2011 NBA Playoffs: Five Contenders for the Title, and Five Teams on the Rise
As we near the end of March, the NBA regular season is dwindling down to the stretch run. Some teams are locked into playoff spots, while a handful of others in both conferences continue jockeying for position.
This year's championship was already under discussion before the league was even close to beginning the season. When the Miami Heat brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh, they jumped to the front of the line for title contenders.
The Lakers, who are going for a three-peat, seemed to be placed on the back-burner. That didn't last too long, as the Heat struggled right out of the gate.
While Miami has been able to regather itself and now sits among the top three in the East, other teams have also put together very solid seasons.
I'll look at the top five contenders for the NBA championship this season, as well as five teams that are primed to make their own runs in the near future.
5. Miami Heat
There's much to like about the Miami Heat. There's much to dislike about the Miami Heat. Love them or hate them, they belong in the top five.
Any time you have a team with three perennial All-Star players, you're going to be in contention. Cue in the Miami Heat and their trio of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Wade and James have played at MVP levels pretty much the entire season. James is the leading scorer at 26.4 points per game, with Wade next at 25.4 and Bosh contributing 18.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest.
Wade has made one Finals appearance during his career, winning the Heat's first championship alongside Shaquille O'Neal in 2005-2006. He led the team back from an 0-2 hole to beat Dallas in six games.
James has also been to the Finals, where his Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Bosh has not been to the Finals. Yet.
The new "Big Three" have all the talent in the world, but if you've paid any attention to the NBA this season, you know that the Miami Heat have had their fair share of struggles. Their offense is very stagnant, with one guy dribbling the ball and four others standing around. Outside of Wade, James and Bosh, they don't have many reliable scorers.
Mike Miller, who missed most of the first half of the season with a thumb injury, returned to the team and became the sixth man.
James Jones is a three-point threat, but that's about it. Eddie House is in and out of the rotation.
Big Z and Dampier provide a little size at the center spot, but not much other than that. The Heat's lack of ball movement and a true point guard have resulted in their 28th rank in assists, with only 19.6 per game.
They lost Udonis Haslem early on, which was a big blow to the frontcourt. Haslem isn't the tallest nor the most athletic player, but he's a hard worker and a very reliable option down low. He's a veteran post player with incredible determination and will.
The Heat have trouble defending quicker, physical point guards; guys like Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose have had their way with the Heat. Miami can run with any team, but struggle to play in a half-court setting.
Their record in close games is also very unimpressive.
LeBron James has missed countless shots to either tie or win the game for Miami. He's proven that he should not be the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of a game. That's Dwyane Wade's gig.
The Miami Heat is Dwyane Wade's team, and I think he needs to take it back.
There's no denying LeBron's talent, but Wade is the guy who should have the ball in his hands with the clock winding down. Wade's driving abilities are almost unguardable. He's incredibly effective at attacking the rim, drawing fouls and hitting crazy circus shots.
It's also important for Chris Bosh to become more of a force inside. He's asked to receive the ball more, so it's up to him to make the transition into a low-post threat. He settles for too many elbow jumpers, mostly because that's where the offense puts him.
With Wade, James and Bosh all moving with and without the ball, Miami is a very tough team to defend, but they will require better efforts from their bench (who rank last in the league in scoring) to become a true title contender.
Relying on talent alone won't be enough. Not against the elite teams.
4. Boston Celtics
The first "Big Three" has been there. The Boston Celtics know what it takes to win an NBA championship.
Pierce, Garnett and Allen were put together for a reason. The most important key, however, may be Rajon Rondo, their floor general. Rondo runs the show, and does a darn good job.
He's not a Deron Williams in terms of scoring, but the dude is a flat-out assist machine. He's also a very, very good defender, averaging slightly over two steals a game.
Their defensive toughness is unquestionable. They are the league's best defensive team in terms of points allowed, giving up an average of only 90.9 points a game.
Allen is the greatest three-point shooter of all-time, and we all know how the three-pointer is the great equalizer. With the Celtics' combination of experience, toughness, physicality and leadership, it should be no surprise they're in position to win another title.
