The Dallas Mavericks run in the 2011 postseason was majestic.
Dallas' determination and drive was demonstrable.
The Mavs magic ran deep—the peak performances of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry were legendary, legacy-building, superb and spectacular.
What Dirk did—dominating the defense, driving when it was needed, hitting unbelievable turnaround one-footed fadeaways, willing his team to victory while sick with a 102-degree fever—won him the NBA Finals MVP and cemented him among at least the top 50 all time in the NBA, if not higher.
How well Jason Kidd played—the 38-year-old veteran playing for the same team that gave him his original chance in the NBA—his relentless energy on defense against two of the deadliest scorers in the game and his solid shooting from beyond the arc showed he too should be considered one of the absolute greatest in NBA history. He's been an ambassador of the game.
And when Nowitzki was out of his element in Game 6, Jason Terry took over. He spotted up and knocked down threes with the pure touch only a veteran shooter could develop over 12 seasons. In fact, in the last two championship-securing wins of the season, Terry averaged 24 points per game (21, 17) on 68 percent shooting, with four assists and 3.5 rebounds.
Shawn Marion's deft defense against LeBron James was somewhat underrated, while his aggressive offense around the rim, putting up and in wild-looking layups was vintage Marion, important to the Mavericks successes.
Together, the determination of those four to win Dallas' first NBA championship pushed the Mavericks past the star-studded Heat in a beautiful basketball moment.
Still, only days after winning the title, no doubt the entire rest of the league wants a shot at Dirk and Dallas.
Which teams are the best equipped? What players are the in the top position to challenge for a championship?
This is a list of the top five teams that will contend for the NBA title in 2012.
Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies could do some damage in the 2012 playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies arrived as a postseason basketball threat for the first time in franchise history in 2011.
Memphis won its first playoff game this year, and eventually took its first series, smacking the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in a first-round playoff series.
Zach Randolph was reborn in the first round, as he dominated Tim Duncan to the tune of 21.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, including leading the team in scoring in three of its four wins against the Spurs.
Marc Gasol finally broke out in the eyes of the national media. He put up 14.2 points, scoring on the low block and showing off a fine shooter's touch, while relentlessly rebounding 12.3 balls per contest.
Likewise, Mike Conley, the fourth-year point guard, enjoyed a great series averaging 14.3 points and 6.3 assists per game versus the Spurs.
Other players to contribute for Memphis during the playoffs were Tony Allen and Shane Battier, with their staunch defensive efforts, and O.J. Mayo made his impact felt as well.
In the second round, Memphis pushed Oklahoma City to seven games, proving the Grizzlies are a good team on the brink of greatness.
The Grizzlies are full of young, talented players that are just now coming into their primes, along with their veteran leader Randolph. And what makes Memphis so dangerous next year is the fact that it didn't have its best player, Rudy Gay, during its playoff run.
Seriously, look for the Grizzlies to follow up this year's playoffs with an even deeper run in the postseason in 2012.
The Los Angeles Lakers were the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title for a third straight time when the 2010-11 season started, but they couldn't get past the Mavericks and the second round when their season was all said and done.
The Lakers starters are rapidly aging—from Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom to Pau Gasol and Ron Artest—L.A. is quickly looking like it needs to apply to the AARP for membership.
In fact, Phil Jackson retired from the team and stepped away from the game after becoming the most successful NBA coach in the history of the league, taking home a record 11 championship rings.
Kobe proved he could still play this season, despite time and injuries slowly creeping up on him, but he also showed everyone he is still prone to getting into squabbles with teammates too.
When the going gets tough, Kobe looks to point the finger at his teammates; this year it was at Gasol for his almost absenteeism in the postseason.
The point is this—the Lakers undoubtedly possess the talent needed to win yet another championship, but it all depends on whether or not Kobe and the other big egos in L.A. can continue to coexist.
If they can, L.A. has at least one, if not two more legitimate runs toward the title left. If not, the current Lakers may be blown up.
Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah could carry Chicago a long way in the next few years.
The Chicago Bulls made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in a dozen years, and for a few good reasons.
Firstly, Tom Thibodeau completely changed the culture in Chicago. Thibodeau, the long-time assistant in Boston as the architect of the Celtics' dominant defense, brought his philosophies to the Windy City last season. The Bulls were the NBA's best defensive team, holding opponents to a mere 91.3 points per game, suffocating them in the process.
Next, the Bulls are fortunate enough to possess a true blossoming superstar in Derrick Rose. Rose broke out this season, as he carried Chicago when Carlos Boozer was injured and was named the NBA MVP for averaging career highs in points (25), assists (7.7) and rebounds (4.1) per game.
But beyond Rose, the Bulls had the luxury of many more players stepping up and into their roles as well.
Joakim Noah has grown up as Chicago's starting center, he averaged a double-double for the second straight season (11.7 points, 10.4 rebounds) and he has the potential to be the best center in the league.
Likewise, Luol Deng played one of his best seasons as a pro (17.4 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Kyle Korver added an outside shooting threat.
Still, the Bulls seem to be lacking one more piece—another scorer that can take some of the shooting burden off of Rose and Korver. Can Chicago find that other piece? And at what cost?
Either way, the Bulls are definitely one of the most dynamic teams, and one that will challenge for many championships in the next few years.
Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook create one of the most potent one-two punches in the NBA.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were somewhat of a surprise team of the 2011 playoffs, as not many thought a team that young could make it all the way to the Western Conference finals.
The Thunder proved they have all the pieces necessary to win in the postseason and push the older teams in the West to the brink.
Oklahoma City is led by its two young superstars—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—and the dynamic duo's scoring potency is second to none.
Durant shoots lights-out, whether it is for a deep three-pointer from downtown or for a mid-range jumper, and his height gives him the advantage of shooting over nearly any defender. Despite Durant's length, he possesses the quickness of a guard, as he's able to get to the hoop with ease, making many layups for and-ones.
Like Durant, Westbrook is big for his position (point guard) and his quickness is so explosive he leaves defenders in his dust. Westbrook has developed a superb drive-and-pull-up game, knocking down a multitude of mid-range jumpers in the regular and postseason.
But to talk Oklahoma City and not mention its depth is a travesty.
The Thunder have many young players with sky-high potential—Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Mayor to name a few. These guys will only continue to improve on an individual level, and another season playing together should strengthen this team, too.
Overall, the Thunder have all the necessary pieces already, but they are just so young—can they learn enough and jell together well enough to win a championship in 2012?
Don't be quick to write them off: Oklahoma City is a legitimate championship contender.
Can LeBron James learn from this year's NBA Finals and come back next year hungrier and more determined than ever to win his first championship?
Ah, the Heat.
Of course. Miami was the runner-up to the Dallas Mavericks this season, so it only makes logical sense that it would be the most likely contender to dethrone Dallas.
The Heat have all the makings of an NBA champion: they're stacked with superstars in the Big Three, they have veteran (Mike Bibby, Mike Miller) and young (Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony) role players and a championship pedigree in the front office (Pat Riley).
Was the spotlight too bright for 'Bron? If not, it sure seemed that way.
King James played like a peon during the fourth quarters of the Finals, he constantly deferred shots and passed the ball away to lesser players instead of taking games over by determined drives for demoralizing dunks.
Bosh's impact in the Finals was nearly nonexistent—he quietly played well but failed to take over in a game or two, to push his team to victory.
The greatest of the three was Wade, as he tried to find a way to put the Heat on his back and carry them to the title. Wade was his spectacular self, shooting and making magical attempts while being huge on defense, numerously blocking Dallas center Tyson Chandler on dunk attempts.
And sure, all things considered, the Heatles played well during the NBA Finals, but the superstars weren't supreme enough to take home the title in 2011.
Still, Miami is a mega team of talent, and all signs point to the fact that James, Wade and Bosh will still be smack-dab in the middle of their primes, as next season approaches more quickly than some realize.
If anyone has a chance to dethrone Dallas, it's Miami, and nearly no one would be surprised if it did just that in June, 2012.
Jason Kidd finally got his first title after 17 years of being an absolute ambassador of the game.
In all, the team that will challenge the Dallas Mavericks will have to be a complete team—one that plays a complete game on both ends of the court.
That's why these five teams made the cut to be the most legitimate title contenders in 2012.
The Grizzlies, Thunder, Bulls, Heat and Lakers all have players that can score spectacularly, but they also all understand what it means to sacrifice and play gritty, physical, deft defense.
It should come as no surprise that the most complete teams are usually considered the best at the end of the year, and by looking at this list, NBA fans have much to look forward to come October for the 2011-12 season.
So, NBA fans, who do you think will win?
Is there a team that was left out?
Should the order of the teams listed be switched in some way?
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being the CSU Rams Examiner, Kurtzman is a Denver Nuggets and NBA Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com, the Colorado/Utah Regional Correspondent for stadiumjourney.com, a weekly contributor to milehighhoops.com, a contributor to milehighreport.com writing on the Denver Broncos and a contributor to Blake Street Bulletin, part of ESPN's SweetSpot Blog Network.
Rich also manages K-Biz and Beezy, a Colorado-based rap group.
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