The title picture is more crowded than ever. But which teams currently near the top of their conference's standings have a legit shot at staying there? Our ESPN.com panel weighs in on the viability of five major NBA championship hopefuls.
1. Contender or pretender: Cleveland Cavaliers?
J.A. Adande: Pretender. Even though they could win the Eastern Conference, this team won't be ready to take down the West's best. Their defense is porous, they're still establishing an offensive pecking order and too many key figures -- including the coach -- will be making their maiden NBA playoff voyage.
Kevin Arnovitz: Contender. We've been down this road before -- Season 1 of a talent-laden LeBron James team with championship expectations staggering out of the starting blocks. I usually dismiss the old trope that, "It takes time to jell," but in the Cavs' case, they probably do need time. That's not to say there aren't legitimate issues defensively, but there's enough on that side of the ball to pair with a powerhouse offense.
Amin Elhassan: Pretender. Jeff Van Gundy brought up on the TV broadcast the other day that the Cavs' defense is not championship-level. I'll take it a step further and say it's not even at the level to win a playoff series! There's a lack of urgency and cohesion on the defensive end that needs to change drastically before Cleveland can consider itself good enough to contend for a title. Either that, or the offense needs to be light years better than what it is now -- and it has the second-best offense right now!
Israel Gutierrez: Pretender, at the moment. Even with all the talk about offensive movement and getting Kevin Love involved and Kyrie Irving not playing like a point guard, the primary flaw for the Cavs is their defense. It's not even playoff good right now, much less championship level. And yes, it's early, but what about this personnel makes anyone believe it can improve as much as is obviously necessary?
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: Pretender. I'm wary of saying so because it's hard to write off a LeBron James team that boasts so much offensive talent. At the same time, how are they supposed to cobble together a defense? Anderson Varejao is their best (only?) defensive player and he doesn't move nearly as well as he once did. LeBron has slipped defensively and I'm not sure guarding more wings this season will help. Even if they make the Finals, which is quite plausible, it's hard to see them beating a top-tier West team.
2. Contender or pretender: Washington Wizards?
Adande: Pretender. They fared better than expected without Bradley Beal. But is he ready to lead them to a championship now that he's back? Is John Wall ready? I like where this team is at. I just don't like their championship chances.
Arnovitz: Pretender. This is a strong defensive team with well-defined roles. But Washington works awfully hard to get quality looks in the half court. Too often, a flurry of movement during the first 15 seconds of a possession produces nothing more than a garden-variety post-up for Nene 17 feet from the hoop. Maybe that changes with Beal back in the lineup. It would be fun if it did.
Elhassan: Pretender. While Washington's defense is legit, the Wizards struggle to score efficiently. Beal has played only one game this season, but his shot selection hasn't exactly been exemplary throughout his young career, either. You have to consider them a tough playoff out, but unless Beal takes a big step forward like Klay Thompson, they can't generate enough offense to make it into the NBA's final four.
Gutierrez: Pretender. The Wiz seem to have the pieces. But the sum of the parts doesn't seem to match the level of talent. Perhaps because the pieces don't necessarily fit. Or because Wall and Beal, while very good, aren't great. And someone has to be great on a true contender.
Strauss: Pretender. They've beaten only bad Eastern Conference teams. I like their defense, but their offense remains clogged. I should add that, as with the Cavs, I wouldn't be shocked if the Wizards made the Finals. It's just that, given the disparity between conferences this season, I don't think making the Finals equates to contender status.
3. Contender or pretender: Portland Trail Blazers?
Adande: Contender. They're still successful even though they can't catch teams off guard the way they did early last season. They've tightened their defense. They got their playoff baptism from the San Antonio Spurs, who probably taught the Blazers more by smoking them in the second round than Portland learned by beating Houston in the first round.
Arnovitz: Contender, so long as they stay in relatively good health. This was supposed to be a consolidation season, but some interesting stuff has emerged. The offensive efficiency has always been there, but the defense has been solid this season, which wasn't the case much of 2013-14. The much-maligned bench is also killing opponents, and the Blazers' four primary reserves lead the team in net rating. The West is wide open, and the Blazers are in the thick of it.
