Strength and weakness for every NBA team: Even Cavs, Warriors have flaws
When, and how severely, will the champs feel their lack of paint presence?
On some level, every NBA team has the same blueprint for success heading into every game, and certainly heading into the season as a whole: Play to your strengths while, to the best of your ability, hiding your weaknesses. That's easier said than done, of course.
After all, the Houston Rockets can't just make the entire defensive end of the floor disappear.
They can, however, double down on the offensive end, where they have the potential to be as strong as any team in the league, including the Warriors -- who, while we're at it, could stand to take a little better care of the ball, even if their flare for the borderline reckless won't necessarily threaten to derail them until deep into the playoffs.
Here is a division-by-division look at the most notable strength and weakness for each of the 30 NBA teams:
San Antonio Spurs
Strength: Culture and cohesion, of course, and the Spurs are still stacked with skilled players. There's nothing they'll be bad at, and there are a lot of areas where they'll be strong. More than anything, you know they'll be well prepared and sound. As good as their individual talent is, their collective is always better under coach Gregg Popovich and that goes a long way.
The Spurs are the very definition of the whole being better than the sum of its parts.
Weakness: On the other hand, the playoffs last year revealed some concerns. They still lack athleticism and that did not get better with the addition of Pau Gasol. They need younger guys to not just step up but become serious contributors. Maybe that's rookie point guard Dejoune Murray or forwards Kyle Anderson and/or Jonathan Simmons. They need some speed, because last year's "grind you down with veteran skill" approach ran into a huge roadblock against OKC, and now the most dangerous weapon on that team has joined the Warriors who are also, you know, sort of athletic and skilled.
But that's getting ahead. There will be time for that, but throughout the season, keeping the defense strong while getting more athletic will be part of the trick. They'll likely pull it off, but they're not starting from a position of weakness.
(Also, any number of players who were brought over from overseas -- Livio Jean-Charles, Davis Bertans, Ryan Arcidiacono, Patricio Garino -- could wind up helping this element) -- Matt Moore
Strength: Dallas' offense has only been in the back half of the league once since Rick Carlisle took over and has regularly been in the top 10. With Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, and competent, experienced point guards who can run an offense, and whatever Barnes and Justin Anderson provide, the Mavs can have a top-10 offense again. They are going to put up points.
Weakness: Saying their strength will be offense and weakness will be defense is reductive, but it's the real issue. The Mavericks struggle to contain in pick-and-roll defensively. If you bring Nowitzki out in space, he can't limit the edge, which means the center has to constantly cover without fouling. The guards are either limited because of injuries (Deron Williams) or size (Jose Juan Barea). If Bogut gets hurt, their rim protection is going to take a sizable hit. -- Matt Moore
Strength: It's no longer as simple as "strong defensively, weak offensively." The offense will look largely different with new personnel and a new system, and the defense could suffer for those changes.
What will likely remain the same, though, is Memphis' ability to control tempo and flow. They are a low-turnover team inherently, and even as they move away from Grit-Grind, they're still going to play physical and conservative while bodying and bullying on the defensive end. Sometimes you are who you are. The question is how effective they'll be with who they are.
Weakness: You can't address shooting by adding one guy. Chandler Parsons will help with their ability to spread the floor, and Troy Daniels is a great shooter they added. But Parsons has knee concerns and there's no telling how many minutes Daniels will get. The Grizzlies really need for JaMychal Green's brief flashes at 3-point range (a decent 33 percent) to carry through. The Grizzlies will endeavor to shoot more 3-pointers, but taking them and making them are two separate things. -- Matt Moore
Strength: Offense, offense, offense. This team has weapons for days and James Harden looks revitalized playing point guard. With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, Harden has the best shooters he's ever had around him in Houston, Clint Capela has shown he can finish in pick-and-roll situations, Patrick Beverley is underrated in that area, and Nene returns to the kind of system in which he thrived in Denver.
It's a pretty good bet this team will be either No.1 or No. 2 in offensive efficiency, right there with the Warriors, by season's end.
Weakness: Transition defense. It was a plague last year, and going into Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun system, that's not going to make it easier. The up-and-down style means you can have moments where you get caught flat-footed, and Harden's effort in racing back has never been good. There are ways this can work, but the odds are they're going to give up a lot of points. -- Matt Moore
New Orleans Pelicans
Strength: Flexibility. They have a lot of guys, like Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore, who can play multiple positions, and Anthony Davis can check any player on switches one-on-one. They can go to small-ball lineups with Davis at center easily, and load up with size with Omer Asik or skill with Alexis Ajinca at center. The Pelicans have a lot of interchangeable parts, and that makes for good depth.
Weakness: They have real problems at point guard. Jrue Holiday is out at least a month to be by the side of his wife after her brain surgery. Tyreke Evans is out indefinitely with both injury and a blood clot. Their starting option is probably Tim Frazier. E'Twaun Moore, who has never really run point, may end up there as well. There's no one to orchestrate the offense, and that's a pretty important element. The team needs to find a short-term solution here. -- Matt Moore
Strength: Rebounding. Last season the Nuggets finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. And considering the development of Nurkic and Jokic plus the return of Chandler, Denver's rebounding should continue to be great on the boards this season.
Weakness: Inexperience. Denver's youth with promising young players like Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Nurkic and Jokic is quite the asset as the Nuggets have a strong foundation for their future. But their youth will work against them this season as players continue to develop and learn how to play together. -- Ananth Pandian
Strength: Simple - Karl-Anthony Towns. He's a superstar in the making. Towns was simply sensational as a rookie and he surely will get better in his second campaign. And with the demanding yet innovative and astute Tom Thibodeau on board, Towns' seemingly limitless potential could be reached sooner rather than later. Once Towns starts edging closer to his potential, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and all of Minnesota's other talented youngsters will likely begin follow suit.
This feels a lot like what happened with Steph Curry and the Warriors -- a homegrown guy turning into a superstar before our eyes, and the whole organization, also rife with young, homegrown talent, coming up behind him.
Weakness: Three-point shooting. Last season, nobody on the Timberwolves shot better than 39 percent from behind the arc -- a woeful percentage considering how vital the three-point shot has become for the modern day NBA offense. Unless some internal improvement happens, the Timberwolves will continue to struggle from deep as they did not add any shooters in the offseason. -- Ananth Pandian
Oklahoma City Thunder
Strength: Backcourt. Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo compose perhaps the best guard tandem Oklahoma City has had since moving from Seattle. Being the team's No. 1 option, Westbrook will be dominant this season, and having another offensively gifted backcourt mate in Oladipo will surely make him an even better player. Besides being a capable scorer, Oladipo is a good defender and can help cover opposing team's point guards. The two of them in the open court should be must-see TV.
Weakness: Three-point Shooting. Last year OKC shot 31.9 percent from downtown, and that was with Kevin Durant. Anthony Morrow can help spread the floor with his shooting but he played sparingly last season and will likely do the same this year. Rookies Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines should help but overall, the Thunder are just not a good three-point shooting team. -- Ananth Pandian
Strength: Depth. Talent. A lot of good players. However you want to categorize it, there is a lot to like in Utah. The Jazz have a great mix of young and veteran players coupled with athleticism and skill. From a possible All-Star in Gordon Hayward to a promising young player in Trey Lyles to the veteran experience of Joe Johnson, the Jazz have it all.
Weakness: Scoring. This is odd for a team with so many good players, but it remains to be seen if any of them can be a great player. Hayward might be right there, but he is not a go-to scorer yet and neither is Derrick Favors or Rodney Hood. Without a guy who can consistently create his own offense, the Jazz will be even more reliant upon precise execution and ball and player movement. When the ball does stop, having Joe Johnson should help as he's a proven isolation scorer, and the addition of a heady point guard in George Hill will bring its own benefits. Still, overall, Utah could struggle to put the ball in the basket. -- Ananth Pandian
Portland Trail Blazers
Strength: With players like Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe, Portland is an excellent three-point shooting team. Lillard has been bombing away from deep during the preseason and with Turner in the mix now, he should get plenty of solid looks from three playing off the ball. It's not just their guards that can hit threes, Al Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard are solid three-point shooters for big men.
Weakness: Defense. Turner will help and so will Ezeli, whenever he gets healthy but Lillard and McCollum struggle on defense and starting center Mason Plumlee is nowhere near a rim protector. -- Ananth Pandian
Golden State Warriors
Strength: Numbers. There isn't enough bandwidth to account for all of their advantages, and not just because there aren't enough defenders to account for all their shooters. They're too good at too much. What do you try to take away, as they're spreading the floor to 40 feet with three all-time shooters? How do you take it to them on the other end, when they can switch everything with agile disrupters Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston? It feels like the Warriors have six on the floor, which is why many fourth quarters become a formality.
