The NBA is a little bit different from the other major sports in the sense that the best team generally wins the championship. It’s never a team out of nowhere who catches fire and goes all the way. The Feb. 21 trade deadline always has the potential to shift things around, but in mid-January, we have a pretty good idea of who’s who in this league.

Before we get to the six title contenders, let’s start with four teams that a lot of people think have a chance to win it all, but in reality, it just ain’t gonna happen.

The Pretenders

Chicago Bulls

The argument: “Tom Thibodeau always has that team prepared and ready to play. They play so hard. They play such good defense. If they get Derrick Rose back—“

The reality: Let me cut you off right there.  Look, I love Derrick Rose’s game. He was MVP two years ago. But you need to look at that team. Great defense, yes, but look how weak that offense is. In the NBA, you’ve got to have multiple players who can get their own offense at any time. Currently, without Rose, the Bulls have exactly zero guys who can get their own (high percentage) shot.  How do I know that?  The Bulls punish rims and backboards with ugly bricks all over America, hitting just 44 percent from the field. Chicago ranks 23rd in offensive efficiency (per ESPN’s John Hollinger).

So, even if Rose comes back, and even if he’s 100% Adrian Peterson-level healthy, the Bulls would be going to war with only one guy that can create his own good look.  That ain’t enough.

Denver Nuggets

The argument: “George Karl is a great coach. Andre Iguodala was an Olympian. That mile-high altitude is a great home-court advantage. Kenneth Faried is an animal. They rank fifth in Hollinger’s Power Rankings.”

The reality: I’ll give you this: Denver will be a tough out. The Nuggets play just enough defense to steal games on the road, and Karl has multiple scoring threats that can put up big nights (Andre Miller, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari). The rest of that team, though, is more liability than asset. Have you ever seen Corey Brewer shoot a basketball? Do you trust Kosta Koufos in a big moment? Do you trust JaVale McGee period?

Boston Celtics

The argument: “Veteran team led by two first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Rajon Rondo can take over a game and you know he’ll always dish out double-digit assists. Doc Rivers. Avery Bradley’s a superb wing defender. Been to the Promised Land before.”

The reality: In no particular order, here are the problems with the Celtics: Thin frontcourt, relying on two very old players (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett), Rondo doesn’t score enough, Jeff Green is Jeff Green and Boston is not elite defensively anymore.

Los Angeles Lakers

The argument: “We have Kobe. It’s still early. They’re still getting used to Mike D’Antoni’s system. Once Dwight Howard gets healthy—“

The reality: Stop. Stop right there. Dwight Howard had back surgery. He has lost his explosiveness. He sometimes doesn’t even try to block shots, even from smaller players. His dunks are weaker.  Face it: He’s not the same player.

As for the rest of this disaster of a team, well, it’s a mess. The Lakers rely on Kobe Bryant (34 years old), Steve Nash (39 in February), Metta World Peace (33) and Pau Gasol (career scoring average: 18.5 – 2012-13 scoring average : 12.2). Meanwhile, Howard hasn’t meshed well with the team chemistry.

The bench:  Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison, Darius Morris, and Chris Duhon? Robert Sacre? Sorry to be over-dramatic, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse bench. Oh, but don’t worry, Steve Blake should be back soon. That’ll solve everything.

The result of sustained success: In a nutshell, the Lakers have an aging starting five, poor team chemistry, and an impotent bench. And really, this is the result of a franchise that has been good for a long time. When you never get high draft picks you can’t restock your bench. And, since you have so much cash tied up in Bryant, Gasol, Nash and Howard, you have to grab lower-tier free agents like Antawn Jamison (who is so old, I bet he can’t even grab the rim anymore) and Duhon.

Bottom line: The Lakers ain’t winning the title this year, no matter what. I’ll even make you a bet: If the Lakers win it all, I’ll pack up my things and move to the United Arab Emirates.

The Contenders

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Why They Can Win it All
1) Comfortable in the Halfcourt: In the playoffs, the game slows down, and execution wins ballgames. Memphis is at ease in that scenario.
2) Top Level Defense: No. 2 overall in defensive efficiency, per ESPN’s John Hollinger. That’s a big key for winning on the road in the playoffs.
3) Best Frontcourt in the NBA: It’s true. Nobody comes close to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, in terms of offensive repertoire, defense and rebounding. Gasol and Z-Bo are also willing passers.
4) Prolific Second Unit: Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Marreese Speights, Darrell Arthur and Wayne Ellington can all score the basketball; those five average 30.3 ppg combined.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Playing 4 on 5 Offensively: Tony Allen is not a threat to shoot the basketball (40.8 percent FG).
2) Is Rudy Gay a Big-time Big Moment Player? The former UConn Husky shoots only 41 percent from the field and was not a part of the surprising playoff run (Knocked out San Antonio, took OKC to seven games) for the eight-seed Grizzlies two seasons ago.
3) Susceptible to Scoring Droughts: Sixteenthin offensive efficiency, per Hollinger. In addition to Allen and Gay’s struggles, point guard Mike Conley knocks down only 42 percent of his shots.

