5 NBA Title Pretenders That Will Be Exposed Before Christmas
There will be quite a few great teams in the NBA this season, but only one can hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the postseason.
The nature of the sport is that 30 teams begin training camp dreaming of winning an NBA title, when in reality only a handful of teams have a realistic chance at winning it all.
It's almost cruel how excellent seasons consistently end in heartbreak and despair, but it's one of the things that makes the NBA so addicting.
The 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs appeared unbeatable for two months until the Oklahoma City Thunder proved that the Spurs were very beatable in four straight games. As well as the Spurs played during the 2011-12 season, it's hard to consider the season a success because they failed to win the title.
It can be tough to differentiate the title contenders from the pretenders, but that isn't the case with the league's elite teams.
If a team not named the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder were to win the 2013 NBA title, the world might stop spinning.
OK, maybe not, but that's what you would think by reading season previews.
Sure, the champion will probably come from that trio, but that doesn't mean the rest of the good teams should be ignored.
Not all of those teams will live up to expectations, though. Which will be exposed as pretenders by Christmas?
The Chicago Bulls are hoping that Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson can find a way to replicate the production of Derrick Rose.
While it will be impossible for the trio to make the same impact that Rose did, they should be able to replicate his production at times.
Hinrich is an excellent defender, Belinelli can be very dangerous from behind the arc and on any given night Robinson can go off. This trio is being tasked with doing just enough to keep the team competitive until Rose can return after the All-Star break.
The problem is that the Bulls' best scoring option is either an aging Carlos Boozer or the defensive-minded Luol Deng.
This team was designed to play exceptional defense while allowing Rose to make things happen on the offensive end. When Rose was healthy, that strategy helped the Bulls overcome everyone except the Miami Heat.
Without Rose to lead the offense, they will struggle to score late in games, as they are without a go-to guy. Sure, Boozer is still a talented offensive player, but he isn't going to carry the load by himself.
The Bulls will also be without Omer Asik, who may prove to be one of the NBA's best defensive players this season. It's hard to quantify how much Asik meant to the Bulls, but at the very least, they will miss his presence on the defensive end when Joakim Noah is on the bench.
To overcome the issues that they will face offensively, the Bulls will need to play perfect defense. While I don't doubt that Tom Thibodeau's team will play elite defense, it may be asking too much for them to overcome their offensive woes.
The Bulls very well may prove me wrong and play very well at the beginning of the season, but can you see them beating the Miami Heat even with Derrick Rose?
I certainly can't.
I'm also not sold that Rose will definitely be back this season, as it makes sense to give him ample time to recover.
As long as Rose is healthy, the Bulls will be title contenders, but they won't be contending for this season's crown without their MVP.
The Memphis Grizzlies are going to be a good basketball team again this season, but it remains to be seen if they can regain the form that they showed during the 2011 postseason.
For one, O.J. Mayo signed with the Dallas Mavericks during the offseason. For a team that already lacked shooting, the loss of Mayo could prove crippling.
Zach Randolph is an excellent rebounder with a versatile offensive game, but he has had real problems staying healthy in the recent past. He won't be able to help them from the bench, as injuries limited him to just eight starts during the 2012 season.
In my opinion, Marc Gasol is by far the best player on the team, and his play will dictate just how successful they are early in the season.
Gasol is an elite rebounder, and his play on the defensive end of the court paces the Grizzlies.
Rudy Gay is one of the league's best wing players, but he has to shoot the long ball better than the 21.1 percent that he shot in the first round of the 2012 postseason against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Grizzlies are a fringe contender, but with a core of Gay, Randolph and Gasol, they shouldn't be overlooked or forgotten.
The problem is that the Grizzles have to compete with the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
If they played in the Eastern Conference, then I would be more confident about their chances, but they don't and will have a tough time winning a playoff series.
The Brooklyn Nets will score plenty of points in their first season in the Barclays Center, but they will surrender a lot of points as well.
The frontcourt combination of Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries will be among the NBA's worst defensive tandems. The Nets will struggle to defend the paint, which will result in a lot of free-throw attempts and high-percentage looks for opponents.
The offensive prowess of Lopez and excellent rebounding that Humphries provides will help the team win games, but that production comes at a price.
Deron Williams is good enough to win games single-handedly over the course of a season, but he won't be able to make up for his teammates' defensive woes.
While Joe Johnson's level of play won't match his salary, he is an excellent isolation player and is a decent defender.
It would take an exceptional defensive backcourt to make up for their frontcourt, and while Williams and Johnson will be good, they won't be good enough.
This year's Brooklyn Nets team will be far better than the 2012 New Jersey Nets, and that will be evident in the team's final record.
Once the new-look Nets tip off their regular season, it will quickly become evident that they aren't capable of playing the type of defense that wins championships.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers have one of the NBA's deepest rosters, with many of those players being veterans.
In the offseason, they brought in Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford to aid the superstar duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
The Clips have one of the league's worst free-throw shooting frontcourts, as Griffin and DeAndre Jordan shot 52.1 and 52.5 percent, respectively, from the charity stripe during the 2011-12 season.
Head coach Vinny Del Negro needs his big men to be more efficient from the line, and the Clippers would be much more dangerous if they took advantage of their free throws.
The best-case scenario is that Chauncey Billups, Odom and Crawford all bounce back this year, while young players like Jordan and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe continue to progress into very good players.
As long as the Clippers have Paul and Griffin, they will be must-watch television.
There are few things in sports that are as entertaining as Paul throwing lobs up to Griffin and Jordan.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they are in the same conference as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.
The Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the 2012 playoffs, with only one game being close in the final minutes.
Del Negro is yet to prove that he is a quality head coach, and his presence on the sidelines does little for the confidence of the basketball world.
Everything would have to go right for the Clippers to advance to the Western Conference finals, as they would likely have to overcome either the Lakers or Thunder to get there.
The Clippers wouldn't be the second-best team in any other major city, but since they share an arena with the Lakers, they will have to prove that they aren't the second-best show in town on the court.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks are a must-watch team because of the franchise's prestige and all of the storylines that surround their current roster.
The questions surrounding the Knicks are never-ending, though.
Can Carmelo Anthony transform into a complete player and leader?
Will Amar'e Stoudemire find his place in the offense?
Will GM Glen Grunwald regret not re-signing Jeremy Lin?
The Knicks finished the 2011-12 season ranked 11th in points allowed, and I see them improving on that ranking this season.
With Mike Woodson at the helm for a full season, the Knicks will play smart, tough and energized defense and will finish in the top 10 in points allowed this season.
However, the Knicks will be labeled pretenders due to their problems on the offensive end of the floor.
Giving the ball to Anthony in isolation over and over isn't going to yield an efficient offense.
While Anthony and Stoudemire haven't played with each other as much as most teammates who have been on the same team for a season and a half, there isn't much evidence to suggest that the two are going to complement each other.
Stoudemire and Anthony both do their offensive damage inside 18 feet, and with only Steve Novak as a threat from behind the arc, the Knicks will be forced to run a cramped offense.
The Knicks are also counting on older players, as Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby will both be asked to play important roles coming off the bench.
Even if things go perfectly for the Knicks, they have virtually no chance to get past the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.
As we are putting out cookies for Santa Claus, we will do so knowing that the Knicks are drawing dead in terms of winning the 2013 NBA title.