Trading away Perkins hurt their frontcourt, but they picked up Jeff Green, who takes over the sixth man role. He'll only get better as he gets more comfortable in the Celtic's system.
They've got the Big Leprechaun roaming the paint (not at the moment, due to injury). He's not quite a dominating force any more but can still rebound and demand the ball in the paint.
These veteran guys would love nothing more than to add one more title to their collection, and they are more than capable of doing it.
3. LA Lakers
Well, they are the defending champs. The two-time defending champs. And they're looking to three-peat.
They sport one of the game's greatest scorers in Kobe Bryant. They're coached by arguably one of the best coaches of all time, the Zen Master Phil Jackson.
The Lakers weren't just lucky to win two straight titles. They did it by playing together as a cohesive unit on both ends of the floor.
Their major advantage, outside of Kobe Bryant, is height and length. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are two major obstacles to maneuver around in the paint.
Lamar Odom has seen quite a resurgence this season. He's posting a stellar stat line of 14.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. He's up for Sixth Man of the Year.
He did a great job during his stints in the starting lineup when Bynum was out injured and may be the reason the Lakers have seen so much success this season.
You know what you get with Fisher and Artest. They're two veteran guys who don't look to score all that often. They do the little things on the court, like making the extra pass and playing aggressive, in-your-face defense.
Age is a little bit of a concern, especially as we near the end of another season. Bynum's knees are also a concern. However, as long as they can stay healthy, they'll be in the running.
2. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are back atop the Eastern Conference standings. They will go as far as Derrick Rose can take them.
Rose should be the leading candidate for MVP. His play this season is far beyond anything expected. Granted, we all knew the talent and potential he possessed, but it seems as though he just took the league by storm. And no one was prepared for it.
Rose is averaging 24.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. The Bulls, meanwhile, are second in the league in rebounding and second in points allowed.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are like vacuum cleaners on the boards. The ball just always seems to wind up in their hands on a missed shot. All they need to do is outlet the ball to Rose and watch him go.
Rose has become such a dynamic threat on offense. His jump shot has improved, as has his three-point shooting. Nobody can slash through the lane to the hoop as fast as he can. He's such a headache to defend; ask anybody who's tried to defend him. Yes, I said tried to defend him.
Luol Deng has quietly put together a solid season for Chicago. He's their third-leading scorer at a 17.8 clip per game. He's a very athletic guy at the three who can go inside and finish at the rim or step outside and hit the three ball.
Brewer, Korver, Gibson and Kurt Thomas have all contributed over the course of the season and have been great complements to the starters. They've filled in admirably during periods where Boozer or Noah were out with injuries.
First-year coach Tom Thibodeau preaches defense, and his players have responded. They have become one of the best defensive teams in the league, which will help them as the playoffs near.
Along with defense, rebounding is also a key to their success. As long as they continue their dominance on the glass and on defense, the sky is the limit for this Bulls squad.
1. San Antonio Spurs
They have the best record in the NBA so far this season, and there's a good reason why.
Veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, despite their age, have continued to impress and get the job done.
Duncan's seen a decline in his minutes, and as a result is seeing his worst statistical season. But does that matter to him? Of course not. Duncan's a team player and continues to do his job night in and night out.
Ginobili is having a terrific season, putting up 18.0 points and 5.0 assists per game. He's shooting the three at a solid rate and still loves to attack the rim.
Parker's dealt with injuries, but otherwise has also had another good season for the Spurs.
They get solid contributions on the inside from guys like DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner, and now Tiago Splitter is seeing more action. Guards George Hill and Gary Neal have provided scoring punch off the bench, and starting small forward Richard Jefferson is having a rebound season from a year ago.
Another team with a lot of experience, playoff experience that is. Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are the "Big Three" that nobody really talks about.
They don't receive the same exposure and attention, and that's probably how they like it. They let their play on the court do the talking for them.
Gregg Popovich is a great coach, by the way.
