Counting down the contenders, from 16 to 1

Updated: June 7, 2006, 1:39 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

You know the drill by now. The Power Rankings go on hiatus once the playoffs arrive, because the playoffs tend to settle all those debates our beloved Power Rankings generate.

Besides …

You also had to know that I wasn't about to let the week elapse without trotting out the postseason cousin to the Power Rankings: My countdown of playoff qualifiers from No. 16 to No. 1, in order of each team's title chances now that we know who's playing whom.


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You look at the Bucks' roster and you see more quality size than you'll see anywhere else in the Eastern Conference except for Detroit and Miami.

But then you look at the Bucks' first-round opponent and their inability to clinch a No. 5 seed when a win Tuesday night at Washington would have done it -- after an unforgivable home loss Saturday to Atlanta -- and you're reminded that the frontcourt rotation of Jamaal Magloire, Andrew Bogut, Dan Gadzuric, Bobby Simmons, Joe Smith and Toni Kukoc hasn't meshed. Not with each other. Not with Milwaukee's up-tempo guards.

Making the playoffs was a good step for a team that went 30-52 last season. The Bucks know, though, that they didn't live up to billing after the hope-generating acquisition of Magloire just days before opening night.

In theory, Milwaukee is big enough to trouble Detroit in the first round. In reality, industry sources fully expect Milwaukee to trade Magloire in the offseason as part of another in-house shuffle after the Bucks struggled to define a consistent style of play, address their defensive frailties and take advantage of all the size.


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With Ron Artest in town, one thing's for sure: No one's calling them Queens anymore. Sacramento has an enforcer now. Famous tough guy from Queensbridge, as it happens.

Yet even with Artest and the unquestionable boost he has given the Kings defensively after years of softness, it's still a stretch to call them the Team No One Wants To See in the first round. It's tough to bill the Kings that way when they couldn't climb higher than No. 8 in the West, condemning them to a first-round matchup with mighty San Antonio.

Artest will play his linebacker brand of defense against Manu Ginobili, say outrageous things about Tony Parker's girlfriend and how much better his D is than Bruce Bowen's and force us to pay an abnormal amount of attention to a 1 vs. 8 matchup just because he'll be there.

But let's face it. The Kings can't win more than two games against the Spurs.

Two is pushing it, actually. Impressive as it was to see Artest guarantee a playoff berth upon arrival in Sacto and spark a 27-14 turnaround in which the opposition reached 100 points just nine times in the 40 games he played, Artest's new team doesn't have the depth or the front-line quality to seriously trouble the reigning champs.


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You can look it up: Phil Jackson has never lost a first-round playoff series. But you know what they say, even in the world of Zen: There's a first time for everything.

Facing Phoenix, as opposed to San Antonio, in Round 1 at least allows the Lakers to dream of an upset. It would have been futile and a bit sad, by contrast, to see Kobe Bryant trying to beat his old pals from the Alamo City by himself.

Yet that's not to suggest that it'll be worlds easier for Bryant against the Suns, who plan to let No. 8 make his nightly runs at 50 points (or more) in the name of shutting down everyone else. And Phoenix can, in spite of its defensive deficiencies, because the Suns will play at a blistering pace that wears down Jackson's thin squad and because L.A.'s bigs aren't good enough to exploit the absence of Kurt Thomas.

Not that Jackson needs a first-round upset to support Bryant's contention that this was his best-ever coaching job. It has to be at or near the top for the Zenmeister, even with Lamar Odom playing his best ball as a Laker lately, given that Bryant and Jackson have to depend heavily on Smush Parker and Kwame Brown and still managed something Kevin Garnett and Minnesota couldn't just by getting to the playoffs.


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Even though it secured a first-round matchup with 60-win Dallas, Memphis isn't apologizing for its tank-free 8-1 finish.

Not after skidding into the tournament on runs of 1-5 and 1-6 in its first two playoff seasons and then combining to win zero playoff games.

Admirable as their approach sounds, I'm wondering how the Grizz and their fans will feel after the Dallas series, even if they win a game or two for the first time in their brief playoff history. This is much more of a veteran group than they've ever had in Memphis, and thus better equipped for the playoffs than ever before in support of a better-than-ever Pau Gasol, but the Mavs are heavy favorites even with key reserve Keith Van Horn unavailable and the borderline-indispensible Devin Harris likely to play a limited role to increase the odds he'll be ready to face San Antonio in Round 2.

