2012 NBA Playoffs: 8 Teams with Best Shot at NBA Title
There is nothing like the NBA Playoffs. Maybe it's an indictment on the regular season play year in, year out, that is often only attractive to hardcore fans because the play appears to be uninspired (with the exception to a few big games on the schedule), but when it comes to playoff basketball the NBA is always at its best.
This year is particularly different because the schedule that resulted from the 16 game lockout led to a brutal and almost unrealistic schedule that few players made it through without injury or some sort of built-in rest schedule for playoff preservation.
It seems as if many of the teams that have a shot at the title had to pace themselves or settle for less than their best down the stretch just to get players healthy.
This seems to have confused many prognosticators who evaluated the championship hopes of several teams. However, if you look at things for what they are, I think it becomes increasingly clear which teams have realistic hopes of winning a championship.
Many events have taken place to even reshuffle the order since this idea was initially scripted, but here are the teams that have the best chance to play into June and emerge a champion.
8. Chicago Bulls
It seems odd that I would put the team with the No.1 overall seed in the eight position here, but unfortunately, there has been an awful turn of events that claimed the league’s reigning MVP Derrick Rose.
Originally, I still was not going to have the Bulls incredibly high because of questions about Rose’s health and whether or not he could play at a level capable of carrying his team through the playoffs and past their nemesis, the Miami Heat. But once Rose went down with a torn ACL at the end of Game 1 on Saturday, the Bulls championship hopes were all but dashed.
The Bulls have probably the deepest team and are the best at executing the “next man up” mentality, thanks to coach Tom Thibodeau’s excellent regular season coaching. He does a great job of getting the most out of of his teams throughout the season and inspiring bench players to step up and play to their potential no matter what their role. I have always had a great respect for his ability to extract the best from his teams and minimize the letdowns that plague most of the other great teams in the league, but I feel that that strength has its limitations in the playoffs.
Although the Bulls have a host of very good players led by Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer, in order to win in the playoffs you need a star that can the lead the way and put the team on his back. Effort and depth on a team is great and can help, but the NBA is a star’s league, especially in the playoffs. If you want to make a deep run you need to have someone that can get their own shot against extremely difficult, tight defenses that are tailor made for your team due to the familiarity that comes with series play.
Right now, with Derrick Rose officially gone, the Bulls do not have a true go-to scorer. That will limit their chances to make it out of the East.
7. Dallas Mavericks
The defending champs have flown under the radar this year, and that is no one’s fault but their own. With the exception of a strong January in which they went 13-5, including a 5-game winning streak, the Mavs were inconsistent and never really resembled the quality of a defending championship team. With that said, the Mavs still have their main pieces in place and are capable of beating anyone, as they showed at different points during the regular season.
During the season, the Mavs beat Memphis, Boston (twice), San Antonio (twice), Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s clear they're capable of beating high quality playoff teams and their performance in the playoffs has correlated well with that.
The Mavericks could argue strongly that they should be up 2-0 on the Thunder, who are considered by many to be the favorites coming out of the West. They went into one of the more difficult road environments and had opportunities to win down the stretch, falling just short in the end.
This could be evidence of the difference between the teams this year and last year, but I think it’s clear that the Mavs look a lot more like a team that won the NBA championship last year than a seven seed that should be gone in five games or less. Clearly, the Mavericks are not to be taken lightly.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
It seems odd to have the Grizzlies so high on this list after their monumental collapse on Sunday night, but the Grizzlies are not a team to be taken lightly.
I have been saying it all season: since Zach Randolph came back, they have been playing great ball. They have beaten tons of quality teams and been close to unbeatable the last month of the season. Memphis went 13-3 in a grueling April, including wins against the Clippers, Thunder, and Mavericks. Although they weren’t as dominant in March, they did beat the Lakers at the end of the month.
