Playing Contender or Pretender with Every NBA Title Hopeful Entering 2013-14

Andrew Han@@andrewthehanFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2013

Playing Contender or Pretender with Every NBA Title Hopeful Entering 2013-14

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    The NBA preseason is a nebulous period. Offseason adjustments move from the paper to the practice court, but there is still a distinct sense of tinkering. Regular-season games, the games that count, have yet to begin.

    And if you're one of the few teams peeking even beyond that, to April, May and possibly June, the season cannot start soon enough.

    After a lot of coaching and player movement this past offseason, is the league prepared for a changing of the guard and a new crop of contenders? Or is there simply another crop of false prophets carrying a paper crown?

Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Argument 

    It's a well-established axiom that defense wins championships. And the Grizzlies' defense is elite. 

    Memphis featured the second-most efficient defense in the league last season, and the margin wasn't close. According to the stats database, the Grizzlies were only 0.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively than the Indiana Pacers, the top-ranked defense, but 1.8 points better than the third-ranked team, tied between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    That's a precipitous drop in defense after Bluff City. 


    The Rebuttal

    As stifling as Memphis' defense is, it's a trait born out of necessity.

    The Grizzlies ranked an anemic 18th in offensive efficiency last season and have struggled to create breathing room for their gifted post players Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

    The de rigueur idea of three-point shooting? Memphis was 24th in three-point percentage and 30th in attempts. Opponents consistently pack the paint, especially during the playoffs, and dare the Grizzlies to shoot, a dare Memphis has yet to capitalize upon.


    The Verdict: Contender

    There haven't been major changes, and the key faces remain the same, but the Grizzlies enter the season with their strengths augmented and their weaknesses hedged.

    A now pro-analytics front office traded for Kosta Koufos and Ed Davis, likely giving Memphis the deepest frontcourt rotation in the league. Nick Calathes, 2012-13 Eurocup MVP, shores up the backup point guard position that has been a sore spot ever since trading Greivis Vasquez.

    And, if he's healthy, the return of Mike Miller will alleviate the outside shooting burden that fell entirely on the shoulders of Mike Conley and Quincy Pondexter.

New York Knicks

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    The Argument

    Carmelo Anthony at the power forward position was a revelation.

    Anthony was always too fast for bigger players and would pull them out and take them off the dribble. He was too strong for traditional swing men and would back them down into the post and have his way.

    Moving Carmelo to the 4 spot allowed the Knicks to add one more shooter on the floor and dared the opposing team to double-team Melo. This led to the Knicks setting the NBA record for most three-pointers made in a season en route to the third-most efficient offense in the league.

    The 2012-13 postseason may have been disappointing, but Melo was clearly hampered by a shoulder injury and never fully regained his shooting form.


    The Rebuttal

    But what about the defense?

    New York struggled mightily on the defensive end, and it was borderline unwatchable when Tyson Chandler wasn't on the floor. Are the Knicks really relying on a 33-year-old Metta World Peace to be their defensive stopper?

    And when has Andrea Bargnani ever been the answer to any problem? 


    The Verdict: Pretender

    Despite some changes to the roster, New York remains largely the same in key personnel. Normally this wouldn't be a bad thing since the Knicks were the No. 2 seed last year, but the other teams that were of the Knicks' caliber either improved dramatically via free agency or house much younger players expected to make developmental improvements at core positions.

    Things have only gotten tougher for the Knicks.

Houston Rockets

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    The Argument

    Pair the No. 6 team in offensive efficiency with arguably the best center in the league and most impactful defender, then sit back and watch the fireworks fly.

    Houston tried to run everyone off the court last season with its run-and-gun style of play: hoisting three-pointers, running the break, getting to the rim and living at the foul line.

    But "porous" would be an understatement for the defense of the league's most fast-paced team.

    Enter Dwight Howard, the prize of the free-agent class. We've already seen Howard anchor a roster of largely average defenders in Orlando, and those Magic teams perennially resided near the top of every defensive category. And Dwight is athletic enough to run with the Rockets' high-tempo offense.

    If all Howard does is clean up the defensive half of the court, the Rockets will contend.


    The Rebuttal

    Is Howard healthy? That would be the overriding concern for the Rockets.

    Big men do not have a positive track record after back surgery in the NBA. And athletic big men fare even worse. If Dwight struggles with any diminished athleticism, or Houston gets off to a sluggish start, we may hear muttering and discontent from No. 12 about not running an inside-out game, slowing the game down and getting more post touches. And the Rockets' nascent chemistry will go up in flames.


    The Verdict: Contender

    The largest impediment to taking the Rockets seriously is the health of Dwight Howard. James Harden, along with the spot-up shooting of nearly the entire Rockets roster, can handle any offensive burden required.

    If Howard can be the bedrock of a solid defensive foundation, the Rockets will contend.

Indiana Pacers

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    The Argument

    The Indiana Pacers were a couple of quality bench players away from upsetting the Miami Heat. That's how the Pacers feel about it, anyway.

    And the notion wouldn't be entirely wrong.

    Indiana's bench ranked as one of the worst in the league in terms of production. So what did the Pacers do? They promptly spent the offseason upgrading as much as possible, acquiring C.J. Watson to solidify the point guard position behind George Hill, Chris Copeland to provide an additional long-ball threat, and Luis Scola to provide a reliable post scorer on the bench.

    Factor in Danny Granger's return (re-entering the starting lineup and pushing Lance Stephenson to the bench or becoming the sixth man himself), and one could say no team has done more to address its weakness this offseason than the Pacers. 


    The Rebuttal

    One could argue that the Pacers should have been called Memphis-East last season.

    They played a similar brand of suffocating defense matched with an offense that had a propensity to sputter.

    Will the real Roy Hibbert please stand up? After a breakout season in 2011-12 season that led to him becoming a first-time All-Star, Hibbert was largely pedestrian for much of last year before looking like a defensive stalwart once again in the playoffs.

    And forget about making another leap; can Paul George sustain his level of play from the playoffs?


    The Verdict: Contender

    It's tough to brush aside any team that sported the most efficient defense in the league last year. And if the upgrades to the bench makes them even league-average in terms of production, the added value should be able to sustain the Pacers' eye-opening performance last season.

    How Granger recovers after effectively sitting out an entire year will be the key to how intimidating Indiana truly becomes.

San Antonio Spurs

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    The Argument

    Six seconds. The length of a Vine video. That's how close the Spurs came to winning the 2013 NBA Finals.

    A Kawhi Leonard missed free throw. A Manu Ginobili missed free throw. And despite all of that, the Spurs still had the ball in the waning seconds of Game 6, down by one point.

    Every year the Spurs are written off as too old, finally over the hill in terms of NBA contention. It's been their narrative for the last five years. And they were a Vine video away from winning a fifth NBA championship.


    The Rebuttal

    But aren't they kind of old?

    Ginobili was sneakily poor by his standards last season. He posted lows in true shooting percentage and highs in turnover percentage, numbers in line with his rookie season.

    Tony Parker wore down through the playoffs until a hamstring strain finally caught him in the middle of the finals.

    And as magical as it was to see Tim Duncan turn back the clock for a season, can he fully morph into Benjamin Button and sustain that rejuvenation?


    The Verdict: Contender

    Maybe it's just time to admit that it doesn't matter how old the Spurs are. As long as Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and Popovich reside in San Antonio, the Spurs will find a way to be in contention.

    Additionally, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard took on an increased role last season. So while the core of San Antonio looks into the sunset, the organization has already begun to bring up the next generation of Spurs contenders.

Brooklyn Nets

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    The Argument

    With all their splashy offseason moves, one could argue that the Brooklyn Nets boast the best starting lineup in the league.

    Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez flaunt a massive 35 All-Star appearances between them (all with at least one appearance) and a massive $82.4 million in payroll. That's more salary than the entire roster of 27 other teams (the New York Knicks and Miami Heat being the exception).

    And as reliable as Garnett has been in Boston these past few years, playing out of position at center wore him down, which affected his production. Couple that with utility man extraordinaire Andrei Kirilenko, and the Nets have built a juggernaut in an era when such a thing was not deemed possible.


    The Rebuttal

    Is a first-time coach with no experience really the right man for the job? Jason Kidd was literally on the court as the Nets' crosstown rival six months ago and now helms a nine-digit payroll with championship-or-bust expectations.

    Lawrence Frank, Kidd's former coach, will alleviate much of the day-to-day pressure on Kidd, but the pressure of a big media market and a star-laden team will test the unproven head coach. 


    The Verdict: Pretender

    Chemistry is one of the underrated elements on a title-winning team. Every player must understand his role, accept it and allow the coach to manipulate the team to be larger than the sum of its parts.

    The Nets were already immensely talented last season, but they only snagged the fourth seed before being upset by an injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls team.

    How will chemistry be affected when adding two championship veterans, a hyper-intense big man (Garnett) and an unknown coach to this mercurial bunch?

Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Argument

    Lob City was incendiary last season.

    A 17-game winning streak led to an undefeated month. The team was fourth-best in offensive efficiency based largely on simple high pick-and-roll schemes. It won a franchise-record 56 games and its first Pacific Division banner.

    And this is all without a regular starting lineup.

    The Clippers went about addressing their needs from a system perspective, bringing in Doc Rivers, one of only four active coaches to lead a team to a championship. With him, he brings the vaunted Boston strong-side defense that Tom Thibodeau installed and an attention to execution on both ends.

    Not only that, the Clippers upgraded both starting wing positions by trading for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, career 39 percent and 40.5 percent three-point shooters, respectively.


    The Rebuttal

    Where is the frontcourt depth?

    Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Ryan Hollins. Does anyone feel comfortable with them spelling Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan?

    The Clippers finished ninth in defensive efficiency last season but were sliding viciously after the All-Star break (17th from that point to the end of the season). And Memphis exposed their overall poor defense in the playoffs, pounding it inside against an undersized Griffin-Odom tandem and shooting from the outside against the Clippers' slow-footed wings.


    The Verdict: Contender

    Can Doc Rivers mold Jordan and Griffin into a superior defensive tandem? This becomes the ultimate nature versus nurture experiment in the NBA. Jordan and Griffin have shown little defensive acumen during their tenure in Los Angeles. 

    The offense will be fine. Any team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin running pick-and-rolls will figure out some way to score points.

    But if they cannot digest the defensive system and apply it consistently on the court, the Clips should be prepared for another early summer.

Chicago Bulls

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    The Argument

    Only two teams added a top-five player this offseason: the Houston Rockets in Dwight Howard and the Chicago Bulls in Derrick Rose.

    The Bulls were the quintessential "more than the sum of their parts" team last season, getting the fifth seed in the East, upsetting the Brooklyn Nets, and even winning a game against the fearsome Miami Heat. And that was largely with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah hobbled by injury.

    Now Chi-town returns one of the most dynamic guards in the league after he rehabbed and developed his perimeter game for a full year.


    The Rebuttal 

    Is Derrick Rose still the same player we all fell in love with?

    Rose was one of the most athletic guards in the league. Even if he recovers 80 percent of his former abilities, no one can say for sure how much that affects his development as one of the league's elite players.


    The Verdict: Contender

    A blessing in disguise in last season may have been the need to develop Jimmy Butler as quickly as possible. His ascent to reliable wing player gives Chicago an added dimension it's been desperately seeking since acquiring Rip Hamilton in 2011.

    But honestly, this comes down to who Rose is as a player.

    Chicago has dealt with a series of calamitous injuries in the Rose era: Deng with his botched spinal tap, Noah plagued by plantar fasciitis, Rose's knee. If the Bulls can avoid any debilitating injuries this season, Thibodeau has already shown he can wring the most out of his scrappy squad.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Argument 

    Oklahoma City still employs Kevin Durant, and if not for a freak injury to Russell Westbrook, the Thunder would likely have been in the NBA Finals for a second straight season.

    How freaky is the injury? Not only was it a light bump of the knees by Patrick Beverley, but the meniscus tear in Westbrook's knee was minor enough that doctors could repair the damage rather than trim away the afflicted area.

    If Westbrook, one of the league's most durable players, had had his meniscus trimmed, the recovery time is approximately two weeks and he might have been playing in the playoffs again to save the Thunder versus the Grizzlies. 


    The Rebuttal

    The Thunder have gone from James Harden to Kevin Martin to Jeremy Lamb for sixth men. And now that Westbrook will be sitting the first couple of months of the season, an already loaded West becomes that much tougher to face.

    Reaching the finals out of the Western Conference may come down to seeding and matchups. And if Oklahoma City is unable to secure a top-two seed, the Thunder may face a gauntlet of challengers unlike any they've seen in recent years.


    The Verdict: Contender

    This is still a team with Durant and Westbrook, who should bear no long-term ill-effects from his knee injury. Serge Ibaka is only 24 years old and has developed not only a reliable mid-range jumper, but also a corner three. As long as those three are healthy going into the postseason, they are likely the de facto favorites in the West.

Miami Heat

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    The Argument

    Two words, three capital letters: LeBron James.

    He is the consensus best player in basketball and climbing the ranks of the best players of all time. The Heat still have unsung hero Chris Bosh, and while Dwyane Wade may be in the tail end of his prime, the key word of that phrase is "prime."

    Miami also took a healthy gamble (no pun intended) in signing Greg Oden, once thought to be the future face of NBA big men. If he can give the Heat the production he's displayed in his injury-riddled career, it allows the Heat do something they've never done in the Big Three era: play big. 


    The Rebuttal

    Miami was six seconds, yellow rope, uncharacteristically missed free throws and a missed rebound away from a deafening din of whether the Miami Three was one-and-done.

    For a team that was supposed to be more than a team, a superteam, the Heat came painfully close to the abyss and damn near touched their basketball mortality.

    On top of that, Miami is embarking on a fourth straight campaign to the NBA Finals. The amount of mental and physical exertion and strain is incalculable.


    The Verdict: Contender

    The road to the finals will be more difficult than in years past, as the East has become more top-heavy. But LeBron James is at the peak of his powers, and there's no reason to assume a James-led team cannot win a title.