Separating NBA Title Pretenders from Legit Contenders Heading into 2013
We are but two months into the NBA season, yet the picture of who is going to end up playing in the NBA Finals is starting to look clearer and clearer.
There seem to be a few teams we can already rule out after some preseason projections had them high on everyone's list, like the Denver Nuggets, but other teams continue to look as murky as they were on day one, like the Los Angeles Lakers.
Surprises have come from everywhere, the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks populate the top of the Eastern Conference, and disappointments have had their fair share of time in the media, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers continue to struggle.
What do we know compared to two months ago? A lot more actually.
The James Harden trade didn't kill the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers are the best team in Hollywood and Danny Granger is more important than we thought.
However, we still don't know exactly how far the league's best teams can make it through this jumble of an NBA season.
So, instead of sitting back and waiting for it all to wash over us, it seems like a good team to take everything in and determine who can and who can't win an NBA title based on what we've seen so far.
Miami Heat: Contenders
Let's get the obvious out of the way right off the bat.
The Miami Heat won the NBA title last season, they're just as good, and if not, they're better than they were a season ago.
Miami can repeat; there's no doubt about it.
When you've got the best basketball player in the NBA stepping onto the court for 40 minutes a game in the playoffs, odds are good that your team can win a seven-game series against any other team in the league.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Contenders
Once again, there's a lot of obvious we can get out of the way with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They were the best Western Conference team a season ago, making it to the NBA Finals thanks to a win over the San Antonio Spurs (last season's regular season champion), and they look to be even better this season.
Kevin Durant has an all-around game like we've never seen him play before, Russell Westbrook's point guard skills are at an all-time high and Kevin Martin has become one of the most important spot-up shooters in the NBA.
Couple that with the fact that they've got a decent bench, a much-improved Serge Ibaka and the assets to add another very good player at the trade deadline if they so choose, and you've got yourself the most dangerous team in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers: Pretenders
Maybe we shouldn't be talking about a 14-14 team when we're talking about teams with a chance of winning the NBA title, but if we didn't, we would be complete idiots.
The detractors that think this Lakers team can't put everything back together and snag at least the sixth seed in the Western Conference are nothing short of crazy.
Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard could do that by themselves if the other two players consisted of me and Mike Bibby.
However, I don't think they're in a situation to win the NBA Championship this season.
There's just not enough time put into forming some chemistry, they have a very weak bench and they're going to be facing some very good teams all throughout the playoffs.
That being said, this Lakers team is only going to get better next season, and if we take a look one year from now, the rest of the league is probably going to be quivering in their boots.
New York Knicks: Contenders
I never thought I would say it, but I trust Carmelo Anthony to lead his team to an NBA championship.
Not only that, I almost trust Carmelo Anthony to lead the chronically woeful New York Knicks to the NBA championship.
As it's been iterated a few thousand times since the start of the season, I'm not going to be able to fully trust them until I see how Amar'e Stoudemire fits back into the rotation, but if he's able to bring anything positive to this team, along with Iman Shumpert, this Knicks team could get a lot better.
The Olympic experience seemed to do a lot of good for Anthony. He seems to be the leader that he's never been able to be in the past, and with that, I've got high hopes for this Knicks team.
I wouldn't necessarily go down to the gambling parlor and throw down a few Benjamins on the Knicks, but I can see them getting to the NBA Finals. And who knows, if they make it that far, a stroke of luck or a ride on the wheel of fortune might push them even farther along.
San Antonio Spurs: Contenders
They've got an old dude playing center, a chronically-injured sixth man, Stephen Jackson taunting guys, telling them that they, "Ain't 'bout dis life" and they try to run a rotation that goes 10, 11 and 12 guys deep at times.
It might not make sense, but this is an excellent basketball team capable of stringing together wins for weeks at a time.
Of course, this Spurs team will have their ups and downs when three-pointers aren't falling, but they have such a wealth of shooters and an amalgamation of players capable of scoring in so many different ways that they don't necessarily need to hit their threes to win games.
