Playing Pretender or Contender with the NBA's Elite Teams

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIOctober 4, 2013

Playing Pretender or Contender with the NBA's Elite Teams

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    The weeks leading up to the start of the regular season are normally spent racking our brains over which teams have a legitimate shot at the NBA crown and which are merely paper champions. Offseason moves and storylines are overanalyzed, and we convince ourselves that we have a grasp on how the season will go. 

    In the end, nobody knows anything until the players hit the court and the ball is in the air. 

    For instance, last year's Los Angeles Lakers were heralded by many as the favorites to come out of the Western Conference and challenge the Miami Heat in a star-studded NBA Finals. As it turned out, the Lakers weren't even the best team in their own city and were easily swept in the first round. 

    The team that eliminated the Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs, was perceived as too slow and too old to compete in a much younger and more athletic conference. Inevitably, they came within a Game 6 collapse of hoisting the trophy. 

    This season, a number of teams have the talent on paper to be considered championship contenders. However, of the NBA's elite, which ones are legitimate threats and which are just byproducts of hype? 

    To help break this down, I took the projected five best teams from each conference and weighed in on whether they are contenders or pretenders. 

Brooklyn Nets: Pretenders

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    On paper, the Brooklyn Nets have one of the best starting fives in the league. The additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce add experience and a championship pedigree to go with the solid core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez

    However, for all of BK's star power, there are some legitimate concerns—the biggest one being rookie head coach Jason Kidd's ability to manage all of the egos on the roster. As of right now, he isn't off to the best start.

    Kidd had planned to limit Garnett's minutes to keep the 37-year-old's legs fresh for when the team needs him most. That didn't sit too well with "The Big Ticket," according to USA Today's Adi Joseph

    "It didn't go too well," Garnett said, in reference to Kidd's minute restrictions. "I understand what he's saying. He just wants to make sure I'm durable. ... I just don't want to be told anything. I think I've earned the right to have an opinion on something that I'm doing. From a chemistry standpoint, I think it's important for me to be out there with everybody."

    Kidd may have garnered the respect of his colleagues on the court as one of the greatest point guards of all time, but he has yet to earn his stripes on the sidelines. If Kidd is already meeting resistance during training camp over something as beneficial as limiting minutes, what kind of precedent will that set down the road?

    Additionally, the Nets are an old team in a young conference. That line of thinking may have proven ill-advised in terms of last year's Spurs, but that San Antonio team had chemistry and great coaching.

    This Nets team doesn't really have either yet. That could prove costly to the team's title hopes.

Golden State Warriors: Contenders*

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    (*If Andrew Bogut can stay healthy, the W's are legit. However, that's a huge IF.) 

    The Golden State Warriors are on the cusp of being perennial contenders. They have the game's best shooter in rising star Stephen Curry. They have an emerging talent in guard Klay Thompson. Offseason acquisition Andre Iguodala gives them a defensive presence on the perimeter. 

    In the frontcourt, David Lee is among the league's best power forwards, and Andrew Bogut (when healthy) can be a formidable presence on both ends of the court. 

    The team will miss Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry on its second unit, but their absence won't make as big of an impact as the naysayers will have you believe. Iguodala's presence moves Harrison Barnes to the bench, and he has the skills to excel in Jack's old sixth-man role. 

    The key will be Bogut's health. Many will remember the former No. 1 overall pick's big night in Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals against Denver last season (14 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks). The Australian big man deemed himself "100 percent," according to the Associated Press (oddly enough, just in time for his contract year). 

    If Bogut's ready to go, he and Iggy give the Warriors a pair of solid defenders to go along with all of their offensive firepower. That's a big if, though. Bogut hasn't played more than 70 games since the 2007-08 season with Milwaukee. 

    Without Bogut, the Warriors are an exciting team that lacks the interior presence to make a deep run. With him, they are a well-rounded team with a solid bench that could be a sleeper pick to—at the very least—represent the West in the finals.  

New York Knicks: Contenders

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    The world hasn't seen the best of this New York Knicks team. They have the right balance of offensive firepower and defensive potential to be a viable championship threat.

