With an eyes toward the postseason, Will Laws determines the weakest link on each title contender headed into the NBA playoffs.
During the regular season, NBA coaches can afford to give players a longer leash. There’s value in allowing a slumping veteran or inexperienced rookie to work through their issues and find a niche on the team before the postseason begins.
But the time for leniency is running out. Coaches trim the fat off their lineups for the postseason, when their regular rotation shrinks to eight players. And as it currently stands, just about every team with title aspirations has an underperforming player who would better serve the team from the sidelines.
These are the Least Valuable Players (LVPs) of the title contenders. If the head coaches sit these guys, it might be the tactical move that pushes their squad over the top.
Note: Since every league champion since the turn of the century has boasted a winning percentage of at least .634 (the equivalent of 52 wins in an 82-game season), we’re setting that as the cutoff to be labeled a title contender for this exercise. That leaves us with eight teams—six from the Western Conference, and just two from the Eastern Conference.
Once known for his outrageous celebrations as the Warriors' 12th man, Kent Bazemore has come a long way. The defensive-minded wing is shooting 40.2 percent on threes this season, can throw down some mean dunks and has impressed Mike Budenholzer enough to average 24 minutes per game since the All-Star break.
But Bazemore is simply not a good passer, and Atlanta’s lightning-quick offense stagnates when he’s on the court. The Hawks average 112.1 points per 100 possessions without Bazemore—the fourth-best mark in the league—compared to a 103.5 offensive rating (which would rank 26th) with him.
Bazemore’s uptick in playing time correlates with the Hawks looking rather mortal lately. Budenholzer would be wise to allocate his minutes to Thabo Sefolosha (team-best 10.4 net rating) and Mike Scott now that both players are healthy.
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin deserves consideration for Executive of the Year. Without his midseason trade for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, Cleveland would likely still be mired in the soft, chewy middle of the Eastern Conference.
Even now, coach David Blatt has had to shuffle through a ton of options to find a viable bench option beyond Shumpert and Tristan Thompson. Matthew Dellavedova is currently filling the role despite owning a lowly 8.3 PER this season and being one of the worst close-range scorers in the NBA.
Shawn Marion hasn’t recorded a meaningful minute since January, but he deserves another look from Blatt. Marion’s net rating (+4.7) is better than Dellavedova’s (+2.7) this season, as he provides much more defensive versatility and doesn’t try to play outside of his capabilities on offense.
Golden State Warriors
With less than 250 minutes played this season, Brandon Rush truly hasn’t had enough of a sample size to be judged too harshly for his horrific -18.0 net rating this season. But there’s simply no other choice here since first-year coach Steve Kerr has coaxed valuable contributions from just about every other piece on the roster.
Every player besides Rush with at least 100 minutes played has a positive net rating, and the team’s unspectacular youngsters (Justin Holiday, James Michael McAdoo, Festus Ezeli) won’t figure into Golden State’s playoff rotation.
So even though Rush has played the vast majority of his minutes in garbage time and in all likelihood won’t dress during the postseason, he gets the nod here due to extremely poor shooting (9-for-49 overall, 2-for-24 from three-point range) in the limited time he has seen.
“Houston, there are no problems.”
That should be the mindset of the Rockets right now, as they’ve gone 16-6 since Kostas Papanikolaou last suited up for Houston. The Greek forward went down with an ankle injury on Feb. 21 after posting a -2.7 net rating in 19 minutes per game this season, and will reportedly be healthy enough to return to game action next week.
But should the team even bother playing Papanikolaou down the stretch during a tight race for the No. 2 seed in the West?
This isn’t to suggest that Houston has found this extra gear due to the absence of Papanikolaou. But if you’re part of the franchise’s analytical brain trust, would you really want to mess with a good rotation by integrating a raw 24 year old whose presence has coincided with a decline in efficiency on both ends of the floor?
It’s painful to say this, but it might be time to stick a fork in 38-year-old Vince Carter. This season has yielded the worst field goal percentage (33.9) of his career by a wide margin. He’s no longer a reliable spot-up shooter.
Carter did show some signs of life against soft defensive teams in February. But since a turn-back-the-clock game against the lowly Knicks on Mar. 23, Carter has converted just 7-of-26 shots (5-of-18 from downtown) while continuing to be a minus on defense.
Carter’s decline has put the team in a tough situation, as there’s not another great shooter on the roster to back up Courtney Lee. Coach Dave Joerger’s best option might just be to forego long-distance shooting on second-string units by rationing Carter’s minutes between Tony Allen (team-high +10.2 net rating) and Nick Calathes once Allen’s hamstring injury heals.
Portland Trail Blazers
The lone starter to appear on this list, Nicolas Batum will certainly be on the hardwood for Portland during the playoffs. But if Wesley Matthews hadn’t torn his Achilles last month, that might not be the case.
Batum’s sudden drop-off to career lows in field-goal percentage (40.6) and three-point percentage (32.7) is hurting the Blazers more now than it did when Matthews was still making up for it. Portland has recently been forced to rely on two underachieving wings in Batum and Arron Afflalo.
The team will be hard-pressed to win a playoff series for the second straight year with a lack of desirable alternatives available.
Los Angeles Clippers
As is true with most of the Clippers’ dreadful bench, it’s unclear what Austin Rivers brings to the table. He’s a shooting guard who can’t shoot (38.7 percent overall, 28 percent from deep with the Clips), pass (1.7 assists in 19.6 minutes per game) or defend particularly well.
It doesn’t help matters that his father and coach, Doc Rivers, has forced Rivers, a square peg, into the role of a round hole. The 22 year old acted as L.A.’s backup point guard as Jamal Crawford (calf) sat out. It’s a minor miracle Los Angeles went 12-5 with Crawford out, as Rivers is ill-suited to run an offense at this stage of his career.
This problem might solve itself, as Crawford returned on Tuesday against the Lakers. But Doc Rivers gave his son about 20 minutes per game before Crawford went down. If he ends up doing the same during the postseason, Clippers fans will rightfully be up in arms.
San Antonio Spurs
Even in a San Antonio offense crafted for long-distance marksmen, Marco Belinelli is having a down year for the Spurs. And since shooting constitutes the vast majority of Belinelli’s skill set, Gregg Popovich shouldn’t hesitate to yank Belinelli from the rotation once the playoffs begin.
Belinelli is the only Spur with a negative net rating playing consistent minutes as San Antonio bulldozes through the twilight of its schedule. Without him on the floor, the Spurs defend better than any team in the league (99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). With him, it’s a bottom-10 unit.
Though Tim Duncan and Co. are once again looking unstoppable at this time of year, Belinelli represents the team’s one true weakness. Unless Popovich delegates Danny Green as the small forward for bench units and goes with a small starting backcourt, the Spurs will be forced to give Belinelli 15-20 minutes in the playoffs.
And that means the defending champs have a chink in their defensive armor.
More from Will Laws:
PointAfter is part of the FindTheBest network, a research website that’s collected all the information about Vince Carter and the Golden State Warriors and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it. Join FindTheBest to get all the information about NBA players, NBA teams and thousands of other topics.