Contenders or Pretenders?-Taking stock of NBA finals hopefuls at the seasons midpoint
The NBA season has passed its midpoint and what a high scoring season it has been mainly due nearly every team adopting the pace and space approach combined with the inability of team being able to guard from the three point line due to the new rules. This has created an artificial scoring economy that makes it somewhat difficult to gauge how teams will fare in the post-season where scoring and pace invariably slows down. The dependence on three point shooting is a double edged sword as we saw both the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics fail in their bids to make it to the NBA finals in the respective Games 7’s due to their inability to hit open three pointers combined with not having a backup plan.
As such, we can see the most effective teams this season have combined prolific shooting with interior scoring and it is fairly easy to differentiate the 2019 NBA Final contenders from the pretenders. By now most team have played each other twice so we can also examine how effective their marches to the playoffs have been.
Ten best records in the NBA
(stats provided by https://www.basketball-reference.com as of 1/14/2018)
Eastern Conference Pretenders
The Indiana Pacers are low wattage in terms of star powers but have quietly been one of the best teams in the league primarily due to their 12-3 stretch in December after struggling to integrate Tyreke Evans. The emergence of Domantas Sabonis as a bonafide 6th man of the year candidate who’s back to the basket game is the perfect foil off the bench to Myles Turner’s ability to stretch the floor and protect the rim. They have currently split their season series 1-1 against the Bucks,Celtics and 76ers while going 0-2 against the Raptors. While they sport a winning record both home and away, they are the lowest scoring team in the top ten and still have yet to establish a number 2 scorer which led to them having the lowest points per game out of the top ten teams. This will prove problematic in the playoffs where pace slows and defenses tighten. They have roster flexibility to make a moves as five of their top eight rotation players are pending free agents which leaves them poised to take on salary for a proven All-Star such as Kevin Love. As constructed they should be able to snag a top 4 seed but I cannot see them being serious title contenders.
The Celtics may have been preseason title contenders but a lot of issues have emerged during their relatively underwhelming season. They have the 5th best defensive rating in the league after sporting the best defense last year. Their main issue has been reintegrating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into last year’s heart and hustle team. They have gone 1-1 against the Bucks, Pacers and Raptors and 2-0 against the 76ers. Despite this, they have the 11th best offensive rating in the league but have been prone to fits of scoring droughts that stem from players either being unsure or dissatisfied with their roles. Coming in to this season I had serious reservations about the quality and health of their big men and everyone over 6’9” has already missed substantial time due to injury. Brad Stephens has tried to bring back Al Horford slowly since his return from a left knee injury that requires careful management for the rest of the season. This especially concerning giving his age and the fact that he is the lynchpin of their defense and is tasked with defending both the paint and the three point line in their switch heavy defense. Their internal griping and health issues are too much to ignore and I simply cannot see them winning three series on the road if they do not secure a top 4 seed. Last playoffs, they lost every road game and their opponents this year are much stronger.
Eastern Conference Contenders
The 76ers are an intriguing choice for contenders. The trade for Jimmy Butler has diminished their floor spacing and depth while the Markelle Fultz situation is a curiosity upon itself. Nevertheless, teams with elite players always have a fighting chance in the playoffs and Joel Embiid in the midst of a MVP level season is an unsolvable problem. Matchups become much more important in the postseason and quite frankly there’s nobody in the Eastern Conference that can defend him one on one save for maybe Myles Turner.
The emergence of Landry Shamet as a viable option off the bench as well as the return of Wilson Chandler means that Philly can surround Embiid and Ben Simmons with three capable shooters at all times. Regardless of whatever improvements Jimmy Butler has made to the team on both ends, the 76ers can only progress to the Finals if Embiid proves to be as unstoppable as Shaquille O’Neal was in his second year with the Magic.Their margin for error is much, much smaller than the other contenders.
The effect of switching out DeMar DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard cannot be overstated as he has been immensely productive on both ends of the floor. He’s averaging a career high in scoring while maintaining strong shooting percentages which is even more impressive given his penchant for fadeaway jumpers. The rest of the team has done a great supporting job especially the front court of Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam which enables the Raptors to start that offense from any primary rebounder except Ibaka.
The long term injury of Jonas Valanciuanas has not affected them too much. A growing concern must be the form of Kyle Lowry who has has abysmal shooting percentages since his return and is not able to take anyone off the dribble. Unless he reverts to his early season form I can see him losing his starting spot in the playoffs to Fred VanFleet who has filled in capably. First year head coach, Nick Nurse has done a lot of work to get this team running smoothly and it’s very difficult to see any team regardless of conference defeating them in a seven game series.
The Milwaukee Bucks
It’s amazing how the right coaching change, no matter how belated it is, can spur a team to greater heights. The hiring of Mike Budenholzer, who has implemented his motion offense as well as tweaking his starting lineup to have complementary players on the court at all times, regardless of age or salary has led to Bucks to the highest point differential in the league. Brook Lopez has been unbelievably effective as a stretch effective which has opened up the floor for the Greek Freak to shoot an unreal 78% at the rim. Inefficient former starters Thon Maker and Tony Snell have had their roles reduced, the backcourt combination of Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe has made them one of the most fluid teams in the league. Finally, the healthy return of DJ Wilson provides them with another 3 point shooter over 6’10” which mean Giannis can always be surrounded by 4 capable shooters. The should be considered favorites to reach the NBA finals at this point and they stand a punter chance of winning it all.
Western Conference Pretenders
The Los Angeles Lakers
Since LeBron’s hamstring injury the Lakers have been a mess and have plummeted down the table but even with him there were lots of obvious holes that cannot be overlooked. These holes almost seem by design as the front office (and LeBron) want want to skip a long postseason run and instead prepare for next season.
Quite simply, the Lakers have two huge problems; they cannot shoot from deep(34% as a team) nor can they make free throws(69% as a team). The fact that two of their two best 3 point shooters percentage wise are Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo indicates that this team cannot fully utilize LeBron’s skills when he returns.
Barring an unlikely trade for Anthony Davis, this Lakes team should struggle just to make the playoffs and face a quick exit. A more sensible approach for the rest of the season would be to continue evaluating their players and look to consolidate their contracts and trade for an all star in the off-season. So far Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart seem to be the only players on rookie contracts who looks to have cemented their place in next year’s rotation.
The Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers have always been one of the weirdest playoff teams in the Western Conference and it’s easy to overlook both the team and their star players. This year is different as both the team and the Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum combo are widely respected across the league. There barely any trade buzz surrounding them as they seem to have finally settled into a rotation that perfectly balances their offense and defense. Unfortunately this has led to a meager +1.8 point differential which is simply too narrow to be considered a true contender.
They sport a middle of the road offense and defense which masks a healthy record and have not experienced any major injuries unlike the other Western Conference teams which may be masking some serious flaws. They should still be proud of the progress they have made and given the stability of the roster , should be able to make a further leap into title contenders, just not this year.
The San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have zigged left while the rest of the league has zagged right in regards to their offensive scheme. They are essentially the only team that places a heavy emphasis on mid range shooting in lieu of the three pointer. They still shoot a healthy 40% from deep but their problem lies in the lack of defensive ability on the individual level especially after the lost their best defender, Dejounte Murray, for the season. This had to a middle of the road offense and defense.
Greg Popovich is hands down the best coach in the NBA and what he has done this season is nothing short of remarkable. He has constructed a team that can compete without ay elite players but the Spurs biggest downfall in the playoffs will be their two best players. Both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are well known to be shrinking violets in the postseason and no amount of coaching wizardry can hide the lack of a “clutch” gene across the team. The Spurs may not be title contenders but are still laying the foundation for a few years down the road.
Western Conference Contenders
The Houston Rockets
The Rockets have overcome an abysmal start and has steadily climbed up the despite despite losing their 2nd(Chris Paul) and 3rd best(Clint Capela) players respectively. They have placed Carmelo Anthony in bubble wrap in anticipation of trading him for a final piece. While I feel Carmelo has been unfairly scapegoated for the Rocket’s poor start, he would still be better off playing for a non contender(maybe the Cavs).
One of the most remarkable sights to see this season has been James Harden’s offensive explosion. He’s currently averaging over 35PPG which hasn’t been seen since Kobe Bryant’s 35.4 PPG fourteen year ago. Harden is doing it in 4 fewer shots per game than Kobe and still involves the rest of the team. His usage rate is untenable and will undoubtedly reduce with the return of Chris Paul at the end of January. The Rockets have always made a mid-season trade in the Daryl Morey Era and will most likely seek to package a combination of Brandon Knight, Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis to seek a two way contributor in the front court. They are poised to continue to be major players in the buyout market.
The Rockets are essentially title contenders based on the fantastic season that James Harden is having. The injuries that Capela and Paul have had may actually be a blessing in disguise as they will be fresh come playoff time. I suspect the makeup of the team will be substantially different by then but they will have a strong rotation of eight players that can go very deep.
The Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are no longer Russell Westbrook’s team despite him averaging a triple double for the third consecutive season. That honor instead goes to Paul George who has been the lynchpin of one of the league’s best defenses. With Steven Adams capably manning the middle on both sides of the floor, they have very few holes save for outside shooting. The handsiest team in the league they have five players averaging over 1 SPG and two player averaging over 2 SPG. They withstood the absence of two of the best role players in Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson.
The Thunder do not have a beautiful style of play. They excel in playing in the muck and frustrating opponents. They remind me of the title winning Detroit Pistons which took down a Lakers team with four future Hall of Famers. They have the spare parts and draft collateral to make a trade for a dedicated shooter but can also wait for the buyout market to emerge and possible make a move for JR Smith.
The Thunder are title contenders mainly due to the collective chips on their shoulders combined with an obvious affection for their teammates. They are probably the most close knit team in the NBA and this affinity for playing with each other will prove to be beneficial in the playoffs. The Western Conference playoffs will be closer to a heavyweight boxing match and they are well equipped to take away the three point shooting other teams are so dependent on and force them to play differently.
The Denver Nuggets
The biggest surprise of the season the Nuggets have been one of the most well rounded teams in the NBA this season despite having serious injury woes. They have not seen what Isaiah Thomas nor their 1st round pick, Michael Porter can do and their wing depth have been decimated with the long term absences of Gary Harris and Will Barton.
Despite all of these setbacks, the Nuggets have responded by spreading the ball with about 7 players averaging 10PPG. They have been led by triple double machine at Center, Nikola Jokic who has improved immensely on the defensive end. Ground bound PF, Paul Millsap has done all of the dirty work on both ends of the floor now that he is finally healthy. Their role players have been nothing short of spectacular and it is a testament to how good a coaching job Mike Malone has done.
The Nuggets will need all of their players to return to full health this season advance far in the playoffs. They possess the most unpredictable offense in the league which could stand to see some improvement but they seek to diminish that by playing at one of the slowest paces in the league(28th). This bodes well as the paces invariably slows down in the playoffs and the ability to execute in the halfcourt becomes vital. The league has not found a way to counteract Jokic executing plays and having Barton and Thomas of the bench as individual shot creators could be the X-factor they need to make it to the NBA finals.
The Golden State Warriors
Where to begin with the Warriors… They seem to be afflicted with the disease of more,
“In his book “Showtime,” Pat Riley unveiled “the disease of more” and argued that “success is often the first step toward disaster.” According to Riley, after the 1980 Lakers won, everyone shifted into a more selfish mode. They had sublimated their respective games to win as a group; now they wanted to reap the rewards as individuals, even if those rewards meant having to spend way too much time at Jack Nicholson’s house. Everyone wanted more money, playing time and recognition. Eventually they lost perspective and stopped doing the little things that make teams win and keep winning, eventually imploding in the first round of the postseason. So much for defending the title.”
Kevin Durant and Draymond Green hate each other guts, Draymond cannot shoot his way out of a paper bag. Klay Thompson has begun to shake of an early season shooting slump and the entire team holds their breath waiting for the annual Steph Curry injury. Their much vaunted defense has slipped to 18th in the league and their marquee role players, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala have been a step slower this season.
All of this will most likely not matter with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins.They will begin the playoffs with 5 All-Star players and will now possess an unfair inside/outside threat where no player can be double teamed and each player can get more rest. Yes there is a possibility that the team can implode but their margin for error is so huge that they do not need to be anything close to perfect to win a title. The preseason favorites continue to be the NBA title favorites and the only solace opposing teams can take it that this may be the swansong of the Warriors as we know it as DeMarcus Cousins will move on to another team next year and one can only guess where Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will be playing next season. Each starter is chasing their own legacy and different forms of validation and they will be excited to finally see another team(assuming they make it) in the Finals other than the Cleveland Cavaliers.