2012 NBA Championship: Ranking the Contenders for the Crown
Sports are about winning.
As the NBA season quickly approaches, it is time to look at the teams who have the ability to make a title run.
Of course, a season ending injury or unforeseen trade could render this list irrelevant. But if the season were to start tomorrow, these are the teams that would have the best title odds.
Teams on the Edge
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Before jumping into the favorites, here are a few teams that should have good regular seasons but will ultimately fall short.
San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan has aged more gracefully than most superstars, but that doesn't mean that the Spurs' championship window is still open. Although they posted the best record in the Western Conference last season, they were eliminated by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
Quite simply, San Antonio is not the same team defensively as it was when it won four titles.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can still score, but without vintage Tim Duncan protecting the paint they will fail to make it far into the playoffs.
Atlanta seems to be just fine making it to the second round of the playoffs.
The have a respectable medium three in Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Jamal Crawford won't be coming back to give them instant offense off the bench. And the Hawks haven't made any other moves to put them among the East's elite.
For the time being, Dwight Howard is in Orlando.
His presence ensures a respectable defense and plenty of scoring in the paint. However, his supporting cast is still weak.
Last year, he put up the best playoff numbers of his career, dominating the Hawks by averaging 27 points per game on 63 percent shooting to go along with 15.5 rebounds a night. The bad news? The Magic lost in six games.
Until he gets a top-flight teammate on the perimeter, Orlando will never be a serious threat in the East.
9. New York Knicks
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Signing Tyson Chandler finally gave the Knicks a much needed defensive anchor. If he can transform the defense in New York like he did in Dallas, Madison Square Garden could be hosting playoff games into the summer.
Carmelo Anthony is a world-class scorer who has the potential to take over games.
Amare Stoudemire is one of the best scoring big men in the game.
The problem for the Knicks is that they lack depth. Their back court is below average. Toney Douglas and Landry Fields aren't keeping opposing coaches up at night. Their bench is thin. Their big three is still behind Miami's.
Despite those concerns, it would be foolish to count New York out.
If their defense improves, Anthony and Stoudemire can get points down the stretch. If anything, it's unlikely they will be swept in the first round again.
8. Los Angeles Clippers
The Mayans might be right about the world ending in 2012.
Who would have ever thought that the Clippers would be able to land a genuine superstar via trade?
Who would have ever thought they would be serious contenders?
Maybe someone should check the thermostat in Hell.
As improbable as it seems, the Clippers have a great starting rotation. Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups are an interesting backcourt combination. They lack size but should be able to make up for it with experience and excellent basketball intelligence. The biggest question mark is whether or not Billups will be able to suppress his ego and adjust to playing off the ball.
The signing of Caron Butler seems much more logical now that he won't be taking playing time away from the recently traded Al-Farouq Aminu. Depending on how Billups plays, Butler will be either be the third or fourth scoring option. If he stays healthy, there is no reason why he cannot thrive in this role.
The front court is a highlight waiting to happen.
Blake Griffin will obviously benefit from Chris Paul setting him up. If he can take the next step, he can be a truly elite offensive player. Developing a solid mid-range jumper would allow his team to have a seemingly infinite amount of offensive sets to run.
DeAndre Jordan only needs to continue dunking on the offensive end. If he can continue improving on defense, he could be to the Clippers what Tyson Chandler was to Dallas.
There will still be opportunities for Los Angeles to improve their roster before or during the season. They have a surplus of point guards. Moving Mo Williams or Eric Bledsoe could give them frontcourt depth which they desperately need.
They are still the Clippers, of course, so season ending injuries or other problems have to be expected.
However, if they can somehow shake whatever curse has crippled their franchise, they could be a dangerous team come playoff time.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
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The Grizzlies are the definition of a scrappy team.
They play physical defense and pound the ball inside.
In an agonizing defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs, their effort could not be questioned. They pushed the Thunder to seven games, something few analysts expected at the beginning of the series.
Memphis has a great frontcourt duo in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Aside from the Knicks, (Stoudemire and Chandler) and Lakers (Gasol and Bynum), there isn't another team close to the Grizzlies' size and toughness inside.