5. San Antonio Spurs

Why They Can Win it All
1) Very Balanced on Both Sides of the Ball: Rank fifth in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Hollinger).
2) Experience: We know all about the leader, Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to four titles. Tim Duncan (17.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg in only 29.8 min/gm) is still effective at age 36. Tony Parker (19 ppg, 7 apg) and Manu Ginobili (20.4 Player Efficiency Rating, Hollinger) have been there, done that many times.
3) The Popovich System: A precise offensive scheme built around ball movement, the extra pass and taking high percentage shots; it continues to be effective.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Two of the Spurs’ three best players are past their prime (Duncan, Ginobili): Duncan struggles to compete with better athletes around the basket, while Ginobili has suffered through a string of injuries the past few seasons, leaving his current scoring average at around 12 per game.
2) Average Supporting Cast: While Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw all fit in well with the Spurs’ philosophy, all six fall under the category of ‘limited offensively.’
3) Lack of Frontcourt Depth: Again, Duncan is out on the floor just over half of the time. Splitter only pulls down five boards a game. Diaw is undersized at the 4 spot. The Spurs will have a tough time containing Gasol/Randolph, Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan and even Pau Gasol/Dwight Howard.

4. New York Knicks

Why They Can Win it All
1) Offensive Efficiency: The Knicks, led by MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony (29.0 ppg, 26.0 PER), rank second in the NBA (Hollinger). New York ranks fifth in three-point percentage.
2) Veteran Influences: Tyson Chandler – a defensive anchor, leads the NBA in field goal percentage, pulls down ten boards a game and has been to the Promised Land before. Jason Kidd – great leader, underrated defender, has turned himself into a deadly three-point shooter (43 percent) and he, like Chandler, has won a title. And don’t forget about Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas.
3) Mike Woodson: As of Jan. 11, 2013, the former Indiana Hoosier is 41-18 since taking over as head coach midway through last season.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Defense: The Knicks, while improved in that area, rank near the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency.
2) Live By The Three, Die By The Three: In addition, the Knicks shoot a ton of jump shots — coming mainly from Anthony and J.R. Smith. New York lacks a post scoring option other than the few times Anthony ventures down near the basket. In the playoffs, as TNT’s Charles Barkley will tell you, it becomes more about executing and getting high percentage shots and less about firing up a bunch of jump shots.
3) Ray Felton: The former UNC Tarheel is a quality point guard (15.8 ppg, 6.3 apg), but will Felton, just 6’1”, be able to defend bigger, more athletic lead guards throughout the playoffs?
4) Relying On Old Players: Kidd, Wallace, Thomas (oldest player in the League) and Marcus Camby aren’t getting any younger.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

Why They Can Win it All
1) Chris Paul: No point guard in the NBA controls a game and runs a team like Paul. CP3 averages 17 points, 9.5 assists and over two and a half steals per game; he also shoots 90 percent from the foul line.
2) Best Bench in the NBA: In contrast to the team the Clips share Staples Center with, this might be the best bench I have ever seen. Eric Bledsoe is quickly emerging as an explosive point guard (8.6 ppg, 47 percent field goals) that is a nightmare on defense (1.5 steals per game) for opposing guards. Jamal Crawford, averaging 16 a game and nailing 90 percent of his free throws, is a prolific shotmaker. Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf are perfect role players. Even Lamar Odom is contributing. And don’t forget this team just got veteran Chauncey Billups back, while Grant Hill is close to returning from a knee injury. According to 82games.com, the Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf unit performs just as well, and actually better in some areas, than the Paul-led starting five.
3) Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan: Good luck keeping these genetic freaks off the offensive boards.  Griffin has improved his offensive repertoire this season, gaining confidence with the face-up jumper and continuing to invent new off-one-foot post moves.
4) Complete Team: The Clippers rank third in defensive efficiency and fourth in offensive efficiency.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Vinnie Del Negro: Is he the coach to lead the Clippers to their first NBA Finals in franchise history?
2) No LeBron or Durant: Look, the Clippers look to be as complete a team from man one to man 12 as I’ve seen in recent years. Really, the only thing that may keep L.A. from winning the title is that they won’t be able to beat Kevin Durant or LeBron’s teams.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Why They Can Win it All
1) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook: OKC is the only team with two of the 10 best players in the NBA right now (Sorry, Dwyane Wade. And don’t even think about telling me Dwight Howard is playing at that level this season).
2) Serge Ibaka’s Improved All-Around Game: Ibaka has made great strides offensively, increasing his scoring output from nine to nearly 15 points per game. Serge has also continued to get better defensively on the pick and roll and he still blocks a ton of shots.
3) Underrated Defensively: You may know that OKC ranks number one overall in offensive efficiency. What you may not know is that this team ranks sixth on the defensive side.
4) Free Throw Percentage: The Thunder leads the NBA at a nearly automatic 84.5 percent.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Kendrick Perkins: While he plays nearly 25 minutes a night, Hollinger’s system grades Perkins at an alarmingly low 8.3 PER. Plus, playing the big man with Thabo Sefolosha means, at times, OKC is playing 3-on-5 on offense.
2) Kevin Martin: Is he a big-time player?  The former Western Carolina Catamount has not appeared in the playoffs since 2006.

