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The 2020-21 NBA season is young, especially with how many players have missed time, but trends are beginning to emerge for the best teams.
In the post-Warriors era of the NBA, there isn’t an overwhelming title favorite. The Los Angeles Lakers are reigning champions and look primed for another Finals run, but they’re not so far ahead of everyone else that the point of going for it is moot.
That’s been proven by how other contenders have operated. The Milwaukee Bucks traded nearly everything they had for Jrue Holiday. The Brooklyn Nets just traded for James Harden. Both Los Angeles teams got better. The Philadelphia 76ers added shooting around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons once again.
More teams are going for it — and are legitimately in the conversation — than has been the case in a long time. Though with the league’s best talent split so many different ways, the top teams are also more flawed than in years’ past. This year’s cream of the crop is a little more soiled, making for an interesting discussion about their defects.
Lakers: Taking it seriously
First up is the toughest team to nitpick. The Lakers have no reason to go full throttle right now, and they’ve embraced that luxury while taking care of business. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are being themselves, and the guys around them are tuning up for what should be a long playoff push.
Though they’re the team to beat in the Western Conference, they’re also at risk of slipping in the condensed standings. A loss to the Golden State Warriors on Martin Luther King Day was proof of what can happen when they lay off the gas pedal. Off nights are understandable over a long season, especially during a pandemic, but that game was in their hands. Results like that are avoidable.
Again, this is nitpicking. They own the best record (11-4) and best net rating (plus-10.1) in the league, and they’re not even close to their ceiling. They just have to keep up the stud performances while minimizing the duds along the way.
Clippers: 3-point frequency
The other L.A. team has a lot going for it too. With an improved rotation, especially at the point guard and center spots that hurt them last postseason, it looks ready to fight with anyone in the wild West.
Tyronn Lue, the Clippers’ new head coach, is known for his savvy offensive insight, but early success can be attributed more to luck than anything else. They lead the league in offense so far, but that’s buoyed by a scorching 44.1 teamwide 3-point percentage. Threes are being hoisted at a slightly higher rate than last year (41.4 percent this year compared to 37.5 percent last season), but their current clip ranks 11th in the league — slightly above league average.
This group is not limited offensively by any means, but it has the personnel to fire away more than it does right now. Luke Kennard should be averaging more than 7.2 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, and Serge Ibaka should pace way more than 5.5. It’s a specific critique, but a necessary one for maximizing their potential.
Milwaukee is off to a sultry start once again, second in the league in net rating (plus-9.6) behind another dominant season from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Its offensive system is once again tearing up the regular season, while its defensive plan stonewalls most opponents.
But once that structure is dented, the entire foundation crumbles. Their point-preventing plan is seldom exposed in the regular season, but it has been in the postseason for two straight years. And in a playoff-esque game against the Nets on MLK Day, that happened once again.
Kevin Durant and James Harden are impossible for most schemes to stop, but the Bucks at least have options. In the guts of the game, with the score teetering in one team or the other’s favor every play, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year was found guarding…Jeff Green. Milwaukee’s scheme is designed for Giannis to be a hawk in passing lanes and a weakside shot-blocker, but the team has to be ready to break those norms when the game plan calls for it. A tight game against a potent, multi-pronged offense warrants changes.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer has done this before. The Miami Heat exposed his drop coverage defense repeatedly in the playoffs last year, and the 2018-19 Coach of the Year refused to adjust. The Bucks suffered mightily, falling to a 3-0 deficit and losing in five games.
Promising signs are showing on the offensive end. Giannis has been used more as a screener this year than ever before, an easier dimension to add when Jrue Holiday is running the offense. Khris Middleton is also a good option to create in crunch time, especially if that guy is his pick-setter.
The defense needs to take that step too.
Nets: Interior defense
The Nets have gone all-in on one side of the court by trading for Harden. But their general defense isn’t that bad: Jeff Green at the 5 unlocks some interesting switching looks with him and Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan looks a lot better as a shot-blocker recently, and Harden and Kyrie Irving are better on that end than their reputations say.
It’s the inside defense that could be an issue, specifically when looking at the East’s beasts. Antetokounmpo and Embiid are enigmas for most defenses, so Brooklyn will have an especially tough time guarding them. In a playoff series, either superstar could drop 40 points a night and no one would be surprised.
Brooklyn has some potential counters. Going five-out forces Embiid away from the rim, which not only takes away his best attribute but also puts extra strain on him defensively. Combine that with the naturally diminishing returns of the post-game, and the Big Fella’s prolific production becomes something the defense can live with.
Milwaukee’s playoff concerns are well-documented. Their halfcourt issues have been addressed with the addition of Holiday, but Giannis could still be mitigated when Kevin Durant is matched up with him. That’s a battle everyone wants to see, and it could be what Brooklyn needs to get out of the East.
76ers: Halfcourt offense
Embiid is ready to dethrone Giannis for MVP. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals on 66.3 percent true shooting through 12 games, carrying the Sixers through lulls and keeping them above water in tight games. He is truly their lifeline so far.
But he needs help. While it’s awesome that he can basically be the point guard in tight games, forcing defenses to scramble while he makes the correct read in a split-second, it’s also out of necessity sometimes, which could be a huge problem in the playoffs. If he needs to make Herculean efforts for the Sixers to win now, how tough will the task be in May and June?
They were reportedly interested in Harden, who would’ve fit this need to a T, but the Houston Rockets ultimately asked for too much. It’s a tough reality to stomach, but there probably won’t be another high-level creator to hit the trade market this season. There’s just too much uncertainty in a pandemic year.
The Sixers will have to bank on internal improvements. Shake Milton is a serious Sixth Man of the Year candidate, providing the bench unit with all the scoring and facilitating it can ask for while also being a very clean fit with Embiid. Along with their MVP continuing to play at his historic level, the Sixers’ best outcome is for Milton to lighten his load when it matters most.