Habits can change at any time, but the turn of a calendar year affords extra motivation for bettering yourself. NBA teams would be wise to follow suit.
The championship will be at stake in 2018, so contenders need to address a problem area or develop additional depth while mistakes can still be made.
And as tantalizing as a potential high draft selection is to fans of frustrating teams, professionals are paid to win games. Improving one weakness could propel a team toward the playoff race — or at least away from the bottom of the standings.
Houston Rockets: Hit open shots, Eric Gordon
Eric Gordon is a terrific floor-spacer, but he’s not the most efficient shooter. The guard has hoisted 9.3 triples per game, which ranks No. 3 in the league. He’s connected on 34.2 percent of those tries. Gordon rarely takes bad shots, so the volume isn’t an issue. But he’s a meager 24.7 percent from downtown when the closest defender is 4-6 feet away, per NBA.com, and about a third of his attempts happen with that space. Taking advantage of open looks will be critical to Houston advancing through the West.
Golden State Warriors: Keep Jordan Bell involved
Although advanced metrics back up the eye test, even the most analytical numbers guy can see the unquantifiable energy Jordan Bell provides. A second-round pick of the Warriors in the 2017 draft, he’s surged into the rotation faster than anyone expected. Golden State has grabbed 6.1 percent more offensive rebounds when Bell is on the floor, per NBA.com, and he nearly leads the team in blocks per 36 minutes. Pachulia is a fine veteran presence, but the Warriors should be comfortable throwing a few extra minutes Bell’s way.
Boston Celtics: Unlock an efficient Marcus Smart
Accomplishing this is probably like trying to control destiny. You can’t do it; she’s a free spirit. Marcus Smart is a valuable defender and versatile offensive piece, so the Celtics deal with his inefficiency. Wouldn’t it be nice for that to change, though? Smart has launched more than four three-pointers per game yet only connected on 32.4 percent of those attempts. In fairness, that’s a career-high clip. Plus, Boston still excels when he’s on the court because of his passing ability. Just think of the Celtics would thrive if he could consistently make jumpers.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Be patient after Isaiah Thomas return
The Cavs are always monitored closely. Perhaps too close, if you ask LeBron James and his teammates. But they’re about to go under the microscope again, since offseason acquisition Isaiah Thomas should return from his hip injury sometime in January. His availability will shake up the rotation, and Thomas will need to undergo the LeBron Learning Curve. After dominating the ball in Boston last season, the All-Star guard may find himself deferring to the best player in the world. The pairing should work, but it might take a little time.
Toronto Raptors: Start knocking down threes
The Raptors have consistently been a quality team since 2013-14. But for whatever reason, the roster’s shooting hardware seems to malfunction once the playoffs arrive. Toronto hasn’t recorded a three-point percentage higher than 33.2 in the postseason during this span. The current roster is a not-so-great 35.5 percent from long range, so there’s a real concern history will repeat itself. DeMar DeRozan, C.J. Miles and Norman Powell have room to improve. If they can do that, the Raptors will put up a greater fighter in the second season.
San Antonio Spurs: Discover optimal balance for Kawhi, Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge was the team’s No. 2 scorer in each of the last two years. However, the difference between Aldridge, the primary option, and Aldridge, the secondary option, is obvious. He was terrific this season while Kawhi Leonard worked back from injury. Will the Spurs revert to old habits now that Leonard is healthy, since those were good enough to challenge Golden State before Zaza Pachulia undercut Kawhi? Or is there a better style that keeps Aldridge comfortable while Leonard is his MVP-caliber self? San Antonio will try to find that balance, but it won’t be an easy process.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Save some for the playoffs
We knew this would happen, but it doesn’t make Tom Thibodeau running his No. 1 unit ragged any more bearable. Every full-time starter is averaging at least 33 minutes, including a team-high 37.2 for Jimmy Butler. For much of the season, Thibodeau has only used an eight-man rotation. The T-Wolves don’t have outstanding depth, but this workload isn’t feasible. No, this probably isn’t going to change, since Thibodeau has always relied heavily on his starters. Lowering minutes and reducing injury risk certainly would be wise, though.
