Separating the Contenders From Pretenders in the NBA

  • Andy Flint
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It is still early in the NBA season, but we’ve certainly learned a few things. For one, there are quite a few players who came into camp very out of shape and some overweight. Oh yeah, and there’s this guy named Kobe Bryant who is still a top 3 player. Even with one wrist.

There is still a lot to be seen, but it’s time to start separating the serious title contenders from the pretenders. So, where does your favorite team land?

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics-Contender. Older, yes. Nonetheless, this team has been there and won a championship, and you can’t quite count them out yet. The bench will be rejuvenated by newcomers Bass, Pietrus, and Dooling.

New Jersey Nets-Pretender. Unless, of course, the Nets can find out a way to land Dwight Howard in time for a run at the playoffs. Pairing D12 with Deron Williams is a formidable combination that can play with anyone.

New York Knicks-Contender. Kind of. Not yet sure if I buy into the theory that a back line defender can erase the terrible perimeter defenders in front of him, a la Tyson Chandler. Still not sure that Melo and Stoudemire can coexist efficiently. But, the talent is there, and that puts them in the conversation.

Philadelphia 76ers-Pretender. Sorry, I’m not drinking the 76ers Kool-Aid just yet. I like what they’re doing, and I think they’ll be a good regular season team because of their great depth and lack of dependance on one player. However, they’re a star away from being a serious NBA title contender in my mind.

Toronto Raptors-Pretenders. Surprise! OK, maybe not a surprise. This is a lonely team with no shot of making the playoffs.

Central Division

Chicago Bulls-Contender. We saw last year that this team was capable of a title run and only figure to improve. Rip Hamilton was a nice addition, but Boozer needs to earn his contract to take pressure off of Rose and take their game to the next level.

Cleveland Cavaliers-Pretender. Nothing shocking here. Kyrie Irving is a good player, and it’s a start. But they’re still a few years away.

Detroit Pistons-Pretender. Oy. As a finance guy, and just as a basketball fan alone, all these bad contracts give me headaches. Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva…

Indiana Pacers-Pretender. For now. But the Pacers have something going for them here. A core of Collison, George, Granger, West, and Hibbert is better than most. A young squad, and one that will take a little while to take it to the next level.

Milwaukee Bucks-Pretender. And this hurts, because I kind of fell in love with this team after they acquired Stephen Jackson. I thought he might be the kind of veteran who could bring leadership and toughness and form a nice nucleus with Bogut and Jennings. I think I was wrong on that one.

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks-Pretender. Yup, these are the same old Hawks. One of the better teams around, I guess, but nothing special. They’ll be in the playoffs, but I’d be surprised to see them make much noise. Now is a good time for me to say this. How awful is Joe Johnson’s contract? Hey owners, if you don’t want to be in financial trouble, don’t give guys like Joe Johnson $119 million!

Charlotte Bobcats-Pretender. Unless MJ comes out of retirement and suits up. Actually, they’re still pretenders. Not a good team.

Miami Heat-Contenders. And probably the favorite. It will all come down to what they can do on the big stage in crunch time.

Orlando Magic-Contender. Kind of. Not a great team by any stretch, but when you have a center that’s as good as Dwight Howard, you have a fighting chance. I mean, they did get to the finals with Dwight and a bunch of shooters a few years ago. Kind of what they have now. Here’s a question; if the Heat end up having to beat the Magic in the playoffs, can they stop D12? With who?

Washington Wizards-Pretender. I won’t insult your intelligence by going any further.

Southwest Division

Dallas Mavericks-Contender. Not expecting a repeat, but they’re certainly in the conversation. They did lose their two toughest players in Chandler and Stevenson, and this is a bit of a new roster with West, Carter, and Odom. Like the Celtics, they’re not getting younger, but they’re still a threat.

Houston Rockets-Pretender. Wonder what they would look like with Pau Gasol, though. Thanks, David Stern!

Memphis Grizzlies-Pretender. I think they overachieved last year, and the bandwagon was quite popular. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a nice team, and they’ll probably be in the playoffs. But can they beat the elite teams in the West? I don’t think so. Have I mentioned that Rudy Gay got a max contract somehow? I know it was a few years ago, but I feel the need to bring it up regardless.

New Orleans Hornets-Pretender. Not even CP3 could make them title contenders. And with him out of town, the Clippers won’t be looking to win a title for a few years.

San Antonio Spurs-Contender. I’ve been saying they have one year last for the past three seasons. But, similar to the Celtics, you can’t count out a team with this veteran talent. The Spurs can play with anyone in the league, but do they have enough juice to grind it out in the playoffs? Maybe Tim Duncan has one final run left in him.

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets-Pretender. Trading Melo was a complete sideshow last season, but they actually did get a nice haul for their superstar. Too bad they lost Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, and JR Smith to China, because this was one of the deepst teams around. They need a star; is Ty Lawson their guy? Gallinari? I don’t think they have the go to guy on their roster.

Minnesota Timberwolves-Pretender. For this year. If they can keep their core together for another few years, they can be a scary team, though. Love, Beasley, and the exciting Rubio finally have the Minnesota fans on the edge of their seats again. And this has been a team that hasn’t been relevant since KG left. The big question is; can they keep Kevin Love long-term?

Portland Trailblazers-Contender. And currently one of the favorites in the west. This team has a ton of options, including Aldridge, Wallace, Matthews, Felton, Crawford, and the list goes on. A very deep team who can give opponents a lot of trouble. Gerald Wallace might be their stopper to get by the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. And Jamal Crawford loves to have the ball in the fourth quarter; is he the closer that they’ve been looking for?

Oklahoma City Thunder-Contender. Durant and Westbrook make up one of the best combinations in the NBA, and James Harden is a very good third option. But after that, this team runs thin when it comes to scoring. They lack someone who can score from the post, as Perkins and Ibaka are primarily defenders and rebounders. And don’t overlook the loss of Eric Maynor-this is a player that is highly respected around the league and was a valuable backup to Westbrook. The time is now for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz-Pretender. Favors and Kanter are good bulding blocks, but this team has a logjam in the frontcourt. I would be shocked if this team made any noise this year.

Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors-Pretender. But they can be a playoff team if Curry can get and stay healthy. Curry and Ellis are a fantastic frontcourt duo, and David Lee is an underrated forward and an excellent third option. They need to play deefense to have a chance, though. Mark Jackson might just be the guy to make that happen.

Los Angeles Clippers-Contender. I guess. I’m not totally in love with this team the way most people are. I understand that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are a very flashy combination as well as a very talented one. Throw DeAndre Jordan in there and this is a freakishly athletic team. But does anyone else think that this offense can become painful in the halfcourt? Obviously, they’ll be great on the break. They’re a work in progress for sure, and it’s a long season, but we’ll see.

Los Angeles Lakers-Contenders. Trading Lamar Odom was stupid, and they didn’t do much to improve their roster. Not to mention they lost one of the best coaches ever, in any sport, in Phil Jackson. But Andrew Bynum is playing up to his potential, and he has been dominant. Paired with Pau Gasol, the Lakers have two elite 7 footers, which is a huge advantage. Kobe seems to be on a mission this year to prove everyone wrong about his age and his injury. Don’t count this team out just yet. Kobe and two very good 7 footers still sounds like a good team to me.

Phoenix Suns-Pretenders. They’re the kind of team who can compete on a nightly basis, but not one that is really feared by anyone. I’d be very surprised if they made the playoffs behind the forever young Steve Nash.

Sacramento Kings-Pretenders. But if they can get themselves together out west, they could have a very good team in a few years. Cousins and Evans have a ton of potential, and they have some other nice pieces in place. This is a big hypothetical, though, because Cousins already seems to be a handful off the court.

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