NBA Contenders & Pretenders

To Be the Champion, You’ve got to Beat the Champion!

The Miami Heat are on cruise control and LeBron James is setting records with the MVP award on lock. Chris Bosh is enjoying the touches and stardom, with James and Dwyane Wade getting some rest as of late. Wade has turned things up a notch and the team followed suit and made a historic run with that 27-game winning streak. The role players are playing their roles on both ends of the floor, and the stars are simply shining with momentum and rest. The don’t have the front-line a team dreams of, but they do have insurmountable shooters surrounding upper-tier talent and the best player in the world.

Contenders: Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Lakers

At the top of the West, the Spurs and Thunder are jockeying for home court advantage.

San Antonio keeps getting hit with key injuries. Tony Parker returned to the lineup, and then leaves the game because of another injury, after Manu Ginobli gets sidelined with an injury of his own. Good thing they have future Hall of Fame coach Greg Popovich, and future Hall of Fame big man, Tim Duncan. The younger players have stepped up, and they find themselves neck and neck with Oklahoma City. The Spurs have recorded the best record in the Western Conference the past two seasons.

Thunder buddies for life, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are leading OKC to another outstanding season. Durant is defending his scoring title against Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference. This scoring title would be his fourth in a row, the first player to do so since the great Michael Jordan graced the hardwood. Shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka is showing why he got a contract extension last summer, and Westbrook is having the best season of his career. They did make the NBA Finals last year, but clinching the top seed just might result in a collision course with a finally-healthy Lakers squad.

Speaking of Los Angeles, they keep fluctuating with Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot. With Steve Nash and Metta World Peace sidelined due to injury, the veteran Lakers really haven’t had a healthy team. If they find a way to fend off the scrappy Jazz, they could find themselves healthy at the right time and possibly knock off one of the aforementioned top seeds. At the very least, no one should feel comfortable facing a team with either all star players and/or championship resumes.

The Chicago Bulls have been playing without a handful of key contributors throughout the season. The fact that they continue to grind out victories goes to show that, head coach Tom Thibodeau has etched his name as a Coach of the Year candidate every year thus far. Even without Derrick Rose, and yes we will talk about his situation in a second, they will be injected with energy and fresh legs: Marco Bellinelli, Richard Hamilton, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. This team executes as well as anybody running plays, hounding you defensively, and cleaning the glass collectively. They have seasoned players that have played in big games and hit key shots in their careers. With their star player, they’re not the same Bulls team with only one scoring option and their bench mob is better than years past.

Alright, word is that the former MVP is healthy and taking his time to prepare himself mentally and to overcome the initial soreness from physical activity. When Derrick Rose is ready to go, and I do believe it will be anytime now, he should without a doubt be inserted into the lineup. Waiting until next year makes absolutely no sense to me. If he is ready to go and the goal is to win a championship, then Miami has some serious resistance. Last year Rose battled through various injuries while helping Chicago reach the playoffs. This time around his teammates are getting him to the playoffs.

On the Brink: Knicks, Nuggets, Pacers, Clippers

Living and dying by the three is fun to watch, but not the blueprint for a championship. The New York Knicks will probably win a first round series, and I wouldn’t say the second round is out of the question either. But their style of play, despite having Carmelo Anthony compete for the scoring title, makes them vulnerable to an upset and can play into the hands of teams that like to push the ball and fastbreak. If they can get healthier and produce more inside the paint, things could be different, but that usually doesn’t happen overnight.

I’m not sure anyone wants to play the Denver Nuggets. Not only is the coaching matchup against George Karl tough to beat, these guys play Euro-ball and makes everyone play their A-game. As if having Andre Miller come off the bench to play big minutes while grooming Ty Lawson to become the go-to guy wasn’t enough, Kenneth Faried might be the best player you don’t have to run a play for. The Nuggets may have lost Danilo Glalinari, but they have the firepower to make a run if they can make some defensive stops. It’s tough to win by outscoring your opponent every night come playoff time.

The Pacers are physical and versatile. They won’t go away easily but they they are still a piece or two away from making a legitimate impact. Head coach Frank Vogel has instilled toughness and this team believes they can mop the floor with anybody. It could be the start of something, but they will continue to go through growing pains because right now, they think they’re better than what they really are. If you’re in that locker room you should feel that way, but I’m not on Indiana’s roster and to me they are fool’s gold. It’s great to see David West playing strong and Paul George breaking out, but expect Danny Granger to be moved this or next offseason.

This might be the hardest team to evaluate. The Los Angeles Clippers can look like Lob city on minute, then the next they look disinterested and lackadaisical like the Clippers of old. I keep going back and forth on Chris Pauls’s leadership, he certainly can come through in the clutch. Blake Griffin continues to keep better, and believe it or not he… is…still…raw. The veteran presence of Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, and Lamar Odom will benefit them in a series. I just think they have too many guards to fit into the rotation and not enough bigs.

Pretenders: Everyone Else

Memphis will scrap, claw, and take you to hell and back if you’re going to beat them. The front-line is a force to be reckoned with and they defend the heck out of the wing players, but this team plays East-coast ball in the opposite conference. They have to find a way to score easy baskets, converting their strengths of defense and rebounding into layups. Or else every possession will be in the half-court with that occasional Mike Conley play of trying to do too much.

On that note, the Celtics are a tough team that just isn’t on the championship level they were a couple years ago. They feel they can move on from Rajon Rondo, I just wish we got to watch him play with Avery Bradley as his backcourt mate for the whole season. Bradley is a well-rounded player, perhaps not on the Rondo level, but he will carve out his own niche in due time.Doc Rivers just might be my favorite coach in the league. You know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will come to play as fearless leaders, but I can’t put money on their teammates even if I am a big Jeff Green fan.

The Brooklyn backcourt looks nice, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, but their best player has been Brooke Lopez. I actually view this team as a contender on paper. Unfortunately, the guards can’t seem to play well together and consistently. They can hit shots down the stretch playing one-on-one basketball, but they get stagnant. The Nets really struggle against the better defensive teams in the league, which includes the Heat, Knicks, Pacers and Bulls.

Houston can put up the points and tally steals, I just don’t see a roster that can compete with the best the West has to offer. Like good teams, they pretty much defend their home court, but they aren’t the same when they travel. James Harden has the keys to the car and  he has the drive, but even he will have some growing pains that comes with being the man. In general this team is young with a few first-time starters, plus they are eager to land a star player so the future is bright here.

With consistency in health and internal improvement, Mark Jackson and the Warriors could take the next step as a franchise. Whether they square off against the Nuggets or Clippers, you’re saying there’s a chance so they could surprise. I don’t necessarily see that happening but they will compete and make their series exciting, not to mention the future.

Every year you see the same thing out of Atlanta. They might get hot and blow a team out in a playoff game, but they don’t seem to have the leaders or that guy to step up. Collectively, they never really had “it” and they still don’t. They’re a middle of the pack playoff team for a reason, resulting in their seed and lack of progress. Like any team they will come to play and they have good role players, but they won’t be a team to look out for until they can land a star player.

Milwaukee is fun to watch and can light up the scoreboard with their trio of guards. They also have the league’s leading shot-blocker in Larry Sanders, but his sense of entitlement has him allocating a surplus of technical fouls. The Bucks will contest shots and make you guard them, however they don’t have enough to be labeled “contenders.”