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2012 NBA Playoff Preview: Who are the contenders and pretenders?

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The NBA just completed one of the strangest, most confounding seasons in its history    

It began with the Los Angles Lakers acquiring Chris Paul, the best point guard in the league—and then they didn’t, because Commissioner David Stern said so.  

The New York Knicks’ most popular player—point guard Jeremy Lin—ended the season the same way he started it—on the bench.  

The San Antonio Spurs, recognizing the challenge of playing 66 games in 124 days, simply gave players nights off.  Prior to this year, I don’t ever remember a player missing a game because he needed rest.  

The Philadelphia 76ers ran off to a 20-9 record only to lose 22 of their last 37 finishing eighth  in the Eastern Conference. That’s nice, but we still don’t know if Evan Turner has a future here and there is obvious discord in the front office.    

So what else did we learn from this season?  

LeBron James is likely the league’s MVP (again) but questions about his game linger.  

After 16 seasons and five titles, Kobe Bryant still hasn’t figured out how to peacefully coexist with talented 7-footers.  

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have a chance to meet in the finals to battle for the title of Most Dysfunctional NBA Champion.  

The Celtics just won’t go away, but thankfully, the circus that is Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic did.  Yes, I know they made the playoffs, but their season is over- the rest is semantics.

Ricky Rubio can play and his knee injury devastated the Minnesota Timberwolves, but Kyrie Irving is LeBron James is likely the league’s MVP (again) but questions about his game linger.  Photo: sportssense.net even better and is a cinch to win Rookie of the Year.  Tread lightly Cavaliers fans.  The new collective bargaining agreement failed to address the fact that cities like Cleveland are not as attractive to young, rich men as Miami, Los Angeles, New York or even Dallas.   

The Los Angeles Clippers became relevant and made the playoffs for the fifth time since the franchise moved to California in 1978.  But their time in this year’s tournament won’t last long.  

Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings  went on a serious contract push while Deron Williams looks set to leave the New Jersey, er, Brooklyn Nets for the Dallas Mavericks.  GM Billy King must be one of the nicest guys in the game.  Either that, or he has unflattering pictures of Stern.  How else do you explain his career as an NBA executive?

Quietly, Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap became a better player than Carlos Boozer.  Think about it.  Both are undersized and limited offensively, but one makes up for it with attitude and effort while the other disappears until payday.  

Lamar Odom, so hurt by his inclusion in the nixed Paul trade, simply quit playing (figuratively) after the Dallas Mavericks acquired him from the Lakers for the equivalent of NBA paperwork.

Speaking of quitting, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mind-boggling ineptitude of the Charlotte Bobcats.  In a year when teams played with little to no energy many nights, you’d think they could have reached double figures in wins.  I can only imagine what Michael Jordan is feeling now that he’s been a part of the ultimate NBA success and the ultimate failure.  At least forward Tyrus Thomas finally showed a willingness to fight somebody for position.  

Fortunately, the playoffs have arrived and despite the abbreviated season, a champion will be crowned.  You want to know who?  Read on.  

The contenders:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Chicago Bulls (50-16) 1st in the Central Division, 1st in the conference, 1st overall

Why they will win it:  Tom Thibodeau knows what he’s doing and the team seems to possess good mental health by NBA standards. They defend like honey badgers and know what they want to do offensively.  

Why they won’t:  Derrick Rose isn’t healthy enough and Boozer isn’t good enough to do what they want to do offensively.  Now if they only had Millsap…oh, never mind!

Miami Heat (46-20) 1st in the Southeast Division, 2nd in the conference

Why they will win it:  When they give maximum defensive effort their athleticism overwhelms opponents and masks the fact their half court offense is a mess.  
 
Why they won’t:  Eventually a team must get good shots everyone on the floor is comfortable with.  That rarely happens for the Heat in tight games.  Blame head coach Erik Spoelstra for his offensive design or team President Pat Riley for bringing this band of misfits together.  Either way, the Heat have taken a step backward.  

Indiana Pacers (42-24) 2nd in the Central Division, 3rd in the conference

Why they will win it:  They’re big so they can score inside and they also shoot well finishing sixth in the league in three-point shooting percentage. They don’t fear the Bulls or the Heat.   

Why they won’t:  Darren Collison is their staring point guard.  His skills and basketball acumen are perfect—for a backup.  Danny Granger shoots too many three-pointers.

Boston Celtics (39-27) 1st in the Atlantic Division, 4th in the conference

Why they will win it:  Coming into the season the C’s had two glaring weaknesses: size and youth.  With the development of guard Avery Bradley and center Greg Stiemsma, the Celtics look like a team built to make a run.

Why they won’t:  They still need major contributions from Rajon Rondo and at least two of the Big Three every night to win in the playoffs.  They’re not going to get it.  

With all due respect to the 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, and New York Knicks, I can’t see any of those teams winning as many as eight playoff games let alone 16, but the Knicks have a good chance to shock the Heat in round one.  

WESTERN CONFERENCE  

San Antonio Spurs (50-16) 1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the conference.  

Why they will win it:  All things considered, Tim Duncan is the greatest leader of his era.  His self-awareness is the biggest reason the Spurs are in position to win a fifth  NBA title.  Tony Parker is playing like a league MVP and Manu Ginobili is healthy.  

Why they won’t win it:  They’re old.  Last season they were unceremoniously bounced in the first round.  Many point to Ginobli’s elbow injury as the reason but that’s a shortsighted view.  In actuality, the Memphis Grizzlies were better and younger.

Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19) 1st in the Northwest Division, 2nd in the conference.  

Why they will win it:  They’re capable of running slower, older teams out of the gym.  Kevin Durant won’t win the MVP but he should and Russell Westbrook is often indefensible with the basketball in his hands.  

Why they won’t win it:  Their basketball IQ is low and they struggle to get good shots in tight, half-court games. The last time I checked that’s what the NBA playoffs are all about.  Kobe Bryant photo: basketballgreats.net

Los Angeles Lakers (41-25) 1st in the Pacific Division, 3rd in the conference.

Why they will win it: They possess two of the most skilled seven footers in the world and Bryant is still capable of winning one game in a series with little help.  

Why they won’t:  Their bench is inconsistent, Meta World Peace still acts like Ron Artest and Bryant believes he can win an entire series with little help.  

Memphis Grizzlies (41-25) 2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the conference.

Why the will win it: They are the deepest, most versatile team in the league.  They have scoring big men along with perimeter speed and athleticism. They play to their strength which also happens to be the right way to play.  

Why they won’t:  They may not see themselves as legitimate NBA contenders yet.  That could lead to tightness and poor decision-making late in games.  

If you’re looking for upsets this is the conference to pay attention to.  The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks can escape the first round.  But there isn’t enough talent on either roster to warrant serious championship discussion.  

My pick: Memphis Grizzlies

 

Earl Myers is a freelance writer from the Philadelphia area.  He closely follows North America's four major sports leagues but just about any sporting event gets his attention.  His goal is to provoke a little thought in his readers.

Contact Earl at emyersiii@gmail.com

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