What favors Dallas so? The story of Memphis' season is holding teams under 100 points; only 12 opponents have cracked triple digits against the league's stingiest defense and two of those 12 needed overtime to get there. Yet these Mavs, under Avery Johnson, have proven themselves capable of winning games in the 80s. Scoring 100 is no longer a Mavs must, negating the Grizzlies' major strength.


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Remember when the Pacers were considered one of three legit title contenders in the East … compared to just one (San Antonio) in the West?

Neither do they.

Optimism in October seems like forever ago for a group that figured its roller coaster days were over in late January when Artest finally was traded. Not so, sadly. The Pacers have found no respite from chemistry concerns and injury issues since shipping Artest to Sacramento, leading to the widespread belief that a major overhaul -- namely parting ways with Jermaine O'Neal -- is coming in the offseason.

Coach Rick Carlisle has coaxed the Pacers through countless adversities before, but it was an undeniable downer for Indy to enter its regular-season finale with Orlando knowing that it couldn't finish higher than sixth in the East. So even though New Jersey won't relish seeing the Pacers in the first round, given that they do possess more playoff experience than any of the East's other lower seeds and have the size to exploit the Nets' biggest shortcoming, Indy's lack of cohesion and its still-evolving shift from a defense-first philosophy to a new up-tempo game suggests that toppling a high seed is too much to ask.


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A well-connected assistant coach told me earlier in the season that the hard-driving Scott Skiles was wearing on the young Bulls to the brink of losing them.

You have to conclude now that my coach friend either heard wrong or that Skiles can still get a response from these players no matter how hard he pushes.

The Bulls, after all, didn't simply uncork a 12-2 finishing kick to finish at 41-41. With absolutely zero fanfare -- I honestly can't remember hearing anybody mention this -- Chicago has climbed all the way back to No. 1 in the league in field-goal defense, allowing opponents just 42.6 percent shooting from the floor. Ranking No. 1 for two straight seasons, in a category coaches treasure, is an achievement in itself. Especially when general manager John Paxson freely admits that the Bulls still need an injection of "size and athleticism" if they want to be considered serious candidates for a return to the NBA's elite.

Which leads, of course, to even better news: Chicago already had the best consolation prize it could hope for -- New York's No. 1 overall pick in the June draft thanks to the Eddy Curry trade -- whether or not it rallied into the playoffs. Add that to significant salary-cap room in the offseason and the Bulls have one of the most enviable futures on the NBA map. No matter what you think of their first-round chances against Miami.


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First thing we want to know about LeBron James in the playoffs: Will there be any lingering discomfort from his recent ankle twist?

Second thing we want to know about LBJ in his maiden appearance on the big stage: Can he trump Michael Jordan by winning a playoff series before his fourth season?

It's true that Jordan never missed the playoffs with the Bulls, but it's also true that Chicago didn't post a winning regular-season record with MJ in Year 4. The Bulls, furthermore, were 1-9 in playoff games before taking a first-round series vs. Cleveland in 1988 … followed the next year by another first-round dismissal of the Cavs in which Jordan sank a fairly memorable jumper over Craig Ehlo.

This is indeed LeBron's first trip to the postseason, after two second-half fades, but he has hiked the Cavs' win total from 17 to 35 to 40 to a healthy 50 in three seasons. Although no one expects second-round success against Detroit, Cleveland's 18-6 finish -- with LeBron routinely scoring 35-plus points -- has changed the equation. The preseason goal of simply getting to the playoffs is no longer good enough. The Cavs have to win their first-round series to make this season an unqualified success.


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The Wiz have a big job. They are being counted upon to bring a dose a drama to the start of the playoffs.

Unless you see a more likely first-round upset in the East. Or the West.

I don't. I'm struggling to dream up a scenario, barring the intervention of catastrophic injuries, where Detroit, Miami or New Jersey loses in Round 1. Ditto for San Antonio, Phoenix or Dallas. (And No. 3 Denver losing to the Los Angeles Clippers, when the Clips have home-court advantage, wouldn't really count as an upset.)

