NBA title contenders separating from the pack

As the NBA passes the midway point in the season and is two weeks from the All-Star break, Sam Smith of takes a look at the best and the rest, factoring in the strength of teams based on the likelihood of winning a championship.

The NBA calendar isn’t like many others. Christmas is the busiest work day of the year and all the celebrations are long over by July 4. Groundhog Day, which just passed, also has particular meaning. It represents 10 weeks until the playoffs unless it stops snowing in Chicago. Yes, it’s 10 weeks until the playoffs!

So as the NBA just passes the midway point in the season and is two weeks from the All-Star break, here’s a look at the best and the rest. Remember, this is not a recitation of the standings but a view of the strength of the team based on the likelihood of winning a championship.

  1. Oklahoma City: They might have been there last season if Russell Westbrook weren’t hurt. He’s out again, which isn’t a good indicator, but Kevin Durant has pretty much separated himself in the MVP race and overall in leading the team without Westbrook. They’ve engaged some of their reserves, like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who have come on strong. Assuming Westbrook can return healthy, one big issue with him is they go to relying on either he or Durant with less ball movement and involvement of others. If they can solve that they can win, and they better in the next season or two or Durant isn’t staying when he becomes a free agent.
  2. Indiana: The Andrew Bynum signing Saturday looks like one of those so-called final pieces. The view debunked by Larry Bird—and if Larry says no it’s no as he and Jerry Sloan do not know how to lie—was they got him to keep him away from Miami. It was curious the Heat didn’t move sooner as Greg Oden doesn’t look like a reliable playoff answer. There just seems something missing with the Pacers. The backcourt, obviously, as they are weak at point and turn the ball over, which can be fatal against Miami. They should be better in the playoffs without the back to back and the slower pace they play. They should get to the Finals, which gives you a good chance, obviously. They also lack athletic talent and have too many scoring droughts. But you wouldn’t want to count them out.
  3. Miami: They don’t look like a three-time champion, though the Bulls didn’t either a lot of the 1992-93 season. The difference was the Bulls were healthy, if mentally tired. The Heat isn’t healthy as well. LeBron James even with lesser team success is playing as well as ever and back to his Cavs days of carrying everyone. You can get a second wind for the playoffs like Jordan always would. But it takes a lot out of you. Dwyane Wade clearly isn’t the same with all the required rest. It’s not his fault. He’s gone farther on those knees than were the projections coming out of the draft. He’s been one of the elite of the decade, but it’s difficult to see a two-month playoff run again. The Heat has changed the way they play to compensate and to deal with a team like Indiana. Instead of blitzing the pick and roll and scrambling the court they also use two big men more with Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen in a more traditional pick and roll defense. It seems to cut down on the effort in regular season. It’s accounted for their modest backtracking, but you don’t just turn it back on. Plus, Shane Battier and Ray Allen are slowing. Indiana looks too tough for them if they get there. They only will if James is stupendous, which is the normal for him.
  4. Los Angeles Clippers: There really isn’t anyone else who looks like a potential champion other than the Thunder. Which would make not winning this season potentially devastating for them. The Clippers continue to get better—the operative cliché—under Doc Rivers. He does it better than others now, playing his best players but working them toward improvement rather than the extended rests you see in Miami and San Antonio, which may not help a player’s development for the end of the season. Blake Griffin has taken a huge step along with DeAndre Jordan, and once they get Chris Paul back from that shoulder injury with their depth they should be much better. Perhaps Paul stops pounding the ball so much now that he may see they move better without him. Their only weakness is a lack of top athletes at the wing position, which hurts guarding the LeBron and Durant types.
  5. Golden State: They’ve also developed the pieces to be stronger in the playoffs with the defensive players in Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and even Draymond Green off the bench. They get questioned for being a jump shooting team that will be on and off in a long playoff series. And as good as Stephen Curry is, he takes some of the worst shots and turns the ball over way too much. He just makes so many amazing shots you can excuse him. They finally have enough defense and size to complement their offense. Nellie is shocked.
  6. Portland: Jump shooting alert as well. The difference is not just LaMarcus Aldridge playing as he has but that he’s needed Robin Lopez to do so. It’s why Aldridge really isn’t a true MVP candidate as good as he’s played. He backed away from rebounding and the responsibility until Lopez came along. It’s been one of the best pickups of the offseason. Lopez doesn’t do much, but he’s such a perfect fit to enable Aldridge to relax, concentrate on offense, and then rebound because now he doesn’t have to. He’s never been the strongest guy mentally. But he plays much tougher now. They don’t look like a title team. And that preseason prediction from most that there were eight to 10 potential title teams is now down to three or four. But they can win a series and if they do perhaps they get something going as they’ve got loads of offense and enough to win four in seven times.
  7. San Antonio: No, not because they lost to the Bulls at home. Yes, they’ve had a number of injuries, including Kawhi Leonard, who is their primary defender. But you can see the transition taking place with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan slowing down, though still very good. Theirs is the most remarkable run in NBA history other than the 1960’s Celtics with two decades of high level competitive play. The Lakers would be in there as well, though they usually retooled every 10 years. Last season was probably their last shot and that hangover isn’t going away as they know it. They got the big break with Westbrook’s injury and came as close as you can get without doing so of pulling it off.
  8. Memphis: They’ll lose Mike Conley for a bit with that ankle sprain, but they have quietly been moving up and back into contention with 16 of their last 21. They’re back to being that tough group after some early season experimentation with being the Thunder. Though the big change has been a couple of in season additions with defensive perimeter players Courtney Lee and James Johnson. With Tony Allen they can put out the best set of perimeter defenders in the conference along with Defensive Player of the Year (though undeserved) Marc Gasol. Zach Randolph also is being back to being snubbed for the All-Star game, though he’s scoring with anyone. They are the team the better ones don’t want to get early in the playoffs like when they knocked out the 56-win Clippers last season.
  9. Houston: I don’t even think they should be this high, but I’m running out of contenders. James Harden is terrific offensively, but his even lack of interest in defense is embarrassing to he and the team. It’s a team much too out of control, which is why they have these incredible meltdowns of great halves followed by nothing. The Omer Asik mystery continues. They obviously can’t trade him because of that $15 million payment for next season, and he seems like he’s refusing to play. But they won’t suspend him or, again, hold anyone accountable. Obviously why Dwight Howard wanted to come. He can play when he feels like. Or not. They’re looking like a nice first round upset for some much hungrier and more organized team.
  10. Toronto: This is maybe the most amazing situation behind the scenes. As terrific as Kyle Lowry has played and close to being an All-Star, they still are considering trading him and trying to miss the playoffs. Yes, it’s nuts. But there’s a core in management and ownership that believes the future is in the draft and perhaps Canadian Andrew Wiggins. They’ve been playing like a top two or three team in the East since the Rudy Gay trade. It would seem a slap in the face to their loyal fan base with a playoff run likely. Yet, it seems undecided. They could even make a run to the conference finals if they involve Jonas Valanciunas more. Unless, of course, they choose to try to miss the playoffs.
  11. Dallas: They continue to inspire all of us getting that AARP discount. Vince Carter and Shawn Marion still are in the league? And making plays. Dirk Nowitzki continues to be deserving of his All-Star status and you can make a case for Monta Ellis, which no one does. Rick Carlisle quietly is a top five coach every season without the credit, though it’s tough to get much there the way Mark Cuban keeps jumping in front of the cameras during their interviews.
  12. Phoenix: Ok, I give up. I don’t know if they’re for real, but getting close to 50 games it can’t be a mirage any longer. They are one of the most improbable teams in years with a roster that continues to defy explanations and logic. Yet, they continue to win on the road and come back from big deficits with guys who couldn’t get on the court before. It’s maybe the league’s best story even though they apparently preferred the lottery. Darn, we’re a playoff team again!
