NBA

Power Ranking the Dark Horse Candidates for the 2014 NBA Championship

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2014

Power Ranking the Dark Horse Candidates for the 2014 NBA Championship

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    Don't sleep on the Memphis Grizzlies or the Toronto Raptors in 2014 NBA playoffs.
    Don't sleep on the Memphis Grizzlies or the Toronto Raptors in 2014 NBA playoffs.Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    When it comes to the 2014 NBA Championship, we all know who the favorites are. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are contenders out East, while the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are the top dogs out West.

    Even the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets should be considered elite, as parity in the Western Conference is obvious among the first four seeds.

    Beyond the top-tier competition, there are a handful of dark horses who have a puncher's chance at pulling an upset. Out East, there are a select few. Out West, virtually everyone could win with a strong postseason performance.

    March is the month of madness in college basketball, but Cinderella stories are far less common in the NBA. That said, don't sleep on "second-tier" competition, as the postseason should provide entertainment virtually every step of the way.

     

    *Rankings, standings and statistics are current as of March 21 at 1:00 a.m. ET.

Honorable Mentions

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Chicago Bulls: 38-30 (4th Seed: East)

    The Chicago Bulls are a gritty team you just can't count out.

    Unfortunately, without Derrick Rose in the lineup, their offense is dead last in the NBA, averaging just 93.4 points per contest.

    Chicago earns an honorable mention based on the fact that it gets up for big games. Joakim Noah is a legitimate MVP candidate, and at 38-30, the team has exceeded many of the expectations people formulated when Rose went down.

    The old cliche says that defense wins championships, and if that's the case, Chicago is in good shape. The team is allowing just 92.3 points per night—the second-best mark in the league—but an offense to complement that number would be greatly appreciated by Chicagoans.

     

    Houston Rockets: 46-22 (5th Seed: West)

    The Houston Rockets are an honorable mention for the exact opposite reason as the Bulls: They're simply too good to be considered a dark horse at this point in the process.

    Since the New Year, Houston has gone 25-9. It has made a push toward home-court advantage in the first round, which is going to be crucial for any Western Conference hopeful.

    The problem for Houston, and the reason we can't leave it off this list altogether, is that it has yet to prove it can win big with Dwight Howard and James Harden as the centerpieces. This is what fuels the fires of detractors entering the postseason, and it's what brings skepticism to the surface regarding this contender.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 41-28

    Conference Standing: 8

     

    The Western Conference is going to be absolutely brutal come playoff time. We know that the top four seeds are contenders because of consistency and home-court advantage, but the bottom four deserve recognition, as very few eliminations will be considered true upsets.

    In the case of the Dallas Mavericks, defense has been their downfall all season. The numbers say that they're 18th in points per game allowed, but if you've watched them play, inconsistencies and high-risk gambles have kept them near the bottom of the playoff standings.

    Luckily for the organization, offense is a completely difference story. The pairing of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis has combined for 40.1 points per contest, and the team as a whole is scoring the eighth-most points per night.

    Dallas is as close to a Cinderella story as we could see out West, as a hot offensive showing could result in a decent run. This is a new-look roster compared to years past, but with Nowitzki leading the way, anything is possible.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Record: 35-31

    Conference Standings: 

     

    The Brooklyn Nets have been a much better team since Jan. 1. Despite starting the year 10-21, the Nets have turned things around by improving to 35-31 and pushing for a top-three seed out East.

    According to USA Today's Sam Amick, they're also fifth in defense since the New Year. The problem is that their age and lack of athleticism make them tough to trust in a series against the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.

    It's true that the Nets have had Miami's number this season. They're 3-0 against their in-conference rivals, but the concern is that Miami will flip the switch come playoff time, becoming a different animal when it matters most.

    Don't ignore the experience Brooklyn has individually across the roster, but don't forget that this unit has done nothing together. It would be the comeback of all comebacks if the Nets made it to the finals, and while it's worth noting their improvements, they're a dark horse at best in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. 

4. Toronto Raptors

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 38-29

    Conference Standing: 3

     

    The Eastern Conference may be a two-horse race between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but the Toronto Raptors could very well be the hungriest organization to win and win now.

    Toronto hasn't been to the postseason since 2008, and its fans are ready to hit the ground running. General manager Masai Ujiri could have tanked at the deadline like many of his Eastern Conference counterparts, but instead he made the decision to see how far the team could go—a decision that has paid dividends up to this point.

    According to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (Insider), the team has been as good as Indiana and Miami following the Rudy Gay Deal:

    The Raptors have gone 31-16 (.660) since Gay left the team on Dec. 8 and have outscored opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions over that time. That's right in between the Heat and the Pacers in terms of point differential.

    Haberstroh admits that Toronto's lack of postseason experience will be a problem, but the truth is that this group has been great the second half of the year. Miami and Indiana are still the favorites, but with the two showing inconsistencies down the stretch, Toronto deserves to have confidence once the playoffs arrive.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Record: 45-24

    Conference Standing: 5

     

    The Portland Trail Blazers began the 2013-14 season with an incredible 24-5 start. They failed to sustain that same success, going 21-19 ever since, but their offensive firepower gives them hope to beat any given team on any given night.

    Following arguably the most disappointing win of the year—a 120-115 overtime victory over the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks—Damian Lillard was quoted as saying, "There’s nothing wrong with going into the game thinking you’re going to win, but that’s an NBA team over there," per ESPN.

    That's the mentality this team needs to have: a cautious optimism that balances confidence and vigilance down the stretch.

    Portland is no longer looked at as a favorite, but the truth is that it's played well against both top and bottom-tier teams this season. If it can earn home-court advantage with strong play in its final 13 games, an energized Rip City crowd will help the Blazers advance beyond the first round for the first time since 1999-00.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 40-27

    Conference Standing: 7

     

    The Memphis Grizzlies have a chance to be one of the most dangerous lower-seeded teams we've seen in a long time.

    If Memphis had been healthy since Day 1, we'd be looking at a much different narrative. The team is 40-27 on the season (.597), but it's 23-7 (.767) since Marc Gasol's return.

    According to USA Today's Sam Amick, the Grizzlies have the league's best record since Jan. 10. "Had these winning ways been there since the start, they would be on pace to win 61 games," Amick states. He went on to say:

    But after the Grizzlies followed their Conference Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs, with a coaching change that was seen as puzzling by many, the combination of Gasol's Jan. 14 return from an MCL sprain that kept him out for seven weeks and the timely acquisition of players like Courtney Lee and James Johnson has worked wonders.

    Worked wonders, it has. Memphis is the epitome of a team nobody wants to see, as its third-ranked scoring defense has more than made up for any offensive deficiencies throughout the course of the season.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 43-26

    Conference Standing: 6

     

    With the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets earning elite status at this juncture, the Golden State Warriors should enter the postseason as the most dangerous dark horse in the field.

    We all know about Golden State's offense. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have made a name for themselves as the "Splash Brothers" this season, and the team as a whole is just outside the top 10 in scoring, averaging 103.5 points per contest.

    What's been seemingly ignored is the underrated defense. Not only are the Warriors allowing just 98.8 points per game—the eighth-best mark in the league—but their defensive efficiency of 99.4 is third-best, per ESPN.com.

    Golden State, when healthy, is as dangerous as anyone leaguewide. The addition of Steve Blake at the deadline was a much-needed addition to the bench, and after watching what Curry and crew did last postseason (without Andre Iguodala), it's easy to see how the Warriors could be Cinderella for the second year in a row.

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