Top 10 2013 NBA Title Favorites on Christmas Eve
The NBA season is long, and perspective on Christmas Eve is far different than reality in June.
Sometimes it's best to step aside and let a guy who has been through it all offer some first-hand analysis.
A lengthy one-on-one conversation with Los Angeles Lakers veteran Antawn Jamison prior to Saturday night's game at Golden State offered plenty of that grander perspective.
While Jamison has plenty of reasons to be negative as he flounders in Los Angeles, one of the league's straight shooters opted not to badmouth his new squad and, instead, chose to reveal context.
I've known the veteran since his days with the Golden State Warriors, and when things were bad, he said they were bad. So his words in our conversation about the Lakers' future carried weight.
"I’ve been in the league 15 years, and I know that everything doesn't always go the way you want it to go," Jamison said. "So for us, we're just preaching patience, pulling for one another, and we’ll start playing our best basketball at the right time.
"You know it’s a long season, we just need to continue playing. We've got to stay positive and everything will take care of itself."
Jamison is a quality guy, and sometimes it's the big-picture mind of a veteran like him that brings some perspective. Things have been bad for the Lakers, but it's far from over.
And that doesn't just go for the Lakers, but the entire league—good or bad.
While things might look rough in November or December, there's still plenty of time to move back in the right direction, or vice versa.
The New York Knicks have found early success in the regular season, but does their top record in the Eastern Conference make them favorites for the finals?
What does it mean that the Chicago Bulls are in first place even without Derrick Rose?
Let Jamison's words of perspective help guide this list of favorites.
Remember, this list of contenders shouldn't serve as power rankings or a guide to the current standings. These are the top 10 favorites for an NBA title.
(All statistics accurate as of Dec. 24)
10. Golden State Warriors
This is not a mistake.
The Golden State Warriors belong on this list for the first time in many years.
As strange as it seems, the Warriors are proving more and more to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
Between the star power of Stephen Curry and David Lee and bench depth that features Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, the Warriors have a level of depth that they haven't had since the "We Believe" years, during which Monta Ellis was actually a bench player.
Both Curry and Lee should be All-Stars.
Rookies Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli round out a young nucleus that also includes the second-year shooting of Klay Thompson.
The Warriors failed their recent test against the Los Angeles Lakers, but perhaps only because they turned the ball over 19 times and were playing their fourth game in five days. They're still young.
Other than that, the Warriors (18-10) are second in the Pacific Division and have quality wins against opponents such as the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks.
They are still a long shot to win the title, but they belong on this list ahead of Brooklyn, the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz. A tougher stretch of the Warriors' schedule will be telling.
Note for satisfaction: The Minnesota Timberwolves could prove deserving of a spot on this list depending on the health and play of Ricky Rubio.
9. Atlanta Hawks
The home win against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night offered a bit of that "we-can-beat-the-big-boys" confidence.
Earlier this December, the Hawks had failed to beat the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors.
Other than beating the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets this month, it appeared the Hawks were a team that would eat up lesser opponents but lose to authentic contenders.
But the victory against Chicago was telling, considering that the Bulls had been playing good basketball, including a road win on Friday night at the New York Knicks.
As exemplified by out-rebounding Chicago 45-31, the Hawks have an interesting advantage with the dynamic athleticism of Josh Smith and Al Horford. The quickness that these two possess creates matchup problems for bigger frontcourts—something that could really work in Atlanta's advantage come playoff time.
The Hawks could keep surprising teams down the stretch and pull off a first-round series victory next spring.
8. Chicago Bulls
We already knew that Joakim Noah had plenty of fight in him.
The Chicago Bulls are in first place in the Central Division because Noah and Carlos Boozer have been better players than they were last year.
They've had to be with the absence of the still-recovering Derrick Rose.
Whether it's Noah, Boozer or Luol Deng, Chicago seems to have a new guy stepping up for it each night.
There also isn't going to be a problem of Rose returning and ruining the current flow of the team. Rose isn't that kind of guy or that kind of player. He'll just be another major—check that, incredibly major—piece when he does return.
No team will want to match up with the Bulls come playoff time.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies peaked in November.
Since starting the season 12-2 and conducting the NBA's hype train, the Grizzlies have come back down to Earth. In December, they are a mediocre 6-5.
This will be the case for Memphis throughout the remainder of the season. At times it'll be great, and at other times it'll simply be unexceptional.
The Grizzlies went nuts in November by knocking off the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Since Dec. 1, the team has lost to the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets.
They've been passable, not failing, but it hasn't carried the same cries of "oh my gosh, check out Memphis" like it did during the start of the season.
Memphis doesn't have a superstar to carry it through the rougher months, and it won't have that superstar to carry it in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies will remain just good enough to reach the conference finals, but no further.
6. San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs aren't going anywhere, and they haven't been for years.
The nucleus keeps producing.
Tim Duncan's mechanical shell is functioning just as efficiently as ever.
Manu Ginobili's injuries don't keep him down for long.
Tony Parker is still just 30 years old and may end up as one of the game's all-time great guards by the time his career is over.
