The word "contender" will likely be frequently misused during the second half of the NBA season, the same way everybody's always talking about LeBron James: quick buzzwords, little analysis.
But hey, debating who are the contenders and who are the pretenders brings some fun to lull of the long NBA season. Let's take a look at five teams, and what needs to happen for them to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June.
1). Indiana Pacers
The Pacers rank first in defensive efficiency, and General Manager Kevin Pritchard pulled a rabbit out of his hat by acquiring versatile swingman Evan Turner from Philly at the trade deadline. We know that this team will defend under coach Frank Vogel, but maintaining a balanced scoring attack to shoulder the load from Paul George is the key. George will be tasked with playing LeBron at both ends of the floor come playoff time, and he needs to have help offensively. Whether that comes from David West, Roy Hibbert or Lance Stephenson, he cannot do it alone in a prolonged series with the Heat or one of the top teams in the West.
2). Miami Heat
Speaking of the Heat, it seems so routine for this team to win that we become numb to its success. Consider the road trip Miami just pulled off: Wins against the Clippers, Thunder, Suns, Warriors and Mavericks -- all playoff teams. Unlike the Pacers though, there are concerns about Miami's ability (and desire) to consistently defend. Despite its best efforts to incorporate Greg Oden into the mix, the former No. 1 pick has hardly been a rim-protecting presence. The Heat rank 13th in defensive efficiency right now, with little signs of improving. Moreover, Miami allows a 51.6 effective field goal percentage, second worst in the NBA. According to ESPN.com, "since the adoption of the 3-point line in 1979, no team has won a title after a season of ceding an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent or higher."
3). Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook is quickly re-establishing himself as the All-NBA point guard he was before the knee injury. Here's the never-ending question though: Will Kevin Durant -- whose having an MVP season -- continue to defer to Westbrook at crucial moments late in games? And, better yet, should he defer? As lethal as the Thunder offense is, it almost seems like the two superstars rotate taking shooting opportunities, without sharing any rhythm or flow offensively and mostly leading to predictable one-on-one situations. That cannot happen against a team like Indiana, because the Pacers punish you for it. Case in point: Late in a recent loss to the Clippers, Westbrook fired a contested 28-footer instead of finding Kevin Durant, who had already amassed 42 points. In fact, without Westbrook, KD averaged nearly four more shots per game, while shooting at a more efficient rate.
4). San Antonio Spurs
Forget about the Spurs going away after last June's devastating Finals' defeat by the Heat. And as great as Tony Parker is, the key to this team winning a title remains Tim Duncan, and it's because of how much he still works defensively. The Spurs do not have a dominating shot-blocker, so it's Duncan's ability to keep everyone organized that matters the most. He's a genius in doing so, almost never out of position and always in the right place to help. The Spurs surrender under 98 points per game, which ranks them sixth-best in the NBA.
5). Portland Trail Blazers
We could go with the Rockets or the Clippers here -- and perhaps we should -- but Portland has been the most consistent of the bunch since the start of the season. The common thought is that jump-shooting teams that don't defend will struggle in the playoffs. The Blazers though, have such a well-balanced and talented offensive group that discounting them would be foolish. The one thing they need to improve is getting more "team stops" defensively. Portland ranks 18th in field-goal percentage against. Too often it's one guy making a scrappy play, and while this is never going to purely become a lock-down team, establishing a stronger defense late in the shot-clock count is a necessity.
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