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Heat the favorite as NBA enters its stretch run

Bulls.com’s Sam Smith takes a look at the NBA in order of who has the best chance to win a championship going into the final leg of the 2012-13 regular season race.
"Perhaps not like Secretariat at the Belmont, but LeBron James is a powerful machine of a player making it clear, like Michael Jordan did for a decade, you can beat him," writes Sam Smith of the Heat. "But not likely four times over two weeks."
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

This could be an uncertain NBA playoffs since I think there’s only one team that can win the title, the Miami Heat. There’s no one else in the Eastern Conference as has been pretty much discussed all season outside of New York City, where the Knicks were declared a dynasty after going 11-4 in November.

It’s difficult to see the Thunder without James Harden, the Grizzlies, though they have played well since the trade, without Rudy Gay, and the Spurs now that Tony Parker has a serious sprained ankle. The Spurs already are forecasting at least a month out, and we know from Joakim Noah’s experience in last season’s playoffs that kind of sprain can take months to heal. The Clippers? Still difficult to buy them and not because of the franchise history. And if the Lakers make the playoffs? Still an if, even as they made .500 in March. Yet despite my views, I’m hearing the NBA still intends to conduct its annual post season tournament.

The NBA hits the three quarter pole this week, 60 games into the marathon of a regular season, which perhaps is better expressed in marathon terms than horse racing as the 20-mile mark. It’s the so-called stretch run, which is basically for seeding.

The Eastern Conference top eight is basically set with both the 76ers and Raptors fading out and both more than six games behind an improved Milwaukee team with the addition of J.J. Redick. Now the suspense in the East is who avoids eighth and a first round matchup with Miami and the four/five first round for a second round matchup with the Heat.

The Western Conference really is wide open with Parker’s injury, Russell Westbrook’s temperament and their isolation system along with Kendrick Perkins’ retirement (Oh, sorry, he is still starting), Memphis’ hope to score 60 points and the Clippers’ anxiety about Chris Paul not being in a body cast between games.

So here’s a look at the NBA in order of who has the best chance to win a championship going into the final leg of the 2012-13 regular season race:

  1. Miami: Perhaps not like Secretariat at the Belmont, but LeBron James is a powerful machine of a player making it clear, like Michael Jordan did for a decade, you can beat him. But not likely four times over two weeks.
  2. Oklahoma City: I liked them before the season because I loved the way they could put Westbrook at his true shooting guard position late and go through Harden. Never mind. It’s gotten so Kevin Durant is a playmaker a lot, which is bad since he is then not scoring. And not enough bench offense, or whenever Westbrook and Durant are not shooting.
  3. San Antonio: I’ll put them in there because they have the best record, depth and discipline in their system. But the serious ankle sprain for Parker is a major setback with him literally in MVP discussion. He’s got two months before the heart of the playoffs begin, so he could be fine. But they’ve lost early to low seeds before and the Rockets or Warriors or Lakers in a first round matchup could mean another early exit.
  4. Los Angeles Clippers: They have a lot, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, shot blocking, bench scoring, strong defensive numbers. But there seems something missing, relying a bit too much on the athletic part. If they have a playoff flop, Vinny Del Negro could pay.
  5. Indiana: A team built well for the playoffs around defense but with a developing offense thanks to Paul George. If Danny Granger can regain some of his old form it would help, though he left the Bulls game Sunday with knee problems again. This is what makes the Derrick Rose injury so painful for the Bulls as this was a team with Rose who were like a college team storming the court when they could beat the Bulls.
  6. Memphis: They won eight straight shortly after trading Gay, but it may be a bit of Gregg Popovich’s famous fool’s gold to suggest they are better with six of eight of those against losing teams and Golden State a poor road team. They close with 14 of 24 on the road and it’s tough to see how they are better without Gay and O.J. Mayo from last season.
  7. Denver: If only they could play all the games at home. They’ve got some obvious playoff flaws, like a modest defensive effort and no true closer that they go to Ty Lawson for last shots. But they have size, even if JaVale McGee is a blooper tape star. The problem with a deep team in the playoffs is you go big minutes with your best, and their bench often is better than their starters.
  8. Los Angeles Lakers: I still embrace their dream again with the caveat that it would be more difficult if they don’t make the playoffs. But if they do they have a top three playoff player in Kobe, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could return by then. And Steve Nash will make shots as they’re playing more through Kobe, who’ll again get MVP votes. They’ve always been built to be a playoff team with Howard, though they never figured making it would be the issue. You’d hate to see them in a first round matchup and those last 10 days of the regular season should be entertaining.
  9. Bulls: Obviously some depends on whether Derrick Rose returns, which still remains unclear, and even if he does how much he can play. Same with the oft-injured Kirk Hinrich and the oft-injured just about everyone else. That said the Bulls have two All-Stars and defend in a playoff style. If their current group with Taj Gibson and Richard Hamilton can get healthy along with Hinrich they can pull a surprise.
  10. Houston: Yes, they give up a lot of points and don’t defend and that doesn’t translate in the playoffs. But they have some nice elements with a closer, several players who create off the ball and basket protection. They could be a surprise team.
  11. Atlanta: They’ve done a nice job in a year they are changing to go into free agency. Al Horford quietly, as is his way, has had an extraordinary scoring run of 20 point plus games the last three weeks. How about Joakim Noah and Horford together? No wonder they won twice. They spread the court with Kyle Korver and now that Josh Smith knows he’s there, well, he’ll still take odd shots. But he knows they won’t trade him for them. This remains Dwight Howard’s really only landing spot. So he’ll be watching, too.
  12. Boston: Another team built and playing more for the post season. Size and rebounding remains a playoff issue, though since Miami remains 30th in rebounding it’s not an eliminator. They’ve got nice perimeter defense and obviously depend on Kevin Garnett. But they are another of those East teams that could fall into being the Heat’s last victim before the Finals if matchups break right.
  13. Golden State: They’ve been in a tough fall, and they really can’t go anywhere in the West, and it’s too late to believe Andrew Bogut can make much of a difference. But they along with the Spurs have played the most road games in the league and should recover to be one of the team’s the Lakers won’t pass.
  14. New York: They along with the Nets played almost the fewest road games. They’ve declined from month to month with defense waning and selfish play increasing. They’re back to Carmelo going on his own and in the playoffs teams run you off the three point line, which eliminates several of their older specialists.
  15. Milwaukee: Though it was the biggest of a small trading deadline, the Redick deal gives them a nice backcourt balance that has steadied Brandon Jennings and enhanced Monta Ellis. I also wouldn’t want to get them as they’ve got scoring size and shotblocking. They’re another playoff darkhorse and could move up out of eighth.
  16. Brooklyn: They’re just starting a long road “circus” trip with a much overrated and overpaid lineup. Deron Williams, whether hurt or not, is limiting them with very average play along with Gerald Wallace not being the same athletic player. With the soft play of Brook Lopez it’s tough to see how they can maintain in the playoffs.
  17. Utah: They’re my favorite for fading out of the playoffs with the confusion of whether to play their future core or the free agents playing for contracts. They lack direction with a true point guard and have been a mess of regularly changing lineups and rotations.
  18. Portland: Another schizophrenic team with a youth plan and LaMarcus Aldridge probably wondering where everyone went. They’ve been hurt with little depth and still expecting major changes.
  19. Dallas: Well, that plan didn’t work either General Custer, er, I mean Mark Cuban. So he breaks up the 2011 title team for two years of trying to make a big hit and he apparently forgot Dirk Nowitzki isn’t Dorian Gray and he is aging and his photograph as well. They probably just wasted two years of a shortened Nowitzki career. What a miscalculation.
  20. Toronto: Wow, there’s a lot of bad teams. With the acquisition of Rudy Gay they may be the best of the worst. They’ve got too many isolation wing players, but it’s not like when you’re down here there aren’t other issues.
  21. Philadelphia: I’m not sure how good Andrew Bynum would have been and certainly how long he could have played, but they get to imagine and now consider without him. They’ve got several players who can make plays, but no one to make them to.
  22. Washington: They’ve played better with John Wall and Nene back, though Nene never stays too long. And, of course, you couldn’t be worse to start. But speaking of that there may never have been a highly rated player like Wall who shoots as badly.
  23. Cleveland: With Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters with Anderson Varejao if he can get healthy... they still don’t seem to have enough to lure LeBron. But they are bold and have loads of picks and can be making a move one of these years.
  24. New Orleans: They have some sorting out to do with the ungracious Eric Gordon. Perhaps more concern is too regular injuries for Anthony Davis.
  25. Minnesota: It’s a tough season to rate them given the ridiculous number of injuries, especially with Kevin Love, and now Ricky Rubio just returning. They should be interesting to watch one day.
  26. Sacramento: Obviously, the potential sale and move has overwhelmed everything. With new management and maybe a new city they have pieces to deal and possibilities and this will be a case where change has to help.
  27. Detroit: Let’s see this time what happens with cap room after Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva last time. They have some big guys to build around, but they did before and pretty much have quit the last few weeks with a load of blowout losses.
  28. Phoenix: All those years of selling off draft picks and curious signings of older, short term veterans has caught up with them as they still have to bottom out before turning around.
  29. Orlando: They’re the turtle, and while they don’t move much now they are putting the pieces in place to so something if they can hit on one top player.
  30. Charlotte: Maybe it’s the curse of Tyrus. They also need to get lucky and they’ll be at or near the top of the lottery for a few years. Unfortunately for them, unless they are better by 2016 the Bulls get their pick. And wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony if the Bulls steal a star from Jordan?

