With 80 percent of the NBA regular season complete, there is a large sample size of games from which it is possible to distinguish the contenders from the pretenders. In the first segment of a two-part analysis, let’s take a quick look across the NBA to identify the contenders.
Miami Heat- If being the two-time defending champion and having Lebron James to lead the team doesn’t make the Heat a contender, nothing in the world could.
Indiana Pacers- Although the Pacers are stumbling just like the Thunder and Heat have, their championship caliber defense is a force to be reckoned with. With the potential of Roy Hibbert’s size and length as the kryptonite to Lebron James and the gradual rise of Paul George as a superstar, the Pacers join the Heat as the elite of the East.
San Antonio Spurs- The Spurs are always a contender. It’s best to accept that statement at face value rather than attempting to make futile attempts at disputing it. Popovich has built the ultimate model of excellence in the NBA, so impressive that plugging in any NBA player into the system would yield comparable success.
Oklahoma City Thunder- The problem with the Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals was a lack of experience. The problem in the 2013 playoffs was the absence of Russell Westbrook. As of now, neither should pose a problem for this year’s Thunder team. This year, several role players have flourished and found a niche in the Thunder lineup amidst Westbrook’s injury recovery and rehabilitation. As unfortunate as Westbrook’s injury was, it helped transform the Thunder from a superstar-centric pretender to a multidimensional championship contender.
Los Angeles Clippers- Chris Paul left New Orleans because he wanted to play for a better team. Now, he has it. Blake Griffin is playing at a near-MVP level. Deandre Jordan is starting to resemble a championship-caliber defensive anchor. JJ Reddick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Danny Granger, and Darren Collison add all the depth any contender could hope for. When playing at their best, the Clippers are as good as anyone.