Contenders face questions down stretch

March 1, 2011

It’s March, which means once the madness ends, the NBA can get down to business with the playoffs.

As it stands, there is no clear-cut favorite to emerge with the championship in June. Everybody’s got a weakness or two. Here's a look at the chief concern for the top four teams in the East and West:


Boston — In one of the wildest trading deadline periods in years, the Celtics might have produced the greatest shocker by dealing off center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City in a package deal for forward Jeff Green.

By reducing their size and length inside, the Celtics might have unwittingly helped the rest of the East’s playoff teams.

Perkins was still hobbled by a bad knee, but when healthy he provided Boston with toughness and girth in the paint. You want references? Kobe Bryant recently called him the league’s top low-post defender.

So how do you replace a key component like that?

You can’t.

Even if Perkins was less than 100 percent, the Celtics really rolled the dice with this move. First off, it infuriated Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, both of whom felt that Perkins still had a lot to give.

"It’s definitely a blow when you lose a guy like Perk, who’s been in playoff battles, been tested, gives us size and defense, especially when you’re going against guys like Dwight Howard, (or) Pau Gasol if we make the Finals and play the Lakers,’’ Pierce said. “Hopefully, we can make up for it in other ways."

They were also convinced that they had the best chemistry of any of the contenders. That, obviously, is no longer.

“We were taught that from the minute we got here — that chemistry was the formula that works,’’ Garnett said. “We’ve been able to be successful with that formula. The chemistry on the court is nothing like the chemistry off the court."

So what does it mean for Boston’s chances of advancing to its third Finals in the last four years? By getting Green and Nenad Krstic, the Celtics should be more potent. Despite having a down season, Green was still averaging almost 15 points on 44-percent shooting for Oklahoma City. He should be a very good backup to both Pierce and Garnett.

But Perkins’ departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle, which means the Celtics are going to ask the Big Relic, Shaquille O’Neal, to step up and fill it. Good luck there.

O’Neal missed the month of February with an Achilles injury. When last seen, he was hobbling noticeably around Staples Center at All-Star weekend. Can he still play? In 36 games this year, he is averaging 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game over 20.7 minutes per night. Shaq turns 39 this weekend (Sunday, March 6). Given his lack of production, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be able to fill the Perkins role.

“If Shaq plays great, then this deal was obviously really, really good for us," said coach Doc Rivers. "That’s on Shaq. Getting Shaq in great shape, getting him ready, getting him healthy is really going to be important for us."

If Shaq doesn’t deliver, GM Danny Ainge takes the hit.

Miami — The Heat have had trouble closing out close games against the great teams (Boston and Chicago) and not-so-great teams (the Knicks).

It’s amazing that on a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, they still need Kobe Bryant.

But we’re not even going to list that as their No. 1 problem, because Erik Spoelstra is eventually going to figure out that Wade is the man for the job. As the Knicks’ Anthony Carter said after James missed two end-of-game shots in the Heat’s collapse against New York on Sunday, “Wade is more dangerous than LeBron. He’s the one who makes them go.’’

What is going to stop the Heat, in the end, is their lack of size. Whether it’s Erick Dampier, who has been starting since the All-Star break, Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Joel Anthony, the Heat has no center who can go to the post and draw double teams. There’s no inside-out game. Udonis Haslem's return will help other areas, but not this one. “Their bigs are just not up to snuff,’’ said one Eastern Conference scout.

So the Heat, which has lost seven of eight games against the league’s top teams, will try to win a title using a wing game. But the Heat at least tried to address their other major shortcoming: Depth.

If they can get Mike Bibby, the Heat will be able to spread the court and create more room for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to operate. As a Hawk, Bibby had been living off Joe Johnson’s presence the last few seasons, standing behind the arc and taking passes from the slashing Johnson so that he could hoist up uncontested 3-pointers.

When it comes to knocking down 3-pointers, Bibby would be a major upgrade over Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo. He’s got better range and has a history of producing.

Chicago — The Bulls have a lot going for them. Derrick Rose has a legitimate shot of winning the MVP. In his first season on the bench, coach Tom Thibodeau has installed the kind of defense that can win a title. Carlos Boozer is a viable No. 2 option.

But the Bulls’ perimeter shooting is very spotty, whether it’s Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, Ronny Brewer or anyone else after Rose. The bigger question is, can they find a third scorer to support Rose and Boozer? The job will fall to Deng, who has averaged 22 points and 19 points in his last two playoff seasons.

“But can he be a legitimate No. 3 option?’’ said one scout. “Deng’s had a good year, but there’s a difference between producing in the regular season and then being asked to continue to do that in the playoffs. Without Deng stepping up on a nightly basis, I really wonder about their scoring punch. To get deep into the playoffs, Deng has to fulfill that role.’’

Orlando — The Magic always have one built-in weakness: Dwight Howard’s foul shooting.

It’s scary when your best player has a better field-goal percentage than free-throw percentage, and that’s what Howard has, shooting right around 60 percent for both.

