldridge has been a godsend for the Nets, at least offensively. While the 36-year-old can be exploited by perimeter players at the opposite end, he's still giving this group something of tangible value (namely, his 13.6 points per contest on 57.1/37.5/78.9 shooting).
Which other Brooklyn big man can make that claim?
Blake Griffin got yanked from the rotation, Paul Millsap could be in danger of a similar fate and Nic Claxton lost a month-plus to an undisclosed illness. James Johnson has had some moments, but as a 34-year-old who's never been the best decision-maker, there is a pretty low point of diminishing returns with him.
Charlotte Hornets: Leaky Defense
The Hornets have scored at least 119 points in each of their last three games—and lost all three.
Thank goodness the offensive eruptions are at least enjoyable because this defense is a disaster. It has the untenable combo of failing to both protect the paint and keep opponents off the free-throw line. The Hornets are in the bottom 10 in opponents' field goals within five feet, opponents' shooting from the same range and opponents' free-throw attempts.
"We just have to be better defensively," Hornets coach James Borrego told reporters. "... Our offense is fine—it's the defensive end that's the problem. All of us have to be better."
Chicago Bulls: Three-Point Volume
Chicago has mostly enjoyed a loud start to the season: loud scoring stats from DeMar DeRozan; loud defensive disruptions from Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso; loud, double-digit victories over the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, the Bulls need to increase the volume in another area: three-point shooting.
Percentage-wise, Chicago is killing it from deep (37.1, fourth overall), but the club doesn't make many threes (10.9 per game, 28th) because it doesn't take many threes (29.3, 29th). That's partly inevitable with a DeRozan-led attack, but if the Bulls could squeeze more out of their spacers—Nikola Vucevic has more to give than 1.6 triples per night—then DeRozan would have even more room to operate inside the arc.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Spacing Issues
Between Evan Mobley's arrival and the adoption of a three-big starting five (with Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen), Cleveland transformed its defense overnight. The Cavs were 25th in defensive efficiency last season; now they're third overall and tops in the Eastern Conference.
But the combination of this triplet-towers model and the replacement of the injured Collin Sexton with Isaac Okoro has torpedoed the first five's ability to properly space the floor.
Allen essentially never shoots threes, Okoro never makes them (20.9 percent) and Mobley only slightly dabbles from distance at this early stage of his career. The only three-point threats with the first five are Markkanen and Darius Garland, and both are splashing under 36 percent of their long-range looks.
Dallas Mavericks: Lack of Quality Wins
One of the hallmarks of good teams is winning the games they should. The Mavs have aced that test and downed nine of the 10 teams they've faced with losing records.
However, a staple of great, contender-level clubs is being able to hang with and knock off this league's elite competition. That's where Dallas' credentials come up short.
The Mavs have gone just 2-8 against teams with .500-plus records. Their signature win is either a 10-point triumph over a Denver Nuggets team missing both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. or an eight-point, overtime win against the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers. If Dallas can't secure more quality victories soon, the front office faces some long, uncomfortable debates over whether this core ever can.
Denver Nuggets: Support Scoring
No Jamal Murray plus no Michael Porter Jr. equals big problems in Denver.
The Nuggets are 18th in offensive efficiency despite Nikola Jokic arguably outperforming his MVP efforts, Will Barton joining the Most Improved Player race as a 30-year-old veteran and Aaron Gordon proving he has more to offer than defensive versatility.
But Barton is overtaxed as the second scorer, Gordon is at his best when someone else creates his scoring chances and none of the other non-Jokic options is a major threat to go off. With Denver's defense spiraling the past few weeks (dead last in efficiency since Nov. 15), this team might have taken more injury blows than it can handle.
Detroit Pistons: Abysmal Shooting
Pinpointing the Pistons' issues borders on cruel and unusual punishment for a few reasons.
First, there are too many of the count, so it's hard for any to rise above the rest. Second, these performance flaws are sort of intentional, or at least the byproduct of veering hard into a top-to-bottom rebuild. Detroit's players might want to win, but this front office should be comfortable taking the long road back to relevance and hopefully adding a few more blue-chip prospects along the way.
