NBA Sunday: 7 Title Contenders This Year?
Which Teams Have A Real Shot at the 2012 NBA Title?
For the majority of this season, we’ve looked at the NBA landscape and assumed that three, perhaps four, teams had a legitimate shot at the winning the NBA championship this year: the Miami HEAT, the Chicago Bulls, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and possibly the San Antonio Spurs. Each of these teams have, at times, looked so much better than every other team in the league that it began to feel like a foregone conclusion that someone from that pool would win a ring this summer.
That might not be the case, though. Derrick Rose has a measly seven games to get himself back into the swing of things, and forget how well the team has done without him in the regular season—Chicago can’t win a championship without Rose at full strength and full confidence. The Miami HEAT have gone 6-6 over the course of their last 12 games and have one of the worst benches in the league. Oklahoma City has lost 4 of their 7, all to playoff teams, and San Antonio has even lost 2 of their last 4 after rattling off those 11 straight wins.
In short, all of heavyweights are showing their vulnerabilities right as we close in on the first round of the postseason, which starts in just two weeks. It leads to the question, are there teams outside of those four that have a real shot at winning the NBA championship this year?
There are. In fact, there are more teams legitimately in this thing than many people probably realize. Here’s a look at the most likely longshot 2012 NBA title contenders:
- Boston Celtics – With Chicago and Miami both looking so vulnerable lately, and considering that Boston is playing better basketball than anybody else in the Eastern Conference right now, it’s not entirely insane to think that Boston could represent the East in the Finals this year. The Celtics have won 10 of their last 13, including two huge wins over the HEAT, and Kevin Garnett, motivated purely by the fact that everyone thought he and his knees were dead, has headed into the way-back machine and played some excellent games the last couple of weeks. Assuming they win a first-round series over Atlanta or Orlando, they’d probably face Chicago in round two and Miami or Indiana in the Conference Finals. That’s not an impossible road to the Finals, and few things are more dangerous than a veteran team playing for their last real shot at a ring.
- L.A. Lakers – Andrew Bynum has been perhaps the most consistent center in the league this year, and Kobe Bryant is, well… Kobe Bryant. This is a weird team, for sure, but they’ve got something that OKC does not—playoff experience. It’s hard to bet against Kobe in the postseason, and it’s even harder to imagine him going out the way he and the Lakers did last season in four games to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. They’ve still got a strong personnel despite everything and are sitting as the third seed in the West. By no means are they out of this conversation.
- Memphis Grizzlies – Yes, the Grizzlies are probably are going to be a five seed, but you have to wonder how differently things would’ve turned out had Zach Randolph not missed the majority of the season. Whatever seed they might have ended up with, nobody was going to want to play this team in the playoffs, least of all the Clippers. Memphis has won 7 of their last 9, and they’e one of the most well-rounded teams in the playoffs. Vegas has them at 25/1, and there might not be a better risk/reward bet than that right now.
- L.A. Clippers – As I’ve said all year, I have a hard time seeing the Clippers winning a championship while Vinny Del Negro is coaching, but that much talent and that many postseason veterans have to at least be considered dark horses. The deeper Chris Paul and Blake Griffin go into the playoffs, the happier basketball fans are going to be.
- Dallas Mavericks – Hey, they did it last year, right? Rick Carlisle is a great coach and Dirk Nowitzki is a legend, so even though they’re not the same defensively as they were a year ago, they’re still a dangerous matchup. Their road to the Finals, however, looks like a tough one. As it stands today, they’d have the Lakers in Round 1, the Spurs in Round 2, and the Thunder in Round 3. Even playing their best basketball, that’s a tough row to hoe.
- New York Knicks – Okay, so this one is a really, really outside shot, but if they got past Miami in the first round, the rest of the postseason field would have to look pretty conquerable. The team is playing great defense under Mike Woodson, and Carmelo Anthony is playing with as much confidence as we’ve seen since he was traded to the Knicks over a year ago. It’s not probable they win the title this year, but there is an outside chance that it’s possible. And let’s just all agree that we hope they at least get deep enough into the postseason for Jeremy Lin to play again this season.
While the HEAT, Bulls, Thunder, and Spurs are the favorites to win this thing come June, none of those teams have been convincing as powerhouses down the stretch this regular season. Realistically, there are 6 or 7 teams that have a shot at the 2012 NBA championship, so despite the fact that we’ve spent all year looking at a small pool of favorites, this thing is wide open. And honestly, that’s a big reason this postseason is shaping up to be really, really exciting.
Paul George Settles Into Shooting Guard
There’s a lot to love when it comes to Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George, who a year ago was thrust into the starting two-guard position towards the end of the season and then thrived defensively in the first round of the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls.
A year later and he very well could be the most promising young player on this Pacers team, but at 6’8”, he might be playing slightly out of position at the two when he’s a more natural small forward. However he, his coach, and the executives that drafted him all say that he’s versatile enough to play either position, and that’s what he’s done with success this year for Indiana.
“I feel like I could find an advantage at both positions,” George told HOOPSWORLD, “so whether I’m playing the two or the three, I still feel as comfortable at either position.”
He added that he’s nowhere near the first player in league history to adapt his game for team need.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “Tracy McGrady came in as a shooting guard, but over time, over the course of his career he’s transformed and moved over to the small forward position. Both of the two positions are interchangeable, so if we got a shooting guard later in my career that came in and had me move to the small forward spot, I’d be for it. I’m fine both ways.”
Indiana head coach Frank Vogel has said that’s exactly how he plans to use him.
“I don’t think it does matter,” Vogel said. “If he’s playing alongside another 6’9” guy, he’ll be a great two. But if we ever had a situation where he was in the lineup with a 6’4” shooting guard, he could be a great three. I just think he’s going to be a great wing.”
With Danny Granger still leading the team in scoring, and with the team’s recent assertion that he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, George looks to get the majority of the minutes at shooting guard for now. Not only is he fine with that, he actually enjoys the opportunity to play alongside Granger, a long-time mentor for him.
“I’ve been around Danny even before I was drafted here,” George said. “We have the same agent, so going through the draft process I was able to work out with Danny during summers. From there it was kind of like a brother relationship, where he would coach me on and off the court, and it just grew over time. From that first summer where I worked with him through now, he’s still coaching me. To see the way he scores, his ability to get to the basket and put the ball in the hoop, those are things I can learn from.”
And it’s that ability to learn so much so quickly that has made George such an asset to what is, right now, the third-best team in the league according to the standings. Both Granger and Roy Hibbert have been All-Stars at one point over the course of the last four years, but George might be the guy with the best chance of making that squad perennially.
For now, though, he’s just happy to be starting for a successful NBA team.
“Coach Vogel has done a great job of putting me in the starting unit so I can grow and learn,” he said. “It’s just a unit where I feel like I have the most success.”
Based on his results so far, it’s hard to argue with that.