Every contender's biggest flaw
Now that rosters are finalized, we have a pretty good idea of who has a chance. Here's why they don't.
As much as I love tier lists and rankings, I don’t feel like it’s often a great way to provide value to all you beautiful subscribers (for real — you look good today!). Power rankings are fun to write and read, but you don’t need another internet stranger telling you how they feel.
So as I’m wont to do, I decided to put a little analytical spin on it. I’m extremely liberal with the description “contender,” but that’s partly because I believe that a low chance of making noise doesn’t mean zero chance and partly because it gives me an excuse to write about more teams. Today, we’ll look at why each team won’t win a championship. In other words, what will drag them down in the playoffs?
I don’t talk about health much, because it’s a given. The healthiest teams usually advance the farthest, but that’s not particularly insightful.
There’s also a difference between a team’s championship equity and its ability to win a playoff series or two. Some teams are far more matchup-dependent than others, and just because I could see them getting to the second round doesn’t mean I think they have much shot of winning four rounds. Other teams might have a lower median outcome but a far higher top-end outlook. So let’s take a peek at each playoff hopeful’s biggest weakness, the albatross around their neck.
These are loosely ordered from least to most likely to win a championship — my opinion, but also indisputable fact.
The Slimmest Of Hopes
So you're saying there’s a chance…
Sacramento Kings — Offensive upside
The Kings have more wins this season than their point differential suggests they should, and while their defense has improved from last year’s horrendous levels, the offense has fallen to league-average. That’s a bad sign, given what happened in the 2023 playoffs.
People remember a rousing first-round playoff match against Golden State, a series that the Kings may very well have won if Sabonis and Fox had been healthy for all seven games. But it’s been forgotten that the team’s offense fell apart for much of that series as shooters went cold. Sacramento runs a very similar offense to Golden State, and it felt as though the Warriors were ready for every move and countermove. It’s possible that was just an isolated incident, a bad matchup. But given that the team’s offense has already declined from last season, it’s hard to imagine them finding another gear in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers — Catch-and-shoot threes
I’m always hesitant to dismiss outright a team that handily made the conference Finals just last season, no matter how bad they’ve looked.
However, LA’s offense has been a predictable grind, and a big part of that is the lack of catch-and-shoot specialists on the roster. The Lakers fire up the fourth-fewest catch-and-shoot threes in the league (which are generally some of the best shots in the game). They don’t have a particularly dynamic offense, and while Anthony Davis and LeBron do their damage, the rest of the team is rarely put in advantageous positions. They also don’t have many players who excel at flying off screens and launching without hesitation.
If the Lakers are going to win, it’ll be by griming up the game and bringing opponents down in a grappling match.
Golden State Warriors — Free throw disparity
The Warriors have perked up of late, dominating the minutes that Draymond Green has been on the court and riding a surging Jonathan Kuminga.
But since Green’s return from suspension, the team starts every game with approximately a six-point handicap. They shoot the fewest free throws, and foul at a bottom-five rate. That’s a massive cushion to have to overcome.
Now, the Warriors have been top-six on both ends. And they’ve never been a team that shoots a lot of free throws; that won’t change. But to maximize their slim title chances, they’ll need to be more disciplined on defense (Green and Looney are the biggest offenders). Counterintuitive as it might be, sometimes it’s better to let someone score than to keep hacking.
The Puncher’s Chances
Nobody here is anything like a betting favorite to make it to the conference Finals, much less win a championship. But if everything — and I mean everything — breaks right…
Indiana Pacers — Rim protection
The trade for Pascal Siakam absolutely improved the Pacers, but it didn’t do much to address the team’s biggest weakness: protecting the rim.
On the season, the Pacers have allowed the most layups in the league (and they’re still third-worst since the Siakam move). After some changes, the rotation isn’t filled with as many Swiss-cheese defenders as before. But the main cause remains: a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme designed to hug opposing shooters (eliminating three-pointers) while rolling out the red carpet for ballhandlers and cutters to get to the rack.
The team has defended all those layups well enough, thanks to the shot-blocking prowess of Myles Turner, but even well-defended layups are some of the highest percentage shots in basketball. This strategy made a little more sense when the rotation was filled with all-offense players, but the shift over time to a more defensive-minded unit means that the Pacers could (and probably should) switch to a healthier balance.
Miami Heat — Dribbling
The addition of Terry Rozier has helped this to some degree, although he’s still getting his feet under him. But the Miami Heat’s biggest offensive weakness remains dribbling the basketball. Seems like a pretty bad problem to have, no?
Miami’s 23rd-ranked offense revolves around cuts, dribble-hand-offs, and ball movement. They average the sixth-fewest dribbles per touch in the league, and Rozier might be the only real three-level scorer on the team.
The team as a whole struggles to get to the rack; they average as many shots from floater range as they do at the basket, the only team in the league remotely close to that split (that’s a bad thing!).
Positionally, Butler might be the only player with an above-average handle for his position. Bam is a very good dribbler in the open court but has never quite figured out how to beat his man one-on-one for a dunk. Herro has the skill, but not the speed. Everyone else is a role player whose job is to make simple read-and-react plays.
The Celtics have at least five capable ballhandlers in their rotation. The Bucks don’t have that many, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard are both outstanding ballhandlers for their size, and Middleton is solid when he’s healthy, too. Every year, we see Miami’s offense bog down due to an inability to create advantages off the dribble. Perhaps Rozier will be enough, but I wouldn’t count on it.