We have two clear frontrunners in the NBA title race in Boston and Milwaukee. After that, there’s a jumble of teams trying to convince themselves that they have a puncher’s chance of winning the championship. In the West, especially, there is no juggernaut. Nobody whimpers themselves to sleep thinking about playing Memphis or New Orleans in the conference finals.
Every team has a flaw, and most have several. With yesterday being the unofficial opening of trade season, it’s important to take stock of where each squad is vulnerable. Someone, maybe multiple someones, will look around and decide that this is the year to go for it. We haven’t heard many sexy names being shopped around, but as the trade deadline approaches in February, there will be at least one shocking monster trade as a contender tries to address its biggest issues.
It’s astonishing how many teams fancy themselves in the title hunt. Although squads like Sacramento and Utah have been better than several teams on this list, I’m more interested in dissecting the teams that wanted to be title contenders in the preseason. As much as I love what’s happening in Sactown and SLC, they certainly didn’t start the season with championship aspirations.
Boston Celtics: Forcing turnovers
The Celtics are the most complete team in the league. They’re good on both sides of the ball, historically dominant on offense, and sneakily top-ten again on defense. Most of their “flaws” are just stylistic choices: they’re last in the league in offensive rebounding, for example, but that’s because coach Joe Mazzulla has at least four guys on the perimeter on offense who are trained to sprint back in transition defense.
The biggest issue: they rarely force turnovers. Partly, this is due to the team’s defensive discipline: Mazzulla again has them playing a conservative style, foregoing gambles to stay positionally sound. That’s usually a good thing. The return of Robert Williams will also help this to a large degree, as he brings shotblocking and quick hands. Boston also never turns the ball over themselves, so it’s not like they’re staring at a massive possession deficit.
A little more chaos could go a long way toward getting Boston easy points in the postseason grind, but let’s be honest: I’m reaching here.
Milwaukee Bucks: Halfcourt offense
Milwaukee also has an issue forcing turnovers, which is surprising given the big defensive names on the roster, but since their defense has been almost as dominant as the Celtics’ offense, I’ll give them a pass.
Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense remains a problem. They’re averaging just 94.2 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, 21st in the league. Even with Khris Middleton missing most of the season, that’s significantly worse than you would expect for a team with solid shooting around Giannis.
Giannis has been part of the problem: he’s still an MVP candidate, but he hasn’t been quite as efficient as in the past. His finishing at the rim is still excellent, but his short midrange game and jumper have completely fallen apart. In addition, after a bounceback year, his free throw accuracy has fallen to career-worst levels (63%), and he’s racking up 10-second violations at the charity stripe again.
I have no idea what’s going on with the free throw thing, and I’m confident Giannis will figure out his offense. He’s still an absolute animal on that side. But right now, the halfcourt offense isn’t clicking, just like in last season’s postseason offensive struggles without Middleton. They’ll need to fix that before this year’s ‘yoffs arrive.
New Orleans Pelicans: Rim protection
I just went in hard on New Orleans’ defense, so I’ll keep it short. But if there’s one area the Pels may look to upgrade, it’ll be finding someone who can host a block party (Nerlens Noel, maybe?).
Though the Pels do a good job keeping opponents from getting to the rim in the first place, allowing offenses to shoot 71% at the hoop is atrocious. Unfortunately, there is no fix on the roster, and the scheme is already strained trying to pack the paint (the Pels give up a large number of open threes). So this might be something New Orleans has to live with unless they’re willing to make a move.
Memphis Grizzlies: Technical fouls
Memphis is a well-rounded squad with a deep crew of players whose skillsets mesh beautifully. They are pretty good at damn near everything. But they’ve accumulated the third-most technical fouls per game in the league and have two players (Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks) in the top ten in total techs received.
Is this really a major concern? No, we’re nitpicking here. But the Grizzlies play with a ton of passion, which can sometimes lead to inopportune displays of animosity. Playoff games have been swung by techs before, and the Grizz will need every point they can get to bring a parade to Beale Street.
Golden State Warriors: Everything but Steph
Yes, they’re currently below .500, and Steph may be hurt, but I have to include the Warriors in the list of contenders. They’re fresh off a championship, and Steph has never played better.
