Give And Go: Examining five contenders for flaws as the calendar flips to 2014
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: A survey of the five teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the league record-wise as we flip the calendar to 2014. Do they have what it takes to turn their gaudy January records into triumph in June?
1. The Heat were 21-8 (.724) on Jan. 1, 2013 and they enter 2014 with a 24-7 (.774) record. Do you feel better or worse about Miami's title chances right now compared to one year ago?
Ben Golliver: The start of the New Year is a convenient milepost, and this is an especially compelling question because the Heat’s championship drive ratcheted up with the signing of Chris Andersen in late-January last year, and no one – not even the most bullish Heat observer – could have predicted the 27-game winning streak that followed. In other words, the arrival of 2014 is a nice reminder that Miami, the other four teams atop the standings, and some other squads with big aspirations that are still in the pack are capable of shifting this landscape with a move during the next few months.
Even though the Heat didn’t seem quite as invincible at this time last year as they did during the high-water mark of their streak, which lasted 53 days between losses, they were still the overwhelmingly title favorite. After all, Derrick Rose was out indefinitely, the Pacers hadn’t quite hit their stride after a fairly slow start, and the Heat had just whipped the Thunder, the West’s strongest early contender, during the 2012 Finals. It was their championship to lose.
The opening months of the 2013-14 season have certainly been unpredictable, but I don’t see many of the surprises adversely affecting the Heat. Quite the opposite: the table is being set for a three-peat better than they could have reasonably expected: Derrick Rose’s latest injury removed the Bulls from the equation, the Nets self-combusted before they got off the ground, and the Knicks fell apart. Prior to the season, I envisioned Miami potentially encountering their toughest road to the Finals through the East during the “Big 3” era. Instead, we’re left with what will almost certainly be a pointless first round, a yawn-inducing conference semifinals round and a potentially epic conference finals showdown against the Pacers. The Heat clearly benefit from Russell Westbrook’s ongoing knee saga, too.
Throw in the fact that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have all played fewer minutes this season, the fact that Wade’s health has been more carefully managed than ever, and the emergence of Michael Beasley as a capable rotation player and I see the Heat in the same place as they were one year ago: the driver’s seat. Indiana is significantly improved, and that loosens the Heat’s grip slightly, but the 2014 title is their championship to lose, again.
Rob Mahoney: Better, in part because no Western Conference contender looks to be completely on top of their game. When the calendar rolled over into 2013, the Thunder led the league with a 24-6 record and a fearsome point differential. San Antonio was as terrific as ever, fueled by outstanding starts from Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. The Clippers, who at that point ranked as a top-three defense, looked to have turned a corner toward contention. Memphis was still finding its way at 19-9, but stood as an imposing stylistic counter for Miami should the two have met in the Finals.
Only three of those teams are still contending for anything of import this season, and each comes with heavier caveats than they did a season ago. Beyond that, the Knicks (who had won both of their early games against the Heat by 20 points) and the Bulls (who were treading water as they waited for Derrick Rose's return) were at least in Miami's field of view, whereas this season the Pacers are the only Eastern Conference team equipped to shape the course of the postseason in any meaningful way. Indiana has very evidently closed the gap on Miami, but even that isn't enough to offset the movement in the rest of the field.
We're not saying that things will come easy for the Heat this season, but it's hard to look at all that they've done in 2013 and not feel more optimistic about their chances in 2014.
2. Indiana's offensive rating has improved from No. 19 last year to No. 14 so far this season. However, it currently stands as the only one of the league's top five teams without a top-five offense. Does their league-best defense render this a mild concern, or should this be considered a more fundamental flaw?
Mahoney: It's all part of the same interconnected system. So long as Indiana's defense continues to strangle the life out of opposing offenses, its own struggles to score are less concerning. There's no question, though, that the Pacers have a slighter margin for error by only dominating one side of the ball, very much in the same way that a high-scoring team with merely competent defense might. Paul George has helped to mitigate that fact by hitting shots with a high degree of difficulty at uncanny rates, though Indiana's more general offensive mediocrity is nonetheless a restrictive factor. The defense has been so stingy that the offensive flaws haven't much mattered, but in poring over the limitations of top-tier contenders it's clear that the Pacer offense -- and specifically their propensity for turnovers -- remains somewhat problematic.
On a very related note, it's possible that Indiana's defense may not be as absurdly good as the top-level data suggests. By way of points allowed per possession, the Pacers are the league's best defensive team by a long shot; they allow four fewer points per 100 possessions than the second-ranked Thunder, and even best their own 2012-13 mark by three points. Yet if we control for the quality of the Eastern Conference (and by extension the tilt of Indiana's East-heavy schedule), that huge advantage vanishes entirely. Against Western Conference opponents the Pacers' defense is merely elite instead of exceptional, ranking second behind the Thunder and right in the thick of a dead-heat top five.