So it's mostly on the Wiz, who wound up with the matchup Gilbert Arenas has been craving. Let's see if Washington, with Caron Butler back from the thumb injury that led to a five-game losing streak, can make this a nervy introduction to the second season for Cleveland's rookie coach (Mike Brown) and world-famous playoff rookie. Let's see if Arenas, averaging 31.6 points since the All-Star Game, can use a matchup with longtime ex-teammate Larry Hughes to lift his game another notch.


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Tankers? Sly foxes? First-round favorites?

No matter how you view the Clippers, they're simply grateful to be at the forefront of so many playoff debates these days. The passing of Shareef Abdur-Rahim's decade-long drought without a playoff appearance (nearly 750 games) in Sacramento will get more coverage, but Stein Line favorite Elton Brand suffered similarly for his first six seasons as a pro, unable to overcome the Clipper Factor no matter how many double-doubles he rang up.

In lucky season No. 7, Brand expanded his game and slimmed down his physique. He also had the good fortune to be joined by a point guard with the swagger and audacity to believe he could change the Clippers' culture. Then there was more good fortune after all the years of suffering … coming from a playoff seeding system that amazingly gives Brand, Sam Cassell and the rest of the Clips home-court advantage in their opening-round series with No. 3 seed Denver.

If the Clips indeed tanked to get the No. 6 seed -- the league office reasons that there can be no punishment with no conclusive proof -- it means they sacrificed the prospect of taking a Memphis-like helping of momentum into the playoffs to get home-court advantage in a series for the first time in the club's L.A. history. Yet you'll notice that, amid all this name-calling, no one is calling them stupid.


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For all the chatter about how everyone wants to play them and how crazy it is to see a No. 3 seed start the playoffs on the road, Denver isn't doing too much complaining. Maybe that's because the Nuggets remember last season's playoffs and the season before, when they had to open against powerhouses.

In Carmelo Anthony's rookie season, Denver was ousted in the first round by the only Garnett-led Minnesota squad to ever win a playoff series. Last spring, it was a physical opening-round matchup with the eventual champs from San Antonio. Facing the Clippers now, even without the home-court advantage and even after losing the teams' last three regular-season meetings, doesn't sound so bad. Especially since George Karl's Nuggets, happen to have the best player in the series in 'Melo, which always helps.

Being the road team in every round, furthermore, is better than being in the San Antonio-Dallas bracket. So Denver has that in its favor, too.

As always seems to be the case with these guys, injuries are the biggest worry, more than venues or the opposition. Earl Boykins is just coming back after a month-long absence with a broken hand, Greg Buckner and Eduardo Najera are dinged up as well and Karl believes he has to keep Kenyon Martin in the 25-minute range for Martin to make any kind of contribution in his ongoing (and labored) recovery from microfracture knee surgery. That predictably upsets K-Mart, but no one wants it to be different more than Karl, who really could use a full-strength front line (Nene's out as well, remember) after labeling the Clips as the West's "best post-up team."


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Maybe Pat Riley and the Heat were helpless to prevent this. Maybe Detroit's 39-6 start and Shaquille O'Neal's insistence on saving himself for the playoffs doomed Miami to a very ordinary regular season no matter what Riley would have tried.

But here's the thing: Shaq has to have a monster playoffs now to justify the strategy. If he's spry enough to give Dwyane Wade the help he'll need just to get the Heat back to the East finals, Shaq is the smart one. He'll be in line for many apologies in that scenario.

On the flip side: Miami's many critics (and you know where the line starts) advocated merely tweaking the team that nearly beat Detroit last spring as opposed to wholesale changes because Riley's approach meant starting completely over … and with big names as opposed to proven role players. Instead of building on the familiarity and experience gained last season by playing the Pistons so evenly in spite of the injuries carried by Wade and Shaq, Riley's revamped team didn't come close over the past 82 games to approaching the oneness Detroit's vets have.

Maybe it was never realistic, given the circumstances above, to expect that. Now, though, Miami is forced to try to find that level in the playoffs at the toughest time ..... and with many doubts to dispel as well. Do these Heaters have the spot-up shooters to open things up for Wade and Shaq? Can they defend the pick-and-roll when they have to? Will they make free throws? Are Shaq and Alonzo Mourning healthy enough for a long playoff run? The answers start coming now.


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The Nets have been compared to the old Nowitzki-Nash-Finley Mavericks. If two of their Big Three are clicking, they're a tough out. If they get a strong series from Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd, Miami is really in trouble in Round 2.

