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Playing Pretender or Contender with 2014 NBA Title Hopefuls

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2014

Playing Pretender or Contender with 2014 NBA Title Hopefuls

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The home stretch of the 2013-14 NBA campaign is officially upon us, which means it's time to start sifting through which teams do and do not have a legitimate chance of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

    And while the San Antonio Spurs can rightfully be labeled as title favorites thanks to a spectacular flourish to close out the regular season, questions still linger for hopefuls like the Indiana Pacers, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and a host of others.

    But before we get rolling, there are some ground rules that need to be established.

    In order to qualify as title hopefuls, teams needed to have a winning percentage of at least .600. As a result, you'll notice that Eastern Conference tenants are underrepresented, although we did find a way to address several of the East's more prominent clubs. 

    From there, squads were listed in order of ascending title odds, as outlined on the playoff probabilities report at Basketball-Reference.com

     

    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and current as of Sunday, April 6, unless noted otherwise. 

Honorable Mentions

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    As you'll notice in the coming slides, the Eastern Conference is vastly underrepresented due to its lack of teams with winning percentages better than .600. 

    However, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention a few squads who are looking to disrupt the hopes of title favorites and leave their mark on the 2013-14 postseason. 

     

    Brooklyn Nets

    Title odds: 0 percent 

    The Brooklyn Nets are an Eastern Conference-best 32-13 since Jan. 1, a record that can't be described as anything other than a revelation given the team's 10-21 start to the season. 

    And boy, does Jason Kidd deserve praise for getting his troops in line following the loss of center Brook Lopez. That's undeniable. But what's holding the Nets back is a below-average defense that's surrendering 104.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com

    Also consider that the Nets are 15-23 away from the friendly confines of Barclays Center, and it's hard not to cast doubt on their ability to make a deep playoff run. 

    Verdict: Pretender

     

    Chicago Bulls

    Title odds: 1.3 percent 

    Admittedly, the Chicago Bulls were the hardest team to leave off this list. However, the strict threshold to qualify prevented them from making an appearance. 

    But if we consult Basketball-Reference.com's playoff probabilities report, perhaps omitting the Bullswho have a 1.3 percent chance of winning the NBA titlewas for the best.  

    Chicago's defense clearly has championship potential, evidenced by the meager 97.6 points it allows per 100 possessions, but the Bulls offense is the furthest thing from championship caliber. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, no team since 2000 has hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy with an offensive rating worse than 18th overall (2003-04 Detroit Pistons), and 14 of the 15 champions in that time owned offensive ratings among the league's top 12. 

    This season, the Bulls rank 28th in offensive efficiency, which is reason enough to believe that they'll fall short of winning the franchise's first title since 1997-98. 

    Verdict: Pretender 

     

    Toronto Raptors

    Title odds: 3.3 percent 

    Remember when Dwane Casey entered the final year of his contract on the hot seat

    Well, for the time being, discussion regarding pink slips and organizational reconstructions have halted after Casey helped lead the Toronto Raptors to the franchise's first playoff berth since 2007-08. 

    But are these reformed, high-energy, youthful Raptors ready to shine on the game's brightest stage? My hunch is that they're on the fringe of doing so but won't make a complete breakthrough until next season. 

    DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been phenomenal, helping craft the Raptors into a top-12 team on both ends of the floor, but a starting five largely devoid of playoff experience may not be able to hang beyond the second round, what with seasoned squads like the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers in their path.

    Verdict: Pretender

Dallas Mavericks

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    Jae C. Hong

    Title odds: 0.6 percent 

    A formidable first-round foe like the Dallas Mavericks will be a daunting prospect for upper-echelon Western Conference teams.

    Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon function as a three-pronged attack leading one of the league's most polished offenses, one that's only been outdone by the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat in terms of efficiency, per NBA.com

    And with Rick Carlisle putting on a master class on the sidelines thanks to his reputation as a renowned postseason tactician, Dallas could easily put a scare into squads led by Scott Brooks, Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich. 

    But there's a reason the Mavericks are still scraping and clawing for one of the conference's final playoff spots: Their defense has held them back all season long. 

    To put in context just how subpar Dallas' defensive efforts have been, consider the following: The Mavericks' defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is worse than that of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets. 

    The offensive firepower will make for a compelling first-round matchup, but even if they do pull off an upset, it's hard to imagine the Mavericks making any sort of deep run with such a fallible defense.   

    Verdict: Pretender

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Don Ryan

    Title odds: 2.1 percent 

    Since the regular season started, the Portland Trail Blazers have looked like a title contender. That is, on the offensive end of the floor. 

    Quick, decisive perimeter ball movement has become a staple of Terry Stotts' high-powered offense, one that's on pace to post a top-five offensive rating in franchise history, according to Basketball-Reference.com

    The problem for Portland—not unlike other Western Conference pretenders—is that it lacks the defensive tenacity to make a deep postseason run. 

    For the Blazers to be in title contention this year, they would have to finally piece things together on the defensive end. To date, that hasn't happened, as Stotts' club ranks 17th in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions and dead last in turnover percentage (turnovers forced per 100 plays). 

    It also doesn't help that the Blazers posted a record of 1-3 against their likely first-round opponent, the Houston Rockets, who scored an average of 116 points in those four contests. 

    Verdict: Pretender

Golden State Warriors

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Title odds: 2.2 percent 

    Among so-called Western Conference underdogs, the Golden State Warriors may be the scariest of the bunch. 

    Mark Jackson's defense has transformed from a league-average unit a year ago (No. 14 in defensive efficiency) to one of the league's best this season thanks to the addition of Andre Iguodala and a largely healthy Andrew Bogut. 

    And while Golden State's defense has been superb, we haven't talked nearly enough about how average the Warriors offense has become. 

    As crazy as that may sound, the Dubs rank 12th in offensive efficiency, generating 107 points per 100 possessions. What's more concerning is that the Warriors rank No. 16 in offensive rating since the All-Star break, behind clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Bobcats, according to NBA.com

    Bleacher Report's Fred Katz recently broke down the disturbing trend in great detail: 

    Golden State is continuing to run a high concentration of isolation and post-ups. Matchup exploitation over and over again. And it doesn't really work.

    The Warriors have isolated or posted up on more than 21 percent of their plays this season, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). That's second-most of any team in the Western Conference's top nine (behind only the post-up heavy Memphis Grizzlies, who own just the 18th ranked offense). And if there's anything we've learned from basketball's analytics movement, it's that isolation ball isn't usually the best way to maintain an efficient offense.

    Also consider that the Warriors bench ranks 25th in scoring and dead last in field-goal percentage, per HoopsStats, due in part to Harrison Barnes' lackluster sophomore campaign. Golden State appears to lack the robust two-way consistency that all title contenders boast. 

    Verdict: Pretender

Houston Rockets

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Title odds: 5.8 percent 

    The Houston Rockets possess all of the elements to be considered title contenders, but we'll only label them as such with a couple of caveats. 

    First, the defense that's showed up since the New Year needs to be the one that asserts its dominance come playoff time. 

    Since Jan. 1, the Rockets own the league's eighth-most efficient defense, one that's allowing just 102.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have been better in that span, according to NBA.com

    Second, the Rockets will need a key component of that defense to be healthy and back in the starting lineup.

    After fearing that Patrick Beverley would be lost for the remainder of the season, the Rockets will reportedly get the point guard and defensive wrecking ball back at some point, although a return date has not been set. From Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:

    Beverley will be considered "week to week" on his return to the Rockets' lineup, a source said on Monday afternoon. Beverly met with Dr. James Andrews on Monday. Based on Andrews' recommendations, Beverley's possible return will largely be based on the success of his rehabilitation process. 

    As I discussed last week, the Rockets have been noticeably better with Beverley on the floor, and not just on the defensive end. Now more than a week into Beverley's latest absence, the Rockets have been four points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season, per NBA.com

    With some luck and discipline on defense, the Rockets may very well find themselves in the title conversation as we approach the end of May. 

    Verdict: Contender

Indiana Pacers

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Title odds: 5.9 percent 

    We often talk about teams getting hot at the right time, but the Indiana Pacers have proved over the season's last two months that they're regressing to a mean we didn't know existed. 

    Just how bad have things gotten for the Pacers? Check out this excerpt from a piece by Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin explaining why Indiana may be destined to miss the NBA Finals: 

    The competent offense Indiana was sporting through the season's first four months has cratered almost beyond belief. After averaging a respectable if not electric 102.5 points per 100 possessions (good for 18th-best in the NBA, according to NBA.com) through the end of February, the Pacers scored just 95.6 points per 100 possessions in the 18 games they played in March, the second-worst mark in the league.

    And it's not just the offense that's slumping, either. According to NBA.com, Indiana allowed a season-high 101.5 points per 100 possessions in March, 6.5 points worse than what the Pacers surrendered in February. 

    Unfortunately, the Pacers' recent struggles may be a matter of team chemistry, which appears to be suffering with each passing loss. 

    "Some selfish dudes in here," Roy Hibbert said after the Pacers' loss to the Wizards, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge. "Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."

    Now, there's still plenty of time for a turnaround. But all of the evidence we've been presented with over the past two months suggests that the Pacers may be more vulnerable come playoff time than we originally believed. 