    Carmelo Anthony is one of the game's best pure scorers. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith leads a solid bench. Iman Shumpert, if healthy, can be a breakout star, and Raymond Felton is a vastly underrated point guard. 

    Defensively, they have an elite rim-protector in Tyson Chandler, and Metta World Peace still has the chops to be a stopper on the perimeter. 

    The team will miss Jason Kidd's veteran presence, and the Andrea Bargnani acquisition was a bit of a head-scratcher. Still, the big X-factor for the Knicks will be Amar'e Stoudemire. 

    If STAT can prove his knee woes are behind him, it makes the Knicks much deeper. He'll never be the explosive talent he once was, but Stoudemire at 70 to 80 percent is still better than most backup forwards.

    The Knicks seem to have a counter for anything the East's best can throw at them. 'Melo can match the offensive efforts of guys like LeBron James and Paul George. Chandler can compete inside with big men like Roy Hibbert

    We won't know how good this team really is until it proves it can get by the likes of Miami and Indiana, but don't close the window on New York's title chances just yet. 


Houston Rockets: Contenders

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    The core players of the NBA's newest superteam stressed how important chemistry was to their title chances. They've passed countless hours playing pickup games, and spent time together in an effort to become a more cohesive unit. 

    With the addition of center Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets have elevated from an exciting team on the rise to a well-balanced squad with a puncher's chance at a championship this season. The team is no longer willing to wait for prospects to develop. It wants to win right now. 

    On paper, the Rockets look like a team that can beat you in a number of ways. With Howard, they have a low-post presence that affects the game on either end of the court. When you pair Howard with Omer Asik, you get two of the best rim-protectors in the league taking up space on the defensive end. 

    Offensively, James Harden and Chandler Parsons both emerged in their own separate ways last season. Harden went from a key reserve with the Thunder to proving he was capable of being an alpha dog in Houston. His 25.9 points per game was fifth-best in the NBA last season. 

    As for Parsons, he improved his scoring average from 9.5 points per contest as a rookie to 15.5 a night in his second season. His ability to play either forward position allows Houston to utilize a smaller lineup and be effective. 

    Behind the Big Three, there are a slew of solid role players. Asik averaged a double-double last season (10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds). Point guard Jeremy Lin will only get better in his second full season as a starter. Reserves Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones should continue to grow as well. 

    Even veterans like Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi will have a say in things this year. 

    The big thing for Houston will be getting everyone on the same page. If this experiment works, the possibilities for a team with this much untapped potential are endless. They have two of the 10 best players in the league who also double as the best inside-outside combination since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant

    If the experiment doesn't work, the Rockets will be the latest in a list of teams that tried to win titles with big names and failed.

    In a wide-open West, anything is possible.  

Chicago Bulls: Contenders

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    You could probably put an asterisk on Chicago's contender status for a couple reasons. 

    First, having not played in a meaningful game since the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs, it remains to be seen if Derrick Rose is back to elite form. After missing all of last season, there is bound to be some rust on the former MVP, and it will be interesting to see how his surgically repaired knee responds to being back on the court.

    Second, All-Star forward Luol Deng's contract situation bears watching. Frustrated with the inability to land an extension with the Bulls, Deng will test the free-agent waters next summer (according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson). 

    This situation could break one of two ways. Deng could use his pending free agency to showcase his skills for 29 other teams, thus helping the Bulls in the process. The alternative is the ex-Duke star's ordeal becomes a distraction and the team explores the idea of shopping him.

    Rose's knee is less of a concern than Deng's contract mess. Sure, Rose will struggle early as he gets back into the swing of things, but the Bulls took the right precautions last season to preserve their star's health. By Thanksgiving, we should see the Derrick Rose of old. 

    As for Deng, it is imperative the team keeps its second option happy, especially while Rose gets adjusted. If he's unhappy, it will have a trickle-down effect. 

    However, if Rose is back and Deng puts his bitterness behind him, the Bulls can be scary. From a youth and talent standpoint, few teams (if any) can compete with Chicago's starting five of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Deng, Jimmy Butler and Rose. 

    Remember, when this core was intact a couple years ago, they were the top seed in the East with a legit chance at making a championship run. That team had guys like Richard Hamilton and Ronnie Brewer manning the 2.  

    This team has a potential star in the man known as "Jimmy Buckets." Butler averaged 8.6 points per game during the regular season but improved his numbers in the playoffs (13.3 PPG) thanks to increased minutes. 

    Now the starter at shooting guard, Butler rounds out an impressive starting rotation. When you include key reserves like Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson, the Bulls may be the biggest threat to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy. 

    It all comes down to how things break with the team's two best players. 

Los Angeles Clippers: Contenders

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    In terms of talent and depth, this may be the best Clippers team in franchise history. Los Angeles spent the offseason adding to a squad that has been a postseason disappointment for the last two seasons. 

    First, they lured arguably the NBA's best point guard in Chris Paul back to L.A. in 2011. His return gives the Clips a proven leader and a viable threat on both sides of the ball. CP3 has led the league in total steals five times in his eight-year career, while also nabbing a couple assist titles in the process. 

    The team added to Paul's supporting cast by bringing in guys like J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison. They also replaced departed backup point guard Eric Bledsoe with Paul's former caddy in New Orleans, Darren Collison. 

    The biggest acquisition of the summer for the Clippers was head coach Doc Rivers. For all of the talent the team has had the last couple of years, former coach Vinny Del Negro couldn't find a way to mold it into a championship squad. 

    With Rivers, the Clippers have one of the league's best coaches and a man with a history of winning a championship. His first order of duty will be to salvage overpaid center DeAndre Jordan. The big man struggled mightily last season on both ends of the court and was nearly traded to Boston for Kevin Garnett before the league intervened

    With Oklahoma City dealing with injuries, San Antonio aging, and the rest of the West's elite trying to build chemistry, the road is paved for the Clippers to emerge as the conference's top dog. 

    With Rivers and a roster that is two-deep at every position, there are no more excuses for Paul and the Clippers. All-Star forward Blake Griffin has to continue to improve, especially on the defensive end. 

    More importantly, Paul has to prove he's capable of carrying a team to the championship. The team has done its part in building a contender around him. It is now up to him to take the franchise to new heights. 

Indiana Pacers: Contenders

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    Each year, the Indiana Pacers get closer and closer to the championship. They lost in the opening round to the Chicago Bulls in 2010-11. They were taken out by Miami in the conference semifinals in 2011-12 and were ousted again by the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. 

    Judging by that trend, Indiana is poised for a trip to the NBA Finals this year. 

    On paper, they definitely have the talent to make a run. Reigning Most Improved Player-winner Paul George is the team's new alpha dog. With Danny Granger sidelined, the Fresno State product stepped up and averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the regular season.

    In the playoffs, he contributed 19.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. 

    The beauty of this Pacers team is it's good enough to contend without needing Granger to make a triumphant return. George is now a household name. Roy Hibbert is one of the best young centers in the league, and David West showed last season he still has some tread on his tires.

    Chris Copeland was added to give the team a shooter off the bench, and Luis Scola joins a team that already led the league in rebounding last season.

    The bread and butter for Indiana will be defense and dominating the glass. Whatever Granger gives them will be a bonus, but the Pacers have the depth and talent to finally reach the mountaintop with or without their star forward.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Pretenders

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    This one may inevitably come back to haunt me, but I'm down on the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. 

    First, the absence of Russell Westbrook for the first four to six weeks of the season as he recovers from a second knee surgery can't be overlooked. For a player who is as reliant on burst and athleticism as Westbrook is, it will be interesting to see how this latest setback affects his explosiveness. 

    Even when Westbrook returns, he is going to need some time to shake off the rust. That means, worst-case scenario, the UCLA product isn't back to being himself until at least January. 

    In turn, Kevin Durant has to carry the team on his back for the first few months of the season with no proven second option to lighten the load. The Westbrook injury isn't crippling, but it will hurt the team early on and is worth monitoring throughout the season. 