They're an offensive juggernaut not because they make a lot of shots, but because they make a lot of shots in many unique ways.
Plus, the train for doubting the Spurs left years ago. There's nothing left to do but sit back and wait for them to lose. That's the only way we can really know that they aren't winning a title.
Until them, just assume they're going to win it; you'll be less surprised that way.
Boston Celtics: Pretenders
If the Boston Celtics keep their roster the same and make no attempt to bring in somebody who can help them out down the stretch, then there's no reason to believe that this team can win a championship.
I know it's hard to doubt them when they tend to turn up the intensity near the end of the season every year, but this seems like the year when they get knocked out of the first or second round of the playoffs.
The team's core has been playing fine, albeit not outstanding, and while the addition of Avery Bradley will help out, it just doesn't seem like it's going to help enough to land them a title.
Too much of the Celtics' preseason hype was predicated on the unknown. Conjecture was that Jason Terry would be a huge improvement over Ray Allen (he's an improvement, but not huge), Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo could help the team this year (both are still way too raw), Jason Collins and Darko Milicic would block a few shots (Collins barely sees the floor and Darko is gone) and guys like Courtney Lee would fit right in (not so much).
This team just isn't as good as it seemed it would be, and it's not because of an injury or a rotation problem, it's just that it isn't as good together as we thought it would be.
Memphis Grizzlies: Contenders
It's a weird thought, especially with the constant talk about the clash between Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, but there isn't much I dislike about this team.
It's just better than it was last season, and it's by leaps and bounds.
It might be experiencing a bit of addition by subtraction after getting rid of O.J. Mayo, as it runs a much more impressive bench by committee of shooters and defenders rather than having a set sixth man and a few other players who could contribute.
Jarryd Bayless is proving to be a tremendous backup point guard, Zach Randolph is completely healthy, Marc Gasol looks better every time I see him and the team just fits together, save a few overlapping parts in Gay and Randolph.
That might be something it can shave off, however. It's done a pretty good job of sharing the ball throughout the season, and if it continues into the postseason, it's going to be dangerous because of its defense alone.
Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose: Pretenders
The Chicago Bulls are playing at a tremendous level without their MVP point guard, and an idea that his return could put them over the top is growing.
Joakim Noah is playing at an All-Star level, and the frontcourt combination of him and Taj Gibson is nearly impossible to score on.
Combine that with the fact that they (somehow) have another very good group of bench players and that Carlos Boozer hasn't been a disaster this season, and you've got yourself a pretty good basketball team.
However, the thought that Rose can come back and play at full speed after a few months on the floor (maximum) and then stroll into the playoffs and lead this team to the NBA Finals is ridiculous.
I can address the thought once Rose actually returns, but it just seems too farfetched at the moment.
Atlanta Hawks: Pretenders
Are you kidding me? The Atlanta Hawks, NBA championship contenders? Not in this lifetime.
Sure, this Hawks team is a better team than the one that was led to some unceremonious first and second-round exits over the past few seasons, but they're still not a team capable of winning a title.
They have a lot of reliance upon Josh Smith making shots, Lou Williams playing hot and the rest of their bench-sinking three-pointers.
Atlanta may be the third-best team in the Eastern Conference record-wise, but there's no way it's coming anywhere near a title this season.
Los Angeles Clippers: Contenders
I've wrestled with this one for a few days, going back and forth, back and forth and then back again.
The fact is, I don't trust Vinny Del Negro, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan or Jamal Crawford.
This collection of players and Vinny have simultaneously never done anything in the playoffs that would make me think they would help the Clippers make a run this season and have become integral parts to the Clippers' success.
It's just too volatile a situation with so much inexperience being so important to this team.
Yet I keep coming back to Chris Paul.
More and more it seems like it's his year to prove something. He's continued to show that he's the league's best point guard, and as he rolls along, is starting to look like an MVP candidate.
If he can overcome Vinny's off-kilter coaching to lead this team to the best record in basketball, I've got faith in him to keep heads cool in the playoffs.
Don't make me look like an idiot, Chris.