warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

NBA Contenders And Pretenders

Jackson Safon |
February 10, 2015 | 3:36 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Jeff Teague is having a breakout season and is leading the Hawks to newfound success. (Mark Runyon/BasketballSchedule.net)
Jeff Teague is having a breakout season and is leading the Hawks to newfound success. (Mark Runyon/BasketballSchedule.net)

Over the past couple seasons, the Western Conference has taken a step forward while the East has taken two steps back. With the emergence of the Hawks, Raptors, and Wizards however, the teams of the East are looking to close the gap.

Because conference realignment is still a future work in progress, the teams in the West have a tougher road to the finals than those of the East. With the All-Star break right around the corner and the teams preparing for the home stretch, it’s time to start thinking about which teams have what it takes to win it all, and which are only regular season superstars. 


Golden State Warriors: The Warriors have the most complete team in the NBA. Not only do they have a dynamic backcourt in Stephen Curry and the much-improved Klay Thompson, but they are also at the top of the league in defensive efficiency. Much of that is due to the emergence of Draymond Green, but having Andrew Bogut to anchor the back line while strong perimeter defenders Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Igoudala come off the bench doesn’t hurt. The Warriors are good, deep, and have serious star power in a league dominated by big names.

Atlanta Hawks: This team is for real. They’ve been the NBA’s best regular season team so far, but absolutely have what it takes to win it all and proved it in their big win over the Warriors last week. Jeff Teague has emerged into one of the league’s better point guards, Kyle Korver attracts so much attention because of his lights-out shooting, DeMarre Carroll is a versatile player and the Paul Millsap-Al Horford duo is arguably the leagues best big-man combo. The Hawks have showed the benefits of not having any big, glaring weaknesses. All of their starters play clean basketball and don’t make mistakes. Getting Thabo Sefolosha back will be big for the stretch run, but this team can certainly play with the best of them no matter what. 

Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizz have been knocking on the door for a few years now, but this might be the year they bust through it. With Zach Randolph ever so slightly slowing down, the offense is running through Marc Gasol a lot more this season and it is paying off. The league’s best all-around center is averaging a career high 18.6 points per game, while being second on the team in assists. Though he lacks the flash of the other Western Conference point guards, Mike Conley is just as good and has shown the ability to make big plays in even bigger moments. The addition of Jeff Green isn’t going quite as smoothly as the Grizzlies would have liked, but he provides athleticism and is the best small forward they have had since Rudy Gay. 

SEE MORE: NBA Mid-Season Grades: Flailing Lakers Are Failing

Chicago Bulls: Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls should never be counted out. While their normally unstoppable defense hasn’t been at the level they expect this year, the addition of Pau Gasol and the return of Derrick Rose have added some offense to the once anemic group they sent out on the floor. The biggest reason this team has a chance to make a run at a championship, however, is that they claim one of the most improved player in the league in Jimmy Butler. Butler is averaging seven more points per game, one more rebound, and almost one more assist than he did last year. Talk about making “the leap”. If the Bulls can stay healthy, they now have the offense they’ve been lacking in previous years.

Portland Trail Blazers: Just a few weeks ago, the Blazers thought they would be without their superstar power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but he instead opted out of thumb surgery and decided to play through the pain. The combination of Damien Lillard and Aldridge is deadly as is, but adding a couple good shooters and defenders in Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum rounds out this team. Their only issue is depth, so as long as they stay out of foul trouble, the Trail Blazers can make some serious noise this season. 

San Antonio Spurs: Never count out the Spurs. NBA fans and pundits have been saying that for years now. But that usually comes with a top-four seed in the West. The Spurs have struggled to stay healthy this year, with both their young guys and veterans. At the end of the day though, if health is a non-issue, the Spurs still have what it takes to make a title run. 

The Cavs are on a hot streak since Kevin Love decided to "fit in" with the team. (Erik Drost/Creative Commons)
The Cavs are on a hot streak since Kevin Love decided to "fit in" with the team. (Erik Drost/Creative Commons)


Houston Rockets: With Dwight Howard sidelined, the Rockets should lose some ground in the Western Conference, but even with him they don’t really have what it takes to win it all. Beyond James Harden and Howard, the Rockets don’t have many options on offense. Patrick Beverley is a gritty defender but isn’t exactly a playmaker on offense, Trevor Ariza is just a spot-up shooter, and Josh Smith actively hurts his team. While they have a lot of good role players and potentially the league’s MVP, the Rockets just don’t have enough to win a championship this season. 

Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both rising stars, but “rising” is the operative word. Jonas Valanciunas is a much-improved player as well, but in a league dominated by superstars, the Raptors just don’t have enough. In the NBA playoffs, the team with the best player most often wins. Considering they won’t have the best player when they go against any playoff team from the West and over half the playoff teams from the East, does not bode well for the Raptors. 

SEE MORE: How To Save All-Star Weekend

Dallas Mavericks: Trading for Rajon Rondo was supposed to push the Mavericks over the top, but they haven’t shown much improvement. Their winning percentage before and after the trade is virtually the same, and now they have significantly less depth. The Mavericks took the future NBA champion Spurs to seven games last season, and this year they added Rondo, Chandler Parsons, and Tyson Chandler. But the Mavs have no plus defenders on the wing. They have no plus defenders at all besides the aging Chandler in the paint. They have an elite offense, but that can only take a team so far, and in the playoffs defense shows. 

Washington Wizards: It’s easy to question the Wizards while they are in the midst of a major losing streak, but they seem to be a year or two away. John Wall has come back to earth after a ridiculous start to the season, and Bradley Beal is not taking the jump Wizards fans had hoped for. While Paul Pierce is still a good player, he is getting old and hasn’t shown any consistency on either side of the ball. If Nene can stay healthy, Pierce gets hot, Beal finds his shot and the bench players show some consistency, the Wizards can be dangerous. But they might be a year or two away from Wall and Beal really taking command of this team and the Eastern Conference as a whole. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: Talk about an up-and-down season. Early in the year, the Cavs were struggling and people were talking about recently-aqcuired Kevin Love bolting after this season. Now that they have won nine of their last ten games, the fans seem to be calming down. It’s difficult to count out LeBron, but the Cavs still have no continuity on defense and Love just can’t seem to get comfortable on offense. Timofey Mozgov has helped the interior defense a bit, but Mozgov can only do so much. Unless the Cavs find a defensive identity real quick, they won’t be winning the championship this year.   

Reach Staff Reporter Jackson Safon here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.