- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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There is no need for Power Rankings in the playoffs. The playoffs settle all the debates our beloved Power Rankings generate.
After the final edition of my regular-season Power Rankings and before the playoffs start, there is one more handy list to share:
It's our countdown of playoff qualifiers from No. 16 to No. 1, in order of each team's title chances.
16. Washington Wizards
This is a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 1982, and only the Clippers (stretching to their Buffalo Braves days in 1976) have a longer drought.
The Bulls are shorthanded, true, without the sidelined Eddy Curry and Luol Deng, but Curry wasn't an automatic fourth-quarter participant for coach Scott Skiles in spite of his status as Chicago's only down-low scoring threat. Figure that the Bulls, even without Curry, can punish Washington's defensive and rebounding shortcomings while making Arenas, Hughes and Jamison work hard for their points. In what has to rank as one of the surprises of the season, in a season filled with them, Chicago still leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at .422. Which makes me believe the Bulls advance at Washington's expense.
15. New Jersey Nets
If they didn't have to play Miami, the Nets would undoubtedly be generating plenty of East Sleeper pub now that Richard Jefferson will be joining Jason Kidd and Vince Carter for the postseason. Of course, it should be noted that Jefferson's physical activity has been limited to almost nothing since his January wrist surgery, raising questions about just how much he'll be able to contribute. "To put a whole lot of stock in (the idea) that he's going to be a big factor would probably be putting too much on him," Nets coach Lawrence Frank told us on Tuesday night's "NBA Nation" on ESPN2.
Yet we're guessing the Heat would have been a lot happier to see LeBron James' Cavaliers in Round 1.
It's a very real possibility with Webber, Divac and Christie in exile and the other three Kings mainstays dealing with injuries. Jackson (wrist) will undoubtedly play some against the Sonics, but he was planning a return to action for Wednesday night's regular-season finale (after missing 57 games) without the benefit of a single practice. Stojakovic (groin) is questionable for Saturday's series opener at Seattle and obviously won't be at full strength if he does play. And Brad Miller (leg) might have to wait a few games before joining the fray, meaning that the Kings could be missing all three of the passing big men who made them so dangerous in years past. Mike Bibby remains one of the league's better clutch shooters, but Bibby alone can't replace the missing production of the aforementioned quintet.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Because of the Grizzlies' depth and physical nature on the perimeter, Phoenix insiders have considered Memphis an unappetizing matchup for some time. The Grizzlies have the capacity to rough up Steve Nash and keep the tempo reasonable, as the Suns learned by failing to reach 100 points twice in the three games Nash played in the season series.
The bigger concern for the Grizz is its own offense. After a gutty 15-8 run to solidify its playoff position with Pau Gasol out for nearly two months, Memphis has struggled to transition back to Gasol getting 20-to-25 touches in the low post every night. Without Pau, Memphis had settled into more of a pick-and-roll/penetration-and-pitch flow, relying on smaller lineups and the occasional long ball, too.
What's clear is that the Grizzlies won't let regular-season success breed overconfidence, after winning three of four meetings with San Antonio last season and then losing four straight to the Spurs in the first round. "Last year we learned a great deal about hoping to play someone in the playoffs," said swingman Shane Battier. "We didn't want them -- you never want Tim Duncan -- but we had some confidence. And they just destroyed us."
Now that the Sixers are in the playoffs, the pressure is totally off them, especially since they're facing a title contender instead of the Celtics, which would have given the Sixers a reasonable shot to advance. In this no-win situation, Webber can relax a tad and try to finally find a groove alongside Allen Iverson, as opposed to being blamed for the Sixers' demise ... which is surely what awaited Webber had Philly failed to qualify.
History tells us that only one Iverson teammate has ever averaged 20 ppg -- Jerry Stackhouse (20.7 ppg) in The Answer's rookie season -- but I still say it's too soon to write off the partnership. The way Iverson has dominated lately, willing the Sixers into the playoffs, maybe for his next trick he and Webber can give the Pistons a little scare.
11. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have intrigued me all season, without any arm-twisting from Bill Simmons and even before the reacquisition of Antoine Walker. No one else in the 16-team field can offer a similar array of big-name vets with fiery personalities (Paul Pierce, Ricky Davis and Gary Payton in addition to Toine) flanked by a clutch of promising youngsters (Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Delonte West). The encouraging comeback of Raef LaFrentz is another boost, providing the Celts with some size (by East standards) to offset the indifference displayed by a hugely disappointing Mark Blount.