Elhassan: Pretender! While the Blazers boast one of the best and most complete starting fives in the league, bench depth is still a very real problem. Beyond Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the Blazers' bench rotation has been a revolving door of "whoever's got it going," with no player definitively claiming the spot. That indicates that coach Terry Stotts hasn't totally trusted any one of them, and while that strategy has worked so far, it will only take the Blazers so far.
Gutierrez: Pretender. The Blazers started off last season strong as well, but what we learned is they're just not deep enough, and too jump-shot oriented to win consistently at a high level. There's not much different about this year's group.
Strauss: Contender. Hey, if they've really improved that defense, what's stopping them? They've changed their scheme a bit, using more help defense on drives, and it seems to be working. I'm pretty reductive when it comes to contention. If you're top 10 in both offense and defense, I usually think you can pull it off. The Blazers can achieve this.
4. Contender or pretender: Houston Rockets?
Adande: Pretender. Their victories have been as disappointing as their losses lately. Barely beating Philadelphia at home with the 76ers on a back-to-back and squeaking by the depleted Thunder while Dwight Howard's manhood is questioned by a guy who's spent more time in a walking boot than on the court this season doesn't pass the championship sniff test. The one caveat: They match up well with San Antonio.
Arnovitz: Contender. I'm not ruling out any of the West's top half this season, because I think we're in a strange NFL/MLB-type season where a third of the league has a serious shot if it stays healthy. With Patrick Beverly, Trevor Ariza and a healthy Howard, this is an elite defense. James Harden can be hard to watch, but he manufactures offense. With a little more production from the 4 spot and a few more buckets from Ariza, it's all there.
Elhassan: Pretender!! The Rockets also suffer from a lack of depth. The ability to bring Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin off the bench last season was a luxury -- an expensive luxury, but a luxury nonetheless. While Kostas Papanikolaou has been a pleasant surprise, the bench has been inconsistent (especially on the defensive end) and limited. Like the Blazers, they'll have to pray for a healthy top seven come playoff time.
Gutierrez: Pretenders. Houston's largest void is at the power forward position, and with Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis and the rest of the West PFs lurking, Houston will need to improve at that spot to put itself over the top.
Strauss: Pretender. This one is tough for me because I think the Rockets can theoretically be top 10 in both offense and defense. There's just one nagging concern: They're really thin. The lack of depth is part of why Kevin McHale plays his stars too many minutes, which could bite them in the end. Unless Daryl Morey makes a move, I don't see it.
5. Contender or pretender: Los Angeles Clippers?
Adande: Pretender. At this point we can't even lock them into the playoffs, let alone plan a parade route. If they decide they want to commit to defense and dedicate themselves to pounding the ball inside instead of firing up jumpers, they might be able to switch labels.
Arnovitz: Contender, if they can find someone, either internally or externally, on the wing to defend. The same personnel for the most part finished No. 7 in defensive efficiency last season and No. 1 on offense, enough to station the Clips as preseason contenders. They need to address what they're doing at small forward , but this team is more likely to rip off 15 of 19 than to sputter along as the No. 7 or 8 seed into the All-Star break.
Elhassan: PRETENDER!!! Something is very wrong in Clipperland, and it's not just atrocious perimeter defense; there's a disconnect there, and they've underachieved thus far. An East Coast road trip may mask some of the issues they're having, but they still need help.
Gutierrez: Contender, barely. This is almost by default, because outside of the Spurs (and because the Thunder are so beat up), each top West team has an obvious flaw. But if I consider the Grizzlies contenders despite their lack of shooting, then I have to toss the Clippers in there despite their deficiencies on the wing. Chris Paul and Griffin should be enough to make them legitimate.
Strauss: Pretender. Great offensive talent, terrible wing defense. When your best perimeter defender might be a 5-foot-11¾ in socks Chris Paul, you're in trouble come playoff time. Like Houston, they probably need a trade to have a decent shot.