Next Five Teams Ready to Step Up
There are several teams who aren't ready to step into the elite category of the NBA, but they are on the verge. Whether by drafting, trading or free agency, these teams have set themselves up for the future.
The theme with these teams is youth. They're made up of mostly younger talent with some veterans sprinkled in.
These teams are in the playoffs this season, but will most likely bow out in the opening round. But in the foreseeable future, they will be ready to step into the upper echelon of the league and be considered contenders for years to come.
Assuming the rosters will remain the same and no big pieces are lost, here they are.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Andre Miller and Marcus Camby aren't getting any younger. However, when they've been healthy and on the court, these two veteran players can still get it done. Miller is a floor general with a pass-first, score-second mentality. Camby continues to be a rebounding machine and shot blocker.
Factor in LaMarcus Aldridge, who is putting up career numbers this season. He's averaging 39.7 minutes a game and scoring 22.2 points and grabbing 8.7 boards. He's had to handle the scoring load due to a lot of injuries, but he's proven that he can take on that responsibility and succeed.
Brandon Roy, when healthy, is an All-Star caliber shooting guard. He can fill the stat sheet and is a solid defensive player.
The concern is with his knees. He's missed a good portion of the season because of them, but has shown signs lately of getting back to the player he was.
Obviously, the knees will continue to take a beating until the end of the season, but with some rest, he will hopefully be ready to roll for the 2011-2012 campaign.
Portland acquired forward Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline and they've seen immediate results.
Wallace is another stat-sheet stuffer. He is one of the best rebounding small forwards in the game and has a knack for being a terrific shot blocker, as was seen in his days in Charlotte.
The Blazers also have some good young talent in Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez and Patty Mills. Greg Oden is still out due to injury, and who knows whether he'll ever be truly healthy.
There is no doubt about it: If Portland can stay healthy, they have a very solid core.
Miller loves distributing the ball to his scorers. Camby, Aldridge and Wallace are a solid rebounding/shot-blocking trio.
If Brandon Roy can stay on the court, the Blazers will be incredibly tough to play against. They love to slow the tempo of the game to their style and run each possession while using up the shot clock.
They're incredibly effective in a half-court setting, and now with the acquisition of Wallace are able to run the floor in the transition game.
4. New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony was acquired for one purpose: to bring an NBA title to New York City.
The talk for what seemed like an eternity was that he'd end up with the New Jersey Nets, who will be moving to Brooklyn, Anthony's hometown, for next season. He ended up in NYC along with point guard Chauncey Billups and other pieces as part of the blockbuster trade.
The Knicks are full of young talent, and with another year of experience and time to become more familiar with one another on the court, NY can become a contender.
One question is whether they will go out and try to obtain a high-caliber point guard like Chris Paul. Billups, like Andre Miller, isn't getting any younger. He is a former Finals MVP and has shown he can still play the game at a high level, but how much longer will that realistically last?
The pressure is on this Knicks team to win now. Tough mountain to climb.
Landry Fields, Tony Douglas, Shawne Williams and Bill Walker have all seen solid amounts of playing time during the season. They can all provide scoring punch outside of Anthony and Stoudemire.
Their main focus needs to be defensive, which may not be at the top of the priority list in a Mike D'Antoni system. Against the lesser teams, their scoring has been enough to get them by, but against quality opponents, the defense is what lets them down (most of the time).
You can't deny the talent this team has, though. With Anthony and Stoudemire leading the charge, the Knicks may be one more solid piece away from finding themselves in a title position.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies had the potential to make some noise this season. Unfortunately, their star player has undergone season-ending surgery.
Next year, watch out. With Rudy Gay back in the lineup, the Grizzlies have quality across the board. Mike Conley Jr. stepped up this year and become the point guard we had all been waiting to see.
Rudy Gay was putting up superb numbers until he was slowed by his shoulder injury, and is now out for the remainder of the season.
Zach Randolph continues to be a double-double machine wherever he goes. It seems he has fallen into the perfect situation in Memphis. He's got younger talent around him as he provides some consistency and leadership in the low post. Z-Bo can also step out and hit the three-ball.
