Basketball’s almost back, baby! I’m ranking the 22 teams set to restart the NBA season, slotting them into tiers based on their chances of making a Finals run. We’re going in reverse order, starting from the bottom and working our way to the top of the league.
Last week, we looked at the teams on the playoff bubble. Next week, we’ll analyze the favorites. This week is about the teams in the middle. For every team, I’m offering up one thought, trend, or X factor to watch out for during the three months of play. Let’s go!
Teams With Big Questions
13. Indiana Pacers (39-26)
Victor Oladipo ruptured a quad tendon in his right knee in early 2019; when he came back this season he didn’t have the same burst or explosiveness he had before the injury. It’s still unclear whether he’ll play, though he will scrimmage this week. Unless he returns to his former self, the Pacers have no chance at making an NBA Finals run. But let’s say that he does get back to full health and can be the guy who averaged 23 points and led the Pacers to a Game 7 against the Cavaliers in 2017-18. That version of Oladipo was special, but he didn’t get enough help to take down LeBron James. The Cavs trapped him all series to force the ball out of his hands. Ultimately, Oladipo would just dribble backward and look for a player to pass to, which often led to disappointing results:
Still, Oladipo is the whole reason the Pacers even had a chance to upset the Cavs. They were awful without him. That season, they were 13.1 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the bench, per PBP Stats. Things are different now. The Pacers were good this season even before Oladipo returned. Myles Turner has emerged as one of the league’s better rim protectors, and Domantas Sabonis turned into an All-Star, averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, and five assists this season. Believe it or not, he’s only the ninth player ever to average 18-12-5 in a season—and the others are current or future Hall of Famers. Today’s Pacers also have scorers like T.J. Warren and playmakers like Malcolm Brogdon and Aaron Holiday, all of whom could alleviate pressure from Oladipo in a playoff series.
If Oladipo is back to his full self, the Pacers would be a challenge for any team in the East. They’re tough and talented. But it will be a long shot to see that version of Oladipo, which is why I’m ranking the Pacers 13th. This might not be the year for the Pacers. We can only hope Oladipo stays healthy and takes a step toward being an All-NBA–level player once again.
12. Utah Jazz (41-23)
The Jazz will undoubtedly miss Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent wrist surgery and will miss the remainder of the season. Bogdanovic was important because he could initiate the offense or thrive off screens, handoffs, and cuts when Donovan Mitchell had the ball. But the Jazz shouldn’t be discounted until we see Mike Conley, who did similar work and more for a decade in Memphis.
Conley was one of the league’s most potent pick-and-roll playmakers and a shooting threat off the ball; his acquisition immediately made the Jazz a contender last summer … well, at least on paper. Conley struggled more this season than he has since he was a young player, posting inefficient scoring numbers. He even looked lost in the pick-and-roll, as if he couldn’t adjust to playing with a rolling lob threat like Rudy Gobert rather than a pick-and-pop shooter like Marc Gasol in Memphis. But Bogdanovic’s absence should put Conley in a familiar situation, where he’ll likely receive more on-ball opportunities and be more of a primary off-ball scorer.
“Obviously, it’s tough without Bojan. I think all of us are gonna have to step up a little bit,” Conley told reporters earlier this month. “But I understand my situation and I’m excited for it. I could get an opportunity to play a role that I hadn’t had to play so far this year.” Conley’s final few weeks of the season leading up the shutdown offer some optimism. He averaged 16.5 points and 4.9 assists over 13 games after being reinserted into the starting lineup on February 1. If he’s able to keep trending upward, the Jazz should be able to replace Bogdanovic’s scoring loss. With an elite defense and so many variables in play at Disney World, Utah could end up making a run.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)
Billy Donovan is dealing with a coaching dilemma. He’s got the league’s most statistically prolific trio: When Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder are on the floor at the same time, the Thunder outscore opponents by more points than any team in the league this season. It’s also the second-best three-man lineup outside of the 2015-16 Warriors trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala in the NBA Advanced Stats database (which has lineup data back to the 2007-08 season). That said, OKC’s trio plays together only 6.7 minutes per game, which Donovan recently spoke about.
