Separating NBA Contenders and Pretenders in the 2011-12 Season
At this point in the season, we are seeing some of the elite NBA teams create distance at the top of their conferences, as well as the weak teams struggle.
However, what about those teams sitting in the middle, or even up top, that we just aren't sold on at this point?
While some look to be showing their true colors as pretenders, the truth is the rest of these teams can be major factors come playoff time.
This list will focus on teams who were either not winners in a playoff series last year or were not considered relevant enough to draw attention.
A new year can bring much promise, so let's check out what these clubs have in store for them.
A contender is a team who will either make some noise throughout the season or perhaps host an opening series in the playoffs.
Take a look at the Chicago Bulls from last season. They were a team who were complete underdogs coming into the season but eventually produced a MVP player and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
After a run to the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls became a perfect example of a team that proved a lot of people wrong in the end.
Teams like Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City are now considered elite, so we will of course not focus on them in the article.
A pretender is a team that can either capture a playoff spot or fall out of relevance after a horrid clump of losses. However, if it makes the playoffs, it has virtually no chance at winning or becoming a serious threat.
Teams like this will be fill-ins for the elite teams to beat in the playoffs or even find the fate of their franchise within a lottery pick.
Take the 2010-11 New Orleans Hornets as an example. They started off the season looking like one of the best teams in the West but kept sliding down the ladder and became mediocre at best.
These teams can suffer unfortunate injuries that alter their season or just look plain terrible in the big show.
The Indiana Pacers will win a playoff series this year. I'll say it.
Roy Hibbert is having a fabulous year in terms of progression and continues to climb the ladder of the NBA's best centers. He's converting a higher percentage of his shots and is on pace to average double-digit rebounds for the year.
Indiana also has some nice depth to surround Hibbert, including two growing point guards and some physical players coming off the bench.
Paul George is proving to be a stud. He's knocking down three-pointers and upping his averages in scoring, rebounding and assists on the season.
All of this without true production from Danny Granger.
Whether it's just a cold streak or an early regression, the former All-Star just hasn't looked as good as he has been. He is only shooting 31 percent from the field this year but seems to be getting worse as the season goes on.
If Granger can return to form, there is no doubt that the Pacers will give a team hell in the playoffs.
Poor Denver. The team lost its star player last season because he wanted to be elsewhere. Now the Nuggets are doomed.
This team is actually pretty good...
After bringing back Nene and Arron Afflalo during free agency, Denver does bring back some new faces to surround some of the new cast members like Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari.
Bringing back veteran point guard Andre Miller to the franchise should also prove to be a smart move. He may not have a pretty shot from deep, but he can still score and pile up some assists off the bench.
The aforementioned Lawson and Gallinari are combining for averages of over 30 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to really help give this questioned team a boost.
Al Harrington deserves some props as well. While never being a prolific name, he continues to put up quiet scoring numbers and provide a reliable skill set off the bench.
George Karl is leading an underrated Denver team to some attention with one of the highest-scoring offenses in the NBA. Don't expect them to falter anytime soon.
Utah has a lot of talented depth in the frontcourt. A lot.
Al Jefferson is an underrated fixture in the league, but he continues to dominate opponents offensively and put up nice numbers on the glass. He can spread the floor with a 12-foot jumper, but he can also swat shots on the defensive end.
Paul Millsap is another under-the-radar player who provides great things for Utah. He is an efficient scorer and puts up monster rebounding numbers.
Add in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, who both have a massive amount of potential, and you have a deep group of NBA bigs.
However, that's about all they have.
Devin Harris is not capable of leading a playoff-caliber team and has struggled early in the season. He has never played 82 games in a season and doesn't create at a stellar level for other players.
Utah also has plenty of shooting guards and small forwards that can average around 10 points a game, but none who will break out for a explosive game.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers landed a dream player in Chris Paul. He knows how to utilize talent better than anyone in the NBA but is also an elite defender when his knees hold up.
He will join Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to create "Lob City" in L.A.
Griffin and Jordan are two extremely athletic players who are far from reaching their ceiling. While Griffin will most likely reach historic heights, he is the true key for the Clippers to become a dynasty in the future.
The former Oklahoma Sooner must work on his ability to be a team defender and also develop a complete offensive post game. Once that is accomplished, there is nothing stopping him from being the best power forward in the NBA.
Caron Butler has had some health issues but will prove to be crucial if he stays healthy. He can score around 15 points a night and spread the floor with his shooting ability.
The Clippers also have two other point guards who will split time throughout the season: Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams.
While they are not legit shooting guard options, it is all Los Angeles has for now. Both can score, but just how effective will they be in the end?
This seems to be the biggest weakness for the Clippers, but not enough to keep them from being all hype.
Side note: I'm hoping "Lob City" wears off soon, though. That's a terrible nickname...
Philadelphia has by far been the most impressive team in the NBA this season. The 76ers currently sport the league's best defense, but they aren't too shabby offensively, either.
However, do they have what it takes to win a playoff series in the East?
They have two extremely talented point guards sharing minutes, Louis Williams being the most impressive so far, but show no glaring weaknesses thus far.
Philadelphia is getting above-average play from the center position and has plenty of depth at the shooting guard and small forward positions.
Elton Brand was possibly the strongest player throughout the season in 2010-11 for the 76ers, but he hasn't followed that up with much so far. He is averaging less than 10 points a night and seeing a shortage in minutes, but he will be a factor as time goes on.
If Evan Turner keeps developing and Andre Iguodala remains focused, Philadelphia could be a team to watch.
I don't see the 76ers winning a playoff series this season, but based on the potential they have in the future, I remain split.
Portland Trail Blazers
LaMarcus Aldridge is possibly the best player in the NBA who has never made an All-Star roster. He improves significantly each year, but most importantly, Aldridge is showing he can lead a team.
He has no shortage of talented help either...
Wesley Matthews was one of my picks for breakout player of the year this season. He is a dangerous scorer and hustles on defense to make up for his lack of athleticism. While he is not the best at creating shots for himself, a talented point guard like Raymond Felton should take care of that problem.
Felton was great during his short time with New York last season, but he's struggling out of the gate this season. Maybe he's just getting comfortable; however, he will energize and push Portland over the top once he hits stride.
Players like Gerald Wallace and Jamal Crawford will be the biggest difference-makers for the Trail Blazers. Wallace and Crawford are established names in the NBA universe who will have many big games this season but can also impact a season with great force.
Of course, you can't forget the veteran big men in Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. Both will give you hard-earned minutes while on the court, but most importantly they will play great defense for Portland.
The Trail Blazers are good but could find themselves atop a shaky Western Conference at the end of the playoffs.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are blessed with two star scorers in Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Both are athletic guys who can put up dazzling games, but neither shows enough effort to make a difference defensively.
Please don't even argue that.
Both can rebound or grab a steal now and then, but neither can stop a player one-on-one consistently.
While Tyson Chandler has had an impact so far, he is clearly not enough to make the Knicks an elite defense.
This is a team that can score but cannot distribute or create for others. In fact, how does Anthony lead this team in assists?
If the Knicks were based on potential, they would easily be a top-three team in the Eastern Conference. However, this is a league where potential is just that.
The best hope for New York will be developing Iman Shumpert and teaching Amar'e and Melo elementary defense. If not, the Knicks could be the biggest disappointment of the shortened season.
Don't be shocked to see New York eliminated early in the playoffs, perhaps by those Indiana Pacers I mentioned.