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: Jan 12, 2012
Posted on: February 2, 2012 7:22 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

After a big win last night, and screw all the haters who talked about not having deng an rip hamilton, well guess what sixers dont have either of thier athletic centers that they could really use sometimes! so i dont want to hear it! the sixers are a legitamate threat! and need to get the national Exposure they deserve but dont ever seem to get! they are emulating the concept of team basketball and Doug collins is One of the greatest coaches for real! and the sixers are a legit team! and after this week if they do as well as i think every sixers fan knows they will and can do the need to get the respect!

Since: Aug 22, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 7:08 pm

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? I say for the East at least, they are contenders, it just can't be the Bulls and Heat, you have to throw a couple more teams in there, and I believe the Pacers should be as well.

Since: Jan 25, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 6:45 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

How can you not say the Pacers are contenders??? They have most likely (not totally forsure on this) have played the toughest schedule so far and a ton of road games, I believe they have had the most road games so far and have went 15-6. How can you say they arent contenders?? Also, you just know that Larry Bird knows that they are missing one more time scorer and I would look for the Pacers to trade for someone like OJ Mayo or Eric Gordon here at the deadline. If they would get one of those 2, Pacers are a big time threat to the Bulls, Heat, and FORSURE 76ers. Even with the team the Pacers have right now, I see them getting the 4th or 5th seed and beating most liekly the Hawks in the first round.

Since: Mar 9, 2011
Posted on: February 2, 2012 6:41 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Don't see how anyone can say that the Sixers are a contender and the Pacers are a pretender. Consider; The Pacers have played 14 road games and only 7 home games, while the Sixers have played 14 home games and 8 road games. The Sixers overall record leads the Pacers by 1/2 game. Pacers road wins: Bulls, Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Timberwolves, Nets, Raptors (2), and Warriors. Sixers road wins: Suns, Warriors, Hornets, and Wizards. The Pacers are 15-6 even with the tough schedule. I guess if they were better at closing teams out in the 4th quarter, they'd be like 19-2? I think the Sixers are an excellent team and Collins is a great coach, but to say one is a contender and one a pretender is either bias or ignorance.

When the schedule is unbalanced for teams home and away, a good stat for evaluating teams is road wins less home losses rw-hl. Here is how the NBA teams currently rank: 1. Bulls, Pacers, Thunder +8; 4. Hawks +7; 5. Heat, Nuggets +4; 7. Trailblazers, Sixers, Magic, Spurs +2; 11. Maverics, Bucs, Grizzlies, Clippers +1; 15. Cavs, Lakers, Rockets 0; 18. Nets, Raptors, -1; 20. Celtics, Knicks, Jazz, Suns, Kings -2; 25. Timberwolves -3; 26. Warriors-5; 27. Bobcats, Pistons -7; 29. Wizards -8; 30. Hornets -9.

The rw -hl stat can favor teams that have played more road games, but only if they win those games and don't lose at home. At the end of the season the number of games over .500 your team is can be calculated by (rw-hl)*2. 

It might be nice for a sportswriter to post with stats and facts, not just personal opinion.  

Since: Nov 12, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 5:22 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

maurysline, I think your assessment of your team is fair.  I just can't remember an NBA champion with no stars (as you said about Philly, and I agree).  To me, that still makes them pretenders.

Since: Nov 12, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 5:18 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Kenbo13, are the Lakers better or worse than they were last year when they were exposed in the playoffs?  It ain't the schedule, it's the team.

Since: Feb 2, 2012
Posted on: February 2, 2012 4:45 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Royce your an idiot.  Lakers will fair better once the playoff format of spaced games come around.  The condensed season and game after game is wearing on all teams and the refs.  Traditionally teams with size and who play percentage ball in the playoffs win out.  The Lakers will do well because they have several post players who can score and play that winning playoff posession ball, including Kobe.  The games with be more spread out giving their experienced players more time to rest in between games and they will have gotten used to their new offense which with there front loaded schedule made it hard for them to learn right away.  Plus they will probably make a move for a mid level point guard.  Plus nobody really expected Blake's absence to hurt as bad as it has but he'll be back as well, yeah and Fish has been bad but are you really going to count him out when it counts.  You guys should know better that playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball.  The obsurdity is that you are guessing on something that can't be judged by the way teams are playing now.  Maybe end of the season play but right now, whatever.

Since: Dec 18, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 4:34 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

The minute I saw you think the Pacers is a pretender, I stop reading the article. Obviously you haven't watch the Pacers play this season. FYI, the Bulls seems to always have a hard time with the Pacers eveytime they played them. Beating the Bulls on their home court after being humiliated by the Magic the previous night and to beat the Magic after that by more than 15 points tells me something about the Pacers this season.I think the Pacers is right behind the Heat, Bulls, and 76ers, and on some given night, better than all 3 listed before them. Maybe you can't see them beating the Bulls,Heat and the 76ers, but most of us Pacer fans can. Btw, the Pacers don't depend on Granger as much as they use to do anymore, especially in the 4th qtr and that is why they are winning as teams just can't defend just one man anymore as any other 4 players besides Granger can take over in the 4th qtr. Maybe you need to start watching some of the Pacers games before you count them out Royce Young.

Since: Dec 23, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 3:39 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I don't think the Lakers are PRETENDING to be mediocre.  I think they just ARE mediocre at this part of the season.  They have a new starting lineup, new coach, new system and an aging team.  If they can get in sync with the new offense, new defense and new roles on this team, they are a team that none of the top seeds will want to play.

Since: Oct 31, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 3:25 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

No love for the Pacers Royce? The same team that gave Chicago all that they could handle in the playoffs last year then turn around and shut Derrick Rose down in the fourth quarter of their only regular season game this year, not to mention that the game was in CHICAGO!!! Quick stat Bulls 2-4 against the top teams in the east, Pacers 3-3. This is a dangerous young team and if they are pretenders like you think, they won't be for long.

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