NBA Power Rankings: Six Teams With Legitimate Championship Title Hopes
We're a little over halfway through the NBA season. June isn't too far away and David Stern will be presenting the Larry O'Brien Trophy to a team before we know it.
It's never too early to ponder who exactly will be receiving the hardware and with each passing week we get a clearer picture of who the contenders and pretenders of the league are.
While we always have to be ready for the surprise playoff run of a middle-or-lower seeded team, there are some general factors that are evident in championship-level squads. This will be discussed shortly.
There are also some teams that are very close and have bright futures ahead but are not quite there yet.
These are teams that will make the playoffs and could put a scare into one of the favorites. They will ultimately fall short, however, but will have the added advantage of experience in the coming years.
Teams of that nature will also be looked into before we get to those ready to win it all right now.
First, though, let's look at the normal indicators of a championship team.
General Indications Of a Championship-Ready Team
Here are some statistics to chew on when thinking about which teams have the best shot to win a title.
In the past 10 years, teams in the Finals average about 56 wins, or a .683 winning-percentage. They win around 24 road games (just under 60 percent) and have an average point-differential of plus-5.7.
The 10 championship winning squads over the same number of years have averaged 59 wins (.720 winning-percentage), 25 road wins (.610 road winning-percentage) and have a mean point-differential of plus-6.5.
Those numbers are quite daunting by themselves, but wait, there's more.
Only two teams during this stretch have won a championship with a point-differential under plus-four—the 2000-01 Lakers (it helps to have Shaq and Kobe on your team) and the 2005-06 Dwyane Wades, er, Miami Heat.
They are the exceptions that prove the rule and that Heat team was the biggest anomaly in terms of these stats due to to their 21-20 road record.
The Spurs also won the 2005 title despite a just-above-.500 record in away games, but they had a point differential of plus-7.8, making them not as fluky looking as Miami.
The only teams to make the Finals with a sub-.500 road record were the Nets in 2002 and 2003 and the 2006-07 Cavaliers, and both teams were dispatched with rather easily.
New Jersey was swept in 2002 as were the Cavs in 2007. The six-game series the Nets and Spurs played in 2003 wasn't as close as the number of games played indicates being that San Antonio won its four games by an average of 10 points and the Nets won their two by a total of three.
In short, the signs of a championship team are evident throughout the season. Teams with realistic title hopes need to win a ton of games during the regular season, obviously, while also winning a high percentage of their road contests and having a high point-differential.
There's also the eye test. Teams that win usually have a certain feel to them. For instance, when watching the Celtics play during the 2007-08 season, it was pretty apparent they were on their way to being fitted for rings.
Before going into which teams fit all these descriptions and are therefore most likely to win the 2011 NBA Finals, let's take a look at four teams that look close and have good overall records but are not ready to be playing in June.
So Close Yet So Far No. 4: Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have been in the playoffs the last three seasons and have improved their record in each of those years.
As of right now, though, they appear to have taken a step back and there's just something about them that keeps them from feeling like a championship team.
Maybe it's that they lost to the Nets twice this year. Or that they insist on playing Al Horford out of position at center (he's a prototypical power forward) while Josh Smith is holding down the 4 spot despite appearing to prefer playing small forward.
After taking Boston to the limit in the 2008 Playoffs, they were rather unimpressive the past two postseasons. They're point-differential this year is also just plus-1.8.
It's extremely unlikely the Hawks will be able to make any kind of run in the playoffs, and management may need to start thinking about blowing up the team and starting over soon.
You can only give a group of guys so long to prove they can win. Atlanta has only proven they can't.
So Close Yet so Far No. 3: New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans took a lot of people by surprise at the beginning of the season when they started 11-1. They followed that up with a stretch where they were mediocre at best before turning in a 10-game winning streak.
It's good to be able to win consecutive games in that manner as a double-digit winning streak in the playoffs puts you, at the very least, in excellent position to make the Finals.
The problem is that the Hornets don't score much. They are a good defensive team, but their point-differential is only plus-3.1.
They're also under .500 on the road. As discussed before, no team in the past 10 years has won a championship with a road record under .500.
Those winning streaks also bring to mind the 2005-06 New Jersey Nets, a team that had separate runs of 10 and 14 consecutive victories. It looked as though they were a threat to get hot in the playoffs and make a dash for the Finals.
But they struggled to get out of the first round and were then smacked around by the eventual champion Miami Heat in the second round.
It would not be surprising to see a similar fate befall the Hornets this year. With Chris Paul's future with the team in doubt, there could also be some dark days ahead for New Orleans, just like there have been for those Nets.
So Close Yet So Far No. 2: Chicago Bulls
While the Bulls are closer to reaching the top than the Hawks and Hornets, they're not as close as the No. 1 team in this category and the reason in quite simple.
They don't win on the road.
Chicago is great at home (23-4), but they're just .500 on the road. Also, no team is winning an NBA Championship with Keith Bogans as their starting 2-guard.
It's just not happening and it is equally hard to win with a guy like Carlos Boozer who is a severe injury liability.
Teams need to know that their best players will be around when it all matters.
The Bulls will get there sooner rather than later, though. They've improved greatly over last season, Derrick Rose, who will only get better, is playing at an MVP level and they could be one of the last two teams standing as early as next season.
