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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 9:21 PM

As we bear down on the final days of the NBA regular season and the start of the playoffs, this seemed like an ideal time to review some of the question marks surrounding this year’s championship contenders. Any team who makes the playoffs has a theoretical shot to go the distance. And, right now, there are more than 16 teams who have theoretical shots to make the playoffs! So, let’s run through the roughly 20 teams who will play a prominent role in your handicapping over the next weeks.





Can the Bulls win a best of seven from the Heat? They were badly outmatched last year because the strength of Derrick Rose (flying at the basket and attacking) played right into the strength of the Miami defense (clogging the lane with length and physicality). And, they also have to be concerned that Rose can stay healthy during the playoff wars. An ankle injury last year slowed him down vs. Indiana, and may have influenced the Miami series. He’s missed a lot of games this year because he keeps running himself into injuries.



Can a three-man team go the distance? The Heat did make some moves with their role players this year. But, those adjustments haven’t worked out to be consistent upgrades. There’s still too much inconstancy from contributors 3-8 on the roster. And, the defense still has trouble chasing down shooters against teams who can spread the floor. That’s part of why Dallas beat them last year. That’s part of their extended swoon vs. quality teams in recent weeks.



Can a relatively inexperienced team without a superstar win a title? The answer is typically a universal NO to that question. But, Indiana definitely can shape the Eastern history this year even if they’re not destined to go the distance. There’s a lot to like about the Pacers. It’s just very hard to see them as a real championship threat with this roster.



Will Avery Bradley really eliminate all of the “this team is too old to win” concerns? They’ve been playing great lately with Bradley running around wreaking havoc on both sides of the floor. It’s really enabled all the old guys to play about two years younger. A few weeks ago, it was impossible to imagine this fading team as a threat to Miami or Chicago. Since the rejuvenation, they’ve defeated Miami twice, and established that they have the bona fides to go the distance. There are superstars with experience. This is a team that’s going to get calls late in close games. The biggest question really is “Is what we’re seeing lately for real…or is it all just a short term fluke?”



This hunk gets its own grouping because none of them have shown the credentials to win more than one series in the postseason. The question is, “can teams with THESE records vs. winning opponents possibly string together best-of-seven survivals vs. superior opposition?”

Versus .500 or better:

Atlanta: 10-20

Orlando: 12-19

Philadelphia: 12-21

Milwaukee: 9-26

Milwaukee is a longshot to make the playoffs, and would seemingly have no chance vs. a #1 seed in the first round given that horrible mark vs. winning teams.



Can the Knicks get healthy in time to make a difference THIS year? We like what Mike Woodson has done since taking over the team. New York is playing playoff caliber defense most nights, and will certainly be a tough out for whoever they face. Unfortunately, they were outclassed by Chicago earlier this week…needing a miracle to win a home game before losing decisively on the road. That suggests a tough challenge in a first round battle against either Chicago or Miami. It’s great to see New York matter again. We’re guessing next year is when they get on the radar with more authority.





Can Russell Westbrook keep his composure when challenged by a top opponent? He missed way too many shots and lost his cool last year vs. Dallas. He did the same thing this past Wednesday Night in a surprising home loss to the LA Clippers. Westbrook can embarrass bad teams. He’ll have to prove to us over the next several weeks that he’s ready to lead this team to a title from the point guard position. As soon as the Thunder get close to looking dominant, they stub their toe in a way that reminds you of their vulnerabilities.



Is this team really built for the playoffs? They were the #1 seed last year but lost to Memphis, a team whose roster is better suited to the postseason. Wednesday Night’s loss to the shorthanded Lakers was embarrassing since it was at home by double digits, and Kobe Bryant didn’t even play. The Spurs were killed inside by Andrew Bynum (30 rebounds) and Metta World Peace (26 points). This team is a thing of beauty when the offense is clicking. Defense wins championships! This defense isn’t what it used to be.



Can this team beat Western quality with Kobe taking so many shots? Can the bench do much of anything in games that matter? Will this team chase down perimeter shooters better than they did last year? A lot of obvious questions for the Lakers, who looked to be toast after a home loss to Memphis before a recent surge. Maybe a fresh Kobe who’s learned something during his time off can lead this dangerous starting lineup to a title. We need to see more chemistry when Kobe’s on the floor before we start thinking big.



Will this erratic defense hold together during high pressure situations? The Clippers defense has disappeared too often in recent weeks. But, they DID play well vs. Oklahoma City in a huge road game. And, if Chris Paul is running the show on offense for a team that defends, then the Clippers will be a tough out for anybody. New Orleans turned out to be a tough out last year with Paul and a bunch of role players. We’re skeptical that the Clippers besides Paul will hold up to first year playoff pressure as a unit.



Are these guys ready to take another big step forward? This is a roster you have to respect…but not one yet that says “champions” in our view. Will the refs give them the nod late in close games vs. superior seeds? Will newcomers to pressure be able to perform if they get close enough to smell a ring? Dallas had veterans who rose to the occasion when they got close last year. Memphis may still be too young. We do like what we see with these guys though in terms of the inside game and varied scoring options in halfcourt battles.



Is this just a transition year before Mark Cuban gets busy in free agency? The gamble on Lamar Odom made sense at the time, but turned out to be a disaster. The new pieces didn’t fit in quite the way everyone had hoped. And, that’s dropped the Mavericks off the championship radar in our view. Last year wasn’t a fluke, because the combination of talent and smart strategies truly paid off against teams who couldn’t make adjustments. The roster is different this year, and the magic just isn’t there in our view.



As was the case with the teams we lumped together in the East, none of these teams have winning records this year vs. teams who are .500 and better. Since they’re pretty much guaranteed of being first round longshots vs. strong opposition if they qualify for the playoffs…the question here is again: “can teams with THESE records vs. winning opponents possibly string together best-of-seven survivals vs. superior opposition?”

Versus .500 or better:

Denver: 16-17

Houston: 16-19

Utah: 13-22

Phoenix: 14-20

We’re looking forward to a big weekend of NBA action  as the build-up to the playoffs approaches full crescendo. We hope you’ll go day-by-day with us right here at the website for all the BIG, JUICY WINNERS. You can purchase JIM HURLEYS’ daily MONSTERS with your credit card at a very affordable price. We also have daily baseball too. If you have any questions about NETWORK service, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

We can tell you of one CHAMPION who never has any question marks about his performance. That’s handicapping’s living legend JIM HURLEY!

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