In spite of all that, though, I wonder how long these guys can hang around. Boston was my pick all along to win the Atlantic (again, before Toine's return) but I don't like its chances in the first round, especially now that the Celtics are facing the Pacers rather than the Sixers. The Celtics are just too porous defensively, and those personalities are just as apt to clash as they are to mesh if Boston falls behind in a series.
10. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are 36-16 since Jan. 1 and sport a 29-19 record against teams with records over .500, placing them in the league's top five in both categories. They have a blossoming one-two punch in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and they figure to have an edge at point guard in their intrastate clash with the Mavericks by sending Bobby Sura and Mike James against Jason Terry and rookie Devin Harris.
What they won't have in these playoffs is the know-how of Juwan Howard, a former Mav who was the only player on Jeff Van Gundy's roster who had a remote chance of shadowing Dirk Nowitzki. Howard's unavailability for the rest of the season might force Van Gundy to give McGrady some Dirk duty, which obviously isn't the ideal scenario given T-Mac's offensive responsibilities.
Houston has been almost as hot as Dallas lately, but the Mavericks are the deepest team in the league and have finally found health at a time when so many other clubs have serious health issues. Those developments will likely make the difference.
9. Denver Nuggets
So who are these guys? The Nuggets who went 17-25 before George Karl's arrival? The Nuggets who went 24-2 from Feb. 23 to April 15? The Nuggets who got waxed at Houston and at Phoenix in the past week after the nationwide buzz started getting really loud?
Even after those recent hiccups, Denver remains the Lower Seed No One Wants To Play because of its second-half surge ... and because the Nuggets, unlike Houston, are expected to have their full complement of players available in the postseason -- even sharpshooter Voshon Lenard, who went down with Achilles' tear on Opening Night.
It's tough to see the Nuggets winning a Spurs series, but San Antonio is undeniably worried, knowing that Karl will push the pace at every opportunity to put as much strain as possible on Tim Duncan's tender ankle. You're also bound to see Karl throw a variety of bodies at Manu Ginobili in an attempt to work over the Spurs' second-best player as well. In the end, however, Denver will rue its inability to rise to No. 6. It's safe to say the Nuggets would have been widely favored to upset Seattle in the first round if they hadn't fallen short of the sixth slot.
8. Chicago Bulls
For only the 10th time in league history, a team is heading to the postseason without its leading scorer ... and eight of those 10 teams were dismissed in the first round.
The Bulls, though, aren't fretting too much about history, for a couple of reasons. Reason No. 1: Curry is indeed Chicago's top scorer at 16.1 ppg, but the Bulls' go-to guy is the very available Ben Gordon, a Goose Gossage-like closer (21 double-digit fourth quarters) who's bidding to become the first rookie ever to win Sixth Man Award honors. Reason No. 2: In spite of the scary Curry situation and the loss of Deng and a brutal schedule in February and March, Chicago is a stunning 38-18 since Jan. 1. That ranks the Bulls sixth in the league, behind only Dallas (39-14), Detroit (39-15), Phoenix (37-16), Houston (36-16) and Miami (35-16) and ahead of San Antonio (34-17). They can handle adversity, in other words, as confirmed by the Bulls' recovery from that 0-9 start.
7. Seattle SuperSonics
Let's be honest. Media types all over would be picking against the Sonics in Round 1 even if the Sonics were healthy. Since they're not healthy, and not really close to full strength, Ray Allen says he can't get too upset at anyone underestimating his team. "Rightfully so," Allen said when asked to react to the notion that lower seeds have been lining up a first-round shot at the Sonics. Vladimir Radmanovic (foot) is likely to miss the start of the Sacramento series and Rashard Lewis (foot) and Luke Ridnour (plantar fasciitis) will be playing hurt for as long as Seattle lasts in the postseason. The good news? The Kings are in worse shape physically than the Sonics, which gives Allen hope that his team can shame anyone who picks Sacramento ... just as Seattle made so many of us look bad by racking up 52 wins and a comfortable margin at the top of the Northwest Division.
6. Indiana Pacers
They've survived all the suspensions and injuries. They've welcomed back Jermaine O'Neal and resurrected Dale Davis to join the retiring Reggie Miller for one last playoff run. They didn't finish the regular season especially well, but trust us: This is a team none of the East's top seeds want to see.
"I feel extremely confident that we're going to be a tough team to knock out," O'Neal said, refusing the chance to complain about the absence of Ron Artest for the playoffs. "We're at the point where we think something good has to happen for this team."
