Call it the Big Four.
In the latest survey of predictions in the fresh-out-of-the-oven Winter Forecast, which is being rolled out this week, a clear trend has risen to the surface. After we asked more than 50 panelists to pick their most likely NBA champions, a tier of four teams overwhelmingly popped up more than the rest (in alphabetical order):
The Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
In our eyes, this power quartet have separated themselves from the rest of the pack even though the standings say otherwise. The Portland Trail Blazers are tied with the Thunder in the win-loss column, but our group isn't sold on their title contention status. Same goes for the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and (gasp!) the rest of the Eastern Conference. Full results will be published on Friday, in case you are wondering.
So what's so special about the Pacers, Heat, Thunder and Spurs? This isn't earth-shattering news, but they've been successful lately. Head over to the standings and you'll see that they hold four of the top five W-L records in the NBA, with the Blazers trying to stay in the championship-contention picture.
But this is a key thing: We've already seen the Big Four contend -- unlike the Blazers. The Heat are two-time defending champs. The Spurs came within seconds of grasping the Larry O'Brien Trophy last season. The Thunder reached the NBA Finals in 2012, and the Pacers came within a win of reaching the Finals last season. In our minds, seeing is believing.
Analytically, we can see a line in the sand between the four contenders and the rest of the NBA. Sure, the Heat aren't living up to their Forecast reputation lately; they've played traffic-cone defense over the past month, hemorrhaging 107.6 points per 100 possessions to the opponent in January, a rating that places them 23rd during that time. But despite the defensive dip, the Heat have the fourth-best pace-adjusted point differential in the league (plus-6.7), behind the Pacers (plus-10.2), Spurs (plus-9.0) and Thunder (plus-8.0).
These are the four true championship contenders, according to the wisdom of the ESPN Forecast crowd, which has a pretty darn good track record in predicting the future.
But we're still about halfway through the season, and there's plenty of time for pretenders to turn into contenders. How do they make the leap?
Here is the to-do list for the Blazers, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers and preseason dark-horse candidates, Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets.
Pretenders to contenders
Portland Trail Blazers | Path to contention: Trade for Omer Asik.
Honestly, the Blazers shouldn't feel compelled to do anything. After all, they've exceeded virtually all expectations with their 31-10 start and have been the league's biggest surprise team now that the Phoenix Suns have fallen off the map. The Blazers could sit tight and pat themselves on the back for their overachieving season. If they don't win a title, so what? No one expected that anyway.
But if winning a title now is the goal, the Blazers need to shore up their porous defense. It currently ranks 22nd in the league on a per-possession basis behind losing outfits such as the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. Coincidentally, they could have found their defensive anchor on the opposing bench on Monday night in Asik, who is probably one of the five best defensive big men in the game today.
The question for Portland is whether it would be willing to break up the chemistry and swallow the $15 million it will cost next season to take on Asik's contract. The Rockets, who desperately need a perimeter defender, would likely want a player such as Wesley Matthews if they're sending away Asik. Would the Blazers bite? Probably not. And that's perfectly fine, considering preseason expectations. But they can't seriously think about a championship with a bottom-10 defense.
Los Angeles Clippers | Path to contention: Get healthy.
One of the most interesting kernels from the latest Forecast is the Clippers taking a definitive backseat to the Thunder despite both teams losing their star point guard to injury. Yet the Thunder still are viewed as serious contenders, while the Clippers are expected to be distant also-rans.
Why the disparity? It probably has to do with Kevin Durant's superhuman play more than anything, but we shouldn't sleep on the Clippers, who are just starting to get healthy again and have played great ball recently. Since Chris Paul separated his shoulder in the third quarter of the Dallas Mavericks game on Jan. 3, the Clippers have won seven of their past nine games, including the Dallas win in which Paul sat out most of the second half.
They've been able to weather the storm thanks to their overhauled defense and the return of J.J. Redick (18.4 PPG in past five games), who has stabilized the battered backcourt. Since Dec. 1, the Clippers quietly own the fourth-best defense in the league, holding opponents to 100.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. If coach Doc Rivers can continue turning a frontline of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into a top-five defensive outfit and Paul comes back fully healthy, they'll put up enough points to be the last one standing. Those are two big ifs, however.
Houston Rockets | Path to contention: Upgrade perimeter D.
