Each NBA Contender’s Biggest Hole

After a Summer loaded with fireworks, the current NBA can be summed up with a single word; balance. After a decade of super-teams dominating at the top of the league, the term balance almost seems foreign, but here we are, with nearly a dozen teams having a legitimate shot at an NBA championship. However, no team is flawless, and each of the top contenders have identifiable holes that could throw off a championship run. Let’s take a look into each team’s fatal flaw.

Los Angeles Clippers 

Championship Odds: (+350)

The additions of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will round out what is now arguably the strongest roster in the NBA. Lou Williams continues to scorch second units, and the trio of Patrick Beverly, George, and Leonard will undoubtedly make for one of the NBA’s best defenses. If there is a discernible hole for Doc Rivers’ squad, it’s down low. Ivica Zubac projects to be the only true center receiving minutes, and despite showing flashes this past season, Zubac is simply too inconsistent (and young) to warrant playing thirty minutes a night. 

Montrezl Harrell anchored the center position in large chunks of playtime last season, primarily off the bench. Harrell is undersized at six-foot-eight, but makes up for his apparent height discrepancy with high-energy play and impressive athleticism. Harrell also has an incredibly high IQ when working out of the pick-and-roll, displaying acute awareness for where his defenders are rotating, and where to go with the ball before he’s even made the catch. His ability to match up with taller centers will be called into question, despite his strong defensive ability in the post. It’s unclear if Harrell will get the starting nod, but if he does, the Clippers will be trotting out extremely small lineups night in and night out. The twin towers of Boban Marjanovic and Kristaps Porzingis are licking their lips somewhere in Dallas right about now. 

Los Angeles Lakers

Championship Odds: (+400) 

Things aren’t nearly as simple for the other team residing in LA. Lebron James and Anthony Davis project to be one of the top duos the NBA has ever seen, but the rest of the lakers roster has more than a few holes. 

The most pressing issue facing this revamped Lakers squad is one that fans should be familiar with; injuries. Demarcus Cousins is likely done for the season just weeks following his signing, after suffering a torn ACL in practice this week. Anthony Davis struggled with multiple injuries in the early stages of his career, and despite remaining relatively healthy over the last three seasons, he’s yet to surpass 75 games played in any one season. LeBron James is coming off an injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign, and will turn 35 this year. Rajon Rondo has been hampered with injuries for the better part of the last decade. Perhaps the Lakers two most durable players are Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green, and the Lakers will desperately need them to stay healthy to cover another looming hole; shooting.

Milwaukee Bucks

Championship Odds: (+500)

Milwaukee, surprisingly, appears to be criminally underrated going into this upcoming season. Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto all underwent severe shake-ups, while the Bucks retained a majority of their personnel. Coaching mastermind Mike Budenholzer will be returning alongside league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton is back with a massive payday and a lot to prove.

Unsurprisingly, the Bucks’ biggest hole is the departure of Malcom Brogdon. A stout defender and excellent shooter, Brogdon was the absolute perfect fit alongside Antetokounmpo, and served as a primary ball-handler when Giannis slid to the bench. Milwaukee will now be heavily relying on the likes of Eric Bledsoe (who I’m not particularly fond of) and the aging George Hill to ease the ball-handling burden that will befall on Antetokounmpo. Beyond Hill and Bledsoe the Bucks lack meaningful depth at the guard positions, and though Giannis has proven that he can indeed do it all, it would be in Milwaukee’s best interest to bolster their backcourt ahead of the post-season.

Houston Rockets

Championship Odds: (+800)

In terms of talent alone, the Houston Rockets got a clear upgrade from Chris Paul in Russell Westbrook, who will pair up with James Harden to create the league’s most explosive backcourt. Clint Capella will return for his sixth NBA season, and will spend more time than ever catching lobs from the two-headed monster residing in the backcourt. Ageless wonders Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker will continue to play off of James Harden, and outside of the Westbrook acquisition, the Rockets look very similar to last year’s squad that fell short in the second round of the playoffs.