NBA news and notes

-- J.R. Smith’s basketball intellect makes Nate Robinson look like Bill Russell. Smith made a half dozen bad shots, poor passes and defenses lapses in just the last two minutes of the Heat’s Sunday comeback win over the Knicks. Everyone loves great athletes and shooters, but when they are erratic people like guys like Smith and Tyrus Thomas they can do you more damage than their skills help. ... I’m assuming Doug Collins finishes the season with the 76ers and probably beyond. Look, the team, the personnel, is a mess. They say Collins had a say in personnel. OK, maybe. But he didn’t make any final decisions. Ownership and management traded for Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, got rid of a good No. 1 pick and Nikola Vucevic. Not Collins. The 76ers can try, but they won’t get a better coach if they want to return to competitiveness next season. Putting someone else in the seat doesn’t make the players better. Jrue Holiday was voted an All-Star on a losing team. So Collins is developing his young players. Collins, 62 this summer, always hoped assistant and former Pistons coach Michael Curry would replace him. But for now and the near term the 76ers won’t be as good if he does. ... Does this carry over until next season? You’d hope not. It was a month ago Mavs players Dirk Nowitzki, O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter were among a group saying they wouldn’t shave until the team, now 26-33, reached .500. Does that include going to a new team after this season?

-- Was the player to be named later for the Rockets Aaron Brooks? He appears on the way back to the Rockets after being traded to the Suns for Goran Dragic, who is back with the Suns. It reminds me of baseball’s famous player to be named later when Jose Gonzalez Uribe changed his name to just Jose Uribe because he said there were too many Gonzalezes in baseball. And even without consulting Ron Artest. ... Who by the way with his 11th league suspension, this time a flagrant two on a review by the league after hitting Kenneth Faried, and the broadcasters still call him “World Peace?” I did hear he is changing his name now to Rodman given his world peace proclivity. ... It’s not likely to be a race for rookie of the year against Damian Lillard, but Bradley Beal has raised his scoring average every month from eight to 11.2; 13.4; 15.1; 17.5 and 21.5 in two games this month and 21 since the All-Star break. ... With the addition of Kenyon Martin to go with J.R. Smith and too bad Rasheed Wallace is gone for a while the Knicks are now being called the new Gangs of New York with their cheap shot stuff and incessant whining on about every play while Carmelo Anthony adds his, like the cheap shot punch on Spencer Hawes last week. You play them tough and they want to fight, which gets you ejected, like half the team did against the Bulls and Pacers this season. Not exactly playoff mentality. Said coach Mike Woodson to New York reporters: “That’s something I’m trying to talk to all the guys about. It’s just not Melo. We’ve just got to leave the officials alone. When teams play physical I want us to play physical and not back away. And that’s what the good teams are supposed to do. When teams play us physical it’s okay. You’ve just got to return the favor and let the officials do their job and hopefully things work out for you (and not follow opponents to their locker room, I would add). We’ve kind of been on the back side of that a little bit where we’ve lost our composure a little bit and we’ve just got to back away from that because you can’t win that battle.”

