Which superstar has the best shot at a title?
Making the playoffs is all well and good, but who has the best chance of winning the 2013 NBA title?
We have been watching and analyzing these teams for nearly six months now, but even after narrowing the field from 30 teams to the 16 remaining, uncertainty abounds.
Are key players totally healthy, and if not, how long does their team have to survive until they are? Is a frenetic, transition-heavy team going to cause problems for a half-court bully, or vice versa? Does a good team with an easier path to the finals have a better shot than a great team with a tougher one?
All of these questions will be answered in the next two months. Until this year's champions reveal themselves, we can only speak in likelihoods rather than certitudes.
For five teams in the playoff field, making it this far is all they're going to have to celebrate.
That's not to say these teams are incapable of pulling off a first-round upset. It is to say that the odds of them advancing any farther than that are as slim as can be.
Especially without Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics don't have enough weapons on offense to survive; ditto for the Houston Rockets on the defensive end, even with Omer Asik in the middle. If the elder Los Angeles Lakers don't fall in the opening round, they will as soon as they're forced to run.
As for the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, they just don't have the skill to get by. The Hawks are tough, but not tough enough to survive, and the Bucks are athletic, but lack the technique to make it work well enough for them.
These teams will make their biggest impacts by pushing title contenders as much as they can, not by contending themselves.
The single-season three-pointer record holder is the only reason the Golden State Warriors have even this much of a shot to win it all.
Stephen Curry is hands-down the best shooter in the league right now, with a repertoire of off-the-bounce treys and twisting attempts no one else in the league would even think to put up.
He's a threat to single-handedly bury a team from beyond the arc at any point—a threat that gives the Dubs' secondary options more space to work with. The specter of Curry going for 40 (or more) gives David Lee more room to work inside, and it gets Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson and friends more open looks on the perimeter.
If only this team could defend a fraction as well as it can score. Curry and Lee are veritable sieves, but Andrew Bogut isn't good enough to clean up everyone's mistakes.
Unless the offense can go off just about every night, that's going to do Golden State in.
This season has taken too much of a toll on the Chicago Bulls for them to do much in the playoffs.
Derrick Rose is probably not walking through that door, but a number of key Bulls might be limping through it.
Chief among those players is Joakim Noah, who has appeared in just three games since March 21 due to a right foot injury. Doug Padilla of ESPNChicago.com reports that the pain could cause Noah to miss games in the postseason.
Meanwhile, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and the rest of the Bulls have been banged up all year. Tom Thibodeau's rigorous rotation in Rose's absence has exhausted this team, which went 17-19 from February on after beginning the season 28-17.
With Thibodeau's defense scheme and this team's toughness, Chicago will still be a difficult out. Even so, the Bulls will get knocked out one way or another.
Before Deron Williams' scorching second half, the Brooklyn Nets would've fallen behind the Bulls on this list.
Pairing All-Star Brook Lopez with a point guard who averaged 23 points and eight dimes after the break makes the Nets a dangerous offensive team. Now if this team could just learn how to execute on the defensive end, it could really cause problems.
Brooklyn probably has enough firepower to get past Chicago, but a second-round date with the Miami Heat is an entirely different animal. Incomplete teams don't beat Miami—especially not four times in seven games.
The Nets won't, either.
The Indiana Pacers are too strong defensively to totally discount, but they don't have a championship-caliber offense to work with.
No other team in the NBA is set up so effectively to counter the Miami Heat offensive juggernaut. Sure, the Pacers lead the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, but it goes deeper than that.
It all starts with Paul George, one of the few players out there with the combination of size and speed to stay with LeBron James. From there, Roy Hibbert and David West punish anyone who tries to go inside on Indiana, and the Pacer guards are extremely diligent about marking their men beyond the arc.
That said, stopping the Heat entirely would be highly unlikely, and Miami is no slouch on defense, either. The offensively limited Pacers don't have anyone they can rely upon to beat Miami's D, which means even getting to the NBA Finals is going to be very unlikely.
Thank heavens Ty Lawson is back on the floor for the Denver Nuggets—this number could have dropped much lower.
With Danilo Gallinari already out for the year with a torn ACL, the last thing Denver needed was to lose its starting point guard to plantar fasciitis. Lawson's return means George Karl doesn't have to run his breakneck attack without his speedy point guard in the postseason.
The egalitarian Nuggets could be just the team to roll with the adversity of a major injury, but losing a floor-spacer like Gallinari for a team that attacks the paint so relentlessly will be costly. If Kenneth Faried's sprained ankle hobbles him in the first round, however, Denver might be facing an early exit.
That's the predicament with predicting the Nuggets' chances.
They're deep enough and cohesive enough to execute their system with just about anyone on their roster. On the other hand, they're dinged-up enough, and the West is deep enough, that anyone in the field could beat them. That injury-induced volatility knocks Denver down from the ranks of the true contenders.
Given their unique style of play, the Memphis Grizzlies have a solid chance of knocking off the best of the West.
Memphis' trademark defense is just as suffocating as ever this season. Marc Gasol has the interior on lockdown, while Mike Conley Jr. and Tony Allen are the best pair of backcourt defenders the league has to offer.
On the other end, the Grizz traded Rudy Gay and didn't miss a beat offensively. Conley and Gasol both facilitate the offense, giving that unit a myriad of ways to work the ball outside to inside to back out again. If Zach Randolph can reestablish himself as a true primary option, watch out for these guys.
That said, Memphis has the look of a spoiler for the West's high-scoring top seeds.
Winning the title could require the Grizzlies' system to work against the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. It could possibly work once, maybe even twice; asking for much more than that is getting excessive.
The Los Angeles Clippers' first-round series against Memphis is a true tossup. Even if the Grizzlies had the edge between these two teams, Chris Paul gives L.A. the better shot at a championship.
It's amazing how much easier having the best point guard in the world makes things.
You'd expect the fourth-most efficient offense in today's game to be based heavily on ball movement and complex motions. Not the Clippers, who roll the ball out to Paul and let him go to work.
There's a genuine chance the Grizzlies eat them alive if that's their plan. Conley is going to stick to Paul all day, and Gasol is going to cut off the drive every chance he gets.
That said, even the best-laid plans to stop the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-roll can go awry. That duo has just too much athleticism and ability to be completely shut down. As long as that is working, L.A.'s supporting cast will have just enough breathing room to operate and complement that main attack.
If Paul can crack Memphis' D, he can beat anyone in the West. Whether he can himself—and whether the Clips defense can support him—is the real question.
If you haven't noticed the trend developing, here it is: The best teams in the Eastern Conference are marked down for having to go through the Miami Heat.
The New York Knicks are less so—not only because they are the second-best team in the East, but because their particular brand of basketball is best equipped to attack elite teams.
On the offensive side, the Knicks' three-point barrage can give the Heat fits. Miami's perimeter D has improved since New York put up a pair of 20-point wins on it earlier in the season, but Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and, to a lesser extent, Chris Copeland are all playing their best basketball now.
The Copeland bit is particularly important because he allows the Knicks to attack Miami with a super-small-ball lineup containing no big man. Considering New York could also pound the Heat inside with Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, that versatility could be very disruptive.
Even with all that, the Knicks only have an outside chance of making it out of the East. They're getting healthier, they're peaking at the right time, but it still likely won't be enough.
They may have slowed toward the end of the regular season, but the San Antonio Spurs have too much history and are too talented to overlook.
As always, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are the centerpieces for Gregg Popovich's squad, but San Antonio runs much deeper than that. Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter have both made strides this season, improving a Spurs defense that has lagged behind their stalwart offense in recent years.
When there's room for Parker to slash, Duncan to bank and Leonard and Co. to hit corner threes, the Spurs look like world-beaters. That hasn't been the case in the month of April—San Antonio lost six of its nine games to lose the top seed in the West.
Don't put too much stock into that outcome, though. With Pop conserving his guys for the playoffs, San Antonio dropped five road games to five playoff teams before losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves after the No. 2 seed was already locked up.
Besides, this is the Spurs. As long as Parker is running the point and Duncan is patrolling the paint, this team is going to have a shot at the finals.
The best team in the Western Conference has curiously low odds of winning the title.
That's because the West is so stacked that the Oklahoma City Thunder could easily end up falling in the second round.
Whereas the Spurs would draw either the hamstrung Nuggets or flawed Warriors in the conference semis, OKC would wind up with either the Clippers or the Grizzlies.
The former matches Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a star-power showdown with Paul and Griffin, while the latter forces the Thunder out of their finesse comfort zone to bang bodies with a very physical team. OKC is favored either way, but it's a more precarious path.
Durant and Westbrook can take over any game against any of those teams, but the Thunder's depth issues are disconcerting. If either superstar is slightly off, guys like Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson—by no means ideal options—will need to step up and pick up the offensive slack.
OKC has to be the clear favorite to make it out of the West. Yet with so many potential conference land mines, the odds skew against the Thunder.
Calling the Miami Heat the odds-on championship favorite is no big shock, but the 30-percent figure might be.
The case for the Heat is obvious: LeBron James is the best player in the world. Dwyane Wade is still in star form. Erik Spoelstra has his team moving like mad off the ball on offense and swarming as usual on defense. Twenty-seven straight wins and a likely consensus MVP later, there's no other choice.
On the other hand, a lot can happen between now and the trophy ceremony in June.
Injuries are a possibility, first and foremost; if LeBron gets hurt, the Heat are done. Whatever team comes out of the Western Conference is going to be a worthy challenger to Miami. The Knicks and Pacers could push the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, though they should make it that far without much difficulty.
In fact, the Heat's odds are only so high at 30 percent because of the weak East—and yet they are nearly twice as likely to win the title as the Thunder, their closest opponent.
That's a testament to the unpredictability of the NBA postseason. No matter how foregone the Heat's 2013 championship might seem to you, they still have to go out there and win. It's the most likely outcome, but it's still much easier said than done.