Last year the Grizzlies made an impressive run as an eight seed, beating San Antonio convincingly and pushing Oklahoma City to the limit in a very entertaining series without Rudy Gay. With the experience they have under their belt now, I feel it’s more than fair to assume that the Grizzlies will be a factor in this year’s playoffs.
Obviously, their loss in Game 1 to the Clippers was embarrassing, but prior to their fourth quarter collapse, they dominated play and made the Clippers look like they didn’t belong in the playoffs. The Grizzlies stormed out to a 20-point lead at the beginning of the game and led 34-16 at the end of the first quarter. They hit 11 of 16 three pointers early and seemed to have the game in hand after leading by 27 points twice in the third quarter.
Clearly, they did not come out with a victory after being outscored 35-13 in the fourth quarter (allowing an astounding 26-1 run), but if you watched the game it’s hard to not acknowledge how impressive they looked for three quarters.
It’s fair to assume they will play somewhere in the middle of those extreme performances, and I expect the Grizzlies to be a threat in the West. If they can recover from this loss and survive the Clippers, they still match up well with the new and improved Spurs and anything goes from there.
Watch out! They are my sleeper.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Many have declared this team the favorite to win it all in June, and it’s easy to understand why. They have one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in MVP candidate Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, complimented by sixth man extraordinaire James Hardin and defensive stalwarts Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. That's a nice mix, and on paper it seems like they should be the favorites in the west. But personally, I have my doubts.
Despite the fact they can put up points with the best of them, and there really is no answer for Durant and Westbrook defensively, I feel there is still something missing with this team.
As demonstrated late in last year's playoffs, there is still the threat of Westbrook usurping the offense by doing his own thing, which nullifies Durant’s prowess and can lead to poor shot selection and decision-making.
As a point guard, Westbrook is expected to be aggressive and make sure everyone gets their shots, but he's found it hard to master this balance. Obviously, it’s easier said than done when no one in the league is capable of staying in front of him. However, in the playoffs, when the play is not as wide open and the defense tightens up, the onus is on Westbrook to distribute the ball, especially with a superstar teammate like Durant. There cannot be chunks of minutes where Durant does not touch the ball like he did last year.
This factor, combined with the fact that they rely so much on jump shooting (which can go cold as we saw in the Lakers game a couple weeks ago), will lead to an early playoff exit for the Thunder.
4. L.A Lakers
Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom are not walking through that door, but it would be irresponsible to count out the Los Angeles Lakers. It's a different team this year, definitely not one with the aura of those Laker teams of a few years ago, but the Lakers still have Kobe Bryant and they defend as well or better than any of those great Laker teams of the last five years.
The Lakers aren't as efficient offensively as they have been in the past, often relying on the "Kobe Bryan Show" to score points, but they've defended well this year which is typical of Mike Brown led teams, and still have the outstanding front line of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. If Bynum can keep his cool and stay engaged, he may be the x-factor for the Lakers.
It’s obviously still Bryant’s team, but Bynum has become that second fiddle and been a consistent low post threat. As a result of having his first injury-free season, he averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds a game. If he and Gasol can play consistent and be “long” in the postseason, I see no reason why they cannot upset a favorite like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
You can never count out Kobe Bryant, and although this is a different look and feel for them, the Lakers are dangerous.
3. Boston Celtics
Many have written off the old-timer squad that seemed to miss their chance to build a dynasty, but I am not quite ready to do so.
The Celtics come into the playoffs with the fifth best record in the conference, but if you paid any attention to them during the last two months of the season, it is apparent that the Celtics still have a few tricks up their sleeve. They went 12-5 in March and 10-5 in April, featuring three big wins against the Miami Heat in prime-time games, and wins against the Clippers, Knicks and Hawks.
The 2012 Celtics never were dominant per se, like the old Celtics teams that featured the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, but they showed enough late in the season to bring back memories of the 2010 Celtics that did not do much in the regular season, earned the fourth seed in the East, and then took it to the Eastern Conference favorite Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James (in his last year there) en route to the NBA Finals.
