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 entered this past 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 alone, at each team’s case to win the championship, along with reasons why each won’t.
(Teams listed by seed. Check out Page 2 for our Eastern Conference breakdowns.)
San Antonio Spurs
Why they will win the title: Their baseline execution is the highest of any team in the league, and through it the Spurs are without any obvious weakness. In Game 1 we saw San Antonio at what could well be its playoff worst: Noticeably thrown by Dallas' defensive gambits and unexpectedly unbalanced as a result. A smooth offense took a strange turn for the clumsy, though even that shift couldn't prevent the Spurs' inevitable surge back.
These Spurs do not reel. They do not swoon. They simply work the angles until those workings take hold of a game or series. Their team defense is built as such that there are almost no lethal matchups; in time, most every opponent can be contained through cross-matching and coordination. The Spurs' coursing ball movement -- and underlying ability to read and react appropriately -- also gives their offense an uncommon resilience. The consistency with which the ball ends up in the right place with the right player is remarkable. On balance this team is unmistakably title-worthy. All that remains to be seen is whether San Antonio can push through to championship confirmation.
Why they won't win the title: Even the best aren't invincible. These Spurs might be Western Conference favorites, but over the course of this postseason they'll be tested from the top of their lineup to bottom. Manu Ginobili might again teeter off the rails. San Antonio's shooters could fade against good, hard closeouts, whether by Oklahoma City's hand or otherwise. Tiago Splitter will be put on the spot as a scorer, for better or worse. Even Tony Parker will be challenged, at times, to be his most dominant self -- something he hasn't had much occasion to do this season.
The Spurs don't have it in them to go through the motions en route to a championship. They'll have to overwhelm every opponent in their path by flatly out-executing them, a burden that carries with it the distinct possibility of failure.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Why they will win the title: Oklahoma City has the resources to top any opponent, Spurs and Heat included. Any game against the Thunder becomes an exercise in weathering runs; those opponents that can button down the hatches and counter can keep things close. All others risk a blowout, as it only takes a few minutes' time for OKC to build a victory-sustaining advantage.
The formula behind those runs should be familiar by this point. Kevin Durant is, in effect, a one-man supernova, capable of blistering even the most fundamentally and logistically sound coverage. Russell Westbrook is a bludgeoning device used to effective complement -- a relentless dribble-driver who applies pressure to opposing defenses most every trip down the floor. Stacked behind those two are an elite defense, a solid bench and the multi-talented Serge Ibaka, a total construction that checks all boxes for championship contention.
Why they won't win the title: The offensive lulls -- late-game or otherwise -- are real, and could prove fatal against top-tier competition. For minutes at a time the Thunder soar out into transition and keep the ball moving in the half-court, piling up points along the way about as efficiently as a team can. Then, for minutes after, that same team will foil its own momentum by over-dribbling, under-passing, and short-changing any attempt to run a coordinated offense. Oklahoma City is so explosive otherwise and generally so smothering in coverage that those stunts won't matter against most opponents. Yet at some point this Thunder team is likely to be responsible for its own undoing, if not with a periodic offensive lapse then perhaps with a few too many stretches of overanxious defense.
Los Angeles Clippers
Why they will win the title: The give and take of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. That pairing has hit new heights this season in part because of the control that Paul has been willing to surrender and the creative responsibility that Griffin has been eager to adopt. Together they now balance out the workings of the Clipper offense in a way they never had previously, particularly when the role players around them are on point in their own subset roles.
Why they won't win the title: Their team defense, while quite good on average, might not stand up to the prodding of postseason strategy. There's no one quirk in the Clipper team defense that leaves them vulnerable, rather a collision of different factors; DeAndre Jordan, for all his spectacular blocks, can still be sold snake oil on a good pump fake; L.A.'s wing rotation is pretty light on defense in general, but in particular peril when the Clippers run small; Glen Davis has not given the bench any kind of defensive stability, leaving L.A. with just two quality bigs; Matt Barnes would be no match for Kevin Durant in a potential second-round series; and one worries how the Spurs' ball movement might find the Clippers' pressure points in a possible Western Conference Finals.
