Why You Can and Can't Believe in Each Potential NBA Title Contender

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014

Why You Can and Can't Believe in Each Potential NBA Title Contender

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    It's not too late for NBA teams to emerge as contenders, and some surely will during the second half of the lengthy 82-game season. 

    But at this stage, with All-Stars selected and the festivities in New Orleans looming in the not-so-distant horizon, eight teams have established themselves as the favorites to at least have a shot at competing for an NBA title. 

    Sadly, only two of the them are in the Eastern Conference—the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, both of whom could play with their eyes closed for the next two weeks and still have a lead on the other 13 squads in the Association's lesser conference. 

    The other six come from the West, though you could make an argument—I will do so, in fact—that one of them is only a fringe contender. Even though the Phoenix Suns have a better record than one of these teams, they don't have the same potential for upward mobility, barring a trade before the Feb. 20 deadline. 

    You're welcome to believe in any of these eight teams. But you're also welcome to do the opposite. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of Feb. 8. 

Golden State Warriors

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    Why You Can Believe

    It feels like the Golden State Warriors have the tools to compete with anyone, especially when the entire squad is healthy and able to suit up in those blue-and-yellow jerseys. 

    Mark Jackson has gotten this defense into the realm of the elites, as it's allowing only 101.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves the Dubs trailing just the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. And it's not like this team is bad on offense, although it still ranks outside the top half of NBA teams when looking at offensive rating. 

    Isn't this the exact makeup of a team that you want? 

    Golden State has an elite defense, but it also has the ability to absolutely explode on offense. When Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are hitting with relentless fury, the Warriors are nearly impossible to stop, and they'll only get more potent if Andre Iguodala adopts a more aggressive mentality on that end of the floor. 

    Curry has consistently shown that he's a superstar, and he's one of the few players in the Association who can catch fire to the extent that he singlehandedly wins games. You want a player like that on your side when you go into battle. 

    But by the time the postseason rolls around, this team should be so much more than a supporting cast for Curry.

    Thanks to the early-season injuries, Iguodala is still learning how to fit with his new teammates. Jordan Crawford, who was brought aboard via a midseason trade, is still figuring out his role for the second unit. 

    This team hasn't yet come together, and we're already talking about them as contenders. 

     

    Why You Can't

    Are they really contenders, though?

    That's a title that needs to be earned, and a team that's nearly double-digit games behind the top squad in the Western Conference shouldn't have gained it yet. I'll bite on fringe contenders, but without the adjective, everything gets a little shaky. 

    Golden State has already gotten past the 30-win barrier, but that's just not enough. 

    This team hasn't been able to win games with any sort of frequency, and their impressive record is boosted by the double-digit win streak they put together earlier in the season. Without it, we're looking at a squad that would be fighting to move into postseason contention. 

    For all the Warriors' defensive skills and shooting abilities, they've had too much difficulty closing out tight games.

    NBA.com's statistical databases show that Golden State is only 6-13 in games that feature a five-point margin or less (either a lead or a deficit) during the final minute. That's not going to cut it, especially when the playoffs roll around and games are even tighter. 

Houston Rockets

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    Why You Can Believe

    Star power. 

    James Harden and James Harden's beard are both sources of incredible offensive production. Even though the 2-guard hasn't been connecting from downtown at the rate we've come to expect, he's still posting efficient scoring numbers thanks to his incredible ability to get to the charity stripe. 

    No. 13's style of play might border on annoying, but it's effective. And that's what matters. 

    Harden is joined by Dwight Howard in Houston, and the big man brings the two-way presence that's needed at center. D12 is no longer the league's best center—DeMarcus Cousins has moved past him—but his scoring remains valuable, and his defense is still elite. 

    With Chandler Parsons looking like he could become a bona fide star by the end of the season, the Rockets could finally have a "Big Three." And what could make general manager Daryl Morey happier? 

    Morey notoriously chases after stars, and he might have found a trio capable of winning a championship. The offense/defense combination of Harden, Howard and Parsons is fantastic, and it would be even better if the bearded 2-guard committed to the less glamorous end when the postseason rolls around. 

