While the playoff picture remains foggy at this point in the season, several of the division races are already coming into focus. Two teams, Boston and the Lakers, already have leads of at least six games in their respective divisions. Chicago is the only team in its division to have won more than 50% of its games this year. Though this can certainly be attributed to the fact that there are a bunch of horrible teams in the league this season, it is never too early to project which teams will still be relevant in April and May and which teams will have fallen by the wayside. I think pretty much everyone would agree that Boston, Miami, and the Lakers are title contenders, so what follows is a breakdown of whether the NBA’s other top teams have a legitimate shot to win the title (contenders) or are simply a good team not ready yet ready to make the Finals (pretenders).
San Antonio Spurs (22-3, 1st in Southwest)
After being swept out of the playoffs by rival Phoenix last year, the last thing anyone expected of this year’s Spurs team was a franchise-best 22-3 start. But behind a rejuvenated Manu Ginobili and a workmanlike supporting cast of role players (guys like George Hill, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner), the Spurs have been playing as good as anyone in the season’s first two months. While the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since ’07, there are too many pieces in place to label San Antonio a pretender. The nucleus of Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan is proven in the playoffs, and head coach Gregg Popovich is as good as they come. San Antonio leads the NBA in three-point shooting at 41%, and they’re no slouch on defense either (their defensive rating of 102.1 is 7th in the league). Popovich’s teams generally peak in the playoffs, so San Antonio’s hot start is a bit uncharacteristic- but that doesn’t mean I’m going to penalize the Spurs for playing well to start the season. While I still consider the Lakers favorites out West, the way San Antonio is playing, the Spurs are certainly capable of knocking them off in a playoff series.
Dallas Mavericks (21-5, 2nd in Southwest)
Their unquestioned alpha dog, Dirk Nowitzki, is having a phenomenal year (25 ppg on 56% shooting, including 40% from deep). They have a deep supporting cast with talent at every position. And right now they’re proving almost impossible to beat (only one of their losses was by more than five points). While the Mavericks could use another shooter, their size matches up well with bigger teams such as the Lakers, and they have the ability to exploit mismatches because of their depth. A young, athletic team such as the Thunder might present problems for them in the playoffs because of their age, but the pace of games slows down in the playoffs, which plays into the hands of the slow-it-down Mavericks. The major negative in examining Dallas is its playoff pedigree; the Mavs have made it out of the second round just three times in franchise history, and none of its current players have a championship ring. While lack of success breeds hunger, it can be a disadvantage when matched up against teams who are accustomed to championships, such as LA or San Antonio. Dallas has players to contend for a championship, but is this the year they finally get over their playoff hump?
New York Knicks (16-11, 2nd in Atlantic)
The Knicks’ 118-116 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday could end up serving as a microcosm for their season: entertaining to watch, a competitive team, but ultimately not enough to beat the big boys when it matters. Much has been made of that game, but these facts still remain: Boston entered the game starting their fourth-string center (Semih Erden); Amar’e Stoudemire played as well as he possibly could (39 points, 15-for-22 shooting); Danilo Gallinari caught fire with 20 points in the second half; Rajon Rondo was a shell of himself in the fourth quarter due to his ankle injury; and the Knicks still didn’t win. New York’s revival has been a boon for the national and local media, who love to see teams from the Big Apple playing well, but when you look at the roster of this team, there’s simply no way that they can be taken as serious contenders this spring. Mike D’Antoni had far more talent on his Phoenix teams of the mid-2000s, none of which ever made the Finals playing the same up-tempo style. The Knicks don’t play defense, so if their shots don’t fall, they’re pretty much screwed. I’m not even sure that adding Carmelo Anthony at the trade deadline would help this team; his scoring ability is obviously a good thing, but he doesn’t provide toughness or defense inside, something every title winner in recent memory has had, but the Knicks lack. New York will continue to be fun to watch this season, but when the pace slows down in the playoffs, the Knicks won’t pose a serious threat to Boston (who, with a healthy Perkins, would own the paint on both ends). Even if the Knicks are able to run in the playoffs, Miami (who pulled away easily in beating the Knicks at MSG Friday night) can go basket-for-basket with them with LeBron and D-Wade running the floor.