This team is still hampered by injuries to Ray Allen and Greg Stiemsma, and the untimely suspension of floor leader Rajon Rondo, but the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone to knock off the now smoldering hot Miami Heat.
If the Celtics can get out of the Hawks series despite the Rondo suspension and the injuries to Allen and Stiemsma, I'm confident they can make a championship run even though they don’t have the beef and enforcement they've had in the past (such as Kendrick Perkins).
It's going to take leadership from Rondo, consistent shooting, toughness and rebounding from Kevin Garnett, and one more memorable post season performance by Paul Pierce who needs to scores in bulk and in the clutch.
If the supporting cast can continue to step up and contribute, watch out!
2. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat should be the favorite.
They assembled a “championship or bust” squad the summer of 2010 when newcomers LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade. Many thought it would be easy and they would go on a championship run, but last year the Mavericks had other ideas about how things should go.
This year, with a refined and even more focused LeBron James, and a healthier and even more potent supporting cast, it just seems as if the Heat cannot lose barring injury. At times during the year, the Heat looked like a team that could breeze through the league, led by LeBron James who had an MVP season.
At the risk of sounding like a "hater," I said that the Heat would not win a championship when they formed. There has been times where I've doubt that assertion, but I still think the pressure will get the best of the team, and their best player LeBron James. When it’s time to make it happen, there are other teams that are capable of beating them.
Some argue that if the Heat made it "Dwyane Wade’s team" as originally planned, they would be unstoppable, as he would be able to compensate for LeBron’s slight weakness at the end of games.
However, the reality is, whether it’s admitted or not, this is LeBron James’s team. He is the one who will be counted on to make plays down the stretch.
So far Bosh has had no problem (for the most part) taking on the role of a supporting player, and often Wade and LeBron have been willing to share the spotlight in interviews and during the regular season. But we're talking about two great players, with magnificent histories of excellence. Can either of them step aside and say, “Hey, do your thing” when their natural inclination is to step up and make a play in the clutch?
It all remains to be seen. The Heat have the talent of a championship team, but I still doubt their psyche. We shall see if they can handle the pressure and scrutiny and not let it affect their performance in adversity, which is where they've struggled.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Admittedly, the Spurs have been pretty disappointing the last few years.
There have been times when they do not look like much of a championship team because of their age and injuries. Then there are years where you think they will be able to make a run (like last year) and they completely fall short.
I think the Spurs are the NBA equivalent of the New England Patriots. They are a team that is good year in, year out, and people start to believe in them because they have a great coach and have won championships in the past. However, both teams have not been successful in the playoffs for some time now. So, when will we start to count them out?
This year however, it just seems different. Led by Coach of the Year candidate Greg Popovich and perennial winners Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs started out the year slow and then were smoking hot the remainder of the season. They started out 13-9 after January and then ripped off an 11-2 February, 12-3 March and a 14-2 April. They finished the season winning their last 10 games and 23 of their last 26.
That is an unbelievable finish, and what was most impressive is the Spurs, who are known for their defense, ran teams out of the gym consistently—scoring over 120 points seven times and 110 points ten times in the last two months of the season. It's safe to say that no one expected this from the Spurs, and while they may not light everyone up in the playoffs, the point is that they do have a deep team with a lot of fire power.
With Popovich’s leadership, I also expect more of the clutch play that we have become accustomed to from Stephen Jackson, rather then the erratic and tumultuous behavior he's displayed in the past. Great leaders and good people surround him, and he knows he is expendable. I think he will end up being an asset to the Spurs that could put them over the top like he did for them as a younger, unproven player in 2003.
The Spurs have a core that won three championships together, and the team is healthy. They may not lock teams down defensively like they used to in the past, but given their championship pedigree and ability to get scoring from a variety of different players, including their younger and more energetic bench, they are the favorites in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks.