The NBA regular season ended yesterday and the playoffs are set to begin this Sunday. All of the matchups had yet to be confirmed before this issue went to print, but that won’t stop us from taking a look at the contenders and pretenders in each conference.
• Cleveland Cavaliers– Though star forward LeBron James has been resting recently, rest assured that he will be on the court come playoff time. James should win his second consecutive MVP award, and he is the most dominating player in the NBA today. However, as shown in previous seasons, as great as James is, he can’t win the NBA Finals by himself. However, the mid-season addition of forward Antawn Jamison bolsters Cleveland even more and makes them the favorites to win the title this year.
• Orlando Magic– The Magic went to the NBA Finals last year, and they have a real shot to return there once again this season. Center Dwight Howard is the best center in the league today, and his dominating defense changes games. Guard Vince Carter will help lead Howard and a balanced scoring attack that also includes forward Rashard Lewis and guard Jameer Nelson. Orlando may not be the favorites to win the 2010 title, but they will be a force in the postseason and could easily claim NBA superiority when all is said and done.
• Atlanta Hawks– Some may be surprised to see Atlanta resting under the “pretender” category, but the Hawks have serious issues that make me question their ability to win a championship. They do have a star in guard Joe Johnson and a very strong cast of players surrounding him (forward Josh Smith, center Al Horford, guard Jamal Crawford). However, Atlanta went just 1-6 against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference (Cleveland and Orlando), and they will likely have to go through both of them just to get to the finals.
• Boston Celtics– As early as Christmas the Celtics were considered an elite team and a title contender. However, since the winter holiday Boston has been incredibly average with a record of 27-26. Forward Kevin Garnett is a shell of himself, forward Paul Pierce has had a down season, and the bench is lacking the depth they had in the past. All of this means the Celtics are far from a contender and a first round exit could be in their future.
• Miami Heat– Miami has one of the five best players in the NBA in Dwayne Wade, but unfortunately for Heat fans their isn’t much in Miami besides Wade. Forward Michael Beasley didn’t improve upon his lackluster rookie season and center Jermaine O’Neal hasn’t been a high-caliber player in nearly four years. It’s possible that Wade could lead the Heat to a first round series win, but after that there is only so far he can carry his sub-par team.
• Milwaukee Bucks– The Bucks transformed into a very strong team after they acquired forward John Salmons in a mid-season trade with the Chicago Bulls. Salmons joined impressive rookie guard Brandon Jennings and emerging center Andrew Bogut to form a formidable trio. But after Bogut’s nasty fall earlier in the month tore ligaments in his elbow and ended his season, Milwaukee’s chances of a playoff run went out the door. Without the Bogut being a force in the middle, the Bucks chances of a playoff run seem slim.
• Charlotte Bobcats– Charlotte was one of the NBA’s enigmas this season, looking great at times and dreadful at others. Forward Gerald Wallace had the best season was a first time All-Star and forward Stephen Jackson was a scoring machine once he came over from Golden State. However, such an inconsistent team cannot be trusted in the playoffs, and the fact that they will likely play the Magic in the first round does not help their chances of advancing in postseason play.
• Chicago Bulls/Toronto Raptors– Whichever team makes it into the playoffs will have to face LeBron James and the juggernaut Cavaliers in the first round. That means that a first round exit is inevitable and that their title dreams are about as likely as my chances of marrying Megan Fox.
• Los Angeles Lakers– Los Angeles has stumbled down the stretch and they are certainly not entering the playoffs playing their best basketball. Having said that, they are the defending champs, they still tout the most talented lineup in the league, and they are still have Kobe Bryant. Forward Pau Gasol has been phenomenal once again this season and forward Ron Artest proved to be a solid addition to the core that was already in place. The big question mark remains center Andrew Bynum’s health, who has been out with an Achilles injury since late March. If Bynum is his old self in the playoffs, the Lakers should make a return trip to the Finals. If not, the Western Conference is up for grabs.
• Utah Jazz– Utah is 21-9 since the All-Star break and they’re surging into the playoffs. Guard Deron Williams finally got the All-Star recognition he deserves and he and forward Carlos Boozer form a noteworthy duo. That pair and a solid bench, a legendary coach, and a great home court advantage make Utah a very scary team in the playoffs and title contenders.
• Dallas Mavericks– Dallas evolved from a solid team in the middle of the season to a championship caliber one when they added forward Caron Butler and center Brendan Haywood from the Washington Wizards. The trade made the Mavericks one of the deepest teams in the league, as that pair was added to star forward Dirk Nowitzki, guard Jason Kidd, forward Shawn Marion, and super-sixth man Jason Terry. The Mavs can play big or small and their talent can compete is as good as anyone’s.
• San Antonio Spurs– It may be a shock to see a seven-seed in the contenders list, but if we’ve learned anything in recent years it’s that you can never count the Spurs out. Guard Manu Ginobli exploded over the past month and a half and his return to an All-Star caliber player makes San Antonio a completely different team. Guard Tony Parker’s return to health is also a big factor, as now each of the Spurs Big-3 are healthy. Forward Tim Duncan had his minutes limited to keep him fresh for the postseason and he might have another great run in those legs.
• Denver Nuggets– The Nuggets could have easily made a Finals run, but like many teams they were bit by some bad luck. With Denver it wasn’t really a key injury to a star player, but the declining healthy of their leader and coach. Head Coach George Karl is dealing with cancer treatments and will miss the first round of the playoffs. Without him this season, the Nuggets have been a completely different team and despite the tremendous talent of forward Carmelo Anthony and guard Chauncey Billups, without their coach the Nuggets will have trouble getting out of the first round.
• Phoenix Suns– If there is one thing that NBA history has shown us, it is that the run-and-gun teams can stack up wins in the regular season but when playoff times roll around they are not the ones who hoist the trophy. Despite two-time MVP Steve Nash and powerful forward Amare Stoudemire, the Suns lack of defense will cost them in the postseason and prevent them from making a run to the NBA Finals.
• Portland Trailblazers– Portland weren’t going to be a championship caliber team, but they had an opportunity to make a run in the playoffs before the injury bug bit them once again. A team riddled with injuries throughout the season got more bad news just a few days ago as they learned that star guard Brandon Roy has a torn meniscus in his right knee. His status is unknown, but without him at 100 percent the Trailblazers won’t be able to make any noise in the postseason.
• Oklahoma City Thunder– The Thunder are an incredibly exciting team filled with young talent. Guard Kevin Durant is one of the top players in the league and guard Russell Westbrook had a breakout campaign this year as well. However, Oklahoma City struggled to win close games and they will have to face the defending champs in the first round, which means that a playoff run is more likely next season.