Written by: Jared Hammer – Staff Writing Intern (@jjjhammer)
The NBA’s top tier is pretty clearly labeled for all to see. The Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs, Raptors and Clippers sit at the top as either clear favorites, or likely Conference contenders. From there, you have some teams likely to make the playoffs like the Thunder, Rockets, Jazz, Grizzlies, and Celtics. But after that, it’s really a toss up. Some weeks we see brilliance from teams on the fringe like the Bucks and Lakers, then the next they’re losing games against the bottom feeders. For some like the Wizards and Trail Blazers, teams with adequate talent, they’re simply not competing hard enough.
Here’s a look at the what the teams chasing the 8th seed in their conferences need to change, and perhaps why they’re having so many struggles this season. While some of these teams may be sitting in a playoff spot, they haven’t played well enough to maybe deserve spot.
| Eastern Conference
Indiana Pacers: The Pacers drastically changed the look of their team during the past offseason, and so far it hasn’t payed dividends. Their biggest concern has been the backcourt. Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis haven’t been nearly good enough. Fans in Indy were constantly complaining about George Hill, but he was a solid option who could defend some of the leagues best players every night, and could be relied on to run the offense. The Pacers also have the 2nd worst rebound differential in the Association (-4.5) and will need to clean up their rebounding to help them play more consistently.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks turn the ball over 16.4 times a game, that’s second worst in the league, and that’s part of the reason why this team is underachieving. The other is their 3-point shooting struggles. The Hawks used to be a threat from deep, and if you gave them an inch of space they’d make you pay. This year they’re the 3rd worst team shooting from deep at just 32 percent. This team is different though than what we’ve seen in previous years. Instead of Al Horford stretching out the defense, Dwight Howard is now patrolling the paint. The other worrisome thing about the Hawks 3-point shooting is that it means rivals can sit back and pack the lanes, meaning Dennis Schroder has a tough time creating off the drive.
Orlando Magic: The Magic need to conjure up some scoring. They’re second last in points per game, scoring just 94.3 a night, and last in True Shooting Percentage (50.6). Here’s the thing though, the Magic are just one of five teams allowing less than 100 points a night (98.8), so at the defensive end they’re clearly getting it done. Victor Oladipo would have really helped here, but their D might not be as potent without Ibaka. ESPN”s Marc Stein has reported that Magic GM Rob Hennigan has been making some calls in an attempt to bring in some scoring and help with their biggest problem.
Brooklyn Nets: What can the Nets do to contend for a playoff spot? Well not much, they just lack the talent. One thing’s for sure though. They’re taking and missing way too many threes. You wouldn’t guess the team sitting 25th in 3 point percentage (33%) would be willing to let it fly so often but that hasn’t been the case. They’re shooting 34.4 triples a game, good for 3rd, and only behind the Rockets and Cavs. They’re shooting more threes than the Warriors for the love of god!
Miami Heat: What can you say about the Heat. They’ve really struggled with injuries this year, and that’s the main reason for their struggles, but leaving easy points on the table just isn’t acceptable. Miami has the worst Free Throw percentage in the league, making just 67 percent of their freebies. It’s not hard to find excuses for your struggles, but you just can’t do that here.
Washington Wizards: When people argue with me that basketball isn’t much of a team sport and you only need a few stars, I’m thankful to have the Wizards in my back pocket. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter have been playing great this season, but they’re the only Wizards who’ve shown up this season. They’re the only players on that team holding a Player Efficiency Rating about the average of 15, and positive box plus/minus score. The Wizards have the 2nd worst bench in the league, scoring just 23 points a game, and they’ll either need to make some moves to find complimentary pieces for their 3 rocks, or the guys they have now will need to pick it up.
Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers aren’t a good team. But their current roster is at least competing and putting forward their best effort every game. One thing that bothers me with the Sixers though is their 11 different starting lineups they’ve played in just 26 games. Players like stability and routine. At the very least if you’re rolling with 2 or 3 different lines the players can build some chemistry with those other guys and be comfortable knowing who will be where on the court.
Milwaukee Bucks: This team truly lives and dies with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. They’re the only players on this Bucks squad averaging double digits in scoring. The rest of the team has just been mediocre, just like their record. Trust the wisdom of Jason Kidd though and Antetokounmpo’s playmaking ability to help the other guys get on the board.
| Western Conference
Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers have a nice mix of talented young guys, and experienced veterans who can give some leadership and guidance to DeAngelo Russel, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram. This lineup is really built to score, but that hasn’t been the problem. They’re tied with Portland for the worst defensive efficiency in the league at 109.1. It’s always harder to get players to buy into defense when it just isn’t nearly as much fun as scoring, and with young guys, it’s even harder. They’ll have to buy in and start getting some stops though if they want to improve.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Outside of Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine, who on this team is going provide additional scoring? The T-Wolves have the lowest scoring bench in the NBA scoring just 22.5 points per game. Defense has also been a problem for this young team, but the bench needs to step it up and give the starters some relief.
Sacramento Kings: The Kings aren’t at the bottom of many team stats, but they’re not at the top either. Other than playing just average, this team gives up a lot of fast break points. 4th most actually, giving up 15 a game. And that’s an easy fix that can take you from allowing 104.6 points a game to under 100. Something only 5 teams are doing.
Denver Nuggets: Denver is a mix of young up and comers and experienced tweeners. This team is excellent at getting to the free throw line. Averaging 26 trips a game, the 4th most in the league. But they’re not making those easy points, missing once every two trips. The thing most teams fear when playing in the mile high, is getting beat up on the block and on the boards by a pair of Denver mountains. They’re 3rd in paint scoring at 47 a game, but that’s where the work for the big men Jokic, Nurkic, and Faried ends. Because at the other end they’re 3rd in points allowed in the pain, at 46 a game. Take care of the easy looks on defense.
New Orleans Pelicans: Their free agent signings of Solomon Hill and Lance Stephenson just haven’t been cutting it. Stephenson has been waived after suffering a groin injury but was struggling before that anyway. Hill – who signed a 4 year/ $11 million a year deal in the offseason – is shooting 37% from the field. I’ll leave that to sink in.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker had a great start to the season having back to back nearly 40 point games, and the hype ensued. For every great night Bookers had, he’s had a struggling one to match – which is expected with young players. He’s second on the team in scoring but hasn’t been very efficient in doing so. Shooting 11th best on the Suns at 4/10. And he’s also in the bottom third of the Suns PER and TS% too. It may be time to give someone else the looks on O. Or he’ll just drop another 30 on all of us and make me eat my words. I’m happy with either.
Dallas Mavericks: How bad are the Mav’s this season? So bad they’ve got Dirk Nowitzki pondering retirement. “Dirk who’s body ‘Hurts Everywhere’ considers retirement” is a headline I never thought I’d see. This guy really loves the game and doesn’t want to give it up yet, but the bumps and bruises almost aren’t worth it anymore. The good news is Westley Matthews is starting to look like the guy we saw in Portland, and if they can all stay healthy they could get back to a respectable level.