NBA title blueprint: What each team has to do to win it all
From the immortal words of Dumb and Dumber: "So you’re telling me there’s a chance … YEAH!"
Jim Carrey, who happens to look just like Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, may as well give that as a pregame speech for the Mavericks (and certainly Mark Cuban could make it happen). Yes, even a No. 8 seed has a shot at a title — you know, if everything falls into place perfectly.
There are plenty of teams with healthy chances at winning the 2014 NBA championship, and other teams that just need an anything-is-possible speech right now. So to set the stage for the this season’s playoffs, here’s doing just that with each playoff team’s scenario for winning the title.
Title odds: 1,000-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Kyle Korver is one of the great 3-point shooters of his generation, but he’ll never get Robert Horry-type love until he’s given an opportunity to thrive deep in the postseason. Here’s his chance.
How they win it all: There’s never, in the history of sports that require a ball, been a series like this — a dominant No. 1 seed faces a No. 8 seed with a losing record … and yet it’s actually conceivable something crazy could happen. The Pacers collapsed into the top seed while the Hawks actually won six of eight to end the season with the eighth spot. Atlanta even went into Indy and blew out the Pacers just two weeks ago. Indy is just a 7-point favorite at home in Game 1.
The Hawks are outmatched at most positions, but they do have that intangible workman quality that Indiana lost when the roster was tinkered with and the team began to implode. The Hawks need to come with intensity in the first two games, and look to push Indy on its heels early. Catch the Pacers while they’re still down, and the Hawks could just maybe pull off the improbable. From there, the Hawks need to face the inexperienced Wizards and catch a Nets team in the Eastern Conference Finals that’s injury-riddled after beating the Heat.
At that point, they need Al Horford to come back, the Mavericks to be the Cinderella of the West, and hope Korver hits 10 3s per game. But there’s still a 0.1 percent chance, right?
Title odds: 200-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Al Jefferson posters are already plastered all over North Carolina just for making the playoffs, but the postseason hero will need to be Kemba Walker if the Bobcats want to pull off the impossible.
How they win it all: Idioms don’t win titles, but there is truth to that tired cliche about defense winning championships. The Pacers and Bulls didn’t earn home court because they play like Steve Nash’s Suns. So if you’ve just started paying attention to the NBA because it’s the playoffs, the quick lesson here is the Bobcats are an elite defensive team. That doesn’t mean they can stop LeBron James, but they might be able to slow him down.
Charlotte turned the ball over less than any other team in the league since the All-Star break, and controlling turnovers paired with good defense is a recipe to stay close in games. The Bobcats will need offense, but if Kemba goes 2011 Huskies, he might be the spark to pull off the upset. Once Goliath is tackled, running through the rest of the East will look easy. In the NBA Finals, a streaky offense like the Rockets or Blazers would be the perfect matchup to flex the defensive advantage and get Michael Jordan another trophy.
Title odds: 150-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: John Freaking Wall. The 23-year-old is finally getting a chance to take part in the NBA postseason, which means he’ll be on a consistent national stage for the first time since Kentucky. He’s capable of 30-plus points with double-digit assists, and he will need exactly that if the Wizards could ever snatch a title.
How they win it all: There’s no question the Wizards can escape at least the first round against the Bulls. The Wizards don’t play defense like Chicago, but they do get out and score, and a hot series from Wall and Bradley Beal could be just enough. Washington will certainly have to survive by burying many, many 3s. Once past Chicago, the likely opponent becomes the Pacers. The last time Washington faced Indy was at the end of March, and the Wizards rolled to a 91-78 victory, so maybe there’s a chance of pushing through the dead weight of Indy.
The Wizards wouldn’t survive the Heat, but maybe some luck via an earlier upset by either the Bobcats, Raptors or Nets would make a trip to the finals at least plausible. Washington was a miserable 11-19 against the West, and didn’t beat a single Western Conference playoff team at any point past early February (when they beat the Thunder and Blazers). So maybe that’s the only hope of a Wizards title: a premier point guard battle between Wall and Westbrook that Durant sits out just to watch. OK, none of that is happening.
Title odds: 100-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Hey Dirk, want another shot at an NBA title? OK, fine. Go play Gregg Popovich and his bench of neverending talent. Nowitzki can still take a game over, but he’ll need to do it consistently through the entire playoffs.
