Friday, April 17, 2009

Nobody's Perfect

On the eve of the NBA Playoffs, with all the jockeying for position done, we are down to sixteen teams. With the Hardwood Hype Eastern and Western Conference preview forthcoming, this seems like an excellent opportunity to examine the potential weaknesses of the NBA’s postseason participants.

For all of their talent and the variety of strengths they bring to the floor, each has a glaring flaw that could be exploited by a playoff opponent. What, if unchecked, could work against each of these playoff-bound teams? Lets take a look at the potentially fatal flaws facing each of this season’s NBA playoff teams?

Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers- Defending strong, athletic wing players. Between Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala and Kobe Bryant (to name a few), there’s no shortage of powerful wing players standing between Cleveland and an NBA title. Other than LeBron James, there’s really no one on the Cavs’ roster that’s well-suited to stopping these guys. Considering the offensive load that LBJ is asked to carry, and the possibility of foul trouble or fatigue as the Cavs’ primary perimeter defender, Wally Szczerbiak or Sasha Pavlovic must step up and provide some defensive support.

Boston Celtics- Backcourt depth. Despite some issues with the second unit earlier this season, the midseason acquisition of Mikki Moore and the progress of “Big Baby” Davis in KG’s absence have bolstered the Celtics’ frontcourt, but some major questions remain behind Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. The C’s struggles this season have coincided with the struggles of the starting backcourt (Allen: 19 ppg, 51% FG, 45% 3-pt in wins, 16.3 ppg, 39% FG, 30% 3-pt in losses; Rondo: 12.9 ppg, 55% FG, 8.6 apg in wins, 9.7 ppg, 38% FG, 7.8 apg in losses), with little support from the bench. Eddie House (8.5 ppg, 44% 3-pt; 8.9 ppg, 47% 3-pt in wins) is playing very well and has provided some relief, but Tony Allen (inconsistent at best, missed 6 weeks in February and March; scored in double figures twice since 2/8) and Stephon Marbury (3.8 ppg, 34% FG, 24% 3-pt in 23 games) have done very little to significantly relieve the pressure on Allen and Rondo.

Orlando Magic- Perimeter Defense. Rashard Lewis is an underrated defender and Dwight Howard’s presence in the lane cleans up a lot of defensive slip-ups on the perimeter, but outside of Courtney Lee (underrated rookie, solid on D), no one on the Magic can slow a strong, athletic wing player (LeBron, D-Wade, Andre Iguodala, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith), or Derrick Rose (deserves mentioning), in the playoffs. If Lee runs into some early foul trouble, the job of defending opposing 2-guards will fall to either Mickael Pietrus or J.J. Redick, neither of whom inspires much confidence in the Magic Kingdom.

Atlanta Hawks- Consistency from the second unit. When healthy, the Hawks’ starting lineup of Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams is among the NBA’s best. However, even when healthy, the bench boasts little more than the solid trio of Flip Murray, Maurice Evans and Zaza Pachulia, and, with all due respect to Acie Law, really no backup for Bibby at the point. Heading into the playoffs, Marvin Williams is working his way back from a back injury that cost him 16 games and forced Evans into the starting lineup. If the Hawks are going to have any playoff success, they’ll have to get the most out of whatever resources they do have, which means that Williams will have to regain his form fairly quickly.

Miami Heat- Consistent offensive support for Dwyane Wade. For virtually the entire regular season, Dwyane Wade’s been the Heat’s only legitimate offensive threat, with no one finishing a distant second, the likes of Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Jamario Moon (among others) received significant minutes for the Heat, with mixed results at best. After a largely inconsistent and frustrating rookie year, Michael Beasley has raised his game of late, averaging almost 21 points, while shooting 55% from the floor and 50% from behind the arc in the month of April. If he is in fact putting it together and can extend this run into the postseason, Beasley, with his size and fantastic skills on the offensive end, could take enough pressure off of D-Wade to get the Heat into the second round.

Chicago Bulls- Strength on defense in the paint. Simply put, there’s not a single bruising interior defender on the Bulls’ roster- and, if the Bulls are able to upset the banged-up Celtics (this could really happen!) in Round 1, with Dwight Howard looming in the second round, that does not bode well. Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah are playing extremely well, but both seem physically better suited to guard Rashard Lewis than they do Howard. And while Brad Miller has the physical frame to bang down low, his reputation was not built as low post defender. If Chicago’s going to have any success trying to stop Dwight Howard, it will have to be predicated on whatever scheme they run, and not on individual matchups.

Philadelphia 76ers- Inside scoring. The megabucks contract given to Elton Brand was meant to address this very point. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Brand’s season was brought to a premature end about ten weeks ago, and when he was healthy, his performance was rather disappointing. Looking at what’s left, Thaddeus Young, who came off an ankle injury with 18 points against Boston and 20 in Philly’s seaon-ending win in Cleveland, is Philly’s biggest inside threat (52% of his FG attempts and 63% of his made FG have come in the paint), and even he’s not a classic low post threat. As they prepare to face the Magic, the Sixers other inside threats consist of Reggie Evans, Samuel Dalembert and Marreese Speights- yikes!!