    Plus, this is another team that's still coming together. Houston is starting to heat up, and true liftoff from the Rockets could be scary for the rest of the Association. 

     

    Why You Can't

    There are a couple main problems with the Rockets' current construction. 

    First, the offense is built around a system that can go south in a hurry. 

    While Harden has paced a squad that is scoring at a rate rivaling the best the NBA has to offer, Houston's offensive output is centered around hot shooting from the outside and drawing fouls more often than any other team. What happens if a few of the shooters slump at the same time? What happens if a referee stops letting Harden flop his way to the free-throw line? 

    Second, the Rockets really aren't a defensive team. 

    Allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions, they check in at No. 15 in the NBA, and that's not indicative of a championship-caliber squad. Given the elite offenses boasted by the top teams in the Western Conference, it'll be hard to outscore the opposition consistently during a seven-game series. 

    Finally, the Rockets are trying to fit a major new piece into the lineup in just one season. As many teams have proven in the past, it's tough to win a championship in year one of a new era. 

Indiana Pacers

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    Why You Can Believe

    It's all about the defense. 

    When the Indiana Pacers are on their game—which is more often than not—they're nearly impossible to score on. This defensive unit is playing as well as any in the last decade, allowing only 96.5 points per 100 possessions. 

    To put that in perspective, the Chicago Bulls are No. 2 in the category, and they give up 101 points. That gap of 4.5 points is as large as the one that exists between the Bulls and the Boston Celtics, who are No. 12 in defensive rating.

    Forward Paul George is as good as it gets on the perimeter, and he's joined by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Roy Hibbert. If you had to pick one guy in the Association to protect the rim, Hibbert would be the logical choice. 

    And the rest of the squad is filled with solid if not better defenders at every single position.

    They say defense wins championships, and Indiana is overflowing with it. 

     

    Why You Can't

    Although the team just proved it could hang with an elite offense (and a bad defense) during a shootout, it's still not safe to bet on the Pacers consistently scoring more than 90 points. And it would be tough to hold elite offenses like the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder to less than that over the course of a seven-game series.

    While George is a terrific offensive player and the rise of Lance Stephenson has allowed the Pacers to morph from a putrid offensive team to a slightly below-decent one on the more glamorous end of the court, there still isn't enough firepower to scare teams.

    Couple that with a few glaring weaknesses that have emerged—speed and their own penchant for turnovers can kill Indiana—and you have the recipe for a team that isn't invincible. Thing is, the Pacers will need to play like they're invincible, especially because the bench can't be counted on to step up. 

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Why You Can Believe

    Without Chris Paul in the lineup, the Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to fall out of contention. 

    Instead, Blake Griffin has become a legitimate MVP candidate, and LAC refuses to go away. Thanks to a string of performances in which the power forward scored at least 36 points, the Clippers remain only a handful of spots behind the top seed in the brutally difficult Western Conference. 

    Griffin now has become the focal point of the offense. Every play runs through him, and he's actively looking to make things happen out of the post. His skills with his back to the basket are developing; his jumper is starting to click, and he's playing harder than ever before on both ends of the court. 

    Meanwhile, Jamal Crawford lit up scoreboards while CP3 rehabbed his separated shoulder. 

    Paul returned to the lineup Sunday, and that will only make this team stronger. The Clippers now boast two of the 10 best players in basketball. Yes, that's a status that Griffin has now firmly achieved. So long as he doesn't decline as Paul reassumes his role as the focal point of the offense, the Clips will be even more unstoppable.

    The Clippers rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, and that's something that only the Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder can claim.

    (Admittedly, that's a weird group of four, but the 'Wolves are certainly in that group, though they rank right near the bottom of the top 10 in both categories.)

     

    Why You Can't

    This team has never done anything in the postseason. 

    Paul has always had trouble advancing deep into the playoffs, though that's typically the fault of his teammates more than any sort of lackluster play from the All-Star point guard. Last year, for example, CP3 finished with the highest PER in the playoffs of any qualified player.

    It was Griffin who didn't show up. 

    But there's something to be said for experience on the biggest stage the NBA has to offer. 

