The closer a team gets to the NBA title, the more its minor flaws can become magnified in the public eye.
In the case of the defending champion Heat, it's the defense -- or lack thereof. As great as it was last season, the Heat have struggled mightily in 2013, plummeting into the middle of the league in certain categories. It may be their motivation, or it may be something deeper. But for the Heat to repeat, it must improve and in a hurry.
Here are five leading contenders for the title that need some tidying up in the second half of the season.
Miami's Lack of Defense
However elite it was during last season's title run, Miami's defense has significantly regressed since then. Its rotations are slower, particularly when the bigs are hedging high on screen-and-roll, but it's also much more than that. Too many open shooters on the perimeter pose a serious concern moving forward, especially when you consider that New York, Oklahoma City and San Antonio -- three possible postseason opponents -- are three of the top four teams in three-point accuracy. The Heat is allowing opponents to make 36 percent of tries from distance, good enough only for 19th in the league.
New York's Defense, Too
Another unit that has faded, the Knicks -- perhaps predictably -- have gotten much worse defensively since the return of Amar'e Stoudemire. In combination with Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire has dragged the team from the top five in points allowed per possession all the way to 15th. It's a tricky balance for Mike Woodson, because offensively Stoudemire has been tremendous, shooting a career-high 56 percent from the floor, But it seems his tendency to play the matador has rubbed off on Carmelo. Anthony will never be mistaken for an All-NBA defender, but for much of the first half he was above average. The Knicks cannot merely outscore opponents in the playoffs -- nobody can for more than one series -- and this has to be resolved before it gets out of hand.
Golden State Needs To Score
Okay, so it may be a stretch to consider the Warriors as a contender, but... For much of the first half, the Warriors resembled the good ol' days of Run-TMC -- with the important difference that they were actually winning at a high level. The return of center Andrew Bogut has slowed down the fast break and disrupted what is normally a really, really good half-court offense, and the team has stumbled into the break losing five straight. Bogut is too good to sit, especially given that Jackson's been starting rookie Festus Ezeli, who is immensely limited offensively, as the five man for most of the season. But the Warriors need to make use of Bogut's skill set as a passer from the high post. Since he hasn't earned double-teams from the low block, he has up-side as a flasher or in pick-and-roll, where he can slip to the mid-post area and make a play. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will continue to get good looks on the perimeter; neither is elite yet in creating his own shot, but Curry is improving.
Don't Do It, Sterling!
Rumors that the Clippers will make a move at deadline are ludicrous and just plain silly. Patience -- and common sense -- are often lost around trade deadlines, and Donald Sterling, the unmistakable owner of the Clippers, has made a few awful deals in the past. The name usually floated out there is Kevin Garnett, who has about as much left in his tank as a 1990 Toyota Tercel.
Is LA a legitimate contender this season? Probably not. But hey, that's okay. Chris Paul is 27, Blake Griffin is 23, Eric Bledsoe is 23 and DeAndre Jordan is 24! They were good last year. They are really good this year. Next year? They could be great.
OKC Thunder: Great, Yes. But Great Enough?
With the Spurs there's just not much to improve on. OKC, meanwhile, remains a juggernaut, but a slightly flawed one. The good news is that Kevin Durant is, I think, the best player in the league right now, and Russell Westbrook has lowered his usage rate. Kevin Martin has been utterly sensational on offensive, and the team is now just one game off of last season's pace. The Thunder are playing for nothing less than the NBA championship. But assuming OKC does win the West, it doesn't seem likely that they can actually beat the Heat.
Last June proved that Miami is deft at defending smaller lineups -- which Scott Brooks loves to employ, particulary late in games. Kendrick Perkins is abysmal in pick-and-roll, and if recent history is any indication, Nick Collison -- the team's best big defender on the pick -- is likely going to find himself on the bench in the final five minutes. OKC remains a big-time defensive team that can change the momentum of a game in a heartbeat, but until this issue is resolved, they will remain a significant notch below the Heat.