Oklahoma City Thunder and the 10 Strongest Contenders for the NBA Title
With just a month left of regular season basketball, the NBA playoff picture is starting to settle.
While 16 teams make the playoffs, there are only a select few that can actually contend for championship gold.
This season's playoffs will feature an intriguing mix of young blood taking their place among the association's elite teams.
The 2000s were dominated by teams like the Lakers and Spurs, but now teams like the Thunder and the Heat are looking to take over in this decade.
Let's take a look at the 10 strongest contenders for this year's NBA title.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
Had Chauncey Billups not gone down to injury, perhaps the Clippers would be more of a threat.
The addition of Nick Young, however, could pick up some slack at the shooting guard position. Up front, the team looks great with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Opposing teams will have a tough time in the paint against the Clips.
Of course, you can't forget the biggest addition that turned this franchise around. CP3 has taken a potentially good team and made them into a contender seemingly overnight. His playoff experience will come in handy for a young team bound to stumble a bit in its first playoff series.
However, I still believe they just don't have all the right pieces to make a title run. They lack depth at the small forward position and Jordan is their only true center.
They are on this list for a reason though and could prove me wrong.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have been a pleasant surprise this season. After giving the Heat a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs last year, there was a glimpse of hope for Philly.
That hope materialized this season as the Sixers are in the playoff mix at number seven in the East. They are only a few games behind the fifth and sixth seed, however, and could set themselves up for an easier first round matchup.
What the Sixers lack in a true superstar, they make up for with great defense. They are first in the league in points allowed per game (88.2) and also rank ninth in assists and rebounds per game.
Though their defense is extremely talented, Philly lacks a top tier offensive game, as indicated by their 22nd overall ranking in points scored with just 93.6 per contest.
Andre Iguodala could step up with Jrue Holiday and provide a nice first-round upset if their tough defense continues into the postseason.
8. Dallas Mavericks
The defending champs haven't been quite the same this year.
Dirk has taken awhile to get back into form and still doesn't quite seem right after the lockout this summer, Jason Kidd is averaging career lows in points and assists and Lamar Odom has been playing halfheartedly.
Through all of this, the Mavs remain a sixth seed in the West right now. An impressive win against Memphis Wednesday night showed that Dallas still has some fight in them.
Memphis could arguably take the Mavericks' spot on this list, but I firmly believe that the veteran team has a better shot against the cream of the crop in the Western Conference.
Dallas could make a run at back-to-back titles if they turn it on down the stretch of the regular season and remain hot going into the postseason.
7. Boston Celtics
Beantown has enjoyed the success that the Big Three brought upon their formation in 2007. Unfortunately, those good feelings have faded with trade talks involving just about everyone on the Celtics this season.
Still, the team's core remains intact with the trio of veterans and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo running the offense. Rondo has been phenomenal all year and could very well be in the conversation for best point guard in the NBA.
Rondo's major development plus the championship experience on the team could mean one last title run for Paul Pierce and the Celtics before Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett become free agents this summer.
6. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have assembled a fine young team and find themselves as the third seed in the East when the regular season wraps up.
The All-Star year of Roy Hibbert, the pure scoring ability of Danny Granger, and the addition of David West has made a team to be reckoned with this postseason. Add young swingman Paul George in the mix with the solid play of Darren Collison at the point and you are looking at a team that could be making deep playoff runs for years to come.
Their youth could be a gift and a curse in the postseason. Indiana can play high-energy basketball and outrun older teams, but they can also commit a lot of turnovers and force too many shots.
Either way, I like their chances to advance to at least the second round in the playoffs.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Quietly, the Spurs are in the second slot in the Western Conference behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Tony Parker has been playing out of his mind this season, Tim Duncan's production has dipped but remains steady and the Spurs have found a way to win without Manu Ginobili for the majority of their games. The additions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw give them a better scoring punch than Richard Jefferson at the small forward spot and will come in handy if Ginobili doesn't get back to 100 percent.
San Antonio hasn't been in the Finals since 2007 when they won their last title, but there is no doubt that they could take it to that level this postseason after proving they can hang with the young Thunder.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers could very well make a case to be higher in this list but I think one crucial thing standing in their way is themselves.
Andrew Bynum has been having a monster season but doesn't seem to agree with first year Lakers coach Mike Brown. His acts of defiance haven't been costing the Lakers victories but if that situation doesn't change, the playoffs may end sooner than L.A. wants.
All this aside, Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. He has dominated all season long, leading the league in scoring when many thought that his best years were behind him. Even with the loss of Lamar Odom, the Lakers have fought through and made a crucial deal to acquire Ramon Sessions at the trade deadline.
Now that Sessions is running with Pau Gasol, Bryant, and Bynum, the Lakers could be unstoppable in the playoffs.
However, the question remains as to whether Mike Brown can take control of this team and lead the Lakers to another ring.
3. Chicago Bulls
This team has proven just how good they are this year. Defending MVP Derrick Rose has missed 21 games this season, and the Bulls have still maintained their top spot in the East and the best record in the NBA.
They are top five in the association in rebounding, assists and points allowed per game. Since Rose has been out, players like Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have stepped up and led the team to an 8-4 record.
If Rose and starting shooting guard Rip Hamilton get back to full health by the playoffs, there's no telling how far this team will be able to go.
2. Miami Heat
The Heat have two of the most talented players in the NBA on one team. Period.
On top of that they have a top tier power forward in Chris Bosh and solid cast of role players. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and now Ronnie Turiaf give the team a boost when one or more of the Heat's big three isn't on the floor.
They have a staggering mix of unstoppable offense and unbreakable defense which both rank among the top of the NBA this year.
So why are they only number two?
Dwayne Wade has proven his worth in late-game situations but that remains something LeBron James must overcome before his team can take the next step to a title.
This is the most overused argument in the world but it doesn't mean it's not true. LeBron simply doesn't have the clutch factor that makes him a reliable option in the fourth quarter of meaningful games. His performances down the stretch in the playoffs last year were less than dominant and contributed to the Heat's loss to Dallas in the Finals.
LeBron is still one of the best basketball players in the world, and it's not like he doesn't know about his criticisms. I can definitely see him getting over this speed bump in his career, and if he does, a ring could be in his future.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Who would have pictured the Thunder in this top spot three years ago when they completed a miserable 23-win season?
Kevin Durant has formed a deadly duo with Russell Westbrook and those two can outscore other teams by themselves in a game. Not to mention Sixth Man of the Year candidate James Harden has become one of the best third-option scorers in the league.
Though the Heat recently got the best of the Thunder in their game on Wednesday night, Oklahoma City still remains the strongest contender for a title because of their team chemistry.
The Thunder know how their teammates play and also know how to play to each others' strengths. When on the same page, Oklahoma City can get out to big runs that can decide games. This will be huge in the playoffs when games seem to always come down to the wire and clutch play is a necessity for a team hoping to win a championship.
Kevin Durant has had a spectacular year and has proven himself as a clutch player in the regular season and will get a chance to carry on that success deep into the playoffs.
I would not be too surprised if Durant came up short going head-to-head with a confident LeBron James. However, I would not be surprised at all if the Thunder rumble through the West and extinguish the Heat in the Finals.