Said team president Donnie Walsh: "I know that no matter what happens in the playoffs, I'm going to be very pleased with the way this team has handled the whole season."
Even without Artest, I fully expect the Pacers to upset the No. 3 Celts and then take the Pistons to seven in Round 2. Pacers vs. Pistons has to go seven -- those are the rules.
5. Dallas Mavericks
So how do you recover from the loss of the NBA's MVP? Or, at the very least, the NBA's MVP runner-up?
All Dallas did to soften the blow of Steve Nash's departure is splash out millions on its first productive center (Erick Dampier) since James Donaldson ... replace the Sixth Man Award winner (Jamison) with a sixth man (Jerry Stackhouse) who's even more aggressive and effective ... take on a huge contract (Keith Van Horn) so that it has a seventh man more dangerous than most teams' top reserve ... and find a coach (Avery Johnson) who actually has the Mavericks scoring more than they did for Don Nelson but defending worlds better.
In Johnson's 18 games in charge as the full-time head coach, Dallas is averaging 103.1 points (compared to 102.3 under Nelson) while allowing on 92.3 points per game on 42.7-percent shooting. Write it down: If the Mavericks consistently hold teams under 93 points in the playoffs, they really are the title contender the locals in Big D increasingly believe they are.
Yet there's little doubt that this edition of the Heat is the best team in club history, more than capable -- albeit not favored to do so here -- of going all the way to the championship round.
What could stop them? Besides Shaq's uncertain health, Miami's areas of concern are rhythm -- which has been lost totally with O'Neal in and out of the lineup during the past few weeks -- and Detroit's ability to guard O'Neal straight-up. No team is better staffed to deal with O'Neal than the Pistons, which limits the abilities of those around him. To unseat the defending champions, Miami will have to have monster play from Dwyane Wade and a healthy contribution from Alonzo Mourning.
3. Phoenix Suns
One of the most ill-conceived comparisons we hear regularly is the notion that the Nash-era Suns play the same game seen from the Nash-era Mavs. Not so. Nash's Suns have more 3-pointer shooters than those Mavs did and an even bigger difference: Amare Stoudemire. The Mavs have never had a power player in the class of Stoudemire, who makes the defense protect the rim and thereby opens up the floor for all the shooters.
That's why we're picking Phoenix to beat Dallas when the teams meet in the second round. Believing this week's insistence from commissioner David Stern that games will be called in the playoffs the same way they were called in regular season -- which translates to cracking down on excessive contact on the perimeter -- we see San Antonio as the only team out West capable of stopping the Suns from making a storybook sprint to the Finals.
2. Detroit Pistons
They finished the season with an 11-1 spurt. They can claim a 16-2 record over the past two Aprils. So the defending champs move from an uneven regular season into the playoffs making you wonder if they knew exactly what they were doing all along.
"We didn't have the best season, but we feel like we have the best team," said guard Chauncey Billups. "If other teams feel like that, they have to come through Detroit."
The Pistons, actually, will have to win some big road games to repeat, since they're unlikely to have home-court advantage in the conference finals or the NBA Finals. But don't expect to see any serious fretting out of Detroit. No team out there can top the Pistons' 39 wins since Jan. 1 and not even the drama surrounding Larry Brown's likely exit at season's end has distracted them lately. Expect to see them in the Finals again.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Spurs insiders are understandably nervous about Duncan's tentative movement after three ankle sprains and the lingering discomfort in Ginobili's groin. But I prefer to focus on the attributes that make this group as dangerous as any team they've ever had in San Antonio, including the two that won championships.
With Ginobili and Tony Parker constantly progressing and two dangerous shooters off the bench (Brent Barry and recent signee Glenn Robinson) the new Spurs are equipped to win with offense as well as defense.
The concern is the front line, and not just because of Duncan's iffy health. San Antonio still must prove it can win a title without David Robinson, which equates to Duncan getting quality help from Rasho Nesterovic, Nazr Mohammed, Robert Horry and Tony Massenburg.
Just don't forget that the Spurs have something that only Detroit, of the 16 teams listed here, can claim: title-tested veterans who have another gear or three to go to at tournament time. "By the time we blinked, the playoffs were over," Memphis' Battier said, recalling the Spurs' sweep of the Grizzlies last spring. "San Antonio played at a different level than they did when we played them in the regular season. It was a totally different level, and that's why they're always one of the favorites."
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