The cliché question posed by reporters to people around the NBA about surprise or breakthrough teams is: “Are they real championship contenders?”
The cliché answer is yes, because why not be nice to a team having a great year? But few truly in the know would believe the Clippers, besides Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, can immediately execute well enough under playoff pressure, or Carmelo Anthony has evolved that quickly from knucklehead into Bill Russell.
Let’s take a look at what the oddsmakers have as far as current likelihoods of top teams winning the 2013 title:
The Heat are 3/2, the Thunder are 13/4 and the Spurs are 6/1, according to Bovada. That’s all reasonable—although given how much more upside and motivation Oklahoma City has for this NBA title, the Thunder make for a great investment.
Then we’ve got those two contender/pretender teams from the big markets: The Clippers are 15/2, and the Knicks are 14/1. It’s hard to imagine a leap for the Clippers from one-round playoff winners to champions, and even harder for the Knicks to go from barely making the playoffs to going all the way.
The NBA is historically not about quantum leaps for championship teams. You pay your dues and learn how to win while falling short—whether individually as a star or with a specific crew of teammates—and then you’re ready to deliver when your time truly comes later.
With the collective bargaining agreement changes toward far more severe luxury-tax consequences, the NBA will definitely feature more parity in the future, but it’s still not going to be like the NFL where so many players have so much potential impact on games. Overnight successes are still going to be very rare.
For now, if we’re looking for a true sleeper to win the 2013 NBA title, there are two absolutely logical choices:
The Chicago Bulls and, to a lesser extent, the Indiana Pacers.
Not glamorous picks, but conceivable ones.
The Bulls are the sixth-most likely to win the title, according to Bovada, at 18/1—barely ahead of the Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics (22/1), the Pacers (22/1) and the underachieving big-name Los Angeles Lakers (25/1).
Like the Knicks, the Bulls hardly registered in the playoffs last year—bowing out in the first round vs. Philadelphia, despite being the No. 1 seed in the East. There was, however, the considerable asterisk of Derrick Rose having exited in April with his torn ACL.
With Rose, the Bulls learned the ropes in Tom Thibodeau’s hard-hat, yet high-IQ, system and made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011. They didn’t go further because they weren’t title-tested enough, and they didn’t go anywhere last year because they were driven by Rose’s perimeter power that wasn’t there anymore.
Flash forward to the 2013 playoffs, and it’s safe to say that Rose is very likely to be there—still alongside Thibodeau, the best coach in the NBA this side of Gregg Popovich, and some of the same soldiers from 2011 in Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
The obvious concern for Chicago is that Rose won’t be Rose. Not only is it unlikely for players to return to their old forms the first year after ACL tears, but also Rose still isn’t back in Bulls games. He is, however, back in full practice—so it’s only a matter of short time, no matter how cautious he wants to be.
Then you have Adrian Peterson for reference now, as far as ACL rehabs go. But when it comes to Rose, you don’t necessarily have to go to the outside for encouraging ideas.
Rose is a fighter. That’s how he won over everyone in becoming the 2011 NBA MVP—and led Kobe Bryant to name Rose and Chris Paul as the only players in the league who have his sort of will to win.
With that tenacity comes a certain maniacal drive when it comes to overcoming injuries.
So even if it’s not likely, it’s certainly possible that Rose is a serious force by playoff time. And so even if it’s far from likely, it’s at least possible that the Bulls have all their pieces and defense in place to shock the Heat in the Eastern Conference.
Usually teams that play harder and smarter in the regular season don’t have the upside to reach for something extra in the postseason, so underachieving teams such as the Lakers or maybe even the Denver Nuggets (40/1) out of the West would be better sleeper suggestions.
But the East isn’t nearly as stacked as the West, which is why the Pacers are feasible, too. Like Chicago, Indiana is good defensively but has more varied shot creators (Paul George is blossoming and David West is someone you can truly run an offense through) and is expecting a post-injury boost of their own in Danny Granger, who just happens to be another player Bryant respects tremendously.
But when you get back to the idea of great talents stepping up beyond expectations in the playoffs, it’s hard to ignore that Thibodeau is an outstanding coach and Rose is a special player.
It’s at least possible.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.