Why your team will (or won't) win title
The start of the playoffs brings a sense of open possibility. Records are wiped clean, and though there are clear favorites and underdogs, each series begins with the pretext that anything could happen. All postseason entrants will enter this weekend with a chance -- however small -- of claiming the Larry O'Brien trophy.
In the spirit of that potential, here's a look -- for the sake of argument -- at each team's case to win the championship, along with reasons why each won't.
1. Miami Heat
Why they will win the title: They're the best team in the NBA.
Why they won't win the title: There are no postseason guarantees -- even for the prohibitive favorites -- and the West promises to supply a worth adversary in the NBA Finals. The Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers and Nuggets aren't to be disregarded, and though I doubt the Heat would make the mistake of underestimating any of those opponents, that possibility is at least conceivable. It should also go without saying that a major injury could complicate Miami's quest to repeat.
2. New York Knicks
Why they will win the title: Carmelo Anthony is a world-beating scorer, capable of overwhelming even superior opponents by getting buckets in bulk. Around him, the Knicks have stationed the biggest chaos engine in the NBA: a cast of three-point-chucking role players, equipped to space the floor and maximize the return on every shot by remaining camped beyond the arc. Their defense isn't at all elite, but is filled with the kind of big, flexible defenders who allow coach Mike Woodson to manage difficult matchups.
Why they won't win the title: As dangerous as the Knicks are from deep (they set an NBA record for three-pointers this season and ranked fifth in percentage), many of their role players lack the dynamism to create against stay-at-home defenders or a hard close-out. As good as Anthony is, smart defenses will load up on the periphery and force him to do it all over a seven-game series -- an exhausting workload that will prove impossible to sustain and exacerbate the All-Star forward's defensive weaknesses.
3. Indiana Pacers
Why they will win the title: Defense. I've heard it wins championships, and the Pacers ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession. There are some outstanding individual defenders in the bunch (Roy Hibbert and Paul George, in particular), but Indiana's success comes in having no defensive weaknesses across its most-used lineups. George Hill, David West and even Lance Stephenson are quality defenders in their own right, and coach Frank Vogel has this team guarding at an astounding level with the belief that it can beat anyone.
Why they won't win the title: With a suffocating defense and 19th-ranked offense, Indiana is built to outlast opponents through attrition. That formula can work in the first two rounds, but it becomes problematic against an elite two-way team such as the Heat or -- in the case of some improbable upset that would push the Pacers to the Finals -- Oklahoma City. In those bouts, great defense alone won't be quite enough, requiring Indiana to squeeze more from an offense that is fairly dependable but hardly explosive.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Why they will win the title: Through a season of growth, a coaching change and nagging injuries to key players, the Nets still managed to put together a top-10 offense. They also have a resurgent Deron Williams at the apparent height of his powers. Between his improved shooting and Brook Lopez's low-post game, the Nets have an inside-outside tandem that will be difficult to hinder or match.
Why they won't win the title: As good as Williams and Lopez have been individually, the lack of texture in the Nets' offense makes them little more than the sum of their parts. Joe Johnson has been decent but underwhelming. Gerald Wallace's career turned to ash the second he set foot in Brooklyn. And a bench of reasonably useful players never seems to fit together in quite the right way.
5. Chicago Bulls
Why they will win the title: The NBA's No. 5 defense gives the Bulls a chance to win virtually any game. Team defense can be a delicate balance, but under coach Tom Thibodeau the Bulls frustrate opponents by having players move and help at the exact moment intended on an incredibly consistent basis.
Why they won't win the title: This is a very different team with a healthy Derrick Rose (or even a healthy Joakim Noah, for that matter), but Chicago will have to make do with more limited playmaking resources.
6. Atlanta Hawks
Why they will win the title: Coach Larry Drew used the regular season as a strategic obstacle course, forcing his core players (Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague) to adapt to a constantly evolving rotation in an effort to find something that works. He may not have discovered that one winning lineup or magic-bullet strategy, but he kept his entire roster ready and challenged the best players to keep pace with those consistent rotation changes. That they were able to do so while maintaining a top-10 defense is a marvelous achievement and suggests that the Hawks may well be a team that can acclimate itself well to the strategic twists and turns of the seven-game playoff format.
