Contenders or pretenders?

Wednesday night's ESPN doubleheader (Blazers-Hawks at 8 ET, Mavericks-Clippers at 10:30) features four likely playoffs teams. But how seriously should we take each squad?

1. Portland Trail Blazers: Contenders or pretenders?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Contenders, barely. The bad news is that Nate McMillan is playing people long minutes in a dense season. The other bad news is that he has a history of being predictable, which is especially costly in the playoffs. However, this season the style is all different, with higher energy and less predictability. This is also now a veteran team. If healthy, the Blazers could make a run.

Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Contenders. Make no mistake, this team can win the West. By ditching his traditional coaching style (slow-paced, half-court basketball), Nate McMillan has finally put the Blazers in position to play to their full potential. They're deep, long and athletic. Oh yeah, LaMarcus Aldridge is pretty good, too.

Zach Harper, Daily Dime Live: Pretenders. It's not that I think the Blazers are bad or not one of the better teams in the West, it's just that I don't see this being a championship-capable team quite yet.

LaMarcus Aldridge has been fantastic and Gerald Wallace is a great weapon next to him on both ends. I just wonder where the consistent threat from the perimeter is going to come from. If they can address that need or someone on their roster (Matthews, Crawford, Batum?) can become an elite scorer at the end of games, I'm on board.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Contenders. Behind the Thunder, the Western Conference is wide open. If Portland converts the benefit of the doubt regarding its tough early schedule into wins as the schedule eases, the Blazers will contend for the second seed.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Contenders. The Blazers are hovering around the impressive distinction of having both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, a special level of balance that typically results in playoff success. Portland is certainly an imperfect team, but it has an opportunity to capitalize on a Western Conference in flux by way of its speed, efficiency and versatility.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Contenders or pretenders?

Abbott: Pretenders, until Al Horford is healthy again. In the playoffs, they have an opportunity to overwhelm teams with long athletes such as Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Horford. But of those guys, Horford is the one who plays the best team defense and scores most efficiently. They need him in order to beat a great team like the Heat or the Bulls.

Buha: Pretenders. Don't be fooled by their impressive start -- even with Al Horford, the Hawks are stuck in mediocrity. But playing without him for possibly the rest of the season? Atlanta will be lucky to win two playoff games. Making the playoffs, of course, is contingent on the Hawks not blowing the team up (and trading Josh Smith) before the March deadline.

Harper: Pretenders. I'm on the record of urging people to never trust the Hawks, and until they get new ownership, a new system and a new attitude, I stand by that stance. Losing Al Horford cements that notion further in my mind. We all know they have the talent to make things interesting in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean much of anything. They have to want to change the basketball culture there before we can take them seriously.

LaGree: Pretenders. The Hawks will definitely make the playoffs, but the absence of Al Horford for likely the rest of the season and the day-to-day uncertainty of Tracy McGrady's ability to contribute seriously reduces their margin for error in the unforgiving context of a seven-game series.

Mahoney: Pretenders, and that was true even before Horford's unfortunate injury. With Horford, Atlanta is a sub-elite team with a chance to muddle the playoff picture but little opportunity for actual contention. Without him, they'll likely live and die by Joe Johnson's itchy trigger finger.

I don't have much faith in the Hawks' ability to maintain their success on either end of the court; the regression is coming, and Horford's absence will hit the Hawks particularly hard on the defensive end.

3. Dallas Mavericks: Contenders or pretenders?

Abbott: Contenders. They lost Tyson Chandler and got worse in many ways. But, weirdly, their defense remains excellent. It's their offense that has really suffered from last season. It's not hard to imagine that a team with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd will put up some points when it matters.

Buha: Pretenders. Yes, I know they're the defending champions. Yes, I know they still have Dirk Nowitzki. But no, they're not good enough to come out of the West or even make the conference finals. Losing Tyson Chandler might not affect their regular-season record, but it'll likely result in a first- or second-round exit.

Harper: Contenders, I guess. I know this team isn't as good as last season and the loss of Tyson Chandler has impacted it on both ends of the floor. I'm just not willing to assume this core can't at least challenge for the title, especially if the Mavs manage to get Lamar Odom's head right by the time the playoffs are here. There's too much passing and too much shooting on the Mavs to think they can't make a run when the brightest lights are on.

