The Teams You Should Care about After the All-Star Break
Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be.
Definitely, the Eastern Conference has kept proving to everyone why they are the junior varsity of the NBA – where any halfway decent team can make a run – and the West seems to be cluttered in talent.
But there aren’t as many legitimate teams as you may think.
Considering the Jason Kidd-to-Dallas deal gets done (I can’t imagine those two teams will let it fall apart because of Devean George) and no other big deals are made before the trade deadline, there are really only two teams in the East and four in the West that have a shot at winning it all.
The Rockets haven’t been able to put it together with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming; the Nuggets have the same problem; the Trailblazers are too young; the Warriors are too small; the Hornets are not deep enough and not playoff tested; and the Jazz have a great one-two punch with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, but they don’t have the personnel of the top four teams (in the East, it’d be a different story).
Over on the right side of the country, the Magic are too young; the Cavaliers don’t have enough around LeBron James and everybody else is just a joke.
OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to the teams that matter.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Why they can win: I said the Lakers needed to make a move if they wanted to make a run in the West, and they did just that – actually, they did much better (excuse me, but I didn’t think they can give up a truckload of garbage for Pau Gasol). Not only do they have one of the best starting fives in basketball, but they’re probably the deepest team in the NBA, they play well together, and they’re coached by one of the all-time greats.
What can stop them: Just like it was last year, injuries are a big question mark down the stretch. Andrew Bynum needs to come back healthy and play at the same level he left at, and on top of that, you now have the issue with Kobe Bryant’s pinkie. It’s on his shooting hand, and it’s going to bother him the rest of the year. After electing not to have surgery (I don’t blame him because this team needs to gel with Gasol) he’s going to have to play through it, and we’ll just have to wait and see.
Why they can win: Even without Shawn Marion, the Suns’ offense is one of the more potent ones in the NBA. Now that they’ve added Shaquille O’Neal, they can elect to go in the post and run a halfcourt set when they don’t have numbers on the other end of the floor. Plus, Amare Stoudemire is more comfortable at the 4.
What can stop them: This team’s success deep into the playoffs begins and ends with Shaq – I can’t stress that enough. I was skeptical about this deal for Phoenix when it went down because I’ve seen Shaq play in Miami this season, and he did not look good. Worst of all, the Suns want him to be a defensive presence, and believe me, that’s his greatest weakness (besides shooting 3s). But Shaq does tend to play better when he’s motivated, and he’s definitely motivated now. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they use him and, as always, if he can stay healthy.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Why they can win: Because they’re the defending champs. As always, the Spurs are creeping through the regular season and waiting to turn it on in the playoffs. They’re flying under the radar, and that’s just the way they like it. What kind of motivation does a team have for the regular season when they’re an old team that knows it doesn’t matter what your record is when you get to May (Dallas)? San Antonio will be in the mix towards the end, and they didn’t need to make a big move to keep up in the West – everyone is trying to keep up with them.
What can stop them: We already know they can’t stop themselves. They are too fundamentally sound, too good on the defensive end and too battle tested to hurt their own chances (I don’t see Manu Ginobili committing another stupid foul to lose a series). A team is going to have to come in and take it from them, and judging by the moves others made, it seems like that can happen. Also, their age is a factor. They rely a lot on Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and now Damon Stoudamire – guys in the twilight of their careers.
Why they can win: A lot of people don’t give the Mavericks enough credit for being a very solid defensive team. Plus, they can run an up-tempo game, and they have the ability to slow it down and run a halfcourt set when needed. As Avery Johnson says, they “switch gears.” Kidd will add a defensive presence at point guard, a guy that can get everybody involved and a chance for Dirk Nowitzki not to always be the go-to guy – a role he’s never really embraced.
What can stop them: I’m always a little iffy of a team that can’t consistently get points in the low post. That’s a very valuable commodity come playoff time, and the Mavericks are the only ones out of these four teams that can’t dump it inside (the Lakers have Bynum, the Suns have O’Neal, and the Spurs have Duncan). Plus, if the Kidd deal goes down the way they planned and Stackhouse doesn’t go back to Dallas, then they lose a lot of depth at the shooting guard/small forward position.
Why they can win: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have been brilliant together. Not only have they found a way for all three of them to get involved, but they’ve gotten some great production from their role players. Rajon Rondo has looked like a fabulous guard, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis came out of nowhere to be a force off the bench, as well as Eddie House and James Posey. On top of that, they’re one of the top defensive teams in the league – something I never saw coming.
What can stop them: I know the Celtics haven’t looked as good recently as they did in the beginning of the year, but that’s just because they’re bored – don’t pay much attention to that. But, come playoff time, the only thing that can stop them is themselves. Doc Rivers (as a coach), Garnett, Allen and Pierce have never been to the Finals before, and it’s hard to turn a team from last to first in one year. I always felt like they needed one more year to get the proper pieces together. Also, they need an experienced point guard to back up Rondo.
Why they can win: Because they’re the Detroit Pistons, that’s why. Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace play incredibly well together, and now – for the first time in a long time – they have a great bench. Young guys like Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, as well as a veteran like Jarvis Hayes make this one of the best benches in the NBA.
What can stop them: I’ll admit, the Pistons – even though they still get far in the playoffs – haven’t looked the same since Ben Wallace left (or maybe it was Larry Brown leaving the year before). That defensive intensity that was there when they won the championship has been absent. Plus, Flip Saunders has never shown he trusts his bench when the games matter most. You have to wonder if he’ll trust young guys like Stuckey and Afflalo instead of Lindsey Hunter and Ronald “Flip” Murray when it’s win or go home.