Gasol has been up and down, but when he's up, he's a dominating force in the paint. He takes a backseat to Gay and Randolph in terms of scoring, but he's a great source of offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
Sam Young has stepped up during Gay's absence and has played admirably.
The Grizzlies also acquired veteran forward Shane Battier (who had played in Memphis from 2001 to 2006) to provide some experience and defensive toughness.
Tony Allen has seen major minutes lately and hasn't disappointed. He's a crafty thief who plays tenacious defense. He can defend three different positions.
He's guarded guys from Chris Paul to Kevin Durant and is number one in the NBA in steals per 48 minutes.
Who knows what is going on with O.J. Mayo. If he is back next season and if he can step up his game, the Grizzlies will test the top teams in the West. They're no joke.
And if not, they've got pieces to make up for it.
2. Denver Nuggets
Ty Lawson plus Raymond Felton in the same backcourt equals a headache for opposing teams and coaches. So much speed.
They are the perfect fit in Denver. Up-tempo, out on the break, driving to the hoop, dishing to unguarded teammates. Denver's collective mouths must be salivating.
Don't count them out in the playoffs just yet. They could surprise a first-round opponent. Ultimately, they aren't ready to beat the Spurs or Lakers in a 7-game series. Not yet.
J.R. Smith is also a nightmare when he's on. Sure, he's a headcase for George Karl, but things should settle down now that 'Melo is out of town. There are more shots to go around, and Smith loves nothing more than hearing that.
Nene and Kenyon Martin play very effectively in their post positions. Martin is always an injury concern, but this being one of his healthier seasons, he's done a very good job down low.
Chandler and Gallinari, the other two big pieces arriving from New York, are going to be solid contributors for the Nuggets. Chandler has shown flashes of brilliance before arriving in the mile-high city, and Gallinari can really stretch the floor with his ability to drain three-pointers.
I am not a big fan of Al Harrington, and there's the possibility he could be gone after this season (which, for Denver's sake, I hope happens).
He's a chucker. He'll get the ball and shoot it, wherever he is on the court. Not the kind of player you'd want on a contender.
Chris "Birdman" Anderson knows his role off the bench: to come in, rebound the ball and finish second-chance opportunities.
This team is far better off without a ball-hogging Carmelo Anthony, and they've proven it with a stellar record since the trade. Next year, fear the Nugget!
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
This team is ready to contend. They'll go as far as Westbrook and Durant take them, and then some.
They needed to bring in a veteran presence inside, a defensive-minded brute to man the paint. Check.
Kendrick Perkins is that guy. Not an offensive powerhouse by any means, but he does his part on the glass on both ends of the court.
"Air Congo," Serge Ibaka, is probably the NBA's best shot blocker. In consecutive games, he had 7, 8, 3 and 5 blocks.
Not to mention, he's a solid rebounder and tremendous finisher around the rim. I mean, you saw his dunks in the dunk contest, right? Quite an athlete.
He can hit the short jumpers, but would be a tough matchup if he learned to consistently knock down from mid-range.
Sefolosha has provided quality defense at the guard position, often drawing the other teams' best player and guarding the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and so on. He's also been an option offensively, knocking down treys when left open.
James Harden, Eric Maynor and veteran Nick Collison provide solid contributions off the bench in relief of the starters.
You know what you're going to get from Westbrook and Durant every night. Westbrook has really stepped up his game this season, most notably at the charity stripe. He seemingly gets to the line at will and is a tough matchup to guard against as his jumper has also improved.
Durant is as athletic a wingman as you can have. He can take the ball into traffic and finish, as well as step back out, way out, and drain threes.
While he doesn't average an alarming number of assists, he's willing to give up the ball for a better shot. Not to mention a contributor on the glass and shot-blocking.
A little more emphasis on defense, and this will be a top team for years to come. Another veteran guard wouldn't hurt in terms of leadership and mentoring these younger guys.
Scott Brooks and the Thunder organization have done an excellent job in terms of building from the draft.