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Red-Alert Numbers for the NBA’s Title Contenders

All eight teams with a real shot at a ring have at least one glaring flaw. We run through each weakness, and what the league’s best did at the deadline and in the buyout market to try to fix them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last season, the bubble separated the NBA into two broad tiers: one with 22 teams that played in Orlando, and one with eight teams that were left out.

This season, the league also has a 22-team tier and an eight-team group—but unofficially, and with the figures reversed. Right now, eight teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Look at the size of the drop between the eighth-place 76ers and ninth-place Celtics in this graph of net rating, with garbage time removed: Boston is closer to the 21st-place Bulls than the 76ers.

But none of these eight teams is the 2016-17 Warriors. Each of the contenders has at least one statistical warning sign. Who addressed their biggest weakness at the trade deadline and in the buyout market? We’ll go in reverse order of net rating, which means starting with the first-place team in the East.

Philadelphia 76ers: Turnovers

Problem: I’ll keep this brief, because I wrote about the issue earlier in the month: The 76ers rank 27th in turnover rate, with everyone from stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to role players like Dwight Howard coughing up the ball excessively. This problem both hampers the 76ers’ offense and allows for more transition opportunities for their opponents.

Deadline addition: George Hill in a trade

Verdict: If they couldn’t land Kyle Lowry, then Hill was the next best choice. The veteran guard isn’t nearly on Lowry’s level as a playmaker, but he occupies a sturdy caretaker role that Philadelphia, with its waves of young guards, hadn’t previously filled. Hill hasn’t played since January 24 due to a finger injury, but when he eventually returns to the court, he should be able to help in this key area while not sacrificing anything on defense.

Los Angeles Lakers: 3-Point Accuracy

Problem: More than ever before, the NBA is a make-or-miss league from 3; the top five teams in 3-point accuracy this season all rank among this elite group of eight teams. The Lakers, however, are shooting just 34.9 percent from distance as a team, which ranks them 23rd, sandwiched between the Pistons and Thunder.

This isn’t the result of one or two players struggling. The Lakers have just one player making even 40 percent of his 3s: Jared Dudley, who was 2-for-5 this season before tearing his MCL. Every other elite team has multiple players shooting 40 percent or better from distance, comprising many hundreds of attempts.

Top Eight Teams’ Elite 3-Point Shooters

Team Total Attempts From 40% Shooters 40% Shooters (Most Attempts)
Team Total Attempts From 40% Shooters 40% Shooters (Most Attempts)
Clippers 1,161 George (270), Batum (184), Morris (193)
Nuggets 842 Murray (285), Porter (200), Jokic (166)
Nets 798 Harris (311), Irving (227), Green (139)
Bucks 757 Middleton (231), Forbes (213), Connaughton (158)
76ers 703 Green (293), Curry (165), Harris (154)
Jazz 666* Conley (240), Ingles (230), O'Neale (186)
Suns 466 Bridges (196), Payne (82), Galloway (70)
Lakers 5 Dudley (5)
*The Jazz would be at 1,044 attempts here if we also included Donovan Mitchell, who’s at 39.9 percent this season.

Deadline addition: Andre Drummond after a buyout

Verdict: Given that Drummond has shot 15-for-111 in his career on 3s, including 0-for-8 this season, it’s safe to say the team’s new center will not fix this issue directly. He might offer more help indirectly: Drummond is a good screener, and his offensive rebounding chops could help create the sort of scramble situations that lead to open 3s.

But the broader issue is that the Lakers’ 3-point struggles have prevented the offense as a whole from taking off. The Lakers rank 17th in offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass; the 76ers are 13th, and every other leading contender is in the top eight. Drummond likely won’t offer much help here, as he’s a terribly inefficient scorer: He ranks dead last in finishing around the rim this season, and boasts one of the worst true shooting percentages for any high-usage player.

Even with Drummond in the fold, and even after LeBron James and Anthony Davis return from injury, the Lakers still won’t have the full-roster firepower to score 120 points as routinely as the Nets and Clippers. They just don’t have the shooters—or even a shooter, singular.

That didn’t stop them last season, of course, when the Lakers ranked 21st in 3-point percentage in the regular season, then 12th out of 16 teams in the playoffs, ahead of only Boston and three teams that lost in the first round. They won the title anyway, thanks to the two stars and stout defense. Even after a decent-sized roster shakeup, they’ll have to rely on the same formula this postseason.

Brooklyn Nets: Defense. Just Defense. All of It.

Problem: The Nets’ imbalance has been clear since before the season began, and especially after the James Harden trade: Brooklyn can light up the scoreboard but allow just as many points on the other end.

The Nets rank 24th in defensive rating this season, per Cleaning the Glass, and have been consistently subpar: They ranked 23rd on defense in December/January, 22nd in February, and 18th in March. The Nuggets (22nd) are the only other contender in the bottom half of the league.

Deadline additions: Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge after buyouts

Verdict: Folks have gotten all worked up about the competitive balance implications of the buyout market in recent weeks, especially the Nets’ addition of six-time-All-Star Griffin and seven-time-All-Star Aldridge. But there’s a reason that Griffin and Aldridge—and Drummond too—were so freely available: They no longer resemble the players who earned so many All-Star nods.

Brooklyn already has sufficient firepower, and it’s difficult to foresee the new big men providing a boost on the defensive end. Aldridge in particular appears an odd fit for coach Steve Nash’s scheme: Brooklyn has switched the most screens of any team this season, per ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, while Aldridge has switched just nine picks, total, all season. Aldridge can still make a jump shot, but now at 35 years old, he is a plodder, often looking stiff and immobile on defense. That won’t work if he has to switch onto guards.

Moreover, his addition could mean fewer minutes for the one Brooklyn big who has experienced defensive success this season. With second-year center Nicolas Claxton on the court, Brooklyn has allowed a measly 100.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be the best mark in the league; the team’s defensive rating is higher than 110 with every other member of the current rotation.

Nets’ Defensive Performance by Rotation Player on the Court

Player On-Court DRtg
Player On-Court DRtg
Nicolas Claxton 100.5
Caris LeVert (traded) 107.7
Jarrett Allen (traded) 107.7
Tyler Johnson 110.5
Kevin Durant 110.6
Joe Harris 110.7
Kyrie Irving 112.4
James Harden 113.5
Landry Shamet 113.6
Bruce Brown 113.9
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot 114.5
DeAndre Jordan 114.6
Jeff Green 114.7

Granted, Claxton has played only 15 games and 284 minutes; over a larger sample, he will almost certainly prove less impactful than that chart suggests. But the mobile youngster also makes for a much better choice in a switching scheme than Griffin, Aldridge, or starting center DeAndre Jordan. Now he might lose minutes in a crowded rotation, with … six candidates for essentially two spots: Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Jordan, Griffin, Aldridge, and Claxton.

Aldridge and Griffin are long shots to fix the Nets’ problem—and in fact, their dual, redundant additions might exacerbate it. There’s no reason to fret about the buyout market: The Spurs, after all, were happy to give Aldridge’s minutes to a different buyout big man, Gorgui Dieng, who ironically would have been a better fit in Brooklyn.

Denver Nuggets: Rim Protection

Problem: Nuggets opponents are shooting a not-so-nice 69 percent at the rim this season, per CtG, compared to a league average of 64 percent. That’s the worst mark in the league; none of the other best teams are above 65. This weakness might prove an issue against the LeBrons and Goberts of the world.

Deadline additions: Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee in separate trades

Verdict: The good news is that McGee has allowed the league’s lowest opposing field goal percentage when he contests a shot within 6 feet of the rim this season (minimum 100 attempts), at 45 percent. The bad news is that Denver’s problem wasn’t with the backups McGee will replace. Nikola Jokic is the chief matador around the rim, allowing a 64 percent conversion rate in a large sample, one of the worst marks for any center.

