The week before the Super Bowl is an important milestone in the NBA season. Other than the Christmas Day showcase, it's the first time the league appears on network TV. With football just about finished, that signifies it's time to start getting serous about hoops. We have reached that point in the 2010-11 campaign with less clarity than expected about the elite teams in either conference.
There was a fear among NBA die-hards, I think, when the Miami Heat signed Chris Bosh and LeBron James to go along with Dwyane Wade that the Super Heat would be too good, that Miami would dominate the league to the extent that it would make things boring. We've seen the Heat reach that level at times--I saw it first-hand last month in Portland--but Miami has been unable to get there on a consistent basis.
There's still reason to believe the Heat is the favorites. Miami owns the league's best point differential despite the fact that its entire rotation has never been intact this year. With Mike Miller working in his way into the mix and the possible return of Udonis Haslem for the postseason, the Heat could be deeper in the playoffs than at any other point. At the same time, Miami is vulnerable to any further injury because of the team's lack of depth. Chris Bosh's recent absence underscored this point.
Also working against the Heat is the likelihood that the Boston Celtics will claim home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. Boston holds a three-game lead with 34 left to play, making the Celtics a solid favorite to earn the East's top seed. The Chicago Bulls are also still in the mix, having tied Miami for second in the conference with a six-game winning streak.
Chicago is one of the interesting wild cards out there. As recently as two weeks ago, Bradford Doolittle and I left the Bulls out of our lists of legitimate championship contenders. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to argue that Chicago doesn't belong in that group. Despite dealing with major injuries to two frontcourt starters, the Bulls rank fifth in the league in schedule-adjusted point differential. Like last year's Boston team, Chicago combines an elite defense (helmed by the same architect, Tom Thibodeau) with an offense that might be able to step up in the playoffs with a healthy Joakim Noah and the in-season improvement of Derrick Rose.
Instead of the Bulls, it is now the Orlando Magic that must answer questions about the legitimacy of its title aspirations. The strong start to the post-trades era for the Magic has quickly faded with a bad loss at home to Detroit and a frustrating defeat earlier this week in Memphis. Orlando's defense has been porous lately, allowing at least 110 points per 100 possessions four times in the last six games. It's taken longer than expected, but the deals do seem to have weakened the Magic's D to the point where Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy's system can't paper things over.
On the plus side, Orlando's schedule-adjusted differential still ranks fourth in the league. Though the standings show the Magic and the Atlanta Hawks tied, Orlando's point differential is nearly three times better than Atlanta's. Assuming the Magic finishes fourth in the East, that has important implications on the battle for seeding above in the standings. Unlike the last two postseasons, when one of the conference's semifinal matchups has essentially been a bye (both Orlando and the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Hawks with ease), this time it's possible that both semifinals will be drawn-out battles.
Right now, the Celtics might be the safest pick among the elite teams. Certainly, Boston has as many injury concerns as anyone. However, the Celtics have already overcome what figured to be the most difficult stretch of their season by weathering the absence of Kendrick Perkins. Boston has developed enough depth in the frontcourt to deal with the intermittent availability of the O'Neals. The Celtics sit a close third in schedule-adjusted point differential and have thrived in matchups against other elite foes, like Sunday's win over the Lakers in L.A.
The Western Conference landscape looks nothing like what I expected. While I anticipated the Lakers would not be able to run away with the conference again, my assumption was that there would be a group of tightly-packed teams. Instead, we have the San Antonio Spurs all but clinching the top seed by the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the other contenders have yet to emerge. At this point, the Spurs and the Lakers seem to be alone as legitimate conference champions.
That could change at the trade deadline. If the Dallas Mavericks are able to add some offensive punch, they could get back to the level at which they played prior to injuries to Caron Butler and Dirk Nowitzki. The Oklahoma City Thunder, whose fourth-place record masks a middling differential, could also become dangerous with a well-timed move. For now, however, those teams look too flawed to make a serious run at the Spurs and the Lakers, who have combined to win the West 11 of the last 12 seasons.
Lakers believers will point out that losses like Friday's at home against the Sacramento Kings are nothing new and reflect Phil Jackson's long-term outlook. That's true, and the Lakers' point differential is still better than last year's even when we account for a home-friendly schedule to date. The problem with this thinking is twofold. The first reason, obviously, is San Antonio's success. The Lakers haven't had to win a series on the road during their three-year reign as Western Conference champions. The other issue is that the Lakers haven't exactly turned up their intensity against the best teams.
Hoopdata.com's Jeff Fogle has tracked the records of what he calls the "Superleague"--the performance of the top six or seven teams in each conference against each other. When he checked in a week ago, the Lakers stood 7-6, far behind San Antonio's 16-6 record. Sunday's loss to Boston was yet another example of the Lakers struggling in showdown games. In and of itself, that's not a huge issue--Miami, for example, has a much worse record against top teams. It's the combination of that and the other factors that suggests there are legitimate concerns in L.A.
The last intriguing question about the contenders is whether the Spurs can keep winning at anything approaching their current 83.3 percent clip. Like the Lakers, San Antonio has spent more time at home thus far, though the nine-game rodeo road trip that began with Tuesday's loss in Portland will even that up in a hurry. An 8-2 record in games decided by five points or fewer also figures to catch up with the Spurs at some point. All of this is to say that San Antonio is more of a run-of-the-mill elite team than one with a chance at 70 wins. The fact that so many teams belong in the first group and none in the latter is precisely what makes the 2010-11 season so fascinating.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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