Six legit contenders for the NBA championship -- the Celtics, Mavericks, Heat, Lakers, Magic, Spurs -- all have solid teams right now. But each could use some fixing. Here's what they need to win it all.
The NBA season is somewhere between one-fifth and one-fourth over, which is enough time to fairly evaluate each team. Today's Holding Court takes a look at the weaknesses of some of the league's top teams. My task here isn't to stratify the teams--my colleague Rohan Cruyff did that earlier this week--but rather to offer perspective on areas for them to improve. To stress that point, I've ordered the teams alphabetically by city.
14-4 (T-1st in Eastern Conference)
It's hard to quibble with what the Celtics have accomplished so far. That Danny Ainge managed to upgrade his NBA Finalist team with only the mid-level exception at his disposal--every team can sign players to minimum-salary deals--is a testament to his skill and the appeal of playing for Boston.
The Celtics' offense, as Zach Lowe covered at Sports Illustrated's The Point Forward, is "a study in extremes," as Boston's thriving almost exclusively on two-point baskets, which it may struggle to maintain over the course of a full season. It's possible the Celtics will need to add an offensive threat who can score from the foul line or three-point range as the season wears on, but really, they have the personnel to do that already. If the two-pointers dry up, there's no reason why Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, or even Nate Robinson can't try putting points on the board in different ways.
With enviable talent up and down the roster; one of the league's best defenses; and, in Rajon Rondo, arguably the league's craftiest passer, Boston clearly stands among the league's most balanced and dangerous teams. There ought to be little worry in Beantown at present.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Shaquille O'Neal is putting up 11.9 points and 6.8 boards in just 23 minutes per game, and shooting 67.8 percent from the field. That remarkable production, at age 38, is more than enough to make one forget about Kendrick Perkins.
14-4 (2nd in Western Conference)
Due in large part to the acquisition of Tyson Chandler, among the league's most skilled defensive centers, Dallas has improved vastly on defense and can't be counted out of the championship discussion just yet. Chandler's adding 9.2 points and 9.4 rebounds to the Mavericks' cause every night, and shooting 67.6 percent from the floor. Opponents are shooting, meanwhile, just 43 percent against Dallas this year.
Still, the Mavericks could stand to upgrade their offense as well, simply by taking better care of the ball and getting to the free-throw line more often. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, acquired last February, haven't scored efficiently this season, combining for 17.4 points on 15.5 field-goal attempts per game.
And with all the Mavericks' backcourt depth, they lack contributors up front. Employing Dirk Nowitzki certainly makes backup power forward a low priority, but it's nonetheless odd that a team with championship aspirations would trot Brian Cardinal (2.1 points, 1 rebound per game) out 12 times in 18 games to date. Dallas owner Mark Cuban isn't shy about making moves, even if it means taking on salary, to improve his team. If he has a chance to upgrade his big-man rotation, I expect he'll seriously consider it.
13-6 (4th in Western Conference)
The two-time defending World Champions have lost four straight games for the first time since acquiring Pau Gasol in February 2008, so certainly the situation in the City of Angels can improve. Then again, it's hard to figure just by how much. Pau Gasol is playing at an MVP level, but is carrying a tremendous load with regard to playing time--his 39.5-minute average ranks sixth in the league--as only he and Lamar Odom can man the power forward and center positions for long stretches until Andrew Bynum returns. L.A. doesn't have a true backup center, with Bynum not expected to return from his knee injury for another few weeks, Theo Ratliff still on the shelf with an injury of his own, and rookie Derrick Caracter not ready to play rotation minutes.
But L.A. will address these problems in the short term. A return to health from Bynum and Ratliff will allow coach Phil Jackson to scale down Gasol's minutes, and thus return the rotation to balance. And once that happens, the Western Conference race becomes all the more interesting. Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Shannon Brown have vastly improved the Lakers' previously iffy bench production, and Kobe Bryant is still one of the league's most lethal, versatile scoring options. For the third straight season, it appears as though all that can stop the Lakers is their own health.
