In the latest edition of ESPN.com's Winter Forecast, the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs emerged as the favorites in each conference. As ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh asks, are they the "Big Four" of the NBA? And which teams, if any, can join them in the top tier? Our 5-on-5 crew weighs in.
1. Are Pacers, Heat, Thunder and Spurs the Big Four of title contenders?
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Yes. You could argue these four teams have comprised the top tier of title contenders the past two seasons and they're all solidly in that group this season. These are the top four teams in the league in net efficiency and all four are in the top six in the NBA in point differential. I expect these to be the final four teams standing in late May.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Those are the Big Four, yes, though the Heat are in there by a reputation that has little to do with this season. The Blazers and Clippers have performed better than the Heat this season, but we know enough to know Miami isn't exactly trying yet.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Yes. The NFL got both of its dream conference finals matchups, and I expect the NBA to get the same. Despite what LeBron claims, Miami-Indiana is a rivalry -- and one that should hit a new apex in the East finals. Meanwhile, San Antonio-Oklahoma City is the perfect old dog versus young pup contest. Anything can happen out West, but these are the league's top four teams.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Yes. The Pacers and Spurs have been the most consistently impressive teams in the league so far. The Heat and Thunder have struggled to deal with injuries to their second-best players, at times, but should hit a decent stride once Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook get back into the lineup on a consistent basis.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Yes. I'm a big believer that there is a process to make the Finals. Every now and then there's a breach in this idiom, but generally we see a team in the elite tier by taking gradual steps or having been there before. All these teams qualify strongly in that criteria.
2. Which other East teams should be considered among the contenders?
McNeill: None. The Eastern Conference is more top-heavy than any season I can remember following the league. Both the Heat and Pacers could reach the conference finals with undefeated playoff records and it wouldn't surprise me one iota. The league is required to field eight playoff teams in the East, but I don't expect many of them to put up much of a fight.
Strauss: No other East teams belong. Atlanta might get honorable mention if not for the Al Horford injury. If you squint into the horizon, you can envision an unlikely scenario where Derrick Rose comes back and powers the Bulls through a playoff series or two. That's reaching, though. The East, as we all know, is terrible outside the top two. I wish I had a more novel take than that, but it's just so.
Wade: Null set. Brooklyn is coming on of late, but let's be serious: There isn't another Eastern team that is even among the top eight contenders in all of the NBA. And that is probably being overly dismissive of Dallas.
Wallace: The Hawks, Nets and Wizards are clearly a step down in class from the Pacers and Heat in the East. But all three of those squads could present dangerous threats to the conference front-runners in a postseason series if healthy. The Hawks will be without Horford for the season and the Nets won't have Brook Lopez, so those are two huge challenges to overcome. The Wizards lack depth but have one of the best starting units in the East and have matchup advantages.
Windhorst: We could haggle over the word "contender," but I remain convinced the Nets are a somewhat dangerous team. They have the ingredients for a team that could make a playoff run. Namely their experience and the fact they have proven they can be a pretty effective team in the half court, which is how all playoff series are decided. I would not pick it, but I could create a plausible scenario where the Nets could win one stunner series.
3. Which East team could become a surprise contender to win the East?
McNeill: Brooklyn. The Nets are a supreme disappointment this season, but they've at least got individual players with track records of being reasonably successful in the playoffs. If they made the postseason with some semblance of health and spryness, they field enough competitive players to give it the old college try.
Strauss: There is no dark horse contender. There are three horses in the Eastern Conference: The Heat, the Pacers and the dead horse of just how bad this conference is that we continue to beat bloody.
Wade: Surprise ... nobody. I like what the Wizards are building, and the Nets can turn this around. But the Pacers have one of the best defenses in NBA history, and Miami has two of the best players to ever wear shoes. Barring major injuries or week-long bouts of food poisoning to their whole rosters, Miami and Indiana will meet in the East finals.
