The NBA is a state of repair.
No, the games and the talent on the court are perfectly fine, exemplary actually, but the disparity of quality between the East and West and there being only five teams capable of winning a title this year is something that needs to be addressed.
It is historic how poor the Eastern Conference is right now, which is leading to a two-team race to the top between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. At the moment, there are are only three teams in the East with a winning record (Toronto is 15-15), with the third, the Atlanta Hawks, not a threat to either of them.
There are younger teams that will eventually challenge, but many of them are in rebuild mode and will not be ready to contend for a few years.
The West has been, by far, the superior conference. However, there are only so many teams out there with a legitimate shot at winning a title, too.
Teams like the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers have those aspirations and want to be recognized as a legitimate shot, but several factors come into play. Can the Rockets last through the playoffs with the defense of James Harden and a limited bench? Can the Clippers make any sort of advances if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are nonexistent once the playoffs start? It’s led to only five teams currently recognized as those who can actually win the title this year, and we take a look at those squads and what separates them from the rest of the league.
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Don’t look now, but with a 24-7 record, the Miami Heat are off to their best start in the Big Three era. Perhaps it’s because they’re the two-time champions and it’s expected of them, but the Heat hasn’t been this accustomed to starting off the season this well. Just last season, actually, they started off with a 29-14 record, before running off their historic streak of 27 consecutive wins.
Only one of their seven losses on the season came by more than ten points, while the other six losses came by a combined 27 points, including two by only a point. None of their losses — outside of a tilt in Sacramento that has to be considered a fluke — have come at the hands of a Western Conference opponent.
It’s just another season for the Heat, which means there’s also going to be the usual talk of breaking up the team. With the way things have been going this season, however, the threat of having the Big Three broken up is seemingly becoming more and more of a pipe dream.
They’ve started out the season playing some of the most efficient basketball in NBA history on the offensive end. Their 104.5 points per 100 possessions is good enough for sixth in the league, but their effective field goal percentage of 56.6 percent is the best in the league as is their true shooting percentage of 60.1 percent, per Hollinger.
Although their offensive efficiency from last season, by year’s end, was actually superior to this year’s current total, both their eFG percentage and TS percentage lacked in comparison to this years.
Their assist ratio, or the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in an assist, of 19.1 percent is second in the league, heralded by LeBron James‘ 6.6 assists per, Dwyane Wade‘s 4.9, and Mario Chalmers‘ current career-high of 5.3.
Even Norris Cole is garnering a career-high in assists, as well as in field goal and three-point percentages, rebounds per and points per. His numbers from this year are significantly greater than any of the numbers he put up in his previous two seasons, making him a likely candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
But Cole is only one of many reasons why this may be the best Heat team in the Big Three era yet. Far from it.
While most analysts will look at LeBron James’ shooting percentages, currently at .590 overall and .415 on three-pointers, and Dwyane Wade’s 19.5 points per game on 54 percent from the field, it is also of importance to take a look at their minutes per game and notice a trend that should make opponents weary.
LeBron and Chris Bosh are both averaging career-lows in minutes, while Dwyane is averaging the second-lowest of his career. With these three playing fewer minutes than ever and the coaching staff being able to rely on the bench, it means the depth and quality of the bench is allowing the team’s most talented players to not overexert themselves in the regular season.
Michael Beasley has also played a role in this sudden bench revival, averaging 11.1 points on 53 percent shooting and providing the team with a scorer who can create on his own, a rarity to come off the Heat bench over the past three-and-a-half years. He’s already earned back the admiration of the Heat fanbase, who were clamoring for Beasley to play during their win over the Lakers on Christmas.
The Heat are also receiving their usual contributions from Ray Allen, shooting 39 percent from three this year, and Chris Andersen, averaging 6.4 points on 64 percent shooting and 4.4 rebounds, but have also earned a boost from Rashard Lewis, who has been playing surprisingly well on the defensive end and is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc.
All this, and Greg Oden has yet to step on the court in the regular season, as well as Shane Battier having a rough start to the season, shooting below 34 percent from three.
