NBA Teams Whose Title Hopes Are on Life Support

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IDecember 10, 2012

NBA Teams Whose Title Hopes Are on Life Support

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    Some NBA teams just haven't gotten it yet and their title hopes are plummeting.

    Roughly a quarter of the NBA season is in the books, and there are a bunch of teams still struggling to find an identity. The worrisome ones are those thought to be title contenders at the outset of the 2012-13 regular season.

    Of course, anything can happen with a lot of games left, but as it stands right now, five teams in search of a championship are finding that route a lot more hazy than they did a month ago. 

    "Injuries to stars" has been a common early-season theme around the league. We are now hearing about quite a few return dates being pushed back beyond December. Once we get into late January and February, it is going to get a lot harder for players to return to teams and drastically affect the outcome of their season.

    Then again, maybe some teams just don't have it in them this year.

    The statistics used in this story are accurate as of December 9, 2012.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Current Record: 9-12

    The Los Angeles Lakers have hit just about every button on the early-season panic meter.

    They had a star player get hurt and miss extended time (Steve Nash). They switched head coaches after a slow start (Mike D'Antoni). Their mammoth new addition hasn't completely panned out (Dwight Howard) and they are now embroiled in trade rumors with one of their other stars (Pau Gasol).

    A team with this much talent on it won't be completely out of the championship conversation until they are eliminated this spring.

    Right now, though, it appears that conversation is leaving them behind. They have been nothing but a one-stop shop for drama thus far in 2012-13 and the 9-12 record is only a piece of that. 

    It is almost unthinkable to say this, considering Kobe Bryant is having one of the best seasons of his career. The Lakers' leader is putting up a league-leading 28.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 39 percent from three-point land. Yet, in the five games he has scored 35-plus points, the Lakers have lost.

    Dwight Howard has been good, but not great. It is tough to look at that 48 percent free-throw percentage when the Lakers lose games by less than five points.

    Both Pau Gasol and Steve Nash have missed time, which has contributed to the team looking lost in some games. They should definitely be able to climb out of the No. 11 spot in the Western Conference eventually.

    However, it would be tough right now to convince anyone not in their locker room that this team's title chances are not swooning.

Boston Celtics

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    Current Record: 11-9

    The Boston Celtics' won-loss record right now looks like the XOXO at the end of a holiday card. 

    This team has swapped wins for losses almost automatically every other night, which has led to their 11-9 record and current real estate in the No. 7 hole of the Eastern Conference.

    It is proving very difficult for the Celtics to win consistently for the simple fact that they cannot rebound and it is hurting their formerly stout defense.

    Opponents are averaging three more field-goal attempts per game than the Celtics, a number that seems low given the 30th-ranked rebounding rate and 29th-ranked rebounding differential.

    In their most recent loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, they were out-shot by 18 field-goal attempts. It is incredibly more difficult to win when surrendering that many more opportunities for points.

    Those extra opportunities are putting additional stress on a defense that is already without their best perimeter defender, Avery Bradley. Boston is also suffering on the defensive end from a lack of quality depth behind Kevin Garnett.

    With Garnett off the court, the Celtics become very susceptible inside.

    There has been up-and-down play from all of their offseason acquisitions. Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green have all had great moments, but none of them are consistent enough to improve this team. A lot of hopes are pinned on Bradley, a 22-year-old kid coming off double shoulder surgery after hardly a complete NBA season under his belt.

    Doesn't sound great, does it?

    The Celtics entered 2012-13 as a favorite to grab the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, a spot that would have kept them in the title conversation for some time. Early inconsistencies and only shaky answers in sight have dropped their championship hopes considerably.

Denver Nuggets

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    Current Record: 10-11

    They were considered darlings of the NBA after a surprising performance in the 2011-12 postseason. Now, however, they are fading back to obscurity.

    It was tough to find someone who didn't like the Denver Nuggets heading into the 2012-13 season. They gave the Los Angeles Lakers a run to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs and returned much of the same team. 

    Likewise, everyone loved their part in the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade that netted them defensive stopper Andre Iguodala. Now, at 10-11 and the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference, their title hopes are fading fast.

    The team that gave up 101.2 points per game a year ago is still giving up 101 points per game in 2012-13. Iguodala has not helped out as much as everyone hoped and this team still cannot get stops. Almost everything offensively is stellar. The team is still scoring 100.7 points per game on 46 percent shooting.

    Issues on defense and with turning the ball over are plaguing the Nuggets right now. Denver is giving the ball away 16 times every night, which is not helping their already struggling defense.

    This is still a young team with developing stars and a good coach in George Karl. Also in their favor is the schedule. Denver has played a hellacious 15 games on the road so far, compared to just six at home.

    The saying is "defense wins championships" for a reason. Right now, Denver just doesn't have enough to make it happen.

Indiana Pacers

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    Current Record: 10-11

    The Indiana Pacers without Danny Granger are just not the same beasts that battled the Miami Heat to a tough six-game series in the 2011-12 playoffs. Instead they are average, illustrated by their 10-11 record and No. 9 spot in the Eastern Conference.

    With another two months until Granger is scheduled to return, the team is in trouble.

    Granger was Indiana's top scorer with 18.7 points per game a year ago. He was also their go-to guy in clutch situations. 

    David West and Paul George have done their best to ramp up scoring, but it hasn't been enough. Especially with the noticeable dropoff in Roy Hibbert.

    Indiana's big man had a breakout year in 2011-12, particularly in the postseason, but has failed to live up to his new standard. Hibbert is shooting just 38 percent from the field—unacceptable for a player of his size who spends a lot of time around the basket. 

    The Pacers are scoring a league-worst 90.8 points per game. Their defense has been incredible, ranked No. 3 in the NBA, but the offense has been on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Right now, they are shooting just 42 percent from the field as a team, a rate that puts them at No. 28 in the league.

    Is this a matter of just not hitting shots right now, or something deeper?

    It may be more than half of the season before the Pacers get their star offensive player back. If his teammates can't improve in his absence, his return won't mean a whole lot to their championship aspirations. 

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Current Record: 11-9

    In reality, the Philadelphia 76ers have done very well this season. Jrue Holiday has emerged as a top-flight point guard and the rest of the young players have continued their development. 

    However, for the purposes of this piece, we are talking championship hopes and Philadelphia's boils down to one fact: The 76ers are not winning a championship without Andrew Bynum at 100 percent, physically and mentally.

    The 76ers are in the same boat as the Indiana Pacers. They are missing a star offensive player and are struggling to score and shoot efficiently in his absence. The difference is Danny Granger has a proven track record with the organization, while Bynum has not played a game for Philadelphia yet. 

    Right now, there is no timetable for the return of the 76ers' shiny new offseason acquisition. If you noticed above, I added "mentally" as another qualification for Bynum's return and the Philadelphia championship. I feel this is necessary since it appears the player has a lot on his mind aside from basketball.

    Whether it be his hair, bowling or the most recent suit with his former neighbors in California. It is clear Bynum has a lot on his plate and basketball is being forced to the back-burner.

    With no impending return date for their best player and no evidence of him being that player when he does return, the 76ers' offseason moves toward a championship appear for naught.