The recent flurry of trades in the NBA has invigorated playoff hopes for a number of teams. Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol and Ben Wallace have presumably increased the chances of their respective teams winning an NBA Title. However, I don’t think those additions change things much—if at all. One thing that any basketball fan should know by now is that the best team almost always wins in the NBA Playoffs. That sounds like a “duh!” comment. However, if everyone was aware of that, then the Spurs would be the favorite by a wide margin to win the NBA Championship for the fourth time in 10 years. Likewise, talk of LA, Phoenix, or Dallas coming out of the West would be non-existent which it most certainly is not. Only eight different teams have won the NBA Championship in the last 28 years! The NBA playoffs are full of very few surprises. So, at the risk of making the playoffs sound incredibly boring, here are the ten teams with the best chances of winning an NBA Championship. I’m not even sure any team beyond #5 even has a chance. With respect to Yao, Dwight Howard, A.I., and Chris Bosh, you will not find their teams on this list despite being above .500.
1). San Antonio Spurs
One thing is for certain—and this makes sense from a marketing perspective but not much else—it has become commonplace to ignore the best team in basketball until they’re five minutes from raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Spurs are the best team in the league. They have been the best team in the league for a number of years. The only argument that anyone seems to be able to muster to the contrary at this point is that the Spurs have never been able to win back-to-back Championships. I’m guessing a rocket-scientist didn’t come up with that one. Nonetheless, Manu Ginobili is playing the best basketball of his flop-filled career. He has averaged 36 ppg over his last four games. Tim Duncan is having a fantastic—albeit insanely underrated—season. He is averaging 20 ppg, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks while shooting over 50% from the field. Just to compare, KG is averaging fewer points, rebounds, and blocks per game and he’s on everyone’s short list for MVP. When it comes to the playoffs, nobody is as effective as "The Big Fundamental." He has three NBA Finals MVPs to prove it. The only chance the Spurs have of losing is if they runs into a hot team without having home-court advantage. Even then, my money is on San Antonio.
2). Boston Celtics
The Eastern Conference has to take the second and third spots on the “most likely to win the NBA Championship” list because the East is not going to provide much of a challenge for any team not named Boston or Detroit. I’m willing to accept arguments for Cleveland but the 10th team in the West is over .500. The 6th team in the East isn’t. So, it should be considerably easier to get the Finals via the Eastern Conference. Boston gets the edge over Detroit assuming all three of its superstars can stay healthy. An injury to any of the three puts Detroit in this spot. Detroit can beat Boston. However, Boston will have two huge advantages if these teams meet in the playoffs. First, it will likely have home-court advantage. Second, Boston has three legitimate crunch-time scorers. The Pistons have none. There is a huge difference between scorers and crunch-time scorers who can create shots and—more importantly—fouls at the end of games. Boston will be able to find points at the end of games. Detroit won’t find it so easy. Plus, I actually think Boston has a 50/50 shot of beating San Antonio. Detroit? Not so much.
3). Detroit Pistons
I believe there are a few teams in the Western Conference who are as formidable as Detroit. However, those teams will have the Spurs and six other powerhouses to contend with. The Pistons only have to worry about Boston and Cleveland. There is a very good chance that Cleveland will end up as the fourth seed in the East which would set up a Boston-Cleveland match-up in the second round. That would certainly increase the Pistons chances of reaching the finals. The key for Detroit in the playoffs is the bench. The starting five has always found it difficult to generate points against good teams in the playoffs. The bench has been the catalyst for this team all season. If the bench doesn’t show up in the playoffs, I see no reason why anyone should think this team is good enough to reach the NBA Finals.
4). Phoenix Suns
I hated the Shaq-trade at first. And to be honest, I still kind of do. The Suns traded a 29-year old All-Star in his prime for a 35-year old who hasn’t been healthy enough to play more than 59 games in any of the last three seasons. Plus, that 35-year old makes $20 million per year through 2010. The Suns could’ve netted a crop of young players in the same way Kevin McHale cashed in Kevin Garnett (by the way, I think it's time for a number of apologies to start flowing McHale's direction. He may have made the best "it’s time to move on" trade of the last 20 years. Considering their age difference (nine years), I bet half the league would rather have Al Jefferson over KG straight-up. McHale will likely pick up Michael Beasley, Derek Rose, Eric Gordon, or O.J. Mayo in the draft and be in the running for Executive of the Year within two seasons). Instead, Shaq will be out of the league in three years along with Grant Hill and possibly Steve Nash. Having said all of that—and that certainly is a lot—there is no question in my mind that for the next two years, the Suns have a better chance of winning the NBA Championship because of this trade. Playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball. Every weakness gets magnified. The Spurs might take the bait in the regular season and play some up-temp basketball. However, they most certainly will not in the playoffs. The Spurs have dictated tempo against the Suns in the playoffs and that has been the difference (along with one totally ridiculous David Stern-ruling). That probably won’t happen anymore as the Suns should be just as suited to slow things down as they are to play up-tempo basketball. They are easily the second most dangerous team in the Western Conference.
5). LA Lakers
I realize that LA just beat Phoenix but, considering Shaq was admittedly lost in his first game in a Suns uniform, I will avoid making too big of a deal out of one game. There a number of things that concern me about the Lakers. First, Kobe’s “spaghetti finger” could get re-aggravated at any time. There are no guarantees that he’s even going to be around for the playoffs. Second, I’m skeptical as to whether Andrew Bynum can just pick up right where he left off before his injury. A lot has changed since he left most notably being the addition of Pau Gasol. There is no doubt that a Gasol-Odom-Bynum frontcourt is going to be incredibly formidable nonetheless. This team is the wildcard for the 2008 NBA Playoffs. A first-round exit or a monumental battle against the Spurs in the conference finals could be in sstore. Neither would shock me.
6). Cleveland Cavaliers
I have been reluctant to say that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. He is clearly one of the best. However, his all-around game hasn’t peaked. His jumper varies from dead-on to erratic and his defense is pretty good but not fantastic. IMO, those are the two things keeping LeBron from reaching Kobe’s level. Well, I’m pretty sure that by this time next season, LeBron will be the best player in the league by a mile. He is a combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He is a big, strong, ball-handler like Magic and an incredibly, athletic, shot-maker like MJ. LeBron can do things that both men couldn’t do. Magic wasn’t anywhere near as good as LeBron at driving to the basket. MJ didn’t have anywhere near the size and strength as LeBron. I think there is a pretty good chance that—barring injury—LeBron will become the greatest basketball player of all-time. Obviously, a lot needs to happen first. LeBron’s game clearly needs to progress. However, nobody has ever sported his combination of physical stature, athletic ability, and basketball skills. So, now you know why Cleveland is at #6. This team—even with the addition Ben Wallace—has no business being spoken of in the same breath as the above teams. The addition of Wally World doesn’t do a whole lot for me, either. LeBron single-handedly beat the Pistons in the playoffs last season in a series that was totally not a fluke. He is capable of unbelievable things. He is not capable of beating the Spurs by himself. I believe that was proven last season rather emphatically.
7). Dallas Mavericks
We’re getting into the teams that really have no chance of winning. The addition of Jason Kidd certainly makes the Mavs more intriguing but I’m not sure it increases their chances of winning the championship. Kidd has proven time and time again that he is good enough to advance a team in the playoffs but not good enough to lead a team to a championship. Dirk should rebound with a better post-season after his memorable ’07 disappointment against Golden St. The Mavs don’t have a significant defensive post-presence and don’t have enough scoring from the backcourt. Those two factors will make it virtually impossible for the Mavs to come out of the west.
8). Utah Jazz
The #7 and #8 spots can be flip-flopped depending on which team has home-court advantage. The Jazz are a dangerous team with a number of scoring options. Deron Williams has quickly become the Kevin Johnson of the new millennium. Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Andre Kirilenko form one of the best frontcourts in the NBA. The Jazz made it to the Western Conference Finals last season before being thumped by San Antonio. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this team make it that far again with a similar outcome. On an unrelated note; am I the only one who thinks that as long as Jerry Sloan is coaching in Utah, everything is right in the world?
9). Golden St. Warriors
Those of you who fear that watching the Suns won’t be nearly as fun because Shaq will likely slow things down can rest easy. The Warriors have you covered. This team can score. In fact, nobody scores more. The Warriors average an unbelievable 110 ppg. They are led by the triumvirate of Baron Davis (Davis was one of the biggest All-Star snubs in the history of basketball but his omission speaks loudly for the caliber of point-guard in the NBA right now), Monta Ellis, and Stephen Jackson. The Warriors dominated the Mavs in the playoffs last season despite not having home-court advantage. I don’t think there is a team in the Western Conference who is looking forward to playing the Warriors. Even though there is no guarantee that this team will even make the playoffs, this team is dangerous. Unfortunately, a limited post-presence (offensive and defensive) will be too much to overcome. Playoff basketball always exposes teams like the Warriors. If it’s not the first or second round, it’ll happen in the Conference Finals.
10). New Orleans Hornets
I believe the Hornets are going to find out very soon that the playoffs are much different than the regular season. This team is certainly deep and talented. Chris Paul and David West have never started in the playoffs. There are too many seasoned teams in the Western Conference to think that a first-time group can advance even passed the first round. The Hornets are built for the long run. Chris Paul is going to be a legend by the time his career is over. I just don’t think it starts this year.