At the moment, and considering the Heat’s astounding dominance over the Western Conference, there appears to be only one team that can stop them from making the three-peat happen.
What separates them: Does having the best player in the world help? As long as the Heat possess LeBron James, who also happens to play alongside fellow elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami will possess the edge when speaking of the favorites for the title.
The Heat are the defending two-time champions — just in case you haven’t heard — and are playing as well as they ever have in the Big Three era. With LeBron, Dwyane and Chris receiving either career-lows or near career-lows in minutes per, a rested Big Three is the last thing any opponent wants to see. Don’t forget that Miami limped into the past two NBA Finals they won. Wade was hardly himself in the 2012 Finals, Bosh was brought back early from an abdominal strain he suffered in the 2012 semifinals, and Wade went into the 2013 postseason having come off a knee injury near the end of the year.
If Wade maintains his health, the Heat are going to end the season with a third consecutive title.
If there’s going to be a team that’s keeping Miami from the three-peat, it’s the Indiana Pacers and nobody else. The Pacers have all the keys to take down the Heat, but specifically one mountain of a key that has been leading the charge of Indiana’s historic start to the season on the defensive end.
The 7-2 Roy Hibbert has been the league’s best post-defender, giving reason as to why the 93.4 points per 100 possessions they’re allowing is far-and-away the best in the league. In fact, the second-place Oklahoma City Thunder are giving up nearly four points more per 100 possessions than the Pacers.
Per SportVU, Hibbert is allowing more than nine shots at the rim per game and is allowing only 41.1 percent of those shots to fall. Brook Lopez, who’s now out for the year, had been the only other player in the league defending it so well.
Hibbert’s 2.7 blocks per game is also good enough for second in the league, only trailing Anthony Davis‘s 3.2 per. The verticality rule, or the rule that allows a defender to make contact with a driving player but only if they maintain a perfect vertical with their body, has been good to Hibbert, who is averaging only 3.3 fouls per game.
Hibbert, who once averaged 7.7 fouls per 36 minutes in his rookie season, and the lack of calls he is drawing has been imperative to Indiana’s success this season. It’s also the reason why the Pacers are 1-1 against the Heat this season, with the loss coming during a contest where Hibbert played only 23 minutes due to foul trouble.
On top of Hibbert continuing to excel as a defender, the Pacers also have to be impressed with not just the MVP-pace of Paul George, but of Lance Stephenson‘s progression into a full-fledged deserving starter.
The 40th pick of the 2010 Draft, Stephenson was passed over by every team due to off-court problems, allowing him to fall into the second round and into the lap of the Pacers. He’s come a long way since playing only 12 games in his rookie season. As the starting shooting guard of Indiana, Stephenson is dropping career-highs left and right, including the 13.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game he’s averaging, as well as the 49 percent overall field goal percentage and 36 percent three-point percentage he’s shooting. Stephenson has already earned three triple-doubles this season. Stephen Curry is the only other player with more than one. He has two.
Indiana is also pleased to see its bench, possibly the only factor that prevented them from an NBA Finals berth last year, actually contributing and supporting the starters. Luis Scola leads the team in field goal percentage, shooting 52 percent, while also dropping nearly nine points and five rebounds per contest. Fellow newcomer C.J. Watson has struggled with his shot, shooting 39 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep, but the 6.3 points, 1.9 assists and 1.7 rebounds per is still far more than what any guard off the bench was giving Indiana last year.
At 25-6, the Pacers are currently in a tie for the league’s best record and are continuing to do so with limited contribution from Danny Granger, who recently returned and is struggling to acclimate himself back to the pace of the game after a year-long layoff. If Granger is capable of fitting in and contributing, though, it’s seriously putting a damper on Miami’s plans of running off three consecutive titles.
Even without him, the Pacers have proven they can do plenty more than just run with the Heat, and they just may be the only thing in the way of preventing a dynasty from being created.
