Six hours and 10 minutes to go before the store opens for the 2011 season. 12 teams left to countdown. At this point, we are left with all teams that have a more than theoretical chance to win it all, although certainly a lot has to go right for some of the entries. The flotsam, is passed:
12. Houston Rockets (16th overall in 2010, 19th offense, 17th defense)
Yao is back, albeit in a highly controlled role. Kevin Martin, almost as brittle, gives them the best shooting guard they’ve had since Tracy McGrady was still alive. Last year Rick Adelman used smoke and mirrors to keep them in the playoffs. Luis Scola is a very good complimentary player – they have a very deep lineup. Really, this is a team that could make a huge run, if Yao can hold up and if he can become a serious contributor late in the season. Big ifs, so I will leave them here out of respect for Adelman and the talent Darryl Morey has assembled.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Yao and Kevin Martin give them the dynamic duo – and a healthy dynamic duo at that.
11. Milwaukee Bucks (15th overall in 2010, 23rd offense, 3rd defense)
They won last year with Brandon Jennings youth, Andrew Bogut making a mini-Leap, and the 3rd best defense in the league. In particular, they forced turnovers at a high rate while being the best team in the league at not committing fouls. This elevated them from their good but not awesome first shot defense into elite territory. But their 23rd ranked offense needs to improve. Enter Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette, offensively gifted forwards. Chris Douglas-Roberts gives some wing options to that end.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Brandon Jennings is as good as his first season hinted, Andrew Bogut is healthy, their defense stays strong while Maggette, one of the game’s most efficient scorers, can bring their offense up.
10. Chicago Bulls (18th overall in 2010, 28th offense, 11th defense)
He will not be healthy to start the season, but Carlos Boozer portends to give the Bulls the low post scorer they have yearned for. With him and Joakim Noah, they now have a frontcourt to compete with the East’s best. Derrick Rose is growing, and his work for Team USA portended well. This was a bad offensive team, particularly deficient at just shooting the ball. Carlos Boozer will help this along – even if the Bulls were aiming for a bigger prize.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Their defense is as solid as it was by the end of last year, Derrick Rose makes the leap and Carlos Boozer provides that post presence they need to win playoff games.
9. Dallas Mavericks (12th overall in 2010, 10th offense, 12th defense)
It feels like we could write the same blurb about this team for the last 5 years. Dirk is a GREAT player, and his cast is solid but old. They are coached well largely, though it has not always manifested in the playoffs. It feels like this lineup has a finite amount of time together. All of these sentences applied in 2007, 2008 and apply today. Rodrique Beaubois could be a terrific spark as a combo guard, and Tyson Chandler is a terrific pickup as a defensive big and usable contract. But really where is the upside here?
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Dirk is 2006-2007 Dirk, Caron Butler is 2008 Caron Butler and Jason Kidd in 2003 Jason Kidd. Honestly this seems like a stuck outfit.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (6th overall in 2010, 11th offense, 7th defense)
What??? America’s sweethearts are all the way down here? Let’s be real. They were abnormally healthy a year ago. They play in a brutal division. The question is whether they make the elite leap now or next year. Honestly, this is guessing. Durant is going to be an MVP favorite as he should be, and Russell Westbrook is fringe all-NBA. That is real. They will be better than they were last year, but it might not reflect in the standings. This is a fascinating division.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Durant and the kiddies are all growns up!
7. Portland TrailBlazers (11th overall in 2010, 7th offense, 13th defense)
This is a very interesting team. The Thunder burst into our consciousness last season. The Blazers, with a similar assemblage of talent and growth curve, suffered a comically rash level of injury yet won 50 games. They have the sheer amount of size to give the Lakers trouble – the length the Jazz lacked. However, is the health just a glitch or a real problem? They spent too much money on Wesley Matthews, although he is a fit for what they want to do. This might be the season for them to make The Leap. Andre Miller is a good trade asset, as he and Roy are a poor basketball fit.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Greg Oden gets healthy and develops. Brandon Roy stays healthy. The young talent just grows up.
6. Utah Jazz (5th overall in 2010, 8th offense, 10th defense)
The Jazz cannot beat the Lakers. They were not long enough last year. They aren’t long enough now. They lost Boozer, but fleeced Minnesota for Al Jefferson who is a more than capable replacement. They lost Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, but Gordon Hayward might be better than either by the end of the season. Deron Williams is a great PG and Jerry Sloan is a great coach. This team cannot beat the Lakers but they can beat anybody else.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: The Lakers suffer a fatal incommunicable illness.
5. San Antonio Spurs (4th overall in 2010, 9th offense, 9th defense)
The Spurs are on the downside. But Manu Ginobli had a career year of sorts, and Tony Parker is playing for a contract. Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair give them a real chance to keep Duncan’s minutes even more controlled. The pieces are there for another big run – though it will take some help. After all, they finished 4th last year! The problem though is that their defense has slipped from the elite levels of their title years, and their offense is a little less efficient than it used to be.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Duncan, Ginobli and Parker go in the wayback machine a little bit … and their defense gets back towards the 2007 standard.
4. Miami Heat (13th overall in 2010, 18th offense, 4th defense)
Obviously they will be better – I don’t think we need to go over why. In fact on the wing they will be magical, and Chris Bosh is an elite big, although not a great strength big. They have a lot of bigs – but very little quality outside of Bosh, though Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony are good team sorts. They will have trouble defending elite size, and teams that have that can beat them in a short series. They might win the regular season derby – but teams that can pound them inside could very well beat them.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: They can defend real size.
3. Orlando Magic (1st overall in 2010, 2nd offense, 1st defense)
HERE is real size. The Magic are a great defensive team. Their depth is spectacular with a second five (Duhon, Anderson, Bass, Gortat, Williams) that could win 20 game in the NBA. Their size on the wings can at least present some resistance against the Heat’s wing elegance. If a team cannot handle Dwight Howard with single coverage, that opens up their 3 point attack and they become very very hard to stop. But if Howard is defended 1 on 1, look out. They will be active looking for an impact guy via trade.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: Dwight Howard becomes seriously unguardable.
2. Boston Celtics (9th overall in 2010, 12th offense, 6th defense)
The Celtics can guard Howard 1 on 1. That has driven the Magic crazy matchup-wise. The Celtics rank was low in 2010, but they took care to avoid injury and sacrified playoff positions. But their defense is elite, and with Garnett being healthier, and all the size they signed in the offseason the Celtics have the chance to be much more rugged than they were last year. Rondo made The Leap last year, this team just has to manage minutes and be strong. They might not beat the Heat or Magic, but there is no reason to start with that assumption.
CAN WIN THE TITLE IF: They win one more game.
Los Angeles Lakers (7th overall in 2010, 13th offense, 5th defense)
The Lakers won the title last year, with so much wrong. Andrew Bynum was hurt so much (as usual), Derek Fisher was HORRIBLE at the point and Kobe Bryant was ailing. Like the Celtics, the Lakers bet on health over wins in the second half of the year and it worked. The West has a lot of good teams, but none remotely as good. This breaks my heart to type, I cannot emphasize enough. No team can match up with so many styles, and the length they have up front makes them an elite team. They are a rugged strength team and it is hard to envision a team overpowering them. Witness the Celtics’ moves in the offseason – it was clearly with this in mind.