How they win it all: These Mavericks don’t have the talent of the 2010-11 squad that wiped the smirk off the Heat’s dynasty kick-off party. They are old, lack athleticism and they start off against the league’s best team. They’re also the worst defensive team in the postseason.
To pull off a series win against San Antonio, the Mavs’ offense is going to have to go video-game rookie mode and scorch the nets. Nowitzki and Monta Ellis have made a fantastic offensive pair in the pick-and-roll game, but they’ll also need Vince Carter and Shawn Marion to play with an urgency like the early-bird buffet closes in five. Jose Calderon also better hit open 3s. Dallas can get hot for a game or two against the Spurs, but to win a title, it’s going to have to take 16 games of defying improbability. But hey, if they can beat San Antonio, they can beat anyone — how’s that for a playoffs motto?
Title odds: 90-to-1
Heroes-in-waiting: There are two. Kyle Lowry is a top-five point guard in the league, snubbed in the All-Star process but continuing to showcase his talent. DeMar DeRozan needs this postseason to reveal himself to the rest of North America. If these two get it going, the Raptors are capable of pushing through the East and into the finals.
How they win it all: There’s a certain intensity that attaches to a team that feels disrespected. Toronto isn’t getting credit for the season they’ve had because there’s no clear analysis to say why they’ve been so successful (a symptom of a good system). Dwane Casey carrries that chip on his shoulder too, and his formula of efficiency up North propelled the Raptors to a top-10 ranking in both offense and defense in the regular season.
The Nets could be walking into a prehistoric bee’s nest. If Toronto sticks to the script, and remains motivated, the Raptors could buzz through Brooklyn and then catch the Heat off guard next. Lowry can’t negate a guy like LeBron, but he and DeRozan could. From there, the energetic and efficient Raptors could keep pushing through the finals. Keep in mind, Toronto actually carried a winning record against the West.
Title odds: 60-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Mike Miller. Yes, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are the foundation here, and Mike Conley is a must. But last year they missed a closer late in games, and Miller has proven he can be that guy.
How they win it all: When a Grizzly bear pounds at a door long enough, eventually that thing’s going to come down. Memphis is playoff-tested, the perfect model to win a title because of that interior "grit" and defensive "grind." The Grizzlies aren’t your everyday No. 7 seed. Since Gasol returned from his knee injury, the Grizzlies have been one of the West’s best teams.
They drew the short straw in having to face the longest superstar in history, Kevin Durant. Unlike last season when Memphis knocked out OKC, this time KD comes with Russell Westbrook. That means the Grizzlies will need to make this dance one of the slow variety. If the Grizzlies play that brand and execute it without letting Durant go superhuman, they will beat the Thunder. A series win like that would set a nice tone for the rest of the postseason and could carry Memphis to a championship.
Title odds: 60-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Stephen Curry got NBA Jam-hot during last year’s playoff run and nearly took the Warriors to the Western Conference Finals because of it. He began his current heating-up process at the close of the regular season, and the Warriors will need another showcase from him if they have any hope of advancing this postseason.
How they win it all: For all the success Golden State has embraced the past two seasons, it’s luck really has been downright awful. Last year they lost David Lee at the start of the playoffs, and this year they’ll go without Andrew Bogut, their second most valuable player behind Curry. Golden State will be forced to go small or ride Jermaine O’Neal against a tough Clippers interior. That’s not fantastic news.
For the Warriors to win a title, they’ll need 1) their Splash Brothers to explode from behind the arc and 2) hope their top-three defensive rating can hold up without Bogut as a clog in the middle.
Actually, these things need to go right too: 3) Lee needs to overcome hamstring issues that have layered him with rust, 4) Andre Iguodala needs to be the offensive playmaker he was for Denver a year ago, 5) Harrison Barnes needs to shake off the funk he’s endured much of the season and 6) Draymond Green needs to continue to overachieve. Arguably, all six of those things must happen if the Warriors have a Cinderella’s hope at winning the title. Either that, or Bogut returns from injury. The odds don’t look good, even if Curry goes off again.
Title odds: 50-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Damian Lillard certainly has superstar stuff, and he could use this, his first playoffs, to launch himself even further into the league’s elite. Remember what Stephen Curry did last postseason? Lillard has that type of juice.