-- With Mike Krzyzewski bowing out as Olympic coach, the top contenders appear to be Doc Rivers, Doug Collins, who should have been the star in the famous 1972 game replay and Gregg Popovich, who was in line to become USA coach until the 2004 Olympic team finished third in Athens. Popovich also had been George Karl’s assistant at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, but has not been close with team president Jerry Colangelo, and given the time together whoever is closest with Colangelo probably will get the spot for 2016. ... With Rudy Gay out Saturday, the Raptors lost in overtime to the Bucks, but six players were in double figures and Andrea Bargnani actually got to play and was one of them. Said a concerned coach Dwane Casey: “Of late the ball has been sticking offensively. We have to get our ball movement back in, not depend so much on Rudy and DeMar (DeRozan). Get the ball to the weak side and if they do get it, make sure we attack from the weak side. Right now it’s sticking, we’re standing, three’s not as much movement in our offence and we have to get that going and get more fluidity in our sets.” It’s the price of hiring so many talented individual athletes. It will be interesting to see how the Raptors try to balance that roster with any major moves. ... Looks like the local media has had it with the Lakers, too. The Los Angeles Times advanced a Clippers/Pacers game last week saying it was a Finals preview in the next year or two. Sure.

-- The old Monta finally is appearing in Milwaukee, and it could boost the Bucks. The high scoring guard who’s been more a secondary figure behind Brandon Jennings has scored at least 22 in five of the last eight games and averaging 24 as the Bucks have won the last three. He’s been finishing games at times with Redick with Jennings sitting some or becoming more a distributor. And Ellis is averaging 42 minutes per game since the end of January with a recent seven-game run of averaging more than 44 minutes per game. That Jim Boylan. He never rests his players. ... The Cavs’ 7-5 February with a win in Chicago was their first winning month since LeBron James left. ... Tyrus Thomas now has been DNP the last 10 games for the league’s worst team. I love the Tyrus updates. ... That’s why so many were sure the Jazz would try to get something for Al Jefferson. What were they thinking? Given a chance to play 44 minutes with Jefferson out, Enes Kanter had 23 points and 22 rebounds. Yes, it was Charlotte. But it’s tough to improve when you don’t play. Like with Omer Asik, you can’t find out if you don’t play them. Kanter had been averaging about the same inconsistent 14 minutes Asik averaged with the Bulls before his breakout with Houston.

-- Many around the NBA were quietly shocked by the Lakers penury a few years back, though it’s not something that gets brought up much given it’s not like anyone is running a charity. But given the Lakers’ revenue stream their staff purge during the lockout of veteran employees was a shock. The L.A. Times last week profiled Rudy Garciduenas, who for 26 years was the equipment man, one of the most thankless jobs in sports. The Bulls John Ligmanowski is one of the top veterans, but it’s a tough life of late, late night washing clothes and though I don’t see it with the Bulls a lot of players tossing dirty socks at these guys without looking up. Since being dropped by the Lakers because he apparently was too cooperative with Phil Jackson who, of course, was only the coach, Garciduenas is now driving a food sale truck in L.A. He was among a group of 20 some Lakers’ veterans along with executive Ronny Lester who got no severance and health insurance dropped. Yes, plenty of people lose jobs and no company owes anyone anything. But the Lakers? The L.A. Times story said the organization does not comment on personnel matters. But several of the fired employees, including fired assistant coach Brian Shaw, have since said that it appeared new basketball boss Jim Buss wanted to release anyone who was closely associated with Jackson. “I felt that maybe people associated with Phil were not welcome there anymore," Garciduenas told the Times. ... Shannon Brown went from double figure scorer and three point shooter to not playing the last seven games for the Suns after five minutes in a loss to the Lakers before the All-Star break. Brown had increased his scoring average each of the last four seasons. ... One concern of NBA players if the Kings leave Sacramento is leaving the In ‘N Out Burger down the block from the arena that is popular with players. “Even though I’m a gourmet guy, it doesn’t hurt to eat a double burger sometimes," Tony Parker told the San Antonio Express News. "I had two double doubles and a milkshake." There was believed to be no connection with the sprained ankle as I’ve eaten there many times and have strong ankles. Australians Patty Mills and Aron Baynes each said they ate four double doubles as the team bus stopped there. ... Pretty embarrassing show by Illinois rookie Meyers Leonard, who dunked over Andre Miller and stood in celebration, thumping his chest, screaming and staring down Miller for almost 10 seconds. Yes, what an idiot. Coach Terry Stotts took Leonard aside in a “teaching moment.” “I don’t want to rein in his enthusiasm,” said the genial Stotts. “But I want it to be channeled in the right way. In all seriousness, dunking on a 36 year-old point guard? I mean, c’mon.” What I always wondered is these guys dunk all the time. Why do they scream? Is it so special and unusual? Yes, for me. I get that. But he’s seven feet tall.

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