The second half of the NBA season should be something of a playoff dress rehearsal for title-contending teams as they scramble to make any needed adjustments before the start of the postseason.
Of the 16 teams positioned to make a playoff run after the All-Star break, eight stand out as legitimate title contenders. Let’s take a look at them and the major weaknesses they need to fix.
Golden State Warriors
Despite their recent struggles, the Warriors figure to be one of the last teams standing in the playoffs. It’s hard not to be when you’ve got four All-Stars in the starting lineup. But make no mistake, the Warriors haven’t looked nearly invincible as they have in past years. Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets—each of whom was able to beat Golden State twice this season.
With the Thunder coming to town on Saturday, it’ll be interesting to see if the Warriors can bounce back after a much-needed break. Not only have they gotten off to slow starts in games, but they’re also one of the more reckless teams with the basketball, having averaged 15.5 turnovers per game in the first half of the season.
It’s too early to tell if the Rockets come out on top of the Western Conference standings at season’s end, but they’ve played good basketball as of late, rattling off 10 straight wins leading up to the All-Star break. James Harden, after finishing second in the MVP voting last season, is threatening to run away with the award and Chris Paul has been as good as advertised since coming over in a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers.
Be that as it may, the Rockets aren’t without their drawbacks, the bench being one of them. Houston ranks 24th in bench points per game (29.9) despite having the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Eric Gordon. Rebounding is also a concern. Clint Capela is pulling down rebounds with the best of them at 11.1 per game, but the Rockets, as a team, are averaging just 43.6 rebounds per game, which is tied for 15th in the league.
The Cavaliers vastly improved their roster at the trade deadline, getting LeBron James the help he needed to make another playoff run. But the trades Cleveland made didn’t adequately address the team’s biggest weakness, that being on defense.
Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood have been great off the bench as scoring options, but they don’t do much to improve Cleveland’s defensive woes, which include ranking 28th in defensive rating and 27th in opponent points per game. As for George Hill and Larry Nance Jr., they might have the chops to alleviate some of the team’s problems on the defensive end, but it’s going to take a group effort for the Cavaliers to fix their issues before the playoffs.
It’s going to be tough finding any major weaknesses in Toronto’s armor as there aren’t many. The Raptors boast a top-five offensive and defensive rating as well as one of the league’s best scoring benches. However, perimeter shooting is not one of their strong suits, and it’s been their downfall in the past. Cleveland exploited this weakness in last year’s conference semifinals, connecting on 61 3-pointers compared to Toronto’s 27 over four games in the series.
DeMar DeRozan is attempting the 3-ball more than he ever has in his career, but 32.7 percent from beyond the arc isn’t going to cut it. The Raptors, as a team, are shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range, which is tied for 18th in the league.
The Celtics have a couple of things going for them this season. For starters, they’re arguably the best defensive team in the league, ranking first in defensive rating and second in opponent points per game, which has no doubt helped them to occupy one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference for most of the season. But on the other end of the floor, the Celtics are struggling to keep their heads above water. Even with skilled offensive players such as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, Boston has struggled to put enough points on the board, and the problem only gets worse when the bench checks in.
It’s safe to say things would be drastically different for this team if Gordon Hayward hadn’t gone down with an injury so early in the season, but that’s the hand Boston was dealt. That the Celtics even made it this far without the services of their third All-Star is impressive. How they fix the lack of scoring from the bench is a head-scratcher, but that’s the major weakness of this team.
Oklahoma City Thunder
For whatever reason, it didn’t look like the combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was going to work in Oklahoma City at the beginning of the season. Maybe it was the fact that three dominant ball-handlers were on the floor at the same time, but they eventually figured it out. It took until late December to happen, but they figured it out. Barring a major collapse, the Thunder should make the playoffs and they’ll be that one team the top four seeds in the West don’t want to face in the first round.
As for weaknesses, like a lot teams with multiple stars in the starting lineup, Oklahoma City’s bench is lacking. No one on the bench is consistent at picking up the slack on offense when the starters come out, and the loss of Andre Roberson to a knee injury not long ago has forced coach Billy Donovan to start inexperienced players on the wing. Although Anthony scoffed at the idea of coming off the bench when he was traded to the Thunder in the offseason, it might be worth revisiting in the future should the team struggle down the stretch.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are typically among the usual suspects when discussing title contenders, and they’ve been in the conversation now for roughly two decades. But for coach Gregg Popovich and Co., this season has presented a challenge most teams would fail. For all but nine games, San Antonio has been without Kawhi Leonard, one of the league’s best players at both ends of the floor. And just recently, Popovich told reporters that he would be “surprised” if Leonard returns this season. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard has been medically cleared to return from a quad injury, but he has chosen not to do so until he decides he can manage the pain of the injury.
With that being said, it’s looking like the Spurs will have to go the rest of the season and perhaps the playoffs without Leonard. Obviously, their biggest weakness going forward will be the absence of their star player and what he brings to the table in terms of having a major impact at both ends of the floor.
Wouldn’t it be surprising if the Timberwolves won the championship in the same season they ended the longest playoff drought in the NBA? It’s funny how things could potentially work out that way. After finishing as a lottery team a year ago, Minnesota is set to make a triumphant return to the playoff thanks in part to the trade for Jimmy Butler in the offseason. The All-Star guard has helped solidify the Timberwolves as a contender in the Western Conference by joining forces with former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Credit is also due to the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, who has turned around the struggling franchise in just a few seasons.
And while the Timberwolves are currently sitting in fourth place in the conference standings, they too have a bench issue like so many other teams. Jamal Crawford has not played like the former three-time Sixth Man of the Year, having averaged just 10.1 points per game this season. The lack of depth on the bench has forced Minnesota’s trio of Butler, Towns and Wiggins to average 35-plus minutes per game, with Butler averaging a league-high 37.3 minutes per game.