5 NBA Sleeper Teams That Will Contend in 2012-2013

Jeremy Gottlieb@@jmg2776Contributor IOctober 25, 2012

5 NBA Sleeper Teams That Will Contend in 2012-2013

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    When you aren't a team like Miami, with its two superstars and two other big-time, big-name guys, you're chances to win a title decrease.

    The same goes for not being the Lakers, with their two hammer-lock Hall of Famers playing alongside a couple of other dudes who could very well follow them straight to Springfield.

    Or the Thunder, who have two of the 10 best players in the league, both of them under 25 years old, and a couple more studs right behind them.

    There are a handful of other teams who could well be considered legit championship contenders. The Celtics, the Spurs—even maybe, possibly, the Clippers fit that bill.

    And there are also plenty of also-rans, teams that for whatever reason—be it that they're too young, too old or too lousy—who have no chance.

    But in between lie the sleepers, the teams with enough to maybe pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat if everything breaks their way at just the right time.

    Here's a look at a few of those squads, the ones laying low, waiting for a chance to pounce when no one expects it.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Since Halloween is right around the corner, let's start the presentation with the ultimate trick-or-treaters of the sleeper class.

    The Memphis Grizzlies could contend. Or, they could completely fall off the map.

    On the one hand, Memphis is stacked, especially up front where Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are two of the most-polished big men in the league—particularly Gasol, who has never faced the injury or off-court issues Randolph has.

    The Grizzlies also have arguably the best perimeter defender in the league in Tony Allen, a point guard who gets better every year in Mike Conley and a slasher, scorer at the 3 in Rudy Gay, who is not a superstar but shows flashes of being one.

    On the other hand, now that the Lakers have paired Dwight Howard with Marc's brother Pau in their front court, Memphis falls short of being able to boast the best big-man duo in the West. Gay seemed to hinder the team's growth and diversity at times last season, given his need to have the ball, which takes touches away from Gasol and Randolph. 

    And, who is the shooter on this team? O.J. Mayo kind of filled that role before he signed with Dallas as a free agent.

    But now the pickings are slim on the perimeter. There's not a lot of shots to go around anyway, thanks to Gay, Randolph and Gasol. But this team's lack of a true, consistent outside threat could really hurt them, especially if Randolph and/or Gay can't stay healthy.

    A lot will have to go right for Memphis to make a run. But the parts are almost entirely there, so don't rule it out.

Denver Nuggets

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    The Nuggets are cursed by playing in the Western Conference. In the East, they're possibly a No. 3 seed.

    Still, the importing of Andre Iguodala and the re-signing of Andre Miller were huge moves. The same scrappy, explosive offensive group that gave the Lakers fits last season now has a defense-first guy as a marquee player to go with one of the sturdiest, most solid point guards in the league.

    Where the Nuggets may run into trouble is up front.

    Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are both young, budding stars, but neither are there yet. And both, at present, possess severe limitations. McGee is still learning how to play, how to harness his incredible ability. Faried is a ferocious low-post player but has his problems on defense and can't shoot a mid-range jumper to save his life.

    The Nuggets are deep enough, as they were last year, to throw two entirely different lineups at opponents. And if Danilo Gallinari stays healthy, they have a terrific two-way threat who can shine from three-point range. 

    Still, they need to get better down low despite the talent already there. In the West, that's no easy feat.

Utah Jazz

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    Here's a deep sleeper for you. The Jazz are so loaded up front, they may be able to hang with the Lakers and the Grizzlies in that department.

    Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are proven front-court commodities. Derrick Favors showed flashes last season of erupting into a major defensive presence. And Enes Kanter, last year's lottery pick, has looked very solid during the preseason.

    Now that those four have a year under their belts playing together and a (brief) playoff appearance to show for it, the next logical step is to go a bit further. To help smooth that process along, the Jazz added a couple of wing and backcourt shooters/scorers in Mo Williams and Marvin Williams.

    The latter is no great shakes but he can still hit the occasional three, something the Jazz had in short supply last season. But Mo is a floor general, who can at times take over stretches of games with his scoring ability. These two, along with an improving wing player in Gordon Hayward, strengthen Utah's backbone.

    Playing in the same division as both Oklahoma and Denver isn't going to help the Jazz very much. But they look like they're primed to do some damage for the first time in the post-Jerry Sloan era.

L.A. Clippers

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    This is a go for broke season for the Clips, who have Chris Paul in the last year of his deal and have made moves, moves and more moves to reinforce their roster around him.

    Getting more experienced was at the heart of the Clippers' offseason-shopping spree. They brought in Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Willie Green and Ronny Turiaf to up the depth quotient.

    And don't forget Grant Hill, the oldest, wisest and most experienced of the bunch, who will be the first or second wing player off the bench and will provide defense, leadership and some occasional scoring to the proceedings.

    Of course, the entire operation revolves around Paul and Blake Griffin. It will be nice to have Crawford, sometimes a scoring machine, share duties at the 2 with Chauncey Billups, who is coming back from an Achilles injury. And Hill will provide a solid partner to the underrated Caron Butler at the 3.

    But if Paul and/or Griffin miss any time or aren't playing at the top of their games, Clipper fans can kiss their favorite team's chances goodbye. 

    Given Paul's excellence and Griffin's continuing improvement, this is a far-fetched possibility, assuming no one gets hurt (and that the team doesn't have to count on Odom for anything). If coach Vinny Del Negro stays out of the way and everything breaks right, the Clippers could be there come May and June.

Chicago Bulls

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    Don't laugh.

    If Derrick Rose doesn't get injured in Game 1 of the Bulls' first-round series with the 76ers, last season's Eastern Conference playoffs break a lot different.

    That's not to say the Miami wouldn't have won the championship. But the Bulls were the No. 1 seed in the East and the Heat barely got by the Celtics in the conference finals.

    Rose may yet miss the entire season, and if he does, you can stick a fork in the Bulls immediately. But if he comes back in say, February, then is brought along slowly and deliberately and begins to hit his stride come April, watch out for the Bulls if they are able to scrap out a playoff spot.

    That may be easier said than done. Chicago has a number of veterans who've had a number of health issues, the most recent being Rose's backup/replacement, Kirk Hinrich, who's now dealing with a groin issue.

    The Eastern Conference drops off a bit after the Heat, Celtics and Indiana Pacers, but it may be asking a bit too much for this group to be one of its top eight teams.

    Don't count Rose out, though. And if he makes it back, don't count out the Bulls at all.