10 Teams That Can Prevent a Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Finals
By my math, there are 28 teams not named the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat still in contention for a trip to the NBA finals—and by my subjective reasoning, these are the 10 most likely to get there.
Maybe they didn't start 10-2 like the Thunder—one of them actually did—and maybe they don't have three bona fide superstars, but they still play basketball well.
And I'm pretty sure that in the NBA playoffs, playing basketball well counts for, well, something.
Under the radar and below the fold, these teams have the game to give the favorites a scare.
Honorable Mention: Whoever Gets Dwight Howard
As it stands now, the Orlando Magic deserve a spot on this list.
They have the league's best big and he's helped their offense to the fourth-best efficiency rating in the entire league, better than Chicago and even Miami.
But maybe you've heard this little thing about Dwight Howard's trade request?
Should Orlando acquiesce to Howard's demands, they're no longer a threat to Miami in the East.
Whoever gets Howard, though, will have the one player neither Miami nor Oklahoma City can counter.
That team may already be on that list. That team may have a part owner with a baby named Blue.
All we know now is that the team with Dwight Howard at the end of this season will be a righteously good team.
10. Atlanta Hawks
We've done this song and dance before with the Atlanta Hawks.
Good players? Check.
Good numbers? Check.
Good team? Uh...kinda.
The Atlanta Hawks are 7-4, sit sixth in John Hollinger's power rankings and are among the NBA's top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
Plenty of teams ranked above them on this list can't match that profile.
Problem with the Hawks is that we know their ceiling so well. They've been a good-not-great team for three seasons now and nothing about their makeup has changed enough to suggest that will change.
So, could I see the Hawks catching fire and toppling the Miami Heat in a second-round series?
9. Los Angeles Clippers
Start with the good news. Always start with the good news.
Good news: Two of the Clippers' five wins are against playoff-bound Miami and Portland.
Good news: The Clippers are fourth in offensive rating.
Good news: The Clippers matter.
Lob City isn't an instant hit, but early returns on the new look Los Angeles Clippers have at least allayed fears of flat-faced failure.
Blake Griffin is as good as we left him and Chris Paul has taken the limelight hostage with nightly reminders of his preternatural basketball-ness.
That said, the Clippers rank in the league's bottom third in most defensive metrics and haven't regularly displayed the sort of run-and-hide dominance emblematic of championship-caliber play.
The Clips are in the conversation, but there's work to do.
8. Boston Celtics
If having been there and done that was the only qualification for this list, then the Boston Celtics would be at the top.
We've seen past Celtics teams with a lot of the same faces frustrate LeBron James-led teams in playoff series prior.
But those faces have grown older and a sluggish start to the 2011-12 season combined with last season's quick exit to the Heat in the second round give Boston the feel of a fringe contender.
So far this year the Celtics rank 19th in defensive efficiency—what was once considered their calling card—and are the third-slowest team in basketball according to basketball-reference.com's pace factor.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat sit fourth in defensive efficiency and keep the second-quickest pace.
Those discrepancies—related to Miami's overwhelming athleticism when compared to Boston—conspired to give the Celtics fits in the playoffs last year and make them a long shot to go far in 2012's tournament.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
Who's that there atop John Hollinger's power rankings?
Why it's the Philadelphia 76ers. Surprised?
Off to their best start since the Allen Iverson era, the 7-3 Sixers have a buzz going in the Atlantic Division. With Boston fading and the New York Knicks still searching for their best self, Philadelphia has a legitimate shot at the division title and the conference's third seed.
All of this comes with a few caveats.
Will Spencer Hawes remain among the top five NBA centers in PER? No.
Can a Sixers defense that was decent but not great last year stay atop the league in defensive efficiency? No.
Do they stand a chance of maintaining the league's largest margin of victory all season long? Again, no.
But there are signs that the Sixers are legit and could challenge the Heat.
Their youth and depth help them in a condensed season, they're athletic enough to run up and down the court with Miami and they have a premier wing defender (Andre Iguodala) capable of guarding either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.
It's also worth noting that when the Heat and Sixers met in last year's playoffs, only one of the five games was decided by 10 points or more.
Good things are brewing in Philadelphia—more than enough to earn them a spot on this list.
6. New York Knicks
The Dallas Mavericks brought in Tyson Chandler last year to fortify a defense that needed fortifying, and the early results weren't especially encouraging.
After five games Dallas was just 3-2 and coming off a back-to-back against the Nuggets where they gave up over 100 points in each game.
Fast forward to season's end where the Mavericks were eighth in defensive rating and on their way to the franchise's first NBA championship.
Viewed through that lens, the New York Knicks' 2-4 start almost feels like a blessing. And a subsequent four-game winning streak proves that there's enough pieces in New York to make this team interesting.
Questions remain about their offensive efficiency (who knew?) and the always destabilizing presence of Dwight Howard trade rumors.
The Knicks aren't as talented as other superstar-mashup squads, and they'll need some cohesion to compete. But if they find that middle ground, watch out.
5. Dallas Mavericks
The best thing going for the Mavericks right now isn't the "NBA champion" label next to their name. Because so far in 2012, Dallas hasn't lived up to that billing.
The best thing going for the Mavericks is that even in their early-season struggles, with Dirk Nowitzki searching and new pieces still adjusting to new roles, they've played Oklahoma City better than anyone else in the conference.
After two games against the Thunder, Dallas is a Kevin Durant buzzer-beater away from a 2-0 mark.
Outside of that high note, though, the Mavs have looked shaky.
Dallas needs newcomer Lamar Odom to get involved, or else let an offense rated 19th in efficiency doom its repeat hopes.
4. Portland Trailblazers
Injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden were supposed to derail the Portland Trailblazers' climb to contention.
LaMarcus Aldridge missed the memo.
The power forward's stellar play in 2012—22.2 points per game—has Portland positioned among the Western Conference's top four and looking like a contender in a stacked Northwest division.
Not that it's all Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews head a solid supporting cast that allows Portland to get out in transition as well as any team in the league.
In an early-season matchup at Oklahoma City, Portland flashed their goods en route to a 103-93 win. It remains Oklahoma City's lone home loss on the young season.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are so much better than we want them to be.
Because we want it to be simple. We want to believe that all you have to do to win in the NBA is tank, clear cap space, buy up a couple of superstars and put some bastardized combination of role players alongside them.
Mix, repeat, win.
Then those pesky Nuggets come along and prove, much to our chagrin, you can trade away your best player if you get a bunch of good players in return who...pause...ACTUALLY PLAY WELL TOGETHER!
I guess being an NBA GM isn't as easy as we thought it was.
Led by the irrepressible Ty Lawson, Denver is the only team playing a quicker pace than the Miami Heat and they top the league in effective field-goal percentage.
That they do it without a 20-point-a-night scorer comes as some surprise to those indoctrinated into the cult of the superstar, but those paying attention realize that their offensive efficiency is the byproduct of great talent distributed well across a deep roster.
So maybe it is simple after all.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The gloom surrounding the Lakers after their botched attempt to land Chris Paul has dissipated amidst the stunning revelation that, after their first 12 games, L.A. is the second best team in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant isn't ready to relinquish his claim as one of the league's five best players and Andrew Bynum's emergence as the league's second-best center gives this team a dominating, two-way post presence they haven't had since Shaquille O'Neal.
Then there's Pau Gasol, Matt Barnes and almost enough spare parts to make you forget the Lakers have perhaps the worst point guard duo among all NBA contenders.
As the purple-and-gold go, it's a flawed team. But if you readjust those expectations for the 29-team norm, the Lakers are still pretty damn good.
1. Chicago Bulls
Good gawd, the Chicago Bulls play some mean defense.
The Bulls rate second in defensive efficiency and third in opponents' effective field-goal percentage. Derrick Rose gets the headlines, but those numbers there have as much to do with Chicago's rise in the Eastern Conference as Rose's improvement does.
It was coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes that took a middling team into the league's upper echelon last year, and early returns in 2012 indicate Chicago will stay there.
Even worse for the Heat, Rose and his team seem to be on the rise. The star point guard is playing his position better than he was during last year's MVP season, distributing the ball more often and using his scoring prowess only when needed.
Because of their defense and Rose's singular ability to dominate in crucial moments, the Bulls remain the biggest threat to Miami's conference title hopes.