Top Sleepers and Most Vulnerable Contenders

If you’ve been paying any attention to NBA Basketball lately, you’ll notice that the league is not nearly as polarized as the sports world and casual fans are making it out to be.  Yes, there are other good teams besides Miami, Chicago, and OKC.  In fact, just last week, many of the league’s elite teams struggled against lower tier opponents.  Chicago edged Milwaukee on a D-Rose buzzer beater, Miami barely beat a Hawks team without Joe Johnson and Al Horford, the Lakers allowed the Wizards to overcome a 21-point deficit and defeat them, the Thunder had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat the Suns, and the Clippers fell victim to a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Jordan Farmar to lose by a point to the lowly New Jersey Nets.  I know that the playoffs will be a different game, and the top teams will most likely be a lot more crisp by then.  Nonetheless, some teams have legitimate flaws and should be concerned about whether they can contend.  Others, however, will most likely work out the kinks by the time the playoffs roll around.  Also, some of these teams are engaged in trade talks with the looming trade deadline on March 15th.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the elite teams of the league.  Whether your team is flying under the radar, or is subject to having a longer-than-expected summer, here’s what we should pay close attention to during the second half of the season:

More Vulnerable Than You Think:

  •  Los Angeles Lakers

Coming off back-to-back road losses against the Pistons and Wizards, you really have to wonder if the trade rumors are getting to this team.  Pau Gasol recently sat down with GM Mitch Kupchak to address the trade rumors concerning him, but did not get a firm answer as to what the Lakers’ intentions are.

Gasol uncertain future has him unable to focus 100% on the court

On the court, there’s some underlying issues as well.  As great as Kobe’s been, one still has to wonder if Mike Brown’s unimaginative 1-on-5 offensive schemes will work in the playoffs.  Beyond their Big 3, this team does not have many options on offense.  Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and the rest of the Laker bench have underperformed for the most part; they are DEAD LAST in the league in bench scoring.  If they end up trading Gasol by the trade deadline, they better get some depth in return.

  •  Los Angeles Clippers

The other LA team has its issues as well.  After losing Chauncey Billups for the season (which WAS a big blow; make no mistake), the once-stellar guard rotation has weakened quite a bit – especially with Randy Foye playing inconsistent basketball.   As potent as a CP3-Mo Williams backcourt is offensively, their lack of size in the backcourt is a legitimate reason why their defense has been so poor this season; they are currently 22nd in Defensive Efficiency.  As dangerous as they are, they may struggle against teams with size.

  •  Oklahoma City Thunder

 

To win a title, the dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook MUST be on the same page in late-game situations

As great as their record is, I’m just not entirely sure if they are good enough to win it all yet.   I see three issues with this team preventing me from considering them favorites to win the West:  1)  they only have three players (Durant, Westbrook, Harden) capable of generating offense – and they are all jump shooters, 2) they turn the ball over at an alarming rate (ranking WORST in the league along with New York), and 3) in crunch time, it’s still not clear whether Westbrook and Durant is the go-to guy.  All three of these issues WILL pose problems in the playoffs.  In general, teams that excel in a slower, half-court offense that don’t turn the ball over and have a clear go-to scorer are most successful.  To me, OKC still has some work to do in those areas.

Still, none of their best players (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Harden) are older than 24 years of age, so this team will contend for years to come – even if they come up short in 2012.

 

More Dangerous Than You Think:

  •  Dallas Mavericks

This team has had its fair share of turmoil recently, but I’m still sticking with them to win the West.  Even after putting up sloppy performances – including their meltdown against OKC on Tuesday night – and even with Lamar Odom’s tumultuous personal situation keeping him from fully investing in the Mavs.

Odom’s psyche isn’t the only one in question; after winning last year’s title, it’s fair to ask if reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki is motivated enough to carry his team through the playoffs this year.    After getting the gorilla off his back and winning a title, he’s been pacing himself through a condensed NBA season while nursing knee and back injuries along the way.  He’s also hoping to be healthy enough to play for his home country, Germany, in the London Olympics this summer.   You just gotta wonder if he’ll turn the switch on in time.  Based on some of his recent performances, including dropping 40 on Utah last week, I’m predicting that he will.

  •  Memphis Grizzlies

 

Western Conference beware: Zach Randolph should be coming back soon

Quietly, this team has darted its way up to #4 in the Western Conference standings.  When Zach Randolph returns, they will officially be ‘The Team No One Wants to Face in the Playoffs.’  They peaked at the right time last year by upsetting the 1st-seeded Spurs after squeezing into the playoff picture without Rudy Gay.  With a healthy Gay and Randolph, I think winning the West is not beyond the realm of possibility for them.

 

 

  • Atlanta Hawks

Once again, the Hawks have me underestimating them.  They have been particularly impressive without their two best players – taking down the red-hot Thunder last Saturday, and giving Miami a run for their money Wednesday night.  Jeff Teague has proven to be a HUGE upgrade over Mike Bibby (which makes you wonder why he lasted so long as their starting point guard), and their bench has been making considerable contributions.  Tracy McGrady has filled the void that Jamal Crawford left – that is, when he’s healthy.

Much like the last couple years, the true test for this team will be if they can get over the hump against the East’s elite.  They looked strong in the playoffs the last two years, but flamed out in the second round.  This year, they would most likely face either Chicago or Miami in the second round.  All signs point to that trend continuing, but with the way coach Larry Drew has them playing, they can be dangerous.

Can Joe Johnson and Josh Smith take the Hawks to new heights?

While teams with the three best records in the league – Miami, Chicago, and OKC – are still considered the best in the league, there should some dangerous opponents waiting for them during May and June. Whether the teams discussed here are in a vulnerable position or pacing themselves, contending for a championship is a matter of whether they can work out the kinks by the time they face the elite contenders.   Either way, expect some juicy playoff series and don’t expect any team to just breeze through the playoffs.

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