  13. Minnesota: You keep waiting for them to break out and they never do. They lost Nikola Pekovic for a bit, which hurts. Kevin Love keeps putting up these remarkable numbers and keeps losing close games. No, he’s not the classic closer because he doesn’t beat you off the dribble. He’s another who needs a better player, like Carmelo Anthony. And there aren’t many. Kevin Martin seems oddly detached too often, though if they miss the playoffs again you may see big changes and the departure of Love.
  14. Bulls: And I had them missing the playoffs after the Deng trade. It hasn’t been the toughest schedule, but it was an impressive January for them. I assume they aren’t making more financial moves unless a high level young player is available who can contribute now, which is unlikely. Their defensive play is one of the league’s best givens. Plus, Taj Gibson has developed into an offensive option and Jimmy Butler is improving. They’re thin as they’re trying to withstand a few weeks with a limited roster so they’ll be in position to add someone around trade deadline. The big if for them is staying healthy along the way.
  15. Atlanta: They’re a more offensive version of the Bulls after losing their best player in Al Horford and continuing to defy doubters. Paul Millsap is Charles Barkley without the explosive jumping. And jokes. But he’s effective. They got another good one out of the San Antonio system in Mike Budenholzer, a strong coach of the year candidate. And no one seems to know Kyle Korver shoots threes. No one making that many threes gets open so much. They’re another of those, “How did they do that” teams.
  16. New York: They’ve just got too much to keep losing. Few teams really could have survived their early season dysfunction, but Anthony is really good, and too good to miss the playoffs. With Tyson Chandler back and they’ll get more from J.R. Smith on and off the court for our entertainment they still should move up in the East.
  17. Washington: They could play the Bulls 10 times and probably win nine. But put them in a game they have to win, like the playoffs, and who knows what happens to them. It’s a lot John Wall, who though selected as an All-Star still plays an out of control game like someone learning basketball, which he still is. They have enough talent to be well above .500 and will likely finish ahead of the Bulls and probably even Atlanta and certainly the Knicks. And their backcourt can rival the Warriors’ on some level as Wall has shot much better. But if there’s a chance to make the wrong choice, they generally do.
  18. Charlotte: They’ve had one of the better renaissance seasons thanks to Al Jefferson, who was the only true All Star snub in the East. Jefferson along with coach Steve Clifford has given the Bobcats a presence and force they had just for a brief period under Larry Brown. Michael Jordan can come out now. They’re not bad.
  19. Brooklyn: They could still make the playoffs given it’s the East, and their small ball movement game without Brook Lopez has opened up opportunities for a lot of their other players. But who knows what or whether you are going to get from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And Deron Williams for that matter, who has become the league’s Least Improved. They have too much a combination of aging and infirm players to know what they can do. They get it together for stretches as we have seen. But then they take a week or so off for rehabilitation and pizza breaks.
  20. Denver: Nate Robinson just seemed like one of those guys who never was going to get hurt. If Nate blew out his ACL, there is something wrong in the NBA game. It’s still tough to understand punishing Andre Miller after all these injuries. Whatever did happen to JaVale McGee? Ty Lawson remains one of those most underrated, but he’s now out as well and you can’t keep losing the driver. Come home, Andre.
  21. New Orleans: We’ll see if new commissioner Adam Silver gets his first one right and puts Anthony Davis on the All-Star team as a replacement for injured Kobe Bryant with the game in New Orleans. Davis is deserving. Sure, the team has a losing record and it’s been a disappointing season. But only because of a slew of major injuries. Davis continues to fill up the box score like few players this side of LeBron. Everyone knows he’s about to be one of the big stars of the game. He should thus be in the big game later this month.
  22. Sacramento: No one can say they’re not trying as no team has been more active in trade talks and trades with Rudy Gay coming in. They’ve got some scoring power with DeMarcus Cousins, who actually was talked about as an All-Star. His numbers are terrific, but like Monta Ellis in many seasons he did little but get himself a lot of points. Ellis has gotten better, but a reputation becomes a reputation. Cousins isn’t screaming at everyone anymore, though he still has his targets. He comes back on defense only occasionally. Though perhaps you should credit him as many guys pretend like they are. He just stops and waits for the offense to return. No one disputes his talent, but he can be like Chris Webber at his worst, so talented that he has contempt for everyone else and plays to his own individuality. But when he plays they will score big.
  23. Los Angeles Lakers: Before too long they’ll be trying to figure out ways to keep Kobe from returning. Perhaps they’ll move and not tell Kobe where they went, like Rodney Dangerfield’s parents did. You can see the Lakers’ plan, which now appears to have a lot to do with a lottery pick. The Lakers have missed the playoffs twice since 1976. Each time they won a title again within four years. Mike D’Antoni really has done good work with a miscast group, though you rarely win coaching honors 15 games under .500. Teams love seeing the Lakers come to town now for many different reasons, though no one gets tired of saying Swaggy P.
  24. Detroit: This is a really bad result for this much talent. Now, everyone knew Josh Smith wasn’t about to play small forward with two young big guys, and he basically hasn’t, drifting around and firing away. Smith has the lowest three point shooting percentage, 23.5 percent, by far among the top 100 players in three point attempts. No one shoots as often and as badly. It’s thus marginalized Greg Monroe, which is why there’s all the trade rumors. Plus, Brandon Jennings is in the top 10 in three point attempts for guards and has the lowest percentage. Yikes. Andre Drummond looks mature with that wild bunch.
  25. Cleveland: Well, we were all wrong with that playoff pick, though no one believed Mike Brown, as unqualified as he is, could take a team this far down. The Cavs are in full meltdown after stories this weekend in the New York Daily News and Akron Beacon Journal recounted colossal dysfunction, Brown losing control of the team and seeming not to care and players almost at war with one another. Even Ben Gordon is calling Luol Deng to say Detroit and Charlotte were not that bad.
  26. Utah: They really do have a nice collection of young talent, but one major problem. They don’t have a star. And they’ve already paid one of them, Derrick Favors, an extension averaging almost $12 million a season. This is the big problem with getting all those high draft picks. You obviously cannot pay them all with Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward. Hayward’s the first big one as a restricted free agent this summer with a small free agent class who could get a major offer. You’ve got to get lucky in the draft and get a star like LeBron or Durant or Kobe or Wade. If you don’t you lose the ability to have a salary ladder and everyone wants the maximum in an era when you basically can give it to two guys.
  27. Orlando: This is another team that should be better. Yes, they’ve had injuries and Nik Vucevic going out was crucial to them. But they have a lot of young players they seem to keep rotating for no apparent reason. They have six players averaging at least a dozen points led by Arron Afflalo, one of the least appreciated shooting guards who’d be an All-Star with any competitive team. They should be making more of a jump by now.
  28. Boston: They should have voted coach of the year after that 4-4 start for Brad Stevens. He’s managed it as well as he can, though you see his learning curve to the NBA as well. It’s tough for guys coming from college. But they’ve been mostly the victim of management looking toward the future and Rajon Rondo making a mid-season return to determine whether he should be part of it all. Given all that they probably are doing even a bit better than anticipated. Has Gerald Wallace said yet today they’re bad?
  29. Philadelphia: Boston and Philadelphia basically were the Eastern Conference for two decades. You couldn’t put on the TV in the East in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the NBA was on and not see Boston and Philadelphia, Wilt and Russell basically every week, as if there weren’t another team in the league. Never have they been like this. And with a similar mission. Like Boston they are starting up again and doing it as you have to do it. Though it makes those 82 games painful. They’ll be an intriguing team to watch these next few weeks—and no one’s said that since they beat the Bulls and Heat to open the season--with some appealing players like Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young who are not in the future.
  30. Milwaukee: First in beer, first in football, last in the NBA. It’s been a tough fall to the bottom for a plucky franchise that did all it could and generally does to provide a playoff product. They looked to have one again, though the Larry Sanders signing has proven a disaster with Sanders signing his deal and then apparently looking to beat up the first guy he saw. O.J. Mayo also appears to have checked out after getting his first check. They do have some good young big men and a good move of Jennings to Detroit for Brandon Knight. But they sure could use a good draft pick, and certainly will get one of the top four.

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