One Thing Is Clear In The Playoff Race…Detroit And San Antonio Will Play Somebody

By Gregory Moore
Updated: March 29, 2006

SAN ANTONIO – It’s hard to fathom whether the NBA nation is even worthy of a repeat of what many thought was a ‘boring’ NBA Finals back in June of 2005 but that is exactly what could happen as both the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons make a final run to the top seeds of their conferences. Yet unlike last year, this year’s trek for these two teams is anything but commonplace. The Spurs are having a hard time handling back to back games during this late stretch of the regular season and the Pistons are not necessarily playing like a squad that was so dominant before the All Star break. Other teams are making some serious noise at their chance of unseating both of these NBA powerhouses.

With April 19th coming up quickly, the end of the season is more than a mad dash to the finish line. For the sixteen to twenty teams that are actually vying for a playoff spot, it is more about ending the regular season on a high note that puts the team into a position to not only make the playoffs but possibly to move on to the coveted position of competing in the NBA Finals. Some teams, like the Spurs and Pistons, are the perennial favorites because of past history. But as you will find out, there is more to who will be in the playoffs. There are deep storylines and plots that give any intrigued basketball fan more than enough fodder to hope for his favorite team making to the coveted position of conference champion.

There are twenty teams that have been identified as potential playoff contenders. But there are only seven teams that truly have the potential of being one of the teams that could get the coveted trophy known as the Larry O’Brien trophy. In this article we’ll look at what each of these seven teams brings and why they have the ‘goods’ to be called a champion.

LOOKING AT THE PRE-SELECTED FAVORITES AND WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, New Jersey, Cleveland, Dallas, and Phoenix. Four western conference teams and three Eastern conference squads. Separately these teams have their individual personas when it comes to vying for their chance at the Larry O’Brien trophy. Out of these seven, only two teams may actually face each other in the end. Let’s look more closely at these seven teams who have risen to the pinnacle of the others in this trophy chase.

DETROIT PISTONS: The Pistons may be the most complete team in NBA history during the current era. With a very balanced starting five, coach Flip Saunders has found a winning formula that has been able to keep the defensive prowess that former head coach Larry Brown formulated for two seasons and infused that concept with an offensive attack that suits his starters. This team is probably as complete as one NBA team could be and if there was one player that you could pinpoint and say that he is the focal point, it would have to be Rasheed Wallace. Yet on any given night anybody from that lethal roster can step up and be the player that beats an opponent. From Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups to Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess, this team does not have very many weaknesses.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS: The Spurs are the defending champs and while they are looking so-so right now with about fourteen games left on their schedule, don’t count out the savvy playing of their championship caliber roster. Like the Pistons, there is a starting five that is complete and capable of winning big games yet unlike the Pistons, this team can beat top opponents with the bench play of a Brent Barry, Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. If there is a chink in the Spurs’ armor, it is the fact that this team has a hard time keeping the killer instinct for 48 minutes. Picked by many to possibly the closest thing the NBA has to a dynasty as this team could win four more titles in upcoming seasons. Yet for that prophesy to come true, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili need to lead this team night in and night out. This team needs consistent bench play from Barry and Horry as well as an enthusiastic performance by Van Exel and Finley from the outside so that Parker and others can penetrate to the basket.

DALLAS: It should be no surprise that the Mavericks are one of the best teams in the league this season. Coach of the Year candidate Avery Johnson has this team playing quite well despite them being a half game or so behind the division leading Spurs. What makes the Mavericks a top contender for the title this season? Some say it’s defense but I will say it has more to do with the fundamentals of learning ‘championship’ basketball under a former player who has a ring and an assistant coach in Joe Prunti who has been around a tem that has won three titles in seven years. Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzski may be the cornerstones of this year’s team but if Johnson is expecting his team to go far in the playoffs, he will have to get optimum play from the likes of a Jerry Stackhouse, Marquise Daniels and others because if there is one factor that halts experts from saying that the Mavericks are championship ready, it is their bench depth.