The biggest question facing the Grizzlies is how Rudy Gay will be integrated into the team after he was sidelined for the playoffs. Gay is Memphis' best player and if he can play with the same hustle and dedication as his teammates did last spring, the Grizzlies could be even better than they were last year.
6. Boston Celtics
The original big three's title window may be over, but I wouldn't put money on it. Experience is a valuable commodity, especially when the playoffs get under way.
The most important player to Boston's success this year will be Rajon Rondo.
General manager Danny Ainge tried to trade his point guard for Chris Paul. Rondo has a tendency to be moody—he took the Kendrick Perkins trade pretty hard— and if the offense he feels for being offered in trade carries over into the season, the Celtics could be in trouble.
Assuming Rondo comes ready to play with something to prove, his outside game needs dramatic improvement. Smart defenses play off Rondo and beg him to take jumpers. This hurts the Celtics' spacing and takes away Rondo's best scoring option—his drive. If Rondo can develop an average jump shot, he and the Celtics would be infinitely more difficult to defend.
For the Celtics, the only thing that matters is the playoffs.
In the top heavy East, they don't need to have a stellar year to make the second season. If Doc Rivers is smart, he will give his veterans plenty of rest.
Really? Why would you play all of the big three on the third night of a back-to-back-back?
If the Celtics arrive at the finish line relatively fresh they could put together one last title run, regardless of their seed.
First side note: Why does Danny Ainge seem so intent on changing the roster?
Trading Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green was one of the weirdest moves in recent memory. Perkins meant so much to the Celtics culture and was their only center ineligible for AARP last season. He was infinitely more valuable to Boston than Oklahoma City. From the Thunder's perspective, the best part of the trade was not Perkins but rather allowing Serge Ibaka to take over Green's starting spot at power forward.
Trying to flip Rondo for Paul would have been a smart move in the short run, but why be so public about it? The Celtics have been contenders since the big three came into formation, why incessantly try to tweak it?
Second side note: Boston started the trend of big threes around the league.
What superstars intent on controlling their own destinies don't realize is that none of the big three signed as a free agent. Furthermore, they compliment each other perfectly. Kevin Garnett brought defensive intensity and post scoring. Ray Allen is one of the best catch and shoot players in history. Paul Pierce is the creator when the shot clock starts winding down.
Finally, the Celtics were incredibly lucky in the development of their other players. Rondo, Perkins and Glenn Davis all exceeded expectations and played excellently alongside the big three.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that to have a successful trio a team needs more than just pure talent.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
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Full disclosure: I don't feel good about this ranking.
The Lakers will enter the 2011-2012 season with a weaker roster due to shipping Lamar Odom to Dallas for next to nothing. His replacement, Josh McRoberts, will not bring the same versatility and scoring options to the Lakers.
The reason I put the Lakers this high is due to three factors: Kobe, experience and size.
Kobe Bryant may be nearing the twilight of his career. He can't score as easily as he once did. Still, he is one of the smartest players and fiercest competitors in the game.
Do you really want your team to be going against him in a close playoff game?
Like the Celtics, the Lakers benefit from an experienced roster. The grueling 66-game sprint of a season is only a prelude.
The Lakers don't need home court.
They just need to make the playoffs.
Their leaders, Kobe and Derek Fisher, both experienced the 1998 lockout.
I expect veteran teams to be able to pace themselves and not worry about trying win the so-called scheduling losses (third game of back-to-back-to-backs or the fourth game in five days). This mentality should help Los Angeles, like their rivals Boston, arrive at the playoffs in better shape.
Even with Odom's departure, the Lakers still have the best starting frontcourt in basketball. Last I checked, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are still seven-footers. Bynum is the biggest question mark as his health will be a concern until proven otherwise. If he can be at 100 percent come playoff time, the Lakers have a chance to get Kobe his sixth ring.
4. Dallas Mavericks
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Some will say that the defending champs are the favorites until beaten.
I am not one of these people.
Dallas has a good chance to repeat, but their team is not as good as it was last year.
The departure of Tyson Chandler will hurt them on the defensive end. He controlled the paint and was instrumental in their defeat of the Miami Heat in the last year's finals.
J.J. Barea also played a big role on the Mavericks' championship run. He gave Dallas a speedy alternative to Jason Kidd.
The trade for Lamar Odom was a smart move. He will give the Mavericks plenty of options and should have no trouble adjusting to a championship environment.
The Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki and that alone makes them contenders. He proved himself to be a great leader and an elite crunch-time scorer. He bails the Mavericks out on so many seemingly disastrous possessions late in the shot clock. His jump-kick jumper is nearly impossible to defend.
Nowitzki won't be trying to repeat alone.
Although there were notable departures, Dallas still has a solid team. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood and Rodrigue Beaubois are still there. Newcomers Vince Carter and Delonte West should contribute alongside Odom to help make up for the departures of Chandler and Barea.
The defending champions might not be the favorites, but remember, they weren't the favorites last year either.
Dallas is a team in the highest sense of the word.
They are better than the sum of their parts and should be playing late into the spring.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
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If God created a team to get through the lockout-shorted schedule, it would be the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They are young and athletic.
They have experience beyond their years due to last year's trip to Western Conference Finals.
The Thunder are the favorites in the West.
Kevin Durant still has to reach his peak. If his summer-circuit exploits are any indication, he has continued to add moves to his offensive repertoire.
That's scary considering he already has two scoring titles and most likely is the best pure scorer in the league right now.
Russell Westbrook proved last season that he belongs in the group of elite point guards.
He has phenomenal quickness and continues to improve as a distributor. He holds the key to a Thunder title. Last year in their defeat to Dallas, he held the ball too long looking for opportunities that never presented themselves.
If Scott Brooks can develop a more complex offense with more ball movement, the Durant-Westbrook duo could be unstoppable.
Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins form a great frontcourt. They may not be Gasol and Bynum or Chandler and Stoudemire, but they can control the paint against most teams.
The role players on Oklahoma City have shown constant improvement and are more than capable of contributing to a title.
James Harden stepped up his play considerably after Jeff Green was dealt last year (10.3 points per game before the All-Star break and 15.8 after). His shooting percentage also jumped. Eric Maynor could be a starting point guard on most teams.
The Thunder have exceeded all expectations and have matured and improved at an unprecedented pace.
The biggest question is how they will respond to playing with expectations. After last year's visit to the Western Conference Finals, they have to feel that it's championship or bust this season.
2. Chicago Bulls
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It's really a coin flip between Oklahoma City and the Bulls for the two spot.
In my mind, the acquisition of Richard Hamilton pushed the Bulls ahead. He gives Derrick Rose a scorer on the perimeter to defer to when the offense keys in on him. As their defeat to the Heat in last year's Eastern Conference Finals showed, Rose, like any player, cannot do it all by himself.
The Bulls had the best record in the NBA last year despite Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer missing significant amounts of time. One would also expect Boozer to improve upon last season's disappointing playoff performance.
Chicago has the best one-through-five starting line up in the NBA. Their bench is deep with Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik.
Derrick Rose, like Oklahoma City's young stars, will continue to get better. Considering he already won an MVP, the Bulls are primed for another great season.
1. Miami Heat
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It hurts me to say it, but the Miami Heat are the favorites to win the 2012 NBA Finals.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have already played together for an entire season. If not for a few fourth-quarter meltdowns and great clutch play from Dallas, they would be defending the title.
By all accounts, the Heat will be better this season than they were last.
LeBron James finally met with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game. Chris Bosh has bulked up and appears ready to play a more physical game down low. The addition of Shane Battier gives the Heat an experienced player and elite defender. He can take the opposing teams' best player for stretches on defense which will conserve James' and Wade's energy.
Ultimately, the most important factor in the Heat's title chase will be LeBron's fourth-quarter play. He was dominate in the playoffs up until the finals. If James can play like he did against Chicago for an entire playoff run, Miami should put up their second championship banner.
If, like myself, you're looking for holes in the Heat's title hopes, the lack of a great inside presence could be a problem. I doubt Eddie Curry is the answer. Still, LeBron and Wade are both great rebounders for their positions and play lock-down defense. The Heat don't need a Tyson Chandler-type center to protect the paint since it's so hard to get to the rim against them.
I don't want to see the Heat win the title, but if I had to bet, I would put my money on Miami.
"The King" should finally get his ring in 2012.