What separates them: As the old saying goes: Defense wins championships. The Pacers are the league’s best defensive team, and it’s not even close at the moment, and are in possession of not only an MVP candidate in Paul George, but also the likely Defensive Player of the Year in Roy Hibbert.
Indiana came a game away from making the Finals last year and that came when their top bench players were Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin. Now with Scola and Watson, the Pacers can give key members of their starting lineup some time to actually rest, which failed to occur last year when each member of the starting lineup averaged at least 37 minutes per game in their Eastern Conference Finals loss to Miami.
Their run to the Finals goes through Roy Hibbert. The conference finals last year was able to be extended to seven games because the Heat struggled so significantly in finding the usual looks they receive near the basket.
With the imposing figure of Hibbert looming under the rim, and the leniency he receives from the officiating, Indiana will need to keep him on the floor in order to beat Miami.
Are you fully convinced yet that the San Antonio Spurs are just going to be championship contenders until Earth reaches its eventual end? No? Then you haven’t been paying much attention to the past, oh, 14 years of the NBA. Since this team was able to draft Tim Duncan, they have legitimately fought for a title just about every season, including last year with a 36-year-old Duncan, who was still dropping 20 points and 10 rebounds per in the NBA Finals.
This season represents the first time Duncan has actually shown his age with the 46 percent he’s shooting from the field being a career-low, as well as his PER of 20.9. However, he’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging 14.2 points and 9.5 rebounds on a Spurs team that currently sits at 25-7 and has the league’s fifth-best defensive efficiency, yielding only 96.5 points per 100 possessions. He’s also allowing opponents to shoot only 46.5 percent on shots near the rim, as well as sending back nearly two shots per game.
The Spurs join the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder as the only teams to be in the top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Spurs are getting their usual contributions from guys like Duncan, Tony Parker (averaging 18.0 points on 50 percent shooting) and Manu Ginobili (averaging 12.6 points on 48 percent overall shooting and 39 percent three-point shooting), but it’s a few of the lesser-known guys that have been propping this team up this year.
Newcomer Marco Belinelli has been playing the best basketball of his career with San Antonio, as so many players who play with the Spurs are inclined to do. His PER of 15.1 is a career-high, and it’s supported by the league’s second-best three-point percentage at 48 percent, as well as the 49 percent he’s shooting overall. The efficient numbers come on the heels of shooting 39 percent from the field and 36 percent from three last year with the Chicago Bulls. The 27-year-old from Italy may have just found a permanent residence.
Boris Diaw and Patty Mills have also been playing excellent basketball this year. Diaw is coming off the bench to lead the team in field goal percentage at 55, while Mills, the league-leader in average speed at nearly five miles per hour, is averaging a career-high 7.9 points, while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Guys like Mills and Belinelli have supported the Spurs in being the league’s best three-point shooting team percentage wise. That impressive stat comes despite Kawhi Leonard shooting less than 30 percent and Diaw shooting less than 26 percent. It helps to have four rotation players shooting at least 40 percent from three, not even including seldom-used players in Matt Bonner and Cory Joseph, who are also shooting solidly.
It’s the concept of team ball and fundamentals that have propelled the Spurs to the start they’ve become so accustomed to. They’re third in the league in assist ratio and if it’s any proof that these customs and values are constantly being preached, coach Mike Budenholzer, former assistant coach of San Antonio’s, has his Atlanta Hawks at the top of the league in assist ratio.
With three veterans and a plethora of quality shooters and defenders to surround them, the Spurs are once again in contention for a title, which would be their fifth since 1999 and their sixth if Ray Allen didn’t exist.
What separates them: Besides a three-man core that’s won three titles together, undoubtedly the best coach in the NBA and arguably the best power forward in NBA history? Not much.
The Spurs are perennial championship contenders for a reason. They’re well-coached, maximize the talent and potential of their players, a proven system that’s won four titles in the past 15 years, and a battle-tested core that’s been to this rodeo more than a few times. There are few teams that play the game of basketball with the mastery of the Spurs and the way they move the ball allows them to override any defense, and they’re just as lethal on the defensive end, where they are currently forcing opponents into 96.5 points per game.
