While every team enters the NBA season with an equal chance at making the postseason, it generally only takes a few games to separate the true contenders from those that just don’t have what it takes to raise a banner when all is said and done.
Heading into the 2012-13 campaign, there are a slew of teams that look, on paper, like they could be gearing up for a title run. From retooled teams like Los Angeles and Boston to up-and-coming young squads like Indiana and Philadelphia—and of course the reigning conference champions Oklahoma City and Miami—there are no shortage of quality teams in today’s league.
However, just because a team looks strong in August does not mean it will still be playing in May or June. With plenty of activity this offseason, it may be difficult to tell at a glance who is a real threat versus who is on the outside looking in, but closer investigation can help clarify who has a true chance at earning a ring.
Although there is always the potential for a dark horse to emerge, here are the contender and pretender designations for eight playoff-bound NBA teams next season.
Note: I didn't leave out the Clippers, I spent hours mulling over that team and couldn't come to any kind of definitive decision.
As the NBA’s reigning champions, it would be simply ridiculous to discount the Miami Heat, especially considering they have made moves this offseason to shore up their roster and make them even more formidable.
First of all, any team that features LeBron James is a bona fide contender. James is coming off of the best year of his career, winning his third MVP, first Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal all in the span of a few months. James is coming off of a postseason in which he averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.
James has assumed the alpha-dog and primary-offensive-option role for Miami, while morphing himself into a crunch-time assassin and a true big-game player. Beyond just that, James is still one of the league’s best two-way players, can run the team’s offense in the point-forward role and is a true multi-tool for Erik Spoelstra.
In addition to James, the Heat still have Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both of whom opted not to participate in the Olympics to get some much needed down-time and should be far healthier come this season’s tip-off than they were in the playoffs.
Bosh thrived last season as a center and should see a full-time switch to the 5 spot. His quickness and athleticism are a major asset against some of the league’s slower big men and his ability to hit shots from the perimeter draw opposing centers away from the basket to create driving lanes for Wade and James.
Wade struggled with injuries last year, but is still one of the league’s most dynamic 2-guards, an excellent slasher and someone who can lock down multiple positions defensively. With James having assumed the leadership role, Wade should thrive as the team’s second option.
Still, a team cannot win with just three stars and Miami’s supporting cast boasts Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and the newly signed Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. All of these players are perfect complementary pieces, Battier, Haslem and Chalmers are aggressive defenders who can also contribute offensively while Allen and Lewis will see plenty of open looks from the perimeter and only need to knock down shots.
The Heat also possess one of the best defenses in the league with their ability to rotate, pressure the ball and swarm at any given moment. The Heat boast talented defenders at every position and even when their shots aren’t falling they can depend on their defense to dictate the tempo and control the game.
Even with the maturation of Oklahoma City and the superstar acquisitions of Los Angeles, the Heat still have to be the favorite to win the title in 2012-13.
Before the slew of “never count out the Spurs” comments begin, let me preface this by saying I think the Spurs are definitely a second-round playoff team and a dark horse conference finals contender, but they just do not have a championship-caliber team as currently assembled.
The Spurs had a brilliant 2011-12 season, riding their depth and their fast-paced offense to a league-leading 50-16 record and a phenomenal 20-game win streak, but the Oklahoma City Thunder exposed their defensive inconsistencies when they beat them four consecutive times to earn a trip to the NBA Finals.
San Antonio largely stood pat during this offseason, re-signing Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw while bringing in French guard Nando De Colo. They still have star power in the backcourt with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and plenty of depth with Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green and Stephen Jackson, but with their corps a year older the Spurs will need major developmental leaps from Leonard, Neal, Green and Splitter to keep their status as true title contenders.
Both Parker and Ginobili are coming off active summers playing for their respective home nations in the Olympics. Parker had a phenomenal year for the Spurs, but also received a serious eye injury over the summer, while Ginobili, who turned 35 in July, is extremely injury prone and missed 32 games last season.
The Western Conference is still a nightmare and has only become more competitive this summer, and this Spurs team did not make any upgrades this offseason while teams like the Denver Nuggets, Lakers and Clippers have all worked to bolster their roster and plug up holes.
