Separating the Contenders from Pretenders in the NBA Playoff Race
March is the point in the NBA season when the championship contenders separate themselves from the pretenders.
There are several factors to consider when evaluating which teams have a legitimate shot at winning a title. They must possess the right mix of youth and experience, excellent coaching and solid chemistry.
Championship rosters are usually deep and contain at least one superstar. The game tends to slow down in the playoffs, so style of play is important. It is typically a good sign if a team plays its best basketball heading into the postseason, and health is always a major concern.
It is also essential to consider teams' paths to the NBA Finals. What is the strength of their conference? How do they match up against specific teams? Will they have home-court advantage? And perhaps most importantly, do the Miami Heat stand in their way?
Overshadowed by the Miami Heat's 25-game winning streak, the Denver Nuggets may be the first team to quietly win 15 consecutive games.
Denver's success against the elite teams of the Western Conference bodes well for the playoffs. They are 9-4 against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. Home-court advantage would go a long way for a Nuggets team that is 32-3 at the Pepsi Center.
However, history suggests that the Nuggets cannot win a championship without a superstar. Every team that has gone all the way had at least one All-Star. Pundits are also skeptical as to how their fast-paced style will transfer to the postseason.
The biggest problem facing Denver is not a dearth of star power, but rather a lack of experience. The Nuggets are one of the youngest teams in the league, and other than Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala, their players have had limited exposure to the postseason.
It takes years to adjust to the pressure, intensity and style of playoff basketball. Young teams gradually advance deeper into the playoffs. This Denver squad needs to win a postseason series before it can be considered a serious contender.
No team in the Eastern Conference will defeat the Miami Heat four times in a seven-game series. That is, unless one of Miami's "Big Three" is injured, in which case the Indiana Pacers are most likely to knock off the defending champions.
It almost happened last season. With Chris Bosh sidelined by an abdominal strain, the Pacers took a 2-1 lead on the Heat in their second-round matchup. Miami ultimately prevailed in six games.
Indiana is currently tied for the No. 2 seed in the East. The Pacers' defensive efficiency of 95.6 is the best in the league, according to ESPN.com, and they have the size to punish Miami and other teams down low. They are the favorites to meet the Heat in the conference finals.
Los Angeles Clippers
There is a common misconception that the Los Angeles Clippers are too reliant on the fast break to thrive in the playoffs. On the contrary, according to ESPN.com, L.A. plays at the 17th-quickest pace.
This team is a lot better than the 2011-12 version swept in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. Blake Griffin has expanded his game, especially on the defensive end, and the Clippers are much deeper after the additions of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom and the return of Chauncey Billups.
However, L.A.'s fatal flaw exposed by the Spurs last season still exists: It is too dependent on Chris Paul. Take the ball out of his hands and the offense sputters. The Clippers went 6-6 in games he missed this season.
L.A. also has a below-average coach in Vinny Del Negro. His substitution patterns are questionable, and he does not excel at diagramming plays or making in-game adjustments.
The Clippers will be at a distinct disadvantage against Western Conference teams coached by George Karl (Denver Nuggets), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) and Lionel Hollins (Memphis Grizzlies).
Los Angeles Lakers
Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard have begun to figure out how to play together. The Los Angeles Lakers are 19-9 in their last 28 games after a dismal start to the season and are likely to make the playoffs.
Kobe turned back the clock to 2002, and Howard continues to regain his mobility after offseason back surgery. The big man has averaged 15.2 rebounds per game in March, according to NBA.com. L.A.'s success has come without Pau Gasol, who missed 20 games with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot.
Still, the problems that beset the Lakers early in the season remain. They are an old team in desperate need of athletic wing players. L.A.'s perimeter defense is its Achilles' heel. Unable to keep quick, athletic teams out of the paint, they will be lucky to advance past the first round.
So much for the Rudy Gay trade killing the Memphis Grizzlies' title hopes. The team has gone 18-7 since the deal, including wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Grizzlies may be the team best equipped to challenge the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals because of their ability to pound the ball inside. Zach Randolph is a dominant post presence and has developed nice chemistry with Marc Gasol, one of the most well-rounded big men in the game.
The Grizzlies are well coached, and their team defense—ranked second in efficiency, according to ESPN.com—gives them a chance against any Western Conference foe. That being said, they will have to defeat three very good teams in order to reach the NBA Finals. It is crucial for them to secure home-court advantage in the first round.
Short of an injury to one of the "Big Three," it is difficult to imagine any team knocking off the Heat. Miami is deeper than last year after the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are healthy and the team's confidence is soaring.
There is not another great team in the Eastern Conference. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the team out West that comes closest to matching the Heat's athleticism, but Miami has OKC's number. They swept the season series after disposing of the Thunder in five games in last year's finals.
Miami's biggest weakness is its vulnerability to offensive post players against its smaller lineup, but few teams pose such a threat. The Memphis Grizzlies could give them trouble but are unlikely to reach the Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs may also be a difficult matchup for the Heat because of their size and ability to execute down the stretch. However, LeBron James could take the Spurs out of their game by clamping down on point guard Tony Parker.
New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have been on a slow, steady decline since beginning the season 18-5. The three-point shots stopped falling, the crisp ball movement ceased and their defensive intensity has waned.
The oldest team in the league has shown its age. Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas are sidelined with stress fractures in their feet, and Amar'e Stoudemire underwent yet another knee surgery on March 11. Forty-year-old Jason Kidd has slowed down considerably over the course of the season.
More recently, the Knicks' two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, were hit by the injury bug. Chandler has missed New York's last six games with a bruised knee and bulging disc in his neck, and Anthony had fluid drained from behind his knee.
Despite their recent struggles, the Knicks are in first place in the Atlantic Division. They are still capable of reaching the Eastern Conference finals if their key players remain healthy and they ratchet up their defensive intensity.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown no ill effects from the James Harden trade. According to ESPN.com, OKC has been more efficient offensively without last year's Sixth Man of the Year (110.0 to 107.1) and has increased its win percentage from .712 to .729.
Kevin Martin has added a new dimension to the offense with his three-point shooting (42 percent), and Serge Ibaka has averaged a career-high 13.3 points per game. However, OKC may still miss Harden's playmaking ability in the playoffs against stingy defensive teams.
The collegiate atmosphere at Chesapeake Energy Arena provides the Thunder with a huge home-court advantage, and they gained valuable experience by advancing to the NBA Finals last season. Scott Brooks' team remains the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
San Antonio Spurs
Another year, another 50-win season for the San Antonio Spurs as they cruise toward the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili's execution down the stretch of games is unparalleled—and they benefit from their best supporting cast in years.
Coach Popovich has utilized his depth to keep the Big Three fresh for the playoffs. He has leaned more heavenly on youngsters Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard in particular, whose defensive ability distinguishes this team from the Spurs squad that came within two games of the NBA Finals last season.
Pop placed an emphasis on returning to the stifling defense the team exhibited during its championship seasons, and his players responded. San Antonio's defensive efficiency has climbed from 11th last year to third, according to ESPN.com.
The James Harden trade narrowed the gap in athleticism between the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. San Antonio is ready to exact revenge for last year's conference finals.