With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, the thrust of the National Basketball Association’s attention can finally, gloriously, unabashedly turn toward the playoffs. While there are 16 teams that make the post-season every year, there are only a handful that can actually be called contenders — particularly in a year where entry into the bottom half of the playoffs may be because you meant to tank and didn’t (hi, Phoenix!), or simply forgot to lose games — teams that are reasonably expected to make it to the Conference Finals. While it’s fun to arbitrarily root for any given eighth seed to take down the heavy favorite, playoff upsets are rare enough that it’s pretty easy to figure out which team is the real deal.
We’re not going to be talking about the Knicks or the Bobcats, is what I’m trying to say. No. Instead, these are the teams that definitively have a shot at the 2014 Larry O’Brien Trophy, with a couple of dark horse candidates that could make some noise if the light is right and they get all the friendly calls and all the friendly rolls.
Of course, things could change. The NBA could disband over the increased use of sleeved jerseys. Adam Silver could turn into a pumpkin. The Knicks could start being managed competently. Far-out things always happen in the league, so here’s a reminder that this is a look at some teams in February and figuring out where they’ll be in June. Bring some salt. Sell your Carmelo jersey (last one, I swear).
Los Angeles Clippers: Dark Horse No. 1
Chris Paul is, on his worst day, one of the five best point guards in the NBA. And he only dropped that low in the year following a knee injury suffered in 2009, while he was still with the New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans). You could say that CP3 is the best point guard in the league and no one would bat an eye at you — not really.
But he’s never been on a true title contender until last year, when his Los Angeles Clippers blazed through the regular season and picked up 56 wins due to an imposing offense centered around Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan’s imposing athleticism. Through Griffin, they were Lob City, and in the regular season, it didn’t matter that their most in-depth offensive play was “give CP3 the ball” and had no real defensive system whatsoever. After trading in Vinny Del Negro for renown coach Doc Rivers in a “not really a trade but a trade” for a first-round draft pick in 2015, the Clippers hope to make it further in the playoffs than last year, when they were dispatched in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies.
That’s the heart of the debate around Paul: He’s arguably the best point guard in the league, and he’s never made it to the Conference Finals. Of course, that’s complicated, because basketball is a team sport — in recent years, only LeBron James (2006) and Allen Iverson (2001) have been able to singlehandedly drag their teams to serious contention. But still, if Paul’s the best player on a team, it should at least get out of the second round, right? Wrong? Either way, a team that’s one injury to its star point guard away from getting swept in any given series can’t be a real favorite to win in 2014, but with a massive upgrade to the coaching staff and some luck in the health department, the Clippers have a puncher’s chance of finally getting Paul to the Finals.
Portland Trail Blazers: Dark Horse No. 2
Has there been a team that’s been more brutally unlucky than the Portland Trail Blazers over the past 10 years? What should’ve been a competitive team based around center Greg Oden, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and shooting guard Brandon Roy instead evaporated into an exhaustive study on how many stars can fit on the same injured reserve. Roy and Oden, outstanding players when healthy, saw bad knees handicap their careers severely — Roy medically retired from the Blazers in 2011, at the young age of 26, before attempting a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves that lasted exactly five games in 2013; Oden, currently signed as a backup on the Miami Heat, has played in only 92 NBA games since being drafted in 2007.
While Aldridge stayed healthy and has provided consistency in the veritable who’s who of the NBA that is the Trail Blazers’ roster, it was the arrival of ball-dominant scorer (and 2013 Rookie of the Year) Damian Lillard, along with defensive-minded center Robin Lopez, that infused the Blazers with enough energy to come ripping out to a 24-5 start this season. That starting five, filled out by shooting guard Wesley Matthews and small forward Nicholas Batum, has been one of the best in the league, even if they slumped into the All-Star break.
Now in the home stretch of the season and sitting on a record of 36-18, the Blazers own the best offense in the league (first in points averaged with 107.9 per game) and some really unexciting defense (they rank 27th out of 30 — that’s not great). While the team is good enough to bury any opponent in baskets, there are questions about how Rip City will fair when the post-season begins, the games slow down, and the defensive intensity picks up. If “defense wins championships” is even half-fact, the Blazers are going to have a hard time contending.
Houston Rockets: Dark Horse No. 3
The Houston Rockets play a brand of basketball that vacillates between incredibly entertaining and gouge-your-eyes out boring. With total dedication to shooting 3s, shooting layups, or trying to draw fouls, the Rockets play fast (sixth in pace for the NBA this year), and when the shots are falling, they play really fun. Watching a barrage of 3s coming from an undersized, twin point guard lineup is great because it’s antithetical to the way most people think about the game of basketball. When the shots aren’t falling, though, it’s brick after brick after a James Harden trip to the free-throw line after another Harden trip to the free-throw line after a Dwight Howard trip to the free-throw line after brick after brick.