But the young guys are still finding their way; Poole and Draymond both look worse than expected after their brawl in the preseason (well, by “brawl,” I mean “Draymond punching Poole in the face”); and the hull of the defense is leaking after years of proud sea journeys. An underrated storyline: coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers still don’t have new contracts for next season. Kerr has clashed with ownership over his treatment of young players, and Myers’ big swings in the draft haven’t panned out yet. Both men have done exemplary work in the past (Kerr empowering Curry and Thompson to shoot shots considered anathema to traditional basketball thinking, Myers pulling off the KD transaction), but it doesn’t take much to lose a job in the NBA — especially not when the owner’s son might be eying a promotion.
I still have faith in the Warriors to get their act together, but the offseason “one last ride” vibes are starting to feel more ominous than nostalgic.
Phoenix Suns: Star talent
Phoenix is a good team, but it’s become increasingly clear that it’s Devin Booker and a bunch of high-end role players. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and DeAndre Ayton are all very good, but they don’t have quite enough juice to be the second option, and Chris Paul can’t consistently find that gear anymore.
The Suns are still a good, well-rounded team, and injuries have taken a toll on early season performance. But two straight losses to the Pelicans without Ingram and recent beatdowns by the Mavericks and Celtics have exposed the Suns’ inability to keep up with the big dogs.
(Also, it would be nice if they’d stop hacking opponents — they’re dead last in the league in allowing opponent free throws).
Philadelphia 76ers: Finishing at the hoop
It’s strange to say this about a team with perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid, fireball Tyrese Maxey, and offensive engine James Harden, but the team has really struggled to make layups.
They have the third-lowest conversion percentage at the rim, making just 62.5% of their attempts, and the struggles are on nearly everyone. Embiid is finishing fine, but Harden is shooting just 53% at the rim, Maxey 57%, De’Anthony Melton a hideous 47%, and PJ Tucker is just 4/14 (the quantity is just as worrying as the quality).
Part of it, too, is the slow pace they play at — the easiest rim attempts occur in transition, and the team is bottom-five in getting out on the fastbreak.
Portland Trail Blazers: Perimeter defense (again)
Damian Lillard is back and playing as well as he ever has — 29 points per game would be the second-highest of his career, and he’s been on fire from behind the arc, where he’s setting personal bests with 40% shooting on 11.3 attempts per game. Running mate Anfernee Simons has been nearly as good — 24 points per game while nailing 39% of his 10.3 deep shots per game. Together, they’ve been unstoppable offensively.
But they’re both still turnstiles on defense, and it’s starting to show. The team allows the second-most shots at the rim as opposing ballhandlers sashay their way down wide-open lanes. Center Jusuf Nurkic is running ragged trying to put out fires. Opponents haven’t needed to shoot threes, but teams are hitting at above-average levels when they choose to.
Gary Payton II’s return will help, but at the end of games, Simons and Lillard will both be on the court. Relying on offense to bail them out is rarely a sustainable strategy, and we’ll need to see better effort and better execution from the two sharpshooters for Portland to make any noise this postseason.
Denver Nuggets: Non-Jokic minutes
Year after year, the Nuggets dominate teams when Jokic is on the floor and get demolished when he’s off. That’s true to an even larger degree this year, where the Nuggets are an astonishing +28.1 points per 100 possessions better when Jokic is on the floor than off, the highest mark in the league.
Much like Steph Curry in Golden State, having an entire offensive architecture built around Jokic’s singular talent makes it difficult to find a substitution that works. But coach Michael Malone needs to find some sort of identity — even the team’s defense craters without Jokic, which is surprising.
When Jokic is resting, the Nuggets might be better off by simply holding onto the ball for 24 seconds and letting the shot clock expire on each possession — that way, they can limit opponent possessions and staunch the bleeding until Jokic returns to the floor. (I’m only half-kidding.)
Cleveland Cavaliers: Sloppiness
The Cavs turn the ball over 15% of the time, a below-average mark. Darius Garland is averaging 3.3 turnovers per game, the tenth-most in the league, and Donovan Mitchell isn’t much better. The paint can be crowded, given Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley’s non-spacing, and the Cavs’ guards can get into trouble over-penetrating into a thicket of bodies.
The Cavs also average the fifth-most fourth-quarter turnovers. When the pressure intensifies in the playoffs, they’ll have to do a better job of taking care of the ball down the stretch (although their superb transition defense helps some in this regard).
Brooklyn Nets: Rebounding
The Nets are dead last in the defensive rebounding percentage (like last year) and next-to-last in offensive rebounding. Not great!
Durant’s rebounding, once a positional strength, is mediocre at best for the power forward role he now occupies. Center Nic Claxton has improved tremendously but will never be able to effectively hold back big bodies like Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons vacillates from “pretty good” to “pretty horrible” as a rebounder, depending on what position he’s playing night-to-night. Seth Curry, Joe Harris, and TJ Warren are allergic to rebounds, and Royce O’Neale and Kyrie Irving are opportunistic but limited.