The Rockets are in a good spot. They're tied with the Heat for the 10th-best overall defense in the land and rank fourth in offensive efficiency. But even Dwight Howard can't erase the mistakes of their turnstile perimeter D, led by James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Aaron Brooks (who inflicts serious damage in small doses). The Rockets currently rank 23rd in isolation defense, giving up .85 points per play, according to Synergy Sports.
Harden, especially, needs to be rescued on one-on-one matchups. He has allowed 41 points on 37 isolation plays (1.1 points per play), which ranks second-to-last among the 99 players who have defended at least as many isolation plays as he has. The Rockets need a 3-and-D specialist who can mask Harden's defensive incompetence and make life easier for Howard on the back end. At age 32, Francisco Garcia isn't that guy anymore.
So who makes sense for the Rockets? Luol Deng already got moved, so you can strike him off the list, but his teammate, C.J. Miles, could make some sense in Houston. Although Miles is not a world-class defensive stopper, he has improved there this season, and he shoots lights-out from deep (40 percent). As mentioned earlier, Matthews is a name to watch, as well as Danny Green in San Antonio and Thabo Sefolosha in Oklahoma City. But good luck finding solutions with West rivals.
Golden State Warriors | Path to contention: Maintain #FullSquad.
Just like the Clippers, the Warriors need to stay healthy. They're 21-10 with Andre Iguodala on the floor but 5-7 without the two-way stud in uniform. Even when they have Iguodala healthy, they need a massive boost on the offensive end, especially from the second unit. Jordan Crawford should help anchor the second unit, but let's not ignore the fact that he had shot 35 percent in his last 15 games in Boston.
The Warriors' offense ranks just 13th this season, but their starting lineup scores at a blistering rate, 116.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That's not the problem. The problem is they didn't have anyone to create offense outside of Stephen Curry and Iguodala, but coach Mark Jackson refuses to play Iguodala as a backup point guard. That could change as the season rolls on and we draw closer to the playoffs.
But the Warriors have been dreadful with Curry off the floor, scoring a pathetic 87.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Yes, Crawford will help spur a Curry-less offense, but the truth is the Warriors don't really need a drastic change to cement their contention status. They upgraded their ballhandling depth, and now they have #FullSquad. Can they maintain it?
Memphis Grizzlies | Path to contention: Shooting, shooting and more shooting.
The Grizzlies have roared back into the playoff picture, winning five straight before dropping a narrow game at home to the short-handed New Orleans Pelicans on Monday. They're still on the outside looking in with three teams ahead of them in the Hollinger Playoff Odds for the eighth spot. Even if they make it, they won't be serious bidders for the title.
That is, unless they find some 3-point shooters. The ESPN Forecast was big on the Grizzlies before the season, but a slow start and a Marc Gasol injury later, the Grizzlies have a huge climb just to get in the playoffs (20.5 percent odds as of Tuesday morning). But if they sneak in and find some 3-point shooting along the way, watch out. The Grizzlies currently are dead last in 3-point makes and attempts while shooting 34.8 percent (21st). They need help, and they need it now. Courtney Lee (10-for-25, 40 percent since arriving in Bluff City) has helped, but that won't be nearly enough.
It's time to demote Tayshaun Prince and find a wing who isn't afraid to shoot 3. They'd likely have to start with dangling Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer and/or Ed Davis to bring in an elite shooting talent such as Atlanta's Kyle Korver or Phoenix's Channing Frye. If they want to go all-in for a title, they need a 3-point shooter to avoid the Memphis blues.
Brooklyn Nets | Path to contention: Trade for Omer Asik.
We're putting the Nets on this list for two reasons: (1) They received East champ buzz before the season and (2) they've surged as of late, winning seven of their past eight. Of all the East teams in the non-Heat/Pacers division, the Nets probably have the highest ceiling. Question is: How can they get there?
It won't be with Brook Lopez, who is out for the season after undergoing major foot surgery that will table him until next season. They've gotten by with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce holding down the front line, but that's a surefire way to burn out Garnett before the playoffs come around. Here's the safety net: deal for Asik.
The Nets are tied with the Blazers in the defensive efficiency rankings, so it's no surprise that they could use Asik as well. But it's an open question as to whether the Nets have the assets to meet the Rockets' asking price. The Rockets probably won't listen until Lopez is included, but the Rockets don't need him long-term with Howard already in the fold. With that said, it's the only way a deal gets done. Would the all-in Nets consider swapping Shaun Livingston, Andrei Kirilenko and Lopez for Asik, Parsons and Jeremy Lin?