Detroit Pistons- Consistent frontcourt scoring. Let’s pretend for a minute that Detroit’s playoff fate includes anything other than a savage beatdown from LeBron and Friends. What the Pistons would need in order to have some success is consistent firepower up front. The trio of Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum will put up numbers and fill the offensive void left by Allen Iverson, but the play of the frontcourt provides cause for concern. None of the Pistons’ top three up front (Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess) can take over a game and carry this team to a win. While Prince is had his usual consistent season and McDyess is averaged close to a double-double (9.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg), ‘Sheed is clearly no longer the same guy, now almost exclusively a perimeter player, attempting just 1.5 FT per game and taking 4.8 of his 11 FG attempts per game from behind the arc. And despite another trio of able-bodied forwards (Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Kwame Brown) on the roster, none of the three has shown the either productivity or the consistency to make Detroit a postseason threat.

And in the Western Conference?

Los Angeles Lakers- Maintaining focus and intensity when playing with a lead. All season, the Lakers have done an excellent job of building large early leads, only to let them slip away, before salvaging harder-than-they-should-have-been victories (see 2/20 v. Hornets, among others). In four of their seventeen losses, however, the Lakers haven’t been so lucky, blowing a 15-point second half lead in Indiana (lost on a tip-in at the buzzer), 9 & 10-point leads in both games against Magic (lost by 3 in Orlando, and by 6 in L.A.) and a 14-point 4th quarter lead against Philadelphia on 3/17. When they’re focused, the Lakers are the NBA’s best team. Maintaining focus and intensity will be the biggest key for this team in the playoffs, when the intensity is turned up and there’s less margin for error.

Denver Nuggets- Perimeter defense. It’s rare that a team with so much experience and athleticism is able to climb to the #2 spot in strong conference, while at the same time being so inept at the defensive end, particularly on the perimeter. Who on this roster can match up against Kobe Bryant? Or Chris Paul? Tony Parker? Chauncey Billups has brought some much needed leadership and a championship pedigree to the Nuggets, but neither he, nor Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith is capable of locking down an elite offensive player on the outside. The Nuggets can score with anyone in the NBA, but somewhere along the line, a perimeter superstar (they face CP3 in Round 1) will carve them up.

Houston Rockets- Athleticism and explosive offense from the wings. This is where the Rockets miss Tracy McGrady. For all the talk about the defensive impact of Ron Artest and Shane Battier, not only has neither shown the speed or the athleticism to bother Kobe Bryant’s defensive game, neither of the two has the ability to fill the lane and get easy buckets on the fast break, or to create easy shots in the lane. There is a greater focus on halfcourt sets in the postseason, but there’s also a premium placed on maximizing fast break chances and getting high-percentage shots. When he’s anywhere close to 100%, this is where McGrady thrives. A lot of that pressure is going to fall onto Von Wafer, Houston’s most athletic wing player.

Portland Trailblazers- Inside scoring. With all the preseason hype surrounding the Blazers, this is a young team that done an excellent job of competing with the NBA’s best and establishing itself in the top tier of the Western Conference. A major key to playoff success for anyone is the ability to get easy points in the paint. As a predominantly perimeter team, this could be a challenge for Portland. While Brandon Roy will definitely manage to get into the paint and create easy shots, the Blazers would love for their bigs to pick up some of the inside-scoring slack. Since the Blazers’ big men are either perimeter threats (LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye) or not serious offensive threats (Joel Przybilla), the best bet here is Greg Oden who, if he can avoid injuries and foul trouble, has a strong inside game that’s well-suited for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs- Depth in the frontcourt. If we count Manu Ginobili among the Spurs’ frontcourt players, their situation with regard to depth up front is a full-blown catastrophe. Sadly, ignoring the loss of Manu doesn’t dramatically improve the outlook. The 4-5 spots are extremely thin, with Tim Duncan nursing a pair (a pair!) of sore knees and likely unable to carry his usual heavy load. If Duncan is significantly limited, the Spurs have to turn to Drew Gooden, Kurt Thomas and Matt Bonner to hold down the fort in the paint. It’s hard to see them winning more than a couple of postseason games if that happens.

New Orleans Hornets- Players #3-12. The New Orleans Hornets do carry a full roster of NBA players, right? As good as Chris Paul and David West are, and they may be the best 1-2 punch in the league, they should not be carrying more than 60% of the offensive load for the Hornets, which is happening with some regularity of late. Tyson Chandler’s return from an ankle injury will help, but he’s not paid to be a major offensive threat. New Orleans is not going to threaten anyone in the postseason without some improved play from Peja Stojakovic (13.7 ppg, 40% FG), Rasual Butler (maybe a bit more than just buzzer beaters?), vaunted playoff force, James Posey (8.9 ppg, 41% FG), or Julian Wright, who can do some damage when he receives consistent minutes.

Dallas Mavericks- Generating any defensive intensity. Jason Kidd comes up with plenty of steals, Josh Howard is a capable (but not lock-down) defender and Brandon Bass is a fantastic athlete who plays with lots of energy and intensity, but ever since they traded away DeSagana Diop, the Mavericks no longer have a big man who can legitimately defend the basket and set a defensive tone for the team- a problem that’s compounded by the absence of anyone on the roster that can shut down the opponent’s best player.

Utah Jazz- Playing away from home. This is a team with nine quality players and an abundance of strength and toughness. On talent alone, the Jazz should be contending for the Western Conference title- unfortunately they are asked to play half of their games outside the state of Utah. Any team aspiring to be a true contender must demonstrate an ability to pull out wins away from home, ideally having a few of these roads wins come against quality opposition. The Utah Jazz managed just 15 wins in 41 road games, (.366 win %), and have won only three of 22 road games (.120 win %) against other playoff teams- 11/11 @ Philadelphia, 12/19 @ Detroit, 4/5 @ New Orleans. With their opening round matchup pitting them against the Lakers, a turnaround in the trend doesn’t seem likely.

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