Meet the Next Generation of NBA Title Contenders
The NBA is full of parity. Yes, the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs will long be considered title contenders, but the teams in the second tier below the favorites vary from year to year.
As things currently stand, it's looking like we'll have four new playoff teams in 2012-13, with two from each conference qualifying.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have both rebounded from disappointing 2011-12 campaigns and find themselves grouped among the next generation of title contenders.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets have emerged a year after compiling losing seasons.
They may not win titles this year, but there are several up-and-coming teams you should keep your eye on over the next few seasons.
The knock on the Houston Rockets all season long has been their inability to defend. While they allow a putrid 102.3 points per game, which ranks 28th in the NBA, they're considerably better when it comes to points allowed per 100 possessions.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Rockets rank 17th in defensive rating, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions.
If Houston can tighten up that defense and move into the league's top 12 in defensive rating in the years to come, it'll be one of the more intimidating forces in the Western Conference.
While the Rockets will simply be happy to qualify for the postseason this year, they'll seek a surge up the standings in 2013-14 and beyond.
Considering the average age of a Rockets player is under 25 years old, Houston's championship window may be the widest of all next-generation title contenders.
James Harden leads a potent Houston attack that ranks first in the NBA in points per game and sixth in points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
As Harden and teammates Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin continue to strengthen their rapport, the Rockets figure to be a prosperous bunch.
The Indiana Pacers are one of the few young teams that have taken advantage of a relatively weak Eastern Conference.
Fueled by the emergence of Paul George and the steady play of David West, the Pacers have proven that they have the tools to compete for a championship.
With a defense that ranks second in opponents' points per game and first in defensive rating (according to Basketball-Reference), the Pacers appear to be just one offensive spark away from serious contention in the East.
Fortunately for the Pacers, that spark is already on the roster.
Forward Danny Granger has been ruled out for the remainder of the year, but upon his return next season, the Pacers should thrive much more than they have on the offensive end, where they average a meager 95.1 points per game.
The Pacers' primary focus moving forward will be to keep their frontcourt intact, as David West is primed to hit unrestricted free agency this summer.
If the Pacers can find a way to keep West while receiving the offensive production from Roy Hibbert that he's flashed over the last five games, they'll be in excellent shape.
According to NBA.com, Hibbert has posted averages of 21.4 points and 10.8 rebounds over his last five, while shooting a robust 56 percent from the field.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors will need to improve dramatically on the defensive end to be considered a title contender, but head coach Mark Jackson has his team trending in the right direction.
After a 2011-12 season in which Golden State finished 20 games below .500, the Warriors are now primed to make their first playoff appearance since 2006-07.
The Warriors offense has been a pleasure to watch develop, as it has benefited from having a healthy Stephen Curry in the fold.
Curry, who ranks third in NBA three-point field-goal percentage (45.4 percent), has been lights out, averaging a team-high 22.6 points per game.
Alongside Curry, the Warriors boast a nice one-two interior punch comprised of the offensively gifted David Lee and the intimidating defensive stylings of Andrew Bogut.
If the Warriors can find a way to lock up Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jarrett Jack this summer (his contract expires at season's end), their bench will continue to improve as well.
When talking next-generation title contenders, the Denver Nuggets find themselves at the front of the pack.
The youth, athleticism and blinding speed of George Karl's bunch is enough to strike fear into the hearts of the Western Conference's most stout defenses.
Though currently injured, Ty Lawson finds himself grouped among the league's best youngsters at point guard, averaging 16.7 points and 6.9 assists while playing a team-high 34.8 minutes per game.
Lawson's progression after an ugly start to the season (he shot 41 percent over the course of November and December) has been rather encouraging, but he may not be the most exciting part of the Nuggets' deep pool of young talent.
Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are both matchup nightmares for bulkier, less athletic frontcourts, as the duo possesses a rare combination of size and speed that can be put to use on the blocks and in transition.
Should Andre Iguodala re-sign with the Nuggets if he opts out of his current deal (via Fox Sports Florida), the Nuggets will have pieces necessary to compete for a championship on both ends of the floor.
UPDATE: Saturday, Apr. 6, 6:30 p.m. EDT by Sean Hojnacki
Danilo Gallinari suffered a torn ACL in Thursday night's game, ending a fine season in which he posted a career-high 16.2 points per game.
Though timetables for recovery are hard to gauge, it's reasonable to think that Gallinari can return within nine months. That was roughly how long Iman Shumpert and Ricky Rubio spent on the shelf with their knee injuries.
That would have the Italian back before the 2014 All-Star break, in plenty of time for the stretch run.
---End of update---
Los Angeles Clippers
Since acquiring Chris Paul prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, the Clippers have been on a rapid ascent up the Western Conference ranks.
Paul, in tandem with Blake Griffin, has boosted the team's national profile over the last year and a half, simultaneously creating a culture of winning and determination for a franchise that was previously the punch line of many an NBA joke.
In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, Paul is currently the only player in the NBA averaging more than 16 points and nine assists per game.
With aptitude like that at the point guard position, the Clippers figure to be a tough out for perennial contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
As the Spurs continue to age and coaches ramp up efforts to game-plan for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Clippers may find that Western Conference supremacy is closer than it appears.