It’s hard to imagine Jokic and McGee playing much together; Jokic has spent 98 percent minutes at center this season, per CtG’s estimates, with the other 2 percent coming in spot minutes paired with Bol Bol. Giving McGee minutes with the starters wouldn’t just cramp the unit’s spacing on offense; it would also have ripple effects of benching either Gordon or Michael Porter Jr.

So the Nuggets are probably stuck with Jokic’s permissive rim defense in the most important minutes. Gordon can help in those situations, however, both at the rim itself—Gordon has been about average as a rim defender throughout his career—and on the perimeter, preventing the league’s best forwards from penetrating in the first place. It doesn’t matter if Jokic can’t alter shots like McGee if he never has any reason to do so, and with Gordon likely to get first crack at LeBron or Kawhi Leonard or other top wings in potential playoff matchups, he’ll be, quite literally, the first line of defense.

Milwaukee Bucks: Opponents’ Wide-Open 3-Pointers

Problem: Bucks opponents are hoisting 20.2 “wide-open” 3-pointers per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which defines them as attempts with at least 6 feet between the shooter and defender. Only the Hornets have allowed more. And that’s not just a function of Milwaukee’s scheme allowing more 3s in general; 52 percent of the 3s they allow are wide open, the third-highest mark in the league.

The Bucks also led the league in wide-open 3s allowed in each of the past two seasons under Mike Budenholzer. What’s different this season is that shooters are nailing those shots more often—both across the league and especially against the Bucks.

Wide-Open 3-Point Accuracy

Season Leaguewide Against Bucks
Season Leaguewide Against Bucks
2018-19 38.0% 38.6% (19th)
2019-20 38.4% 37.5% (10th)
2020-21 39.2% 41.5% (27th)

Some of this increase is probably poor luck on Milwaukee’s part, as defenses exert little control over their opponents’ long-range accuracy. But the math that made Budenholzer’s rigid drop scheme work relied on slim margins, and even a minor uptick in 3-point accuracy could scramble the whole strategy.

The effect of all these open 3s is that opposing 3-point percentage remains remarkably deterministic of the Bucks’ results, as it has all season long.

Bucks Record by Opponent 3-Point Accuracy

Opponent 3-Point Accuracy Record Win Percentage
Opponent 3-Point Accuracy Record Win Percentage
44% and above 0-10 0%
37-43% 7-5 58%
36% and below 22-2 92%

Deadline additions: P.J. Tucker in a trade, Jeff Teague after a buyout

Verdict: Tucker is the player to focus on here, as Teague (and Austin Rivers, if he clears waivers and joins the Bucks as reported) fills a different need after the Bucks sent backup point guard D.J. Augustin to Houston in the Tucker trade. To prepare for the demands of the playoffs, Budenholzer has allowed for a bit more flexibility in his defensive plans this season: The Bucks are switching more than twice as often as they did a year ago. Tucker fits in perfectly here, after all the experience he had perfecting a switching scheme in Houston.

But Tucker has looked listless this season—which is understandable to an extent given the state of the moribund, post-Harden Rockets—and it’s unclear how much he has left to give his new team. He hasn’t been able to answer any questions yet, as he’s missed Milwaukee’s past three games due to a calf injury. He can’t fix the problem if he can’t stay on the floor, because of either injury or underperformance across the rest of his game.

Los Angeles Clippers: At-Rim Attempts

Problem: As a whole, the Clippers’ offense is hardly a problem. In fact, it’s the most efficient in the league, edging out Utah, Brooklyn, and Denver by less than a single point per 100 possessions. The Clippers are making 42 percent of their 3-pointers, the best mark in the league and one of the best in NBA history, and they’ve been especially scorching of late, with 122 points in a win over the (Embiid-less) 76ers and 129 in a win over the Bucks.

But the Clippers struggle to find the juiciest shooting areas when they venture inside the arc. Only the Magic take a lower percentage of their shots at the rim, per CtG, and only the Magic, Spurs, and Wizards take more shots from long midrange territory. The Clippers rank 27th in points in the paint. If they keep making 42 percent of their 3s, this won’t be a problem—but if that figure regresses at all, they’ll rue an inability to generate better shots close to the basket.

Deadline addition: Rajon Rondo in a trade

Verdict: Judging the new addition’s effect on the Clippers’ offense is tricky, not least because Rondo—who has been dreadful this regular season—has a proven history of raising his performance in the playoffs.

Here’s what we do know: In the old days, in Boston, the Celtics consistently took more shots at the rim with Rondo on the court versus when he was off—but since he left the Celtics, Rondo hasn’t had that same consistent impact from year to year. Both this season with the Hawks and in his two seasons with the Lakers, Rondo’s teams took fewer shots at the rim when he was on the court. Perhaps those differences stem from opposing teams disrespecting Rondo’s shot, allowing for better help defense in the paint; perhaps they’re random, due to odd personnel configurations, and not reflective of Rondo’s impact going forward. For now, we’ll mark this assessment as to be determined, but Rondo probably won’t impart a meaningful change on the Clippers’ shot diet.

Phoenix Suns: Free Throws

Problem: The Suns make their free throws just fine; at 83 percent on the season, they have a top-three mark in the league. The problem is getting the opportunity to showcase that accuracy. Deandre Ayton is the main culprit and an outlier in the modern NBA, as a nonshooting center who gets to the line just 2.6 times per game.

But he’s not alone. Chris Paul is averaging just 2.7 tries per game, a career low; Devin Booker’s at 5.4, his lowest rate since his rookie season; and nobody else on the team is above even two per game.

As a team, the Suns rank 29th in free throw rate, and they’re taking 3.7 fewer free throw attempts per 100 possessions than their opponents, the worst mark among the top eight teams. For comparison, the Lakers are at plus-4.3 on the season—meaning in a potential playoff game between these teams, the reigning champs could average eight extra free throws per game, a massive boost.

Every other statistical indicator points to the Suns as a sturdy team with real playoff potential. But this alarm is bright, blaring red.

Deadline addition: Torrey Craig in a trade

Verdict: Craig has attempted six total free throws in 23 games this season, split between Milwaukee and Phoenix. He’s never averaged more than 0.9 free throw attempts per game in any season in his career. He will not fix this issue.

Jazz: Turnover Collection

Problem: Frankly, it’s hardest to find a real problem for Utah; the Jazz are the league’s best team thus far for a reason, with the no. 2 offense and no. 2 defense, per CtG.

Nestled within that second-best defensive rating is one oddity, however. The Jazz do just about everything right on that end of the floor—they don’t foul or allow offensive rebounds or surrender many 3s, and Gobert stifles all activity near the rim. But there’s one thing they don’t do right at all: Utah forces turnovers on just 11.8 percent of possessions, the lowest rate in the league.

This stat is, in part, dependent on scheme, and Utah’s strategy is working well overall. But Quin Snyder’s defense hasn’t always had a problem with turnovers. In 2017-18, when the starting lineup featured Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles, the Jazz ranked fifth in opposing turnover rate.

Utah is steamrolling its opponents even without forcing turnovers, but this structure means that when opponents make their shots, the Jazz don’t have a backup plan to slow them down. Moreover, a lack of steals means fewer transition opportunities—an issue if locked-in playoff defenses can gum up the works of Utah’s whirring half-court attack.

Deadline addition: Matt Thomas in a trade

Verdict: Thomas, a shooting specialist, has 13 steals in 69 career games. Like Craig in Phoenix, Thomas was Utah’s lone acquisition during a quiet deadline period; like Craig in Phoenix, he will not fix his new team’s greatest statistical problem.

Again, this isn’t a major problem that will definitively cost Utah a chance at a title, but like all the other items in this list, it’s a warning sign—and in a tight postseason series, the Jazz may well wish for an extra steal or two per game.

All stats current through Monday’s games.