NBA Fraud Meter: What To Make of Bucks, Suns and Other So-Called Contenders

NBA Fraud Meter: What To Make of Bucks, Suns and Other So-Called Contenders

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    Spencer Dinwiddie and Damian Lillard

    Spencer Dinwiddie and Damian LillardStacy Revere/Getty Images

    After giving up a 19-point fourth quarter league and losing at home to the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, there has to be at least a hint of concern for the Milwaukee Bucks.

    But they’re not the only potential title contender getting some interesting results of late.

    The Phoenix Suns just lost to the San Antonio Spurs without Victor Wembanyama this week. After losing their last two games, the Los Angeles Clippers are now 10-12 in their last 22. The Golden State Warriors are suddenly in danger of missing the play-in, with the red-hot Houston Rockets surging behind them in the standings. Even the Lakers deserve a mention here, especially if LeBron is suddenly dealing with injuries.

    At various times this past offseason and into this season, all of the above have been viewed as contenders (or fringe contenders). But the realities of this 2023-24 campaign may be exposing some as frauds, which is why they’re here.

    The contenders who haven’t had as many concerning losses recently (like the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets) are safe for now.

    Where do those who aren’t sit on the totally scientific “Fraud Meter?” Scroll below to find out.

Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry and Jonathan Kuminga

    Stephen Curry and Jonathan KumingaJeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

    Fraud Meter: High

    It feels weird to say this about the dynastic Warriors who won four championships between 2015 and 2022, but that’s how inconsistent they’ve been all season.

    Even after Tuesday’s win over the banged-up Miami Heat, Golden State is 5-7 in its last 12. Klay Thompson has had to adjust to a new role midseason (though he returned to the starting five on Tuesday) and is clearly past his prime. Draymond Green’s volatility cost him two extended suspensions this season. Chris Paul turns 39 in May. And though Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski have been better than expected, there are still stretches when they look like players in their early 20s.

    More important than all of that, though, is that during the rare stretches in which Stephen Curry has played at a sub-star level, it’s been brutally obvious how over-reliant the Warriors are on him.

    When Curry plays and shoots 40 percent or worse from the field, Golden State is 9-19.

    Of course, shooting nights like that aren’t necessarily likely, especially when the pressure is on like it will be through the end of the season and into the play-in tournament. But one bad game, particularly in the one-and-done play-in, could end the Warriors’ campaign.

    That would be a legitimately disastrous result for the team with the league’s highest payroll in 2023-24.

    And even if they hold off the Rockets and hang onto 10th place, they’d have to win back-to-back road games against LeBron and then the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings or Phoenix Suns.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    James Harden

    James HardenKatelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

    Fraud Meter: Medium

    It’s fair to bring up James Harden’s career playoff woes. Paul George has had his own disappearing acts, and Kawhi Leonard’s has been a near-constant concern since he won the title in 2019 (though he’s been pretty durable in 2023-24).

    Beyond that, the depth kind of floats in and out of effectiveness and may be a little too reliant on Russell Westbrook for comfort.

    But for whatever reason, this Clippers lull feels as much a product of regular-season apathy as any identifiable issue with the team.

    Their three best players are all in their mid-30s. They’ve been through the doldrums of many regular seasons. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see any or all of them, particularly Kawhi, ratchet the intensity back up when the playoffs start.

    Despite the recent slide, when all three of the stars are on the floor, L.A. is still plus-10.5 points per 100 possessions. And assuming health (maybe a bold assumption for this group), those three should share the floor even more in the postseason.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Anthony Davis and LeBron James

    Anthony Davis and LeBron JamesGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Fraud Meter: Medium

    The Lakers have actually been good lately. After beating the Bucks without LeBron on Tuesday, they’ve won four straight and are 16-7 since the calendar flipped to February.

    And just last year, we witnessed this same team go from the play-in all the way to the conference finals.

    But they’re still on the list and at a medium on the meter for a couple reasons.

    First, those first four months of the season were loaded with questionable rotational decisions from coach Darvin Ham, up-and-down play from supporting players like Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell and generally uninspiring play that rarely looked like that of a contender.

    The more recent stretch might suggest they’ve developed beyond that, but if it resurfaces for one night in the play-in, the Lakers could miss the playoffs altogether.

    The other concern is just the natural result of having Davis and LeBron. Both have been available for most of this season. Both have played like top-10 players all season.

    But Davis’ robust injury history is hard to ignore. LeBron is 39. If either or both are out or compromised during the play-in or a playoff series, it’s hard to imagine them surviving the gauntlet of the West.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo

    Giannis AntetokounmpoGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Fraud Meter: Low

    After blowing a 19-point fourth quarter lead to the Lakers without LeBron, the Bucks are now 14-12 since Doc Rivers took over coaching duties from Adrian Griffin midseason.

    During that stretch, they’ve lost to the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies (though those were all early after the switch).

    And after shooting 9-of-29 from the field in Tuesday’s loss, Damian Lillard is now shooting 42.5 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three on the season. Both marks are below the league average.

    And oh, as a reminder, the Bucks lost in the first round of the playoffs as the East’s top seed just last season.

    But even with all of those potential concerns with Milwaukee, it’s hard to assign much “fraud” to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    He’s still just 29 years old. He’s still one of the three to five best players in the NBA. In any given series against anyone, he could emerge as the best player from that series. And that goes a long way in a sport in which only 10 guys are on the floor at a time.

Phoenix Suns

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    Kevin Durant

    Kevin DurantPhotos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    Fraud Meter: Medium

    Much like the Clippers, the net rating the Suns rock when their three stars are on the floor (plus-8.0) can and probably should be a source of some comfort for fans.

    But they might be even more fragile (physically). The trio of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal has logged about half as many possessions as Harden, Leonard and George, and that’s with KD already getting to the 65-game minimum required for postseason awards.

    He’s yet to have an extended absence this season (knock on wood that it never happens), and if age or an injury strikes, the Suns could be cooked.

    But the meter isn’t quite registering “high” because Durant has been healthy, and the recent loss to San Antonio notwithstanding (everyone has bad nights in the NBA), Phoenix looks genuinely unstoppable when everyone’s available.

    And that’s not just because of KD, Booker and Beal (though they’re obviously the driving factors). Grayson Allen’s three-point shooting has been ridiculous this season. Jusuf Nurkić’s passing and rebounding have made him a huge upgrade over Deandre Ayton. And Royce O’Neale and Eric Gordon can both make impacts off the bench.

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