“I get what the numbers look like with those three guys,” Donovan told reporters last week. “I’m not opposed to doing it more, but you have to look into the pairings of who’s out there, and the playmaking ability of different players.” What Donovan’s getting at is that if Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Schröder all play more often together, then there will be more time when one or possibly none of them will be on the court. That’s problematic because the Thunder don’t have anyone else who can create for others. If just one of the three is on the court, that player becomes the sole source of shot creation, and their offensive production plummets.
Not One Guard, Not Two ...
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Donovan can probably find a bit more time for those guards together in the postseason since their minutes should increase, but as the numbers show, three-quarters of their minutes come with just two on the court. Those minutes could even increase since Schröder, a leading contender for Sixth Man of the Year, intends to leave Orlando when his wife gives birth. With just one or two guards on the court, can the Thunder find enough scoring juice to make a deep playoff run? They’d better, after ranking only 14th in offensive rating this season. Gilgeous-Alexander could have made improvements during the team’s time away from the court, but Paul is the player best equipped to handle a larger scoring load.
After four months off, Paul should be rejuvenated. He seemingly fizzles in Game 7s or gets hurt deep in the playoffs, but this time could be different, considering the time off the 35-year-old has had. It’s not as if CP3 has been a dud in the playoffs in terms of production, either. Paul is one of only 11 players in league history to average over 22 points with at least 59 percent true shooting in four separate postseasons, per Basketball-Reference. The Thunder need more scoring, and they’ll need Paul to provide it.
10. Miami Heat (41-24)
The Heat logged a league-leading 774 possessions playing zone defense this season, which is more combined possessions than all 30 teams (718) just two seasons ago. That season, in 2017-18, Miami logged only 40. The Heat’s use of the zone has risen astronomically—as has the league’s. Two seasons ago, only two teams logged over 100 defensive possessions playing zone defense (the Hawks and the Mavericks). This season, 19 teams had over 100 zone possessions, per Synergy Sports. With offenses becoming more and more potent each season, coaches are trying ways to slow them down.
Miami has the 14th-ranked defense this season, and it isn’t statistically better at getting stops with the zone than it is with man-to-man (in fact, it’s slightly worse). But Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra’s desire to use zone so frequently speaks to the problem the Heat are facing: How can they improve defensively? “We’ve just tried to find the best solutions for us to be a better defensive team. At times, that was a good weapon for us,” Spoelstra said yesterday when I asked him about zone defense. “Overall, man or zone, we just have to be better and more consistent.”
Bam Adebayo is a hyper-versatile defender who will likely land on my All-Defensive second team, and Jimmy Butler is one of the league’s most ferocious perimeter defenders. They have other stout wing defenders too, like Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Plus, the Heat are built to give the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo trouble in a potential playoff series—look no further than their pair of wins over Milwaukee this season as evidence. Few teams have the size and versatility that Miami possesses. On the flip side, more perimeter-oriented teams—such as the Celtics or Raptors—give the Heat trouble because of Miami’s lack of high-end guard defense.
Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro aren’t effective ball stoppers on the perimeter, as they struggle to fight over and through screens. But the playoffs could be different for the Heat. They’ll be playing with a shortened rotation, and Crowder and Iguodala were just getting comfortable when the season was suspended. Perhaps they’ll have the personnel to get stops, whether they’re playing zone or man-to-man.
“Teams have faced zones more often the last two years, so they’ve developed more zone-specific attacks. They’re not caught by surprise as much as a few years ago,” Spoelstra added. But the Heat still use it more than anybody, like a fastball pitcher using breaking balls, or a boxer switching stances. Two years ago, I wrote a story titled “Want to Shock an Elite NBA Team? How About a Dash of Zone Defense?” Maybe the Heat will be the team to do just that in the playoffs.
9. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26)
Brett Brown has inserted Shake Milton into Philadelphia’s starting lineup as the point guard, which means Ben Simmons will be playing more off-ball. It’s a smart move, in my opinion. The Sixers need shooting—badly—and Milton is a good shooter: He hit over 42.7 percent of his 3s in all three college seasons at SMU, and he’s hit 41.3 percent of his 3s in the NBA. But Milton isn’t just a spot-up threat; he can run pick-and-rolls and provide a threat that the Sixers have lacked in recent years due to his shooting ability off the dribble.
The Sixers have long searched for another lead ball handler next to Simmons. They traded up for Markelle Fultz, which failed. They traded for Jimmy Butler, which didn’t work out. Then they signed and traded Butler for Josh Richardson, who has been solid but isn’t a playmaker or lead ball handler. Shake isn’t a shifty lead ball handler like Damian Lillard or Chris Paul; he’s more like George Hill—a steady, reliable presence who limits turnovers, makes smart passes, and takes shots within the flow of the offense. He’s a better fit for what they have. The big thing for the Sixers is he can shoot off the dribble and force defenders to go over screens in the pick-and-roll while punishing big men defenders who sag in the paint:
The Sixers have run fewer pick-and-rolls than just about any team in the NBA during the Brown era. It hurt Philly against elite defenses and in the playoffs, when the pick-and-roll is so often the go-to play. They can do it more now with Milton, which means Simmons could be unleashed as a screener.
Simmons has the explosiveness to score above the rim and the playmaking vision to pick apart defenses. If Milton can force defenses to respect his shot, it could open a spot for Simmons on the court to receive the ball on the short roll and then attack. “It seems now is the time to do that, as it relates to him being so explosive as a screen-and-roller,” Brown recently said during a virtual media session. “We haven’t had a ton of guards that defenders are forced to go over [screens]. If Shake can punish [teams going under screens], then the world makes even more sense.”
The Sixers have a lot of big questions entering the seeding games and the postseason, but playing Milton as a point guard could unlock new dimensions to Simmons’s game. If the Sixers can get even more out of Simmons and Joel Embiid, they could go deeper into the playoffs than they have in decades.
8. Dallas Mavericks (40-27)
The Mavericks have the league’s no. 1 offense this season, 2.4 points per 100 possessions ahead of the second-place Rockets, which is the same differential between Houston and 14th-place Oklahoma City. Despite their historic numbers, multiple NBA coaches I recently spoke with are wondering how Luka Doncic will deal with the type of traps and double teams he could face in the postseason, similar to what James Harden routinely faces during the regular season. Which is fair since Doncic and Harden touch and possess the ball more often than nearly every player in the whole league. Considering Luka’s scoring potency, teams might want to dial in this type of pressure:
We’ve already seen a handful of teams use doubles and traps against Luka, like Denver and Orlando. “Trapping is definitely a playoff adjustment you could see to get the ball out Luka’s hands,” one assistant coach from a playoff team told me. “However, Dallas does a better job of actually running offense, versus Houston, where Harden is stationary and easier to trap.” It’s a smart point. In the clip above, and in virtually any Rockets play, Harden slowly dribbles the ball up the court into a pick-and-roll. Doncic doesn’t always play like that.
The Mavericks don’t run quite as many high pick-and-rolls and isolations for Doncic as the Rockets do for Harden. Instead, Rick Carlisle utilizes plays that involve motion, such as cuts and handoffs, to get the ball to his second-year star on the move. In the clip below, watch as Doncic cuts across the court with an off-ball motion popularized by Allen Iverson to create space for the catch, then a drive.
Here, Doncic dribbles the ball up, passes to Seth Curry, then sprints through for a handoff on his way to the basket.
The variety in Doncic’s offensive game makes him a tough cover. If teams are doubling or trapping him off ball, then Carlisle can just turn to more off-ball actions. These types of plays combined with Luka’s innate feel should enable him to sustain his MVP-level production in the postseason and prove he’s already the type of player who can’t be schemed out of a series.