NBA

Every Western Conference Contender’s Biggest Weakness

Mar 8, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) is defended by LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the second half at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Clippers 112-100. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When predicting an NBA champion, it’s easy to focus solely on the strengths of each team. But every contender’s biggest weakness deserves attention too. With the playoffs set to begin in less than a month, let’s take a look at every western conference contender’s biggest weakness.

Los Angeles Lakers: Injuries

March 15, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3, left) and forward LeBron James (23, right) before the game against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After starting their title defense with a respectable 28-13 record, the Lakers have fallen into mediocrity over the past 20 games. The culprit? Injuries to their two superstars. 

An ankle injury has sidelined LeBron James for over a month, while calf and leg injuries took Anthony Davis out for 30 games. 

It’s tough to bet against a healthy Lakers team. They’re fresh off a championship and have the star-power to repeat with the top-ranked defense. If James and Davis return to full health to command the offense and fortify the defense, no team will have a more balanced attack.

But the health of that duo is still up in the air. While Davis recently returned, his injury history doesn’t bode well for the playoffs. He’s had a sluggish start, and there’s reason to believe that he’s still not 100 percent. This can play as a major weakness for the Lakers.

While more durable throughout his career, James has his fair share of injury concerns at 36 years old. A recent video hinted that his return is imminent. That return can’t come soon enough. 

With just 11 games left in the Lakers’ regular season, James and the new Lakers need to develop chemistry before the playoffs. James’ health also has significant implications for the Lakers’ spot in the western conference standings.

They’re currently the fifth seed and just 2 games ahead of the 6th-place Mavericks. If the Lakers drop a spot, they will play the red-hot rival Clippers in the first round. Additionally, they would likely have to go through the surprising yet dangerous Jazz and Suns, who own each of the league’s best records.

Such a path to the finals is far from ideal if the Lakers wish to go back-to-back. But if their 4-6 record over the past ten games is any indication, that path might be the reality.

Los Angeles Clippers: Inside Scoring

Apr 23, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Paul George #13 of the Los Angeles Clippers looks to shoot against Kelly Olynyk #41 and Armoni Brooks #7 of the Houston Rockets during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Carmen Mandato/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports
POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers have caught fire in April. They’ve won 13 of their last 15 and currently sit just two games out of first place. Frankly, it’s tough to pinpoint a glaring weakness for this team.

But if there is one, it’s the same weakness that led to the Clippers’ demise in last year’s playoffs. While other factors played a part, nothing was more detrimental than their inability to score inside frequently. In a collapse against the Nuggets, the Clippers shot a pedestrian 59.1% inside the restricted area. 

This is already a low mark, but it’s even worse when considering that one of Denver’s most significant weaknesses was rim protection. Successful postseason teams identify an opponent’s weakness and sufficiently exploit it. The Clippers did neither and paid the price.

Relying on Jumpers

In 2021, this unimpressive rim finishing has continued. While the Clippers are near the middle of the pack in efficiency in the restricted area, they attempt just 22.3 shots there, third-worst in the league.

Luckily, the Clippers have been just fine without high-volume inside scoring. Their offense, engined by their league-best 3-point percentage, ranks second in 2021. The Clippers rely on jumpers instead of shots at the rim. And so far, it’s paid off.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 18: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers dunks the ball during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 18, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

However, this dependence on jump shots can be a blessing and a curse. If, like last year, the Clippers’ jumpers don’t fall in the playoffs, their offense will stagnate. They won’t have an established inside game to compensate for their potentially cold shooting.

Other teams like last year’s Lakers had no problem producing high-level offense despite the mediocre 3-point shooting, thanks to their proficiency at the rim. When their outside shots weren’t falling, they had other scoring opportunities to capitalize on, particularly by punishing teams inside.

As defenses attempt to minimize the number of jumpers the Clippers shoot, it will likely open up plenty of driving lanes and give LA a similar amount of opportunities at the rim. But it’s far from a guarantee that they capitalize on those opportunities enough. Their low volume of shots at the rim this season hints that they won’t.

Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert’s Defensive Versatility

Apr 13, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Hall (15) has his shot blocked by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, Rudy Gobert has cemented himself as the clear frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. The stats and film alike portray 2021 Gobert as one of the best defensive seasons of the century. In the regular season, no defender has touched his impact over the last few seasons.

However, this defensive dominance hasn’t translated to the playoffs much. Gobert’s defensive stats decrease across the board, and there’s a noticeable dropoff in impact. 

In 2018 and 2019, James Harden’s Rockets repeatedly lured Gobert out of his comfort zone, that is, the paint, and successfully attacked him in space. Nikola Jokic continued this trend last year, as Gobert was no match for the Joker’s endless bag of tricks. 

Gobert’s dynamic rim protection held little value each series, as opponents amplified his flaws as an on-ball defender in space.  

Gobert on Defense

Admittedly, these specific matchups were particularly unfavorable for Gobert. The small-ball Rockets and the Jokic-led Nuggets are both anomalies. Most other offenses won’t exploit Gobert’s fatal flaw to the extent that those teams did. 

Nonetheless, potential opponents like the Suns and Trail Blazers each pose question marks for the Stifle Tower. Both teams run a surplus of pick-and-rolls for their agile scoring guards and can routinely punish Gobert’s drop coverage with pull-up jumpers from any level. 

ORLANDO, FL - AUGUST 19: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz plays defense against Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets during Round One, Game Two of the NBA Playoffs on August 19, 2020 at the AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Suns worked this to perfection in an April 7 matchup. In crunch time, they constantly exploited Gobert’s reluctance to step up on the backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker. In what could be a preview of what’s to come in the playoffs, each guard took turns raining jumpers with ease to seal the victory in overtime.

The good news is that Gobert’s perimeter defense has improved. He showcased this in a convincing win over the Indiana Pacers, where he took the initiative to switch onto guards like Malcolm Brogdon and Aaron Holiday successfully. Gobert supplemented this switchability with his regularly excellent rim protection to neutralize the entire Pacer offense in the second half. 

Performances like these are encouraging, but only time will tell whether or not this improvement is sustainable. 

Phoenix Suns: Playoff Experience

Feb 24, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and forward Mikal Bridges (25) against the Charlotte Hornets at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a decade of missing out on the postseason, the Phoenix Suns are finally back in the playoff picture. Led by the backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns are one of only three teams to rank in the top-six in both offensive rating and defensive rating. 

And while they don’t get as much media attention as Phoenix’s two all-stars, young pieces like Mikal Bridges, DeAndre Ayton, and Cameron Johnson have also catalyzed Phoenix’s massive improvement. Their noticeable growth in 2021 gives the Suns a strong rotation from top to bottom with an abundance of youth.

However, it’s the youth and inexperience of these players which could come back to haunt the Suns. 

Like anything else, the best playoff performers typically have plenty of experience. A player with years of playoff experience is far more suited for a late-game playoff situation than someone with no experience on the big stage.

Young Players

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks looks to pass as Cameron Payne #15 and Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns defend in the first pahf at Madison Square Garden on April 26, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

It’s no accident that the reigning champion Lakers featured a slew of experienced stars and role players. The same can be said for nearly every championship team in history.

Outside of Jae Crowder and longtime veteran Paul, who’s made the playoffs every year since 2011, the Suns’ rotation is composed almost entirely of players with minimal playoff experience. Booker, Bridges, Ayton, and Johnson haven’t played a single minute in the postseason. They’ll all be tasked with meaningful minutes against far more experienced opponents, which raises some question marks.

This problem is magnified when considering that the Suns are likely to face one of the Jazz, Clippers, or Lakers at some point in the playoffs, all of whom roster several players familiar with the playoff atmosphere.

The Suns are talented. But that talent will only get them so far in a game which is as mental as it is physical.

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