What's Holding Back Every NBA Contender?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 14, 2021

What's Holding Back Every NBA Contender?

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    No NBA roster is perfect.

    Even the best of the best teams have flaws.

    Some are too top-heavy. Others have soft spots in the rotation. Still others must have really wronged the injury bug in a past life.

    We'll look into those weaknesses and more, as we spotlight the one thing holding back each championship contender, a distinction earned simply by ranking among the top 10 in FanDuel's championship odds.

Denver Nuggets: Injury Issues (Championship Odds: +2400)

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    AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    Taken in totality, Denver's roster seems capable of making a championship run. The problem is the Nuggets haven't been whole all season and won't be at any point.

    They came in missing fireballing point guard Jamal Murray, who is working his way back from a mid-April tear of the ACL in his left knee. Then, they lost tenacious perimeter defender PJ Dozier to the same injury in late November. The snowball kept rolling when three-level scoring forward Michael Porter Jr. was lost to back surgery around the same time, an ailment expected to sideline him the rest of this season, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

    For all of the magic reigning MVP Nikola Jokic creates on the court, his bag of tricks isn't deep enough to cover all of these voids.

    Even at full strength, there were questions of whether Denver's defense could level up to the contending tier. But those are moot when the Murray-less, Porter-less attack lacks the firepower to form the foundation of a championship run.

Philadelphia 76ers: The Ben Simmons-Less Defense (+2400)

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    Last season, the Sixers ranked second in defensive efficiency. This year, they're down to 18th.

    Last season, the Sixers got 1,877 minutes out of two-time All-Defensive first-teamer Ben Simmons. This year, they've gotten none and presumably won't, as the 6'11" point guard and five-position defender waits for his trade request to be granted.

    Think those things might be related?

    It hasn't helped that Joel Embiid has missed 10 games, or that Matisse Thybulle has continued having his role held in check by his offensive limitations, but let's not overthink this. The Sixers had one of the league's top stoppers last season, and now they don't.

    The real question is whether whatever Philly receives in a Simmons swap (assuming one actually goes down this season) adds enough defensively to get this club back inside of the top 10.

Los Angeles Clippers: Underwhelming Playmakers (+2100)

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    The Clippers have needed an upgrade at point for years. To the surprise of no one, the return of Eric Bledsoe did nothing to scratch that itch.

    L.A. apparently counted on Paul George single-handedly steering the ship while Kawhi Leonard recovers from July surgery on a partial tear of the ACL in his right knee. George has done everything he can to captain it, but the weight of his heavy workload might be getting to him.

    Since exploding out of the gates with 28.9 points on 50.7/42.2/85.2 shooting over his first seven outings, the star swingman has crashed back to Earth. Over the 17 games he's played since, he's down to 23.4 points on 38.8/27.0/88.9 shooting.

    In a perfect world, he'd have someone to help shoulder the playmaking burden so he could focus on his own scoring and shutdown defense. But the Clippers don't have that player. Reggie Jackson is a scorer, and Bledsoe is a defender. Without a floor general to prop up this attack, it has tumbled down to 25th in offensive efficiency.

Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson's Slow Start (+1200)

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    If you wanted to go with injury issues for the Heat, you could. They're down All-Stars Jimmy Butler (tailbone) and Bam Adebayo (thumb), and there isn't a team around that could mask two absences of that ilk. Having said that, these should be temporary setbacks—knock on wood—so they hopefully aren't problems that will linger throughout the season.

    Some will argue Duncan Robinson's shooting slump won't last that long either, and given his track record, they might be right. If his last five outings are any indication (48.5 percent shooting), maybe he's already on the way to putting this dry spell behind him.

    But since so much of his value is tied to outside shooting, we'd be remiss not to mention his fall from the ranks of elite sniper (42.7 percent the past two seasons) to the realm of mediocrity (34.2). Although, his reputation as an ignitable gunner at least forces defenses to keep a close eye on him whether he's shredding nets or not.

    "Just him being on the floor spaces the floor so much for us because guys aren't going to help off of him," Max Strus said, per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. "He has the reputation; everybody knows how good of a shooter he is. So guys aren't going to help."

    Still, the Heat offense is 1.5 points better per 100 possessions without him, so it's not like this uncharacteristic cold streak has had no effect. And given the lack of shooting in the starting lineup around him—Kyle Lowry is cold, Jimmy Butler rarely lets it fly and Bam Adebayo never takes triples—Miami loses a big chunk of its margin for error when Robinson misses his mark.

Utah Jazz: Wing Defense (+1100)

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    As the Jazz collapsed against the Clippers in last season's conference semis—marking Utah's fifth exit from the first or second round in five seasons—two pressing needs came to the surface. One was a small-ball big who would let the Jazz switch their style up. The other was a big wing defender who could help 6'4" stopper Royce O'Neale tackle the NBA's toughest assignments.

    Utah scratched the first itch by luring Rudy Gay to Salt Lake City, but it didn't have the resources to cover the second. So when the Jazz inevitably face the fiery perimeter scorers sure to stand between them and a title, they'll again be hoping that O'Neale's point-of-attack defense and Rudy Gobert's paint protection will be enough to extinguish any of the opposition's offensive bursts.