Weakness: Carelessness? Rim protection? It's hard to categorize the center spot as some fatal flaw when Green can just slide over to unleash the NBA's most lethal lineup. The best hope for teams without a LeBron James -- and even the one that does -- is when the Warriors succumb to too much showmanship. Steph Curry captivates because he has contained his conscience, but the blind behind-the-back passes that are cute in Game 37 of the regular season were unsightly in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. -- Ethan Skolnick
Los Angeles Clippers
Strength: Prizing possessions. For all their offensive explosiveness, they don't err all that often, third-best in the league with just 13.2 turnovers per 100 possessions. It starts with Chris Paul's patience, second in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio, and with an uncanny understanding of when less is more, and more is needed. Paul's turnover number barely budged even as he increased his aggression to pace the Clippers to a 30-15 record during Blake Griffin's altercation-related absence.
Weakness: Extra possessions. The Clippers need to take care of the ball, because they rarely take notice of the offensive glass, averaging just 8.8 rebounds per 100 possessions. DeAndre Jordan was the eighth-best per-minute offensive rebounder in the NBA, but he accounted for three times as many total boards as the next Clipper (the since-departed Cole Aldrich, whose rate was higher than replacement Marreese Speights). You'd think there'd be more equanimity with Griffin's return, but his average has halved since his initial two seasons. -- Ethan Skolnick
Strength: Guidance. On a team with the potential to play three teens at the same time -- Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss -- it will help to have solid pros around, and Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa are typically team-first guys. The question, of course, is how coach Earl Watson gives the veterans enough time to stay satisfied, especially with another lottery pick in line.
Weakness: Late game situations. The Suns were second-worst in the NBA, to Philadelphia, getting outscored by 98 points in 126 clutch minutes last season. Brandon Knight took the largest share of the shots, and made just 27.3 percent. This is typically where young teams struggle, so the Suns probably will again, though Booker (just four three-point attempts in those situations) will certainly get more looks, even if he still looks 15. -- Ethan Skolnick
Strength: Three-point shooting. At some point, you need to cite something other than DeMarcus Cousins as a Kings strength, and 3-point shooting was the only major category in which the Kings finished in the top part of the league. It may get better too, with Arron Afflalo (39 percent the past two seasons) replacing Marco Belinelli, who was peddled for a pick after plummeting from nearly 39 percent in his career, to 30.6.
Weakness: Direction. That's been true in the front office, and that figures to manifest itself on the court, particularly at the point guard position, after Rajon Rondo rebuilt some of his value and signed with Chicago. Darren Collison has outplayed Ty Lawson the past two years, but he won't play until the ninth game, because he -- like Lawson -- has had off-court problems. Neither projects as the long-term leader at the position. -- Ethan Skolnick
Los Angeles Lakers
Strength: The Luke Effect. There's no guarantee that Luke Walton will succeed immediately, not as his team's three-point percentage dropped 10 points (Golden State shot 41.6 percent to the Lakers' 31.6) as he relocated 370 miles south. But he's more relatable than Byron Scott for the Lakers' kiddie corps and, with Kobe Bryant gone and free agency another letdown, he's under no pressure to win immediately, which should allow him to shape his system.
Weakness: Transition defense. The half-court defense wasn't so hot either, but only the Suns gave up more fast break points per game than the Lakers (17.0), who stood still when shots didn't go down. It may help that the primary pose-holder, Kobe Bryant, isn't around anymore, and Roy Hibbert has plodded off to Charlotte. It may not help that teams will try to run Timofey Mozgov ragged. -- Ethan Skolnick
Strength: Getting to the free-throw line. Thanks in large part to DeMar DeRozan's pump fakes and relentless drives to the basket, Toronto was third in free throw rate last season. This, combined with the Raptors' sixth-best turnover rate, kept their offense great last year despite the loss of Lou Williams' scoring and Amir Johnson's screen-setting. There's no reason for this to regress now.
Weakness: Rim protection. Bismack Biyombo was far and away Toronto's best shot-blocker, and it's not clear if anybody is ready to fill his shoes. The Raptors might need better perimeter defense from DeRozan, Terrence Ross and fan favorite Norman Powell to compensate. -- James Herbert
Strength: Unselfishness. The Celtics were fifth in the league in assist percentage, and they were fifth in defensive rating largely because of communication. They should only improve in these areas with the addition of Al Horford, who is one of the most selfless stars you can imagine.