So what hole does Houston need to hurdle? Simply put, wing depth. PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon are both excellent shooters and solid defenders, but Houston’s talent on the wing pales in comparison to the tandems that have risen in Los Angeles. Gordon and Tucker don’t have a prayer of stopping the likes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and the situation only worsens when we look down the bench. Veterans Gerald Green and Iman Shumpert are the two other wings projected to round off Houston’s rotation, and though both are capable of having good games, Houston’s wing depth appears to be well below league average. Relying on Shumpert and Green to guard the elite wing talents that litter the Western Conference while Tucker sits is, well, a very bad idea.

Philadelphia 76ers

Championship Odds: (+900)

Philly had an eventful off-season, flipping Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick into Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Whether or not that was an upgrade is up for debate, but the Sixers being a top Eastern Conference contender is unquestionable. Ben Simmons is entering his third season, Joel Embiid projects to be an MVP candidate once again, and Tobias Harris now has an entire Summer to adjust to Brett Brown’s offensive scheme. The Sixers look like a high quality team on paper- so what holes do they need to fill?

Well, there are two obvious choices here; depth and shooting. Philadelphia has a starting-five that is loaded with premier talent, and the length and height that Richardson and Horford bring to the table will make Philly a defensive juggernaut. Outside of that starting five, things start to get… shaky, to say the least. Mike Scott and Kyle O’Quinn are quality bigs to sub in for Horford and Embiid, but Philly has very little reliable talent outside of those two players. Raul Neto never panned out in Utah and is unlikely to see significant minutes, Zhaire Smith is young and coming off of a serious injury, and Matisse Thybulle is a rookie. Philly will need to stagger minutes for their stars to get the best possible production out of 48 minutes.

As for shooting, the Sixers lost JJ Redick, an elite three-point sniper, and Butler, who has developed a quality jump shot over the last few seasons. Simmons and Embiid are yet to prove that they can shoot the ball consistently, and it is unclear if Horford, Richardson, and Harris will be as good from beyond the three-point line without the spacing they benefited from with their former teams. If Philly can’t get reliable shooting out of those three guys, the paint could become very clogged come playoff time.

Utah Jazz

Championship Odds: (+1200)

It’s no secret; I absolutely love what the Jazz have put together this off-season. The additions of Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic will ease scoring pressure off of Donovan Mitchell, who continued to scorch the league last season. Rudy Gobert will ensure that the Jazz finish with a top-10 defense, and Quinn Snyder is my favorite to win coach of the year. Things look very, very good up in the mountains, but even this Jazz team has a hole worth filling.

Outside of Gobert, the Utah Jazz have just two other big-men capable of sliding into the rotation at the power forward and center positions; Tony Bradley and Ed Davis. Davis is a rebounding machine, and will fill in nicely when Gobert rests, but he traditionally plays the 4 more than the 5. Bradley is a promising young center who I believe showed real promise in limited playing time last season. He’s only 21, has good footwork around the basket, and is a good rebounder. Is he capable of sliding in for 20 minutes a night behind Gobert and Davis? I don’t believe so, at least not consistently. Gobert is durable, and an absolute anchor when he plays, but Jazz fans should be nervous when he inevitably goes to the bench. Signing a veteran backup who could potentially provide some spacing would be a good path for Utah to take when finalizing their roster.

Golden State Warriors

Championship Odds: (+1400)

Draymond Green talked this week about how it feels to be an underdog again, and to me, he couldn’t be more correct. The Warriors are being overlooked and written off for the first time in years, despite the fact that they’ll still be trotting out three all-stars on opening night- even without Klay Thompson! Green, Stephen Curry, and D’Angelo Russell are the core of this revamped Warriors roster until Klay returns from an ACL tear. Not too shabby of a core if you ask me.

