The NBA season has just begun, but it hasn’t stopped anybody from trying to nail down title contenders. Even with teams playing less than a half dozen games, you can start to see who is going to be playing relevant basketball come spring. The Western Conference is absolutely wide open. The Eastern Conference still goes through Miami, but the talented trio of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James could be dethroned.
Out West, new teams are rising into the forefront of title contenders. The likes of the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and even the Golden State Warriors are laying their claims to being the best teams in the conference. Many basketball experts have one of the three teams making it to the finals in June, but their style of play says otherwise. The M.O. of each of the teams is offense, something that does not bode well for postseason basketball. These teams want to run the floor, score in transition and shoot three pointers.
With the Warriors, their play lives and dies with the perimeter shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The loss of veteran Jarrett Jack could prove costly. Jack was a versatile player for the Warriors spelling Thompson and Curry as well as being an intricate part when the Warriors wanted to pay small.
Houston plays a similar style of fast-paced basketball. James Harden, Jeremy Lin and the emerging Chandler Parsons provided an exciting brand of basketball last year, but it was their poor defense that knocked them out of the playoffs. Even without Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to outscore the Rockets and advance to the Conference semifinals. With the addition of Dwight Howard, the Rockets now have a low-post weapon, rebounder, nshot blocker and a big man who likes to run the floor. However, if Howard continues to struggle like he did with the Lakers last season, he could prove to do more harm than good.
The Clippers already had one of the most talented rosters in the NBA last year, but they finally have a coach that could be the final piece of the puzzle. The acquisition of Doc Rivers is a massive boost for “Lob City.” Scoring has never been a problem for the Clippers with Chris Paul running the offense with shooters Jamal Crawford and big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With Rivers running the show, the Clippers could potentially be a contender and not just an entertaining team.
It’s hard to count out Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. Veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli have continued to look ageless. Also, the Spurs never fail to get production from their role players. The likes of Kawhi Leonad and Marco Belinelli could be those pivotal role players in the 2013-14 season. San Antonio’s unmatched commitment of team basketball makes them my favorite to return to the finals.
In the East, Miami’s “big three” are facing their biggest challenge since the superstar trio was erect. Aside from the improvement of their competition, the Heat have failed to improve their team. Greg Oden was brought in to be the no risk high, reward big man that could finally give the Heat some height when forced to play big. However, a dunk in a preseason game has been his only contribution to the defending champions. Michael Beasley has also been brought back to Miami, but the 6-foot-10 forward has yet to play a game in 2013.
The Indiana Pacers seemed to show the rest of the league how to give the Heat trouble in the playoffs last year. Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George used their physicality and size to disrupt the Heats’ small lineup. The young Pacers are showing no signs of stopping and are off to an undefeated 3-0 start in 2013.
The Brooklyn Nets also posses the height to disrupt the Heat, and they did by defeating Miami 101-100 last Friday night. Brook Lopez is the best offensive center in the game and Kevin Garnett alters games on each end of the floor. With Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce rounding out the Brooklyn starting five, the Nets probably have the most well rounded lineup in the league. And with former Celtics Garnett, Pierce, and Jason Terry getting another crack at LeBron and the Heat, the Nets pose a serious threat. For now, however, the Nets are still learning to play together which is summed up by their 20-point loss to the Orlando Magic.
The Chicago Bulls have Derrick Rose back. Finally. No team is a better representation of their coach that the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau. Last year, the Bulls scrapped, clawed and battled their way into the playoffs and beat a fully healthy Nets team without their best player and with Joakim Noah on one foot. With so many players having to step into bigger roles last year, the depth of Chicago will be displayed this year and will give the Heat a challenge in the East.
With six months to go in the season, a lot can happen. Injuries and trades can easily reshape the playoff landscape. But until then, I’ll take the Spurs over the Heat in seven games.