    Verdict: Pretender

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki

    Title odds: 12.7 percent 

    A season sweep of the San Antonio Spurs should tell us all we need to know about the Oklahoma City Thunder's status as title contenders.

    Fortunately, we have troves of encouraging data to illustrate that Scott Brooks' club is ready to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.  

    According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Oklahoma City ranks among the top 10 in terms of points per possession generated in five different play types.

    More specifically, the Thunder grade out second in isolations (0.94 points per possession) and third in pick-and-roll ball-handler scoring (0.89 points per possession), play types that account for 26.8 percent of OKC's offense. In addition, the Thunder also rank sixth, seventh and ninth when scoring off offensive rebounds, cuts and post-ups, respectively. 

    If nothing else, these numbers reflect that Oklahoma City has a vaunted and diversified offensive attack, one that can kill opponents from nearly every spot on the floor. And because it's so easy to get lost in the magisterial play of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, we often overlook what's become one of the league's premier defensive clubs. 

    According to Synergy, Oklahoma City has allowed the third-fewest points per possession (0.86) and doesn't rank worse than the league average when defending any one play type. 

    It's that sort of balance on both ends of the floor that should make the Thunder undisputed title contenders as the regular season draws to a close. 

    Verdict: Contender

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

    Title odds: 15.9 percent 

    The San Antonio Spurs may be the favorites to emerge with the Western Conference crown for the second year running, but it would be foolish to sleep on the Los Angeles Clippers.

    In fact, since the midseason recess, the Clippers have recorded a better offensive rating than the Spurs, churning out a stellar 111 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com

    However, it's worth noting that Doc Rivers' defense hasn't always been consistent, although it's been much improved over the past two months. 

    According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the Clips own a top-10 defense, which should come as no surprise. The strange part, though, is that Los Angeles owns the second-worst defensive rating against teams with winning records among projected playoff qualifiers. 

    Digging deeper into Schuhmann's findings, we also see that the Clippers are far and away the best offensive team against squads with winning records, producing a staggering 110.6 points per 100 possessions in those contests. That mark is more than two points better than the Dallas Mavericks and a full five points better than the Spurs. 

    We know Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are going to lead an offensive onslaught come playoff time, but the fascinating part will be seeing if the Clippers defense consistently plays up to snuff.  

    Verdict: Contender

Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Title odds: 16.1 percent

    Now in sole possession of the Eastern Conference's coveted No. 1 seed, the Miami Heat's recent success has been worthy of praise when contrasted with the Indiana Pacers' struggles. 

    But at the root of their rivals' struggles may lie a troublesome chemistry problem, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick recently discussed in a column regarding Miami's strong ties: 

    But camaraderie, however it comes, is not a worthless commodity. 

    "There are no measurables by which you can monitor it," Shane Battier said. "At least with our play on the court, you have points per games and rebounds and assists. So on paper, you can make a fair basketball trade. But chemistry is immeasurable, and it is vital to a team's success, no question about it." 

    The back-to-back defending champions hardly had a stellar month of March, though, compiling a record of 10-8 during that span. But they've rebounded by winning five of their last six games. During that winning span, Miami posted a net rating of 19.3 while limiting opponents to 94.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com

    And while that's admittedly a small sample, Erik Spoelstra has to be pleased that his team is starting to ramp up its intensity and focus with home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs on the line. 

    Verdict: Contender

San Antonio Spurs

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Title odds: 32.9 percent

    There's a reason for the San Antonio Spurs' title odds being twice as high as any other perceived contender in the eyes of Basketball-Reference.com. Fresh off of a franchise-record 19-game winning streak, the Spurs are a mortal lock to enter the playoffs with home-court advantage in hand. 

    Not only that, but San Antonio is the only team that ranks among the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, according to NBA.com, putting Gregg Popovich's squad in a class of efficiency all its own. 

    And watching the Spurs offense pick apart opposing defenses over the past two months has provided viewers with a chance to see poetry in motion.

    Among the unprecedented ball movement, interior passing, spot-up shooting and pick-and-roll proficiency, the Spurs' multidimensional attack is the biggest matchup nightmare the Association has to offer. 

    San Antonio ranks first in total assists and three-point shooting, but the more specific advanced numbers paint an even prettier picture. 

    According to Synergy Sports, pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the Spurs offense rank third, generating 0.88 points per possession while spot-up shooters also rank third, pouring in 1.06 points per possession.

    Ranking outside of the top 10 in only one offensive play type (roll men in the pick-and-roll rank 25th), the Spurs will enter the NBA's second season with aplomb.    

    Verdict: Contender 

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