Don't get your hopes too high this year, though.
So Close Yet so Far No. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder
Because of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are the closest of these four to being an elite team. They need to get better on the road (13-10 right now) and their point-differential is not where it needs to be (plus-1.5).
The team needs just a bit more seasoning, which they'll get this year in the playoffs. They also can't have the type of record the Bulls do because they play in the tougher conference.
The teams at the top of the West are aging, however, and the Thunder are young and hungry. They nearly took the Lakers to seven games last year and are likely to advance to the second round this year.
As long as they keep getting the experience they'll be champions before too long.
Within two or three seasons we could be talking about a new dynasty in Oklahoma City, and an eventual showdown, or two, with the Bulls in the Finals could be in the works.
Now, finally, on to the big boys.
Legitimate Contender No. 6: Dallas Mavericks
Dallas is a tricky team. They play this game every year, winning people over during the regular season before bombing in the playoffs.
It could be different this time, though.
These guys know the window is closing. And that window doesn't close gently, it slams shut.
Jason Kidd is well past his prime while Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are exiting theirs, and that's what makes them dangerous.
They know the run is just about over. They know they need to win this thing now if they're ever going to do it.
No doubt, their point-differential needs to get better (plus-2.5), but they've shown the ability to win on the road and their defense is much better than it has been over the past few years.
We also can't overlook the possibility of them making a huge move at the trade deadline. This is Mark Cuban we're talking about.
If he sees an offer he likes, he'll go for it, and this team has been linked at times to Carmelo Anthony.
Don't put it past the Mavs to finally get it done this year. They might not have another chance.
Legitimate Contender No. 5: Orlando Magic
The best thing the Magic did for themselves was bringing back Hedo Turkoglu.
What they do in the playoffs will be determined by how the team gels and comes together for the rest of the regular season, but they already know that Turkoglu can come through in big spots.
The moves they made to get Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas were viewed as "Win Now, All-In" decisions, although that really isn't the case.
True, they have to worry about Dwight Howard leaving the team after next season, but, if they can keep him, they'll have a good nucleus for a number of years, since Turkoglu, at 31, is the oldest of the players who is seeing regular minutes.
Even so, they do have the tools to win this year, thanks largely to Howard's improved post game. Particularly if Turkoglu can duplicate the show he put on in the 2009 Playoffs, the Magic are a scary team.
They need to improve their play on the road (13-11), which should happen as the team comes together.
Legitimate Contender No. 4: Miami Heat
Any team that has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the court together has a chance to win a championship every year.
You can't have two of the top-five players in the league, in addition to a player of Chris Bosh's caliber, and not be a favorite.
Miami is doing it all. They're winning on the road, playing defense and generally outscoring their opponents by a big margin (their differential is at plus-7.4).
For them to win in the playoffs they will need to improve their half-court offense.
Anyone who saw their game against the Knicks last week can attest to this, and the same problems showed up against Oklahoma City on Sunday.
They're simply too loaded to look past, no matter what flaws they have. They won't be the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 Finals, but they'll have a very good shot at doing so.
Legitimate Contender No. 3: San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio knows how to win and they have the all important factor of urgency in their favor. Tim Duncan is still a great player, but the end is getting near.
They still have their championship core intact with Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—who is playing out of his mind this year—and have an incredibly solid bench.
Gregg Popovich made the very wise choice to open up the offense and work on the defense as the season has gone along.
The Spurs are scoring points at a very high rate and the defense, which is giving up a very un-Spur-like 96.9 PPG is coming along, allowing 94 PPG over their last 12 contests.
San Antonio has the league's best overall record, its best road record and the highest point-differential.
The only problem for them is that they'll have to face the Lakers if they hope to get out of the West.
Legitimate Contender No. 2: Boston Celtics
You'll notice something about the top-three teams here: They're all playing with a sense of urgency that the rest of the league does not have.
Boston was in the Finals a year ago and probably would have won if Kendrick Perkins didn't tear up his knee in Game Six. Does anyone really think L.A. gets all those offensive rebounds if he's out there?
The team also has improved depth with Shaquille O'Neal on the roster and they just laid wood on the defending champs.
Just like Dallas and San Antonio, Boston knows the window won't be open for much longer. They'll be good as long as they have Rajon Rondo, but they won't be the same without Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The Celtics have all the markings of a championship team. They win wherever they play, are extremely sound on defense and have a point-differential of plus-7.4.
They're the best in the East until someone proves otherwise in the playoffs.
Legitimate Contender No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers
It's a bit of a tired saying, but the Lakers are the champs until someone takes them out.
Although their play has left something to be desired at points during this season, they know how to win and understand that they need to be playing their best basketball starting in April.
A guy by the name of Kobe Bryant also still plays for them. His sole purpose in living is to be the best basketball player ever. He can't be considered that unless he matches Jordan's championship total of six.
He understands this and he knows he might not get another shot.
Despite the team's overblown struggles, they still rank very well in terms of the championship statistics outlined earlier.
We should be treated to one more Lakers-Celtics tilt with their current rosters. Given the bad blood that is developing between these two incarnations of the franchises, we're in for another classic.
As of right now, the Lakers look to become the three-time defending champs.
It's the only way Phil Jackson knows how to do it.