Having said all of that, this exercise is about identifying flaws, and good lord, this is an awful shooting team.
The Pistons are last in both field-goal (40.7) and three-point percentage (29.9), and they aren't even making 33 percent of the threes taken with six-plus feet of open space (32.6 to be precise). The three highest-usage shooters—Jerami Grant, Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey—are a combined 327-of-861 (38 percent) for the season. Blech!
Golden State Warriors: Lack of Size
Picking nits is a must to criticize a club with 18 wins to show for its first 21 contests, and Golden State might disagree with this assessment, since so much of its recent success was tied to small-ball.
Having said that, the Warriors' inability to handle the Phoenix Suns' size on Tuesday night suggests this could become a problem in certain matchups. Suns centers Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee got any and everything they wanted against this frontcourt, as they combined for 32 points on 15-of-23 shooting and 13 rebounds.
In a perfect world, the impending return of 2020's No. 2 pick, James Wiseman, will scratch this itch. To make that happen, though, the 20-year-old must show much better awareness and instincts than he displayed as a rookie.
Houston Rockets: Turnover Troubles
There are a lot of different ways to present Houston's turnover woes, none of which should be viewed by the squeamish members of the audience.
They're all awful, which should probably be expected of an offense quarterbacked by a 21-year-old shooting-guard-turned-point-guard (Kevin Porter Jr.) and a 19-year-old freshman scoring guard (Jalen Green). The Rockets have a league-worst 18.0 turnover percentage, and just in case that figure doesn't jump off of your screen, just know that no other team is at 17 and only two others clear 16.
Porter (4.1 turnovers per game) and Green (2.7) are the biggest culprits, but a lack of ball security runs throughout this roster. It's one thing to let young players stretch out their wings; it's another to allow them to develop bad habits.
Indiana Pacers: Late-Game Execution
Between Rick Carlisle on the sidelines and a number of capable contributors in the rotation, the Pacers don't look like a team that should be shouldering around a sub-.400 winning percentage. But when the late-game going gets tough, this group's execution gets all out of whack.
A missed call here or there doesn't help, but it also doesn't forgive the club's ghastly 1-7 record in games decided by three points or less. Similarly, it doesn't explain away Indy's awful minus-22.0 net rating in clutch situations (final five minutes with a margin of five points or fewer).
If you want to drop in any disclaimers about T.J. Warren not suiting up yet (foot) or Caris LeVert rounding into form after a stress fracture in his back, that's fine. But it doesn't get those losses back, which could loom large in the highly competitive Eastern Conference standings.
Los Angeles Clippers: Limited Playmaking
It speaks to Paul George's growth as a table-setter that he can serve as the primary playmaker of a .500 team. Unfortunately, it says even more about what the Clippers don't have at the point guard spot that they're forced to saddle PG with these duties while also needing him to serve as their top scorer and best defender (sans Kawhi Leonard).
Reggie Jackson's best offensive attribute is scoring. Eric Bledsoe's is...hmmm...defense? Even when Nicolas Batum was at his best, he did everything in complementary fashion. Terance Mann's third-year leap hasn't happened. Luke Kennard can get over his skis when he's not catching and launching.
If the Clippers could line up the financial figures, they'd make sense as a John Wall trade suitor. Wall finished last season tied for 293rd in FiveThirtyEight's catch-all RAPTOR metric and gave the Rockets negative win shares. When he has emerged as a possible solution, you know the problem is dire.
Los Angeles Lakers: Backcourt Shooting
The Lakers have built their basketball ecosystem around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The dearth of shooting in their supporting cast makes the roster read like an old "Hold My Beer" meme.
You'd think L.A. would have overloaded with snipers, since James has typically done his best work in spread-out offenses, and Davis could feast with all of the open real estate he would have. Instead, L.A. started non-shooter DeAndre Jordan (who's now being replaced by fellow non-shooter Dwight Howard) while pairing Russell Westbrook (a career 30.5 percent three-point shooter) with Talen Horton-Tucker (28.5) in the backcourt.