Why they will win the title: While the Rockets' playing style might be a touch unconventional, their team construction very much follows a championship model. James Harden is the high-scoring, highly efficient shot creator that every title team needs and Dwight Howard represents the supporting scorer and defensive anchor that's no less necessary. Between them -- and a very solid supporting cast -- the Rockets have the capacity to create all kinds of easy points: Free throws in volume, transition pushes, put-backs on offensive rebounds and open looks from beyond the arc. Keeping pace is a challenge for any team.
Why they won't win the title: Even Howard has his defensive limits. He does his damnedest to clean up every drive or cut that makes it through Houston's perimeter defense, but in many cases it only takes a series of two moves to break down the Rockets: The initial penetration to draw Dwight and the subsequent pass to his man for a wide-open finish. This can be a formidable defensive team in the right moments and matchups, though Houston has a pretty clear vulnerability in its secondary rotations.
Additionally: Harden's tendency to grind possessions to a halt isn't just aesthetically uninteresting but legitimately worrisome. That's bad news for a team that will likely have to carry itself for spells through scoring alone.
Portland Trail Blazers
Why they will win the title: The things that the Blazers do best offensively are very difficult to take away. LaMarcus Aldridge thrives on the tricky mid-range and post-up attempts that most defenses naturally concede. Damian Lillard, for his part, kills defenses with his ability to rise and fire at any moment. Both stars are tough to scheme for given that ability to swell in the gaps of conventional team defense -- a capacity enhanced by Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez rounding out Portland's best lineup within their respective supporting functions.
Why they won't win the title: The Blazers have too few players they can rely on outside of those core five. Mo Williams is the most dependable piece on Portland's bench, and even he is more of a wild card playmaker than stabilizing influence. The performance of Thomas Robinson could charitably be characterized as an adventure. Dorell Wright hasn't shot as well or as consistently as expected. Joel Freeland has had decent stretches but missed significant time with injury and is currently out of Terry Stotts' rotation.
Portland can't get by with its starting five alone, and at some point will suffer losing runs and quarters for all that Williams, Robinson and Wright cannot do. Defense is a primary problem for two of the three, as Williams and Robinson have contributed to slips on that end for a team that's already far from elite on D. Empirically, pushing through to the title generally demands a top-10 defense. Portland hasn't yet met that standard, nor should it be expected to.
Golden State Warriors
Why they will win the title: Golden State has a strong, cohesive team defense, even without Andrew Bogut walling off the paint. For that Mark Jackson deserves credit; he's built a system that works while accounting for lacking defenders like David Lee and Stephen Curry, one that in its playoff debut managed to pull off the improbable of keeping the Clippers under wraps. That won't be consistently feasible, though the underlying ability to challenge opponents and control matchups gives Golden State a chance to then sway games with its shooting.
Curry remains one of the players in the league most impervious to scouting; any scheme or structure leaves itself vulnerable to his quick-trigger shooting and smart management of traps. Around him are the kinds of marksmen and passers that a team needs to maneuver its way through a string of well-prepared playoff opponents, particularly if the Warriors are getting enough stops to smooth over the edges of their sometimes erratic execution. A line needs to be drawn between performance and capability with these Warriors, as they have in many regards failed to live up to their potential. That doesn't remove them from the race entirely, though, especially if they can bide their time until Bogut's return.
Why they won't win the title: Losing a player like Bogut hurts -- not only in the initial defensive loss but in all the trickle-down implications that follow. With Bogut's absence comes more minutes and responsibility for Jermaine O'Neal, who can cause some slight offensive problems due to Jackson's insistence on playing through the post. O'Neal's move up the depth chart opens up more minutes for Marreese Speights, who has been a routinely problematic defender for the Warriors and a far-too-willing shooter. Those moves also leave Jackson with a bit less discretion in terms of when to utilize smaller lineups, which in turn can make the weaknesses of those lineups (rebounding, rim protection, etc.) more pronounced.
