The real challengers for the NBA title

A quick look at the NBA standings today reveals a clear discrepancy between the top four teams in each conference and the bottom four who, although in the playoff picture, don’t seem likely to make a run for the NBA championship. Is it fair to completely discredit the possibility of a low-seeded underdog winning it all? Maybe it isn’t, but it is logical. The fact remains that no team in the last 10 seasons has won the NBA championship with fewer than 50 wins.

The Bulls, Celtics, Heat, and Magic are at the top of the Eastern Conference. Although the Hawks and Knicks will receive some attention, the Hawks have demonstrated in recent years that they lack the killer instinct necessary to achieve playoff success and the Knicks don’t have the chemistry or the depth to make them a true title contender.

There is a clear divide in the Eastern Conference between the rising and the traditional powers. The two teams from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics and Magic, have the experience—but both have major obstacles to overcome. For the Celtics, many wonder if their age has finally caught up to them and they simply aren’t as talented as they were during their championship season of 2008. The Magic will need to find a way to gel after making a blockbuster midseason trade in which they reacquired Hedo Turkoglu and added Jason Richardson to the starting backcourt.

The Heat certainly have a strong roster on paper, but their inability to stay consistent and beat winning teams seems to suggest it is too much to expect a championship in the first year of The Big Three. The Bulls may be the team in the East with the fewest visible flaws. They are not aging or suffering from an identity crisis, because they added to their young core rather than completely overhauling their roster this off-season or during the year. The only thing holding them back is their lack of experience deep in the playoffs.

In the West, things are more cut-and-dry. The Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks, and Thunder all have a legitimate chance of winning it all with no other major threat challenging them. It seems premature to give the Thunder a great deal of respect, but this is a team that matured quickly after giving the Lakers a scare in last year’s playoffs and could be poised to make the next step this season.

The Spurs have the most momentum heading into the playoffs, but it’s hard not to wonder whether their aging team will collapse by the end of a long playoff run or not. The Lakers have the fewest question marks of any team in the West. With the Lakers, the question is more whether one of the other teams will be able to step up to their level. That leaves the Mavericks, who after years of losing in the playoffs are hoping that their luck changes this year. Given that they lack the star power of the Lakers or the Spurs, they will need to show a toughness that we haven’t seen from them in the past.

While the outcome of the 2011 NBA playoffs is still anyone’s guess, an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of these top teams is likely all you’ll need to know come April.

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