The Only Legit NBA Title Contenders
Oftentimes, fans and analysts bestow the label of "elite" upon players and teams that have reached a tier of greatness. The fact of the matter is, there are few teams in the NBA that actually fit such a billing.
The following slides will define those teams—the only legitimate title contenders in the NBA.
This is not to say that other teams cannot reach this level, but instead to honor the facts. It is about more than a win-loss record or the promise of young stars.
Come the postseason, there is a formula for success. Not every team fits such a rare classification.
The question is, who does?
All statistics are accurate as of January 23, 2013. Advanced Statistics via ESPN.
Eastern Conference Wild Cards
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With the amount of talent on the Boston Celtics' roster, they should make this list. After all, the likes of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are complemented by limitless depth.
Unfortunately, the Celtics are performing well below their current standards. Flirting with .500 and having Doc Rivers threaten to make severe changes is not the way to establish title legitimacy.
Deron Williams has made one conference finals and two conference semifinals appearances in his career. Joe Johnson has three conference semifinals appearances.
Paired with unparalleled depth and Brook Lopez's monster season, Brooklyn has approached legitimacy.
In January alone, Brooklyn has defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks. As soon as Deron Williams and Joe Johnson discover consistency, the Nets will become legitimate contenders.
If Derrick Rose can return to superstar status, the Chicago Bulls will be legitimate title contenders. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove Rose will return to that level until it actually happens.
The Bulls can make postseason noise with or without D-Rose, but their title legitimacy rests upon his ailing knee. How he returns to game action will decide their status as contenders or pretenders.
No matter how well Chicago plays defensively.
The Indiana Pacers have the NBA's best scoring defense and are poised to see leading scorer Danny Granger return from injury. Unfortunately, we're uncertain as to how effective Granger will be until he actually returns.
Ranking 29th in scoring and 28th in assists per game certainly damages title legitimacy for a team that has not yet made it to the NBA Finals
Whether or not Granger can improve this offense will define title legitimacy. After all, we've seen this story before.
Indiana smothered the Miami Heat defensively but couldn't score down the stretch. With a healthy Chris Bosh, having Paul George and David West won't be enough in this one.
It's all on Granger.
Western Conference Wild Cards
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The Denver Nuggets have won 14 of their past 20 games. They've managed to defeat the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors in that time.
In other words, Denver is finally realizing their potential. With reasonable postseason experience on their roster and exceptional depth, they are certainly primed to make a push to the title.
Having lost two of three, however, our expectations are temporarily tempered.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are playing as well as any other team from an offensive perspective. Unfortunately, an injury to Andrew Bogut has established this team as the 22nd-ranked scoring defense.
With multiple key players having never played in the postseason, the Warriors are built to be a team that makes an early exit. Bogut's potential return from injury could change that.
Los Angeles Lakers
No matter how poorly they may be playing, the Los Angeles Lakers have as much talent as any team in the NBA. Perhaps more.
Which is exactly why they're a wild card.
As long as they make an appearance in the postseason, the Lakers are a threat to win the title. This comes irregardless of their potential seeding or the road to the gold.
With two elite big men, reputable depth and elite defensive prowess, the Memphis Grizzlies are built to win a title. Unfortunately, they appear more concerned with building for the future than winning with the pieces in place.
Memphis traded the best three-point shooter on their 23rd-ranked three-point shooting roster (via ESPN). With him, the Grizzlies dealt a promising young scorer, Josh Selby, and their top reserve big man, Marreese Speights.
A deal one has to question with an aging power forward in Zach Randolph—a player with a history of injury.
Furthermore, Rudy Gay has been involved in trade talks for quite some time (via HoopsWorld). In other words, this small-market franchise is more concerned with avoiding the luxury tax than contending.
Unless they flip Gay for multiple assets, this season might have been squandered.
Los Angeles Clippers
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W-L Record: 32-11
Strength of Schedule: .514 (6th)
Scoring Offense: 101.5 (7th)
Scoring Defense: 93.4 (4th)
Relative Percent Index: .571 (3rd)
The Los Angeles Clippers are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA.
They rank seventh in scoring offense, fourth in scoring defense and first in both second-unit scoring and defensive efficiency.
The Clippers are led by perennial MVP candidate Chris Paul. CP3 presently averages 16.6 points and 9.7 assists, also leading the league in steals.
His PER of 26.11 places third overall and first by position.
The fact of the matter is, the Clippers are an elite team due to their depth—not their star power.
From a quality starting lineup to their endless second unit, L.A. has it all. Jamal Crawford is a prime Sixth Man of the Year candidate, while Matt Barnes is a contender for Most Improved Player.
