A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Ranking the NBA title favorites before the ides of March

with 3 comments

After a day of elite on elite action on a Sunday with a little more than a month to go in the regular season, seems like a good time to evaluate the title contenders.

First let me give an updated chart of how the elites have done against each other. (My original table from last month was in the Guts & Domination post.)







It’s ordered by the significant margin wins based on the theory that those are the truly telling results. This seems fine to me generally, but reader lpb has pointed out that Chicago’s record is heavily skewed based on what happened early in the season. In the last 3 months, the Bulls are a remarkably 10-0 against the other elites, with half of those being >5 margin wins. Damn impressive. Still not enough for me to pick them to win the title.

The Favorites, from most to least

1. Boston Celtics

Let me leave my worry for last here…The Celtics have been the most impressive team in the league this year. They are the prototype of a team that seems to be swatting away the other big teams as needed, while blowing some games to weak teams because they just know it doesn’t matter.  Last year, they took on all comers come playoff time and probably would have won the title if they had had home court advantage against the Lakers. And their play this season looks even better (and they’ll probably have home court advantage over the Lakers). They’ve been my choice to win the title for most of the season.

I’m concerned about the big man shortage though. Trading Perkins seemed like a dangerous move at best when they made it, and now Shaq’s out indefinitely. I want to wait-and-see on the team right now, and so I’ll keep them in the top spot.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

With a team like the Lakers, the big question is always whether they still have it. I’m never willing to dismiss a champion team that still has all its pieces in place, but neither do I totally ignore the regular season. I don’t believe teams can “turn it on” completely at will, however there’s no doubt that “clicking” does happen, and I do think it’s more likely to happen 1) with teams that have been there before, and 2) when the pressure brings them to focus.

Since the all-star break, the Lakers look great and that demolition of the Spurs was awesome. It’s still hasty for anyone to assume that the Lakers will play like that from here on out (and the next 4 games should prove very informative), but I don’t see how this team isn’t the favorite to get back to the final.

3. San Antonio Spurs

They’ve played the regular season about as good as anyone could ask for. If Tim Duncan were still a superstar-level player, and the Spurs still had their greatest-defense-since-Russell’s-Celtics thing going for them, they would be my pick to win the whole thing even with the blowout loss to the Lakers. This is a different team though even with the big faces being the same, and they have to prove themselves.

4. Chicago Bulls

10-0 against the other elites in the past 3 months. That’s real and impossible to ignore…but I just can’t put them above the 3 veteran teams above. Even as I admit my relative lack of faith in the Spurs, they still have drastically more experience than the Bulls to go along with their superior overall record.

5. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavs provide a good example of how I think about wins and losses and SRS. The Mavs with Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup have a better record than any team in the league. As an MVP candidate, that matters a great deal to me, and while I look at SRS it is secondary.

In terms of predicting what’s going to happen come playoff time, the Mavs reliance on winning the close ones decreases my confidence in them. If the Mavs were winning by the same big margins as the other top teams, it still wouldn’t make me rank them ahead of the Lakers right now, but I could see giving the nod over the Spurs.

6. Orlando Magic

As I remarked before, the Magic remain a team fully capable of beating the best in the world. There is no answer for Dwight Howard. They are a legit threat to win the title, but they’ve yet to show in any way that they have themselves together. This isn’t a team that stumbles because they’re coasting through the regular season, this is a team that stumbles because don’t know themselves well enough to play well consistently. That can absolutely change, and I won’t be shocked if it does, but for now, the Magic are still looking up.

7. Miami Heat

I’m not going to bury the Heat. Even as I’m praising the Bulls for going unbeaten against the elites for so long, let’s not kid ourselves: The Heat didn’t lose to the Bulls on Sunday because they always choke big games. They lost because they went up against a comparably good team, and the ball didn’t bounce their way. Literally, the Bulls got their last two points off of their own missed free throw and a really tough foul call.

The Heat have to prove themselves, this is certainly the case. I don’t buy for one minute that the Heat’s record against the elite doesn’t matter. Even if you want to ignore the record in close games, there’s the matter that the Heat have played so many close games. This is a team that had every expectation of blowing people’s doors off, and the most you can say about the right now is that they’re a touch unlucky. Their offense remains strong, but not stellar despite having so many good options, and while their defense is great, it obviously hasn’t proven so great that a disappointing offense is acceptable. It’s hard to imagine the Heat defense getting significantly better this year, I think the Heat have to find a way to take their offense to the next level, and I think if it were possible to do so with the skill sets the stars currently have, I think we’d have seen it already. I still consider the Heat to be title contenders, but I think we need to take them at face value, and when we do so, other contenders look stronger.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder

Look at that record in the table above. This is not a team that’s proven itself worthy of  being called true title contenders. Their future remains bright, and I like the move to acquire Kendrick Perkins, but the odds that that results in an immediate leap forward seem long to me.

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Nice post man and i think your order is pretty solid. Just going back to Orlando I was actually pretty impressed with the way that the Magic battled against Portland even though Dwight Howard was out. They’ve shown on numerous occasions this year to contend against the big dogs, but inconsistency has just plagued them a lot. The trade I think was something that had to be done for this team because clearly the whole Lewis, Carter situation wasn’t working out. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end I think it was the right hting to do, but if these guys can put it together it could be a fun thing to watch unfold. Also, you think you could check out my blog cuz I’d love to hear what you have to say. http://chrisross91.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/orlando-magic-may-still-have-a-trick-up-their-sleeve/

    Chris Ross

    March 8, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    • Thank you Chris.

      I still think the big trades the Magic did were unwise. If that’s what Howard demanded behind the scenes, maybe they felt they had to do it, but this was a team that had come very close to the championship twice before. You don’t blow up that team making longshot trades like acquiring Arenas when you already have a point guard.

      Matt Johnson

      March 9, 2011 at 11:16 am

  2. I have it as

    1. Boston
    2. LA Lakers
    3. Chicago
    4. San Antonio
    5. Miami
    6. Dallas
    7. Orlando

    I’d probably put New York 8th, I have more trust in Billups, Melo, Amare cause of their experience over Durant and Westbrook. The Billups thing in particular is huge. I would not want to play him in a 1st round series – the guy just has playoff knads. I feel like the Thunder are going out first round like Portland did when they had home court advantage. Young teams getting HCA for the first time have a habit of being rattled in game 1 and losing home court, and then not being able to handle the road atmosphere. So I could easily see Denver going into OKC in the first game and taking it, then OKC never finding their legs in the Denver road games.

    But talking about the Knicks or Thunder is getting into the no way they’re winning the title range, so there’s no point listing them.

    The first 3 have the title caliber offense and defense needed and have clearly separated themselves IMO. I don’t know what to do with SA and Dallas, they’re playing so well but I don’t buy their rosters as title caliber right now but we’ll see.

    As for Miami. I actually think getting the 3rd seed could help their chances. For one, getting a New York or Philadelphia series in the 1st round instead of a Charlotte/Indy gimme would give them a chance to find their sea legs and who they are as a playoff team. Secondly if I’m Mia I’d almost prefer letting the 2nd round series start in Chicago and seeing if they can get 1 of 2. Whereas if Mia had HCA against Chicago, with Mia’s bad crowd I think that’d have Chicago getting 1 of 2 written all over it.

    Dallas and San Antonio are just going to hope they don’t match up with LA until the WCF and the other or OKC takes the Lakers out first. But I think it’s going to be Dallas Lakers 2nd round and San Antonio vs OKC or Denver or something


    March 11, 2011 at 10:39 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: