Watching the Mavs/Pistons game last Friday, I felt like I’d turned to one of those alphabet boxing title fights: Not of the IBF/WBC variety, but one of those North American Boxing Association of Arts & Sciences-type deals. Yeah, a belt was on the line, but was it really a championship fight?
That’s because Dallas and Detroit both fall into the category of the NBA’s fake contenders. While we’ve all seen the “contenders and pretenders” columns, fake contenders are something different. “Pretenders” are teams that have talent, that can get into the playoffs, but there’s no real reason for anyone to think they can actually win a championship (think ’09 Atlanta Hawks). Fake contenders are a different animal: You can’t completely write them off because of what they have — at least one playoff-proven superstar, a handful of established vets with postseason experience, usually a good coach, a deep bench and they play adequate defense — but so many things have to fall into place for them to win the ‘chip, it doesn’t make sense to take them as a realistic title threat.
Who are this year’s fake contenders?
* Why you like them — Dirk Nowitzki is as good as he’s ever been (25.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg), putting up almost identical numbers to the ones he had during his MVP season. Jason Kidd can still run a team (8.2 apg), and is hitting threes (39%) at a career-high clip. Jason Terry (20.3 ppg) has been the League’s best sixth man so far. Brandon Bass, J.J. Barea and Josh Howard give the Mavs enough depth and versatility to be competitive with anyone.
* Why you’re wasting your time — Kidd can’t guard Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy (when Portland goes big) or any other fast point guard in the West. Howard isn’t as good as he was even two years ago. Dirk has his postseason demons. They don’t even use Jerry Stackhouse anymore, one of their better clutch scorers. Since winning Game Two of the ’06 Finals, the Mavs have gone 3-12 in the postseason.
* Why you like them — Chauncey is a certified winner who should at least help get ‘Melo over that first round hurdle, if not farther. He’s also made Denver’s defense light-years better than in years past. They can run or play half-court basketball. Nene (15 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and K-Mart (13 ppg, 6.5 rpg) are providing strong interior play. Carmelo has stepped up his defense and rebounding this year.
* Why you’re wasting your time — All things being equal (a.k.a. if everyone’s healthy), even Denver fans know they can’t beat San Antonio or the Lakers in a seven-game series.
* Why you like them — Rip, Tayshaun, Rasheed, McDyess and the rest of their core from last season can make the conference finals on GP. Allen Iverson is still an elite player and is desperate for a ‘chip; he also knows this may be his last realistic chance at one. Rodney Stuckey has slowly been living up to the preseason hype. The bench is among the best in the League, they play defense, they’re battle-tested and they’re tough.
* Why you’re wasting your time — Iverson and Rip just don’t mesh well on the court; Rip seems to be sulking ever since Chauncey left, and A.I. isn’t playing his typical game. Michael Curry isn’t ready yet. Wallace has his moments, but he’s clearly on the decline; and as I’ve covered before, you can’t trust ‘Sheed in a big game.
* Why you like them — Dwyane Wade is better now than he was when he carried the Heat to a ‘chip in 2006. Udonis Haslem is a reliable vet who does all the little things championship teams need. Shawn Marion is still a solid two-way player with postseason experience. Michael Beasley is steadily improving. Mario Chalmers has been better than anyone expected and has made Miami’s defense better than anyone expected. Whenever James Jones gets back in the rotation, he and Daequan Cook give the Heat a couple legit shooting threats.
* Why you’re wasting your time — They simply do not have an adequate interior presence. Haslem is too small to guard the Dwight Howards and Kevin Garnetts of the world, and the rest of Miami’s bigs won’t cut it. The team as a whole is too young in some areas, and too old in others. Wade cannot carry them past the Eastern Conference’s elite by himself.
* Why you like them — Between Shaq and Amare playing at an All-Star level, Phoenix has the best 1-2 inside punch in the League. Jason Richardson breathed a new life into them with his explosiveness and ability to make shots. Steve Nash is still one of the NBA’s two or three best playmakers and a proven clutch shooter.
* Why you’re wasting your time — The Spurs own them. The Hornets own them. Brandon Roy owns them. Leandro Barbosa is having one of his worst years both personally (losing his mother) and professionally (not the right fit for Terry Porter‘s system). And I don’t see Porter figuring out how to get his team past a series where the Suns don’t have home court advantage.