How they win it all: The Blazers have no chance at a legit run unless they lock it up defensively. Portland spent the entire first half of the season surviving off its offense and just in the final 10 games began to show balance on the defensive side. Even then, it’s really about how well Portland is shooting the ball. Like a classic mid-major in March Madness, the Blazers make runs by throwing 3-point hooks. This also happens to be a defensive weakness of the Rockets.
LaMarcus Aldridge makes the Blazers’ offense legitimate and consistent. If all things are clicking, it’s a second-round meeting with the Spurs. If that’s the case, Portland is really going to have to grow up quickly in a way that Golden State did only halfway last postseason. If a title shot dwells somewhere past San Antonio, it’s going to come through newly inspired defense and a healthy measure of 3-pointers from Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum.
Title odds: 50-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: D.J. Augustin has become the leading scorer for the Bulls, and if Chicago has any real hope at a title, he’s going to have to provide even further offensive firepower.
How they win it all: Chicago can win a title because its defense really is that fantastic — and so is Tom Thibodeau. There’s a special energetic magic that pours out of his vocal chords (some call it intimidation). Opponents folded to the hardwood-cracking effort from the Bulls in February when Chicago was supposed to just go away, so imagine how that’s going to intensify in the postseason.
The Bulls may intimidate the Wizards right off the court in the first round. A second-round matchup against the Pacers could look very much the same, as the Bulls enter the playoffs a much, much better team than Indiana. Unless the Pacers restore what once was, the Bulls could have a somewhat light path to an Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat.
That’s where intimidation won’t work, but defense and increased offense will. To beat Miami, the offense will have to be as collective and proficient as the defense. But if the Bulls get past the Heat, there’s no reason they can’t continue their upset tour through the finals. And no, Derrick Rose won’t be necessary.
Title odds: 40-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Deron Williams isn’t supposed to be just some ancillary piece. He came to the Nets to be one of the league’s elite point guards. As he goes, so will the Nets this postseason. This could be his opportunity to put a major stamp on his career.
How they win it all: These Nets were born out of unrealistic title expectations. Brooklyn paid a heavy price for experience and superstar names on the back of its jerseys. But despite the loss of Brook Lopez, the Nets still rallied behind depth and talent to surge up the standings in the second half of the season.
If they pull off the improbable, it’s because those future Hall of Famers paid off. Paul Pierce can still morph into unguardable and devastate any defense. Kevin Garnett’s leadership is an intangible that’s already proven capable of guiding a championship run. More than that though, it’s because the team’s chemistry and ability to create mismatches will only further gel with every playoff win. Watch out, Heat. The Nets built this team with a certain "Unseat the King" motto, and they did go 4-0 against Miami in the regular season.
Title odds: 20-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Dwight Howard had a good regular season, but imagine how dangerous these Rockets would be if he embodies the dominance of his Orlando days.
How they win it all: All the lovey-dovey "we’re super nice and fun" stuff will fade if the Rockets don’t impress this postseason. These Rockets were built to win an NBA championship, and there’s a wealth of talent that leaves few excuses not to. They have their superstar scorer in James Harden. They have their elite center in Dwight Howard. The front court depth is there, Chandler Parsons is already playoff-tested as a scorer and guard Patrick Beverley is a menacing defender.
But collecting talent rarely turns into a championship unless: A) those superstars are of the LeBron James, Kevin Garnett or Shaquille O’Neal variety or B) they form a unique system channeled by efficiency and chemistry. That’s going to mean Harden will have to carry this team on his shoulders in a way Dwyane Wade carried the Heat in their first title run. Howard will need to be dominant and Kevin McHale will have to answer the game plans of Terry Stotts and eventually Gregg Popovich.
Title odds: 10-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Doc Rivers would receive Hall of Fame status if he is able to complete the job the Clippers hired him to do and win a championship.
How they win it all: The Clippers are far more balanced this season than they were entering last year’s playoffs. Chris Paul doesn’t have to do it all this time around. But if his play resembles the high-octane type from his brief postseason last year, as a pairing with the top-shelf play Blake Griffin showcased this regular season, the Clippers are going to be tough to oust.
