Blog Entry

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Posted on: February 1, 2012 1:37 pm
Edited on: February 2, 2012 1:28 pm
Posted by Royce Young

Are the Lakers and Celtics challengers for a championship, or for just a postseason appearance? (Getty Images)

Almost every team has played 20 games so far this season, which is a pretty nice sample size to make a semi-educated judgment on just how good some are. We know there are a lot of competitive teams in each conference. Teams that have a quality roster, a decent record and a chance at the postseason.

But what's coming into focus more and more is who is for real and who is for fake. Not in the sense of who is actually good and who is fool's gold, but what teams should we be really watching for to make a push at a championship?

In the same way there's no reason to waste time saying the Wizards and Hornets are not contenders, I don't need to tell you that the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls are obvious contenders. They aren't just contenders, they're the title favorites as of now. Those three teams have clearly separated themselves a bit from the pack, but that doesn't mean that there isn't another team lingering as a potential title threat. This time last season nobody was really looking at the Mavericks as a team poised to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy.

So let's break down the current field of playoff contending teams and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Orlando Magic

After an 11-4 start, a good number of people kind of came around from "They have to trade Dwight Howard right now" to "Maybe they should keep him and make a run at it." Now, after a week of complete stinkage, maybe it's time to take another good look at blowing the hinges off the organization and starting over. If you're consistently having trouble getting out of the 60s, you're not going to win a seven-game series against a good team.


Philadelphia 76ers

A 15-6 record and the best point differential in the league is not something to be ignored. A 4-4 road record indicates that maybe the Sixers aren't quite ready to step into the conversation of competing for the East. I'm going to choose to ignore that. The Bulls and Heat are clearly the class of the East, but it's not hard for me to picture the Sixers taking down one in a seven-game series. Their depth, defense and determination will have them right in any game they play.


Utah Jazz

Rewind to last season. Jerry Sloan had resigned and Deron Williams was traded. It was understandable that the Jazz would finish out the season in the lottery. That was the plan. Get younger, find some cap flexibility and plan for the future. Except that didn't work out. The Jazz aren't a franchise that deal with losing much so this season wasn't just going to be one of tanking. But they're overachieving. They have some nice wins on the resume, but a core of Paul Millsap, Al Jefferon and Gordon Hayward aren't making a title push.


Indiana Pacers

I want to believe. I really do. The Pacers are a fun team and their resurgence over the past two seasons has been something else. David West was a nice addition and Roy Hibbert is playing really well. They've built up their resume with some good wins over the past couple weeks, but I don't see how they improved in the area that killed them last postseason -- fourth quarter execution. Danny Granger is a good player but can't shoulder the load of getting tough, key baskets in crunchtime. I can't see them beating the Bulls, Heat or even 76ers.


New York Knicks

I almost didn't even include them in this list. And not for the reason the Bulls, Heat and Thunder aren't in it. Unless Baron Davis has a superpower in that beard, the Knicks aren't getting out of the first round, and that's if they even get there. Serious obstacles are going to have to be overcome before this team actually competes for a championship.


Dallas Mavericks

It appears the championship hangover is finally wearing off. But for a while there, the defending champs had us concerned. They looked flat, uninterested and worst of all, not as good after losing J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson. But the Mavs are finding their form a bit and if Lamar Odom can ever finally wake up, Dallas goes eight deep with a nice rotation. And as long as that tall German guy is on the roster, they're a tough matchup for anyone.


Houston Rockets

As I was writing down the teams I needed to mention for this, I didn't have the Rockets. And then I looked at the West standings and their record and said, "Whoa, the Rockets are 12-9? When did that happen?" I think they're going to be players at the trade deadline, but as the team stands now, they're position in the West's top eight will probably be short lived.


San Antonio Spurs

Could the Los Angeles Clippers -- the Clippers -- really be contenders? (Getty Images)
You just wait. Gregg Popovich knows what he's doing. Manu Ginobili will be healthy soon and the Spurs are going to go on a run of games in late February or March where they win like 14 of 16 and rocket up to third in the West. It's coming. I know it is.


Los Angeles Clippers

I picked the Clippers to finish second in the West but also wrote that they weren't a contender. I'm confused about the Clippers. But they definitely showed a little something this past week with a win in Denver and a win against the Thunder. Part of the reason many doubted that the Clips were ready to contend was it looked like they needed another piece for some depth. But they may already have it as Mo Williams is making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year. Two top 15 players, a monster rim protector inside, a solid identity and veteran leadership -- the Clips kind of have it all. Only two things are holding them back -- Vinny Del Negro and a 35-year history filled with miserable failure.


Atlanta Hawks

I'll put it simply: The Hawks made no dramatic improvements to a team that's basically been the definition of pretender and then their best player was injured for pretty much the rest of the season. Their winning record without Al Horford has been a bit of a mirage as they've fortunately found a soft spot in the schedule at the worst time. Playoff team, yes. Title contender? Nah.


Portland Trail Blazers

For about five minutes, the Blazers had everyone talking about them as the prime contender to challenge Oklahoma City in the West. And then they lost their next five of eight and have slipped out of the top eight in the West. There's really not that much distinguishing this Blazer team from the one the was eliminated in last season's opening round. Is Ray Felton an upgrade over Andre Miller? Jamal Crawford an upgrade over Brandon Roy? LaMarcus Aldridge has become a legit superstar, but I don't see him carrying this roster to the Western Finals.


Memphis Grizzlies

I fear the Grizzlies were that classic chic preseason pick that everyone kind of likes that ends up going down in flames. Some would call that the "Houston Texans Disease." But Memphis didn't stumble into the second round of the postseason by accident. They upended the Spurs and then were a seventh game on the road away from advancing to the Western Finals. They're an enigma right now without Zach Randolph, but if he comes back healthy, the Grizzlies could be a nightmare matchup for teams in the playoffs.


Boston Celtics

After all of that, the Celtics are back to .500. They're 10-10 and have eased some of the fears that they might miss the playoffs. But they haven't been able to restore confidence that they're a team that's dangerous in the postseason. Kevin Garnett can't jump, which is a problem. Their offense completely fizzles for long stretches. They're actually relying on key production from guys like Mickael Pietrus and Chris Wilcox. The Celtics aren't bad, but I think ubuntu is on life support.


Denver Nuggets

Can team ball really win? Well, it's winning now and looking pretty darn good doing it. The Nuggets ran into a bad matchup last postseason and the Thunder took care of them in five games. I wouldn't say they necessarily improved this offseason after losing Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith while adding Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer and Andre Miller, but Al Harrington is playing wonderful basketball, Ty Lawson is blossoming and Danilo Gallinari shows flashes of being a star. Winning this way isn't easy, but I wouldn't rule the Nuggets out.


Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are 2-7 on the road. They've only scored 100 points three times this season. For any other team, we'd say that's a major red flashing sign that they aren't for real. For any other team, we'd look at their offensive struggles, their chemistry issues and the fact they're looking older than ever and easily write them off. But this is the Lakers, the home of Kobe Bryant and you don't do that. But I'm going to. Point guard is a massive issue, they have no depth inside and I still have absolutely no idea why they traded Lamar Odom for nothing. This team subtracted a key piece from a group that got swept out of the playoffs by the Mavericks and they expect that adding Josh McRoberts and a new coach is going to push them over the top? Unless the Lakers have a big trade coming down the pipe, the Lakers as currently constructed aren't going anywhere.



Since: Dec 18, 2006
Posted on: February 7, 2012 3:42 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Truthhertz, couldn't agree with you more. Guess when you're a Pacers, you get no respect. If this was the Heat, they'll be talking about Who will be playing them in the finals.


Since: Feb 3, 2012
Posted on: February 3, 2012 10:55 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Hey good sports analysis, man!  Pacers just beat your Dallas Mavericks by 11 at home.  Please don't quit your day job, because your contenders and pretenders were horrible.

Since: Mar 2, 2008
Posted on: February 3, 2012 5:02 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

You do realize the Bulls are in the midst of a long road trip, playing without 40% of their starting line-up? 

Since: Feb 2, 2012
Posted on: February 3, 2012 1:59 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

They are most definetly different.  Is their record worse yes, are they missing something yes.  But they are playing a completely different style of ball.  Defense will be better and once they get their offensive flow down name another team in the West who can compete with their post play.  Everybody knows they are missing another slasher that can create shots for others by driving and kicking.  But teams like the Lakers and San Antonio will be better in the playoffs because they have something the other teams in the West don't have and that is a solid post game.  They are showing some signs of improvement in how they run their offense and they will get back another experienced point guard in Blake, he's not enviable but definetly servicable for what they need someone to get the ball to Kobe in his spot saving him from having to dribble to it.  And distribute to the post players instead of starting with Kobe who is a ball stopper.  Kobe was doing well earlier in the season because he was playing more out of the post.  They definetly have a team built for post season play.  Plus the coach needs to settle on some consistant rotations.  So many variables from change this year, but wait till they start getting it, it looks like they are doing a bit better already.  I'm just saying it's obsurd to count out 3 allstars.

Since: Jan 24, 2011
Posted on: February 3, 2012 12:46 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I think Miami will be knocked off by the Milwaukee bucks if it goes a seven games series...certain teams have certain teams numbers! Sixers have Chicago Bulls number and Miami Heat has Sixers number..That's what makes this league fantastic...Oklahoma will be there this year in the Championship and also Miami Heat...Sorry just a prediction.

Since: Oct 10, 2011
Posted on: February 3, 2012 11:04 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Why is it that you took only a few teams from the east and the rest are from the west. I know most of the western teams are good teams. But, even there you are biased. And even when you did choose teams from the east you chose the New York Knicks. Thumbs down on this one.

Since: Jan 29, 2007
Posted on: February 3, 2012 10:58 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

So if the Sixers are pretenders, and I'm not sure what they are, then how to you explain last nights dominance defensively over the Bulls?
The same way you explain Milwaukee slamming Miami, it happens once in a while. But once in a while isn't going to carry the 6ers past Miami or Chicago in a series, just won't happen.

it just can't be the Bulls and Heat, you have to throw a couple more teams in there,
Why?? Just "Because"??

Since: Sep 27, 2007
Posted on: February 3, 2012 6:58 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I know they're not contendars, but I love the last 12 days the Bucks have had.  Beat the Heat twice including once in Miami, beat NY in NY, beat the Lakers and played the Bulls very tough in Chicago.  Losing Bogut and benching Jackson seems to have really made the team gel.  We're not going to contend for a championship, but we definately have a chance of getting the 7-8 seed in the East.  Can't really ask for more than getting our ticket punched with the roster they have.

Since: Aug 22, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 8:28 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

wow, not seen so many Pacers fans anywhere else.  But I have to agree, as soon as I read the article I was questioning how 76ers are contenders and Pacers pretenders.  I think the Pacers play with anybody in the east except maybe the Heat whom they haven't come close to.

Since: Nov 12, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 8:06 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I've never seen so many basketball fans hang their hat on one game.  The Wizards beat OKC this year.  Does that make the Wizards a contender?  It's a long season and inferior teams beat better teams.  One game doesn't mean much.

Collins IS doing a great job and the 76ers are playing solid ball.  With a SOS ranking 29th of 30 teams at this point, they SHOULD have a great record.  In fact, they're Expected Win-Loss is actually 20-2 at this point, so if you buy into that formula they're underperforming.  At 4 games under their EWL projection, they're last in the NBA.

Personally, I'm not sure how much I buy those stats.  I just don't think a team of good, but without great, players will win an NBA championship again.  The 2003-2004 Pistons were the only NBA champion I can think of without a Hall of Fame player.

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