The 2012 NBA playoffs are just days away, and certain teams are looking more prepared than others. If the playoffs started right now, they would probably end much differently than anyone would have anticipated at the beginning of this lockout-shortened season.
The Chicago Bulls are playing some of their best team basketball of the season, while the Miami Heat are struggling right now to find their identity as a championship favorite. The Oklahoma City Thunder are riding their two superstars to the finish line, while the San Antonio Spurs continue to win.
Here are the current contenders ranked by their championship hopes based on their play right now.
At the moment, last year's NBA champion is slotted at the No. 6 seed in the West and that appears to be where it will stay. Last year's run was a fairy tale for the Dallas Mavericks, but it would be unwise not to include them in these power rankings, despite the fact that they lost many of the key ingredients to last year's squad.
The most important ingredient is still there though in Dirk Nowitzki, and it was he who put the team on his back during last year's run. Combined with Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, Nowitzki proves a terrifying matchup for any potential playoff opponent.
If I talked about a team in the playoffs with one of the best point guards in the game, one of the best head coaches in the game and three future Hall of Famers to boot, there's no way you'd tell me they didn't have a solid chance of winning the whole thing, no matter where they were seeded.
The Boston Celtics may be past their prime, but they are proving that they can still play basketball of the highest caliber when they need to do so. They still play elite defense (third in points allowed per game), and Rajon Rondo runs their offense like a magician (11.6 assists per game).
Those stats combined with the fact that this team has been there and done that before gives them a solid chance, no matter their age.
After it looked like this team might be dead and buried, it has surged back to being a potential contender. The biggest X-factor in that equation is Chris Paul.
As the Los Angeles Clippers' season has wore on, the team has had its fair share of ups and downs. Paul and Blake Griffin strengthen their connection with each and every game, and that should definitely be something that opposing NBA teams are preparing for.
Paul is leading the team on the court with 19.5 points and nine assists per game, while Griffin provides plenty of highlights along with 20.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. That duo is better than almost any other in the league, which gives the Clips a fighting chance every time.
Any team that has six guys averaging more than 10 points per game is going to be tough to defend. The Memphis Grizzlies are that team. Rudy Gay missed last season due to injury but has bounced back by averaging 18.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this year. Point guard Mike Conley continues to be quietly effective with 12.8 points and 6.7 assists per game.
Zach Randolph is also slowly returning from his injury problems, and pairing him with Marc Gasol provides Memphis with one of the best offensive frontcourts in the NBA. Defensive specialist Tony Allen has also excelled since donning a Grizzlies uniform, continuing his elite defense while also averaging 10.3 points per game.
The only piece they miss from last year's run is Shane Battier, but they are still in great position to make a run this season as well.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been in the news lately, but then again, when aren't they?
Young center Andrew Bynum has shown that he can carry a team in Kobe Bryant's absence, but the biggest question will be whether or not he and Bryant can coexist better than before heading into the playoffs. Bynum's immaturity could be the team's undoing.
Pau Gasol has played well of late, probably because he now can be confident of where he'll be playing at least through June. Ramon Sessions has played well as a midseason addition, but he doesn't make the Lakers any better defensively.
It would be idiotic to count out a Lakers team that boasts Bryant, Gasol and Bynum, but it does speak to the current state of the team that it is this low on the list. In years past, that wouldn't have been the case.
The Indiana Pacers look like they could be well on their way to being the Eastern Conference version of the Oklahoma City Thunder, as a young team that plays above its experience level.
As a team, they rank in the top 10 in both rebounds and points allowed per game; those are both important playoff stats. A big part of that is Roy Hibbert, who is playing his way into a big contract in free agency this offseason by averaging 13 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. David West has not been the same player that he was pre-injury in New Orleans, but he has still been a big part of the team's success.
Recent wins over Oklahoma City and Miami show just how dangerous this young squad can be. Danny Granger is the scoring leader on this team, but he'll need to prove that he can come up big in playoff situations if this team is going to continue progressing upward.
Many are worried about the Miami Heat, and that worry isn't necessarily without merit. LeBron James and Company are 2-4 in their last six road games and have sustained big losses in Boston, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Indiana during that stretch. Those teams all represent potential playoff matchups for Miami at various stages of the postseason.
However, let's not jump off the boat just yet. The Heat still have two bona fide superstars in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James and the best third option in the game in Chris Bosh. The idea that the Heat can't win it all is preposterous considering the personnel they have.
Granted, the Heat do have some obstacles to overcome, but they did last season as well. People questioned their ability to win in the playoffs; the team proved them all wrong with a nice, dominant playoff run to the NBA Finals. There is no reason that can't happen again.
The trio of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden is making the case that it is the best in the NBA—even better than Miami's. It's hard to argue against them. Those three have led the Thunder to a 44-16 record, just two games behind Chicago for the best overall record in the NBA.
While many may argue that the formula Oklahoma City uses to win won't work in the playoffs, no one can argue with the fact that it got them to a Western Conference finals last year—or that this team is even better.
The key for the Thunder will be the contributions they can get from their role players and how well the three stars share the ball. Ball movement can only help them get shots, and all three must commit to it.
The San Antonio Spurs deserve to be this high, despite many claiming their brand of basketball can't work in the playoffs and their stars are too old to carry the team.
Since March 1, the Spurs are 18-5 and have surged to give Oklahoma City competition for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They are the most balanced offensive team in the NBA and force opponents to defend every single area of the floor at all times.
Gregg Popovich has this team playing as well as anyone right now.
The Chicago Bulls are playing the best basketball of anyone right now in this short stretch before the playoffs. Highlighted by a statement win over the Miami Heat, the Bulls are playing balanced, team basketball that is incredibly dangerous, especially when in combination with their excellent team defense.
It has to make Bulls fans feel good that they were able to defeat the mighty Heat, even with Derrick Rose having a 1-of-13 shooting night and actually sitting on the bench late in the game. The fact that they've been able to maintain their No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference even during Rose's absence is a testament to how balanced and talented this team is.
If the playoffs started today, the Bulls would be the team with the best chance of holding the trophy.