They’ve been to the conference finals in four of the past seven years, including the past two years. Although the West could be considered wide-open once the playoffs begin, the veteran expertise of the Spurs has given them an advantage that few of the many young, inexperienced teams out West possess.
So much for the idea that the Oklahoma City Thunder are no longer contenders without their former Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden.
Even with Russell Westbrook struggling with injuries and at aspects of his game he usually excels in, such as converting on only 31 percent of his drives, the Thunder find themselves at 25-6 in a tie with the Indiana Pacers for the league’s best record.
While Westbrook is shooting only 31 percent on threes, per SportVU, he is shooting 39 percent on nine pull-up jump shot attempts per game, good enough to rank among the league-leaders in those who predominantly score off of pull-ups.
As expected, Kevin Durant is also doing his usual damage, leading the league in scoring at 28.8 per game and doing so on an efficient 49 percent from the field and a career-high 42 percent from beyond the arc. He, too, like Westbrook, is excelling at pull-up jumpers, converting 43 percent of his 6.9 attempts per game and 49 percent on his pull-up threes.
It’s no secret that Durant and Westbrook consistently have the Thunder among the league leaders in offensive efficiency, with this year being no different as they currently rank fifth. What is surprising, however, is their defense, where they rank second in the league, yielding only 97.5 points per 100 possessions. They’ve improved significantly over the past three years, ranking tenth in 2012 and third last year, giving up 99.2 points per 100 possessions.
Serge Ibaka has played a role in the improved defense of Oklahoma City’s, allowing opponents to shoot only 44 percent at the rim and sending back 2.4 blocks per game, third in the league among players who have played at least 19 games.
On top of heralding the defensive charge, Ibaka is also shooting an impressive 36 percent from beyond the arc, leading the Thunder to employ lineups that are composed of nothing but shooters.
Perhaps even more surprising than their defensive numbers is their rebounding. Oklahoma City holds the league’s top rebounding ratio and is leading the NBA in rebounds per game. Their rebounding differential of plus-5.5 is also tops in the game.
Ibaka leads the team in rebounds at 8.7 per, while Durant is grabbing 8.5. However, both of those are far less surprising than seeing Russell Westbrook average six boards per game, a rebound more than what he’s averaging for his career.
Also contributing to the Thunder’s success this year has been the surprising play of the role players surrounding Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. With Harden departed and Kevin Martin leaving for Minnesota last year, there was a gaping vacancy on a Thunder roster devoid of players who could come off the bench and support the starters. The Thunder are receiving that from the likes of Reggie Jackson, averaging career-highs across the board at 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists and earning legitimate Sixth Man of the Year consideration; Jeremy Lamb, coming off a quiet rookie season to average 10.0 points and shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc; and rookie Steven Adams, averaging 10.2 boards and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes, while also drawing the ire of several opponents.
But, hey, every team could use one enforcer, and if it gives the Thunder a reason to stop using Kendrick Perkins, it’s only going to help.
The Thunder are still hot from last year on having their championship run cut short on account of Westbrook’s knee injury suffered in the first round. They enter this season as motivated as ever before and if they secure homecourt advantage, where they’re currently tied for second-best at 14-2, they could be back in the Finals for the second time in three years.
What separates them as contenders: For three consecutive years, the Oklahoma City Thunder found a way to fall apart when a championship may have been in their future.
They fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference Finals, made it to the NBA Finals in 2012 only to lose in five games, and most recently saw their postseason run cut short on account of the injury dealt to Westbrook.
Every team has their own motivation to winning a title, from Miami attempting to shut everyone up to Indiana feeling they deserved the Finals berth last year, but the hurt felt by the Thunder’s two-man tandem of Durant and Westbrook is reason enough to believe this team is going to be on an inspired mission. However, inexperience may play a factor. While Kevin, Russell and Serge have done this before, the same doesn’t go for younger guys in Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who will be needed if the Thunder are serious about making another run.