    Doc Rivers has the defense humming, and the elite offense will only get better with CP3 there to help Griffin carry the scoring load. This is a deep team with skills on both ends of the court, but it's hard to believe in a team that has never inspired that belief before. 

    The Memphis Grizzlies flat-out bullied them last year, and there's no telling whether or not they've developed the mental fortitude necessary to withstand such tough opposition this time. 

Miami Heat

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    Why You Can Believe

    Is there really a reason to doubt the Miami Heat when they've won each of the past two titles? 

    For whatever reason, the narrative has been different this year, and it really shouldn't be. The only difference is the emergence of the Pacers, because the Heat have put together a record at this stage of the season that's nearly identical to their midseason pace during each of their title-winning campaigns. 

    So long as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are playing at a high level, this team is nearly impossible to beat. Well, when they're all motivated, at least. 

    The Heat are one of those squads that can embarrass an opponent on both ends of the court. They're a high-flying transition machine with an incredible half-court offense, but they're also capable of trapping on the perimeter and rotating perfectly to prevent points.

    You don't want to tangle with this squad on either end. There's a reason that the LVH Sportsbook, per SportingNews.com, still has the Heat as the odds-on favorite to win the 2014 title and successfully complete the three-peat. 

    This is just the latest version of the midseason slump the Heat have experienced every year. And if we see anything like the run Miami put together in 2012-13, the Pacers won't be No. 1 in the Eastern Conference for much longer. 

     

    Why You Can't

    Do you actually trust Wade's knees? 

    Although the Heat have played only 49 games, D-Wade has already missed over a dozen contests. That seems to go beyond the scope of typical maintenance days, especially since he's been impressive when he's actually on the court. 

    Miami is clearly showing some concern about the joints of the starting shooting guard. 

    "That all comes when I have strength in my legs," Wade told Fox Sports Florida's Charlie McCarthy, referring to his mid-range shooting. "I'm able to raise up and shoot with confidence and not have to jump off one leg."

    Lately, that's been working. But what happens if he tweaks those knees again or ends up suffering a more serious blow? Given his injury history, that's not something you typically want to bet against. 

    The Heat have done a tremendous job overcoming all obstacles throughout the last few seasons. Most significantly, they've proven that a team doesn't have to dominate the glass to win a title. 

    However, absences from Wade in the postseason would be one obstacle Miami wouldn't be able clear.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Why You Can Believe

    Two words—Kevin Durant

    The Oklahoma City Thunder forward has become the unquestioned frontrunner for MVP during the 2013-14 season. Here's what B/R's Josh Martin had to say when offering his latest set of odds for the NBA's premier individual award: 

    That's right, folks; the betting corners of the Internet have upped Kevin Durant to a 1-20 favorite to be the NBA's MVP.
    Which, for the uninitiated, means that if you wanted to put money on KD taking home his first Maurice Podoloff Trophy at season's end, you'd have to spend $20 to earn a single George Washington on top of your bet.

    That degree of favoritism may seem preposterous, given that Durant plays in a league with LEBRON FRICKIN' JAMES, but considering where the race stands today, the fact that KD's got such a substantial lead shouldn't come as a complete shock.

     

    Outings with 54 points. Twelve-assist performances. Consistent scoring dominance while maintaining ridiculously efficient numbers from the field.

    Durant has done everything possible to keep the Thunder at the top of the Western Conference standings, and his team has been successful. Without Russell Westbrook, of course.

    But it's not all about the high-scoring small forward.

    Serge Ibaka has taken the leap as a defender, and he should be a legitimate DPOY candidate. The bench has a number of quality young talents, and Scott Brooks is finally showing some flexibility in his rotations.

    Everything points toward the Thunder being better than they've ever been.  

     

    Why You Can't

    Searching...still searching...

    If you had to pick a favorite to win the title, it should be the Thunder, and that makes it awfully tough to find a reason not to believe in them. This is a team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, and it's only going to get better with Westbrook back in the lineup. 

    And there's the biggest concern. 

    What if Westbrook messes things up? What if he's unable to accept more of a secondary role than when he was last healthy? What if that situation creates strife between himself and Durant? 

    I doubt that would happen, but it's at least worth mentioning. 

    The other concern is Durant wearing down. He's been tasked with doing so much over the last few weeks, and the NBA season is already a grueling one. A few difficult series in the Western Conference playoffs, then an inevitably difficult finals clash could leave him gasping for breath and finishing second yet again. 

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Why You Can Believe

    Where is the offensive weakness for the Portland Trail Blazers? 

    Damian Lillard is making his first All-Star appearance this season thanks to his gaudy point-producing numbers. He's a true master of the pull-up jumper, and while his finishing around the basket leaves something to be desired, he makes up for it with his work outside the paint. 

    Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge has been even better. 

    The big man's turnaround jumper is one of the deadliest weapons in the NBA, and he's never afraid to use it. Lately, Aldridge's jumper has been so threatening that defenses are preparing for it, and he's countering with either a pump fake or a strong backdown until he's right at the basket. 

    As if that wasn't enough, Wesley Matthews is one of the Association's more potent snipers, and Nicolas Batum has the unique ability to make a big offensive impact while scoring little himself.

    To top it all off, Robin Lopez is one of the best offensive rebounders in basketball, and he's given the Blazers so many second-chance opportunities. 

    Rip City is scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions, which is easily the best mark in the league. While there's not a gigantic mark between them and the other 29 teams, the Miami Heat check in at No. 2 and are over a point behind the Blazers. 

     

    Why You Can't

    Portland is essentially the exact opposite of the Indiana Pacers—and that's problematic. 

    It's tough to win in the playoffs without much of a defense. 

    Not only are the Blazers a relatively inexperienced team, but they have an inordinate amount of trouble stopping other teams from scoring in triple figures. Of the eight teams featured in this article, seven have defenses that rank in the top half of the league. 

    Portland is the lone exception, checking in at No. 20 after letting the Pacers win a marquee shootout. Turnovers, shoddy rebounding and a remarkable ability to act like matadors undid Portland in the loss to Indiana. 

    At the beginning of the season, Terry Stott's system was working quite well. The Blazers were shutting down the perimeter and letting Aldridge and Lopez play one-on-one defense in the paint. 

    However, teams have since figured out to attack Portland's defense. Batum, Matthews and Aldridge are all solid defenders, and this team shouldn't be so horrific on one end of the court. 

San Antonio Spurs

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    Why You Can Believe

    You should believe in the San Antonio Spurs because...well, they're the San Antonio Spurs. 

    Tautological as that argument may be, Gregg Popovich's squad is always competitive. It doesn't matter how many members of the Big Three are healthy and in the lineup, because he's going to milk everything possible from each and every role player. 

    The Spurs evaluate talent better than anyone else, and then they only take players who fit their system. It's one that virtually prohibits statistical superstardom yet makes everyone look good. 

    Oh, and it helps the team actually win games year in and year out. 

    San Antonio is filled with aging players and castoffs from other teams. It's suffered more than its fair share of injuries throughout the 2013-14 season, but the Spurs are still sitting pretty at No. 2 in the Western Conference standings. 

    Add in the tendency to always get hot right at the end of the season, and you're looking at a team you should never bet against. Even if my mother, my dog, Tim Duncan, the first commenter on this article and I suited up for Pop, he'd still find a way to keep us right in the thick of things. 

    It's worth noting that my dog is not named Air Bud. 

     

    Why You Can't

    Age. 

    They say it's only a number, but it's eventually going to catch up with San Antonio. And given the depth of the Western Conference and the inevitability of a tough first-round matchup, this could be the year. 

    Between all of the injuries and the negative effects of Father Time, it's tough to believe that the Spurs have improved enough upon last year's squad. Granted, they were one rebound away from winning a title, but they still needed to get better rather than stay put.

    Statistically, the Spurs are nearly untouchable. They boast an elite offense, claim a stellar defense and do so while having played one of the tougher schedules in the first half of this year's NBA campaign.

    But every dynasty has to come to an end, and this could be the Spurs' time. 

    Of course, it seems like every year someone says that and ends up regretting it.