With Lamar Odom hitting his stride, Eric Bledsoe finding his niche and the rest of the second unit rounding out as defensive specialists, the Clippers are a dangerous squad.
Just imagine how good they'll be when Chauncey Billups returns and Grant Hill hits full strength.
The areas of weakness for the Clippers include their rebounding and free-throw shooting. They rank 17th on the boards and 26th at the charity stripe.
The Clippers will prove to be contenders in spite of those flaws. Improving upon them could be the difference between contending for the title and winning it.
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W-L Record: 26-12
Strength of Schedule: .502 (11th)
Scoring Offense: 102.1 (6th)
Scoring Defense: 96.6 (12th)
Relative Percent Index: .548 (5th)
Is it possible for us to leave the Miami Heat off of this list?
The defending champions may be struggling to find consistency, but they remain the cream of the crop when on their game.
LeBron James continues to perform at a Hall of Fame level, while Dwyane Wade appears to have finally hit full strength. With Chris Bosh carving out his role and Ray Allen stroking it from outside, the star power is certainly there.
The acquisition of center Chris Andersen suggests the interior defense may soon arrive as well (via NBA.com).
Regardless of how Andersen fares, the Heat are legitimate. They return virtually the same cast from their title run and have improved in terms of depth and veteran presence.
No matter how inconsistently they've played, Miami remains the team to beat.
New York Knicks
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W-L Record: 25-14
Strength of Schedule: .495 (18th)
Scoring Offense: 101.1 (8th)
Scoring Defense: 96.3 (10th)
Relative Percent Index: .532 (8th)
The New York Knicks have cooled down as of late, going just 4-5 during the month of January.
With that being said, the Knicks are also in a transitional period as they welcome both Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire back into the rotation. Prior to their downswing, the Knicks were 21-9.
For what it's worth, one of the Knicks' four January wins came against the San Antonio Spurs.
With all of this being noted, the Knicks share a common trait with the other legitimate contenders: balance. They rank 8th in scoring offense and 10th in scoring defense.
With Tyson Chandler in the middle and Iman Shumpert recently returned from injury, expect the latter number to improve.
With Carmelo Anthony leading the way from a scorer's perspective, the Knicks should make a deep postseason run. They rank second in the Eastern Conference and have one number going in their favor.
Since Mike Woodson took over as head coach, they're 25-7 at home.
Seeing as the Knicks are on pace to finish with possession of, at least, one round of home-court advantage, their run to the Finals becomes all the more likely to transpire.
Leading the league in turnover differential certainly doesn't hurt.
Oklahoma City Thunder
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W-L Record: 33-9
Strength of Schedule: .500 (13th)
Scoring Offense: 106.1 (1st)
Scoring Defense: 97.0 (14th)
Relative Percent Index: .572 (2nd)
There is a large population that believes the Oklahoma City Thunder are the best team in the NBA.
Considering they own an NBA-best record of 33-9, it's difficult to dispute that belief.
The reigning Western Conference champions are dominating offensively, averaging 106.1 points per game. Three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant is leading the way at a league-best 29.5 points per.
Durant is also posting a legendary slash line of .519/.417/.910.
Per Basketball-Reference, it would be the 11th time in NBA history that someone achieved such a feat.
Beyond Durant is a two-headed scoring monster in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin. Westbrook is averaging 23.0 points while Martin is at 15.0 on a slash line of .442/.435/.911.
Westbrook is also averaging 8.2 assists.
Serge Ibaka has also come a long way as a scorer, thus padding his elite defensive prowess.
One way or another, the Thunder are going to smother you on both ends of the floor. Their ability to light up the scoreboard simply makes this team all the more difficult to overcome.
Few have been able to in 2012-13.
San Antonio Spurs
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W-L Record: 33-11
Strength of Schedule: .521 (3rd)
Scoring Offense: 104.0 (3rd)
Scoring Defense: 95.8 (7th)
Relative Percent Index: .578 (1st)
The San Antonio Spurs bring back the same team as a year ago with an improved defense, more athleticism and further development on young standouts.
In other words, the Spurs are legitimate NBA championship contenders.
The old guys are out-dueling the young guns, ranking third in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense. Their 33-11 record comes with the third-ranked strength of schedule.
Tim Duncan's revitalization is a major reason why.
The Big Fundamental is presently averaging 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.7 blocks in just 30.2 minutes. This is in addition to a handful of other key factors.
For instance, the Spurs rank first in the NBA in assists.
This level of ball movement creates ranks of second in field-goal percentage, fifth in three-point field-goal percentage and fourth from the free-throw line.
Furthermore, San Antonio places eighth in opponent field-goal percentage and first in opponent three-point field-goal percentage.
The coaching of Gregg Popovich makes their run to a title all the more likely.