The Spurs have a lockdown defender in Leonard and the always-reliable Duncan protecting the paint, but the team lacks the inside presence to stop a super-sized team like the Lakers from controlling the game in the paint or to keep the lightning-quick wing players of the Thunder from driving the ball and creating high-percentage shots.
To make another championship run the Spurs would need to best either the Thunder or Lakers, possibly both, and that just seems like too tall an order for this San Antonio squad.
These Spurs should still be a top-four seed in the conference and their high-octane offense will make them a formidable opponent, but their collective age and troubles on the defensive end keep them from being a true contender in my book.
On the surface Boston and San Antonio look incredibly similar. Both are veteran-laden teams with star point guards and elite coaches that squandered leads in the conference finals to younger, more athletic squads. However, while the Spurs largely stood pat this offseason, the Celtics had an extremely active summer, retaining key pieces and making several high-profile acquisitions.
Even with the departure of Ray Allen, this is a much stronger Boston team than the one that walked out of American Airlines Arena despondent after a Game 7 defeat. The C's brought back Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox to solidify the frontcourt, retained the versatile Jeff Green and added Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to shore up the 2-guard spot.
Garnett is coming off of a 2011-12 season that turned out to be a renaissance year as he was moved to the center position and thrived with his quickness and shooting ability. In the playoffs, the former MVP averaged 19.2 points, 10.3 boards and 1.5 blocks per game. Garnett will again be the team’s primary center and will be the team’s primary rim-protector and rebounder.
The real engine of the team, though, is Rajon Rondo. Rondo led the league in assists last year at 11.7 per game, notched six triple-doubles and carried the team to within a single victory of another trip to the Finals. Boston has built a roster tailor-made to Rondo’s strengths, filled with athletes that can run the floor and play in transition as well as perimeter marksmen to create driving lanes. Rondo will shoulder an even bigger load as a scorer next season, but should carry the momentum from one of the best postseason runs in recent history.
The team still has one of the NBA’s best scorers and closers in Paul Pierce, and though Pierce will see slightly less floor time with the team’s improved depth, he is still capable of consistently creating shots or drawing fouls and is a quality defender to boot.
The Celtics should continue to be one of the league’s best defensive teams and with a backcourt containing Lee, Rondo and Avery Bradley. They can trap often, force turnovers and create easy transition scoring opportunities.
Boston also improved through the draft, snagging Jared Sullinger, who could be an immediate impact player thanks to his physicality, rebounding and post-scoring prowess, and Fab Melo, who is more of a project but is already a dynamic athlete and shot-blocker.
Despite the star power of New York and Brooklyn and the improvements of Philadelphia and Indiana, the Celtics are still the clear-cut second best team in the Eastern Conference, and with a roster that can go 10 or 11 deep any given night, they have a very solid chance to raise Banner 18 next summer.
After putting all their eggs in the Deron Williams basket and failing to net the superstar point guard, the Dallas Mavericks managed to put together a solid team on-the-fly and appear poised for yet another postseason berth. However, even with an improved, veteran frontcourt and an injection of youth at the guard spots, this Mavs team simply does not have what it takes to make a run at their second title in three seasons.
Nowitzki had a disappointing 2011-12 season, looking out of shape for much of the campaign and ultimately being shut down for a few games for conditioning purposes. He averaged 21.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 dimes per game but shot just 45.7 percent from the field. However, even if he is no longer the league’s best power forward he is still an elite player.
The real problem for the Mavs is they simply do not have the talent necessary to compete for a championship. New acquisitions Chris Kaman and Elton Brand will provide solid production, but both have been slowed by injuries and are no longer the All-Star players they were for the Clippers.
The Kaman, Brand, Nowitzki trio provides plenty of scoring, both from midrange and on the block, but they are not quick enough to compete with the younger, more athletic teams in the Western Conference. In addition, none of the three is a particularly dynamic defender, meaning the Mavs are again lacking in the rim-protection they had during their 2011 championship run.
