Every year around this time we can usually start assessing who will be contenders or pretenders come playoff time, who are the true contenders this basketball season?
1. Miami Heat
No, this is far from a bold choice, but let's be honest, how much worse are they this year compared to last year's team that repeated and went on a ridiculous win streak? I think they could be even better. The Big 3 are showing up big time as a unit like they need to this season. Wade and Bosh aren't really forcing LeBron to take over like he did late in the playoffs last season. They are averaging about 34 points and 10 rebounds per game together. The fact is they have such strong depth, any of their role players have the ability to have a huge game for this team as none of them can be underestimated without the opposing team paying the price. Think of how Shane Battier emerged in Game 7 for them last year in the NBA Finals. This team will not be content with a repeat. LeBron has clearly shown and stated he has much bigger plans for this dynasty than that.
2. Indiana Pacers
Whoever wins the Eastern Conference Finals will most likely be the best team in the NBA Finals. The only thing that would keep those teams from being favorites would be the grind of that ECF. Whoever comes out alive will be crawling to the NBA Finals most likely. This Pacers team will showing a much tougher defense than what the majority of Western Conference are used to. The Pacers just really know how to wear down teams and take them out of their comfort zone. No matter what tendencies the other team has they have ways of shutting all kinds of offenses down. If a team likes going inside then that team will expect a large dose of Roy Hibbert and David West banging with them down low. If they are reliant more on their perimeter game then expect Paul George to be put on the other teams' top scoring guard and take him out of the game to the best of his ability (which is really good). Another key piece of this team is Lance Stephenson who is a do it all SG for this team and can be a key X-factor in big games for this squad.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
This team is an offensive juggernaut that is almost night and day compared to the Pacers grind it down defensive style. The Pacers like to spread it out with great shooting. Chris Paul is also great at either driving and getting the layup or dishing it off to a big like Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan for a big play at the rim. Their acquisition of Danny Granger is key at a position that most would've considered their weakest before the transaction. This team will be extra hungry and looking to prove they are not just a "regular season" team, especially with the "if they had a better coach" excuse out of the window. Doc Rivers knows how to win championships with star players. He will be looking to get a championship from the West to pair with his championship in the East.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
This team and its young core have been knocking on the door for too long. They are ready to kick it in, but they will need Westbrook to stay healthy. Durant can score in bunches but it will get weary for one guy to try and keep up with the Clippers scoring pace or to not share the load if Paul George or LeBron James is bearing down on him in the NBA Finals. This team honestly needed to get a better center to help their chances down the stretch. Relying on the Perkins/Adams combo might not cut it against the best of the West. This squad's fate will fall fully in the hands of Durant and Westbrook and how they share the ball with each other when one gets a hot hand. They cannot shut each other out trying to get into a groove if they aren't feeling it one night. Scott Brooks will be feeling pressure if he can't put it together this time.
5. San Antonio Spurs
The old guard of the West keeps getting older but will refuse to go away. The Spurs are always disciplined and will not be out coached. Their offense is a cookie-cutter that will kill a defense if it is not doing its very best to be just as disciplined as they are. It never hurts that the offense is led by possibly the most savvy PG in the NBA in Tony Parker. He knows all the tricks in the book, he can get it to his sharpshooters or his safety blanket down low in Tim Duncan in the blink of an eye. He is very aware and his court vision is what sets this offense apart along with the discipline. This team could be in the NBA Finals again and nobody would be the least bit surprised.