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Taking Stock of the NBA Title Contenders

Friday, February 06, 2015


With one week before the NBA’s All-Star break, the season is getting to the nitty-gritty real quick. Teams in the respective conferences’ second tiers are jockeying for position, while the middle teams are struggling to make the postseason and the bottom-feeders are tanking for lottery ping-pong balls. 

As for the first-half kings, the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks, it’s all about maintaining momentum and good health. Other than the usual worries about Andrew Bogut, Golden State has been remarkably healthy, while the Hawks have only missed defensive specialist Thabo Sefelosha--and that didn’t stop them from winning 19 games in a row, with a perfect 17-0 record in the month of January, an NBA record for most wins in a calendar month without a loss.

Lump in the Memphis Grizzlies, who’ve also only lost ancillary pieces to injury (the ancient Vince Carter), and one can make the argument that to reign atop the NBA standings, you need really good injury luck.

This is what I call a “transition year” in the NBA. What I mean by that is there’s no super-team (like the LeBron-era Miami Heat) out there that’s jelled together yet, and in the absence of said super-team, or other obvious championship-caliber kingpin (unless you count the San Antonio Spurs), the path to an elusive NBA title is clear for an opportunistic squad to walk.

The last transition year was during the 2010-11 season, the first season for LeBron in Miami. He and Dwyane Wade didn’t know how to play together yet, and the Dallas Mavericks, behind a scorching-hot Dirk Nowitzki, took full advantage, beating the Heat four games to two and taking three of the last four games.

It’s likely we could see a Mavs-like champion this season, a team’s one moment of eternal glory before Cleveland gets its act together, or the coming free agency periods this year and in 2016 shift the NBA landscape yet again. It’s very possible that teams like the Warriors, Grizzlies, or Hawks may get even better in the years to come, yet never come as close to winning a title as they are right now.

This time of the season is ideal for taking stock of a team’s chances to climb that proverbial mountain. Excepting the Cleveland Cavaliers (I’m not ready to live in a world where J.R. Smith is an NBA champion), there are ten teams I want to take a look at, in no particular order. (And yes, our own Portland Trail Blazers will be among them.) Why that team is where they are now, why they can win the title, and why they could scrub out.

Let’s go!

Atlanta Hawks

Why They’re Good: As the first team to crack 40 wins this season, as well as a team fresh off a 19-game winning streak, you only need to glance at the standings to see that this is a team to be reckoned with, especially in the weaker East, where the only other teams in the top ten in winning percentage are Toronto and Washington. 

On the court, the Hawks play with the precision, grace, and beauty of their namesake. Like a hawk roosting in a tree, staring down the rodent that’ll serve as its breakfast, Atlanta’s Hawks are staring down the rest of the NBA. It’s very easy to feel sorry for the sad-sack eighth seed that has to play these guys in the first round.

Why They Can Win It All: They come at you in waves. One only needs to recall the Spurs last year to know that the tactic of “Our ten guys are better than your seven or eight guys” is very viable. Teams shortening their rotations to hide the weak links on the roster will get capsized by these guys, unless…

Why They’ll Scrub Out: …the opposing stars play like, well, stars. The Hawks rely on team concepts, in all senses of the phrase. Come playoff time, however, every team needs that one guy who can explode for 40, or nail that last-second dagger. Despite their heroics against the Indiana Pacers last year, the Hawks are mostly inexperienced when it comes to the postseason pressure cooker.

This year, everybody’s gunning for them, and the view from the top is something none of these guys are really used to. It wouldn’t be a big shock to see Atlanta crack.

Houston Rockets

Why They’re Good: Two words: James Harden. Like I mentioned Monday, the Beard is enjoying an MVP season, and would likely win it with his mini-Michael Jordan impression if it weren’t for Stephen Curry.

Watching the Rockets’ game against Chicago last night, I saw what makes Harden so dangerous in four plays, all made baskets by Harden. The first involved an evil crossover-stepback combo that staggered Jimmy Butler, an elite perimeter defender. 

The second and third involved him using hesitation moves to blow by Butler and Pau Gasol for a layup, then using that same tactic to evade Taj Gibson. 

The fourth was perhaps the most disgusting, using that same crossover-stepback combo to shake Butler so badly, he fell on his butt. To be clear, Butler had seen that exact move just a few minutes before, and he actually defended it worse.

Like him or not, that guy’s damn good.

Why They Can Win It All: Harden + threes + post game = Moreyball. Daryl Morey’s formula for success hasn’t found much, well, success (*cough Damian Lillard cough*), but in this transition year, mayhap this will be when the Mad Scientist will finally concoct Houston’s third NBA title in franchise history.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: Kevin McHale’s secretly a sub-par coach, Dwight Howard’s been hurt all year, and Harden could be worn out from all the heavy lifting he has to do for the Rockets to be successful. 