In the backcourt the tandem of O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison is solid, but not enough to contend with some of the elite guard pairs they will be regularly competing against. Mayo and Collison are both good scorers and Collison can run the pick-and-roll well, but Mayo hasn’t been a starter in two years and will likely be thrust into the role of second scorer vacated by Jason Terry.
Collison had a solid season last year, but struggled against stingier defenses in the playoffs and was ultimately benched for George Hill.
Though the Mavericks have some decent wing depth with multi-position defender Shawn Marion, combo-guard Delonte West and Vince Carter—who can still contribute as a scorer off the bench—their roster consists primarily of short-term deals solely designed to preserve cap room for next summer.
Rick Carlisle should guide this team into the playoffs yet again, but with a veteran-filled roster and a shortage of elite talent, they are only marginally better than the team that was swept out of the postseason by Oklahoma City.
First, it was the improbable addition of Steve Nash, then the signing of Antawn Jamison for the veteran’s minimum and finally the blockbuster trade for Dwight Howard in which the team managed to keep Pau Gasol and not assume any egregious contracts in the process.
Suddenly, Los Angeles had vaulted from being too old and poor defensively to reach the Finals to being the odds-on Western Conference favorite thanks to a brutal inside-out game and the addition of the league’s top defensive player in Howard.
Although it may take some time for all the new pieces to sync up and for Howard to return to full strength following back surgery, this team has the talent to simply overwhelm any opponent. It can play any style of basketball, exploiting Nash’s court vision and Howard’s athletic ability to push the pace or using Gasol and Kobe Bryant’s post-scoring skills to slow a game down and play in the half court.
Last season, Howard averaged 20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.1 blocks while shooting a blistering 57.3 percent from the floor. Having Nash to run the pick-and-roll with him as well as having Gasol draw opposing big men away from the basket with his shooting and ball-handling will make Howard an even more potent offensive weapon than he was in Orlando, and having three-point threats in Bryant, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will give him kick-out options on double teams.
Bryant is still one of the league’s best scorers and with a legitimate backup in Meeks and plenty of surrounding star power, he will not have to play absurd minutes and risk breaking down like he did at the end of last season.
The Lakers have one of the league’s better defensive coaches in Mike Brown and with Howard protecting the rim and Bryant and Metta World Peace still capable of locking down their assignment, this L.A. squad is an absolute nightmare defensively.
The Lakers struggled to produce points consistently last season, but now have the offensive firepower to keep pace with the Thunder and Clippers.
They may have some difficulty out of the gate as plenty of super-teams do, but this team has too much talent not to be considered a championship contender in 2012-13.
If basketball games were played on only the offensive end of the court then the Brooklyn Nets would be surefire title contenders, but unfortunately their defensive futility will keep them from making a title run in their first year in New York.
Deron Williams is the heart of this team, and the star point guard had a very solid 2011-12 season in which he averaged 21 points, 3.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists, but even with his playmaking and scoring ability, Williams does not have the talent around him to pilot this team to anything but a second-round postseason defeat.
The team’s blockbuster trade for Joe Johnson brought Williams an All-Star backcourt mate, but even though he averaged 18.8 points last season, Johnson is still a poor defender and a volume scorer who is not the same dynamic perimeter threat he was when he first joined the Atlanta Hawks.
Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries were all re-signed by the team and while all three can provide scoring in different ways, Wallace’s injury history and reliance on athleticism, Lopez’s tendency to play small and Humphries’ lack of polish are all significant issues.
Beyond Wallace this Nets team does not have any quality defenders and will have a tough time coming up with key stops late in games and in the playoffs.
Had Brooklyn been able to land Dwight Howard, the perfect rebounder/rim-protector combination, the Nets' lack of perimeter defense would be less of a glaring weakness, but with Lopez manning the middle they will have difficulty stopping even the most mediocre of offensive teams.
Though this team has depth at the power forward and shooting guard spot thanks to rugged rebounder Reggie Evans and scorer MarShon Brooks, the team needs Lopez and Wallace to be healthy as it has little off the bench at the 3 and 5 positions.
