In my last article, I did an in-depth analysis of all the teams to beat Lebron James in the NBA Playoffs. From the info gathered, I decided to take a look at which teams this year have the best chance of beating Lebron and the Lakers. To recap some of the major themes, it would seem that in order to beat a Lebron James team you will need to play elite defense, play unselfish basketball on the offensive side and be a very good 3-point shooting team. There are a few other aspects that I may get into with each individual team but those are the three major keys. I started with the four best teams in the Western Conference other than the Lakers, the LA Clippers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Memphis Grizzlies. Then I moved to the Eastern Conference and looked at the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Boston Celtics.
The Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers came into this season with high aspirations. After adding both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last year, they emerged as legitimate contenders before falling short in the Western Conference semifinals to the Denver Nuggets. Now, with offseason acquisitions like Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and Luke Kennard, the Clippers look much deeper and poised to make another run at a title.
The LA Clippers currently sit atop the Western Conference with a 16-5 record. Based on the formula from my last article, they would seem like they have a legitimate shot at taking down the Lakers in the West. The Clippers currently rank 8th in defensive efficiency, are shooting 41.6% from three, and have nine players averaging more than 8 points per game. From top to bottom they are balanced on both ends of the court. That being said, I personally don’t think they have quite enough to get past the Lakers this year.
As I said, the Clippers currently rank 8th in defensive efficiency, but unfortunately for them, the Lakers rank 1st. So while they are very solid on the defensive end, the Lakers are flat out better. They also match up well defensively with Anthony Davis on Serge Ibaka and the combo of Lebron James/Kyle Kuzma coving Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. I know, when you think Kyle Kuzma you don’t exactly think superstar defender but he has greatly improved over the last two seasons. In the video below you can see how big of an impact he had in the playoffs last season.
The Clippers redeeming quality is that they are tied for 1st in the league in offensive efficiency and again are an excellent three-point shooting team. My biggest concern here is that they rely HEAVILY on Paul George, who is averaging 23.6 points per game. It’s hard for me to write off a Kawhi Leonard team, but we’ve seen over the past couple of years that Paul George shows out in the regular season, only to disappear at times in the playoffs. During the regular season last year, PG averaged 26.2 points per game and shot 41.2% from three. In 13 playoff games last year, he averaged 20.2 points per game and shot only 33.3% from three, which is definitely a step-down.
Although they are deep overall, after George the next highest scorer is Ibaka who averages 12.4 points per game. That’s a significant drop-off and a lot of points to make up for if “Playoff P” doesn’t show up. Now I’ll be honest,if the Clippers do get a consistent Paul George in the playoffs, they can definitely give the Lakers some trouble. I’ve just seen enough of PG13 in the playoffs in the last few years to not fully trust this team.
The Utah Jazz
The Jazz are currently second in the West and in my opinion, seem to fit the mold the most out of the West. They currently rank 5th in defensive efficiency across the NBA, which is a huge improvement from 12th last year. I’m not entirely sure how they would defend Lebron, but Rudy Gobert currently ranks 4th among starters in defensive rating. If these teams meet it should be an awesome battle between him and Anthony Davis
They also have six players averaging over ten points per game and shoot 39.3% from long range. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen a ton of Jazz games but on paper, they look like a deep team that plays unselfishly, with four guys averaging over ten shot attempts per game. My only concern with this team is that their leading scorer, Donavan Mitchell is somewhat inefficient, shooting 42.4% from the field.
As I mentioned before, the Lakers lead the league in defensive efficiency, so if they are able to shut Mitchell down I don’t know if the rest of the team has the firepower to hang with the Lakers. That being said, the Jazz as a whole rank 5th in offensive efficiency, so it would seem that they could potentially overcome that. I’d still probably pick the Lakers in this matchup but I absolutely think that if they got hot, the Jazz could beat them.
The Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets currently rank fourth in the Western Conference and continue to be a nice story after upsetting the Clippers in last year’s playoffs. They are led by Nikola Jokic, who is an absolute stud and making a strong case for this year’s MVP. That being said I do not believe this team has what it takes to get by the Lakers in 2021.
That may seem like an easy conclusion to come to since the Lakers were the team to knock the Nuggets out last year, winning 4-1 in the western conference finals. This Nuggets team can flat out score though which may make them seem like a contender. They currently have seven players averaging more than 10 points per game and shoot a solid 38.4% from three. They are very balanced and currently rank 4th in offensive efficiency.