The Magic are always reluctant to go inside to Howard at the end of games because they know that opponents can always foul him and put him at the line.

But right behind the Howard foul-shooting issue is whether the Magic can continue to depend on the undersized Brandon Bass as their power forward. When they went to the 2009 Finals, they had Rashard Lewis at the position. Although really a “three,’’ he gave opposing fours matchup problems with his range. Not that Lewis didn’t have his rough moments, because he did.

When the Magic sent him to the Wizards in the Gilbert Arenas deal in December, Bass, who is listed at 6-8, became Orlando's top power forward. When the Magic encounter a team like Boston, with plenty of length, Bass doesn’t have the size to compete.

Western Conference

San Antonio — The Spurs have been the surprise team of the regular season. Nobody expected them to dominate.

But can they all hold up in the playoffs?

Most GMs and coaches will tell you they don’t look at age as a detriment. There are no back-to-back games in the playoffs, and most teams that win titles are loaded with veterans who have been through a number of playoff wars.

In fact, everyone would prefer to have experience for the playoffs, and the core group of Spurs — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- has won three titles, most recently in 2007.

So the Spurs know how to win. They’re a league-best 7-1 in games decided by three points or less. And while they’ve amped up their offense by scoring at a faster pace than in previous years, they’re still one of the top defensive teams.

So what’s going to hold them back?

They might be a little too long in the tooth.

“They really don’t have a blend among their key players — they’re all older guys — and they’re just an average team when it comes to athleticism,’’ said one Western Conference GM.

To make sure that Duncan is going to be able to make the long playoff run, the Spurs have limited his minutes to 29 per game this season. But sometimes, older players break down. Exhibit A: Parker is going to miss several weeks with a strained left calf muscle.

The good news is that the Spurs have a six-game lead over Dallas for the top record in the West. But we’ll see what kind of shape Parker is in when the playoffs begin and whether he and the team's graybeards can survive the playoff marathon.

Dallas — The Mavs are looking to bring back Sasha Pavlovic, but is that really going to address their No. 1 concern?

They need to find a second scoring option behind Dirk Nowitzki and Pavlovic is not the answer. Nor is Peja Stojakovic.

“Somebody is going to have to step forward, because Dirk is going to get a lot of focus from opponents,’’ said one GM. “When teams play Dallas in the postseason, they’re going to spend a lot of time preparing for him. So one or two other guys are going to have to hold their own.’’

But who can do that? Shawn Marion has had a great year, but the last time he did anything of consequence in the postseason came in 2007 when he averaged 17 points for the Suns. Jason Kidd is not going to score. That’s not his game. Nor is Tyson Chandler, who has been one of the great free-agent pickups of the year. Jason Terry has been up and down this season.

Bottom line: The loss of Caron Butler will prevent the Mavs from going deep in the playoffs.

Lakers — At points the two-time defending champs have looked vulnerable, even slow and bored, as they slog their way through another regular season. Ron Artest’s second season in L.A. has been mostly a bust.

But if they want to send Phil Jackson off with his fourth three-peat, they need for one thing to happen: Andrew Bynum has to overcome his normal knee problems and make an impact in the postseason.

When the Lakers can put Bynum on the floor with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, it’s almost impossible for an opponent to score inside. That is the lineup that separates the Lakers from everyone else.

“When they’ve got Bynum and he’s producing, they’re the best team, period,’’ said one scout. “No one’s beating them.’’

Case in point: Did you check out their win in Oklahoma City this past Sunday? Against the Thunder, Bynum went for 16 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes and the Lakers held off the Thunder.

But can he sustain that when he always seems to break down?

"His activity obviously is an issue," Jackson said. "A lot of it's due to how he feels physically. He's going to have knee issues as he goes along and he just has to monitor that. I think when he feels well, you see his activity level increase.’’

When it does, the Lakers are tough to beat.

Oklahoma City — Go back to the 2010 playoffs and the Thunder just didn’t have enough big bodies in the paint to hold off the longer, taller Lakers from playing volleyball on the glass. That was their undoing in their first-round series loss.

So GM Sam Presti addressed the weakness by swinging the deal with Boston to get Perkins, who is recovering from a sprained left knee. They also went after another veteran with a paint presence in center Nazr Mohammed, now with his seventh team in 13 seasons.

But in shoring up their No. 1 areas of concern, the Thunder took a hit at the offensive end. Green was a good No. 3 option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now, the Thunder has to look to James Harden as the new No. 3 and he doesn’t have the track record, primarily because he’s been a bench player and is not a high-percentage shooter. For his career, he’s around 41 percent, although he closed out February shooting 46 percent for the month while averaging 15 points.

“James is improving, and we need James to continue to get better,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “James is good when he's quick and looking to attack and not hold the ball or pound the ball.”

But whether Harden is producing or not, there’s more pressure on Kevin Durant to carry his team this season. And Perkins has to deliver.

Mitch Lawrence covers the NBA for the New York Daily News.