When the last buzzer of the NBA regular season sounds on Apr. 15, 16 teams will remain, all with the same goal in their minds: a championship.
But unfortunately, only one team can earn the ultimate prize.
In this article and the one following it tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the biggest reason each team currently in playoff position in each conference won’t win the title, or their Achilles heel, if you will. Obviously, the 2015 NBA champion will overcome their weakness (or weaknesses), but the chances each team will come away on top are still slim.
Today I’ll be looking at the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks (38-8)- Rebounding
For all of the remarkable success the Hawks have had this year, rebounding is still a weakness for the team. According to ESPN.com, opponents are out-rebounding Atlanta by 1.6 boards per game, which ranks the team No. 21 in the league.
Starting posts Paul Millsap and Al Horford are both solid rebounders, but they are only 6’8″ and 6’10” respectively. Against teams with bigger, stronger posts, the Hawks could get beaten up inside in the playoffs.
This is especially dangerous since the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers all rank in the top 10 in rebounding differential.
Toronto Raptors (31-15)- Defense
The Raptors are a fine team with an above-average starting lineup, a nice bench and a very dangerous offense overall.
Unfortunately, they rank just No. 19 in the NBA in defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com. No one on the team really stands out as an elite stopper.
Without a good defense, the Raptors will be hard-pressed to go deep in the playoffs and win a title. The last team to win a championship with a defense ranked as low as Toronto was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, who ranked No. 21 in defensive rating.
Washington Wizards (31-16)- Struggles against playoff teams
This season of the Wizards has to be considered an achievement so far, but there is one glaring problem: they struggle against good teams.
Despite being the No. 3 seed in the East, Washington is 10-12 against all teams currently in playoff position, compared to 21-4 against lottery squads. Their point differential in the 22 games against stiff competition is negative-3.2 points per game.
Although the Wizards’ starting lineup is well-constructed and balanced, they’ll need to learn to beat good teams before the playoffs roll around.
Chicago Bulls (30-17)- Inconsistency
Arguably the most talented team in the East, the Bulls look great at times. They’ve achieved road victories over Western powers like the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors.
But interspersed among those signature wins are some terrible losses. Just one game before Chicago gave Golden State its second home loss of the season, it lost by double digits to the Miami Heat in Chicago.
In the past month, the Bulls are 3-4 against sub-.500 teams. That sort of up-and-down play won’t cut it.
Cleveland Cavaliers (27-20)- Defense/Bench Scoring
OK, I’m cheating on this one by giving two weaknesses, but please forgive me.
Even though the Cleveland Cavaliers are on a roll right now with eight consecutive wins, they have two main issues they’ll need to work out before the playoffs start: defense and bench scoring.
The Cavaliers are the NBA’s No. 25 team in defensive rating (108.2). Two of the team’s three best players, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, are below-average on the less-glamorous end of the court, while their other superstar, LeBron James, can be an elite stopper but also takes plays off. Even during the winning streak, Cleveland’s defensive rating remains an unimpressive 107.0.
The other main weakness is bench scoring. Per Hoopsstats, Cleveland is dead last in reserve points per game (23.3). When the Cavs are forced to play lineups with a significant amount of bench players, they usually have trouble scoring. Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Harris, and nearly-retired versions of Mike Miller and Shawn Marion don’t exactly put fear in opposing teams’ hearts.
Milwaukee Bucks (23-22)- Talent
As the No. 6 seed, the Bucks’ odds of winning the NBA title are pretty long anyway. But the fact that they have almost no elite talent on the roster is what will keep them out of the discussion of championship contenders.
Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo combine to form an above-average backcourt. But without injured rookie sensation Jabari Parker, the starting frontcourt of Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia is concerning.
None of the aforementioned three players are particularly bad, but they will get outplayed by the frontcourts of other playoff teams.
Miami Heat (20-25)- Point guard
These are the starting point guards of the seven top teams in the East, respectively: Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight and Mario Chalmers.
One of those names just doesn’t belong (hint: it’s Chalmers).
Heat floor generals combine for a 10.7 player efficiency while giving up a 19.9 PER, according to 82games.com. A point guard rotation of Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier is one of the league’s worst, and what will ultimately hold an otherwise solid team back from achieving its potential.
Charlotte Hornets (19-27)- Offensive firepower
Many people expected big things out of the Hornets this season, especially after adding Lance Stephenson.
Although Charlotte has won nine of its past 12 games, it’s still been a disappointing year. And it’s all thanks to a lack of offensive firepower.
Al Jefferson and the now-injured Kemba Walker are nice players, but they aren’t No. 1 and 2 options on a championship contender. Aside from Jefferson and Walker, the next leading scorer is Gerald Henderson, at just 10.5 points per game.
The Hornets’ No. 29 rank in offensive rating will make for an uphill battle to advance in the postseason, should the team qualify.
Check back tomorrow for the Achilles heel of each Western Conference playoff team.