Contenders or pretenders?

Do Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers have the look of a champion this season? Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Which teams do the odds favor? Our crew weighs in on five teams looking to join the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder in the league's upper crust.

1. Contenders or Pretenders: Los Angeles Clippers

D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Pretenders. The Clippers are like a boss in a video game -- scary at first glance, but flawed in obvious ways. Chris Paul doesn't discriminate enough with his distribution, Vinny Del Negro can't figure out his best lineups, and ranking 27th in 3-point percentage defense is basically a bull's-eye for sharpshooting teams like the Spurs.

Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: Pretender. This is the same team that won 17 straight games and still has two top-10 players, but I don't trust Vinny Del Negro to make the right adjustments and adjust his rotation properly in the playoffs. Especially if point guard defender extraordinaire Eric Bledsoe can't get on the court due to his health or coach's preference, this team is not ready to contend.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Pretenders. That said, I am almost to the point of expecting this team to knock out either the Spurs or Thunder in the playoffs. But I just don't see the Clippers putting together three or four series' worth of great play.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Contenders. But I'm kind of on the fence about these guys. First off, any time Chris Paul is on the floor in a single-digit game in the fourth, the Clippers have a shot to win it. Crazy athletic bigs and an excess of shooting and depth will make them a factor late into May. But when the game slows down, the Clips gets erratic. Won't get away with that much longer.

Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Contenders. Along with the Spurs, Thunder and Heat, the Clippers are one of just four teams in the NBA with both a top-10 offense and defense (in terms of points per possession). That alone demands that Los Angeles be taken seriously -- and then you add in that it employs the best point guard on the planet.

2. Contenders or Pretenders: Memphis Grizzlies

Foster: Contenders. Marc Gasol might be the best two-way player in the NBA not named LeBron James, and the Grizzlies have finally figured out they should run more offense through him. Turnover-happy teams like the Thunder should be terrified of playing a Grizzlies team that regularly creates a significant advantage in possessions.

Mason: Pretenders ... just barely. Great defensive team, but I don't think they'll be able to score well enough in the playoffs to make it all the way to the Finals. Jerryd Bayless has offered nice pop off the bench, but even during this 13-3 stretch, they have been below average offensively compared to the rest of the NBA.

McNeill: Pretenders. Like the Clippers, the Grizzlies seem like pretenders capable of knocking out a contender. They play great defense, which is a plus in the playoffs and could find themselves in a matchup where their bigs can do some damage offensively. Not a contender, but dangerous.

Palmer: Contenders. Versatile, tough, skilled and athletic, the Grizzlies are capable of playing just about any style and matching up well against both small and big lineups. But it's their physicality on the interior that will determine when their season ends. Given the way Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can go, it'll be a long run.

Wade: Contenders. The top two teams out West seem tough to beat, but San Antonio faces health concerns, and Oklahoma City has to adjust to winning in the postseason without James Harden. Both should overcome those challenges, but the uncertainty leaves the door open for a solid, healthy, surging team like the Grizzlies to make its way to the Finals.

3. Contenders or Pretenders: Denver Nuggets

Foster: Contenders. The league's best home-court advantage has to count for something, right? The pace, the altitude and the relentlessness going to the rack have always made the Nuggets a formidable foe, but improvements defensively (up to 12th in defensive efficiency) make the Nuggets a contender.

Mason: Contenders! The Nuggets have a top-six defense and the best offense in the NBA since the All-Star break. They have a 9-3 record against the top four in the West. It may not look like a typical superstar-laden squad, but after a rocky start, Denver has had all the makings of a championship team.

McNeill: Pretenders. You don't want to play them when they have home-court advantage, nor do you want to give them that with a loss at home. But the Nuggets' lack of an elite go-to offensive player in the half court makes it tough in the playoffs, when things slow down.

Contenders. Everyone's choice for "team nobody wants to play" in the first round. Make that every round. They've got the best athletes in the league and can run just about anybody out of the gym. The knock is they don't have a go-to guy, but that's just one of those things people say. You could do a lot worse than Andre Iguodala taking the last shot.

Wade: Pretenders. The Nuggets have a case for winning the conference on paper, but never trust a team that can't shoot. Only five teams shoot worse than Denver from 3-point range, and the Nuggets' 35.0 percent accuracy from midrange is second-worst in the league. Feasting in the paint has worked so far, but some team will take that away in the playoffs.

4. Contenders or Pretenders: Indiana Pacers

Foster: Pretenders. Indiana's defense might be the best in the league, but there just isn't enough there offensively for a title run. Not having Danny Granger obviously hurts, but really it's Roy Hibbert's inability to score that could deprive the Pacers of the one exploitable mismatch they had against Miami.

Mason: Pretenders. The only way this team is going to make a real run at the Heat is if Granger comes back healthy enough to offer some defense on LeBron James and make 3s. When it ramps up the pressure, Miami's defense has consistently overwhelmed Indiana's pick-and-roll attack and negated its size advantage inside.

McNeill: Pretenders. The Pacers are an elite defensive team that could be the only threat to the Miami Heat coasting to the NBA Finals, but I don't consider them a contender. On the off chance they upset the Heat, there's no way they're beating the Spurs or Thunder as well. They simply can't score well enough.

Palmer: Contenders. If, of course, contender in the East means being able to take the Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference finals, which they are entirely capable of doing. Oh, the thing is Roy Hibbert must show up and protect the rim and exploit Miami's thin interior, which seems to be its Achilles' heel. Danny Granger's toughness helped make last year's clash with Miami fairly even and highly entertaining. But without him, they could just get pushed around.

Wade: Pretenders. At this point it seems obvious that the Pacers are the second-best team in the East -- perhaps by a wide margin. But there is an even larger chasm between Indiana and Miami, and nobody this side of the Mississippi is beating the Heat in the playoffs.

5. Contenders or Pretenders: Los Angeles Lakers

Foster: Pretenders. The last team to win a championship with a defensive efficiency rating worse than half of the league was -- wait for it -- the Lakers in 2000-01. Of course, overcoming a below-average defense to win the title has only happened once in the last 37 years, so don't hold your breath, Lakers fans.

Mason: Pretenders. Even if Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol come back healthy, the Lakers still don't have the depth or defense to warrant contender status.

McNeill: Pretenders. If you can't tell by my previous four answers, I only consider the Spurs, Thunder and Heat as true contenders for the NBA title. While the Lakers have recovered from their abysmal start to the season, their defense still isn't good enough. And Pau Gasol's return could cause chemistry problems with precious little time to adjust.

Palmer: Pretenders. Not a good bet at all to get out of the first round against more battle-tested, playoff-ready teams -- specifically the Spurs and Thunder. Health and defense have been issues all season that won't magically disappear come the postseason. With shortened rotations in the playoffs, their older players would have to log heavy minutes, which certainly doesn't bode well, given their frailty.

Wade: Pretenders. The only thing less likely to happen than the Lakers winning the 2013 NBA championship is Dwight Howard becoming a celebrity image consultant.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Chris Palmer writes for ESPN The Magazine. Beckley Mason is a contributor for ESPN.com. D.J. Foster, Andrew McNeill and Jared Wade are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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