Although “parity” has become an excessively used word in the world of sports, denoting the growing depth of talent in various professional leagues, the NBA is still a league with a good deal of disparity. The teams at the top of the league are starkly better than the teams at the bottom, and there is no panacea in sight to fix this gap of talent. In fact, this has become a growing issue in the league. Since 2007, when Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce decided to team up and form what has been called the “Big 3,” the NBA has seen a lot of talented players joining forces to create super squads. The Miami Heat is the most notable example of this new paradigm amongst free agents, as Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have enjoyed tremendous success since teaming up. Last offseason, Dwight Howard signed with Houston in hopes of forming a devastating duo with James Harden, and his plan has somewhat worked, but this postseason will ultimately define Houston’s success. In any case, there is a dearth of talent at the bottom of the league and a wealth of talent at the top.
It is unclear whether or not this new trend in the NBA is good or bad for business, but the league’s growing stratification and gap in talent have led to a lot of pointless, insignificant matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference, which looks anaemic this season. Some teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are in races for, well, last place. Which team will finish more embarrassingly and find itself in the best position for the Draft Lottery? Indeed, this kind of question has not recently arisen, but has been a lingering question all season long for the league’s lackluster teams.
Given the league’s growing disparity between the best and worst teams, the opening round of the playoffs looks to be less exciting than in recent years. To be sure, there looks to be some interesting matchups in the opening round, especially in the relatively competitive Western Conference. But, as experts have pointed out, there is a small group of teams which will contend for the respective Conference titles. In the East, it is a two-team race between Miami and Indiana. In the West, it is a three-team race between Los Angeles (Clippers, that is), Oklahoma City, and San Antonio.
But the NBA isn’t immune to the magic of sports, and there is still a chance for teams of lesser praise to challenge the titans in the playoffs. Indeed, certain teams have taken time to gel, other teams have battled injuries, and still other teams feature players who will make it a point of pride to leave it all out on the court in the playoffs. In any case, with excessive attention comes mammoth expectations, and the NBA’s titans are not infallible. The 2014 playoffs could be fecund for upsets.
This list thus looks at five NBA teams that could make noise in the playoffs, teams that have been less praised than the league’s dominant squads. These teams feature potent, if streaky, offenses and experienced players who know too well the vicissitudes of success in the NBA. Let us know if you think we missed a team.
5 Brooklyn Nets
The biggest thing the Brooklyn Nets have going for themselves is experience. Indeed, Brooklyn is loaded with experienced players. In the offseason, the team acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston, two players who have certainly shown their age this season. Nevertheless, Pierce and Garnett have Championship-winning experience under their belts, and the two have suffered bitter defeats at the hands of the Miami Heat. Disappointments only foster a player’s hunger, and as the lights begin to fade on two Hall-of-Fame careers, Pierce and Garnett know that this could be their last shot to win a championship together.
Aside from the two former Celtics, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have valuable playoff experience as well. Johnson has been in the Eastern Conference long enough to develop a trenchant dislike for his opponents. His ability to shoot the ball under pressure will be valuable come playoff time, and he will probably be the team’s go-to scorer down the stretch. Deron Williams, since coming to Brooklyn, has not impressed his supporters, and consequently he has somewhat fallen out of favour in the eyes of many NBA experts and analysts. He can still fill up the stats sheet in a variety of ways, however, so he will prove vital to his team as they try and knock off the heavy favourites in the Eastern Conference—namely, Miami and Indiana.
4 Golden State Warriors
Picking the Golden State Warriors to win the Western Conference is kind of like conjecturing that the prettiest-wrapped gift under the Christmas tree will turn out to be the best. There is no question about Golden State’s ability to put points up in a hurry, but can they sustain their scoring for longer than a fleeting fusillade? Such is the kind of question that Golden State fans will be asking come playoff time. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will be the keys to the Warriors’ success. If those two guards perform exceedingly well, Golden State has a chance. To be sure, with Curry in the game, the Warriors always have a puncher’s shot.