MIAMI HEAT: Even with the drastic changes in the roster and at the helm, the Heat are battling right there to be in NBA Finals contention. Pat Riley shook up his roster early in the season by getting such acquisitions like Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey but maybe what has been the saving grace of this big switch is the fact that the Heat have been able to stay afloat through injuries and inconsistent play during some key stretches of the season. Are they out of the woods yet? Not by a long shot. The biggest hurdle for this team continues to be the development of Dwayne Wade and trying to get maximum effort from Shaquile O’Neal. It is imperative for the Heat to get almost 55 points from these two players and they really need to have that number be much higher. If Riley can ever get his offensive situation taken care of, his defensive inadequacies may be diminished enough for this team to possibly face Detroit in the conference finals.

NEW JERSEY NETS: Anyone remember the last time the Nets could even be mentioned as title contenders? 2003 was the last time and that was when Byron Scott was coaching the team. Fast forward three seasons and look at what they have now. Gone is probably their most athletic player in Kenyon Martin. Even though Vince Carter has risen to be the more central figure as far as athleticism and to compliment the game of Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd. Now what is ironic is the fact that Lawrence Franks may have to do his best coaching job by just trying to get this team to play above their heads in a very weak conference of playoff contenders.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: Probably out of the seven teams in this article, no team can be more promising and more frustrating to watch than the beloved Cavaliers. LeBron James hits his first game winning shot in his career but he is still not the consummate leader that this team desperately needs. Now maybe that’s asking a lot from the third year player but if you think about it, a lot will be asked of him because right now he is the face of the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland is looking to be back in the glory days of when Craig Ehlo and Brad Daugherty were in the Eastern Conference finals during the first Chicago Bulls championship run. I think this team is a ways off from reaching that mark but if head coach Mike Brown can get this team to realize it’s potential during the first round, we could see a team that could be a thorn in either Detroit’s or Miami’s side.

PHOENIX SUNS: I wanted to save the Suns as the last team to talk about because they are the most intriguing team out of this group. The Suns have the misnomer of not being a defensive team but they did solve part of the problem with the acquisition of Boris Diaw in the trade for Joe Johnson with Atlanta. What they also have is a capable scorer in Diaw. That combination of a tough defender and capable scorer at the shooting guard position has made this team very formidable. But there is something else that has now brought this team to the forefront of the playoff chase in the Western Conference and that is the return of Amare Stoudamire. Stoudamire’s return from his knee injury with just fifteen games left or so reminds me of when Derek Fisher returned for the Lakers from his injury in 2004. With 25 games left in the season, Fisher became the Lakers’ most deadliest threat. Stoudamire could be that player for the Suns if he can get back into game shape and be ready to do battle.

THE FINAL FOUR WILL FEATURE A RE-MATCH Of the seven teams in this list, there are four teams who will actually bring us a re-match of last season’s playoff run. That re-match will be between the Detroit Pistons and the Miami Heat and that will be a dogfight of gigantic proportions. The other match up will be the battle for Western supremacy, as the Suns will be taking on the Spurs for Western representation. All four of these teams have what it takes to be the proper “Final Four” teams in the playoff race not solely based on a record or just a hunch. Looking at the track record of the coaching staffs, the veteran players who have playoff experience and what these teams are capable of as far as winning seven game series, each one can meet the challenge of being crowned the next NBA champion.

Now many may ask why the other three were discarded so quickly but that is a rush to judgment. In fairness to the other teams in this listing, they are all capable of going far in the playoffs but when it comes down to crunch time and when the ‘money’ is on the line, these four teams have the ingredients to get the job done. The Cavs, Mavs and Nets simply are not at that level of playoff experience yet. Will these three teams get to the pinnacle of the other four? Maybe they will with the right personnel moves but for now, they are a part of the seven teams to watch for the rest of the year and of those seven, only four will be the top teams that have risen above everyone else in this playoff chase.