Chicago Bulls (16-8, 1st in Central)
Losing Joakim Noah for 8-10 weeks hurts right now, especially after the injury to Carlos Boozer earlier this year, but the Bulls have shown plenty already with a 16-8 record and wins at Dallas and at home against LA. The Bulls have all the tools to succeed in the playoffs: a talented playmaker/scorer (Derrick Rose), a tough interior defender/rebounder (Noah), secondary scoring options (Boozer/Luol Deng), a deadeye outside shooter (Kyle Korver) and a bench that can hold its own (led by Taj Gibson). Chicago can’t fall further than the four seed as long as it wins its joke of a division, which should be easily accomplished even without Noah. This would delay a matchup with one of the East’s top teams until the second round, where they would have to be taken seriously by whomever they face. Boston certainly remembers the epic first-round series the two squads played in 2009, and this Bulls squad is better than it was two years ago. They’re not the sexy pick to advance from the East, but I see a team committed to solid defense (43% opponent FG%, 2nd in NBA) with the talent to put up points on offense. Beware of the Bulls come April.
Orlando Magic (16-9, 2nd in Southeast)
Though the Magic have advanced to the conference finals in each of the past two seasons, I just don’t see this Orlando team having the same kind of results. They’re trying to pass off Dwight Howard as the
centerpiece of their offense when it’s clear that he is far more effective grabbing rebounds and defending the rim. Vince Carter (14 ppg, 37% FG%) and Rashard Lewis (8 ppg, 34% FG%) disappeared in the Boston series last spring, and with Vince turning 34 next month and Lewis at 31, they’re not getting any younger. Jameer Nelson isn’t a horrible point guard and Brandon Bass has been a pleasant surprise this season, but unless this team can catch fire from the outside like it did in the ’09 postseason (doubtful now that Hedo Turkoglu isn’t around to spread the floor), they don’t match up well against Boston or Chicago. The one team that they have a chance at beating is Miami, but that’s only if Howard has a monster series and just destroys Miami inside. He’s made strides on offense, but he’s not at that point yet. Plus, he will be counted on every defensive possession to protect the rim whenever LeBron or D-Wade drives inside. Orlando has done nothing to improve since last season, while their other rivals in the East have all made moves to improve. This is the year the Magic get left behind.
Oklahoma City Thunder (19-8, 1st in Northwest)
Before the season, many predicted the Thunder to be the number two team in the West and give the Lakers a run for their money come playoff time. While LA, Dallas, and San Antonio all look to be more complete teams than OKC right now, the Thunder still have the potential to be a dangerous playoff foe. Of their eight losses, only three were to teams with winning percentages below 66%. Russell Westbrook has continued to improve (23 ppg, 9 apg, 2.0 steals per game), and has shown that he is capable of carrying the offensive load when Kevin Durant has an off night. Durant’s field goal percentages are down, but he’s still leading the league in points per game and FT%. Jeff Green is a viable third option on offense. The issues with the Thunder: they’re not the strongest defensive club, and with Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka, they’re going to lose most matchups against rival big men. Though OKC does not have a great playoff pedigree, they gave the Lakers a better challenge than any other Western team in the 2010 playoffs, and Durant and Westbrook now have experience on a championship club, having led Team USA to the gold at this summer’s world championships in Turkey. Ultimately, though, I just can’t see them getting out of a tough Western Conference this year. They might be able to beat one of the West’s top teams in a playoff series, but to win the title, they’ll probably have to go through two of either the Lakers, Mavs, or Spurs, and then beat whoever comes out of the East. A couple years down the road, this could happen (Durant and Westbrook are both just 22), but they’re not capable of winning a title this year.
Utah Jazz (18-9, 2nd in Northwest)
Deron Williams is, by any measure, one of the top two point guards in the league right now (though a 29-point blowout on Friday at the hands of his chief rival, Chris Paul and his Hornets, does not bode well for Williams or the Jazz). Paul Millsap has rewarded Jerry Sloan’s decision to make him a full-time starter this season, scoring 18 ppg (seven above his career average) while continuing his strong rebounding. Al Jefferson was a steal in the offseason and has continued to produce, but he hasn’t made the leap to NBA star that many believed him capable of. Jefferson, who will turn 26 in January, wasn’t exactly put in the best position to succeed after being drafted in 2004, toiling for three seasons with a string of crappy Celtics teams before being shipped off to Minnesota to play for three even worse Timberwolves teams. He’ll have another season or two to prove himself in Utah, but right now Jazz fans may have to accept him for who he is: a quality scorer and rebounder, but not quite good enough to be the number two player on a title team. The Jazz’s supporting cast is weak overall: Andrei Kirilenko is inconsistent, Raja Bell is old and wasn’t that great in his prime, and the rest of the guys (C.J. Miles, Earl Watson, Ronnie Price, Francisco Elson) aren’t guys you’d feel confident throwing out there in a big playoff series. Utah is a team that is able to feast on the many crappy teams in the league, but as the current five-seed in the West, might not even make it out of the first round.