That's still very much title-worthy, but again: Indiana is counting on its defense as the primary impetus for its wins. Even that relative drop could result in more offensive strain, which might then cause problems against contending-caliber opponents.
Golliver: A lot of ink has been spilled about the disparity between the conferences from a record standpoint, but the disparity in offensive prowess between the conferences is just as alarming (and mildly hilarious). The Heat are the only Eastern Conference offense with a top 10 efficiency rating. Stop and read that sentence again for effect. If you want to see points, go West, young man.
So while Indiana’s offense would qualify as a sub-par attack in the West, they sit as the East’s third-best offense, with a chance to move past Atlanta for second in the conference in the wake of Al Horford’s season-ending injury. Looking at it through that lens is more than enough to convince me that the Pacers should cruise to the conference finals; a league-best defense that is one of the stingiest we’ve seen in years should be more than enough to win two rounds comfortably considering Indiana’s offense could very well be better than its first two opponents, too.
Indiana is seeking more than just a return trip to the final four, though, and that's where the creamy balanced teams rise to the top. The 2008 Celtics proved that an elite defense can carry a solid, but not spectacular, offense through the final two rounds against very well-balanced teams (the Pistons in the conference finals and the Lakers in the finals were top-six on both sides of the ball), and the Pacers will almost certainly face the same back-to-back challenge this year. The Pacers would be wise to enter the deadline in opportunistic poaching mode in search of some shooting/scoring punch to help make their goals a reality.
3. Are the Thunder capable of making a run to the Finals without a fully healthy Russell Westbrook, or is their fate totally reliant upon the state of his knee come late-April?
Golliver: Westbrook's knee saga has produced a cruel brand of déjà vu in Loud City. So many of the discoveries from last year's playoffs -- Reggie Jackson is way better than most people realized, Serge Ibaka doesn't get enough credit, it's painful to watch Kendrick Perkins whenever he's not playing alongside two superstars, Oklahoma City's awesome defense tends to get overshadowed by Kevin Durant's potent scoring ability, Durant is capable of doing so much on offense but not enough to replace Westbrook -- are coming right back around the mountain again. Just go right down the list. Jackson (12.5 points, 3.6 assists, 16.9 PER) has done work so admirable it's fair to start wondering whether he will be the next to flee the coop, Ibaka (14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) should be getting more All-Star buzz than he's received, Durant (league-leading 28.8 points, career-high 8.8 rebounds, career-best 28.7 PER) is a strong 1B in the MVP race, and the Thunder's overall defensive performance (best in the West, No. 2 overall) has been nothing short of amazing.
But we've seen this movie play out before, and not just in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder were bounced fairly quickly in the conference semifinals without Westbrook. The Heat have looked their most vulnerable in recent years when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been limited or inactive due to injuries. The Spurs looked shakiest last year when Tony Parker was less than 100 percent during the 2013 Finals. The Bulls, Lakers, Knicks, Nets and Grizzlies have all had their trajectories altered by injuries to stars (Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol) this season. The careful construction of Oklahoma City's roster, its overall depth, and the force of Durant's personality and skills make the Thunder well-suited both physically and mentally for the challenge of overcoming the loss of Westbrook and of maintaining a strong pace during his absence, but expecting that to be enough to get through the deep West and prevail over the Heat or Pacers in the Finals is asking too much. They need Westbrook at or near 100 percent, just like any other team needs its indispensable superstars.
Mahoney: The Thunder are better prepared to handle Westbrook's absence now than they were in the 2013 postseason, but his furious energy and ability to conjure offense are still far too important for the Thunder to contend apace. Reggie Jackson, for all his value as a player, just doesn't have the same dynamism; the third-year guard is a muted threat away from the ball, doesn't command the same kind of attention on his drives, and doesn't influence games with the same transformational abandon. That speaks more to the unique qualities of Westbrook's play than any fault of Jackson's, but such is the reality when looking to replace a superstar with a player who is merely quite good.
Oklahoma City's offense, then, suffers for all the differences between the two. It becomes far easier for opposing defense to overload on Kevin Durant, which then hinders his ability to get to the rim and shapes his shot selection. The shift saps the offensive impact of Serge Ibaka, who feeds off of Westbrook's dribble penetration. The sets and sequences don't change, but their execution does -- from Jackson's own style to the way defenses respond to him. Even with all those factors to account for and address, there's still plenty of opportunity for OKC to subsist without Westbrook. Where they're likely to come up short is in managing anything further -- particularly the championship designs the Thunder cultivated over the last four seasons.
4. San Antonio has once again shown the balance and depth needed to hold a firm spot among the league's elite. Have its struggles against other good teams been a fluke, or are they indicative of tougher times to come in the postseason?
