The NBA playoffs are still three weeks away, yet we know the eight teams competing for the Western Conference crown.
As usual, the West is deep. But this season, each team has some troubling flaws that could prove fatal in the postseason.
Let’s take a tour of their troubles.
The two-time defending champs are favorites once more, but the statistical view of the 2018-19 Warriors reveals some cracks in the foundation. Unless something changes, the Warriors look beatable. Check this out:
They are just 10-7 since the All-Star break
The Warriors rank 14th in net rating in that span
Their offense is scoring at below-average rates
What’s wrong? Well, the numbers suggest that Boogie and the Dubs aren’t gelling.
Where are the top players in the tournament expected to land?
Giannis is amazing, but there’s more to what’s going on in Milwaukee.
DeMarcus Cousins has achieved what no opponent ever could: He has turned the Warriors into an average offensive team. When he has been on the court (623 minutes), Golden State’s offensive rating is just 109.1. That is not only significantly below the Warriors’ overall average of 114.8 points per 100 possessions; it’s also below the NBA average.
Cousins’ on- and off-court numbers imply that he should be on the floor a lot less:
When Boogie is off the court, the Warriors’ offensive rating is 115.2, and their net rating is plus-6.3. When he’s on, that net rating drops to plus-3.0.
Since the All-Star break, six Warriors have played at least 300 minutes, but of that group only Cousins has a negative on/off differential (minus-0.7).
The past few weeks have not been good for Cousins or Golden State. Unless the Warriors flip a playoff switch, Boogie’s tenure in Oakland will be remembered as a massive disappointment.
Statistically, Denver seems to be the most stable of all the West playoff teams. It’s hard to find a major flaw or any troubling trends. But compared to the other top teams, these dudes are totally inexperienced in the postseason. While their regular-season statistical markers are all encouraging, it’s fair to question whether that success will translate to April and May basketball.
Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Jamal Murray and Monte Morris have combined to play exactly zero playoff games. Mike Malone has coached the same number, and to get deep into the West, this team will have to beat players and coaches with robust playoff résumés.
The NBA game changes in the playoffs, and for now, there’s no evidence that Denver can hang.
Total playoff games played by current roster
The Rockets almost made the Finals last year in part because they had a dominant offense paired with a strong defense that ranked seventh in the NBA. But following the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute — plus some untimely injuries to Clint Capela and Chris Paul — the Rockets just haven’t been the same on D this year.
The team is allowing the fifth-easiest looks in the league, according to Second Spectrum shot-quality data. Houston’s defense has fallen all the way to 21st, and generally speaking, mediocre defenses beget mediocre playoff runs.
The good news: The Rockets’ defense ranks third overall since the All-Star break. If they keep that up, they still represent the biggest threat to the Warriors.
Following Monday’s season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic, any Blazers prognostication unfortunately has to account for his absence. This season, the Blazers built their brand around offense and rebounding, and the stats suggest that Nurkic was a huge factor.
Nurkic was having his best season, and the Blazers were at their best when he was in games. Portland’s net rating was plus-10.4 when Nurkic was on the floor and minus-5.0 when he wasn’t. In other words, Portland was a great team with Nurkic and a lottery-level team without him. As the brutal reality of the Nurkic injury sets in, Portland has to find ways to win without him.
Even with a healthy Nurk, Portland had the worst defensive rating since the break among the West playoff teams. Nurkic’s absence on the defensive glass is only going to challenge them further. Enes Kanter will help replacing some of Nurkic’s minutes and rebounds, but if his first 16 games in Portland are any indication, the Blazers are simply a bad team when Kanter is in the game.
In his 299 minutes of play, Portland has a net rating of minus-5.8. Kanter is an infamous liability on D, and Portland’s defensive rating rises from 106.7 to 110.7 when he’s out there. It’s hard to see Portland getting enough stops against the good West teams without Nurkic in the rotation.