    It isn't the greatest concern for the regular season, as evidenced by the fact that Utah finds itself near the top of the defensive efficiency rankings (sixth), as per usual. But the Jazz are aiming higher than regular-season goals.

    Get to the postseason, and that's when individual matchups and scheme adjustments start to exploit even the smallest shortcomings. This very weakness has held back this club before, and with so many of the same players still around, it threatens to rear its ugly head at the least opportune time yet again.

Los Angeles Lakers: No Spacing (+1000)

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    Watch enough of this Lakers offense, and you're bound to feel claustrophobic.

    Anthony Davis rarely shoots threes anymore. Russell Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker take more than their splash rates say they should. When that's 60 percent of the starting lineup, it almost doesn't matter what LeBron James and Avery Bradley do from distance, since they can't space the floor by themselves.

    With bowling balls like James and Westbrook, and Davis theoretically in the heart of his prime as a 28-year-old, you'd think this team would terrorize opponents when it goes to the basket. Instead, the Lakers average the third-fewest points off drives in the league (19.1). Similarly, a three-star squad should be routinely cooking defenders in one-on-one matchups, yet the Lakers sit in the 21st percentile on isolation plays.

    Either L.A.'s stars are fading faster than expected, or something is preventing them from doing what they do best. We're betting on the latter, since the Lakers lack the shooters needed to keep opposing teams honest on defense. The ones they do have are either specialists (Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington) or inconsistent threats (Westbrook, Horton-Tucker and Malik Monk), and neither seems like the solution to this predictable problem.

Phoenix Suns: Backup Backcourt (+900)

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    Nitpicking is a must to find fault with the Suns. Since opening the season with one in four tries, they have promptly won 20 of their last 21 outings. And the only blip was a road loss to the Warriors in a game Devin Booker missed.

    This team is tremendous.

    If Phoenix wanted to get greedy, though, it could desire more from its reserve guards. Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet are both shooting below 40 percent from the field. Elfrid Payton doesn't look at the basket much when the Suns break him out from behind emergency glass.

    With Booker and Chris Paul comprising one of the best backcourt tandems in the Association, it's not like the Suns will ever lean too heavily on their understudies. But when the subs are needed—like they are now with Booker still ailing (hamstring)—it would help if their production was more reliable.

Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez's Absence (+700)

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    The Bucks are 12-2 in their last 14 games and 13-1 when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton all hit the hardwood. They're one of three teams overall and the only Eastern Conference club with top-seven efficiency ranks on offense (sixth) and defense (seventh).

    There may be nothing at all holding back the defending champs.

    Since the purpose of this exercise is to sniff out a soft spot, though, let's pinpoint the ongoing absence of Brook Lopez. Milwaukee's starting center hasn't played since opening night and it's uncertain when (or if) he'll return after recently undergoing back surgery.

    Clearly, the Bucks can do damage without him, but they aren't quite as powerful as they could be. Bobby Portis is doing his best to replace Lopez's unicorn combo of shot-blocking and floor-spacing, but Lopez has deeper shooting range and provides much more resistance at the rim.

Golden State Warriors: Unremarkable Options Up Front (+600)

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    Since starting the season on an 18-2 tear, the Warriors have split their last six games with a common theme emerging from the three losses: Size still matters, and Golden State doesn't have much of it.

    The sirens first sounded against the Phoenix Suns, when Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee combined for 32 points on 15-of-23 shooting and 13 rebounds in their 41 minutes. They continued against the San Antonio Spurs, as Jakob Poeltl posted a team-high plus-21, while Kevon Looney struggled to a minus-20. They blared again on Saturday, when Philadelphia 76ers centers Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond totaled 35 points and 18 boards over their 48 minutes.

    While some of the better centers in the Association are present here, the Dubs could see one elite big after the next during the second season. Depending on the way their championship round winds, they could see any combination of Ayton, Embiid, Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Are the Warriors up for those tests? They'll leave the biggest moments up to Draymond Green, who has mastered the art of playing bigger than his 6'6" frame, but this might hinge on the impact of sophomore center James Wiseman. Last year's No. 2 pick flashed encouraging moments in between longer stretches of frustration last season, but hopefully he returns from a torn meniscus with much-improved instincts and awareness.

Brooklyn Nets: Lack of Scoring Depth (+260)

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Nets were built to win—or, really, dominate—with offense. An attack headlined by Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving looks unstoppable on paper and proved to be such in practice, when it established the hoops world's new high mark for offensive efficiency last season (118.3 offensive rating).

    However, the formula hasn't computed this season with Irving out of the lineup and Harden lagging behind his typical production rate (20.8 points per game on 40.4 percent shooting).

    LaMarcus Aldridge is now the de facto third option, even though he has only made eight starts and averages fewer than 24 minutes a night. Patty Mills and Joe Harris are the only other players averaging even seven points per outing.

    It's possible huge help could be on the way, though, as The Athletic's Shams Charania reported there is "renewed optimism" about Irving suiting up yet this season. It's unclear how that would happen—Irving getting vaccinated or the Nets allowing him to play road games—but if this offense gets Uncle Drew back, then Brooklyn could vault back into the-team-to-beat territory.


    Statistics through Sunday's games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted. Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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