There's a good amount of shot-creation in that quintet, sure, but phone booths—these things (I'm old, sorry)—offer more breathing room than that lineup.
Memphis Grizzlies: Defensive Woes
Care to wager how many teams have been less efficient than the Grizzlies on defense this season? You can count the number on one hand—without raising a finger. (Technically, they're tied for the bottom with the New Orleans Pelicans, but you should never want to share a ranking with that unit.)
Grit-and-grind ball this is not. Memphis' defense is bleeding points (112.8 per night, even after the Oklahoma City Thunder's junior varsity squad put up a paltry 79 in the Grizzlies' historic blowout on Thursday), and there aren't enough bandages in the world to stop it.
Granted, the Grizzlies probably won't allow teams to shoot a scorching 38.4 percent from range all season, but their 46.6 field-goal percentage against (25th) needs more than regression to be cured.
Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson's Shooting Funk
Maybe $90 million doesn't stretch as far as it used to, but this can't be what Miami had in mind when it gave Duncan Robinson the richest contract ever for an undrafted player.
He's a specialist, but the Heat thought enough of his three-point specialty to shower him with cash. Given that he'd just bagged 520 three-balls at a 42.7 percent clip across his first two full seasons in South Beach, it was hard to blame them.
But now? Let the second-guessing commence! Robinson's three-point connection rate has cratered to 31.8 percent—worse than all but two teams this season—and the Heat have been 5.4 points better per 100 possessions without him.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez's Balky Back
OK, so this isn't technically something the Bucks can fix quickly, as Brook Lopez is shelved indefinitely after back surgery. But if you've been underwhelmed by the defending champs at all this season, it's hard to blame anything but all of the absences.
Lopez last played on opening night. Donte DiVincenzo's season debut still awaits. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have only suited up 10 times together—all 10 of them Bucks' wins, by the way.
The loss of Lopez looms large over this group, though. Large enough that they broke the emergency glass and became the latest team to hope DeMarcus Cousins still has something left in the tank. Milwaukee has upped its perimeter arsenal to live without Lopez on offense, but his length, communication and rim protection are all notably absent on the defensive end.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Ineffcient Offense
The Timberwolves are built to win with offense. You can't (or at least shouldn't) build a roster around Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell and expect to find success any other way.
But a strange thing happened on Minnesota's way to nightly races to 120-plus points: The defense has outperformed the offense, and not by a narrow margin. While the Wolves sit a surprising seventh in defensive efficiency, their offense is buried at 21st.
Let's give a quick cap tip to Minnesota's stoppers, but this offense needs to find a quick fix. Some simple shot-making might do the trick, as the Timberwolves rank among the Association's bottom half in shooting from the field (42.9 percent, 27th), from three (33.2, 23rd) and at the stripe (76.8, 19th).
New Orleans Pelicans: The Zion Williamson-Sized Hole in the Roster
Look, you can second-guess New Orleans' front office for letting Lonzo Ball go, grow frustrated by the inconsistencies of Nickeil Alexander-Walker or wonder why the light bulb hasn't clicked for Jaxson Hayes, but analyzing anything about the Pelicans without Zion Williamson just feels wrong.
He is the foundation of their present and (hopefully) future, the beacon of hope for the post-Anthony Davis era. Williamson is also still awaiting his season debut after recently experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired right foot.
Deep sigh. The Pelicans have no choice but to wait for their potential savior, even if this season is threatening to tip beyond the point of saving without him. A healthy Williamson might not help their disastrous defense, but he would surely put a huge charge into their 26th-ranked offense.
New York Knicks: Julius Randle's Regression
It feels icky pointing a finger at Julius Randle when Kemba Walker played poorly enough to get yanked out of the rotation, Evan Fournier has fought with inconsistency and Randle is on the heels of two monster performances that hopefully get him going.
But that's the thing: He needs to get going, because he hasn't been the same player as last season. And if he can't return to All-Star level or something very close to it, then the rest of the Knicks' equation will never calculate.
