Charles Barkley predicts a tight run-in for NBA title fight

Former All-star thinks glory will go to LA Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs or Utah Jazz

The season is so close, Steve Dilbeck finds an ex-All-Star who sees four contenders in each conference

Everybody into the pool! OK, maybe not everybody, but with the NBA season at the midpoint, it has become clear there is no dominant team this season.

Not the San Antonio Spurs, not the Boston Celtics, not even the glossy Miami Heat or the Los Angeles Lakers, the two-time defending champions.

There is a title out there to be won, and right now, it is up for grabs. At least a third of the NBA's 30 teams have cause to believe they are contenders.

Certainly the Lakers remain a serious threat, but they are clearly not going to just walk through the West as they basically have for the last three seasons.

Charles Barkley, the former NBA All-Star who is now a television analyst, said the 32-13 Lakers are hardly playing poorly, but are far from certain to capture a third consecutive title.

"Ron Artest has not played well all season, first and foremost,'' Barkley told the Los Angeles Times. "Kobe [Bryant] is getting older and Derek Fisher is getting older, so they are kind of like in the pack with the rest of the good teams now. That's better than 90 per cent of the league, but the championship is not guaranteed.''

Right now the cream of the East are the Celtics, Heat, the Orlando Magic and the Chicago Bulls.

In the West, the Spurs have jumped out to an unexpected, league-best 37-7 record. Next come the Lakers, but the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Hornets and Utah Jazz have all taken turns at looking formidable.

"I think there are four teams in each conference that have a legitimate chance of winning the NBA championship," Barkley said.

"Like I said, I think the Lakers are clearly in the mix. But San Antonio and Dallas are both terrific teams and I'm waiting to see on Utah how Mehmet Okur comes back. They could be there. But I think all four of those teams are pretty evenly matched."

Okur is not the only big man returning. The Celtics have jumped out to the best record in the East (33-10) without Kendrick Perkins their regular starting centre.

And although the Heat went on an impressive run when their Big Three were healthy, they struggled with Boston's size even without Perkins, losing both games.

The Spurs have been the surprise team of the first half, winning without being dependent on Tim Duncan. In their only meeting so far against the Lakers, they handled them easily, 97-82.