LaGree: Pretenders. I've been waiting on Ian Mahinmi for years, but not to be the third offensive option on a contender. Until someone other than Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry asserts himself as a scorer, the Mavericks are profoundly limited.

Mahoney: Somewhere in between? Dallas completely eludes classification at the moment. If its defense -- which currently ranks as the second best in the league -- has some real substance behind it (and isn't merely bloated because of a dominant game against the Kings and a sloppy game against the Lakers), I could see the offense catching up enough to make the Mavs a dark horse. If not … well, at least they can look forward to the cash from the playoff gates and an active offseason.

4. Los Angeles Clippers: Contenders or pretenders?

Abbott: Pretenders, until they can demonstrate a top-10 NBA defense. Chris Paul playoff magic might get them a series, but it's too much to expect more than that without being able to get stops. In their defense, they've had about 15 minutes of practice time together. On the other hand, it's not like they're going to have a lot of time between now and the playoffs. Pressure's on, Vinny Del Negro.

Buha: Contenders. Impressive victories over the Heat, Lakers and Blazers have shown the Clippers' potential. Blowout losses to the Spurs, Bulls and Jazz have shown their flaws. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin dissecting defenses with an unstoppable pick-and-roll game, they'll be in every game come April and May. This squad has barely been together for a month -- give them time.

Harper: Pretenders. There isn't nearly enough big-man depth on this team and its team defense has been mediocre at best for much of this young season. It's been a decade since a team ranked this low in defensive rating (2001 Lakers) made it to the Finals, and I don't see 2001 Shaquille O'Neal or 2001 Kobe Bryant on this roster. Stop the other team better and I'm willing to believe in this team this season.

LaGree: Pretenders. The Clippers have the opposite problem as the
Mavericks: They can't stop anyone from scoring. Familiarity with each other might improve team defense to a degree, but Vinny Del Negro's track record suggests a low ceiling.

Mahoney: For now, pretenders. The Clippers are absolutely a work in progress, and though there have been some reassuring signs in their evolution thus far, they have a long way to go before their defense is playoff viable. Given the talent on their roster, the Clips can certainly get there. I'd just like to see a bit more improvement in their defensive performance before granting them contending status.

5. Which of these four teams goes farthest in the playoffs?

Abbott: The Blazers -- I say this knowing I'll look like a homer. Here's why: The East teams can't survive very long without beating one of the two best teams in the league. In the West, both Dallas and Portland have flaws, but a lot of the West playoff teams (Thunder, Lakers, Nuggets) struggle more than you'd expect against Portland, and the Blazers have a new approach which just might give them a shot.

Buha: The Clippers. Ignoring my blog affiliation, they are the best-equipped team to make a long playoff run out of this bunch. That might say more about their competition than the Clippers themselves. Star power usually wins out come playoff time, though, which is an attribute that only a few teams can match Lob City in. My motto: Don't doubt Chris Paul.

Harper: It's either the Mavericks or the Clippers. This depends entirely on the matchups of the first two rounds (analysis!) but it's easier to see a team riding Dirk or Chris Paul deep into the playoffs. The Hawks could potentially have the easier road out East, but it doesn't mean they're trustworthy enough to take advantage of it. I'll just go with the Mavs because we've seen them do it before.

LaGree: Blazers. The margin between the second-best and 10th-best record in the West won't stay at 2½ games for the entire season, but there won't be a ton of separation at season's end.

Every team that makes the playoffs will have a chance of progressing deep into the playoffs.

Mahoney: The Blazers. Behind an impressive rotation of LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Jamal Crawford, Portland has a legitimate shot at the Western Conference finals. The Clippers might, too, but I'm inclined to side with the Blazers as the more proven commodity.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Henry Abbott is a senior writer for ESPN.com's TrueHoop blog. Zach Harper is the host of Daily Dime Live. Jovan Buha, Bret LaGree and Rob Mahoney contribute to the TrueHoop Network.

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