They may have spent the summer trying to enhance what he has around him, but as his four-year, $117.1 million extension suggests, he is the primary factor for their success. Everything added up last season when he booked his first All-Star trip by tallying 24.1 points per night on 45.6/41.1/81.1 shooting. It's not computing the same now that he's down to 19.9 points on 43.1/32.5/74.3.
Oklahoma City Thunder: ... Everything?
Teams like the Thunder effectively break exercises like this, because they work under the assumption that everyone is pursuing on-court success this season. OKC might be scrappier than expected—Thursday's horrific 73-point defeat notwithstanding—but this season is all about maximizing draft lottery odds in the Sooner State, since the Thunder's own picks look more valuable than any of the many they've collected.
Throw a dart at the stat sheet, and it'll probably land on a problem area for this team. OKC sits dead last on offense and 20th on defense. Just three players average more than nine points per outing, and defensive specialist Lu Dort has the best field-goal percentage of the trio at 43.1. All three—him, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey—are shooting worse than 33 percent from distance.
Darius Bazley has regressed, and he wasn't exactly dominant to begin with. Aleksej Pokusevski is transforming from a curiosity to an afterthought. Derrick Favors is waiting for a size-needy contender to come rescue him. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is learning it's hard to be human adhesive when there's nothing to glue together.
Good thing Oklahoma's football coaching search can briefly distract some fans.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross' Sinking Trade Value
Everything must be graded on a curve for the Magic this season, which is why their fans can get legitimately excited about a club winning less than a quarter of its contests. Orlando has only taken a few steps into the rebuilding waters and already seen encouraging returns from Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. (Still waiting on Jalen Suggs, but that's fine for now.)
Because the Magic are a team in transition, some of Terrence Ross' sagging stats can be forgiven. He is surrounded by players still finding their way in this league, so it's not shocking to see him struggle to find his own place in the offense.
Having said that, his appeal to potential trade partners is all tied to his scoring punch, and so far, he hasn't had the oomph to put Glass Joe on the canvas. (Another timely reference!) Suitors might give Ross some benefit of the doubt, but they won't part with a meaningful asset for an offensive specialist averaging single-digit points, shooting 38.1 percent from the field and misfiring on more than 70 percent of his long-range looks.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Unresolved Ben Simmons Saga
Since sprinting out to an 8-2 start, Philadelphia has limped to a 3-9 record. The Sixers are down to 18th in defensive efficiency. Joel Embiid, who had a serious COVID-19 scare, has yet to recapture the magic that propelled him to a second-place finish in last season's MVP voting. Tobias Harris has lost nearly 10 percentage points from his perimeter splash rate. No one has averaged even five assists per night.
There are issues with this team, but none bigger than the fact it has a healthy, 25-year-old All-Star on the roster but not on the hardwood. Something's gotta give on the Simmons front sooner than later. The Sixers have publicly preached practicing as much patience as needed, but if they want to salvage anything from this season—as they should with a superstar anchoring the interior—they should find the best offer out there and give this roster the boost it so clearly needs.
Phoenix Suns: Frontcourt Floor-Spacing
The right answer might be some quip about the length of the remaining schedule, because holy smokes are the Suns in some kind of groove. Since opening the campaign with three losses in four games, Phoenix reeled off a franchise-record 18 consecutive victories heading into Friday night's showdown with the Warriors, a squad the Suns downed on Tuesday night despite an early exit by Devin Booker (hamstring).
Shifting the attention to legitimate flaws, Phoenix might quietly have a need for more three-point shooting. The word "might" is important, because the Suns rank sixth on offense, so the fact they favor mid-range shots isn't an efficiency-drainer.
Still, this attack could grow even harder for opponents to handle if it had a bit more stretch to it, especially up front. With Dario Saric still recovering from an ACL tear, Frank Kaminsky sidelined by a stress reaction in his right knee and Jalen Smith unable to crack the rotation, Phoenix doesn't have anyone providing the size-shooting combo.