None of this much aids the cause of a team that has struggled with scoring consistency all season. Golden State can be awfully good in one game and strangely incompetent the next; why would we have reason to believe that such a team could outlast (what's likely to be) four steadier opponents en route to the title?
Why they will win the title: A series against Memphis is like no other. It's taxing in all the usual ways, though particularly exhausting in that the Grizzlies snuff out action after action through their smothering defense. Even successful plays are a gasp; the Grizz seem to hang around in every driving and passing lane possible, contesting every step taken toward the rim in the process. Then, on the other end of the floor, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bully traditional bigs and overpower smaller opponents, forcing their opponent into compromises as a result. They anchor the pace of the game and wear down their opponents over time -- a spiraling dynamic that's tricky to escape.
At this stage, most opponents are expecting to defend lots of pick-and-roll, contest to the corners, and protect the rim in some form. But they may not be wholly prepared to combat the Grizzlies down low while managing all the physical and strategic challenges posed in such a matchup. There's an edge there -- enough, perhaps, to give upset potential to a Memphis team that's far better than its record shows.
Why they won't win the title: Dave Joerger has gone to great lengths to flesh out Memphis' offense and improve its spacing, but all that renovation won't likely be enough for a championship season. A Grizzlies path to the title -- should they even manage to get past the Thunder -- would likely pit them against one of the Clippers or Warriors followed by the Spurs before even making it out of the West. Those teams can all match up with Memphis pretty fairly in a seven-game series, and that looming conference finals matchup with San Antonio might well be unwinnable. This is a very good Grizzlies team with the misfortune of being in a conference stocked with very good teams. Something has to give, and I suspect that at some point it will be Memphis' ability to keep up with some of the West's more balanced contenders.
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Why they will win the title: Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle give Dallas hope in pretty much any game. This is a strong, multi-faceted offense built around the talents of an all-time great shot creator. From Nowitzki's shooting comes options -- in lineup construction, in general approach and in mid-play contingency. Dirk can play off of the frighteningly quick Monta Ellis, the amazingly accurate Jose Calderon or the defensively balanced Devin Harris. He can be parked in the post or put on the move. And better yet: Dallas tends to balance all of these things (and more) with moderation, as there are few more qualified curators of offense than Carlisle.
Why they won't win the title: Dallas disguised its weakness through gadgetry in Game 1, but this is still ultimately a team that struggles to keep in front of opponents defensively. The over-scrambling that follows can be painful; the Mavs work to try to make up for their mistakes, though on the most basic level lack the personnel to match up with the best teams in the league. It's a bit of a problem when the starting backcourt of Ellis and Calderon is more or less untenable defensively. It's all the more worrisome when neither Brandan Wright nor Samuel Dalembert has proven to be reliable as a help defender this year, to say nothing of what the Mavs give up around the rim when relying on DeJuan Blair. That mix leaves Dallas no room for error whatsoever, which is just an impossible basis from which to make a championship run.
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And now, onto the Eastern Conference...
Why they will win the title: They're among the best foils for Miami and, theoretically, one of the better teams in the league. Knowing what Indiana is capable of makes it difficult to write this team off entirely, especially when any road to the Finals would be pretty breezy compared to what those in the West will face. If nothing else these Pacers should still be able to defend; they still have size, they still have one of the best perimeter defenders in the game in Paul George, and it would seem that they might still have their pride. Maybe that will be enough for Indiana to undergo a mid-playoff reboot.
Why they won't win the title: This team cannot be trusted to score, to take care of the ball, to find the open man, to get along with one another or to beat any opponent beyond the Hawks. This giant isn't sleeping, it's comatose.
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Why they will win the title: LeBron James, etc. Having the best player in the game makes vying for a championship a bit easier, as it turns out.
More broadly: This team on the whole remains an offensive marvel, with James and Dwyane Wade operating from the center of an outfit that uses space to its utmost advantage. They did not win two titles and make three straight trips to the Finals by mistake. A few more fortunate breaks could earn a fourth consecutive Finals appearance and a third title, as the Heat have proven themselves capable of selectively dominating just enough to get past the finest competition.
Why they won't win the title: There's a benefit of the doubt afforded to back-to-back champions, but that alone will mean little if Miami's defense doesn't click. Offense won't always come easy for this Heat team, and it was in those moments that past iterations got by with well-coordinated defensive pressure. That synergy has been absent for much of this season, lost in James' uncharacteristic surrenders and team-wide issues with helping as much (and as quickly) as is necessary.
Those issues could be compounded by the unpredictability of Dwyane Wade's health and the fact that Miami could be short one consistently solid rotation player. Mike Miller bailed out the Heat by playing crucial minutes when Shane Battier fell out of the rotation last postseason; can Erik Spoelstra really expect the same of Rashard Lewis or James Jones?
Why they will win the title: In all, the Raps are among the most balanced teams in the playoff pool -- one of just four (along with the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers) to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Why they won't win the title: Merely solid play on both sides of the ball does not a title contender make. Toronto is an utterly unremarkable team in terms of matchup control; even its best players don't have the potential to break down championship-level defenses, just as its competitive defense wouldn't likely hold down the best offenses in the league. This isn't yet a team equipped to evolve beyond competence, which is just fine considering how far the Raptors have come to even reach this point.
Why they will win the title: Chicago's defense chokes the life out of every play, forcing even the league's best offensive teams to resort to suboptimal outcomes.
Why they won't win the title: Teams in the running for the worst offense in the league do not win the title. Every dimension of offense is so excruciatingly difficult for the Bulls, and there isn't the talent in place to persevere. Great story, good team, not at all a threat to contend.
Why they will win the title: A solid defensive foundation gives Washington a realistic chance to outperform expectations. There's enough youth here -- with John Wall and Bradley Beal as key contributors -- for upward mobility and enough experience to stabilize a playoff run. If the Wizards play up to the potential of their starting lineup while selectively leaning on a few key reserves, they could surprise a few higher-seeded teams.
Why they won't win the title: Projecting any kind of championship run requires a level of trust that the Wizards haven't quite earned. That starts with Randy Wittman, who has done some decent things for Washington over the past two seasons but lacks the next-level strategy that could help this team compensate for its shortcomings. There's reason to be less than confident in the Wizards' general offense, too, which ranked dead-last in the regular season in free-throw rate and tends to settle for mid-range looks with better options available. Fundamentally, though, a title run for Washington would require one of the more unpredictable teams in the league to play predictably excellent basketball for more than a month. Color me pessimistic.
Why they will win the title: This is a tough team when relatively healthy with a very smart team defense. It's also a weird matchup, through and through; opponents aren't necessarily used to having their guards posted up or their defense picked apart from the high post, yet the Nets rely on both of those avenues while leaning impressively little on traditional pick-and-roll play.
Why they won't win the title: The core of this team has aged out of offensive stability, as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are no longer dependable scorers. That leaves a lot of responsibility on Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, neither of which has proven capable of carrying an offense in recent seasons. The Nets will have some great defensive performances and solid scoring ones, though striking both on a frequent enough basis to win four playoff series isn't bloody likely.
Why they will win the title: Such hard-working defense and intelligent offense grants Charlotte the opportunity to compete.
Why they won't win the title: Because spacing and scoring are kind of important, making it a problem that Charlotte lacks in both. Steve Clifford has done his damnedest to prepare his players as best he can. They run smart sets with layers of coordinated action and misdirection, though the fact that the Bobcats have so makes their every action more hollow. Opponents just don't have much call to respect cuts and curls when the players behind them aren't threatening in the slightest, which unfortunately leaves the now-injured Al Jefferson to carry the burden of a playoff offense more or less on his own.
Why they won't win the title: They won't play the Pacers in every round. This initial matchup is great for the Hawks, but make no mistake: Atlanta is a participant without any reason for optimism. The Hawks would be blown out by most other teams in the playoff pool, and should they manage to upset the Pacers an even more challenging matchup would come next. Spreading the floor and letting Teague operate can work to a point, but that point is still likely a first-round loss.
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