Of course, if only one plays at a high level …

Nets coach Lawrence Frank, mind you, tries to discourage Big Three talk no matter who's hot or cold and would tell you that center Nenad Krstic is just as important as Carter, Jefferson or Kidd. There's no disputing that the Nets are a different team when Krstic is aggressive, as seen when New Jersey recently won 15 of 17 games in one stretch and the 7-footer averaged 16.1 points and nearly nine rebounds.

If Krstic can draw Shaquille O'Neal away from the rim, and if Carter and Jefferson can indeed capitalize on Miami's season-long struggles to contain athletic slashers since the departure of Eddie Jones, New Jersey has a real shot to get to the East finals.


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The Suns can't (and realistically don't) see themselves as title contenders without Amare Stoudemire.

Then again …

Placed on the cushy 2-3-6-7 side of the West's playoff bracket, Phoenix has an inviting path back to the conference finals. The Lakers' real achievement was getting to the playoffs. Either the Clippers or a Denver team that likes to run as much as they do would be a welcome foe at the second hurdle, where the Suns (after losing Joe Johnson) had to subdue Dallas last time. And not much would be expected if they got this far, but there might even be some long-shot hope in the West finals, if you buy the premise that the Spurs and Mavs will drag each other around for seven games.

Of course, almost all of the above depends on Steve Nash doing what he did last spring, when the little guy bidding for a second straight MVP trophy gritted through his standard back and hamstring discomfort to play even better than he did in the regular season. If Nash, at 32, stays sturdy enough to keep the Suns running at peak efficiency, there's no reason they won't live up to their seeding. Phoenix will be relying more than ever on the experience of Nash and Shawn Marion, with an inexperienced group around them and the Suns' top post defender, Kurt Thomas, unlikely to return before the conference finals.


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They know what they have to do.

They have to win their first-round series as quickly as possible to be as fresh as possible for the Spurs.

They have to keep DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier out of foul trouble when they get to Round 2.

And they have to get Josh Howard scoring in the 20s -- they're 19-0 when he does -- and get Harris healthy, because Dirk Nowitzki is going to need scoring help against San Antonio to get the Mavs past the Spurs. That would be true even if the Mavs did have the home-court advantage in Game 7 against their South Texas rivals.

Most of all, though, Dallas knows what must be done to alter leaguewide perceptions about this team. Even though it's the first Mavs team ever to allow fewer than 94 points per game, and even though Nowitzki and Johnson are at or near the top of most MVP and Coach of the Year ballots, Nowitzki concedes that it'll all be forgotten unless they can get out of the West.

"You can't change your reputation in the regular season," Nowitzki told me back in February. "It just doesn't happen. We could win [every regular-season game] and our reputation probably still wouldn't change. We know we have to do this in the playoffs."


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Tony Parker tells the story of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, back in training camp, reminding his team that they've never followed up a championship with another championship.

"He just told us right at the beginning, 'We need to repeat,'" Parker recalls. "[He said] we're the only team that won a championship [that] didn't repeat, basically."

So that's the goal and the only outcome that would make this an acceptable season in San Antonio. The Spurs won a franchise-record 63 games in spite of the ailments that have kept Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the 80 percent range all season, but winning a second straight title -- and third in four years -- is why they loaded up with new reserves Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel.

With home-court advantage in the West and the only title-tested team in the tournament besides Detroit, San Antonio has too many advantages not to get back to the Finals … provided that Duncan and Ginobili's fitness levels dip no lower than 80 percent. The Spurs, though, are hopeful that the absence of back-to-back games in the playoffs helps usher those two closer to the 90 percent range, knowing that their two best players have to be closer to their peak if the Spurs want to beat the Pistons again in their expected Finals rematch.


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They didn't want 70 wins. They wanted Game 7 on their floor for every round of the playoffs.

Which they've got now.

The Pistons have also maintained the health of their peerless starting five all season, strengthened their bench a bit by adding Tony Delk to Antonio McDyess, Dale Davis and Lindsey Hunter and hushed fears that they would badly miss Larry Brown by learning to win at both fast and slow tempos under Flip Saunders.

What these more versatile Pistons have most of all, naturally, is the hunger to regain their championship. A great thing to have.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics