The NBA season is well over half-way complete, and the main thing on everyone's mind in the Association is the ever-important postseason. The way I see it, there are eight teams with a puncher's chance at the championship.
From the Eastern Conference, there are the Cavaliers, the Magic, the Celtics, and the Hawks. From the West, the Lakers, Nuggets, Mavericks, and Jazz all have at least a sliver of hope.
Apologies to the Suns, Thunder, and Spurs, but this is hardly the best Suns team of the past seven years. It's hard to win when your best post players are Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka, and I just haven't seen anything special from San Antonio this year. That being said, here are reasons for and against each of the true contenders.
Los Angeles Lakers (46-18)
Starters: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
They can win, no problem: Perhaps the most impressive stat the Lakers can point to this season is their 4-1 record with Kobe resting his hand, including wins at Utah and at Portland. Any questions about the pressure of defending the title have been emphatically silenced thus far.
The team obviously has a capable offense, led by the game's best closer a.k.a. The Black Mamba, which ranks sixth in the NBA at 102.7 PPG and commits the seventh-fewest turnovers (13.5 per game). The defense is almost as stellar, allowing just 96.5 PPG (eighth in league) on 44.2 percent shooting (fifth in league).
The more successful of the L.A. teams also ranks sixth in rebound margin with a +2.12. Last year's champions boast a 29-5 home record, which bodes well for the likely one-seed in their quest to the Finals.
They can't win, no way: The starting lineup sure looks scary, even Fisher means a lot to their success. Past the starting five, Lamar Odom is one of the most skilled players in the league and would probably start in almost every other organization. Past that, though, the Lakers are in red alert.
The only other guys who get consistent playing time are Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell, and Luke Walton when he is healthy. I could easily see Brown and Farmar go cold in the same series, leaving Odom, Powell, and maybe (repeat: maybe) Walton must carry the load for the second-unit.
That group cannot help the Lakers hold off some of the league's best while the starters sit. Also, Artest has been incredibly inconsistent this year and could be the hero or the goat in an L.A. title run.
Denver Nuggets (41-21)
Starters: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene
They can win, no problem: In terms of offense, the Nuggets have it all. Ranked second in offense (107.5 PPG), the team can score in bunches and can do so at the most crucial point. Billups, Anthony, and J.R. Smith are all known for their abilities not only to light up the scoreboard but to do it late in the game.
Ever since Mr. Big Shot came from Detroit, the team has been a force. Their 11-4 record against the other seven teams in this article suggest a likely title run. Defensively, Martin, Nene, Chris Andersen, and Afflalo are all fierce defenders. Afflalo is basically Dahntay Jones without the ego (a February 2009 player poll in Sports Illustrated named Jones as one of the top five players who thinks they better than they really are). The Nuggets have plenty of inflated egos that are kinda/sorta justified without Jones around.
They can't win, no way: If defense wins championships, the Nuggets might be looking at a first-round exit. Denver ranks 22nd in the league at 102.6 PPG allowed and also in rebound margin at -.50. On the other side of that aforementioned 11-4 record is their 15-10 record against sub-.500 teams, hardly the mark of a champion.
This suggests a lack of focus, which is perfectly projected by the team's X-Factor, J.R. Smith. Sometimes a deadly shooter with great defensive instincts, Smith has shown far too many lapses in focus in judgment throughout his career to be a trustworthy key to the ultimate dream.
Dallas Mavericks (43-21)
Starters: Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Brendan Haywood
They can win, no problem: Thanks to the trade with Washington, this is probably the most solid starting five in the NBA. Haywood is basically a better version of Erick Dampier and is among the league's best post defenders. Marion can guard the 3 or the 4 as well as anybody, and Butler is one of the best perimeter defenders.
Offensively, Nowitzki and Terry can handle late-game situations, the Mavs have the best FT % in the NBA (81.5%), they are third in assists per game (23.6) and commit the third-fewest turnovers (14.5). Lastly, they are an impressive 21-12 on the road, meaning home-court advantage for the Lakers/ whoever else might no be such an advantage after all.
They can't win, no way: Despite having the collection of big names, the Mavs don't really stand out on offense (12th at 101.5 PPG) or defense (15th at 98.0 PPG allowed). It's hard to imagine a without a dominant trait taking down the Lakers or Cavs. Also, Dallas ranks 23rd in the NBA with a -.85 rebound margin.
Utah Jazz (40-22)
Starters: Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur
They can win, no problem: The Jerry Sloan-led Jazz boast the fifth best offense in the league at 102.7 PPG and record the most assists with 26.4 per game. Always good at EnergySolutions Arena, the Jazz are 24-8 at home. With Chris Paul's and Steve Nash's teams off this list, Williams is the best point guard around.
Boozer was recently named Western Conference Player of the Month in February, giving the Jazz more firepower on offense and contributing to the +2.01 rebound margin (seventh in league). Ronnie Price, Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles, Sundiata Gaines and Kyle Korver form a solid second unit.
They can't win, no way: It's hard to find holes in the Jazz, but here are a few things that could end up hurting: Utah ranks 24th in FT %, only making 73.8 percent, they are only 21-16 against teams that are .500 or better, which would suggest only moderate playoff success, and trading stopper Ronnie Brewer for a pick hindered Utah for the remainder of the year.
C leveland Cavaliers (49-15)
Starters: Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, LeBron James, Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O'Neal
They can win, no problem: LeBron. Okay, now that that's out of my system, the Cavs actually have the deepest team in the league. Okay, so Shaqtus is out until the playoffs, but look at this bench if everything works out: J.J. Hickson, Anderson Varejao, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Leon Powe, Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon, and Zydrunas Ilgauskus (if he rejoins the team).
That's eight quality bench players. Eight! You can't even play eight bench guys! The team is seventh in offense (102.3 PPG; 3rd in FG% at 48.8%) and is fourth in defense (95.1 PPG; 2nd in opponent's FG% at 43.8%). Aside from all that, they rank first in rebound margin (+4.26) and are 27-4 at Quicken Loans Arena, where they will likely play all potential Game Sevens.
They can't win, no way: At the moment, the two-headed monster at center Cleveland possessed at the start of the year is nowhere to be found on the court. O'Neal is out until the playoffs and Ilgauskus is currently not on the roster. It's not a safe bet that Big Z comes back, and Shaq has plenty of time to get out of shape for the playoffs (no typo, Shaq has a history of poor endurance following injury).
Also, it may be nit-picking to find something bad in a 21-3 stretch, but between a 15-game winning streak and a six-game win streak, the Cavs dropped three straight. This streakiness could allow another Magic team to sneak into the Finals.
Orlando Magic (44-20)
Starters: Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard
They can win, no problem: The Magic are unique in that they shoot three-pointers constantly and effectively but also have the best post player in the Association in Howard. Besides Cleveland, Orlando is the only team that runs 11 deep with Jason Williams, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson and Marcin Gortat all worthy of playing time.
Thanks mostly to Howard, the Magic are third in rebound margin (+2.65), sixth in defense (95.5 PPG), and first in opponent's FG% (43.7%). The 25-6 home record should mean that the Magic will be one road win away from the series win late in the playoffs.
They can't win, no way:Also thanks to Howard, the team ranks 28th in FT% at 72.5%. When the big guy is in foul trouble, the whole system must be altered to fit the personnel, and the Magic become just another shooting team. More importantly is Carter's role on the team.
He has rubbed Lewis the wrong way the whole season and during a nationally-televised game on Feb. 21 against the Cavs, was bashed by analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy jogging up and down the court with effort that Tim Thomas would be embarrassed by, only to light up the tremendous Cleveland defense with an array of baskets in the win.
With Carter drifting through much of this season, and annoying teammates, the Magic could implode with Stan Van Gundy's shrill voice leading the way.
Boston Celtics (40-21)
Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins
They can win, no problem: This is the same nucleus that won two years ago, and if Garnett can stay healthy, there's no reason to believe it can't happen again. It seems as though every ounce of ability the Big Three loses goes straight to Perkins and even more so Rondo.
The Celtics are a terrific 22-10 on the road and rank first in the league in defense with 94.0 PPG allowed. They are also second in APG with 23.8 and fourth with a 48.4 shooting %. The bench of Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis, Nate Robinson and Tony Allen are perfectly capable.
They can't win, no way: Boston is just 15-15 against teams with a .500 or better record. With either the three- or four-seed, getting past the first round might be too much for this team. They commit the fourth most turnovers (15.4 per game) and even with the emergence of the two young stars, the Big Three and Sheed are getting old, and fast.
Boston ranks just 24th in rebound margin at -.90. Lastly, trading Eddie House was a mistake. Take it from a Knicks fan who is fond of KryptoNate, he is a terrible point guard.
Atlanta Hawks (40-22)
Starters: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford
They can win, no problem: Much like the Nuggets, the Hawks are an exciting team with loads of potential and offensive ability. Atlanta's high-flying show ranks eighth in the NBA with 102.2 PPG and commits the fewest turnovers (11.9 per game). Off the bench, Jamal Crawford has been nothing but incredible and deserves consideration for Sixth Man of Year for his clutch shooting.
25-7 at home, what separates the Hawks from other teams is their key pieces to the puzzle. What I mean is this, Horford is one of the best at doing the dirty work down low, Johnson is the smooth, do-it-all guard, Josh Smith is the second-most likely player to record a quadruple-double (behind Paul), and Bibby is like Derek Fisher-Lite in terms of his role on the team.
They can't win, no way: Besides Crawford, the bench is merely a couple of mediocre players (Joe Smith, Maurice Evans) and guys who rarely play. Atlanta is not great defensively and even offensively is very average in many categories. A 7-5 February has cooled the Hawks' hype a little, showing a possible bailout for the young squad.