NBA Power Rankings: Identifying the Top 10 Contenders
The prolonged NBA lockout has given way to the fast and furious offseason. As practices get under way, players are being introduced to each other on the same day they play together.
Some of the NBA's contenders have been the busiest teams, re-stocking for another run at the Larry O'Brien Trophy. In Los Angeles, a new contender is growing. In San Antonio and Boston, some old warriors are trying to hang on for one last run.
Here are the top 10 contenders for the NBA Finals in 2012.
10) San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs' body of work keeps them on this list, barely. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are another year older, and probably blew their final chance to contend last season.
Still, you have to respect their championship caliber. There is one other factor that keeps them on the list: I think they are up to something. They brought in T.J. Ford, and I cannot believe it was only to back up Tony Parker. Ford is capable of running a veteran team, and Parker is the team's only valuable trade option. Perhaps they package Parker and Richard Jefferson (who has amnesty clause value) for a second-tier star like Josh Smith?
As it stands, the Spurs are still worth mentioning, but they are not a real threat to get Tim Duncan his fifth NBA Championship.
9) Memphis Grizzlies
Watch out for these Memphis Grizzlies. They will definitely finish better than the eight seed, and could play spoiler again in the Western Conference.
Last season the Grizzlies upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games. That was without Rudy Gay, arguably the team's best player. Gay can score with anyone in the NBA, and is the perfect counter to Kevin Durant.
Memphis enters the season with a starting five of an ever-improving Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The enigmatic O.J. Mayo, who can light it up in a hurry, will come off the bench along with energetic youngsters Sam Young, Xavier Henry, Grievez Vazquez and Darrell Arthur.
Another second-round exit is likely, but this team will push anyone to the brink and could pull a second big upset in two seasons.
8) Boston Celtics
I am not sure what the Boston Celtics are up to, but it has to be something or their championship window has slammed shut.
They were early participants in the Chris Paul trade talks, then traded their own reliable power forward Glen Davis for Brandon Bass. This is a move I do not understand. They are virtually the same player, but they know how Davis meshes with the team, and he has had big playoff games and shots. Plus, Bass is making a million dollars more this season.
To pry that window back open, I thought the Celtics needed to bring in a physical, defensive center. Chris Wilcox (career 0.4 blocks per game) was not exactly what I had in mind. I expected Jeff Green to play a big role this season, but he has a mysterious injury holding him out of practice.
Boston will have to get real creative to improve this roster. As it stands, they would be lucky to get out of the first round of the NBA playoffs, pending the matchup.
7) Los Angeles Clippers
Forgive me for saying this, but did the Los Angeles Clippers get better after the trade? The starting five before: Chauncey Billups, Eric Gordon, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. After: Paul, Billups, Butler, Griffin, Jordan.
Chauncey Billups has always been a pure point man, never a combo-guard. How will he adjust to playing off the ball for the first time in his career? Plus, you lose great big-man depth in Chris Kaman. Before the trade, I thought the Clippers had the most complete six-man rotation in the NBA. After? There are some questions.
The Clippers certainly did not get worse, I am just playing devil's advocate here. Paul obviously is a dream for Griffin and Jordan to play with ("lob city!"), but Gordon did have 25 points per game potential as a true shooting guard. One other thing to consider: three of the Clippers' starting five have surgically repaired knees. I do not mean to be a pessimist, but these are the Clippers, one of sports' "cursed" franchises.
OK, now that I am done drinking the hater-ade, here is what Clippers fans have to look forward to: One of the most exciting and dangerous teams in the NBA. Griffin has a serious chance to average 25 points and 15 rebounds per game. As long as he has worked on his game (see: jump shot) in the offseason, the 25 points will come easily.
Defensively Griffin has not even begun to scratch the surface. Once he gets some awareness, he will add a block per game to last year's average just by showing up. I like this team, but they have to figure some things out, namely the fact that they have four point guards and zero true shooting guards on their roster.
6) Los Angeles Lakers
How do I justify placing the Los Angeles Lakers this low on the list? Well, they certainly have not improved the roster that got swept out of the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
For the record, I believe David Stern's veto of the Chris Paul trade was a travesty. Throwing Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Lamar Odom on the Hornets automatically made them competitive. However, that does not excuse Mitch Kupchak for trading Lamar Odom—to the team that swept the lakers out of the playoffs!
I just cannot explain this move. I get that Odom was insulted, maybe to the point he had to go. But to the Dallas Mavericks? For nothing? Not only do they lose their sixth man, they lose one of their best trade assets. Now, even if they pull of a big trade, they are left with a void at power forward, as they likely will have to include Bynum and Gasol.
I would still have the Lakers ranked higher if they had done something about their point guard situation. Derek Fisher cannot guard his own shadow, and Steve Blake is better off the bench. In order to contend, the Lakers had to get CP3, Dwight Howard, or stand pat and add a solid point guard (T.J. Ford) with their mid-level exception. As it stands, they have done nothing and the free agent crop gets thinner and thinner.
Maybe this all part of the master plan, but it looks like a pretty crazy plan to me.
5) New York Knicks
Man do I like this New York Knicks' squad. Before the Tyson Chandler trade, I saw them as nothing but a highly entertaining one and done team. Now, watch out Heat.
All of a sudden the Knicks have one of the most talented and complete rosters in the NBA. Their Chandler/Amare Stoudemire/Carmelo Anthony trio gives them the best front court in the league. I love Landry Fields and think he is a perfect role player for this team at shooting guard. Point guard is iffy with a duo of Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas, but I don't think the team is done there. I expect either the Knicks or Heat to sign Baron Davis when his back heals.
The only thing that can stop this team from a deep playoff run is injury; they have little depth behind that loaded frontcourt.
4) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have dynasty potential. They are young, talented and their individual players will only get better. The question is how will they continue to gel as a team?
Kendrick Perkins' defense and veteran presence is a perfect fit. Serge Ibaka has only begun to scratch the surface, and could be another Kevin Garnett. Kevin Durant is a superstar, and James Harden is a great complementary piece. That leaves the X-Factor, Russell Westbrook.
This is a season in the crossroads for Westbrook. I know Thunder fans will come to his defense, and they have the benefit of watching him night in and night out, where I just caught their nationally televised games. The disturbing thing for me is the bad Westbrook showed up in the biggest games.
It was quite simple for the Thunder last season: When Westbrook was a point guard, they won. When he tried to compete with Durant for shots, they lost. So which Westbrook is going to show up? The one that dropped a triple double in Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies? Or the one that shot 36 percent against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals?
If Westbrook recognizes he has the most gifted scorer in the NBA playing on his team and let's the game come to him, only the Miami Heat can take them in a seven-game series.
3) Chicago Bulls
Well, the Chicago Bulls got the shooting guard they coveted. Now what? After shocking the NBA on their way to the best record in the league, a championship has to be considered the measure of success or failure.
Derrick Rose will be even better than his MVP season. He works too hard in the offseason not to be. Richard Hamilton is the perfect shooting guard for this team, regardless of what ESPN's Rich Bucher says. Luol Deng is one of the best two-way small forwards in the game. All the talk in Bulls' camp is about how fit and motivated Carlos Boozer is, and Joakim Noah just has to do is stay healthy to merit all star consideration.
The New York Knicks will have something to say about it, but expect it to be between the Bulls and Heat to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
2) Dallas Mavericks
I do not know if the Dallas Mavericks got worse this offseason. We will have to wait until the NBA Playoffs to find that out, but they certainly are different.
Brendan Haywood can do a lot of the same things Tyson Chandler did for this Mavs' team last season. However, Dallas will likely close games with Lamar Odom and Dirk Nowitzki on the court, which is actually more similar to their Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Dirk playoff teams of yesteryear. The difference between now and then is there is not a single dominant center in the Western Conference, so the Mavs may be able to get away with it.
Their other offseason moves are intriguing, if not a little confusing. When they brought in Vince Carter, I automatically thought this team was desperate and their window had closed (Odom propped it back open). Maybe the Mavs have a role in mind for him, but I though Carter was destined to be a chucker for bad teams the rest of his career. Carter played well with Jason Kidd before, but that was when he was still in "Vinsanity" mode.
I like the addition of Delonte West to offset the loss of J.J. Barea. West is multi-talented and has playoff experience. It will be interesting to see how the Mavs respond without Chandler, but do not count the champs out.
1) Miami Heat
The Miami Heat will be better than the team that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. How much better is up to LeBron James.
James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh's chemistry will be improved, that much is certain. Bosh seemed to finally come into his own a bit towards the end of the year and playoffs, and expect that trend to continue. Wade will be Wade, we know that. But what about LeBron?
This is his final season to become the LeBron James we all know he can be. He has faced some adversity, and will either get better or worse from it. What I have read in the offseason has all been the right things: He is focused, dedicated and not trying to live up to the "villain" role created by Nike.
Most importantly, he worked on his game. For LeBron to take the next step, he needs a go-to shot for when the going gets tough. Every great had one. He spent the offseason working on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon, and this is a step in the right direction. The question is has he kept working, and are they dependable enough for the big playoff moments?
We will have to wait until June to find out.