That last point is one to keep in mind, for Harden definitely was worn out when last season’s playoffs came around. He did revive in Game 6, but it was Howard who carried the water for Houston against Portland. With the big fella constantly on the shelf, that safety net might have a few holes in it.

Washington Wizards

Why They’re Good: John Wall has emerged as a top-shelf point guard, averaging a double-double in points and assists per game. His defense, athleticism, and vision augment the rest of the deep Wizards squad.

The inside combo of Nene and Marcin Gortat, the dead-eye shooting of Bradley Beal, and the veteran savvy of Paul Pierce are all weapons that can be put to use come playoff time. Nobody really fears the Wiz, but nobody’s exactly lining up to play them either, especially the Chicago Bulls.

Why They Can Win It All: With Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin backing up Nene and Gortat, Washington has the bigs to pound down anybody. The Wiz can play almost any style; up and down with the speed demon Wall (and Beal spotting up behind him in transition), inside with Nene or Gortat, going four-wide with Pierce playing as a small-ball power forward. 

This team resembles Portland in being almost matchup-proof…when healthy.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: The “healthy” part of the equation never really has been there for this team. Nene, especially, is quite fragile for a muscle-bound seven-footer. Pierce is getting older, Martell Webster has had back issues for years (he’s likely retiring after the season), Beal’s had wrist trouble, and Wall is one bad landing away from turning into Derrick Rose.

Washington also doesn’t shoot many threes. In a playoff series, where your every tendency is painstakingly scouted out, that aversion to the three-ball could cost the Wiz big. Pierce and Beal are good outside shooters, but solid defensive teams will force John Wall to beat them with jumpers. 

Memphis Grizzlies

Why They’re Good: I admit to being skeptical of the impact Jeff Green could have on this team, but since being acquired from Boston, Green’s been dynamite. Having a large wing player that can play either forward position not only gives the Grizzlies added versatility, but gives them a chance to keep Zach Randolph fresher for the postseason. 

Oh yeah, they have this guy named Marc Gasol, the best two-way center in the NBA, former Defensive Player of the Year. I hear he’s good too.

Why They Can Win It All: The potent inside game with Gasol and Randolph, along with Memphis’ trademark Grit and Grind defense, has been frustrating opponents for years. Add Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Green, and the deep bench (Carter, Tony Allen, Kosta Koufus, Jon Leuer, Beno Udrih), and you have a title contender.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: The Grizz have fallen short the last three seasons because they didn’t have the offensive punch needed to put teams away. Despite Gasol’s brilliance, this team is one perimeter slump away from suffering the same fate again.

The offense has improved this season for the Grizzlies, but I’ll believe it when they produce while being in the postseason crosshairs.

Los Angeles Clippers

Why They’re Good: The brilliance of Chris Paul, the developing skills of Blake Griffin, and the rebounding, dunking monster DeAndre Jordan answer why the Clippers are good. Paul might be the bigger name (and even that is debatable), but Griffin might be the best player on the team.

Griffin made his name with jaw-dropping dunks, but his outside shot has improved, he’s a post bully when Jordan isn’t in the game with him, clogging the paint, and his passing skills are prodigious for a big man. The Clippers’ offense isn’t as reliant on spacing as those of their peers, and Griffin’s passing skills are a big reason why.

Why They Could Win It All: Paul’s tired of coming up continually short. The team around him is the best he’s ever had in terms of star power and skill, and Doc Rivers is a talented coach and inspiring leader. With the right matchups (a caveat you can give any Western team, I admit), Los Angeles can definitely go all the way.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: The wing players. All they really have are Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and J.J. Redick, and the latter two can’t be played together for long periods due to Redick being undersized and Crawford going all IDGAF on defense.

Barnes is a good defender, but he’s in his mid-thirties, and his outside shot is no longer respected. With Rivers, who’s also the GM for the Clippers, trading away what assets of worth he had to acquire his son Austin, a player still trying to find his niche in the NBA, help on the wing won’t be coming soon, especially after they give Jordan a well-deserved raise after the season.

Golden State Warriors

Why They’re Good: Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson’ rampage. Draymond Green emerging as a defensive dynamo next to Andrew Bogut. Coach Steve Kerr being infinitely more talented a tactician than Mark Jackson. Having David Lee, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala anchor the best bench in the league. Having a 12.9 net rating, easily the highest in the league. Being the best defensive team in the league despite employing Stephen Curry and David Lee.

Take your freakin’ pick.

Why They Could Win It All: See above. The Warriors also are somewhat battle-tested, and Kerr, who played with a couple dudes named Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, has seen everything in the NBA. If there’s a coach who’s better equipped to steer a team to a title not named Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle, please, point him out to me.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: Green has played very well on defense, but I’d like to see the undersized Michigan State product try to defend LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, or Dirk Nowitzki for 30 minutes a night. Playing Griffin tough is one thing; he’s short-armed, and plays right into Green’s strengths as a defender. Facing somebody with length could be too much for him to handle.

If Bogut gets hurt yet again, the likes of Lee and Marreese Speights won’t be able to make up the difference.

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

Why They’re Good: Take everything I said about Harden, and apply it to Aldridge. Even with a torn ligament in his left thumb, Aldridge has turned things up a few notches, averaging 28 points per game since he decided to play through the injury.

With Robin Lopez returning, Meyers Leonard finding his niche, and Joel Freeland on his way back (not forgetting Air Sasquatch), the Blazers’ big man situation is righting itself just as the stretch run is beginning.

Why They Could Win It All: I can totally see Aldridge going on a 2011 Nowitzki-like tear throughout this year’s playoffs; unless you employ Anthony Davis, Consumer of Universes, or Rudy Gobert, you have no chance of completely stopping this man. Last I checked, neither Davis nor Gobert will be crashing the postseason party.

With Lopez solidifying the middle, and the perimeter players regaining enough of their touch to keep defenses honest, a hot Aldridge could carry the Blazers all the way to the title.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: Damian Lillard and Co. can’t punish teams for loading up on Aldridge, and Portland can’t defend well enough to squeeze out wins.

San Antonio Spurs

Why They’re Good: Unless you’ve been paying no attention to basketball for the last 15 years, you don’t need little ol’ me to answer that. The Spurs may be dealing with injuries, and their record is a mere 30-18, but they remain the Spurs.

Why They Could Win It All: The dirty little secret of the Spurs’ 2014 title run is that after barely surviving the Mavericks, they played three very top-heavy teams with flaws (Portland with inexperience, Oklahoma City with a hobbled Serge Ibaka, Miami with exhaustion), and were able to use their depth and shooting to breeze to the title.

If the matchups break their way again, San Antonio could very well win back-to-back titles, something the Duncan-Popovich Spurs never have achieved. It would be the perfect excuse for one of the five best players ever and one of the five best coaches ever to retire together.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: San Antonio runs into the wrong matchup. Duncan and Manu Ginobili are no longer capable of hoisting a team on their backs for an entire game, and Kawhi Leonard isn’t ready to do so yet. Tony Parker and eight good-to-decent players aren’t enough to survive the ruthless West.

Chicago Bulls

Why They’re Good: Derrick Rose hasn’t had to be the MVP-type player he was before his knees turned to mush, thanks to Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. The defense will always be there, but the Bulls, much like the Grizzlies in the West, have supported that great defense with offensive punch both in the starting lineup and on the bench.

Butler’s emergence and Gasol’s resurgence have turned Chicago from a middle of the pack team in the East into a real contender, and although they’re not exactly where they want to be as a team, they have the horses now to run with the best.

Why They Could Win It All: If Rose could conjure up his old magic for a series, or even for a deciding game or two, the Bulls would be the team to beat not just in the East, but in the league overall. They have the defensive chops. They have two stalwarts in Butler and Gasol. They have some bench scoring.

If Derrick Rose can occasionally transform into Derrick Rose, that would complete the blueprint.

Why They’ll Scrub Out: Tom Thibodeau plays his guys waaaaay too many minutes. The man is incapable of processing the fact that his players need little things like “rest,” “recuperation,” and “less than 40 minutes a night.” Former Bull Luol Deng had a spinal tap procedure done during the playoffs in 2013, and Thibodeau actually had the gall to ask Deng to play his usual 40 minutes a night.

Deng just had spinal fluid extracted from his body. That happened because there was something wrong with him, and the doctors needed to literally extract some of his nervous system to find out. Deng, unsurprisingly, said no.

Thibodeau said, “Could you at least give me 30?”

He is running Butler and Gasol into the ground, and come playoff time, they could be too tired to do what they need to do for the Bulls to have a chance.

Toronto Raptors

Why They’re Good: #WeTheNorth is a powerful force, people. The collective will of Canada was enough to push Kyle Lowry, who had never been an All-Star before, into a starting spot this year with the fan vote, over bigger names like Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. 

Lowry is the main reason the Raptors have maintained a solid record (they’re tied with Portland and the Clippers, entering Wednesday’s games) despite losing their top perimeter threat, DeMar DeRozen, to a groin tear for much of the season.

The depth of Toronto isn’t as overpowering as Atlanta’s or Cleveland’s, but they have plenty of players capable of hurting you, and the determined look of a bunch of athletes scorned after their seven-game defeat to the Brooklyn Nets last year, with the last loss coming on their own floor.

Why They Could Win It All: Toronto’s defense has lagged compared to last season, but if coach Duane Casey and his team can tighten up again, the Raptors have the personnel to make scoring difficult for anybody, despite the rawness of center Jonas Valanciunas. 

Why They’ll Scrub Out: I’m as big a fan of Lowry as anybody, but if DeRozen can’t regain his early-season form, I doubt Lowry and the bigs can carry the Raps past the likes of Atlanta or Cleveland.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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