Billy King and the Brooklyn front office succeeded in bringing an entertaining, playoff-level team with them as they crossed the Hudson river, but without a star big man to pair with Deron Williams they simply are not at contender status.
This admittedly is the selection I have the most reservations about, but I believe that with the additions of Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson this Philadelphia team should be considered a legitimate contender for the first time since Allen Iverson donned a Sixers jersey. The team gained valuable experience during the playoffs last year and is filled with young, improving talent that should take a big step forward next season.
The key for Philly is Bynum, who is coming off of a breakout year in which he averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 boards, 1.4 assists and 1.9 blocks per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. The knee injuries that had hampered him early in his career appeared to not be an issue, and he managed to cut down on fouls and stay on the floor for 35.2 minutes per game.
Bynum gives the Sixers a player who knows what it takes to win a championship and who, if he can stay healthy and continue to mature, could easily be a top-10 player next season and challenge for the role of top center in the league. With the shots easier to come by, it is not a stretch to see Bynum averaging 25 points a game in 2012-13.
Beyond their new superstar center, Philly has Jrue Holiday running the point and Evan Turner coming off of an outstanding postseason in which he finally looked like the player worth the second overall pick in 2010. Holiday is a great athlete, a blur in the open court and has improved his halfcourt playmaking and on-ball defense to the point where he is a genuine asset in both categories. He averaged 15.8 points and 5.2 assists per game in the playoffs.
Turner’s postseason numbers of 11.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists are impressive too as the swingman showcased a grittiness defensively and on the glass that should earn him plenty of playing time next year.
The 76ers wilted down the stretch last season, but they appeared poised to win the Atlantic Division thanks to their aggressive, full-court defense and ability to push the ball in transition. Now, with Bynum manning the paint the team has the dominant presence down low that it desperately needed against Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Sixers still have athletic forward Thaddeus Young and added sharpshooters Dorell Wright, Nick Young and Jason Richardson to round out their roster, and as long as their young players continue to develop and the defense stays aggressive, Doug Collins should have this up-and-coming 76ers squad in the title conversation next year.
Last year’s Indiana Pacers rode their young legs and roster familiarity to a 42-win season and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs, but while they should still be in the Eastern Conference’s top-four and poised for another conference semifinals appearance, they lack that one transcendent player necessary to lead them to the organization’s first championship.
Unless Roy Hibbert or Paul George can take a tremendous developmental leap, Indiana will remain a deep team filled with quality players, but lacking any one individual that can take over a game.
Hibbert averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and two blocks per game last season, en route to his first All-Star berth, but also disappeared for stretches of games and failed to use his height and length to dominate offensively in the key.
In addition, Hibbert struggled in the last three playoff games against Miami, when the Heat sped the game up and essentially made Hibbert a complete non-factor on anything but the boards. The league is trending toward a small-ball era where teams opt for mobility in place of size, making it difficult for a fairly unathletic center like Hibbert to impact the game.
Danny Granger will continue to be the team’s lead scorer, and though he can occasionally explode for 25 or 30 points, he is still primarily a volume shooter who cannot carry an offense by himself. Granger struggled with his shot in the playoffs, connecting on only 39.7 percent of his attempts from the field.
The team has quality depth with veteran power forward David West, improving, hyper-athletic shooting guard Paul George and sharpshooting point George Hill, but the team made some curious offseason moves through trades, free agency and the draft.
With the 26th pick in the draft, the team made a serious reach for Duke power forward Miles Plumlee, whose only real asset is a high motor as he lacks offensive polish and the ability to consistently protect the rim. The team also traded former starting point guard Darren Collison and perimeter defender Dahntay Jones to Dallas for another backup big man in Ian Mahinmi.
The team signed D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green to shore up the backcourt, but neither will see major minutes and the roster still has a hole at the reserve 3 spot.
The Pacers have cemented themselves as a playoff-caliber team, but without a star player and a clear late-game closer, the team simply won’t be making the NBA Finals any time soon.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming off of a heartbreaking Finals loss, but with their under-23 corps of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden gaining valuable experience and continuing to improve on both ends of the court, the team undoubtedly has a great chance to win the Western Conference for the second season in a row.