Where the Nuggets come up short is on the defensive side of the ball. Denver currently is tied for 20th in defensive efficiency which, as I talked about in my last article, is simply not going to be good enough to slow the Lakers down.
The Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are a very sneaky team, currently 5th in the West but riding a seven-game win streak. Led by a young superstar in Ja Morant, the Grizzlies quietly rank 2nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They are also incredibly deep, with 11 players averaging at least 8 points per game.
This team actually matches up well with the Lakers too. Jonas Valanciunas currently ranks 10th in defensive rating among starters so he is a good test for Anthony Davis and the forward duo of Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson is an excellent test for Lebron James. They also have six guards in rotation, each of which averages at least a steal per game, so from top to bottom, this team can absolutely lock teams down defensively.
Where the Grizzlies may come up short is on the offensive side, where they currently rank 22nd in offensive efficiency. That’s probably not going to be good enough to keep up with Lebron and the Lakers. One thing to note though is that Ja Morant, who is leading the Grizzlies with 20.7 points per game, has only played in 6 games this year. As I mentioned earlier, Memphis is on a 7 game win streak, and in the last 3 games, they rank 14th in offensive efficiency. If this Memphis team can continue to improve on the offensive side and get hot at the right time they could end up being a very tough matchup for the Lakers come playoff time. It’s probably too early to say but this is definitely a team to keep an eye on.
Looking at the Western Conference I see few teams that could put pressure on the Lakers but ultimately believe it will be the Lakers making it to the Finals again. If I had to pick a team I think the Jazz are probably the toughest matchup although I am still interested to see what Memphis does the rest of the way as well. That being said, we can not forget that Lebron and the Lakers currently rank 1st in defensive efficiency and still have plenty of weapons on offense as well. So even if these teams show up and play well it might not be enough.
The Philadelphia 76ers
Moving to the Eastern conference, I started with the Philadelphia 76ers, who are currently the 1 seed. The Sixers definitely fit the mold, as they currently rank fourth in defensive efficiency despite having had to deal with injuries and missing starters due to COVID contact tracing. They have a sterling 15-6 record but what’s even more impressive is that they are undefeated when they have all five of their starters. That includes a win over the defending champion Lakers, whom they dominated for most of the game before allowing an 11-2 run in the final 3 minutes. Then they showed their grit when Tobias Harris hit a game-winning mid-range jumper with almost no time left on the clock.
Obviously ranking 4th in defensive efficiency is solid but they are strongest in the most important positions. Joel Embiid is one of the best defensive big men in the NBA, currently ranking 17th among all starters in defensive rating. They also have Tobias Harris, who despite not being known for his defense is currently ranked 5th among starters in defensive rating. And then of course there’s Ben Simmons. Simmons’ defensive rating is not as high but there’s a reasonable explanation for it. Simmons can guard almost every position on the court and therefore usually guards the best offensive player. Don’t be fooled by the defensive rating on him, he was an All-NBA First Team defender last year and is still playing like one of the best defenders in the league. These three along with the guys like Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle make this team incredibly stout defensively.
On the offensive side, they move the ball very well, currently having seven players average over 8 points per game with Furkan Korkmaz right outside that at 7.9. They also shoot well from three, currently shooting 36.2% as a team, and that should improve with Shake Milton and Thybulle both shooting about 12% points lower than they did last year. As the season progresses I expect both of them to revert back to their means. If the shooting continues to be solid and the Sixers move the ball as they have they will be a very tough team to beat in the playoffs.
That ball movement.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 27, 2020
The Sixers absolutely have the making of a team that could knock off the Lakers, especially with Doc Rivers coaching them. My only concern is how different of a team they become when Joel Embiid is not in the line-up. Realistically no team in the league could lose their best player and still be considered a contender, but if the Sixers lose Embiid they have absolutely no shot. That being said, if they can stay fully healthy throughout the playoffs I believe they pose the biggest threat to the Laker’s hopes of repeating.
The Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee is the next in line, and they do have some indicators that tell me they could stack up with the Lebron and the Lakers, but unless something changes on the defensive end I don’t see them making the cut. The Bucks currently rank 15th in defensive efficiency which is a steep drop-off from last year when they led the league in that category. They added some offense this year when they brought in Jrue Holliday but I’m afraid losing the defensive prowess of Eric Bledsoe and Wesley Matthews is going to hurt them in the long run.
The Bucks are very balanced on the offensive side, with five players averaging over 10 points a game and shooting 39.8% as a team from three. The issue here is they rely heavily on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who would most likely be guarded by Lebron and Anthony Davis if they were to meet in the Finals. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are both very solid players, but I think a lot of their success comes from how much attention Giannis gets. If the Lakers keep Giannis in check then the rest of the team would really need to step up. With their lack of defense as well I just don’t see the Bucks having enough to get the job done this year.
The Brooklyn Nets
This is probably the most polarizing team in the NBA and the one I was most excited to write about. Even before acquiring James Harden, many around the league felt the Nets were destined to meet Lebron and the Lakers in the finals. They already had two superstars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant so when they traded for Harden the basketball world lost its mind. That being said, I personally don’t think the Nets will even make it to the Finals and if they somehow do I will be placing a very large wager on the Lakers. To be blunt, I think the Nets have no shot against the Lakers. I probably sound like a hater right now, but with how much hype this Brooklyn team is getting I feel it is warranted.
Brookly is currently tied for 20th in defensive efficiency but people seem to think that doesn’t matter because they will just outscore everyone. It’s true, Brooklyn currently ranks 1st in offensive efficiency, but as we saw the other night when they played the Wizards, it doesn’t matter if you score 146 points, if you give up 149 points, you still lose the game. Looking at the graphic below, you can see that no team since 2004 has won an NBA Championship that didn’t rank in the top 11 in defensive efficiency. I’m not sure where they pulled these stats, but according to Hollinger’s Team Stats on ESPN, Golden State actually ranked 10th in 2018. So really no champion in the last 16 years has ranked outside the top 10, and again Brooklyn is 20th…
The Condensed Haters Guide To The New-Look Nets:
Every NBA champion since the 2004 Pistons has ranked 11th or better in defensive efficiency.
The Nets defense currently ranks 13th and that was before they exported their best rim protector and imported James Harden. pic.twitter.com/zNCKsUDGAc
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 14, 2021
Although they have their defensive struggles, it’s hard to ignore the “star power” they have on offense. My concern here is that I think the two iso-ball players in Harden and Kyrie will vulture from each other. At the end of the day you’ve got one ball and 24 seconds to score it, it is completely irrelevant as to which player scores, as long as it’s done efficiently. It will be interesting to see how their dynamic continues to unfold but Lebron has never lost in the playoffs to a team that runs a heavy isolation offense.
To be honest, I have a very difficult time writing off any team that Kevin Durant plays for, but in 2012 the OKC Thunder ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency and the Heat beat them 4-1. So unless Brooklyn makes some more moves to drastically improve this defense they simply won’t have what it takes to beat the better teams around the league.
The Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics are currently 4th in the Eastern Conference but I won’t spend too much time on them since I just don’t think they are quite good enough to get through the East. They currently rank 13th in defensive efficiency and 9th in offensive efficiency, so while they are a solid team they don’t really do anything exceptionally well.
On the offensive side, Boston plays good team basketball but I personally don’t think they have enough firepower. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both average over 25 points per game but after that their next two leading scorers are Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, who’s been hurt for much of the year. Then it’s another drop to Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard who are decent role players but nothing more.
I know I talk about which teams could potentially beat the Lakers but looking at the rest of the Eastern Conference I just don’t see a path for them to even make it to that point. With a coach like Brad Stevens and how close they’ve been the last few years, it’s hard to count them out, but I see them as more of a good-not-great team. Maybe they upset one of the bigger names in the East, they’ve had the Sixers number for a few years, but with the Bucks and Nets still ahead of them I think the farthest they could go is the Eastern Conference Finals.
There’s obviously a lot that can change between now and the end of the season. The trade deadline in March could be very active, injuries can always play a factor, and with the uncertainty of COVID-19 and another playoff bubble, there’s still a lot of variables that can change things. As it stands now though, I believe we will see the Lakers and the Sixers meet in a repeat of the 2001 Finals. From there, it is very tough to say, the Sixers have proven they can beat the Lakers but this is Lebron James we are talking about. Like I ended the last article, his nickname is King James for a reason.