The bigger issue might be scheme-related: the team switches on defense constantly, leaving smaller guards battling hopelessly against heftier players in the paint. Durant and Irving have always preferred switching defenses, which also plays to Simmons’ and Claxton’s strengths, and the team’s D has been solid overall. So it’s unlikely they’ll tweak a defensive scheme to help with boards.
That said, the team has rebounded at a top-10 rate over their 5-1 stretch in the last two weeks, and the team believes it’s more of a mindset than a personnel issue. They’ll never be prolific glass cleaners, but it does seem possible they can be good enough.
Los Angeles Clippers: Health (ugh, I’m sorry)
This is such a boring answer, but it’s the truth. Most of this team’s problems are on the offensive end, and having Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy is the fix. Kawhi has looked rusty in the games he’s played, but that’s to be expected of a player coming off a year-long injury. Even with his limitations, the Clippers are 7-1 when Kawhi starts, and he’s fresh off a 25-point, 10-of-12 shooting statline in a win against the Celtics.
If Kawhi and PG are around in the playoffs, this team is scary. If even one of them is around, they’re still a threat, as shown by their Western Conference Finals run without Kawhi a few years ago. But at this point, it’s impossible to trust them.
Miami Heat: Playmaking
This team has two guys with consistent dribble-drive abilities in Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, and both have flaws in their games. When the playoffs come, they’ll need someone to take some of the creative burden off of them, and Kyle Lowry isn’t the answer. With the rest of the roster (minus Bam) finally showing its talent deficit after years of overachieving, it’s hard to see the Heat scoring enough points to win a playoff series, let alone multiple. A massive move could be on the horizon.
Atlanta Hawks: Free throws
Dejounte Murray is 29th in the league in drives per game. He’s dead last in that group in free throw attempts on an absolute and relative basis. I’m not saying he’s soft, exactly, but he sure has some plushness about him.
Trae Young is superb at drawing free throws, and DeAndre Hunter can bowl his way to the rim when he’s allowed to touch the ball. But the vast majority of this roster is terrible at drawing fouls! To be fair, it’s partially due to an archaic, heliocentric offensive system where few players besides Young and Murray are put in position to get to the line.
But it’s compounded by the fact that the Hawks can’t stop fouling on the other end. There is, on average, a four free throw discrepancy between the Hawks and their opponents — assuming teams make 75% of their free throws, that’s the same as starting every game with a three-point deficit. The Hawks aren’t good enough to make that up in games that matter.
Los Angeles Lakers: Management
Pelinka continues to misunderstand a fundamental truth about LeBron that literally everyone knows: put shooters around one of the best passers and scorers of all time, and good things will happen. His recent extension should be a prosecutable crime that gets Jeanie Buss thrown in jail. I don’t know what the Lakers should do with their two unprotected first-round picks, but I am 100% confident they will take the wrong route.
Dallas Mavericks: Body language
It’s hard to watch these games and not be depressed. Luka yells at everyone —teammates, refs, opponents, Mark Cuban — then slumps his shoulders. His early-season defensive effort is waning with every demoralizing loss. Christian Wood is reminding people why there were so many doubts about his ability to play winning basketball, and we’re officially in Year-Two Jason Kidd mode, where everyone has decided he sucks as a coach again after a honeymoon year one.
The role players have looked livelier of late, with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock finding their shots after slow starts to the season. The Mavs still have time to turn things around. But the roster needs a shakeup, whether this season or in the offseason, before Doncic decides he wants out for good.
I believed in Minnesota before the season, and even though I knew a slow start was likely, I didn’t think it would be so depressing. They have no discernable strengths to build upon; I have found zero nuggets of hope for this team. Blow it all up.
Toronto Raptors: Egos
The disappointing Raptors seem unhappy, and it feels like something has to give. Michael Pina from The Ringer put it best:
Versatility is fantastic. Positionless basketball is the future, if not the present. But the downside of having so many interchangeable parts is it complicates role definition. And NBA players who don’t have clearly defined roles tend to get frustrated when their team is losing.
Maybe a quick win streak fixes everything, but the Raptors have too many cooks in the kitchen. A consolidation trade would be best, but with so many teams still trying to win games, I’m not sure who is willing to give up a star-caliber player (Bradley Beal would have to waive his no-trade clause but would be a sneaky-wonderful fit).
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