Ranking the Dark-Horse Candidates for the 2013 NBA Championship

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2013

Ranking the Dark-Horse Candidates for the 2013 NBA Championship

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    Playoff teams throughout the NBA can be broken into strata, the most obvious being contenders and pretenders.

    Under those vague umbrellas we can break teams down further. There are hopefuls (Brooklyn Nets), long shots (Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers) and favorites (Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder). 

    Then come the dark horses—the contenders that border on elite status who continue to be overlooked.

    Every postseason we see one or two squads come out of nowhere to make deep runs, but as it turns out, those teams were making a strong case for the majority of the regular season. We just choose to overlook their accomplishments.

Honorable Mention: San Antonio Spurs

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    Ignoring the San Antonio Spurs' regular-season success has become an annual ritual.

    The defense to ignoring their success is not only obvious, but it's fair. The Spurs have won 50 games or more every year since 2007-08, but have failed to qualify for the NBA Finals each season.

    Twice (2007-08 and 2011-12) the Spurs have advanced to the Western Conference Finals, but they've also bowed out in the first round twice in that same span (2008-09, 2010-11).

    This season may not end up being any different than the last five, but the Spurs have quietly been in possession of the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference for the majority of the season.

    Maybe it's because their shtick is boring and routine, but the Spurs simply don't garner significant attention from the public.

    There's no team in the West that can match the Spurs' balance on both ends of the floor. For example, San Antonio is shooting 48.8 percent from the field (second overall), while they're holding opponents to 44.1 percent shooting (ninth overall).

    The Spurs stay consistent from beyond the arc too. Led by Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Tony Parker, the Spurs rank fourth in three-point field-goal percentage, while their stingy defense holds opponents to 34.2 percent shooting from deep (seventh overall).

    The Spurs would've topped this list, but calling them a "dark horse" just seemed like too much of a stretch, thus the honorable mention.

4. Indiana Pacers

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    Were these rankings compiled a few months back, the Indiana Pacers would likely have found themselves near the top.

    The Pacers continue to rank among the league's top two defensive teams, allowing a league-best 98.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.

    However great the Indiana defense may be, it's hard to give its abysmal offense a free pass.

    Although they have talented individual pieces, the Pacers have never meshed on offense. Roy Hibbert hasn't been a point of pride on the offensive end, averaging 10.8 points per game on career-worst 42.8 percent shooting.

    In addition, the Pacers possess the league's second-worst field-goal percentage (43.3 percent), and they turn the ball over 15.1 times per game, the eighth-worst mark in the NBA.

    The Pacers could win a series or two at most, but they don't feel like a truly legitimate threat to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.

3. Boston Celtics

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    It would have been easy to discount the Boston Celtics as a playoff dark horse after losing point guard Rajon Rondo to a season-ending knee injury. Instead, the Celtics have ripped off a 14-8 record since the start of February and are quietly priming themselves for a deep playoff run.

    Watching the Celtics hang with the Miami Heat in Monday's 105-103 thriller was a reminder that Boston can pose a threat to the defending champs, starting with gritty team defense and collective offensive performances.

    Given how tight the race for seeds four through seven is in the East, the Celtics could feasibly finish anywhere in that range.

    Regardless of where the Celtics finish, it's hard not to see them as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Heat.

    Doc Rivers is one of the league's premier coaches, and the veteran leadership of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry will be invaluable once the postseason gets underway.

    No one should act surprised if the Celtics find themselves pitted against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Memphis Grizzlies could accurately be described as the Indiana Pacers of the West, as they possess the league's first-ranked scoring defense (89.2 points per game) and 26th-ranked offense (93.4 points per game).

    However, unlike Indiana, the Grizzlies have an offensive attack that's diversified to a degree.

    A frontcourt comprised of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph has the potential to wreak havoc on opponents, with Randolph capable of using his strength and footwork to overwhelm defenders on the blocks, while Gasol can work as far out as 20 feet with his steady mid-range jumper.

    According to HoopData, Gasol is hitting on 52 percent of his shots between 10-15 feet this season, while he's knocking down a steady 45 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet.

    Factor in the playmaking ability of Mike Conley and the perimeter savvy of Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, and the Grizzlies have a complete arsenal of weapons with which to compete.

1. Denver Nuggets

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    If you doubted the Denver Nuggets' legitimacy before their 14-game winning streak, you're almost certainly not doubting it any longer.

    After disposing of the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-104 on the road on second night of a back-to-back, there's no reason to think that the Nuggets can't compete for a Western Conference title.

    What makes the Denver attack so potent? They're unrelenting on the fast break, coming in at second in pace (possessions per 48 minutes), while they lead the league in offensive rebounding.

    The Nuggets also rank second in steals and third in blocks, so while they rank 25th in opponents' points per game, they're among the league's best at creating live-ball turnovers.