A Third of the Way in: A League Perspective—Would-Be Contender Edition

A busted wrist, a new coach, and a vastly different supporting cast have Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles on outside looking in as far as title contention this season.

With the entire league roughly one-third of the way into this abbreviated season, the NBA has been nothing short of entertaining. Seeing as how this season was on the verge of not even happening, the excitement was much needed and has been truly appreciated. If the NBA Playoffs were to begin today, teams would begin the second season that most would not have expected to-say three months ago. And because there are only 16 spots available, some teams would not make it that would have been virtual locks in preseason projections. Read on for a take on what the first 22 (or so) games have taught us about the NBAs would-be contenders.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won two out of the last three NBA titles and appeared in three of the last four NBA Finals matchups, are a game in the standings away from being the 3RD seed and being out of the Playoffs altogether. While Kobe Bryant's "gone" tendon in his shooting wrist would have figured to be the major issue regarding such a start, the Kobester looks darn good up to this point-MVPish even. The Lakers even weathered the storm of Andrew Bynum's suspension to begin the season. The issue has been that their offense-their new non-triangle offense-often falls stagnant and leaves Bryant no choice but to become a chucker. Perhaps the Lakers biggest problem? Other than their Staples Center roommates (who have stolen much of the Lakers cache in their own town and building and who I will expound upon in the Contender Edition), they play in the NBAs loaded Western Conference. By virtue of their winning record, the Los Angeles Lakers would be a very dangerous 6TH seed in the Eastern Conference. I fully expect-barring further and more catastrophic injury to No. 24-the Lakers to figure things out and end up a 5TH seed or better. Fuel for this fodder: the Lakers will not be subjected to three games in three nights again for the rest of the season. The old timers should be more rested for a strong finish. My prognosis: They should run more of their offense through Pau Gasol in the high post as a facilitator.

Staying out West, the Dallas Mavericks are defending World Champs until they lose a playoff series-that is if they even get to the postseason. A healthy Dirk Nowitzki can get on a roll in the Playoffs, but if postseason were to begin today, Dirk and the Mavs are a half game back of the Lakers. I suspect they will finish the season somewhere between 6TH and 10TH place. I understand keeping an eye toward the future (think Summer of Dwight Howard and Deron Williams), but it is beyond comprehension to me that Mark Cuban did not keep his crew together to take at least one more shot at it before Dirk's window of opportunity begins to shrink. Respect would have me give them a puncher's chance due to Nowitzki's insanely high level of domination in last year's playoffs, but even if he does go bonkers for two months again, it will not be enough to lift his even more mediocre and aged supporting cast into contention this season.

Moving Eastward, the aging Boston Celtics were thought to have enough left in the tank for one more run-even with 66 regular season games being cramped into such a small timeframe. Out of the gate, however, they stumbled without their true leader, Paul Pierce, being able to suit up. Since his return (and return to game shape), the Celtics have looked much less like gloom and doom but more like a team that could make life hard on the Chicago Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers, or even the Miami Heat in the playoffs. The Cs are also happy they will not have any more back-to-back-to-back sets this season. I'll re-evaluate them heading into the final third of the season.

What a difference two weeks can make! Just that short time ago, as I began composing this piece, the Orlando Magic were in my Contender Edition. But following a recent four-game slide and embarrassing losses to the Boston Celtics, New Orleans Hornets, and Indiana Pacers, the Magic are now reeling. Dwight Howard is calling out his teammates in the media, and his team's recent performance has only solidified his earlier assertions that Orlando is not a city in which he can win a title. Initially, I thought he was just grandstanding to get out of there. Then, they started off the season looking like a contender (or at least a team that could get hot and make it interesting), and I changed my tune. But the fundamental flaw the Magic have is the one they've always had under Coach Stan Van Gundy, who I admire a ton and believe he was Shaquille O'Neal's respect away from winning a ring for Miami without a Pat Riley takeover. They shoot too many doggone 3s. Count how many times you have seen them score a bucket that was neither a three-pointer nor Dwight Howard scoring in the paint. Okay, a Glen Davis jumper or put back here or there. If General Manager Otis Smith decides to roll the dice and hold on to Howard beyond the trading deadline, Davis-and his role offensively-will be the barometer by which we can measure the success of the Orlando Magic in 2012. Despite a relatively young roster containing several players who played in a closer-than-many-people-think NBA Finals series against the Lakers in 2009, these Orlando Magic won't be pulling any rabbits out of their hats.

Last but not least, the New York Knicks were believed to have the "best frontline in basketball" after acquiring Tyson Chandler to complement offensive studs Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. While Chandler made the Mavs into a championship defense a season ago, the difference in Dallas was that Coach Rick Carlisle already believed in solid defensive principles. Mike D'Antioni, on the other hand, believes the best defense is a strong offense. Until the philosophy in the coach's seat changes, I don't see their chances of competing for a championship changing.

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