In other words, the Spurs are consistently a threat for the title.
San Antonio welcomed Dirk Nowitzki back with a thumping on Sunday night, as the Spurs emphasized their place as the top team in the Southwest.
As much as basketball fans outside of Texas want to ignore what the Spurs continue to accomplish, it's clear that they are top contenders once again.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
My conversation with Antawn Jamison went further:
"Hopefully it’s the storybook beginning that we’re looking for," Jamison said. "You know, to struggle, to have doubts, to get things together, and to play the way we know we’re capable of playing and having a lot of success.
"But there are a lot of variables that are going to be involved: guys making sacrifices, staying healthy and being committed to the system. If we do those things, we will be capable of being the team everyone is expecting."
Jamison, despite averaging less than five minutes per game in the Lakers' last four contests, provides a greater perspective only gained through 15 years in the league: This thing is not over for Los Angeles.
Steve Nash's impact in the win at Golden State on Saturday was evidence of just that. Even in his first game back, Nash's valuable 40 minutes included big shots and the engineering of the Lakers offense.
While consecutive wins against Washington, Philadelphia and Charlotte as well as the overtime victory against the Warriors don't prove anything just yet, it is a step in the right direction.
There's still way too much talent—and way too much time left in the season—to count the Lakers out as a contender.
What I wrote in November still stands: This team will be in the mix when it's all said and done.
4. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks, owners of the Eastern Conference's second-best record, have a big test coming up.
The Knicks stormed out of the gates this season behind great defense and a greater all-around game from Carmelo Anthony.
December has been another good month. The Knicks fell twice to the Chicago Bulls in December, but the team's only other loss came to the Houston Rockets on Dec. 17.
But the looming, real test is coming.
Stoudemire won't need to do as much as he once did, as the Knicks have created such a successful flow without him.
But New York coach Mike Woodson is no dummy, and he won't be willing to blow up the team's chemistry to make way for a high-paid superstar if the fit isn't right. Stoudemire said he doesn't mind coming off the bench and easing his way back into things.
If the Knicks can embrace his talent and blend him into their success, they will become one of the top contenders for the title.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are not just a "for now" team.
There are plenty of reasons to like the Clippers as an authentic contender.
They're deeper than a Robert Frost poem on Christmas.
Los Angeles is receiving 26.6 points per game from two guys off the bench, Jamal Crawford (16.3) and Matt Barnes (10.3). The team's backup point guard tandem of Eric Bledsoe and a now-healthy Chauncey Billups provides even more added points and assists.
Even Lamar Odom, who plays best when he feels needed, is working back into a proper playing mode. Imagine how much depth this team will have when Grant Hill returns.
It's not just a collection of names either; there is chemistry to this depth.
Chris Paul is once again the class of NBA point guards, back in top-level shape and leading this team defensively. The Clippers are a top-five defensive team, allowing an average of just 91.6 points per game.
The hottest team in the league, the Clippers have won 13 consecutive games. However, of those 13 wins, only one (Chicago) is against a team that is more than two games over .500. In fact, only four of the 13 wins have come against teams with records of .500 or greater.
Still, you can't knock a team for beating teams it should beat.
Plus, wins in November came against the San Antonio Spurs (twice), Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. also beat the Memphis Grizzlies to open the season.
The Clippers are legitimate contenders for the NBA title.
2. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat belong to LeBron James.
There is no longer any more confusion in regards to that. He is surrounded by veteran talent, and the Heat have the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But repeating in the NBA is a difficult task, and the Heat have their share of issues: the defense is not the same, rebounding is an issue and Dwyane Wade needs more healthy months like November than December.
Still, the Heat have time to work out the kinks, and they get to do so with arguably two of the best players in the game. Both James and Wade have incredible shooting percentages at this one-third mark of the season.
The Heat are the favorites to return to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year.
But there's one team that should be the favorite to take them down this time around.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
It's another season, and once again the Oklahoma City Thunder have gotten better.
So has their best player, Kevin Durant, who is making the argument that he's the best player in basketball.
His sidekick, Russell Westbrook, continues to blossom, and his career-high 8.8 assists offer proof that he's taking on a greater role as a point guard.
The addition of shooter Kevin Martin and the all-around improvement of Serge Ibaka have added to the offensive output for the league's second-best-scoring team.
But the reason that the Thunder should be favorites to win the title has to do with the young team's ability to play some defense, allowing just 96.2 points per game.
The Thunder are a more complete team than the Miami Heat, and a seven-game series might not swing Miami's way as it did to end last season.
The Thunder move the ball better, score more and play better defense.
The combination of Durant and Westbrook is equal to the combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It's the surrounding players who break the tie, and the Thunder have deeper talent.
According to hoopsstats.com, the bench production of both the Thunder and Heat offer similar statistics, but Oklahoma City has more guys that can rebound, defend and score from different areas on the floor.
At 21-5, the best record in the league, Oklahoma City has to be considered the favorite to win the title this season.
Follow @jimmypspencer for more NBA news and analysis.