We’re a little bit past the midway point of the regular season already, so now is a good time to take a look at which teams are contenders and which are just pretenders. We already know that Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami are all definite contenders, but the rest of the league is a little more difficult to make out so far. It’s still early, but here are the picks.
Indiana Pacers - Contender. The Pacers were my sleeper pick at the beginning of the season and they haven’t disappointed so far. They’re currently 3rd in the East and have won their last four games, rebounding from a disappointing five-game losing streak. Indiana has a young core, gained valuable playoff experience last year against the Bulls (in a series that was much closer than its quick 5 game span), and are being led by All-Star seasons from Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Nobody really pays much attention to them, but they could surprise a few people if they continue to play at a high level.
Orlando Magic - Pretender. The Magic are having a lot of problems right now, even with Dwight Howard putting up superhuman numbers. Considering that the Magic will try and get all they can for the unhappy Superman as the trade deadline approaches (draft picks might be key here), the Magic aren’t going to be making very much noise this year if he leaves. And what may be even worse for Orlando is if Howard doesn’t leave, as the Magic’s chemistry will continue to suffer with the awkward position that Howard, the team and the entire city of Orlando is in right now.
New York Knicks - Contender. The Knicks showed they’re not contenders just yet in a disappointing loss to the Heat, but it’s hard to believe this team won’t develop into a highly competitive playoff team. While I don’t think they have the chemistry to reach the Finals this year, I do believe they can make a decent playoff run and give more competitive teams a run for their money. If Jeremy Lin can keep his turnovers down while making sure Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and JR Smith all get more involved on offense, the Knicks could become a big contender for the next few years.
Boston Celtics - Pretender. I’ve already written about what’s happened to the Celtics, so there are no surprises labeling them as pretenders here. With the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Hawks in the East, I think Boston’s window of opportunity for winning championships is over. The Boston Threeparty is getting too old and Rajon Rondo can’t pick up the scoring load for them. Defense is their best weapon, but it won’t be enough for a substantial playoff run.
Philadelphia 76ers - Pretender. This pick is definitely the riskiest of the bunch, but I don’t think the 76ers have what it takes this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were wrong about this one, but there’s just something about this 76ers team I don’t like. Maybe it’s their current five-game skid. Maybe it’s how different this Philly team is with big man Spencer Hawes sidelined. Or maybe it’s unnecessary and idiotic trick shots like this that suggest the team’s lack of focus. But whatever it is, I don’t believe in the Philadelphia 76ers just yet.
Atlanta Hawks - Contender. I honestly don’t think the Hawks have great chances in the East, but I believe in them more than the Magic, 76ers or Celtics, so I’ve got to put them down as contenders. The absence of Al Horford has really hurt them, but they still have a good record and Josh Smith is putting up great numbers in multiple categories. The Hawks have disappointed fans in the playoffs in the last few years, but I think they have the edge over some of the other teams in the East who are in the playoff running right now.
Cleveland Cavaliers - Pretender. The fact that the Cavs are a part of this discussion at 13-18 shows how set-in-stone the East is already shaping up to be. The Cavs are only 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the 8th spot in the East right now, but even though Boston is not shaping up to be a contender, the Cavs are unlikely candidates to oust them for that final spot this season. Next year looks more promising for the impressive rookie Kyrie Irving, Antawn Jamison and the currently injured Anderson Varejao.
Los Angeles Lakers - Contender. As the season started, the Lakers looked terrible, old and defunct. But then Kobe completely took over the Lakers’ offensive game plan, put the team on his back, and set the wheels in motion for Los Angeles to be tough to beat every time they take the floor. Mike Brown’s defensive coaching fits perfectly with the Lakers because their bench leaves so much to be desired. And now that the Lakers are feeding the ball to their talented big men, they look like a much more complete team. Pau Gasol is having an All-Star season and Andrew Bynum has been putting up fantastic numbers while staying healthy. Derek Fisher needs to contribute more consistently on offense and the Lakers bench is a huge weakness, but Kobe Bryant alone makes the Lakers competitive. Especially in the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets - Contender. The Nugets wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but don’t forget that Denver is a completely different team with Danilo Gallinari and Nene on the floor. Despite the apparent Nuggets’ nosedive recently, they are only a half game back in the standings and will be getting Gallinari back soon. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets will be peaking when it matters.
Dallas Mavericks - Contender. I was a little torn on this one, but the Mavs should still be seen as contenders for now. Last year, nobody picked Dallas to be a contender at the start of the playoffs, but elevated play from Dirk, Jason Terry and the entire bench showed the world how tough they are to beat when they hit their stride. Even with Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea gone this year, Dirk is starting to pick up his game again and the Mavs are competitive almost every night. If they get hot in the playoffs and get favorable matchups, it’s possible for them to at least reach the Western Conference Finals.
Houston Rockets - Pretender. The Rockets have been surprisingly good this season and are currently in the 6th spot in the West. However, I don’t think the Rockets stack up against any of the other contenders with only Luis Scola in the paint. They have fantastic guard play from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, but other than that, the Rockets lack the necessary depth to make a real playoff run.
Los Angeles Clippers - Contender. The loss of Chauncey Billups is a definite blow and will most likely prevent them from going as far as they might have, but the Clippers are still a force to be reckoned with in the West. Chris Paul has shown the ability to take over late in the game and Blake Griffin’s electrifying play not only produces good numbers, but it also has the ability to ignite the crowd, which could be a definite advantage in the playoffs if they can secure a good seed. The Clippers will need consistent offensive production from Caron Butler and Mo Williams, but they will also need increased production from DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye in the playoffs to be a truly tough team to beat.
Portland Trail Blazers - Pretender. The Blazers are deadly at home, but I don’t think they’ll get enough wins by the end of the season to secure enough home-court advantage for the playoffs when it would matter the most. Portland has an awful road record (5-11), and they’re even starting to drop games at home too (they’ve lost four of their last six at the Rose Garden). And given the age of Portland’s big men behind Aldridge (Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas), if the Trail Blazers have the same unfortunate injury luck they’ve had in the past few years, the bench’s lack of depth may hurt them.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Pretender. It’s hard to call a team a pretender when they are only in playoff contention right now, but since I don’t think the T-Wolves will be contenders this year, I have to label them as pretenders. Rubio and Love are the promising future of Minnesota basketball, but it’s a little too much for fans to ask that their team makes a deep playoff run in their first year together. The future looks promising, but I think the T-Wolves will come up a little short this season, even though I do believe they’ll make the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs - Contender. The Spurs have racked up a big number of wins in the past two regular seasons, and although they were a huge disappointment in the playoffs last year, I think they learned their lesson. Don’t forget this team was the number one seed in the West a year ago, and this year they’ve been streaking without Manu Ginobili on the floor. The Spurs aren’t the most entertaining team in the league, but they know how to win and will start grabbing people’s attention soon.
Memphis Grizzlies - Pretender. Without Zach Randolph on the court, the Grizzlies have to remain pretenders for now. They should be getting Z-Bo back soon and Rudy Gay should have been an All-Star this year, but the Grizzlies should be so much better than they are right now. This is not the same team that stunned the number one-seed San Antonio Spurs and gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money last year. Part of that can be attributed to Randolph’s absence, but the rest lies in the fact that the Grizzlies don’t always beat the teams they should (Phoenix and Utah twice).
So there you have it. Do you agree with my picks? Or have I unfairly ruled someone out? Sound off in the comments section.