A LayupDrill.com Exclusive
As the NBA season resumes today, there seems to be more questions than answers for separating the contenders from the pretenders. LayupDrill.com has updated our first power rankings of the second half of the season, breaking down the pretenders from the contenders heading into the stretch run.
16. Phoenix Suns
The city of Phoenix has been the center of the NBA over the past few weeks, for both good and bad reasons. With the NBA All-Star weekend being hosted there, the eyes and ears of a basketball nation were on the Suns franchise, and the disarray around it.
With Terry Porter dismissed after a 28-23 start into his first season, Alvin Gentry is now faced with the daunting task of turning around an underachieving older team and getting them into the playoffs. Gentry’s preference of the run-and-gun offense appeases Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, but can Phoenix outscore the rest of the West? Only time will tell.
15. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons, like the Suns, have underachieved and are still trying to fit Allen Iverson into their way of doing things. Entering the second half of the season three games over .500 is good enough for being in the middle of the pack in the East, yet optimism reigns in the Motor City.
With Orlando losing Jameer Nelson for what will probably be the rest of the year, the Pistons and Heat both have their eyes on climbing to the three seed and having home court advantage in the first round. Based on their veteran leadership, you would think they will be able to attain that.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers, who have had to deal with injuries to key players throughout the season, enter the second half with renewed confidence that they can not only make the playoffs, but make some noise as well.
With Elton Brand going down for the rest of the year, the Sixers have enough time to adjust to life without him. Andre Miller, who is a free agent at season's end, has plenty of motivation to get this bunch into the playoffs, whether he re-signs with Philly or not.
The Hornets, who made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, have also dealt with injuries as well as a reality check this year.
Hornets head coach Byron Scott did a masterful job last season getting the most of his talent, and many thought with the arrival of former Celtics swingman James Posey, the Hornets would take the next step to being a serious title contender. Unfortunately for them, things have not worked that way.
Things should get better for New Orleans though, with Chris Paul at the reigns you can never be counted out.
12. Miami Heat
The Heat surprised many with their play thus far this season, and the addition of Jermaine O’ Neal confirmed their commitment to winning right now. Heat management are trying to assure Dwayne Wade that they not only want him to stay in Miami for the long haul, but are willing to put pieces around him that will make Miami a title contender for years to come.
With the continued growth of Michael Beasley as well as rookie Mario Chalmers, expect Miami to challenge Orlando for the ranking of best team in the state of Florida this year.
11. Houston Rockets
The Rockets big three have not been able to gel on the floor for sustained periods of time throughout the season, and while they have stayed in the middle of the pack out West, the title hopes seem somewhat far-fetched to date.
With Tracy McGrady’s health in question (again), the emergence of Von Wafer, as well as the ability for Rafer Alston to pick up the scoring punch will be key for Houston’s success.
The Hawks got out the gates this season on fire, and slowly cooled off leading into the All-Star break. While Atlanta has improved on last season, they hope they can get out of the first round this postseason, and with the current makeup of the team as assembled, that is not a guarantee.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki is putting together another banner year, and Dallas is right in the middle of things in the West playoff hunt.
The injury to Jason Terry (broken hand) will definitely hurt the Mavs on the offensive end, and while rumors have swirled nearly all season about half of the roster, things have stayed in place. In order for Dallas to take the step this season from pretender to contender, there should be a move made to bring in someone to compliment Nowitzki as another viable go-to option.
Should they make the playoffs, the Jazz could be the most dangerous team in the first round.
Assuming Carlos Boozer is able to return healthy in the upcoming days, along with the continued improvement of Paul Millsap, the Jazz boast one of the most powerful front lines in the league. Derron Williams is back from his early season injuries, and the play of AK-47 has been inspiring.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has once again put in one of his best coaching jobs of his career, and Utah may make a late run to improve on their seeding.
Portland is in one of the most enviable positions in the league. With a core of talent that is improving with every game, Nate McMillan has potential All-Stars in nearly every position. The Blazers one immediate need is at point guard, though rookie Jerryd Bayless has impressed when his number has been called thus far.
Rumors have floated around for weeks whether the Blazers would pull the trigger to bring in a big name such as Amare Stoudemire or Baron Davis, yet nothing has come to fruition as yet.
Before the injury to Jameer Nelson, fans of the Magic had dreams of going far in this year's playoffs. While the pick up of Tyronn Lue does help the situation, the Magic just won’t have enough down the stretch in a seven-game series.
The entertaining Magic live and die by the three, and when they are on, they can beat anyone in the league. Unfortunately, when they are cold, the reliance on Dwight Howard to take over a game offensively occurs, and that is when Stan Van Gundy’s group gets in trouble.
If you told George Karl a year ago that heading into the second half of the 2008-09 season, the Nuggets would be in third place in the West, and that the roster would not include Allen Iverson, he would have laughed. Yet the biggest trade of the year thus far, getting Chauncey Billups, has paid off solid returns for Denver.
The Nuggets now have a steady hand leading the team, and a great influence for Carmelo Anthony. Nene’s improvement has also been a vital reason why Denver may surprise some this postseason.
This is usually the time of year that the Spurs make their move. While the Spurs sit 6.5 games behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West right now, Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich knows that his veterans will turn it on when needed.
Some rumors have made their rounds regarding if San Antonio will make a move for another scorer or not. Even if they don’t, this present group may have one more run for the title in them.
Lebron James and the Cavs have had a great first half of the year, but as good as they have played, they still have the Celtics neck-and-neck with them.
Having lost only one game at home so far shows the dominance Cleveland displays at home, and why many feel home-court advantage in the East will determine who makes it to the Finals.
Cleveland, like some other contenders, have been in the middle of trade rumors for weeks now, but GM Danny Ferry has gone on record to say there will be no moves made.
The defending champs enter the second half as the team to beat in the East once again, yet their margin is razor thin this season. Boston knows that they are in a two-team race out East, and will have to finish with a better overall record than the Lakers to attain home court in the Finals, since they dropped both regular season games to L.A.
However the Big Three, like the Spurs, know when to turn it on, as shown by two very long winning-streaks this season.
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers enter the second half of the season with plenty to play for. They are clearly the team with the bulls-eye on its back each and every night they go out.
Having Andrew Bynum sidelined until the end of the regular season means the play of Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and Trevor Ariza will be vital in Los Angeles maintaining their spot on top.
While Kobe won the regular season MVP last season, his second-half performance will have to be even more impressive for him to repeat.