Curry and Thompson may be the most important pieces to Golden State’s puzzle, but the team’s role players are good enough to provide supplementary scoring, if one of those two studs should have a poor game. Andre Igoudala’s experience as a veteran and an Olympian should bolster this youthful team, and he can score the ball if necessary. In the frontcourt, David Lee and Andrew Bogut will be counted on to disrupt the opposing team’s slashers. If these two stay healthy, the team will be much more of a unit, and their rebounding prowess should help them coalesce when the strategy of rampant shooting starts to break down.
3 Chicago Bulls
As Dave Chappelle said: “Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” Indeed, in an era in which players from opposing teams meet to workout in the offseason and develop sturdy friendships as a result, the Chicago Bulls’ contempt for the Miami Heat is quite refreshing. Joakim Noah has developed into one of the league’s fiercest competitors, and he hates Lebron and the Heat, which, come playoff time, will only fuel the rest of his team. The lack of Derrick Rose in the lineup paradoxically adds to the Bulls' contempt for the rest of the league. Tom Thibodeau and company believe they are the Eastern Conference’s best team, and they will fight to their bloody end before conceding that they are not the Conference’s best.
Although the Bulls’ frontcourt, which Joakim Noah leads, will be the team’s most important element in the playoffs, the backcourt players will need to have exceedingly good series, if they are going to vanquish the Pacers or Heat. Players like Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin will need to put their best foot forward and minimize their mistakes. With a strong dose of Jimmy Butler, this backcourt could provide the necessary support for the team’s frontcourt studs. In any case, if the Bulls reach the second round, they will give the Heat or Pacers a run for their money.
2 Memphis Grizzlies
Just a few years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies looked poised to ascend to the top of the NBA. Unfortunately, the team has slowly begun to unravel and is a shell of its former self. That said, this team can still ball. With Marc Gasol—who, thankfully for Memphis fans, is finally healthy—and Zac Randolph, the Grizzlies have the necessary backcourt talent and size to compete with any team in a harrowing seven-game series. Tony Allen and Mike Conley are also important to the Grizzlies' chances, and each will be called upon to matchup with another team’s star scorer. If Teyshaun Prince can get healthy, the Grizzlies will have several scoring options, which can never hurt in the playoffs. But in any case, the team’s defensive prowess is its most valuable element going forward, especially as it seems destined for a tough first round matchup.
The problem for the Grizzlies is twofold. First, as intimated above, they still need to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They currently sit in eighth place, so things are optimistic on that front. Second, if they make the playoffs, they will probably face the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round, a team that swept the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals a season ago. This potential matchup seems less ominous for the Grizzlies than the Spurs, but San Antonio possesses unflinching professionalism, so the Grizzlies will need to play mistake-free basketball, if they face the Spurs.
1 Houston Rockets
It seems rather odd that a team with as much firepower as the Houston Rockets, not to mention the past successes of its players, is considered a kind of wildcard in the NBA playoffs. Perhaps this team is too good for this list, but most analysts and experts have not given the team favourable playoff predictions, as the Clippers have become the fashionable “upset” pick in the Western Conference. That is a shame, because the Rockets have all the tools to succeed in the playoffs. First, Dwight Howard is a formidable inside presence, and his ability to gobble up rebounds will be invaluable. Second, James Harden can ball and he is a legitimate stud in the league. When called upon, Harden can hit big shots, and his singular ability of drawing fouls will come in handy in the playoffs. Third, the team’s role players can light it up from beyond the arc, and that will help, if defenses begin to collapse on Howard or double team Harden.
All season, however, Houston’s Achilles Heel has been its defense. The team’s defense is porous, and that does not augur well for its chances in the playoffs. Yes, Howard can disrupt slashers and clog the paint, but how will this team guard perimeter scorers? Especially since the Western Conference is freighted with talented perimeter scorers, the Rockets' defensive deficiencies will be a huge liability in the playoffs. If the team can patch up its perimeter defense, the Rockets could surprise a lot of people.