The first third of the season is in the rearview mirror, and one Big Question looms, Shaq-like, over the league: Is there a team besides the Spurs or the Pistons that can win the title? To hear one astute observer tell it, Detroit will not be denied. "The Pistons are in a league of their own right now," says San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "The rest of us better hope that they can't sustain it, but I don't see why they can't. They've got the best starting five in the league, they're hungry, and they're looking to prove something."
Detroit plays at San Antonio next Friday, the second of the teams' two meetings. Will that serve as a prelude to a Finals rematch? Or can another team build momentum over the winter and topple the titans come spring? Here's an assessment of how the contenders stack up.
Tier 1 Finals Redux
The Pistons have reinvented themselves as a lethal offensive team; their 99.7 points per game through Tuesday was a 6.4-point hike from last season, and Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince had each raised his production while playing fewer minutes. The increased efficiency is a result of new coach Flip Saunders's inventive playbook as well as his decision to divide practice time equally between offense and defense; his predecessor, Larry Brown, leaned heavily toward D. "Now our guys know that scoring is just as important as getting a big stop," says G.M. Joe Dumars. "It's not unlike Tony Dungy going to the Indianapolis Colts: They already had the offense, so he brought a sense of urgency on the defensive end. We were the opposite: We had the sense of urgency on defense, so we needed to open up the offense."
Nobody has benefited more from the change than SI's MVP front-runner, Billups. Through Tuesday the league's deadliest crunch-time player was averaging career highs of 19.6 points and 8.4 assists as well as an NBA-best assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.36. "He's Nash-like: He's distributing the basketball just as well as he's scoring points when they need them," says Popovich. "He's keeping it all together, he plays D and his team exhibits unbelievable confidence in allowing him to run the whole damn thing."
The Spurs, at 23-7, fell just one win short of their best 30-game start in the Tim Duncan era, despite Manu Ginobili's eight-game absence with a right-foot injury and Duncan's battles with plantar fasciitis. Not even an 85-70 drubbing from Detroit on Christmas had the champs down. "That was a great game for us," says Popovich. "It gave me some fuel, something I could use as a reminder. 'Uh, guys, this is the team, and right now they're a little more focused: They're trying to prove something a little more than we are.'"
Tier 1-A The Riley Factor
Talentwise, the Heat belongs in the same stratosphere as the Pistons and the Spurs. Chemistrywise? Not even close. Not yet at least. But count on Pat Riley to find a successful mix. It will take time, and the new Heat coach has plenty of that. With a division title a foregone conclusion, Riley has more than three months to tinker with the league's most fascinating set of player combos.
The early signs have been positive. Since Riley replaced Stan Van Gundy on Dec. 12, the Heat is 8-3, thanks largely to the return of Shaq to the lineup. But the team has also profited from the willingness of Jason Williams, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker-all of whom are playing their best ball of the season-to assume more complementary roles. "I see a very talented team with a great, great coach who is going to use the season to come together and be ready for the playoffs," says Dumars. "Pat Riley understands exactly what it takes."
Tier 2 Ever on the Cusp
The Mavericks have an MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki and a roster thick with playmakers. But it's their newly instilled offensive discipline that makes them an intriguing playoff team. By abandoning its quick-trigger habits, Dallas can better set up its much-improved defense. Their defensive stats may be middle of the pack, but the Mavs are better than ever at protecting the rim and rebounding.
Assuming the Pacers acquire an established player for suspended forward Ron Artest, opponents still believe that come April, Indiana will be the Team That No One Wants to Play in a Seven-Game Series. After initially indicating that it was looking for payroll relief in any Artest deal, Indiana's front office did an about-face last week and started trolling for talent that would enable the franchise to contend this season. Already one of the league's most versatile teams, Indiana's specific needs aren't easy to define. The trick for Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird is to bring in new faces that will improve the team's volatile chemistry. That type of player isn't quite as easy to identify as, say, a scorer or a big body.
Tier 3 One Big Man Away
Through Tuesday the Suns (19-11) were holding foes to 5.5 fewer points than last season and leading the league in scoring (104.1) despite averaging just 17.6 free throw attempts, the lowest rate in league history. That average will certainly shoot up with the return of Amaré Stoudemire, who got to the line 9.9 times per game in 2004-05. If Stoudemire recovers from microfracture knee surgery and rejoins the Suns around the All-Star break, they're poised to make a run. "We can match the speed of last year to go with a better defensive core," says coach Mike D'Antoni. "We're really optimistic about [Stoudemire's progress], but once he starts running and he's on the floor will be the telling point."
The Nets ended '05 with eight straight wins thanks to Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, but New Jersey remains an unbalanced team: athletic on the wings and plodding in the paint. A big man who can block shots and run the floor would help-ex-Net Kenyon Martin would be perfect, but with his contract, that isn't going to happen. They may have to gamble on a cheaper alternative, such as the Rockets' Stromile Swift.
On guard Stephon Marbury, who at week's end was averaging a career-low 6.3 assists for New York, which is off to its worst start since 1986-87:
"I don't buy the talk that Marbury is the impediment that prevents the Knicks from running [Larry] Brown's system. He's trying to do the right thing-distribute the ball, run the offense-but he doesn't have the supporting cast. Marbury has been trying to win at the expense of his individual stats, but until the Knicks upgrade the players around him, he's going to be the scapegoat."
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Billups (1), Rasheed Wallace (36) and Prince are forcing Duncan (inset) & Co. to play catch-up.