Already this offseason, we’ve used this space to point out just how many truly bad teams there could be in the NBA next season. The Suns, Lakers, Kings, Mavericks, Knicks, Nets, Hawks, Bulls, and Magic all seem fairly likely to fall short of 35 wins, and it would be a surprise if some of those teams even topped 30.
Of course, just as there were last year, there are also several elite teams that seem likely to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. The Warriors are once again the best team in basketball, and they should be joined near the top of the Western Conference by the Rockets and Spurs. The Cavaliers now have company in the upper-crust of the Eastern Conference, with the Celtics seemingly joining them after a bunch of offseason moving and shaking. Each conference also has a second tier of seemingly assured playoff-caliber squads. Something would have to go very wrong for the Thunder or Timberwolves to miss out on the dance out West, while the Raptors and Wizards should resume their place as the third- and fourth-best teams in the East.
But what about the rest of the squads in the squishy middle? The above delineation of tiers leaves six teams fighting for three playoff spots in the Western Conference, and six teams duking it out for four spots in the East. Over the next couple days, we’re going to break down some of the strengths and weaknesses of each of those teams. Below, we’ll start with the East.
Strength: Interior defense
The Heat went 30-11 over the final 41 games of last season but still managed to not make the playoffs, thanks to their 11-30 opening jaunt. Whether during that first half or second half, though, the Heat were among the strongest interior defenses in the league. Thanks largely to the presence of Hassan Whiteside, who despite a drop in block rate is still one of the most fearsome basket-defenders in the league, the Heat allowed opponents to make only 56.9 percent of their shots in the restricted area over the first half of the season (fourth in the NBA) and 56.5 percent (third) after that. Whiteside himself challenged 9.1 shots a game at the rim, allowing opponents to make only 47.5 percent of those attempts.
The decline in Whiteside’s free-throw rate (0.482 in 2015-16, 0.368 in 2016-17) contributed to Miami’s team-wide inability to get to the line. Miami generated only 0.251 free-throws per field goal attempt, the fifth-lowest mark in the league, per NBA.com. That number barely ticked up to 0.257 during their second-half surge, and given that their main offseason acquisitions were Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll suddenly see a spike in foul-drawing. It’d help if Whiteside got back to his peak in that area, but he’s only or 60-65 percent shooter there anyway. Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson may have to do some heavy lifting to help the Heat get more free points.
Weakness: Easy baskets
Fittingly, given that their best player is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks greatest strength is their ability to shape-shift and play in multiple configurations. They have several players capable of switching across three or four positions defensively; they have big men that can step out and stretch the floor; they have wings that can go into the post; and they have guards that can play on or off the ball. Some players on the roster (Greg Monroe, John Henson) don’t fit this theme, but most of the players the Bucks have acquired, whether through the draft, trades, or free agency, clearly do. Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, D.J. Wilson, Rashad Vaughn… all these guys are flexy on both ends of the court.
The Bucks choose to deploy their flexible athletes by having them engage in a choreographed defensive scamper, pressuring opponents all over the court in an attempt to force as many turnovers as possible. When the scramble is working, the Bucks can lock down with the best of them. But when an opponent figures out how to adjust, it often leads to a torrential downpour of easy baskets. A whopping 32.8 percent of shot attempts by Bucks opponents came within six feet of the rim, more than all but eight teams, and Bucks opponents made more of those shots, on average, than you might expect them to given their shooting percentage on those shots in other situations.
Strength: Defense and rebounding
Defense and rebounding are the hallmarks of every Steve Clifford-coached team. Last year’s Hornets didn’t defend quite as well as the typical Clifford squad, so the Hornets went out and got themselves Dwight Howard. Dwight’s reputation has waned over the years and he can be taken advantage of in certain situations (see: John Wall in the playoffs), but he’s still a good defender on balance and one of the best rebounders in basketball. Add him to a squad that finished 14th in defensive efficiency (and second in defensive rebound rate) last season, and they should bump themselves back up into the top-10.
Despite the best shooting season of Kemba Walker’s life, the Hornets only managed to connect on 35 percent of their 3s last season. Non-Walker Hornets made only 33.4 percent of their tries. The Hornets drafted Malik Monk to help rectify this issue, but they’ll also need Nic Batum and Marvin Williams to bounce back, and Frank Kaminsky to nudge his percentages up into the mid-to-high 30s.
Strength: Elite young talent
Joel Embiid only played 786 minutes during his debut season, but those might have been the most electrifying 786 minutes anybody played all year. He looked like every bit the evolutionary Hakeem Olajuwon that he was sold as during the pre-draft process four years ago. The Sixers played like a playoff team when he was on the floor; that’s how good he was. (They outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and were outscored by 7.9 points per 100 when he sat.) Add No. 1 overall picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and the Sixers have a ton of high-end talent on hand, in addition to their well-regarded supplementary players like Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell, and Justin Anderson. And that’s not even accounting for veteran J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson.
The issue, of course, is that most of the young Sixers have struggled to stay healthy. Embiid sat out his first two seasons, played only 31 games last year, and has yet to participate in a back-to-back. Simmons missed his entire rookie campaign. Fultz was injured during summer league this year. Covington missed 15 games during each of the last two seasons. If there’s anything that can derail their playoff hopes, it’s their guys simply not being on the court.
Strength: Ball control
In a disaster-level season for the Pistons, just about the only thing they did well was take care of the ball. Their relatively low-risk offense consisting of a ton of flat pick-and-rolls led to them turning the ball over on only 12.1 percent of their possessions, the second-lowest rate in the league. Andre Drummond kept them in the top half of the NBA in offensive rebound rate and gobbled up so many defensive boards that they led the NBA in preventing the opposition from rebounding their own misses. If you’re not going to shoot well and you’re not going to force teams into bad shots, the least you can do is maximize the number of possessions you control within a given game, and at least the Pistons managed to do that. With a roster that’s largely the same as a year ago, they should be able to do the same once again.
Speaking of not being able to shoot: the Pistons took fewer 3s than all but four teams a year ago and connected on a lower percentage of those attempts than all but two. Drafting Luke Kennard and important Avery Bradley should help but having three non-shooting point guards and a couple shaky snipers on the wing might continue to hold them back, and there’s always the chance Stan Van Gundy simply refuses to put Kennard on the floor because he’s not comfortable with having him out there defensively.
Strength: Myles Turner
Weakness: Everything else
I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t include the Pacers in this group of teams myself. You might remember them being included in the “bad teams” article linked at the top of this page. But there is, again, a groundswell of “the Pacers might be better than you think” buzz, so we’re going to address them here, briefly. I understand the love of Myles Turner, who isn’t included in the “unicorn big men” discussion often enough, given his level of talent. But taking a look at the rest of the roster, it’s hard to envision the Pacers cobbling together an above-average unit on either offense or defense. It’s extraordinarily difficult to nab a playoff spot with a team like that.