    The biggest issue is the bench. The loss of James Harden was somewhat muffled last season by Kevin Martin playing well in Harden's old role. Now Martin is in Minnesota, and the reins have been handed over to Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson. 

    Jackson and Lamb are talented young players who have done well in the summer league, but they aren't proven commodities in games of actual significance. Jackson played admirably in Westbrook's absence during last year's playoffs, but it remains to be seen whether that can carry over into this season. 

    Another factor going against Oklahoma City is that the rest of the West's elite got better while the Thunder got worse. Houston added Dwight Howard. The Clippers added Doc Rivers. Golden State added Andre Iguodala. The Spurs managed to keep most of their core intact. 

    The Thunder, meanwhile, are a one-man show for the first few months of the year and won't have much beyond their dynamic duo once Westbrook returns. If Jackson or Lamb can't take the next step, who is this team's third option? Serge Ibaka? Thabo Sefolosha?

    Durant alone is good enough to carry this team to the playoffs. Once Westbrook returns, the Thunder will be a top-four seed once again. However, a long postseason run is contingent on depth. Other teams have made strides in that area while OKC took a step back. 

Miami Heat: Contenders

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    As a personal rule, the team that possesses the best player in the league instantly gets recognized as a contender. As long as LeBron James is suiting up, the Miami Heat will have a chance. 

    This season, there isn't much of a reason to believe the two-time defending champions won't enter the season as heavy favorites. Having made the finals the past three seasons and with the Big Three still intact, Miami is the team to beat.

    The latest wrinkle in this South Beach drama is the pending free agency of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All three can opt out of their contracts at the end of the season, but they would be foolish to explore opportunities elsewhere. 

    Since the trio united three years ago, they have been atop the NBA's food chain. They have won two NBA championships and came close to nabbing a third. 

    This year, they let Mike Miller walk to Memphis while making former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden their latest reclamation project. Oden's impact will be minimal, as he hasn't played since the 2009-10 season due to a litany of injuries, but he can't help but improve a unit that finished 30th in rebounding. 

    If you wanted to list reasons why the Heat are vulnerable this year, their troubles on the interior would be one of the big ones. Teams like Indiana (Roy Hibbert), New York (Tyson Chandler) and Chicago (Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer) will continue to dominate Miami inside.

    The possible decline of 31-year-old Dwyane Wade and the media circus surrounding the vaunted trio's future are other potential obstacles for the champs. 

    However, the team has managed to counter its shortcomings with the dominance of King James. Amazingly, he keeps finding ways to get better despite playing at an already unfathomable level. 

    As long as he's healthy, the Heat are going to thrive. For the team to pull off the three-peat, James will need to get by with a little help from his friends. 

San Antonio Spurs: Contenders

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    After last season, we've all learned to never count out the San Antonio Spurs, right? 

    Despite an aging core, the Spurs pulled off an improbable finals run and came within a hair of bringing home their fifth championship during the Tim Duncan era. Even at 37 years old and entering his 17th season, The Big Fundamental seems impervious to suffering a decline. 

    It also helps that he's led by the NBA's best coach in Gregg Popovich. Last year was a testament to Pop's greatness. He continued to show a knack for developing role players by molding unknowns like Danny Green and Gary Neal into solid contributors. 

    Since the 1999-00 season, the player-coach tandem of Duncan and Popovich has been good for an automatic 50 wins. There's no reason to think that will change this season. The team has the memory of Game 6 resonating in its cerebellum, which will be a source of motivation all season. 

    With a core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs will once again be the league's toughest out. Also, don't be surprised if third-year man Kawhi Leonard makes a huge leap this season. He averaged 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds a game in the playoffs. 

    Leonard skipped Team USA minicamp this summer so that he can give the tendinitis in his knee more time to heal. When healthy, he can fill up different aspects of a stat sheet, and Popovich has proven he can bring out the best in his role players. 

    The West may be a bit deeper than it was last year, but the Spurs will continue to give opponents fits through their tried-and-true system. A trip back to the finals may be unlikely, but—as evidenced by last season—it is something that can never be ruled out.