Why they won't win the title: They do themselves few favors on the offensive end, where Horford and Teague are good but hardly dominant and Smith is as weird and maddening a talent as ever. Those three still form a decent foundation around which to station a few perimeter sharpshooters, but the Hawks turn the ball over a lot, don't get to the free-throw line much and don't generate many extra possessions through offensive rebounds.
7. Boston Celtics
Why they will win the title: If last year offers up a fair precedent, the postseason apparently cues some inexplicable development of Boston's otherwise miserable offense. From there, the Celtics -- with their tried-and-true defensive philosophy -- become a two-way juggernaut, complete enough to challenge all comers.
Why they won't win the title: I'd like to think there's more to running a successful offense than flipping some fortune-altering playoff switch, so I'm skeptical of Boston's ability to improve again. The fact that Jason Terry and the rest of the supporting cast have been a bit flaky this season certainly doesn't help. Neither does the absence of Rajon Rondo nor the diminishing returns of an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
Why they will win the title: A global pandemic quickly infects the principles of every other playoff team and renders them unable to play, but has trouble spreading to Bucks players in Wisconsin's arrestingly frigid climate.
Why they won't win the title: The difference between Miami and Milwaukee is so large that the Bucks may not even win a game in the first round. The Bucks' collection of interesting players have no means to fit together without significant overlap or worrisome offensive dead weight. Poor shot selection and unreliable perimeter defense make the Bucks vulnerable to big runs from opponents.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Why they will win the title: Because they're a damn good basketball team -- the only one, in fact, to rank in the top four in points scored and points allowed per possession. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have grown their games to make up for the playmaking lost in the James Harden trade, and surrounding them are a smooth mix of defense-first role players and low-usage spot scorers. Having just one elite shot creator is typically enough to construct a contending team, but with two such players and a sound supporting cast, OKC is the West favorite and one of the few teams capable of theoretically testing the Heat.
Why they won't win the title: The basketball universe seems intent on making Durant a runner-up in all manner of achievement. A Finals rematch against Miami would make for good basketball and a great show, but unfortunately would deny OKC its biggest matchup advantages and pit the Thunder against a clearly superior opponent for the first time in the postseason.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Why they will win the title: San Antonio has finally made up enough ground defensively to give its beautiful, balanced offense a break. Tim Duncan is a big reason why, and his renewed mobility (along with Tiago Splitter's progress) has turned what proved to be a relatively flimsy defense a year ago into a top-three unit.
Why they won't win the title: Tony Parker, invaluable to San Antonio's offense, has been banged up. Manu Ginobili has played 12 minutes since March 29, all in the regular-season finale, as he recovers from a hamstring injury. Boris Diaw is out for the postseason. Stephen Jackson is out of a job, and Tracy McGrady now has one. San Antonio has experienced a lot of turmoil over the last few weeks and may not have access to its full faculties on either end of the court as a result.
3. Denver Nuggets
Why they will win the title: The Nuggets' uncompromising fast breaks lure teams into what amounts to a rigged track meet. The hustle is in the allure of the transition game; players around the league are convinced that they can make the most of open-court opportunities, but Denver is so good, so committed and so well-trained in the art of pushing the break that only the most hyper-talented opponents can keep up consistently. Traditional wisdom says teams can't run in the playoffs, but I'd like to see that wisdom halt the kind of quick outlet passes and aggressive drives that make Denver so potent.
Why they won't win the title: Injuries have taken the Nuggets down a peg. Danilo Gallinari will miss the playoffs with a knee injury, while Kenneth Faried's status for the postseason opener is in question because of an ankle injury. (Ty Lawson recently missed eight games with a heel injury, but he returned last week and says he's ready for the playoffs.) Gallinari's shot creation complemented the ridiculous number of points in the paint that Denver registers. Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer and Evan Fournier stand to fill his minutes admirably, but Denver could miss Gallinari at certain times as it tries to win in the playoffs without a traditional star.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Why they will win the title: Chris Paul is known for cranking up his game for the postseason, as all of the passivity he displays over the first 82 melts away amid playmaking salvos and furious drives to the hoop. Blake Griffin may not undergo so dramatic a transformation, but as Paul becomes more focused Griffin's opportunities will only grow, making things even simpler for a bafflingly athletic big man with a wide skill set. Factor in a bench with every necessary archetype (the solo shot creator, the spark plug, the glue guy, the energy big man), and the Clippers make for an elite offensive team with top-to-bottom credentials.
