2023 NBA Playoffs: 1 Thing Holding Back Every Eastern Conference Team
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Giannis Antetokounmpo (left), Jayson Tatum (right). Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images
The NBA's Eastern Conference is not nearly as wide open as the Western Conference. There are three legitimate contenders, and the rest vary from teams that can pull off a major upset all the way to just happy to be there.
But like all the Eastern Conference counterparts out West, no team is perfect.
Every Eastern Conference postseason team has a specific weakness that can be detrimental to playoff success.
Some of these teams have multiple weaknesses, but the following points are like the thermal exhaust port to the Death Star. If an opponent can hit this weakness just perfectly, it will blow a team out of the playoffs.
In some of these cases, opponents may not be able to fully take advantage of these flaws until the later rounds.
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks: Half-Court Efficiency
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There are not a lot of holes with the Milwaukee Bucks, but one constant has been poor efficiency in the half-court offense.
Milwaukee's offensive rating ranked 15th this season, and its points per possession in the half court is 1.000, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That would be fine for a middle-of-the-pack NBA team, but it's not for a contender.
The numbers are skewed because Khris Middleton missed a lot of action during the regular season, but it is a concerning issue since it is not a new one.
The Bucks' half-court offense was a huge issue in the playoffs last season. Just like this year, their PPP was 1.000 in the regular season but dropped to 0.865 in the playoffs. They are unbelievable in transition, but if an opponent can slow them down, it has a chance.
That is a task that is much easier said than done—hence the Bucks hold the best record in the NBA.
The deeper the Bucks go into the playoffs, the more important it will be for their half-court offense to improve its efficiency. If they do not, Milwaukee could be in danger of history repeating itself.
No. 2 Boston Celtics: Living by the Three
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The Celtics are going by the old adage: Live by the three, die by the three.
That could be a big hurdle for Boston's offense.
Boston averages the second-most three-point attempts in the league, epitomizing the make-or-miss nature of the NBA.
In their wins, the Celtics are connecting 40.3 percent of their deep balls. In losses, they are shooting 31.6 percent.
Being a heavy three-point shooting team means the Celtics do not take a lot of two-point field goals. Boston is 29th in two-point field goal attempts. Even more troublesome, the Celtics do not take a lot of shots at the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass, they are 25th in attempts at the rim.
Averaging so many more threes than twos makes the team easier to defend. If multiple Celtics hit a cold streak from deep, that could spell doom for Boston's hopes of getting to the Finals again.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers: Backup Center
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The Philadelphia 76ers have almost all they could possibly need to make a Finals run—except for a backup big man.
This has been a recurring problem for Philadelphia. One can go back as far as Kawhi Leonard's shot to end Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals to really see it.
In that series, the Sixers had a net rating of plus-18.6 when Joel Embiid was on the floor and a whooping minus-52.5 when he was off. Those 99 minutes he was off the court in that seven-game series cost them the series.
Philadelphia had the same issue against the Hawks in the 2020-21 semifinals, with a massive 25.5 swing in net rating when Embiid stepped off the court. Last season, with Embiid injured, the Sixers had to go with DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed in the second round of the playoffs against Miami, eventually getting knocked out by the Heat.
This year, the Sixers will depend on either Reed or P.J. Tucker to fill those backup center minutes. That is not comforting when, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers have a negative net rating when Reed (minus-3.8) is on the floor and when Tucker (minus-6.0) is playing at center.
Those eight minutes a game that Embiid might sit in the playoffs could keep the Sixers from finally advancing out of the second round.
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers: Role-Player Shooting
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The Cleveland Cavaliers have an unbelievable four-man core, but their playoff hopes will hinge on the shooting of that fifth player on the court. We are talking about guys like Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens.
Defenses are going to be more than willing to let those players bomb away from three as they try to contain Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland drives while covering Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. So at least two of those four have to get hot from deep.
Okoro has come on strong from deep since the All-Star break. He has gone from shooting 34.1 percent pre-All-Star Game to 42.9 percent since then. The one caveat is that it has come at just 2.3 attempts per game. The Cavs will need him to be prepared for more shots to come his way. Osman has also shot incredibly well from three since the All-Star break, connecting on 43.6 percent of his 4.1 attempts.
After those two, the drop-off in three-point percentage is considerable. Stevens shot at a 34.4 percent clip this season, and Wade fell all the way to 26.5 percent.
A lot of the Cavs' playoff hopes will come down to if their role players can keep defenses honest and spread by hitting enough threes in a series.
No. 5 New York Knicks: Easy Baskets
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The News York Knicks are back in the playoffs. Let the good times roll again.
The one problem for the Knicks, though, is they do not get easy buckets.
