Five Contenders and Five Pretenders in the NBA
With just about a month remaining in the marathon that is the NBA’s regular season, the dust is beginning to settle regarding the contenders and pretenders for an NBA championship. Contenders are the select teams that have shown they have what it takes on both ends of the floor to play on the highest stage, and pretenders are to those who may think they are ready to compete, yet are still not quite on the level of potential contenders.
What is the discrepancy between these two categories? It’s rather simple. From what we watch night in and night out, even the most casual NBA fans are able to tell who’s on a higher level than others. It’s those teams who are hounding on defense and grinding on offense that will play into June. Those teams that play one side of the ball or don’t quite have the championship pedigree of certain veteran teams are the pretenders that will likely be bounced in May.
Ten teams have shown us that the word championship is in this season’s vocabulary. However, only five of those teams should be throwing it out there. Here’s a breakdown of who will be contending and who’s pretending when it comes to the likes of an NBA championship this year.
It’s been a turbulent inaugurating season for Jason Kidd who has coached his team from the cellar of the pitiable Eastern Conference, right into the middle of the playoff pack — all during the span of a month. I won’t be one to say that I wrote the Brooklyn Nets off early in the year, because I didn’t. Jason Kidd hadn’t coached a minute of NBA basketball until he went to the New York Knicks last year and morphed into a player-coach — then he went to Brooklyn. His first real taste came this year, however, for anyone who doesn’t agree.
I like what Brooklyn has done; though most of what we see from the outside looks like a commercial deal for Mikhail Prokhorov, general manager Billy King brought on the championship pedigree of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to enact the same situation as their new head coach was in last year. Sprinkle in a highly paid back-court, because no New York team is complete without a high payroll, and you have something worth pushing your chips to the center of the table for. It is house money, isn’t it?
Good thing it is, because the Nets are simply caught in a bad time. Not only is there a formidable selection of foes in their own conference, but the high-paced western conference sports even more problems for the Nets — who play the fifth slowest pace in the NBA at 93 possessions per 48 minutes. The game does slow down in the playoffs, but does Brooklyn have that extra gear that counts tremendously in big games and the consistency to bring it every other night for two extra months? Also, consider the lack of a true center and the poor rebounding numbers (they’re 29th in the NBA). The Miami Heat are an exception to the rule that rebounding wins championships. You’ve heard it, players have heard it, and I’ve heard it countless times. If you don’t believe me, ask Bill Russell and Dennis Rodman.
Across the way, talking about the guys who don’t worry too much about rebounding, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are two players that coexist, yet are far apart. Williams flourishes in the pick & roll game and at creating his own shot, while Johnson is more of a spot-up threat on a nightly basis. Can the two together lead their team further than they did last year? Or will they face trouble with another tough defensive team? There may even be a rematch of last year’s gritty first round seven-game series that the Chicago Bulls walked away with.
Brooklyn will be tough to close out a series against, but the series will still be closed out. Brooklyn is a good team in a season with multiple great teams.
This is, and will remain, the feel good story of the 2013-2014 season. The Portland Trailblazers are sailing at full steam and are even a few years ahead of development, or that’s what they led everyone to believe. On an all-around good basketball team, LaMarcus Aldridge is getting his first taste of winning basketball and competitiveness out of a Portland team he’s been very patient with. On the back burner of his All-Star season — 23 points and 11 rebounds per game — simmers Damian Lillard. Fresh off his Rookie of the Year campaign, Lillard has done a great job of doing his part as a secondary leader on this team. The two feed off each other very comfortably, making the game even easier for the rest of the team and swingman Nicolas Batum, the third component of the Blazers core.
Terry Stotts has created a well-oiled machine on offense, but the team has got to do a better job on defense. That’s all there really is to it. Portland gives up 102 points per game, according to NBA.com/stats; that’s the fifth most in the NBA. Out of the 10 worst rebounding teams in the NBA, only two — Portland and the Phoenix Suns — have records above .500. What makes the Trailblazers so fun to watch is that they go on scoring tangents and often out score their opponent. It won’t be this easy when April rolls in and teams have extended periods of time to study one opponent.
Depth will also become an issue. Coach Stotts lays heavy minutes on his starting lineup, and with a thin front court, the health bug needs to stay on their side or inexperience could end up hurting Portland earlier than expected. Robin Lopez is the first line of defense and one of the last for offense. Aldridge will have to carry the load down low on offense for his team, but that’s often what players have to do to show they are superstars in this league. But he is going to need help — Lillard and Batum can only do so much.
I appreciate the team concept Portland plays with and the glue guys like Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams, but as I averted to earlier, this is a team that is young and lacks experience in the playoffs. Like the Nets, their coach also has minimal time at the head coaching position, which will only hurt the game plan of their team when going against coaches like Greg Popovich and Doc Rivers. Portland is most likely a goner in the second round.
The Raptors have a 3rd-seed in the East and well over the .500 mark this late in the season, when everyone thought they would campaign to tank for the hometown hero Andrew Wiggins; we’ve all been hoodwinked. After shipping Rudy Gay to Sacramento and watching Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan evolve, Toronto has put themselves in a great position for now and the future. Kudos to their general manager, Masai Uriji, who has wheeled and dealed since he arrived to the Raptors to set them up with draft picks and cap space. Drake also owns a portion of the team; I guess that’s pretty cool.
What else is cool is that Toronto, again, has surprised almost everyone. Like many surprise teams in the NBA this season, the Raptors are a young bunch of players playing for a relatively novice head coach. Dwane Casey has focused on his team’s defense — they rank 4th in OPPG — while allowing his back-court to freely roam on the offensive end, creating a smooth balance of O and D. Scoring is the difference maker, however. In wins this season, Toronto is averaging over 100 points per game — in losses, that drops to 98 points per game.
Let’s agree that DeMar DeRozan’s scoring has been fun to watch this year. He is notching 22 points per game with most of his damage coming from inside the arc and the free-throw line — only 15% of his shots this season have come from three. Leave the three-balling to Kyle Lowry, however, who attempts 47% of his field goals from long distance. This spaces the two out well on the perimeter and makes them fun to watch.
For a team like Toronto — talented, yet you can’t help but question them — there’s a reason to ponder your thoughts. They are 12-20 against teams above .500 and are 2-5 in games decided by three points or less, leading one to assume they struggle closing out games. If it is tough to close out a game, wouldn’t it be harder to close out a series? Toronto could ride high into the second round after a tough-fought first round, but they are fool’s gold at third place. It’s hard for me to take them more serious than that at this time.
The Houston Rockets are a high-level pretender. Among all the pretenders, Houston has the best chance to prove me wrong — no problem with that. With 24 of their 44 wins coming against their own hyper-competitive conference, a new branch seems to always stem off of Dwight Howard and James Harden every few weeks. The depth Houston now has due to young players maximizing their offensive talent in a high-paced system has made them tough to outscore. It’s tough to guess who will lead the Rockets in scoring on a nightly basis; anyone can get hot.
But is getting hot enough to compete with teams that get hot and remain hot? So far, the Rockets have blazed blue on offense during the regular season from everywhere. 106 points a night can drown out almost half the league that struggles to score over 100 points per game. They have also shot a higher field goal percentage than their opponent 46 times this season — only four of those games were losses.
This is including the rain of three-pointers they take, 32% of their offense comes from three. If this is the direction the league is heading in — championships being won by hitting threes and rebounding — Houston may have the perfect concoction. Their rebounding is fortified by Dwight Howard, whose accepting of a slightly less significant role has become a catalyst for Houston. Though his scoring is down, his high rebounding plays a crucial role in what the Rockets like to do.
My only obstacle with Houston is that 17 of their 21 losses are when they don’t lead in field goal percentage. Though it’s a rarity for them, two of the three teams ahead of them — Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers — have given the Rockets trouble. They are a combined 0-6 so far against the two this year. When they are forced into bad shots or aren’t hitting three-pointers, especially against a team like the Clippers who are third in the league defending the three, could a run to the title be cut short?
It doesn’t matter how many times you knock the Chicago Bulls — it’s actually pretty awesome — they knock you right back. Chicago was hit with another haymaker in the form of a consecutive season-ending injury for Derrick Rose. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has not let the absence of his superstar affect his team’s defense, however. That right there is what makes the Bulls a very scary team. The fact they are all able to play with a defensive mindset every night — it’s often a street fight night in and night out for Chicago — but they get their points, and their defense shuts opponents down. Chicago has one of the best defenses in the league. We saw it last year against the Nets; defense wins and that’s Chicago’s bread and butter.
How far can defense alone take you? Chicago scores the least amount of points per game in the NBA, according to NBA.com/stats, and they are one of only three teams in the Eastern Conference that is at or above .500 against teams with records over .500. Either the offense is doing something right, or we are witnessing defensive brilliance — the Bulls understand their strengths well enough that the production of the offense picks up tremendously. Not individually, but collectively.
Whether it’s Joakim Noah — the dark horse of the NBA — using his unique skill-set to act as the engine for his team, or one of the other five players [along with him] that average double figures in scoring. That shows balance along with the improv this team has had to do. Derrick Rose changes the identity of Chicago on offense; without him, there really is no number one option, it becomes the team option. Each player knows their specific strengths and weaknesses. As for Noah, he is second on the team in assisting. This is the Bulls’ center. He is also the center of the offense and is helping the Bulls head to the playoffs for a second straight year without Rose.
I firmly side with people who believe Chicago’s defense can take them far, but the offense sputtered out in the second round vs. the Miami Heat. With injuries across the board, maybe things would have been different if the Bulls were to stay healthy, but depth can still be a problem for the Bulls this year. The Heat and the Indiana Pacers have a solid guy from 1-13. Chicago may be the third best team in the East playoff wise, but in an Indiana/Miami second round matchup, it is hard to see Noah and the Bulls outperforming their opponent.
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