Weakness: Defensive rebounding. Boston was tied with Horford's Hawks for 25th in this category last year. With athletic young players Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier potentially entering the rotation, improving in this area will be important because it would open up the transition game. -- James Herbert
Strength: Uh, not much. But I'll go with improved defensive versatility. Jeremy Lin can defend shooting guards, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can guard almost everybody and Trevor Booker can switch onto smaller players when he's not boxing out bigger ones. Bogdan Bogdanovic is strong enough to guard taller players, too, and both Chris McCullough and Caris LeVert project to be able to guard multiple positions at some point.
Weakness: Playmaking. On the offensive end, Brooklyn is going to rely heavily on Lin in the pick-and-roll and Brook Lopez in the post. When the Nets go to their bench, they are going to need their ball movement and timing to be pristine in order to generate decent looks. -- James Herbert
New York Knicks
Strength: Offensive upside. If the ball is moving, it will be hard to guard these guys. The starting lineup makes a lot of sense in theory, and when Kristaps Porzingis is playing center with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, they'll be even harder to stop.
Weakness: Injury risks, combined with depth. Who is their backup point guard if Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings gets hurt? Who is their backup small forward if Carmelo Anthony or Justin Holiday gets hurt? New York is seriously shallow. -- James Herbert
Strength: Frontcourt depth. The logjam is a problem, but look at all these guys. Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Richuan Holmes are all young centers that need playing time. When No. 1 pick Ben Simmons broke his foot, the Sixers could slide another rookie playmaking 4, Dario Saric, into his spot. There isn't a team in the league with this many big men to shuffle in and out of lineups.
Weakness: Playmaking. Philadelphia's wings haven't proven themselves as creators, and Simmons, who is now out for an unspecified time, was supposed to be the primary ball handler. The Sixers are going to have to get a lot of their offense from Embiid and Okafor in the post. -- James Herbert
Strength: Firepower. It's inherently almost impossible to slow down a team that employs LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Then there's Channing Frye, Mike Dunleavy and (probably) J.R. Smith spacing the floor, and Tristan Thompson cleaning up the boards to give them all extra opportunities. No one else in the East has an attack like this.
Weakness: Paint protection. With the departure of Timofey Mozgov, a lot of this will fall on Thompson, Frye and the 38-year-old legs of Chris Andersen. That's fine during the regular season, but Cleveland could use another option to break out in case of emergency in the playoffs. -- James Herbert
Strength: Playmaking. This is mostly about Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, but there's a bit more. Robin Lopez showed last year with the Knicks that he can be a facilitator, and Jerian Grant has a lot of upside. The problem is they'll need to rely on midrange jumpers and cuts to the basket because...
Weakness: Floor spacing. This has been discussed to death. There are so many concerns about shooting that Wade recently said that he, Butler and Rondo have been encouraging each other to shoot 3-pointers, via 670 The Score's Cody Westerlund. Let's see how that goes. -- James Herbert
Strength: Length and size. It starts with 6-foot-11 point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it extends up and down the roster. When the Bucks all have their hands up high, opposing teams have trouble finding passing lanes. If Thon Maker manages to crack the rotation, Milwaukee's advantage in this area will be even more ridiculous.
Weakness: Defensive rebounding. The Bucks were 29th in this category last year, which is a little crazy when you consider their size. Even if you're tall, you have to box out. -- James Herbert
Strength: Offensive options. With newcomers Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson, plus the returning Monta Ellis, Paul George should not have to carry an enormous scoring load. There is potential for Indiana to be an above-average offensive team for the first time since Danny Granger was its leading scorer.
Weakness: Defensive versatility, which is weird because it's the Pacers. The departures of George Hill, Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi mean that this is suddenly a totally different type of team. Their offseason moves do not appear to have been made with defense in mind. -- James Herbert
Strength: Offensive identity. This is a pick-and-roll team led by Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. It's easy to see what Stan Van Gundy is building, and how newcomers Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic fit in. The Pistons were tied with the Spurs for seventh last year in terms of taking care of the ball, and a lot of that is because they know exactly how they want to get their shots.