The Clippers are a great story, but they aren’t a great team. Through the lens of net rating, the Clippers are the weakest of these eight contenders. They have an average plus-1.3 net rating overall, and that drops to a negative mark against West foes. They won’t scare anyone.
It’s just hard to imagine how LA could pull off a first-round upset.
At a time when 3-point offense is a prerequisite for deep runs, the Clippers enter the playoffs as one of the most anemic 3-point-shooting teams in the league. They rank 26th in the NBA in total 3-point makes, and no team in the NBA shoots fewer 3s per 100 possessions than the Clips (24.6). Landry Shamet is their No. 1 3-point shooter, but he’s a rookie, and it’s unclear how he’ll fare in a series.
The Thunder have looked downright great at times, combining a suffocating defense with a dangerous offensive attack led by Paul George. But times have changed. OKC is trending downward — and doing so quickly. The Thunder offense has fallen off a cliff. Unless something changes, it won’t be good enough to get them out of Round 1.
They are by far the worst shooting team of this group. Their effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 51.3 ranks 12th in the West, and no team in the NBA has shot worse since the All-Star break. The Thunder’s disastrous eFG% of 48.7 makes them the only team under 50 percent since the break. (Keep in mind the league is full of tanking teams right now, and OKC is still stinking up the joint more than anyone else).
When you drill down to the player level, you see that three of the four top scorers are slumping, but nobody’s slumping more than George. He has gone from one of the league’s most efficient volume scorers before the break to this:
OKC efficiency: Before and after All-Star
|Player||eFG% (before Feb. 15)||eFG% (after Feb. 15)|
The Thunder’s putrid shooting numbers are costing them games. A 7-11 run since the break makes OKC the Warriors’ most likely first-round opponent, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (43 percent chance). Yikes.
George’s shoulder injury is a factor, and the schedule has been tough. But you know what else is tough? The West playoffs. If these last 18 games are a preview of what this team looks like against stiff competition, then it will be another brief run for the Thunder this spring.
Once again, the Jazz are a defensive juggernaut, and once again, their offense might not be good enough to carry them very far. The Jazz are posting a below-average offensive efficiency, and only the brick-laying Thunder are scoring points at lower rates among these eight teams.
Get ready for Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and more.
Donovan Mitchell — a phenomenal second-year player — is Utah’s leading scorer, but it’s unfair to expect a guard this young to carry such a heavy load. Simply put, many nights the Jazz don’t have enough offensive firepower behind Mitchell. The Jazz are 28-6 when Mitchell posts a true shooting percentage (TS%) higher than 54, but they’re 16-21 when he shoots worse than that. That’s a lot of pressure on one player when the other top scorers — Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and Jae Crowder — don’t scare anyone on offense.
But maybe they should seem a little scarier. Since the All-Star break, the Jazz lead the entire NBA in net rating, and their offense is looking competent. If they can keep it up, they’ll become a legitimate problem. With a defense as good as Utah’s, a competent offense is all it will take to make noise in the postseason.
San Antonio Spurs: Stay home … and hope those jumpers fall
The Spurs are great at home and awful on the road. Their 14-23 road record is the worst such mark of any of the West playoff squads, including a minus-4.0 net rating away from home. That’s bad news for a team that will not have home-court advantage in the first round.
San Antonio’s road defense ranks 26th in the NBA in part because opponents boast a juicy eFG% of 54.6. Every other West playoff team is defending better on the road than San Antonio. That’s a very strange thing to say about a Spurs team, but this is a strange Spurs team.
The Spurs also rank dead last in scoring at the rim. Their combination of a slower pace and a plethora of jump-shooting scorers means they visit the rim less than any other team, averaging just 15.4 shots per 100 possessions in the restricted area, per Second Spectrum data. The Warriors rank second-worst among these eight teams in that category … but they feature three of the greatest jump-shooters ever.
If the Spurs aren’t hitting jumpers, they’re in trouble. But that’s the league we’re playing in these days.