Why they won't win the title: Their defense under often-maligned coach Vinny Del Negro tends to come and go. There's also the undeniable notion that L.A. occasionally becomes too Paul-dependent, a vice that invites opponents to bog down the point guard with traps and double teams as a means of derailing a largely successful offense.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Why they will win the title: The Grizzlies lock down the half-court like a prison, and they will stall out even the most dominant offenses. That's largely possible because of the catch-all defensive work of Marc Gasol, but Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince are strong perimeter defenders, capable of limiting penetration and contesting shots so that Gasol, Zach Randolph and Memphis' other bigs can step up to help more out of prevention than desperation. On top of that, Memphis' offense has evolved to address Rudy Gay's absence and rebound from a midseason slump. Gasol and Conley are creating more than ever, and the resulting ball movement helps give the Grizzlies the ability to manage high-pressure defenses and matchup advantages in ways they weren't able to before.
Why they won't win the title: The Grizzlies may not be able to match the firepower of their West rivals, beginning with a brutal first-round matchup with the Clippers. Memphis will certainly give itself a chance to win with its defense, but offensive inconsistency from Gasol (who's still feeling out the best times to really assert himself), Conley (who sometimes gets caught trying to do too much) and Randolph (who isn't the player he was two seasons ago) could be tough to overcome.
6. Golden State Warriors
Why they will win the title: Andrew Bogut has been playing possum, and is set to return to All-Defensive team form any minute now. Beyond that, Stephen Curry and David Lee provide the backbone of a fun and fluid offense, which uses floor spacing and smart passing to great effect. The Warriors aren't the most efficient offensive team (they rank a respectable 10th in points per possession), but they drop points in flurries and can uncork difference-makers such as Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to vary their lineups.
Why they won't win the title: The Warriors realistically can't rely on Bogut. Without him, the alternative big-man options are either flawed defenders (Landry, Lee) or hurtful offensive players (Andris Biedrins, Festus Ezeli). The Warriors are in a catch-22 where they suffer the consequences no matter who they play in that slot, and the ripple effects of those decisions often make things tougher for the rest of the lineup to hold leads or cut deficits. Such is the fate of a team that is sub-elite on both sides of the ball, no matter how entertaining it might be.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
Why they will win the title: Few teams can match up with the height and length of a Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol front line, and in the process of trying they may well make other defensive concessions that the Lakers can exploit. Even a slog of injuries and disappointments couldn't keep this team from scoring at a top-10 level this season, and though Kobe Bryant's contributions were a huge part of that, there's enough star power and shot creation present -- from a healthier, more mobile Howard, Gasol and a hobbled Steve Nash -- to reroute the offense on the fly. Gasol has proved instrumental to that effort so far, finishing off an underwhelming, injury-shortened regular season by recording two triple-doubles in his final three games.
Why they won't win the title: Even an improving Howard and Gasol don't totally account for the fact that this is a crummy defensive team set to open the playoffs against a Spurs team with a coach and point guard who have made a habit of dissecting inferior defenses. With Nash limited and Bryant sidelined, perimeter shot creation will be a challenge. Just dragging out the first round would be an accomplishment, much less upsetting the Spurs.
8. Houston Rockets
Why they will win the title: Every possession funneled through Harden's hands stands a very good chance of yielding points, and Houston channels an amazing portion of its offense through Harden and the high pick-and-roll.
Why they won't win the title: The Rockets are more proof that it’s almost impossible to build a quality NBA defense from a roster with so many young players. Omer Asik covers up a lot of mistakes by shading and sweating on any opponent who drives into the paint, but the rest of Houston's big men (Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones of late) are flying through rotations by intuition and basic instruction. Sometimes they make it to their spot in time and sometimes they don't, but opponents can be assured that the extra pass almost always causes the Rockets' defense to fold. The Rockets are more proof that it's almost impossible to build a quality NBA defense from a roster with so many young players.