Detroit Pistons: More consistent ball movement
Apparently, 21 is the magic number of assists for Detroit. When reaching that mark, the Pistons are 16-3 this season and showing how effective the motion offense can be. Reggie Jackson has dished 5.1 assists per game, and Andre Drummond has already collected more assists this season than any previous year of his career. But the Pistons have managed a single victory in the 12 other games they failed to hit 21. While it doesn’t guarantee a win, Detroit must be especially cognizant of its performance when the ball keeps moving.
Indiana Pacers: Attack the glass
Although out-of-nowhere All-Star Victor Oladipo has lifted Indiana to a winning record as 2017 nears a close, the team’s postseason upside is limited if rebounding remains a glaring problem. The Pacers have brought down just 75.9 percent of available defensive boards, which is 28th in the league, per NBA.com. Indiana’s opponents have scored the seventh-most second-chance points per game. The Pacers have performed well in tight games, but they’d avoid a few nerve-wracking finishes if they improve on the glass.
Milwaukee Bucks: Find the range
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar, but the Greek Freak knows he’s not a three-point shooter right now. Antetokounmpo’s hefty usage rate means Milwaukee’s marksmen need to take advantage of their limited chances. In Mirza Teletovic’s absence, the Bucks have lacked a second shooter behind Tony Snell. Khris Middleton’s three-point clip has climbed since Eric Bledsoe’s arrival, but the forward isn’t consistent. And Bledsoe is just 30.5 percent from downtown with Milwaukee. While Jabari Parker will bolster the offense, he’s not a tremendous threat, either. The Bucks need shooting to atone for some defensive issues.
Portland Trail Blazers: Protect home court
Portland is one of 10 teams to hold a positive net rating on the road, per NBA.com. In a Western Conference where the Rockets, Warriors and Spurs will host a majority of playoff games anyway, the ability to snatch road victories is crucial. But that’s not going to matter if the Blazers aren’t consistently winning at Moda Center. Ten clubs have a negative net rating at home, and Portland is one of two non-sub-.500 teams. The Blazers must uncover the reason for the difference before its home schedule gets nasty following the All-Star break.
Denver Nuggets: Defend the perimeter
While the offense has enough talent and firepower (when healthy) to compete with any opponent, Denver is forced to lean on the scorers too often because of troubles on the other end. The Nuggets rank 24th in the league with a 107.5 defensive rating and allow the third-highest three-point percentage. They’re also one of the NBA’s worst at stopping isolation. Gary Harris, Will Barton, Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay are deserving of large minute shares, but Denver ascending from “potential breakout team” to “legitimate threat” depends on the backcourt progressing defensively.
Washington Wizards: Finish strong
When the going gets tough, the Wizards… go the opposite direction. Excluding the brutal performance and 45-point to the Utah Jazz in early December, each of Washington’s last eight losses have included a clutch-time opportunity. That’s defined as a five-point game with five minutes remaining. During this span, the Wizards have pulled out five wins in the same situation. On the bright side, the late-game lineups are familiar. This could be a matter of regression toward the mean helping Washington. But if it’s a trend, late-game struggles will doom the Wiz in the postseason.
New York Knicks: More success away from MSG
The Knicks currently find themselves in playoff position thanks to regular success at Madison Square Garden. New York sports a plus-6.6 rating and 57.5 true shooting percentage in home games, both of which are top-eight marks in the league, per NBA.com. But the road has been nowhere near as friendly. New York is 28th with a minus-11.1 net rating and has an NBA-worst 97.5 offensive rating away from MSG. Sustaining the performance at home while trimming road woes could propel the Knicks to that surprise postseason slot.
New Orleans Pelicans: Cut down turnovers
As enjoyable as the up-tempo Pelicans can be, they lose the ball an awful lot. Only three teams have a higher percentage of turnovers, according to NBA.com, and the result shouldn’t be at all surprising. New Orleans has surrendered the second-highest average of fast-break points per game. The defense is already struggling, and poor ball protection compounds the problem. It’s not a coincidence the Pelicans are 9-4 when committing 15 or fewer turnovers and 6-12 otherwise. Reliable offense would help the defense.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Figure it out or move on
Gyms are packed in January. New year, healthier me. But not every good intention lasts. Oklahoma City tried to stack its roster with starpower, but the combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony isn’t working out. If the Thunder had team control over George and Carmelo, a trade wouldn’t be necessary. However, both offseason additions can opt out of their contracts at the end of the season. If it’s clear the Big Three isn’t a championship-caliber unit, OKC should heavily consider moving George at the deadline.
Miami Heat: Be healthy, Hassan Whiteside
Injury issues aren’t unique to Miami, but Hassan Whiteside’s left knee injury has plagued the Heat so far this season. When the shot-blocking center was on the floor, Miami had a 99.3 defensive rating, per NBA.com. Otherwise, that number falls to 105.7. Additionally, the Heat have brought down 3.2 percent fewer rebounds without Whiteside and are the second-worst team on the offensive glass. Along with hoping for an offensive surge from Dion Waiters, Miami needs Whiteside to return and solidify the interior.
Philadelphia 76ers: More bench scoring
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the verge of becoming superstars, and the outside-shooting duo of J.J. Redick and Robert Covington are outstanding complements. There isn’t much scoring happening on the bench, though. Philadelphia’s reserve unit is one of four NBA benches to have a sub-100 offensive rating, according to NBA.com. Fortunately for the Sixers, they might already have the answers. Trevor Booker, who arrived in the Jahlil Okafor trade, has strengthened the bench. Markelle Fultz could do the same if he’s truly healthy upon return. If the reserves are even average, that’s a big boost for Philly’s playoff hopes.
Utah Jazz: Win a few road games
The Jazz boast a 97.5 defensive rating at home, where they are 11-5 on the season. That mark leads the league, per NBA.com. If only Utah could box up some of that home cooking and take it on the road. Away from Vivint Smart Home Arena, the Jazz have mustered a 109.7 rating that ranks 26th in the NBA and are a meager 3-13 in those games. To begin the 2018 calendar year, Utah plays 13 of its first 19 games on the road. If the Jazz fail to snap this trend, they’ll be tumbling perilously down the standings entering the home stretch.
Los Angeles Clippers: Put Milos Teodosic in bubble wrap
Blake Griffin, one of the best-passing big men in the league, is sidelined for a couple months. Patrick Beverley is likely out for the season. Lou Williams and Austin Rivers are decent passers, but they’re not true point guards. Milos Teodosic, however, is one of the craftiest assist men in the world. Although an injury kept the Serbian sidelined for all of November and parts of October and December, his impact in a small sample is perfectly clear. The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.95 with Teodosic compared to 1.31 without, per NBA.com. The Clippers need him healthy to survive this Griffin-less time.
Brooklyn Nets: Better long-distance shooting
The Rockets are the lone NBA team to attempt more three-point shots more frequently than Brooklyn. The Lakers and Suns are the only offenses with a lower three-point percentage than the Nets’ 34.0, however. That combination is a, well, massive problem. Among players who’ve been on the roster all season, Allen Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and DeMarre Carroll are each launching five-plus triples per game. None are above 38 percent, and Caris LaVert is a sub-35 shooter, as well. Improving the range is a must for the Nets.
Charlotte Hornets: Be more than Kemba Walker
Every player with at least 14 starts has an offensive rating of 102 or higher, according to NBA.com. But it’s pretty amazing how much difference Kemba Walker makes. Lineups with Dwight Howard and no Walker have mustered just 91.0 points per 100 possessions, per pbpstats.com. Given the same qualifier, Marvin Williams (94.6) and Jeremy Lamb (97.7) have similarly problematic falls. Throw in one of the league’s most ineffective reserve units, and Charlotte is a complete non-threat when Walker isn’t on the floor.