Before the season started, many predicted, including myself, that the Portland Trail Blazers may not even make the postseason. Two months into the season, however, Portland is tied with the Spurs for the West’s second-best record, trailing only OKC and Indiana in the NBA. They failed to make the postseason last year, yet they are currently in possession of the league’s best offense, an offense so lethal that it leads in the league in not just three-pointers made per game, but is just .001 behind San Antonio for tops in three-point percentage.
The most surprising part of that fact is that it’s only five players doing the damage from three. Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright are the only players attempting at least one three-pointer per game, but they’re doing so in heavy volume.
Lillard, in fact, is attempting over seven three-pointers per game and is converting on 44 percent of them, a vast improvement from the 37 percent he shot last year. Matthews is attempting over six per and shooting 44 percent, while Batum is taking a little less than six and shooting 37 percent. Matthews and Batum are among the league leaders in catch-and-shoot situations, with Matthews shooting 47 percent on nearly five three-point attempts per game and Batum shooting 40.1 percent.
Lillard, meanwhile, is among the league’s best pull-up shooters. He’s converting on nearly 44 percent of his six attempts per contest, while also shooting 43.4 percent from beyond the arc on such jumpers. Wright and Williams are both taking three three-pointers per game and are shooting 36 and 35 percent, respectively. These two have also been imperative to Portland’s success because of how depleted Portland’s bench was last year.
Do you remember Portland’s top bench players from last year? Exactly. In case you’re like most people and don’t remember, the top contributors were the likes of Will Barton, who has played in eight games this year, Meyers Leonard, featured in seven games this year, and Luke Babbitt, currently without a team.
Portland’s top three bench players last year have played in a combined 15 games this season. As in the case of Indiana, the improvement of a bench from nothing into just two quality players has played a significant role in the evolution of the team transitioning from good to great.
The improvement of the team’s collective three-point shooting has also led to the offense that ranked 15th in offensive efficiency last year to becoming the best. Although they were a top ten team in three-point makes per game, they ranked 21st in three-point percentage.
They’ve also gone from ranking 18th in assists per game to fifth, as well as going from ranking 16th in assist ratio to tied for third this year. They’ve moving the ball, getting open shots, and are receiving the help from inside with LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez dominating the interior.
Aldridge is attempting a career-high 21 field goal attempts per game and it’s resulting in the eight-year forward averaging a career-high 23.6 points to go along with a career-high 10.9 rebounds per. He’s among the league’s best pick-and-roll players, shooting 54 percent and ranking 41st in points per possession, per Synergy, and also ranks 57th in PPP on post-ups, where he’s shooting 40 percent.
His frontcourt teammate in Robin Lopez, however, has provided Portland with a huge boost that nobody expected. After averaging a career-high 11 points per game last year, Lopez is setting a career-high in rebounds per, averaging over eight per game and helping Portland become the league’s seventh-best rebounding team in terms of rebounding rate.
What separates them: Talent on the perimeter, talent in the interior, talent on defense, talent on offense; talent everywhere. Aldridge is attempting to make a case for the league’s best power forward, Lillard is making quite the jump from his rookie year, and the team overall is playing well above expectations.
Although some may believe their shooting will eventually catch up to them once the playoffs begin, their ability to pass the ball and find open shoots, as well as having those two interior threats from a scoring, rebounding and defensive standpoint, will continue to take pressure off of the perimeter.
But it’s still a dangerous game to play. It’s a rarity for a shooting team to continue such excellent shooting all the way through the NBA Finals and it’s usually the teams that are able to consistently get to the basket that end up winning titles.
Plus, Portland’s defense is in need of some work. Despite their league-best offensive efficiency, their defensive efficiency ranks 22nd in the league, behind the likes of Milwaukee, Cleveland and Orlando. Portland is the longest shot to win a title among these five teams, but they still have a shot because of how volatile their shooters and All-Star bound power forward are.
It’s tough to see this team beating out Oklahoma City or San Antonio once the playoffs roll around, but they certainly have the talent to make a run if they get hot from beyond the arc at the right time.
What do you think?
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