NBA's Most Improved Teams: Contenders or Pretenders?

Haddon Anderson@HaddonAndersonAnalyst IJanuary 28, 2012

NBA's Most Improved Teams: Contenders or Pretenders?

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    We're about one-third of the way through the lockout-shortened NBA season, and now is the appropriate time to begin assessing whether certain teams are contenders or pretenders.

    Some teams are obvious contenders (i.e. Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City), but this article features the teams that have made significant strides since last season.  

    Have their strides carried them to the point of being true contenders?

Philadelphia 76ers

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    The 76ers have jetted to the top of the Atlantic Division and feature an array of talented players.  They currently have seven players averaging in double figures, led by Louis Williams, Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala.  

    The biggest reason for their success, however, should be attributed to veteran coach Doug Collins, who has injected Philly with a gritty defensive mindset.  They're currently giving up the third fewest points per game (after Chicago and Boston).

    They've certainly made strides, but do they have enough to defeat Miami or Chicago in the playoffs?

    That's the big question, and it's premature to say that answer is yes.  While their depth and defensive improvements are impressive, they won't be able to slow down the Heat or Bulls in a seven-game playoff series.     

    76ers = PRETENDERS

Denver Nuggets

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    It's quite fascinating to see how well the Nuggets have thrived in the post-Carmelo Anthony era.  Does that say more about the Nuggets or 'Melo?

    Regardless, the Nuggets are off and running with a 14-5 record.  Similar to Philadelphia, they boast a bevy of talented players and possess six men averaging in double figures.  Point guard Ty Lawson appears to have taken the leadership role of this team and is playing like a worthy All-Star, averaging 15.7 PPG, 6.5 APG and 1.5 SPG.

    Denver has the firepower and chemistry to compete in the Western Conference.  Plus, the Western Conference is relatively open.  Oklahoma City is the favorite, but they are not a lock for the NBA Finals.

    The Thunder would be foolish to not consider Denver a major threat.

    Nuggets = CONTENDERS

Utah Jazz

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    Who would've thought the Utah Jazz would be 10-7?  Frankly, 7-10 would sound much more accurate right about now.  They've certainly transitioned quite well from the Jerry Sloan-era—definitely better than expected.

    Utah's strength lies in their frontcourt depth, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap both averaging around 18 PPG and nine RPG.  Behind them, they possess young, promising big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.  

    While this is a respectable start, this team remains far from being a true contender.  They will most likely make the playoffs, but it will be difficult for them to escape the first round.

    Jazz = PRETENDERS

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Entertaining? Yeah, no doubt.  

    Competitive? Yeah, you could say that.  

    Contenders?  Not so fast.

    They have core pieces in place in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and even young center DeAndre Jordan.  But this team still needs time to mesh and must vastly improve on the defensive side of the ball.

    The story of their season will be seeking to claim the hype of their own city.  Are they better than the aging Lakers?  Maybe, but they should not yet be mentioned with the league's elite.

    Clippers = PRETENDERS

Indiana Pacers

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    The Pacers are a top-five defensive team and their young players (Roy Hibbert, Darren Collision, Paul George) continue to show improvement.  Veterans Danny Granger and newcomer David West are proven scorers.

    According to Marc Spears at Yahoo, the Pacers are interested in acquiring Hornets guard Eric Gordon, a native of Indianapolis.  

    Needless to say, the Pacers are undoubtedly a team on the rise, and it's a quick rise.  Last season, they lost to the Bulls in the opening round.  The series was only five games, but most people forget that every one of those games was a close battle.  They've proven they can play Chicago tough.  Can they do the same to Miami?

    Indiana's depth and defensive tenacity make them a formidable sleeper team in the Eastern Conference. They will be able to give Chicago and Miami all they can handle in the playoffs and could even pull a shocking upset.  

    And if they somehow land Eric Gordon, watch out.  This team could seriously win a championship.

    Pacers = CONTENDERS

    Each year, certain teams fall off the map when it comes down to proving themselves as contenders. This year, those teams are the aged ones—Boston (although they've recently shown some signs of life), L.A. Lakers (unless they make a trade for Dwight Howard) and even Dallas (who will most likely be a one-year wonder).

    As the old teams wane, new teams rise.  As of now, the rising teams are the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers.