If you let your imagination loose when thinking about the midseason title chances for each Eastern Conference playoff contender, it's easy to get caught up in what could happen from now until June. Hope is a funny thing that way; it's sort of infectious, and it has a tendency to make us conflate what's possible with what's probable.
But when you really start to think critically about what's most likely to happen in this year's championship chase, it's pretty clear that only a handful of teams have any real shot at adding the NBA's most coveted piece of hardware to their trophy cases.
That'll come as a blow to fans of teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Those clubs are all in playoff position at the moment, but none have any realistic chance to win a ring.
And when you get down into the numbers, it's interesting to note that even a team with as much hype and marquee talent as the New York Knicks has less than a 10 percent chance of being the last squad standing this spring.
Just getting to the playoffs is tough enough, but in order to go all the way, teams need the proper mix of star power, defensive prowess and coaching acumen. As you'll see, that's an exceedingly rare combination of ingredients.
Prepare for a dose of reality. We've crunched the numbers, factored in the variables and embraced cold objectivity. Here are the title chances for each Eastern Conference playoff contender.
*All stats accurate through games played Jan. 31, 2013
As an introductory aside, there's the small matter of weeding out the teams that simply don't have a chance of even making the playoffs. And just in case anyone was unclear, a team has to actually get to the postseason to have a chance at winning a ring.
This concludes our lesson in obvious basketball basics.
Here are the clubs who'll definitely be on the outside looking in when the regular season mercifully (for them) comes to a close: the Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats.
If any of those squads sniff the playoffs, it'll be a miracle. As such, it's not worth considering them in our title odds. Sorry fellas, this just isn't your year.
Now, onto the teams with—relatively speaking—more realistic chances to win this year's championship.
The Detroit Pistons finished out last season by going 21-21, which gave everyone hope that things might be turning around in the Motor City in 2012-13. Add in the enthusiasm that came with the lottery selection of promising big man Andre Drummond and it was reasonable to peg the Pistons as legitimate playoff contenders.
Well, it turns out the enthusiasm for Drummond was warranted, but the hype around the team as a whole was a bit overblown.
In just over 20 minutes per game, the manchild from UConn is putting up a PER of 22.82, which is good for 11th in the NBA and would easily make him the most successful 19 year old in the league's history.
The Pistons are stuck at 17-29, so even another surprising stretch of .500 ball wouldn't be enough for them to make the dance this year. On the outside chance they somehow undergo a massive turnaround and sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, they're included here.
But they've got the longest title odds of any team that is even remotely near the playoffs in the east.
Title Odds: 400:1
Whether or not Andrew Bynum gives the Philadelphia 76ers decent production when he returns, it's going to be an uphill battle for Jrue Holiday and Co. to make up enough ground to sneak into the playoffs this year.
At 19-26, the Sixers would almost certainly have to win more games than they lose the rest of the way in order to make the postseason. That seems like a nearly impossible task, given the team's total inability to score the ball and its lack of frontcourt depth.
Holiday is having a terrific season, but his team is a long shot to be playing after game No. 82. That makes their title odds similarly unfavorable.
Don't mention that any math or logic went into the calculation of these odds, though. Doug Collins hates that stuff. Besides, his gut probably still tells him he can will his team to the eighth seed through good vibes and gumption.
Title Odds: 150:1
At present, the Milwaukee Bucks are sitting at 24-20, despite a minus-0.3 point differential per game. Defenders of the Bucks often point to the team's 8-4 run under interim coach Jim Boylan and the team's higher scoring totals during the post-Scott Skiles era.
But don't be fooled; just two of those wins under Boylan came against teams currently in playoff position, and the increased scoring has as much to do with weak opponents and a faster pace than any actual improvement in efficiency.
The Bucks are what they are: a pretty good defensive team that struggles to create high-percentage opportunities on offense. And as long as they've got Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt, they'll always have a hard time generating good looks.
The East is weak, though, so they're a pretty safe playoff bet.
But when the postseason starts, Milwaukee's lack of sound offensive principles and inability to get easy shots will make it extremely difficult to advance past the first round. It should also go without saying that an NBA title is all but out of the question.
Title Odds: 100:1
More of this would be nice, Josh.
Can somebody explain how the Atlanta Hawks are currently the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference?
With every report about the Hawks pertaining to an unhappy Josh Smith or an injury to a key player (see: Lou Williams), it's pretty amazing that there's a remote chance they could end up with home-court advantage in a first-round series.
For that to happen, Atlanta must find a way to get Smith to ditch his maddening affinity for shots he simply cannot make. According to Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland.com, the Hawks forward is the league's worst shooter from two distinct areas on the floor. Without going into too much detail, he should basically never shoot from the mid-range area on the right side.
Unless the Hawks are huge fans of sub-30 percent field-goal accuracy.
In addition to Smith's awful shot selection, Atlanta also has its future to think about. With ample cap room and Smith primed to hit unrestricted free agency, the Hawks could very well deal J-Smoove for picks, which would certainly hurt their title odds this year.
As it is, they're still a relative long shot.
Title Odds: 75:1
Consider it a compliment toward the veteran grit of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that the Boston Celtics are even in this conversation.
Before Rajon Rondo went down for the year with an ACL tear, Boston had been having a hell of a time scoring the ball.
Now, without him, the C's are in even bigger trouble.
Sitting at 22-23 at the very bottom of the East's current playoff ladder, the Celtics will have to scratch and claw their way to the postseason. They've defied expectations before. But if they manage to get to the playoffs this year, the reason might ultimately have more to do with the lack of a team good enough to overtake them than it does with any sort of second-half troop rallying.
Still, if the Celtics can hang onto their playoff spot, they'll be more dangerous than you might think. Lockdown defense and veteran guile matter far more during a seven-game series than they do in an 82-game schedule.
And Boston has both of those things in spades.
Title Odds: 40:1
The Brooklyn Nets are yet another team that has played much better under their second coach this year. Since P.J. Carlesimo took control from the ousted Avery Johnson, the Nets have gone from being a .500 club on Dec. 26 to 27-19 as of this writing.
At the moment, they're comfortably occupying the No. 4 slot in the East with a fairly decent chance to move up by one or two positions before it's all said and done.
In other words, they're pretty close to playoff locks at this point.
And there's actually a lot to like about the Nets' postseason prospects. They've got a big, physical back-court tandem in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, a strong emotional leader in Gerald Wallace and a legitimate All-Star center in Brook Lopez.
Yes, the bench is somewhat suspect and they could really use another shooter, but the Nets definitely have a lot of the ingredients necessary for a championship run.
We're safely out of long-shot territory now.
Title Odds: 35:1
If defense really does win championships, then maybe the Indiana Pacers deserve some better odds.
Armed with the NBA's stingiest group of stoppers, Frank Vogel has his Pacers playing the NBA's best D by a pretty shocking margin. At 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, Indy is nearly a full point better than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies.
And that other team in the Central Division that everyone thinks is the league's toughest defensive club, the Chicago Bulls, allows nearly 1.5 more points per 100 possessions than the Pacers do. This is an elite defense, folks.
If Danny Granger gives Indiana an added dose of scoring when he returns, the Pacers could be a real contender to go deep in the East. As such, their title odds are pretty darn good.
Title Odds: 25:1
For starters, the New York Knicks already have two-fifths of a championship-starting five on their roster in Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler, who won it all with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. Kidd is aging and battling a cranky back, but Chandler is in prime form.
In addition to their valuable vets, the Knicks have the required star power in Carmelo Anthony, a solid point guard in Raymond Felton and lots of bench scoring from Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith.
That's a potent offensive mix.
Whether New York will be able to defend at the level necessary to go far in the playoffs is another question, though. With Ronnie Brewer basically out of the rotation and Iman Shumpert a long way from what he was before his knee injury, only Chandler rates as a top-notch stopper.
With the Knicks, we've got the first team on our list that could win a title this year without totally shocking the NBA world. It'd definitely be a surprise, but not nearly to the level of some of the clubs with longer odds that we've already covered.
Title Odds: 12:1
Tom Thibodeau's clubs always play terrific defense, and as was discussed in the Indiana slide, the Chicago Bulls are stopping teams more consistently than all but two other teams in the league this year.
As a total package, the Bulls are a fringe title contender right now. They've got a tireless, do-it-all center in Joakim Noah, a surprisingly still-effective scorer up front in Carlos Boozer and a fantastic two-way wing in Luol Deng. With the emergence of athletic swingman Jimmy Butler and the recent spark they've been getting from Nate Robinson, the Bulls look extremely dangerous.
And that's without Derrick Rose.
If Chicago's MVP returns after the All-Star break at anything near his previous levels of greatness, you can go ahead and use punch the Bulls' ticket to the Eastern Conference finals. Where they go from there is harder to pin down.
But by virtue of their current excellence and their potential to get much, much better in the future, Chicago can't be taken lightly.
Title Odds: 8:1
Were you expecting someone else?
Look, LeBron James and the Miami Heat may seem to be a team with flaws at the moment. But despite issues with rebounding and a nasty habit of taking quarters (and even halves) off, the defending champs have still compiled the best record in the East.
If that's what they're doing at half speed during the regular season, it's pretty easy to see how dominant they'll be when they shift into high gear during the playoffs. And sure, it might be a little too easy to simply assume that the Heat can flip the switch when they need to, but we've seen great teams do this before.
After the high of a title, it's hard to summon intensity for relatively mundane regular-season games. They'll get things sorted out by the time things really start to matter.
Perhaps most importantly, only James' Heat (and maybe the Bulls if Rose is healthy) have a chance to compete with the vastly superior competition that's sure to come out of the West. With the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and L.A. Clippers all looking better than every other Eastern Conference team, it's very hard to picture any club from the East—besides Miami—having the firepower to compete in the Finals.
For that reason, the Heat deserve the best odds of any team from the East. If you want to be against the Heat, go ahead. You'll be on your own.
Title Odds: 2:1