We head into this postseason with five legitimate title contenders -- the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference, and Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers in the West. If any other team reaches the Finals, or even the conference finals, it will be a surprise. So what teams have the best chance of surprising one or more of the elite?
To get our answer, we turned to two NBA scouts -- guys with years of experience scouting teams around the league. While I would have picked Boston and New York as my prime spoiler candidates, our Eastern scout instead went with Indiana and New York. Out West, our scout agreed with my choices of Memphis and the Clippers as the most likely clubs to knock off a contender.
Here are the scouts' opinions:
New York Knicks
East scout: "They've got a really talented roster. Their record is a head scratcher because I think they have as much talent as Chicago, if not more. Carmelo Anthony has been playing great recently, they've got a 3-point specialist in Steve Novak, and J.R. Smith can either win you a game or lose you a game every time out. If Baron Davis or Mike Bibby can get healthy or play halfway to their old abilities, this is a dangerous team.
"And the biggest difference in this team the last few weeks is that Mike Woodson is holding them accountable on defense. Tyson Chandler has been huge on defense all season long. I love that guy. He defends, he dives for loose balls, he hustles, he takes charges, he rebounds and he covers up a lot of mistakes.
"The dynamic between Anthony and Amare Stoudemire is one of the Knicks' biggest problems. I don't think they can play together. Anthony and Stoudemire are very similar in that they've both got sticky fingers. The ball goes to them and they're used to being the focal point; they're used to getting isos. So they spend the next 7-8 seconds sizing up their defender or waiting to see how the defense is playing them.
"That's not conducive to the other's game. It's a your-turn, my-turn thing, so it's hard to get into the flow. When you've got two guys like that who are healthy and very gifted offensively, you may be able to pull it off -- kind of like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But when one's not healthy or what he used to be, like Stoudemire is now, it doesn't work.
"And the problem isn't just on offense. Stoudemire has been at times the worst defender on the whole team, so you lose something when he's out there. And now he's not rebounding as much as he used to.
"But the Knicks' saving grace could be all their talent and offensive firepower. Whether they play Chicago or Miami, they're going to be the underdog, but I would say they match up better with Chicago. If the Bulls don't win the game in the 80-point range, they could have trouble because it'll be tough for them to score in the 90s. And the Knicks can go on spurts and catch fire offensively.
"I'm always the guy who says defense and rebounding wins, but with the injury to Rose, to go in and expect John Lucas and C.J. Watson and even Rip Hamilton to get it done consistently...I just don't see it. It's a lot harder for role players to do it consistently in the playoffs. So I could see the Knicks, because of their ability to go on a run on offense and the fact that they're now playing strong defense under Woodson, giving Chicago some real problems."
East scout: "I really like Indiana. The addition of David West was huge for them. He hasn't been a star who's put up flashy, gaudy numbers, but he's been consistent and professional for them. Roy Hibbert has improved tremendously. He's now a post presence, a guy you can throw the ball to and he'll score if you don't double team him.
"The Pacers are tough, they're gritty and they're long. They're not a sexy pick, but I think they can be a tough out. I give them a shot at upsetting Miami or Chicago because as great as those teams are, they're both flawed.
"Chicago, in particular, has a problem because of the injury to Derrick Rose. The Bulls are one of the best defensive teams I've seen in many years, plus they rebound, but they just can't score. They go through stretches where they'll put up nine points for a whole quarter.
"I'd still pick the Bulls to win the series, but they definitely wouldn't be on cruise control if they faced the Pacers. Frank Vogel's got a great staff, their starting five is good, they're deep, they can run, they can score in the halfcourt and they can defend.
"The one thing they don't have is that one guy you can go to late in games, that star -- unless they change the way they've been doing things and staring going to West late. I think West can be that guy, that guy they feed in the fourth quarter and at the end of games. He's a pick-and-pop guy, he's got post moves, he can stretch you out on the floor and he's got a midrange game. If they milk him, then yes, they could pull an upset. But if they don't go to him and try to go to Danny Granger or Hibbert or Tyler Hansbrough or whoever, I don't like their chances as much.
"Bottom line, I don't think they're as talented as the top two teams, but I wouldn't be completely shocked and surprised if they made some noise and even upset one of them."
Los Angeles Clippers
West scout: "The two teams I like outside of the top three look like they're going to meet in the first round in the 4-5 matchup -- the Clippers and the Grizzlies. That's a seven-game series, and I think I like the Clippers a little bit more because of Chris Paul. He's the best player on the court in that series and he can carry a team. He's the best point guard in the league and just a terrific player.
"Then, the Clippers' frontline is so big that they can match up with Memphis. DeAndre Jordan can really guard the basket, so in the halfcourt, the rest of the team should be able to defend because they've got a shot blocker behind them.
"The Clippers' biggest issue is that they can't shoot free throws and that will hurt them late in games because teams will foul them. Their whole frontline can't shoot free throws -- Blake Griffin, Jordan, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin. That's a really big disadvantage for them because in the playoffs, it becomes a halfcourt, grind-it-out game."
West scout: "I like the Grizzlies' toughness. They are really a tough team, they play hard and they play very good defense. I like the way they approach the game. Lionel Hollins is a very good coach. His team plays like he played as a player -- with a lot of intensity.
"Bringing Zach Randolph off the bench has given them a different look, because it's always a good thing when a guy can come off the bench and get points for you like that. But if they're going to get to the second round, I don't think that's how they should play; I think they should start Randolph in the playoffs.
"There are two reasons why. For one, I don't know how you're going to use him as a utility player for a spark in a seven-game series; the guy has been a starter his whole career. And second, it's always an advantage when you can score in the low post, and that's what Randolph can do as well as anyone in the league. A lot of teams in this league can't really score inside. There's a lot of spacing the floor, drive-and-kick, spread-out-and-shoot-it stuff. But when you've got a guy who can score and get to the free-throw line and who may be the best player in the league on the block, that's a big advantage. And Marc Gasol can play up high and score from the high post so he doesn't get in Randolph's way.
"All of this said, I can't see them upsetting San Antonio this year. I think San Antonio's going to be tough to beat."