Weakness: Transition game. Detroit was 16th in the league in transition frequency and 22nd in points per possession in transition, per Synergy Sports. Given that they're a great defensive rebounding team and they're full of athletes, this doesn't make a ton of sense. There is some reason for optimism here, though: the speed of Smith. -- James Herbert
Strength: Rebounding. On top of the monster that is Hassan Whiteside, they stacked the roster with athletic wings to try to compensate for the loss of Dwyane Wade (who was a pretty good rebounder still, by the way). Guys like Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Willie Reed and Dion Waiters are all players who can snag some boards. They should be strong on that end, even without Bosh.
Weakness: Leadership. Who's going to make sure the offense runs right? Who's going to get in Whiteside's ear and keep him emotionally steady and plugged in? Who's going to take the final shot? Who's going to set an example for the level of competitiveness and consistency you need to make the playoffs night in and night out?
This team seems rudderless, with some guys thrown together. They could really use a veteran wing. You know, someone with championship experience. Who's also versatile. And carries the respect of the locker room. And who the city loves. And who is named Dwyane Wade. -- Matt Moore
Strength: They're going to be good defensively. You have to have confidence in Mike Budenholzer to get the best from Dwight Howard on that end, and he doesn't have to be peak Dwight Howard for their defense to be terrific. Paul Millsap's versatility, Kent Bazemore's athleticism and doggedness, even Dennis SchrÃ¶der's ability to pester will all help here. The Hawks were the best defense in the league after the All-Star break last year. Expect them to once again be a tough team to score against.
Weakness: Offensive fluidity. This is the first time SchrÃ¶der will be running the team full-time. SchrÃ¶der has shown a great ability to make one-on-one plays, but has struggled to really make sure things are clicking. Al Horford was great at making the right play at the right time, but he's of course gone. Howard is a great screener, but not a playmaker. So somewhere in here, they have to figure out a lot on how to play together, with no one to really help orchestrate it. -- Matt Moore
Strength: Every year, Steve Clifford has the Hornets in the top five for fewest points in the paint allowed and field goal percentage inside, and he's done this without having a rim protector. The Hornets' scheme makes two sacrifices: it leaves wings one-on-one on the perimeter, and it helps down and then sprints to recover on 3-pointers. This is how they compensated for Al Jefferson often being the big man.
Now Roy Hibbert roams the paint, and that's going to allow the Hornets to send more doubles at wings and not give up huge scoring nights, and to stay home more on 3-point shooters. These are little adjustments, but the big key is this: with that scheme and Hibbert down low, the Hornets should finish No. 1 in points in the paint allowed per game.
Weakness: The bench went through a total overhaul and suddenly there are a lot of questions marks there. As the season gets closer, I start to remember how good Clifford is at taking mediocre guys and making them effective, but they're going to miss Jeremy Lin and Jefferson. They need Frank Kaminsky to have a huge season, and there's just little to feel confident about in that. Jeremy Lamb tailed off last season and Marco Belinelli has been more trouble than he's worth since leaving San Antonio. The starters will have to be great, and staggered frequently, which is tough because of how much better Nicolas Batum has made Kemba Walker when they play together. -- Matt Moore
Strength: Balance. The Wizards have good depth and balance. Their guards are athletic and can shoot a little bit (John Wall's not great but he's not Ricky Rubio or Elfrid Payton, either). Their wings can guard multiple positions and make a few shots. Their bigs can get out in space and recover inside. There's just a lot that Washington's able to do with this collection of players, the only problem has been getting them to do it consistently well.
Weakness: Chemistry. They don't like playing with one another, basically, after last season. Even with Nene, who complained a lot about the kiddos, gone, there's just a lot of tension. Wall-Beal. Gortat vs. the Youngsters. Gortat feeling pressure for the starting spot from Ian Mahinmi. Markieff Morris being Markieff Morris. There are just so many ways things can go haywire here for Washington. -- Matt Moore
Strength: Athleticism. All of their guys can run and finish. It's crazy how much athleticism they have on this roster. They're all long and fast, and their dunk mixes should be ridiculous. There's not a slow-of-foot guy on the team outside of Nikola Vucevic, who could get traded at any time.
Weakness: What on earth are they good at? They can run and jump for sure, but they lack shooting, spacing, playmaking on the wing, ability to create their own shot, positional clarity -- why is Aaron Gordon playing at small forward? -- and overall the roster just doesn't make much sense. There's a reason projections are low for this team. If Frank Vogel unlocks the answer and somehow gets something meaningful out of this team, forget Coach of the Year ... he should be up for a Nobel Prize. -- Matt Moore
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