Wallace: The Cavaliers. Acquiring Luol Deng gives Cleveland the type of proven veteran, two-way player and leader the team has lacked since LeBron departed in free agency. Give them another week or so to figure out roles and to get Deng acclimated, and we'll see just how much of a dark horse threat the Cavs can be this season. They certainly have enough talented pieces. But the main things they lacked are consistency and resolve.
Windhorst: To "win" the East? I don't see it unless there's a major injury. To pull this off, you'd have to figure an underdog would have to upset both the Heat and the Pacers, and I don't see that.
4. Which other West teams should be considered among the contenders?
McNeill: Portland, Houston, Golden State and the Clippers. This conference is loaded and any of these teams could make a run to the conference finals and steal the opportunity to represent the West. The only thing that separates the Spurs and Thunder from this group is that we've seen San Antonio and Oklahoma City successfully make recent runs to the Finals.
Strauss: The Blazers, Warriors and Clippers. Am I allowed to still like Portland? I get that defense wins championships, but the Blazers are so great on offense that they can be the rule-proving exception to that axiom. As for the Warriors and Clippers, let's see how well they play with a fully healthy roster.
Wade: Portland. Despite my expectations of a Spurs-Thunder Western Conference finals, I could easily see the Trail Blazers shooting their way into that matchup -- and even advancing to the Finals if enough 3-balls rattle in. Moreover, I would rank LaMarcus Aldridge as the best dark horse candidate to have a Dirk-in-the-2011-playoffs-esque performance. The Clippers are close, too, but the Chris Paul injury and their inability to hit 3-pointers are troubling.
Wallace: The Clippers, Warriors and Rockets, in that order. I'm not totally convinced that the Clippers don't belong in that group with the Spurs, Thunder, Pacers and Heat if Paul is healthy. I don't think it would surprise many if the Clips end up disrupting matters in the West and crashing the conference finals. The Warriors are the scariest team in the West, because they're good enough to beat anyone in the league and have size, shooters and depth. Houston is a slight step behind.
Windhorst: Warriors. I do believe a team has to have tasted some postseason success with their core group to make a run. I don't think the Blazers are there yet. The Warriors did win a series last season and put a scare into the Spurs before going out. They have improved defensively to the point where they can win games on that end of the floor -- call it the Iguodala effect. I think their biggest flaw is how much they rely on their shooting; sometimes they just ignore that they have legit big man threats. Plus their bench is an issue. But they are right there for me.
5. Which West team could become a surprise contender to win the West?
McNeill: Dallas...? Honestly, I think the West is simply too tough for a dark horse to make it through three rounds, if nothing else because there are very few dark horses in this conference -- everyone's good. With that said, if anyone vying for the No. 7 or No. 8 seed could make a run, I'd put my money on a Nowitzki hot streak.
Strauss: It's a long shot, but the Grizzlies could get on a roll now that Marc Gasol's back. It's still no guarantee they make the playoffs, but a Conley-Gasol tandem is a formidable foundation. The Grizzlies could be a deadline deal away from making some noise.
Wade: Again, apologies to Dallas, but I don't see anyone but the expected suspects (Spurs, Thunder, Blazers, Warriors, Clippers and Rockets) making any noise in the Western playoffs. Two of the top six are going to lose in the first round, but only to one another.
Wallace: Don't count out the Grizzlies. Those guys haven't exactly forgotten how to play good basketball after getting to the conference finals last season. Continuity has been a major issue with the Grizzlies, who have been without either Zach Randolph or Gasol for extended stretches over the first half of the season. Once they're whole, they will be a headache for opponents again down the stretch.
Windhorst: The Rockets have the most talent among the teams in the West who aren't at the very top and I respect that amount of talent. They have some flaws and their best days are probably ahead when they can work a little on their roster, but I could see them winning a series as an underdog just because they have a couple of players -- James Harden and Dwight Howard -- who could win a game by themselves.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Michael Wallace and Brian Windhorst write for ESPN.com. Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes for TrueHoop. Andrew McNeill and Jared Wade are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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