6 NBA Teams We're Not Counting out of Title Contention Just Yet

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2013

6 NBA Teams We're Not Counting out of Title Contention Just Yet

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    The 2012-13 NBA season has been full of surprises, particularly in terms of certain good teams suddenly playing below expectations. We have definitely seen this from the Los Angeles Lakers, who have struggled despite a prolific offseason, and from the Brooklyn Nets, who had a lot of hype coming into the season.

    It's easy to trash these struggling teams, but one thing is even harder: Giving up on them. As disappointing as this small handful of squads has been, fans are still hoping for a midseason turnaround and a magical run to the playoffs. The teams are so good on paper and to see them not contend for a title would be a waste of talent, not to mention it would be utterly disappointing.

    Sure enough, a good number of teams in the league right now fall into this category. While their futures may not look bright, it's still too early to hand them a death sentence now. Regardless of what critics may say, these teams can still contend for a title, no matter how ugly they look doing it.

No. 6: Golden State Warriors

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    The Warriors are unlike most of the teams on this list. Rather than getting off to a disappointing start, they have actually played beyond expectations.

    Golden State is an extremely young team, and there were a lot of question marks surrounding them heading into this season. First, could center Andrew Bogut stay healthy? Moreover, was offensive leader Stephen Curry's ankle fully healed?

    Bogut has only appeared in four games due to a balky ankle, but Curry has energized the entire team with his return. He is averaging 20.1 points and 6.5 assists, and is shooting a deadly 45 percent from long range.

    Curry has also formed excellent on-court relationships with teammates David Lee and Klay Thompson, both of whom help add an extra bit of oomph to Golden State's offense. The team currently ranks fifth in the Western Conference and while the players are young and very inexperienced, it's still hard to say that the team definitely will not contend for a championship this season.

No. 5: Denver Nuggets

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    Denver made a big splash during the offseason when it acquired the dynamic and athletic Andre Iguodala via the Dwight Howard trade, but the team has not performed up to par despite incredible depth. Rather than move Danilo Gallinari to shooting guard and let Iguodala play his natural position at small forward, it has been vice versa.

    As a result, Iguodala's offensive game has struggled, though his defense has been top-notch. On top of that, Karl has insisted on starting Kosta Koufos at center, preferring to use the explosive and potential superstar-in-the-making Javale McGee off the bench.

    The Nuggets thus stand No. 7 in the Western Conference, far below what was expected of them prior to the season. The sad part is that the situation can probably be rectified by a mere rotation shuffle. Yet, Karl holds his ground.

    However, for all we know, the man could come to his senses and make the necessary changes in the near future. In doing so, the Nuggets could finally reach their full potential and not mark this season as a disappointment.

    Though the odds of Karl changing his mind may seem unlikely, the remote possibility that he could do just that makes it impossible to count the Nuggets out.

No. 4: Boston Celtics

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    The Celtics came within one win of a trip to the NBA Finals last season, and fans knew this season would be different when star shooter Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat in July. Still, the additions of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee made it seem like GM Danny Ainge did a good job of plugging the leaks.

    Sadly, those leaks have sprung again. Lee and Terry have both been general disappointments, and the combined age of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has been exposed. Boston is the worst rebounding team in the league and is just barely hanging onto the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

    The only bright spots for the Celtics have been Pierce, who can still score and make clutch shots with the NBA's best, and point man Rajon Rondo, who has continued to be a fine playmaker.

    That said, as bad as the Celtics have looked this season, they are still the team that nearly made the NBA Finals last season. To write them off just because of a sluggish start is just premature.

No. 3: Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets had it all at the start of the season. They had a new name, a new arena and a talented group of players headlined by what team management called the "Core Four."

    The team got off to a hot start, posting an 11-4 record, but then the wheels fell off. The Nets got into a seemingly unending funk, one that saw head coach Avery Johnson fired and replaced with assistant P.J. Carlesimo.

    Brooklyn now stands 19-15, and is currently on a three-game winning streak. The team's overall inexperience is clear, and no identity has really been set in stone. Star point guard Deron Williams' shooting struggles have not gone away, and he is just barely above 40 percent from the field on the year. Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez have been solid, but the team needs Williams at 100 percent in order to truly contend.

    Just when Williams will be back at full form remains to be seen, but the fact that the Nets have stayed in the playoff race in spite of his inconsistency is a testament to the team as a whole. They have what it takes to win it all, so to say they're out of the race now would be jumping the gun.

No. 2: Los Angeles Lakers

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    It's been a roller coaster of a season for the Los Angeles Lakers. GM Mitch Kupchak landed both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard over the summer, but then coach Mike Brown chose to employ the Princeton offense. That led to a 1-4 start, and Brown was fired.

    The offense-minded Mike D'Antoni stepped in as head coach, but the Lakers have still struggled to get over the hump. Pau Gasol has complained about his role in the new system, and Nash missing nearly two months with a fractured leg did not help matters either.

    It hasn't gotten any easier for the Lakers. Gasol is expected to miss at least two games with a concussion, and Howard will be out at least a week with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

    Both men are tremendous losses, but the Lakers still have a good backcourt tandem in Kobe Bryant and Nash. Whether Gasol misses two games or four or Howard misses one week or three, the Lakers can still go on a run.

    It's just a matter of them wanting it. Seeing as how they are just two years removed from a championship and Kobe Bryant is in the hunt for a sixth championship ring, the desire had better start making its appearance soon.

No. 1: Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls finished each of the last two seasons at least tied for the best record in the NBA, but they have been shorthanded for all of 2012-13. Star point guard Derrick Rose has yet to appear in a game as he recovers from ACL surgery, and his absence has been felt both on the court and in the clubhouse.

    Still, the Bulls have played excellent basketball without him. Chicago currently ranks No. 5 in the Eastern Conference, which isn't at all bad considering how the team essentially crumbled after Rose was injured in the first game of last year's playoffs.

    Rose has recently returned to practice and though team management has not been very specific with the status of his rehab, everything appears on target for a return at or around the All-Star Break. At that point, the Bulls will finally have their leader back on the floor and have a solid offense to go with their already stingy defense.

    With the man capable of leading them to a championship inching closer and closer to a return, how can we as fans count the Bulls out now?