Mahoney: At this point I'm not ready to say either, though I lean more toward the former than the latter. It's been a problem thus far, and clearly one that has Gregg Popovich irked. Yet the near-champions deserve some benefit of the doubt when it comes to executing against quality opponents, no matter their early issues. There are certain matchups on the board that would be particularly tough for the Spurs to handle in a seven-game series, though to date we haven't seen much consistent basis for San Antonio's wider struggles against top teams. I'd expect things to level out a bit as the season goes on; clearly there are problems therein that need to be addressed, but for the moment I don't see San Antonio's losses against high-caliber opponents as any kind of omen. It's early, still.
Golliver: I understand the concern about their losses to good teams. Not only has San Antonio failed to score a victory against the Blazers, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers and Pacers, but they've lost by double-digits to those teams a combined six times. Blowing out the Little Sisters of the Poor (read: Nets) only to get smoked by A-list squads makes for a jarring contrast. That said, I think this mostly boils down to Popovich adhering firmly to his minutes restrictions on his key guys rather than chasing a headline-grabbing victory in the early going.
If you survey San Antonio's losses, a clear theme emerges: their opposition played their star players more minutes, often by a wide margin, than Popovich played Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. We're closing in on the midway point of the season, and there isn't a single member of the Spurs playing 31 minutes a night, not even Parker or Leonard. Compare that to last year's playoffs, when four Spurs played at least 31 minutes (Leonard, Parker, Duncan and Danny Green) and three of those topped 35 minutes a night. Compare that to other top teams this season, and there's a massive divide (Miami, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Portland, Golden State, Houston and the Clippers all have multiple players logging well over 31 minutes a night). That disparity more or less amounts to Popovich intentionally tying one of his team's hands behind its back. Whether San Antonio has the type of stamina and sufficient luck with injuries to make a deep postseason kick like last year still remains to be seen, but their struggles against top teams so far seems like an exceedingly unreliable measure for how they will fare come April, May and possibly June, when their stars will be shining fully, unhindered by rest.
5. The Blazers are the only one of the league's top five teams that hasn't made a trip to the conference finals during the last two years. Has Portland's hot start been enough to prove they should be part of the championship contention conversation, or is the jury still out?
Golliver: I think the jury is still out, and I would have said the same thing even before their first two-game losing "streak" of the season, which took place earlier this week. Absolutely everything has broken right for the Blazers -- no one in their starting five has missed a game due to injury, all five starters are arguably having career years simultaneously, they are shooting 39.6 percent from deep (second-best in the NBA) as a team -- and that's always a red flag when it comes to midseason evaluation. This is particularly relevant for Portland, I think, because the drop-off from their starting unit to their bench remains steep, despite acquiring some new, competent reserves over the summer.
So much of the Blazers' success has been driven by a starting group (Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez) that has a plus-12 net rating and has already logged 600+ minutes together. Most of Portland's regular bench players are net-negative contributors, and many of the Blazers' reserve-heavy lineups suffer from poor, or very poor, defensive ratings. That's especially troubling because Portland's overall defense ranks No. 22 in the league, even with all five starters playing 30+ minutes a night. Even one injury of consequence is going to leave Portland struggling to stop just about everybody, and it would break up their offensive flow, which relies on great chemistry and balance within the starting five.
Portland is different in a number of ways from the other teams in this group in addition to their defense, which is the lowest ranking on either side of the ball by any of the five teams mentioned here. The Blazers' core players lack in meaningful playoff success, their bench is arguably the weakest of the five teams discussed here, and their core pieces have had less time to jell than the others. Those conditions aren't enough to prevent the Blazers from winning the franchise's first playoff series since 2000, but they do make it seem a bit early to crown the Blazers as unqualified title contenders. Usually, contenders achieve postseason success step-by-step -- the Heat, Pacers and Thunder are all examples from recent years -- and the Blazers are in a position to bring back all of the key pieces of their rotation next season, while making tweaks around the edges and filling out their bench next summer. Put it this way: I like the idea of Blazers as title contenders in 2015 more than 2014, much like the Pacers look more ready this year than last.
Mahoney: The Blazers are an elite offensive team capable of stout defensive stretches, and in that they'd seem to qualify as contenders in some form. Their 25-7 record -- tied for third in the NBA -- speaks for itself, and has the proper pythagorean foundation and strength of schedule to confirm its integrity. The Blazers' pace-adjusted point differential, too, is right in the mix with the Warriors, Rockets, and Clippers. That's a fair grouping; Portland may not be a contender by the same standard as Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City, but they have the offensive dominance, occasional defensive viability, and underlying chemistry necessary to make a run if the right string of matchups presents itself. That, to me checks all the boxes for base contention. They don't have a particularly good chance of winning a title, breaking through to the Finals, or even making the Conference Finals, but Portland is one qualified candidate in a pool of them. If its record holds, it could be approaching playoff series from a position of home-court advantage while drawing upon a difficult-to-counter offense and capable defenders at several positions. They remain underdogs among realistic title contenders, but the Blazers earned respect aplenty and deserve to be a contending discussion point.