1. Miami Heat

Why They Can Win it All
1) LeBron James: The King is having yet another MVP season, checking in at 26 points, eight-plus rebounds and just under seven assists per game. James leads the NBA with a 29.27 Player Efficiency Rating.
2) Offensive Efficiency: The Heat rank third in the NBA in that category.
3) Multiple All-Stars: Wade and Chris Bosh continue to make all-star teams, while Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have in the past.
4) Three-point Shooting: Miami ranks second in the NBA in percentage.

Why They Could Get Tripped Up
1) Very Thin Up Front: Yes, the Heat play “Small Ball,” using Bosh at the 5, but if Miami runs into a tough big man, the only other options are 6’8” Udonis Haslem and 6’9” Joel Anthony. It didn’t hurt this team last season, but that doesn’t mean it won’t this time around.
2) Dwyane Wade’s Health: Watching D-Wade, he just does not look as explosive as we’re used to. Injuries, wear and tear, and his reckless attacking style over the course of his career have subtracted from Wade’s athleticism. Miami added Ray Allen via free agency, but I believe that without a solid contribution from Wade in the playoffs, this team is beatable.

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3 Comments

  1. Brent Chantler Brent Chantler says:

    Not quite sure what I think about the Grizz being a “contender”. They are currently 24th in the league in FG% which is not going to hold up in the playoffs going against the high-powered offenses of the likes of OKC and the Clippers. Granted, their front court is good, but their guard play will again get them in trouble if they have to go up against CP3 or Westbrook for a 7-game series.

  2. quickfixsports quickfixsports says:

    Have to agree with you Brent. I mean come on, the Grizzlies? But you never know i guess. My dark-horse would be the Golden State Warriors, i love watching that squad and think they are more talented then most believe…

  3. Dave Stanley Dave Stanley says:

    I’m admittedly biased, being from Memphis, but let’s call a spade a spade: Memphis can hang with anybody. Beating the Heat, Thunder and Knicks all by double digits in one week is a testament to that. HOWEVER, the other side of the coin (based on my Twitter correspondence with Ronald Tillery, the Grizz beat writer for the Commercial Appeal) is that we lack depth, especially after our recent salary dump. So, the course of a 7 game series holds many pitfalls for us, yes. But 5 on 5? Yes, as Lebron James said after playing us, we’re “scary good” and can play with anyone. It’s just a matter of doing it to the tune of four wins in a series.

  1. Brent Chantler Brent Chantler says:

    Not quite sure what I think about the Grizz being a “contender”. They are currently 24th in the league in FG% which is not going to hold up in the playoffs going against the high-powered offenses of the likes of OKC and the Clippers. Granted, their front court is good, but their guard play will again get them in trouble if they have to go up against CP3 or Westbrook for a 7-game series.

  2. quickfixsports quickfixsports says:

    Have to agree with you Brent. I mean come on, the Grizzlies? But you never know i guess. My dark-horse would be the Golden State Warriors, i love watching that squad and think they are more talented then most believe…

  3. Dave Stanley Dave Stanley says:

    I’m admittedly biased, being from Memphis, but let’s call a spade a spade: Memphis can hang with anybody. Beating the Heat, Thunder and Knicks all by double digits in one week is a testament to that. HOWEVER, the other side of the coin (based on my Twitter correspondence with Ronald Tillery, the Grizz beat writer for the Commercial Appeal) is that we lack depth, especially after our recent salary dump. So, the course of a 7 game series holds many pitfalls for us, yes. But 5 on 5? Yes, as Lebron James said after playing us, we’re “scary good” and can play with anyone. It’s just a matter of doing it to the tune of four wins in a series.

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