Durant is coming off of the best all-around season of his career, as he averaged a league-leading 28 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists in addition to over a block and a steal per contest. Durant made huge strides as a facilitator, working with the ball in his hands and initiating the offense; and as a defender, not being pushed around as easily and sticking with his man on the perimeter.
Westbrook’s scoring ability is well-known, but the 23-year-old point guard was practically unguardable in the playoffs as he broke down defenses off the dribble and attacked the rim seemingly at will. The two-time All-Star averaged 23.6 points, 4.6 boards and 5.5 assists last season while showing off an improved stroke from midrange. Although his assist numbers dropped, Westbrook spent less time with the ball in his hands and did more work coming off of screens and slashing to the hoop.
Harden emerged last year as the league’s best sixth man and is poised to have another stellar year as the Thunder’s top reserve. Harden can play both guard positions and is Oklahoma City’s best playmaker as he can get into the lane and collapse a defense or run the pick-and-roll to perfection from the perimeter. Although he is not lightning-quick like Westbrook, Harden is a solid defender, a consistent three-point shooter and is crafty enough to get to his spots on the floor even without blinding speed.
Beyond their three star wing players, Oklahoma City boasts a deep supporting cast that features shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka, low-post protectors Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison as well as solid backup guards in Thabo Sefolosha and Eric Maynor, who will be back from an ACL tear.
The Thunder’s overall defense improved last season, and they still have one of the league’s most high-octane offenses.
Though they lack consistent scoring from the frontcourt, Perkins excels at guarding Dwight Howard on the block and Ibaka has improved as a finisher at the rim and a perimeter jump shooter.
OKC’s dynasty may be in jeopardy with the possible departures of Harden and Ibaka, but the team will certainly be vying for a championship in 2012-13.
The New York Knicks had one of the busiest offseasons of any team in the NBA, losing Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields but snagging Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby among others to round out their roster and build a defensive-oriented, veteran team that fits Mike Woodson’s system.
However, the team is still not quite a contender as it aged rapidly through free agency and lacks the offensive production outside of Carmelo Anthony to beat the league’s elite teams.
Amar’e Stoudemire is coming off of a disheartening 2011-12 season in which he battled injuries, looked hampered for much of his time on the court and averaged 17.5 points, 7.8 boards and 1.1 assists per game, paltry numbers by his standards. With three years and over $60 million remaining on his current deal, Stoudemire will be practically impossible to unload. He struggled under Woodson’s guidance in the postseason, averaging just 15.3 points in four games.
At the heart of the Knicks’ issues is the inability for Anthony and Stoudemire to co-exist. Anthony thrives in isolation plays and needs the ball in his hands to be effective, preferring to take his man off the dribble or attack from the post than to slash and cut without the basketball, while Stoudemire plays best in a fast-paced offense with a dynamic point guard that can get him the ball in his most effective spots.
Neither can consistently make a positive impact on the game without scoring, and both struggled to play together in the frontcourt last season, with teams keying in on them and exploiting their poor defense. While there is still the chance the two could find a way to thrive as a tandem, that cannot happen if they are not willing to put in more effort defensively and on the boards.
Tyson Chandler should have some serious momentum after a season in which he averaged 11.3 points and 9.9 boards while winning Defensive Player of the Year, but while his rim-protecting presence coupled with Iman Shumpert and Ronnie Brewer’s perimeter prowess will win the Knicks their share of games, Chandler is an inconsistent producer offensively who can do little scoring away from the rim.
New York’s slew of new pieces including Felton, Brewer, Camby and Jason Kidd will be asked to make an immediate impact but all have their best basketball behind them. While the backcourt of Felton and Brewer should be solid defensively, leaning on Camby and Kidd is risky on a night-in, night-out basis given their age and mileage.
A team can focus all of its efforts on stopping Anthony, confident that the Knicks don't have the talent to manufacture consistent points without their star small forward playing his best.
The Knicks won’t be clawing for a playoff berth as they were over the past two seasons, but with a mismatched roster and not enough scoring outside of ‘Melo, they are far from bringing New York its first NBA championship since 1973.