Nothing about that is good. And it’s no disrespect to Harden, whose Eurostep/holding the ball three feet in front of him combination has become the single best way to trigger a ref’s whistle in the entire NBA, but this team is kind of awful. Not in its record — 37-17 and good for the third seed in the ultra-competitive West — but in the way it sucks all the fun out of hoops.
Midrange shots are the worst shots in basketball from an analytical perspective, but they’re some of the best shots from a spectator’s perspective. Most viewers would rather watch guys shoot 20-foot step-back jumpers off the dribble than watch a guy drive to the lane trying to draw a call. Again. And the Rockets don’t even play terrible defense (they’re 12th in the league right now), so they’ve got that going for them, but they’re a jump-shooting team, and as another bit of colloquial hoops wisdom goes, you can’t win a ring with a jump-shooting team.
Indiana Pacers: Contender No. 1
No, there are no Eastern Conference dark horses. Aside from Indiana and the defending champs (who we’ll see later), the East is looking gross. The third-place team, the Toronto Raptors, wouldn’t even be in the playoff picture if it was out West. The Pacers, though, are looking like the real deal.
Sitting on an NBA-best defense and the second-best record in the league, the Indiana Pacers have ridden the emergence of Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert to continual Finals contention. After pushing the Miami Heat to all they could handle in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers decided to reload their bench, a weak point last year, with former starters like Luis Scola and specialists like Chris Copeland.
With All-Star center and imposing defensive presence Hibbert telling anyone who would listen that the Pacers fully intend on stopping a Heat three-peat, George entering into the conversation as one of the emerging superstars in the NBA, and a team that’s run roughshod over all the teams they’re going to face in the playoffs, the Pacers were one of the four best teams in the league last year, and all they did was get better.
San Antonio Spurs: Contender No. 2
Here is a condensed version of every conversation about the San Antonio Spurs in the past 10 years: “They’re too old to be a real contender”; “It looks like San Antonio will finally be put out to pasture by [hot young team X]“; “How much more can San Antonio possibly have in the tank?”; “Can you really believe that anyone doubted Greg Popovitch and the Spurs?”
The Spurs have been circling around Tim Duncan for almost 20 years now, and he’s responded by leading them to so much winning it can’t be easily appreciated. Duncan’s lifetime record with the Spurs is 878-352, a 71 percent winning record in every game he’s been active for. That’s the best in American sports history. Ever. Any sport. Full stop. But as everyone will hasten to tell you, Duncan’s getting up there. And, of course, there was the infamous missed layup in last year’s Game 7. When Duncan missed that layup, which was as wide-open as it could possibly be, it was kind of like waiting for the sun to rise and seeing the moon instead.
But as much as Duncan’s age, Manu Ginobili’s fragility, and Tony Parker’s rap career have threatened to derail the Spurs over the years, it never happens. It will happen, of course. Duncan might retire, but until he does, we’ve got to give the Spurs some respect and figure that they’ll end up in the Western Conference Finals. Again.
Miami Heat, Contender No. 3
If you’re talking about a three-peat, you might be a title contender. What else can you say about the Miami Heat? After one fitful season in which LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade took turns playing hero-ball one after another, Miami head coach Eric Spolestra redesigned the squad’s offense into a small-ball nightmare, keeping James as a power forward, Bosh as a center, Wade as a slasher, and a pair of three-point specialists on the floor at all times. On defense, the Heat adopted a swarming style that aggressively blitzes the ball handler on the pick and roll, the most common offensive play in the game today.
That hasn’t been possible as much this year, and the Heat have fallen into a relative slump because of it — they “only” have the fourth-best record in the league — falling out of the top 10 league defenses all the way to number 11. Call it champions’ fatigue. Even so, the Heat are a whopping 10 games in front of the third seed, so they’re not in any danger of missing the playoffs at all.
And because they’re the defending champions, they need to be included. Even if they’re struggling to deal with the parallel declines of Shane Battier and Wade. Even if the league has adapted to their defense. They’ve still got the best player on the entire planet, and they’ve still got him in his prime.
Oklahoma City Thunder, Contender No. 4
They have Kevin Durant. They have arguably the best player in the NBA younger than 26. If you could design the perfect NBA scorer, he would also get a nickname like “Slim Reaper.” He would also probably profess to dislike the nickname and be alone in that, because “Slim Reaper” is an awesome nickname for Durant.
The Thunder also have Russell Westbrook’s return after missing time with a knee injury. While Westbrook is possibly the most unfairly maligned NBA player currently in the league, no one can argue with the results — Westbrook’s numbers have already put him in company with Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, and he’s even younger than Durant. The Thunder have lost exactly three games with Westbrook this season, and they haven’t lost a step without him, either. Even if Scott Brooks might have trouble diagramming his way out of a paper bag.