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 30, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 2:31 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Even though I am not a fan of them I do not think the Lakers are pretenders. Can you imagine a number two seed getting the Lakers in the first round.? They would hate it. I'm definitely not a Bryant fan but he is by far the best player in the NBA despite what ESPN promotes. Will they win the championship? I doubt it but this strange season is going to change once the playoffs start and the players get more rest. The Lakers, Celtics, Mavs, and Spurs will not be teams to bet against.

Since: Nov 17, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 2:16 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

First, the Sixers did not construct their own schedule.  They are simply playing the schedule the league assigned them.

I don't understand what this is supposed to mean.  No one is blaming Philly for playing weak teams, it's just that when the question comes up of where they rank, it's fair to consider how tough their competition has been, as well as how many road games they've had to play.

Since: Aug 18, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 1:51 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

If you look at NBA strength of schedule:  Top of the List:  Lakers and Clippers  (with SA and NO)
Bottom of the List:  Philly   In fact, Philly is 29th.  And they happen to get the Bulls without Deng or Hamilton.  Lucky.

I need to make a couple of points here:

First, the Sixers did not construct their own schedule.  They are simply playing the schedule the league assigned them.  If you've watched them (you obviously haven't), you would know that the talent is there but they are still working on improving their confidence level.  They seem to play better with each passing game.

Secondly, Is it also "lucky" that the Sixers were without both their first (Spencer Hawes) and second (Nicola Vucevic) team centers?  I noticed that you neglected (or, maybe didn't know since you are obviously ignorant about the Sixers) to point that out.

I have been a Sixer fan since their centers were Daryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones.  I have no idea how good this team can be.  But, they're very fun to watch, play good defense, and seem to have an honest team-first mentality.  I think a proper categorization of the Sixers is that they have no great players, but have more really good players than almost every other team.  They can literally go 10-11 players deep.  That really comes in handy when you are playing older less deep teams.  They've been running people off the floor nightly.  Just look at their league leading point differential, which improved again last night against the Bulls.

Since: Aug 12, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 1:41 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Yes, Philly got the Bulls without Deng and Hamilton, but the 76ers have played their last 9 games without their starting or backup Center.  Joakim Noah and D.Rose should have sliced up the interior of the sixers defense, but they could not.  Thats because the sixers play team ball, and they WILL NOT be out-hustled.  THAT is why they are a true contender.


Since: Oct 5, 2006
Posted on: February 2, 2012 1:14 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Nothing like not knowing your stuff.

If you look at NBA strength of schedule:  Top of the List:  Lakers and Clippers  (with SA and NO)
Bottom of the List:  Philly   In fact, Philly is 29th.  And they happen to get the Bulls without Deng or Hamilton.  Lucky.

Clearly, Philly has yet proved nothing.  Although I will credit them for a good overall record and certainly credit them for handling the Bulls, but I won't ignore the fact they have played no true competition to date, except Bulls.  We may have a nice sample size of "games" but not a nice sample size of "quality teams beaten".  And you must have that to truly label a team a contender.

Then you have Atlanta who you say didn't get better...which I'll agree to disagree.  They made a few moves to enhance their roster BUT the guys on the team also are playing better and that is key IMO.  Atlanta has split with both Miami and the Bulls, so why would anyone truly believe they couldn't beat them?  And although they miss Horford, you cannot tell by their wins/ they are going as if he was never out.  That is a tribute to their bench.  Atlanta is certainly more of a contender than Philly at this point.  However, Atlanta has got to learn how to win in the playoffs.  The question is:  Is this the year?

Clippers are contenders.  I agree.

Lakers are not pretenders nor contenders.  They are:  wait and see.  If they can get it together with this team (or make a trade to do it) and show consistency; they can be a contender.  If they continue on this road of good games/poor games and reliance on Kobe shooting; they are pretenders.  So in all honesty, you can go either way.

To say Denver is a contender and Portland is a pretender, is to say the writer is a moron.  Please explain the difference between the teams.  You don't think Aldridge can carry Portland...but who is gonna carry Denver?????  They are playing the same strength of schedule and are virtually very similar teams.  Every reason you indicate Portland isn't...rings true of Denver...and visa-versa.  Fact is; if anyone of these teams is a contender, it is Portland.  Why?  They do have a star that can carry them in Aldridge.  They have a go to guy.  Denver doesn't have that one guy that can get it done.  Same is true of Philly and Indy.  Indy who plays far better on the road, BTW.  They both have talent and both can do well....  So if one is a contender, so is the other one.  Or both are not.  I believe both are not.  They haven't played tough schedules yet and the "sample size" we got is incomplete.  So at this time, I say they are NOT contenders.  Yet, in time, that could change.  Let see how they play against the tougher teams.

Houston is 9th in the yes, them being in playoff contention was short lived.  LOL

Playing favorites is okay..but make an argument that makes sense.  Otherwise, you just come off stupid.

Since: Jul 26, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 12:29 pm

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I don't see the Blazers winning it all as the yare inconsistent but I do see them getting out of the 1st round. Hopefully they can find the missing link and make the next step while LaManimal is still young.

Since: Oct 22, 2007
Posted on: February 2, 2012 11:59 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I'll preface my comment by saying I don't think any of the teams I'm about to mention will come close to winning the NBA Championship. However, in regards to the Spurs, Celtics and Lakers, those teams just need to make the playoffs, then their experience can take over.

Again, I'm not saying it will happen and I'm not suggesting one of those teams will win. Yet, as long as they make it through the regular season reasonably healthy, I have no doubt that teams that have the playoff experience that combos like Duncan/Parker/Ginobli, Pierce/Garnett/Allen/Rondo and Bryant/Gasol/Fisher/Bynum have can turn it on and become a completely different team in the playoffs, when it is often more about the will to win than it is talent.

Since: Nov 17, 2009
Posted on: February 2, 2012 10:02 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

I agree.  The one thing he knocked the Pacers for was failing to close games (or at least improving that part of their team, which was last season's weakness), but I don't agree.  They've had a few close games this year that they were able to close out, particularly at Chicago.  Their biggest problem with closing out games if finishing off teams after they've built a big 3rd quarter lead!

David West is a solid go-to guy in the 4th quarter, as he's already demonstrated an ability to hit tough shots in the closing minutes, so Granger doesn't have to shoulder the burden by himself.  I also feel comfortable with Paul George or even George Hill taking shots in crunch time.  I think they've improved in closing out games enough to be considered contenders.

Since: Dec 31, 2010
Posted on: February 2, 2012 6:52 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

The Sixers have the players to contend in the playoffs and make a run.  They can come at any team with 8-9 players deep.  They can wear down teams with their defense and athletic ability.  However, matchups against the Heat is where they are matched even with athleticism and needing a true big will hurt them against the large front line teams.

Since: Aug 15, 2007
Posted on: February 2, 2012 3:05 am

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Philadelphia has a good team but 12-2 at home 4-4 on road. All this team has shown is that they can win on their homecourt. To be a contender theyve got to be able to beat good teams on the road. (4 road wins) Pho, Gs, NO, and Wash just aint good enough. Maybe if they can go into Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, or Indiana and get a win then maybe we can consider them contenders. But not yet

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