Problem solving: Friday's big matchups
5-on-5: Pointing out problems facing four contenders heading into ESPN/ESPN3 games
Each of the four teams heading into Friday night's nationally televised slate (starting at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN3) has one big thing in common: They've got problems.
Whether it be injuries (Derrick Rose, Nene), Father Time (Celtics) or on-court execution (who else?), the Celtics, Bulls, Heat and Nuggets each have issues to work out over the next few months. What are the biggest problems, and how detrimental will they be?
That's what the experts are for.
1. What's the biggest problem facing the Celtics?
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: The human condition. The Celtics are effectively the oldest team in the East and their only wins have come against league basement-dwellers in the Wizards (twice), Nets and Pistons, who are a combined 5-27. Is there anything sadder than a trio of white-knuckled future Hall of Famers desperately clinging to their relevance? Well, aside from Greg Oden.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Celtics have lacked consistency so far. Their erratic play has caused GM Danny Ainge to re-evaluate expectations. He is already on the record as saying he's willing to "go another direction" if the starters don't start performing.
Mark Shore, ClipperBlog: Defense, which is surprising for a Celtics team that led the league in many defensive categories a season ago. Boston is 19th in defensive efficiency and let up a number of easy buckets toward the end of its most recent loss against the Mavericks.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: The easy answer is old legs. But old legs didn't keep them from almost out-defending the Bulls night after night last season. Ask yourself this: How would they be defending if a certain center who plays great position defense was still there? They essentially traded Kendrick Perkins away for nothing now that Jeff Green is out. Boston without defense is like a BLT without bacon; the Celtics are nothing without it.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: Kevin Garnett's odometer. KG is no longer the dominant defensive force he used to be. Just last season he posted a plus-8.3 difference in PER over opposing power forwards. This season, that difference is down to plus-1.4. He also used to win the battle against opposing centers, but now he is getting abused by 5s, to a PER differential of minus-6.5.
2. What's the biggest problem facing the Bulls?
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: That there are three and a half months left in the season. They'd love to fast-forward to the playoffs with fragile pieces in Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton and Joakim Noah. The next 50 games will feel like forever. Really, what's left to prove?
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Bulls have yet to completely fix their problem at shooting guard. Rip Hamilton was a solid signing but he's not a 3-point threat. The Bulls are still in the bottom half of the league in 3-point attempts. For a team that can struggle at times putting points on the board, it would be nice if this facet of their game improved.
Mark Shore, ClipperBlog: Depth at the small forward position. Luol Deng was the unsung hero of last season's squad that secured the best record in the NBA and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals. If he goes down then the Bulls will struggle to fill his minutes (he's among the league leaders) and his role as a defensive anchor.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: This is the easiest question of the 5. Remember how long the Bulls looked for a low-post scorer? They're still looking, because all Carlos Boozer is giving them is 2.9 shots per game near the rim. The startling fact is that's less than half the number of close shots he's averaged over the past five seasons, including the six per game last season (his lowest in five years until this year). They need to tweak that offense and get Boozer far more post touches.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: The early-season regression of their frontcourt players. Assuming Derrick Rose is able to overcome his turf toe without any long-term repercussions, the Bulls will be an elite team. Noah and Boozer are players who can push them over the top, but both have had slightly slow starts to the season. If they cannot produce at a higher level, Chicago will be watching the NBA Finals again.
3. What's the biggest problem facing the Heat?
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: The compacted schedule. With LeBron James, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Dwyane Wade not fully 100 percent, the Heat would love some extended R&R. But they're not going to get it, courtesy of the lockout. Practice time would be helpful to continue sharpening the zone attack, too.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: It's hard to find a flaw in a team that has two of the best two-way players in the game, but there seems to be a lack of focus in their losses. The concern isn't so much that the Heat have lost games but more about the way they keep shrinking in the fourth quarter. The whole team shrinks, not just one guy.
Mark Shore, ClipperBlog: Closing out games. Miami struggled down the stretch in back-to-back overtime losses as they blew a 17-point lead against the Warriors and went nearly 10 minutes without making a field goal against the Clippers (LeBron James & Co. were also horrendous from the line). Plus, we can't forget James' fourth-quarter disappearing act in last year's Finals.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Besides injuries, I'd go with boredom. When teams get stale, they tend to revert to their worst habits, and that's what I saw on this recent road trip. Those worst habits include lots of ball stopping from their two wings on offense, and a lack of concentration at the free throw line from LeBron. I love Erik Spoelstra, but he did not successfully get his guys to focus and play their best the past two games, and that's his job. I suspect we'll see the real Heat team more often on the road going forward.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: They are relying heavily on two rookies. Norris Cole and Terrel Harris have had some big moments for the Heat, but can they keep it up all season, and especially once the playoffs roll around?
4. What's the biggest problem facing the Nuggets?
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Shot distribution. Question: With Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo and Nene on the team, guess which two players lead the team in shots per minute? Answer: Al Harrington and Corey Brewer. That ain't right.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Nuggets need to just keep doing what they are doing. Right now they look like a well-oiled machine, but if one cog feels like he needs a bigger role the Nuggets could have problems. They also might have an issue integrating the players who could return after the Chinese league ends. That said, having too many players who can play is a great problem to have.
Mark Shore, ClipperBlog: A go-to scorer. The Nuggets are third in the league in offensive efficiency, but in the playoffs teams need a guy who can get points when everything else breaks down. Looking at Denver's roster; no one stands out as the guy I'd want to rely on in the clutch.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Too much depth, which will only be a factor as the season evolves. Ironic, I know, but guys like Chris Andersen, Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer deserve more playing time, and Andre Miller wants to start. On a roster this loaded with players, George Karl does not have many options. The chemistry there is strong, but will likely melt down if nothing changes in the next two months. And they still can welcome back J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler after the Chinese season ends.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: How to mix and match their 15 legitimate NBA players. There is no one on Denver's roster who does not deserve playing time in the NBA. As great as that sounds, there are some drawbacks. With an abbreviated training camp and very few practice days, George Karl never had a chance to establish a rotation. The options are overwhelming and there is no guarantee he will figure it out anytime soon.
5. More likely: C's-Bulls in East finals or Nuggets-Heat in NBA Finals?
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Nuggets-Heat. The Nuggets have as good a chance as any in the wild, wide-open West, and the Heat have to be considered the title favorites. I'm having a tough time envisioning a scenario in which the Celtics beat the Heat in a playoff series that doesn't involve a time machine.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Nuggets-Heat Finals. The Heat should be favored to get back to the Finals, as they have done nothing but bolster their bench in the offseason. The Nuggets will have a more difficult time getting past San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles (x2), Portland and Memphis. That said, they still have the ability to beat any of those teams in a seven-game series.
Mark Shore, ClipperBlog: C's-Bulls in East finals. The Nuggets are playing great basketball, but a Finals appearance is a lot to ask of a franchise whose only conference title came in their last season with the ABA. The Celtics have struggled early on this season, but I think the original Big Three could have one more postseason run in them.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: Definitely Celtics-Bulls. The Lakers can beat any team in a seven-game series, as can OKC. The West is too open to project any one team to the title.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Co.: As a Nuggets blogger, I will be tarred and feathered if I do not say Nuggets-Heat.
I do not think the Nuggets' roster is built for postseason success, although with favorable matchups, they could make a run. No one has garnered a great deal of credibility by writing off the Celtics during their past struggles, but I do not see how they can possibly make another run, especially with the physical toll that this season will take on their geriatric legs.