Despite reason for optimism in The Bay, there are a lot of obstacles this team faces, the most pressing of which is youth. The Warriors are suddenly the ninth youngest team in basketball, a ranking that would be much higher without veterans Green, Curry, and Thompson. Willie Cauley-Stein, Jordan Poole, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman round out Golden State’s roster, and at least a few of the young guys will be leaned upon for meaningful minutes in Steve Kerr’s rotation. With youth comes mistakes, and a steep learning curve- how this young core fares under the bright lights of the NBA remains to be seen. Golden State has a knack for developing their young guys properly- they’ll need to continue that trend to remain a contender in the loaded Western Conference.

Boston Celtics

Championship Odds: (+1600)

Boston has gone through a major shake-up this Summer, with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Terry Rozier all departing for greener pastures. Danny Ainge recovered remarkably well, as he typically does, by grabbing Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, and a whole lot of talented rookies to replace that lost talent. The jury is still out on lottery pick Romeo Langford, but Carsen Edwards is looking like an absolute steal, and Boston has some quality young pieces surrounding Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker.

There are a lot of holes to pick from with this Celtics team. Youth, post-defense, finding touches for everyone. We’ve decided to focus on chemistry, the biggest issue that plagued last season’s Celtics squad. Kemba Walker is an ideal leader, and his Charlotte teammates continue to rave about his presence even after his departure. Jaylen Brown appears ready to move on from his open frustrations regarding Kyrie Irving, and Enes Kanter and Marcus Smart have reputations for their excellent locker-room presence. However, despite the many smiling faces that reside in Boston’s locker room, Brad Stevens is left with the same challenge as last year; getting enough shots and touches for the plethora of talent on his bench. There’s a ton of depth and talent on this roster; Walker, Brown, Tatum, Smart, Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Robert Williams, and three surprisingly talented rookies who could demand minutes now. Stevens will need to do a better job at managing his rotations, and it’s urgent that he find the right fit for each of his players. Oh yeah- and Jaylen Brown needs to start.

Denver Nuggets

Championship Odds: (+1600)

The Vegas books didn’t smile upon this Nuggets team, ranking them with the ninth best odds to win it all in June. However, there’s a lot to like about Denver- they’re very well coached, incredibly deep at every position, and have two young superstars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray who are capable of taking them to the next level. Of all the teams on this list, Denver was perhaps the toughest roster to find a discernible hole on.

So, what’s the most pressing issue facing such a talented and deep team? Well, said issue is also Denver’s biggest reason for optimism; Jamal Murray. Nuggets fans don’t click away- just hear us out for a minute. Murray is coming off of a career year, upping his scoring output to over 18 points per game, and dishing out just under 5 assists a night. His shooting splits dipped slightly, but that was to be expected due to the increased volume in shots Murray was taking. So why is he an issue? Well, he’s not, but the Nuggets need Murray to take his game to the next level this season if they want to be a legitimate contender. Jokic is undoubtedly an MVP candidate, but he needs a secondary star to ease the burden that falls on his shoulders, and it’s on Murray to be that co-star. He’s a proven scorer, and an excellent shot creator, but he’ll need to be much more efficient and improve his shot selection in order to unlock his all-star potential. If Murray doesn’t evolve, Denver will still be a very very good team, but realistically, I don’t see them beating out the Los Angeles powerhouses for a spot in the finals.

Toronto Raptors

Championship Odds: (+2500)

The Raptors aren’t winning a championship this season, barring some ridiculous trade. The departure of Kawhi Leonard was the risk Toronto took in exchange for their first NBA championship, and their fears came true on July 5th. Nick Nurse’s club will move into the next era of Raptors basketball with rising star Pascal Siakam at the helm of the ship- and hopefully he’ll have some help from OG Anunoby, who’s shown flashes of all-star potential in the past.

The biggest hole the Raptors are facing? Easy; no Kawhi Leonard. Siakam will undoubtedly improve and get more touches than ever before, and Kyle Lowry is a champion and top-10 point guard. Toronto will be in the playoffs, but without Kawhi Leonard, there’s no real expectation of anything beyond a second round appearance. Masai Ujiri should look to acquire some premier young talent to surround Siakam and Anunoby with, players that will better fit Toronto’s new timeline. For now, Raptors fans will need to be patient, and enjoy their young star as he blooms into something special.

SportsSimplified

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