With the NBA playoffs now less than three weeks away and with all but five playoff spots decided, teams can start resting star players and preparing for deep postseason runs. Following a dominant season that included a 27-game winning streak, the Miami Heat will once again be the favorite by most accounts, with the San Antonio Spurs or Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder having the best shot at ruining the Heat’s title dreams. Since the Western Conference has four teams that might legitimately contend for a title, pundits who deem the West’s top two teams the Heat’s only competition for another ring may prove to be sorely mistaken.
The Los Angeles Clippers had the look of the best team in the West early this season, at one point winning 17 games in a row, and were buoyed by superior depth and the play of superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Although Paul has battled injuries and the team has cooled down after its fast start, the Clippers blend star power with a strong bench headed by Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford and ultra-athletic backup point guard Eric Bledsoe. The condition of Paul’s knee is in question, but if he is able to play close to full capacity come playoff time, the Clippers will be a team no one wants to face.
The Denver Nuggets may be another team capable of doing major damage in the playoffs. Denver recently rode its offensive juggernaut to a 15-game winning streak. Denver has no superstar player, but with eight players on the team averaging over nine points a game, the Nuggets have unmatched depth. Its 33–3 home record is the best in the league and should strike fear in the hearts of potential playoff foes. If Denver is able to improve its play on the road in the playoffs, it could be a tough out. The only question is if Denver can contend for a title without one marquee player to rely on.
The Eastern Conference lacks the depth of the West but still has teams capable of giving the Heat a run for its money in a playoff series. The Indiana Pacers forced the Heat to six games in last year’s postseason and have the top-ranked defense in the league led by budding superstar Paul George and center Roy Hibbert. They’ve also proven capable of hanging with the improved Heat this year, beating them twice by double digits.
The darkest horse of them all is the Chicago Bulls. Just a year removed from back-to-back seasons of having the best record in the NBA, the Bulls have struggled without Derrick Rose. Should Rose return by playoff time and play at a level close to what we’ve come to expect of him, a Bulls team that already ended the Heat’s long winning streak two weeks ago could kill its title dreams as well.