The 2013 NBA season has been one of the best in recent memory. Trades, takeovers, injuries, suspensions, full-court shots, half-court shots (from fans), buzzer-beaters, crossovers, ankle-breakers, Honey Nut Cheerios. It has had everything that the fans desire. With All-Star weekend quickly approaching, the playoff picture has become a lot clearer. Although a couple of places are still up for grabs, many teams will know that their place is all but guaranteed. For the teams languishing near the bottom of their conference, the All-Star Weekend signals the beginning of a dog-fight that will determine the success or, in some cases, failure of their franchise’s season. I believe that there are only four teams within a chance of winning the Larry O’ Brien Championship trophy. In no particular order here they are:
1. Miami Heat (33-14)
Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat are many people’s favourites for a repeat of last year’s heroics and reaching their third consecutive NBA Finals. Many teams have one marquee player that they look to in times of desperation, for the Miami Heat this is not the case. They have undoubtedly one of the most talented rosters in NBA history. The Big Three of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been joined by ex-Celtic Ray Allen to compliment a roster that needs no complimenting. They are bursting with talent and, more importantly, experience and just this week completed the signing of another battle-hardened soldier in Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen until the end of the season. Add players like Norris Cole, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers etc. and you have an exceptional roster.
LeBron James continues to break records and it is hard to see beyond the reigning MVP, when it comes to individual honours this year. The six-foot eight-inch forward is averaging 26.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, and 6.9 APG. Exceptional stats for a player that will challenge the likes of MJ and Kobe for the greatest ever. We can’t forget about Dwyane Wade either, averaging 20.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG and 4.7 APG.
Miami are currently 33-14 and sit at the top of the Eastern Conference, a conference that they will surely win outright and advance to the Finals. The only teams that I believe can stop them are the Indiana Pacers and the OKC Thunder, with the latter looking to avenge their defeat in last year’s finals.
2. Indiana Pacers (31-20)
The Indiana Pacers have been the surprise package of the Eastern Conference of late. Sitting in third place, they outrank the likes of the Bulls, Celtics and the reinvigorated Brooklyn Nets. In 2013 All-Star Paul George, they have a rising star that is sure to dominate the NBA for years to come. The 10th pick in 2010, George has been the leading light in a successful Pacer’s season thus far. His averages of 17.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 3.9 APG have led Indiana to 31-20 and has quietened those critics that commented that the Pacers would struggle without Danny Granger. In fact, the injury to Granger has enabled George to flourish in his favoured small forward position. The new slow pace at which they are playing has benefited other players, such as the dominant Roy Hibbert and the experienced David West, with the latter recording his first career triple-double last month. Although the Pacers are averaging less PPG this year (92 as opposed to 97.7), they have one of the meanest defences in the league. They are holding opponents to a league best 42% from the field and allowing just 89.9 PPG. They are currently on a great run of form and have won five of their last six. Having lost to the Heat in the second-round of last year’s playoffs, they will be out for revenge. If Danny Granger’s return can have a positive effect on the team, which I presume it will, then it looks like the Pacers are in for a long Playoff run.
3. San Antonio Spurs (39-12)
The San Antonio Spurs have one of the most experienced rosters in the NBA today. In future Hall-of-Famer and fan-favourite, Tim ‘The Big Fundamental’ Duncan, they have one of the greatest power forwards of all time. With four championship rings, his experience gives the Spurs an edge over young teams such as the OKC Thunder. Tony Parker is one of the best point guards in the game and has the ability to unlock any defense, Miami included. The iceman, Stephen Jackson has the ability to kill off any team with some cold-blooded threes from the bench and in Kawhi Leonard they have one of the hottest prospects in the NBA. Manu Ginobli and Tiago Splitter compliment a starting five that would rival any team. However, their greatest strength lies in their coach, Gregg Popovich. Coach Pop has been the vital cog as head coach in four of San Antonio’s Championship-winning seasons. His vast experience gives San Antonio an advantage over the likes of Erik Spoelstra at Miami. Although there is no doubting that Spoelstra is a great coach, Pop is on a whole other level. Although the Spurs are one of the oldest teams in the league, what they lack in youth is accustomed for in experience. Playoffs are all about experience and the San Antonio Spurs have this in abundance. They will be ready for battle in April.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (38-12)
Explosive. Electric. Efficient. The three E’s accurately describe the speedy offense that the Thunder have tormented teams with this season. A wounded animal is a dangerous animal, and this is the case with Oklahoma City. After the heart-breaking defeat to a LeBron James-inspired Miami Heat in last year’s NBA Finals, the Thunder decided to regroup and are now as dangerous as ever. Many felt that James harden’s move to Houston would greatly impede the effectiveness of the OKC bench. However, this void allowed other players to step up and shoulder the workload, most notably with Serge Ibaka improving his offensive work. The emergence of the NBA’s tallest player, Hasheem Thabeet has also aided the Thunder with his performances off the bench.
In Kevin Durant and Rusell Westbrook, the Thunder have two of the most coveted young players in the game. The Durantula’s ability to score bucket-loads of points day-in day-out gives the Thunder a huge advantage. His skinny frame and ‘go go gadget arms’ reach make him almost impossible to defend. It is interesting to note the different body compositions that ‘KDTrey5’ and LeBron James possess, yet both are unstoppable. Durant currently leads the NBA in scoring, averaging 29.1 PPG and looks likely to hold onto his crown come the end of the season. Russell Westbrook’s development this year into the so-called ‘complete’ point-guard has benefited the Thunder greatly. Similar to what Kobe Bryant has been doing at LA, Westbrook has worked on improving his all-round game, lowering his number of turnovers and averaging 22.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 8.1 APG. The only black mark on Westbrook’s card is his temper however, and outbursts like his recent one against the Memhis Grizzlies can be the difference between winning and losing in the Playoffs.
The Thunder are battle-hardened after last years NBA Finals loss and will no doubt be ready for whatever the playoffs throws at them. If Scott Brooks can keep Westbrook’s emotions in check and the Durantula continues to spin his web, then there is no reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t snare the Larry O’ Brien trophy away from Miami this year.
Notable Mention: The entire world is aware of the difficulties that the LA Lakers (24-27) have faced this year; Princeton offense, sackings, injuries, disharmony in the camp, lack of chemistry, that game in Boston etc. There is no doubting that they have assembled one of the most impressive starting line-ups in NBA history, but things have not gone to plan. Barring that blow-out defeat in Boston and the unfortunate injury to Pau Gasol in Brooklyn, the Lakers look to be putting things right. If they can put a great, and I emphasise the word great, run together and reach the Playoffs, then they will be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, this looks unlikely and perhaps next year would be a more likely time for an assault on the NBA Finals. I hope I’m wrong.
SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Richard Barrett.