The general consensus is that we will see the Miami HEAT versus the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals again this postseason. The San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t be overlooked and could easily end up being the top seed in the Western Conference yet again so it is almost impossible to not consider them a contender, but there are teams that could be just one addition away from threatening the status quo. The following are the top five teams that are on the cusp of contending.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have a deep and formidable lineup led by All-Star point guard Chris Paul and All-Star power forward Blake Griffin. Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups provide experience, toughness and scoring and DeAndre Jordan is as athletic a center as one could hope for. The reserves are led by Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford. Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe provide solid backups. This very effective and experienced lineup features just one glaring weakness. They do not have a low post presence that can be effective in a grind-it-out half court playoff series. The Clippers need another big man.
While the Clippers have been tied to the possibility of acquiring Kevin Garnett from Boston and this move would make the Clippers instant contenders, Garnett has a no-trade clause and says he isn’t moving. A solution will likely have to be found elsewhere. One possibility could be the Timberwolves’ Nikola Pekovic. Minnesota is rumored to be concerned about the cost of re-signing the big man this summer and Pekovic would give the Clippers that half court post presence they are missing.
2. New York Knicks
The Knicks, like the Clippers, have two All-Stars in center Tyson Chandler and forward Carmelo Anthony. After six appearances, Amar’e Stoudemire isn’t an All-Star this year and is coming off the bench. They also feature a strong backcourt with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. Steve Novak and J.R. Smith are solid reserves and sophomore guard Iman Shumpert could become an important piece if he gets back to 100 percent. The gaping hole in this lineup is on the wing. The Knicks continue to overuse the 39-year-old Kidd and immediately had Shumpert start at small forward after his return from knee surgery.
There are several options that may be better long-term solutions for New York. The Knicks have been tied to the possibility of acquiring Jared Dudley from the Suns for Shumpert and parts, and although talks appear to have died down, this move would go a long way to solidifying the Knicks’ rotation and eliminating the risk that Shumpert takes until next season to fully recover.
The Knicks’ lineup is brittle in spots and the team cannot afford to waste a chance at making a Finals run. The very big three of Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire give the Knicks an imposing frontcourt that barring further injuries doesn’t need much help. However, this team needs to add the best quality wing player they can get their hands on to contend now.
3. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are close. They were almost good enough to contend last year, when they nearly upset a wounded HEAT team in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. This year, the Pacers are another year older and tougher and even with Danny Granger out until after the All-Star break, the Pacers have been very good.
Forward Paul George is an All-Star for the first time. David West and Roy Hibbert provide a physical frontcourt and George Hill is having a career-year as the starting point guard. Lance Stephenson should be a reserve, but he has been effective as a starter and Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough define tough play off the bench. The Pacers are deep, but missing their team leader has both opened up opportunities for George and Stephenson and created optimism for when Granger returns.
The real question in Indiana is whether Granger is the piece missing from the lineup or is the road to contention via another route. Where Granger is a combo-forward who is best suited to playing small forward, that is the position the team’s freshly minted All-Star thrives at and this team needs a significant upgrade at guard if they are to take the next step. That’s why the Pacers have been linked to several guards who may be on the move, including J.J. Redick of the Magic.
If may be too soon to get maximum value in trade for Granger as he hasn’t shown anyone what he can do post injury, but Granger is the highest value asset the Pacers could deem as surplus at the moment. Acquiring quality starting guard would immediately put the Pacers in the NBA Finals conversation.
4. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have an $83 million payroll, but this team isn’t scaring anyone who believes they have a shot at the Finals. Center Brook Lopez is an All-Star, but Deron Williams and Joe Johnson both missed out after being All-Stars last year. Gerald Wallace has been a solid defensive forward, but big man Reggie Evans only provides defense and this team often plays like they are one or even two men short at the offensive end of the floor. MarShon Brooks and C.J. Watson provide solid backups at the guard spots, Andray Blatche has been a pleasant surprise at center, but former starter Kris Humphries has been a disappointment as backup power forward. If this team is going to contend, something has to be done to upgrade the scoring potential at one of the forward positions.
The Nets have been tied to the possibility of acquiring Josh Smith from the Hawks and that move could only be considered as a home run for this organization. Another possibility is the Raptors’ big man Andrea Bargnani, who could provide a solid third or fourth scoring option and is rumored to be readily available. The Nets have a lot of talent, but something is decidedly missing in Brooklyn and Smith or Bargnani are players that could fill the hole and bring this high-priced roster into the contender conversation.
5. Boston Celtics
When Rajon Rondo was lost for the season, the Celtics’ postseason hopes were supposed to be crushed. Look again and the Celtics are 8-1 without Rondo. This veteran-laden team should be looking for one more big postseason run rather than blowing things up.
Kevin Garnett is an All-Star again and not because of name recognition, he is still that good. Paul Pierce continues to lead the Celtics in scoring and has elevated his level of play since Rondo went down. The trio of Avery Bradley, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee give the Celtics a solid defensive backcourt that can move the ball and create on offense. Jeff Green has been improving all season and is an effective backup forward. Jason Collins can soak up a few minutes defensively at center, but Brandon Bass has been having an off year as the starting power forward and if the Celtics are going to contend, something has to give.
The Celtics have been on the wrong end of all the rumors as the vultures started circling immediately after Rondo was injured. It has been widely assumed or even hoped that Boston’s veterans would be moved to bolster other teams’ Finals aspirations. After the injuries to Rondo, Leandro Barbosa and Jared Sullinger, Boston’s trade assets are rather thin, but with the team’s recent success and less than 30 games to season’s end, the Celtics are looking more like contenders than a lottery team. If the Celtics could flip the injured Rondo to a team out of the playoffs for a power forward or a center of comparable or even slightly lesser talent, Boston could contend for the Finals this season. The Celtics were linked to Dwight Howard, but that rumor was shot down by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. They have also expressed interest in Josh Smith, according to reports. Moving Rondo for a talented big may be Boston’s best move.
The Bulls might be just one player away from contending, but that player is Derrick Rose and there are no moves that the Bulls can make to replace the talent a healthy Rose provides. The best of the rest are either working with lineups constricted by luxury tax concerns like the Grizzlies or are under developmed like the Warriors. No one gives the Nuggets a shot at contention, but head coach George Karl believes once Wilson Chandler gets back to full health his team will take the next step. The Nuggets could be a scary team in the first round this season.