Los Angeles caught a bit of a break with the Bogut injury, making Golden State just that much less of a first-round threat. Had the Clippers actually moved into the second spot, they’d have been vulnerable to another boot from the interior thick Grizzlies. Either way though, they will need to get through either the Grizzlies or the Thunder. That won’t be a problem if the Clippers offense continues to swarm the halfcourt and fly in transition with more offensive options than Blake Griffin commercials. L.A. has the superstars and the coaching to defeat the Spurs, Heat or whatever test awaits at the finish line.
Title odds: 10-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Paul George has been taken on and off the A-list more than Kim Kardashian. He reached top-tier heights last postseason, carried the Pacers early into this season but has fallen off significantly. If the Pacers are to win the title, he needs to be the best player on the floor each night — even when they’re playing the Heat.
How they win it all: Indiana enters the playoffs with absolutely zero momentum except for the fact they were actually able to retain the No. 1 spot. However, that could be a major factor in navigating the East’s fractured landscape. With the top spot, the Pacers score an under-.500 Hawks team and have some breathing room that even the Bobcats’ defense could have suffocated. The first round might be enough runway to allow Indiana to restore some air underneath those tired wings.
But if the Pacers have any shot at reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again, eventually they have to get through the Heat. At least this time around they can do it at home, where they are still tough. Home court advantage won’t mean anything though unless the Pacers identify whatever shattered their once succinct chemistry. It starts with Roy Hibbert’s production in the middle. The Pacers won’t contend without him and George playing at the level they did before the All-Star break.
Title odds: 4-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Kevin Durant earned an MVP this regular season, but he’ll only get ultimate respect if he wins a championship. He’s still plenty young, but that title window can shrink at any moment in the NBA (just ask Carmelo Anthony), and it’s time Durant starts to play under that level of urgency.
How they win it all: Here’s a secret you won’t find in highlight shows or shoe ads, but the real reason behind the Thunder’s success is greater than Durant and Westbrook scoring. Shhhhh. OKC had a top-five defensive rating this season. It’s not as provocative, but yes, OKC is actually a better defensive team than it is an offensive team.
The scoring from KD is inevitable, and so are the streaky scoring bunches from Westbrook. But it’s Oklahoma City’s ability to get after it defensively that will determine if the Thunder can advance past the toughness of the Grizzlies, the superstar-loaded offense of the Clippers or the proficiency of the Spurs. While that’s a tough road, the Thunder will be pretty tested (or pretty exhausted) if a rematch versus the Heat sits as the final challenge. If Durant can do as he has done all season, and outdo even LeBron, the Thunder can win the title. But remember, the defense is just as important.
Title odds: 3-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: Kawhi Leonard was the X-factor for the Spurs last season. The attacking and defensively gifted wing for San Antonio wasn’t even six years old when the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan, but now he could be the reason Duncan wins one final title.
How they win it all: Only the dagger of a Ray Allen 3-pointer stood in the way of the Spurs winning a championship last summer. You didn’t expect these Spurs to simply fold, now did you? San Antonio is back healthier and perhaps more balanced than last season. They will win the NBA championship if they stay healthy, execute as they’ve been doing all season and avoid any wild heroics by opposing superstars.
The faces of unity continue to be Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, while also including Leonard. But the system of San Antonio is simple: guys know where they will get their shots on any given night, and the team knows how to move the ball to get those shots. If the Spurs play their brand, they are the favorite in every series they step into – no matter who they play.
Title odds: 2-to-1
Hero-in-waiting: LeBron James is the only guy in the league whose legacy is on the line every playoff game. No other player has proven he can carry his team to a title the way he has.
How they win it all: Nothing changes for the Heat this postseason. That regular-season shell has nothing to do with what Miami hopes to accomplish. All that stands in the way of a fourth consecutive finals appearance are three series victories against an airy East. Indiana has fallen apart, Chicago doesn’t have the offense to keep up and the Nets are a challenge but may not survive the Raptors.
The path to the three-peat gets tougher in the finals, where one of these elite West teams will be waiting. But let’s not get confused: LeBron is still the greatest player in the league. When he snaps into that man who took over the final games against the Spurs last season, he is impossible to hold back. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and all other Miami players are just role players (albeit All-Star ones) to what LeBron is accomplishing. History is in the making, and anyone would be foolish to discount what the game’s king is about to do.
Follow Jimmy Spencer on Twitter: @JimmySpencerNBA