Los Angeles Lakers: Protect the paint
Though the Lakers have an interesting, promising collection of young talent, they sorely lack a deterrent at the rim. According to NBA.com, no team defends more shots within five feet than Los Angeles, and the defense allows a league-worst 49.4 points in the paint per game. Brook Lopez has done a serviceable job protecting the interior, but he only averages 22.4 minutes and is currently sidelined. Kyle Kuzma can make the biggest leap, while both Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle need to improve in smaller roles.
Orlando Magic: Get and stay healthy
Elfrid Payton missed eight games early in the year. Jonathan Isaac was out an entire month. Aaron Gordon dealt with a concussion and calf injury. Evan Fournier has been sidelined with an ankle injury. Terrence Ross has a sprained MCL. Arron Afflalo is battling back pain. Orlando’s performance has dipped recently anyway, but an unfortunate stretch of injuries absolutely hasn’t helped the Magic shake the slump. They endured a nine-game losing streak and have dropped the last six, as well. Orlando isn’t a playoff contender, but it shouldn’t be this bad.
Phoenix Suns: Avoid extended skids
We understand that Phoenix reaching the playoffs isn’t realistic. Every so often, though, the Suns put together an encouraging all-around showing that reveals the promise of the roster. The problem is how many games it takes between those contests. Phoenix has already lost five straight games on two occasions and three consecutive tilts two other times. Overall, the Suns have dropped 22 outings yet have a single one-game “losing streak,” depending on what happens in their next game. A critical step toward becoming a respectable team is limiting how long the bad stretches last.
Sacramento Kings: Control your tinkering, Dave!
Twelve different players have started once, and nine have opened at least five contests. The Kings have used 12 starting lineups, never deploying the same unit in more than five consecutive outings. Nobody is averaging more than 27 minutes. Sacramento has a scattered collection of intriguing young pieces, and head coach Dave Joerger is clearly attempting to give ample opportunity in many situations. Tinkering is fine while the Kings try to be competitive, but at some point, they need consistency to benefit the future. Please settle on a rotation, Dave.
Chicago Bulls: Find a second three-point threat
Nikola Mirotic is a true stretch four, but Chicago is otherwise littered with shooters who are capable but not excellent from the outside. Denzel Valentine, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn all take plenty of threes, yet none are above 40 percent. As a result, the Bulls sport the NBA’s fifth-lowest percentage from outside. Yes, part of the problem is how often Chicago plays from behind, but the team would spend less time chasing opponents if it shot efficiently early in games.
Memphis Grizzlies: Protect Mike Conley
As valuable as Marc Gasol is to the Grizzles, it’s hardly a debate that Mike Conley is more important. Since an Achilles injury sidelined the point guard in mid-November, Memphis has fired its head coach and dropped 16 of 18 games. “We wouldn’t be in this position if I was playing,” Conley recently said, per Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal. And we’re inclined to agree. Memphis had a plus-2.0 net rating prior to his injury, according to NBA.com, and has trudged to a minus-9.9 clip in the games without Conley to date.
Dallas Mavericks: Stop collapsing late
Despite their terrible record, the Mavericks are usually competitive for 40 minutes. The biggest problem is they are entirely unable to finish games. According to NBA.com, Dallas has a league-worst minus-52.0 net rating in the final five minutes with a five-point difference either way. For comparison’s sake, the Jazz — who are the 29th-ranked clutch-time team — have a minus-28.8 clip. The Mavs are a paltry 1-16 when the last five minutes dictates the result. Better performance in clutch moments would lift Dallas out of the cellar.
Atlanta Hawks: Grab some rebounds
No single resolution is going to turn around Atlanta’s season, but a more impactful presence down low would provide a much-needed boost. The Hawks have secured the lowest percentage of available defensive rebounds in the league, and only the Suns allow more second-chance points per game, according to NBA.com. As productive as rookie forward John Collins has been, for example, the team’s rebounding takes a nosedive when he’s not paired with Dewayne Dedmon. Atlanta will be a tougher opponent if it’s more effective on the glass.