Parity has been a bullet point for the NFL in recent years, but that magic word has slowly but surely crept its way into the culture of the NBA. Last season, I was confident that the Lakers would win it all, and the Celtics the year before that, but it's anyone's guess in 2009-10.
One plausible explanation for parity is imperfection. While there are 10 (or so) possible contenders for this season's NBA title, none of them are a clear-cut favorite. Here, I'll rank those contenders and highlight their most glaring weaknesses.
The Top 10
10. Portland Trail Blazers (31-24)
Honorable mention goes to the Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Toronto Raptors in that order, but the Blazers get this spot because they've weathered the storm in the absence of their franchise player, Brandon Roy. The Blazers are currently seven games over the .500-mark, and one can only expect them to improve when Roy returns after the All-Star break.
I'm a big fan of LaMarcus Aldridge, particularly his low-to-mid post game, and veteran Andre Miller seems to be finding his niche in Portland. When healthy, this team is pretty solid defensively as well.
Weakness: The center position.
The Blazers lost both Gren Oden and Joel Przybilla to injury, and they've been mixing and matching with frontcourt guys like Juwan Howard (74-years-old) and youngster Dante Cunningham. While they've held their own in the interim, Portland's lack of legitimate size and shot-blocking will likely derail them down the stretch.
9. Atlanta Hawks (33-18)
They seem to be a very popular team with the public this year, but I'm not sold.
Jamal Crawford—one of my old favorites from the Knicks—has done an incredible job since signing on this offseason, and he's a virtual lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Still, as far as a serious championship run goes, I'm not sure he's the piece to put Atlanta over the top.
Weakness: Basketball IQ.
Though they have the experienced Mike Bibby at the point, the Hawks are still a young and (sometimes) overaggressive team. I wonder about the strength of Mike Woodson's hold on his players, and whether he's simply a figurehead for a group that likes to run-and-gun on its own.
Their late-game play execution, or lack there of, will be critical.
8. Dallas Mavericks (32-20)
Earlier this season, it appeared that they were returning to their elite form of '07, but now the Mavs are back in the Good But Not Outstanding category.
Dirk Nowitzki is an unstoppable offensive force, and Jason Kidd continues to elevate the play of his teammates, but can Rick Carlisle find the right rotation for this eclectic mix of players?
Weakness: Roster construction.
Shawn Marion isn't particularly enthralled about his limited role in Dallas, and we've seen the harm that can come when "The Matrix" is unhappy with his surroundings. I'm not sure this particular group can make it work.
7. Utah Jazz (32-19)
They've been scorching hot in the past month, and I saw them as high as No. 3 in the ESPN power rankings. I'm not quite ready to go that high, but Jerry Sloan's club is one to watch if they can keep Carlos Boozer on the court.
With Chris Paul sidelined by injury, that leaves Deron Williams as the premier point guard in the NBA. He's a near-flawless all-around player, and he's not afraid to take and make big shots.
I like this unit's chemistry, and we have to credit Sloan for helping them develop this level of continuity.
Weakness: Perimeter play.
Outside of Williams, the Jazz have been messing around with a number of different perimeter players, including C.J. Miles, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews, Ronnie Price, and Sundiata Gaines. Miles is the best of the bunch, but he's hardly anything to write home about.
Ronnie Brewer and Andrei Kirilenko can't be relied upon for consistent shooting either.
6. San Antonio Spurs (30-21)
I'm not usually jolted by a single game, but I was extremely impressed by San Antonio's convincing road victory over Denver...without Tony Parker.
This may be the best Spurs team we've seen in awhile, with the fresh legs of George Hill and DeJuan Blair, and the veteran additions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess.
Jefferson in particular has been a bit of a disappointment (often in Coach Pop's doghouse), but Blair and Hill have more than made up for that with their impressive contributions.
Weakness: Mileage on the legs of their stars.
Tim Duncan remains one of the best and most reliable players in the game, but there's certainly been a significant amount of wear-and-tear on his body over time.
Tony Parker appears to be breaking down physically, and Manu Ginobili's health is generally a coin flip. Never a good thing.
5. Boston Celtics (32-18)
I love this group of guys, but there's no air of invincibility around the Celtics this season. Kevin Garnett is back, sort of, but he's not the player of old. The problem is, Boston kind of needs him to be.
In addition to KG's physical woes, both Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace have had injury issues. The physical breakdowns (with the exception of 'Sheed) are stemming from the way Boston played in '07-08—balls to the wall every, single night.
I have so much respect for them, but it's difficult to keep older players healthy after playing with such prolonged intensity. The good news is that Rajon Rondo is still fresh, and maybe he'll be the savior for the city of Boston.
Weakness: Age-related injuries.
4. Orlando Magic (36-18)
It's been a herky-jerky season for the Magic, and yet Stan Van Gundy's boys have twice as many wins as they do losses. They were the Eastern Conference champions last year, and many of the same pieces (Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Mickael Pietrus) are in place this time around.
The glaring difference is of course Vince Carter in Hedo Turkoglu's former role, and that was looking like a downgrade until VC's recent 48-point outburst. I have a feeling that Vince has been on cruise control in an effort to remain healthy for the postseason.
I expect him to be at his best for the playoffs, when he'll obviously be needed the most.
Weakness: Fourth-quarter identity.
Can they involve Howard in the fourth-quarter offense? Can he be trusted if he's forced to the foul line? Will Carter close playoff games like Turkoglu did? How will they involve Lewis at crunch time?
We'll have to wait and see.
3. Denver Nuggets (35-18)
I've been telling my friends that I like the Nuggets to win it all this year, and most of them are disagreeing. Here's what I've been asking:
Does this team even have a weakness?
They have a successful, battle-tested point guard in Chauncey Billups, a prolific and dynamic scoring two-guard in J.R. Smith, an awesome franchise player in Carmelo Anthony, and a talented frontcourt (Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin) playing at a very high collective level.
In addition, they have an explosive backup point guard in rookie Ty Lawson, and an energy-bringing shotblocker in "The Birdman" Chris Andersen.
Am I missing something?
Weakness(es): For this one, I'll tell you what my friends said:
(1) Lack of restraint. Often taking wild shots at inopportune times.
(2) Lack of frontcourt length in their starting lineup.
I hope they're wrong and I can throw it in their faces later on.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (41-13)
The Lakers have always been my favorite Western Conference team because I'm a big Kobe guy, but I don't feel as strongly about them as I did a year ago.
Kobe has a couple of physical ailments that are potentially alarming, Andrew Bynum hasn't developed quite the way I expected him to, and I think their bench is a little overrated.
I have faith in the Kobe/Phil Jackson combination, but there's something very specific that I don't like about this season's version of "Showtime"...
Weakness: The transition from Trevor Ariza to Ron Artest.
The Lakers' front office didn't want to shell out for Ariza (whose representation was demanding on the open market), and they ended up with a "better" player in Artest.
Clearly I have "better" in quotes because the common perception is that Artest is superior, and maybe he is, but he's not a better fit for the Lakers' roster.
Ariza had settled perfectly into his role as an open three-point shooter and defensive energy guy, and Los Angeles let him walk at exactly the wrong time. Ariza developed palpable on-court chemistry with the core of Kobe, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher, and that development has gone entirely to waste.
Artest is a rigid and gawky player by nature, and to me, he doesn't fit the smooth styles of Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Derek Fisher.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (43-11)
I wasn't a supporter of GM Danny Ferry's offseason, but so far he's right and I'm wrong. However, the Cavs have been an excellent regular season team in previous years, and then fallen short in the playoffs. I'll wait for the bright lights before I pass full judgment.
Moving on, LeBron is in another stratosphere right now. With the Lakers and Cavs having similar records it's basically a question of Kobe vs. LeBron for these top spots, and at the moment I'm taking LeBron.
That's a rarity for me, but with Kobe's injuries and LeBron's ridiculous level of play, it's really a no-brainer. It won't be a no-brainer when the postseason rolls around, though.
Weakness: Supporting cast.
Mo Williams is still out of the lineup with an injury, and Delonte West was also sidelined, so LeBron's been supported by Shaq, Booby Gibson, Anthony Parker, J.J. Hickson, and Big Z. That's not exactly Gasol, Bynum, and Odom.
But the way The King is playing right now, that supporting cast may not matter.
(John Frascella is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land," the first and only book centered on Boston's GM Theo Epstein. Check it out on Amazon or follow John's Twitter @RedSoxAuthor).