Portland Trail Blazers: Defense (Again)
Shockingly, Portland's coaching change from Terry Stotts to Chauncey Billups has changed nothing about this team's problematically generous defense. In case the sarcasm font didn't come through your screens, this surprises absolutely no one.
The Blazers have struggled for years to field a competent defense around the undersized backcourt combo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Giving the starting 3 spot to 6'3" scorer Norman Powell only further exposed this leaky defense.
Portland sits 28th in defensive efficiency. I suppose it could be worse, though. In fact, it was just last season when the Blazers landed 29th in the category. The broken record (timely reference No. 3!) spins on and on.
Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox's Failure to Launch
Most arrows (at least the optimistic ones) pointed to De'Aaron Fox making this season his All-Star emergence. He put himself in contention last season, saw Sacramento add another lottery pick this offseason (Davion Mitchell) and acknowledged a need to improve his defensive consistency.
Fox's leap year isn't happening. He's actually trending the other direction and wouldn't generate a whisper in the All-Star discussion right now.
His offense is down almost across the board, including deep percentage cuts from the field (47.7 to 43.2) and from three (32.2 to 27.3). His defense might be worse than ever. He ranks 248th among 251 qualified players in defensive RAPTOR, per FiveThirtyEight, and Sacramento's defense allows 17.4 fewer points per 100 possessions without him.
San Antonio Spurs: Individual Offense
Turns out, San Antonio's famed good-to-great approach on offense isn't quite the same without good-to-great talent on the roster. Whodathunk?
While Dejounte Murray is doing everything in his power to challenge the notion that the Spurs are star-less, there aren't enough high-level offensive options to make this work. No one averages 20-plus points, and only Murray pumps in more than 15 per night. For context, there are 34 players averaging 20-plus around the league, and 79 clearing 15.
When the Spurs' system can't create a bucket, and they need a player to go find one, they don't have anywhere to turn. San Antonio is the league's least efficient offense on isolations, which yield a measly 0.73 points per possession. But hey, at least the Spurs isolate less frequently than anyone, so that's something, right?
Toronto Raptors: Not Enough Analytically Approved Shots
If modern teams follow the numbers, they should feast on threes, point-blank shots and free throws. The Raptors don't check any of those boxes too convincingly.
Toronto sits 25th in made triples (11.3 per game) and 19th in three-point percentage (34.0). It is tied for 24th in field goals from the restricted area (15.0) and the second-least accurate attack from that range (58.4). At the free-throw line, it is tied for 23rd in makes (14.5) and an unremarkable 15th in connection rate (77.5).
Utah Jazz: Too Many Giveaways
The Jazz have this season's best offense and its sixth-best defense. Poking holes in this club is a little like trying to hammer a nail into brick. You can eventually get there, but it takes some work.
Because Utah plays a controlled pace (21st), it needs to maximize the value of each offensive possession. For the most part, it does. But it can run into trouble with turnovers, evidenced most clearly by the fact it's down at 22nd in turnover percentage.
That's not a damning ranking—the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers both rank lower—but it gives opponents an out. The Jazz are almost impossible to score against when they get set, but they can be vulnerable when the opposition gets a chance to run. To that end, Utah is tied for 21st in opponents' points off turnovers (21st) and even worse when adjusting for pace (25th per 100 possessions).
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal's Cold Shooting
An unexpected chill has breezed through the District. Bradley Beal, typically one of the NBA's best net-shredders, and his atypical shooting struggles are to blame.
The silver medalist in last season's scoring race with 31.3 points per game, Beal is down to just 22.7, his fewest (by far) in four seasons. Before attributing the loss of volume to Washington's improved depth, a lot of the damage has been self-imposed. He's down five full percentage points from the field (43.5, from 48.5) and eight points behind last season's three-point rate (26.9, 34.9).
That this hasn't completely bottomed out Washington's 19th-ranked attack shows how well the new pieces have fit. But it also ups the intrigue for what this offense could become if (when?) Beal gets his groove back.
Statistics through Thursday's games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Spotrac. Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.