11-8 (5th in Eastern Conference)
Almost everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the Heat this season; even President Barack Obama weighed in last week. At first, Chris Bosh was the problem. Then, it was Dwyane Wade's sore hamstring and the long-term absence of Udonis Haslem. Now, it seems, potential discord between LeBron James and coach Erik Spoelstra is to blame.
I can't speak to how Wade's hammy or the James/Spoelstra relationship impacts Miami's performance, but it is painfully clear the preseason co-favorites for NBA supremacy have a severe lack of size and strength on the interior, even after the no-brainer signing of free-agent center Erick Dampier, whose game suits Miami's needs almost ideally. The Heat don't get enough second-chance points because they lack a credible offensive rebounder, with Haslem out of the lineup. And their defense, which showed incredible potential in an October 29th embarrassment of the Orlando Magic, seems to have slipped.
Miami's centers, I believe, are far too specialized. Joel Anthony blocks shots, but rebounds poorly and can't dunk in an empty gym, so to speak. Zydrunas Ilgauskas can space the floor with his ability to pick-and-pop, but is a liability on defense due to his lack of strength in defending the post and lack of speed in covering the pick-and-roll. Dampier isn't in game shape yet. All Jamaal Magloire and Juwan Howard do well these days is foul.
No team is really itching to deal a great backup center to Miami, mostly because the Heat have so few trade assets to begin with ("What do I have to do put you in a Mario Chalmers today?!"). The solution? Work around the problem by turning James and Wade into the league's best help-and-recover defenders on the perimeter, and hope Haslem comes back in time to address the rebounding issue for the playoffs. The former task requires both James and Wade to understand their responsibilities and commit to meeting them, while the latter is pure science.
14-4 (T-1st in Eastern Conference)
The situation in Orlando looks pretty good too, with franchise center Dwight Howard improving his offensive game to a remarkable degree and the defense not having lost anything over the summer. But given the Magic's last two playoff exits, it's fair to wonder if they have enough perimeter scoring to defeat the league's elite teams.
This is not some silly knock on Vince Carter for being "soft," or whatever. Carter, in fact, has never scored more efficiently than he is right now. The issue is that his efficiency stems from, in part, a reduced role in the Magic's offense.
Orlando may need an athletic player who can create his own shot against the best teams' single coverage. The Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs sure as heck aren't going to play to the Magic's strengths by double-teaming Howard inside, so either Howard has to carry the offense on a nightly basis in a seven-game series or the Magic will need the sort of go-to perimeter production Pierce, James, and Bryant provide their teams.
I reported exclusively yesterday that the Magic have broached the subject of acquiring Gilbert Arenas from the Washington Wizards. In his prime, Arenas may have been able to help the Magic, but now I'm skeptical he's made the necessary adjustments to his game to compensate for his left knee, which has undergone three operations in the last three years.
On the other hand, the Magic's offense-by-committee approach could work, with four scorers putting something between 12 and 17 points per night with limited opportunities, relative to what other top scorers get. Given the nature of Orlando's offense, that approach might work better than having Howard and Mystery Perimeter Complement X end 20 possessions each.
15-3 (1st in Western Conference)
With little fanfare, the Spurs own the league's best record, even when accounting for last night's loss to the L.A. Clippers. Overnight, the Spurs abandoned their decade-long tendency to play a grind-it-out, walk-the-ball-up style, and have instead embraced pushing at every opportunity. The result is actually something quite beautiful. Tony Parker (16.7 points, 7.1 assists) and Manu Ginobili (21.5 points, 5 assists) probably haven't played this well in their entire careers, and one would be challenged to find a better fit for San Antonio's offense at small forward than Richard Jefferson, who's playing out of his darn mind.
But the Spurs have indeed shown a glaring weakness in the season's early going, one which must worry coach Gregg Popovich: they aren't defending the three-ball well enough at all, as opponents have connected on 39.5 percent of their shot attempts from beyond the arc this season. Thankfully, San Antonio has limited its opponents to 15.3 three-point tries per game, minimizing the potential damage such high accuracy allowed could inflict on a defense. Still, the usually stout Spurs' ineffectiveness in defending the arc is something worth monitoring.