Only Eight Teams Can Win the NBA Title in 2008-09

Before this season, visitors to this site voted on which NBA teams would make the playoffs. I hypothesized that basketball fans would correctly guess 14 of the 16 playoff teams, just from knowing which players are on the team.

That's the first major hypothesis I've proposed on this site, and we'll return to it at the All Star break. For now, though, let's examine my second specific hypothesis: In any given year, a small, finite, number of NBA teams are true title contenders.

This year, there are only eight teams that can win the title, and my buddy, COUTRAM, insists that it's really only six teams. They are the Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, Hornets, Cavs, Pistons, Spurs, and Jazz. COUTRAM would exclude San Antonio and Utah, for reasons listed below.

From the historical evidence, most teams are disqualified from title contention because they do not have a clear-cut Hall of Famer on the roster. That's just the way it is. Teams have to have one in order to be a title contender, or else they need to have four All Stars starting for them. It's what disqualifies pseudo-contenders like the Trailblazers, the Nuggets, the Raptors, and others from the discussion.

The second, and final, requirement for title contention is that it must be conceivable that they could overcome whatever serious flaws they have with a short term transcendent performance in the playoffs. To my mind, that's what disqualifies a team like the Suns, even though Steve Nash's star has yet to wane, or a team like the Mavs, who still have Dirk in his prime. In Phoenix, the supporting cast just isn't up to snuff. Matt Barnes? Really? And in Dallas, Jason Kidd is such a shell of his former self that the point guard situation is in dire straits.

Let's run down the Eight Title Contenders and show what makes them so.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS
HOF: Kobe will be a top-five all time player by the time he's done. Pau has an outside shot at being considered a Hall of Famer when he's done. Bynum is too young for us to know, yet.

FLAW: Last year, they couldn't play big enough on the block to deal with the Celtics in the Finals. This year, with Bynum healthy, the Lakers can play Pau farther from the basket, where he doesn't have to bang and can face up his defender. Most important, though, Kobe has the potential to overcome whatever obstacles they face.

BOSTON CELTICS
HOF: Garnett is a no-doubter. Pierce is close, if not in. Ray Allen was better than a lot of fans realize, though he's nowhere near the player he was in his prime.

FLAW: The point guard situation is still sketchy. Rajon Rondo will be a solid pro for many many years, but if anyone can sic a true defensive ace on him, he'll be flustered. Don't even think about Eddie House or Old Sam Cassell solving the issue. However, Pierce and Garnett both have the capacity to blow the roof off the mother at any time. Letting Pierce run point forward at times isn't the worst idea in the world, and it could provide a change of pace in the playoffs that throws off the opposition.

HOUSTON ROCKETS
HOF: Barring health issues, Yao will go down as one of his generation's best big men. McGrady will be regarded as a Reggie Miller-tier swingman. Not quite Hall-worthy.

FLAW: Assuming everyone is healthy, there is no go-to scorer, really. Neither Yao nor McGrady is noted for a killer instinct. Ron Artest and Brent Barry have hit big shots, but when your season is in their hands on offense, that's not exactly a desirable process. However, when everything clicks for the Rockets, they're the most fundamental, flowing, team in the league, and they can do anything on either end of the floor with all five players.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
HOF: We don't know if he'll do this for his entire career, but Chris Paul is certainly playing like an upper-echelon Hall of Famer over the past season-plus. David West and Tyson Chandler are in the All Star conversation, but too young to know their historical places, either.

FLAW: Again, everything revolves around Paul. If Paul is clicking, everyone on the floor is better. If Mike James has to play significant minutes, or Paul just isn't feeling it, they're a very ordinary team.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
HOF: LeBron.

FLAW: After LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the best player on the roster. This has been rehashed over and over again, but the Cavs will only win the title if LeBron has a superhuman playoff run, or someone like Daniel Gibson plays like an All Star for two months.

DETROIT PISTONS
HOF: Allen Iverson. Sheed and Rip will get consideration by the time they're done, but probably won't get the love. Tayshaun is awesome.

FLAW: It's the same as the Celtics. Can Rodney Stuckey play point guard for a championship team? Can Allen Iverson? Can Rip play the three and Tayshaun defend fours consistently? They're probably better off outside conventions, with Tayshaun at the one in crunch time and Amir Johnson or Jason Maxiell next to Sheed.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS
HOF: Tim Duncan will go down as the Bill Russell of this era. Manu Ginobili is a Hall of Famer for his international play on top of his NBA career. It's baffling that he's come off the bench for so long. Tony Parker may be a Hall of Famer.

FLAW: Everyone else is the flaw. This is the ultimate three man team. No one else on the Spurs can be trusted. In many ways, they're the mirror image of the Rockets, and a huge challenge from here on out will be just making the playoffs. That said, if they have their Big Three healthy and make it to the tournament, they have a real shot. It's tough to bet against Timmy.

UTAH JAZZ
HOF: We don't know if Deron Williams is that guy. He's not as good as Chris Paul, individually, but he could make that leap at any time. Carlos Boozer is close, but he won't be a Hall of Famer if he continues at his current rate.

FLAW: Without that one transcendent player, they don't have the weapons to take on other elite teams. Kyle Korver, as useful as he is, is not the kind of bench player that adds enough depth to make up for the lack of superduperstardom at the top. They, along with the Spurs, are the most tenuous teams on this list, and the ones COUTRAM would exclude.

Those are the eight teams that can win the title. We'll come back at the end of the season to see how right or wrong I am about it.

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