Their offense is dependent on a lot of isolation basketball, and they are 22nd in fast-break points. While it's harder to get transition buckets in the playoffs, generating some of those chances is helpful, as a few easy points can take pressure off of the half-court offense.
The Knicks are 16th in frequency of transition plays, but they are going to need more of them come playoff time. Opponents can more easily scheme against isolation-heavy offenses than motion sets, meaning New York's offense is more likely to get bogged down if it can't get out and run.
One reason the Knicks don't get out in transition much is because they don't force a ton of turnovers—the best way to get running. They are 25th in opponent turnovers per game.
If the Knicks want to advance in the playoffs, they are going to need to find a way to generate a few more easy baskets on a nightly basis.
No. 6 Brooklyn Nets: Rebounding
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Before the trade deadline, the Brooklyn Nets were not a very big team. After it, they have become a long team.
The one constant, though, has been a lack of rebounding.
Brooklyn is 26th in rebound percentage and 24th in rebounds per game since the trade deadline. Their best rebounder for the season has been Nic Claxton, who is averaging a 9.2 rebounds. The drop-off after Claxton is significant, as the team's next highest rebounders are Royce O'Neale at 5.5 and Day'Ron Sharp at 5.2 after the trade deadline.
Claxton is doing all that he can, but he is going to need help on the boards. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith each have to do their share to help shore up the team's rebounding deficiency.
No. 7 Miami Heat: Scoring
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Basketball is pretty simple—you have to score to win games. Unfortunately, scoring is something the Miami Heat have struggled with all season.
They are dead last in scoring this season, averaging 109.3 points. That's 4.9 points below the league average.
Miami's 111.9 points per game since the All-Star break represent an improvement, but that still only ranks 26th in the NBA. Even with that tiny upward climb, the Heat are still last in field goals made per game.
The bulk of Miami's scoring is spread among just three players—Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo. Those three are the only Heat players to average double digits since the All-Star break. After them, it drops off significantly. The next closest players in terms of post-All-Star break scoring are Victor Oladipo and Max Strus, who averaged 9.9 points and 8.9 points, respectively.
At some point in the playoffs, the Heat are going to be faced with one or more of their big three struggling to score. If that happens, there is not a lot of hope they will be able to keep up with their opponent.
No. 8 Atlanta Hawks: Three-Point Attempts
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It is jarring to think a team with Trae Young, BogdanBogdanović and Dejounte Murray is a low-volume three-point shooting team, butthat is exactly where the Atlanta Hawks find themselves. They are ranked 28th in three-point attempts, and that will hold them back come playoff time.
Young went from taking eight threes per game last season tojust 6.3 this year. Even though he shot a lowly 33.5 percent this season, he isalways a threat defenses have to respect. Teams will continue to honor histhreat, but this campaign was very un-Trae-like.
It's not like everyone on the Hawks has shot poorly from three-point range, either. Bogdanović shot 40.6 percent, Saddiq Bey, who they acquired at the trade deadline, shot 40 percent and AJ Griffin shot 39 percent from deep.
Even though the Hawks score a lot of points, their defensegives up just as much. Increasing their volume from three will put morepressure on their opponents, especially if Young can get going.
No. 9 Toronto Raptors: Free-Throw Attempts
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The Raptors started the season without a traditional center, but bringing Jakob Poeltl back filled that need. The biggest issue for Toronto right now is its lack of free-throw attempts.
Since the All-Star break, the Raptors are shooting the fewest free throws per game of any team. Their struggle to get to the free-throw line is built into their shot profile. Toronto is mostly a jump-shooting team, especially from the mid-range. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors attempt the fourth-most mid-range shots but are below average (18th) in terms of shots at the rim.
Being so dependent on the mid-range just makes it difficult to get to the line. If they increase their attempts at the rim, their free-throw attempts will increase. Pascal Siakam is the best on the team at drawing shooting fouls, but he has very few and-ones. Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby all both in the 50-55th percentile in terms of drawing fouls.
Toronto has to find a way to get to the line more in order to have a chance to advance past the play-in.
No. 10 Chicago Bulls: Dribble Penetration
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Chicago has a mid-range king in DeMar DeRozan and an unbelievable scorer in Zach LaVine, yet the Bulls are one of the worst teams when it comes to dribble penetration.
The Bulls are tied for the fifth fewest drives per game this season. They are in good company, though, as the Nuggets, Warriors, Suns and Bucks are all with them. The big difference is that those teams all shoot the three-ball better than Chicago.
The importance of getting more drives is that doing so will open up drive-and-kick situations and shift the defense. Instead, they are stuck settling for mid-range jumpers that defenses are perfectly willing to give up.
It is difficult to envision the Bulls sticking around in the postseason for long given their combination of poor outside shooting and lack of dribble penetration.