I’m a huge NBA fan. Always have been. However, going into this season, I wasn’t too excited for the year. With Durant joining forces with the Warriors and the Cavaliers just as strong as ever, it seemed that the season would be a complete bust. With the inevitable Warriors-Cavs match-up destined to become a trilogy come June, I foresaw a long, boring NBA season that would have these two teams as the only teams in the finals’ conversation at this point of the season.
But here we are. With teams approaching single-digit games remaining, the Warriors lead the West by a mere two games and the Cavaliers only lead the East by one. In the West, the Warriors can easily be threatened by the Spurs along with the Rockets. In the East, the Cavaliers will try to hold off the Celtics, Wizards, and the Raptors.
Sure, it’s still just the regular season, the Warriors and Cavaliers don’t really care about anything other than being healthy and hitting their stride come playoff-time, and no one has truly made a serious threat to dethrone either of them from their respective conference titles. But the fact that there are five other teams that are even in the conversation to hoist the trophy at the end of the season makes this NBA season a true success.
Before examining the five other teams’ chances, I want to eliminate the excuse for the two powerhouses. Yes, the Warriors and the Cavaliers have both experienced injuries to key players in Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. Yes, these injuries probably cost them wins that theoretically could have caused their leads within their conferences to be bigger. But if you think that these two teams are the only teams to experience injuries, you’re simply not paying close attention to the other teams. The Spurs lost Pau Gasol for a 15-game stretch earlier this season. The Celtics have had their starting five healthy for only 30 games this whole season, winning 23 of them. The Raptors have been without arguably their best player in Kyle Lowry since the All-Star break. Every team faces injuries throughout the season, so that cannot be used as an excuse for the standings being so close.
As the regular season comes to a close, it appears that all of the true competitors will be at full strength, at least from a player-availability perspective, heading into the playoffs.
Let’s go through the teams and analyze who, if any, have a legitimate chance at dethroning the incumbents:
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs compete every year, so it’s definitely not a surprise that they are yet again above 50 wins for a record 18th consecutive season. As long as Popovich is there, you can never count them out. He always finds a way to put a competitive team on the court. Of course, it definitely helps having the best two-way player in the game in Kawhi Leonard on your team. With Leonard, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Gasol, the Spurs have a dangerous core that could challenge the Warriors in a 7-game series, especially when you throw in the experience of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Prediction if they meet Warriors in playoffs: Warriors in 6
It is tough to see the Spurs beating the Warriors in a playoff series. They definitely will compete, will not be out-coached, and will not be embarrassed. I see them winning a couple of games and putting pressure on the Warriors. In the end, the Warriors have too much star-power, assuming Durant comes back healthy. The Spurs do have the advantage inside, with Aldridge and Gasol, but in this era of the NBA, where three-pointers reign supreme, I see the Warriors getting passed the Spurs if they meet up in the playoffs.
What a year the Rockets have had. Led by new head coach, and Coach of the Year candidate, Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets have excelled. If there wasn’t a player averaging a triple-double for the season out in Oklahoma, James Harden would be the runaway MVP candidate for the year. They have three-point shooters all over the court who match those of the Warriors. They had possibly the most underrated pick-up at the trade deadline in Lou Williams. They will embrace the likely shootout-style games they would get if they meet up with the Warriors in the playoffs.
Prediction if they meet Warriors in playoffs: Warriors in 5
I don’t see the inexperience of the Rockets matching up well against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Rockets can compete with the Warriors, but ultimately the Warriors have more of everything than the Rockets do. They have more playoff experience, more defense, and more superstars. I don’t see the Rockets making it a competitive series.
The Celtics are such an interesting team. I look at their roster, and see a star in Isaiah Thomas, but I have a hard time convincing myself that a 5’9″ (but really 5’7″…) guy can carry a team on his back. But that’s exactly what I.T. has done. He is third in the NBA in points per game with 29.0, leads the league in 4th quarter scoring, and every time I watch him, I am just amazed at his stop-and-go abilities that allow him to get off his shot or get fouled. Where they really excel, however, is with their depth. They added Al Horford in the off-season, who very quietly has had a great season. He leads all centers in assists per game with five and is the engine that really makes the Celtics offense go when teams focus on shutting down Thomas. Then they have three of the peskiest, most physical defensive players in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder who all have vastly improved their offensive games as well. Throw in role players in Amir Johnson, a much-improved Kelly Olynyk, rookie Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Jonas Jerebko and you have a team that likes to go with a 10-man rotation of players all comfortable with playing at any point in the game. They like to put up threes and put pressure on the opposition’s ballhandlers, but they struggle on the boards.
Prediction if they meet Cavaliers in playoffs: Celtics in 7
I think the Celtics match up well with the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are incredible. Lebron James is the best player in the NBA, and Kyrie Irving has the best ball-handling skills possibly of any player in the history of the NBA. But the Celtics always battle them. The three-headed defensive monster of Bradley, Smart, and Crowder will allow the Celtics to at least contain these two beasts. They will get their points, but it will not come easily.
I see the Celtics winning a potential series with the Cavaliers for one main reason: home-court advantage. The Celtics finish the regular season with the easiest schedule in the NBA and only trail the Cavaliers by one game, as of this writing. They also still play the Cavaliers one more game in Boston, a game I see the Celtics winning. Because of this, I see the Celtics going into the playoffs as the number one seed out of the East, giving them home-court advantage against the Cavaliers, should they match up in the Conference Finals. The Celtics are a much better team at home, as evidenced by their 25-9 record at home versus 21-17 on the road. The Celtics also thrive on energy, defensive pressure, and three-point shooting, specifically by their role players. It is well-known that being home versus being away has the biggest impact on role players, not superstars. Being at home will allow the depth of the Celtics to feel comfortable and confident.
Here’s one thing I will guarantee: if the Celtics play against the Cavaliers in a 7-game playoff series, all NBA fans are winners because that will be one intense series.
If I wrote this article two weeks ago, it would read a lot differently. The Wizards started the season horrendously, going 2-8 in their first ten games. Then, they went on a tear for three months, and appeared to be the main team that was going to threaten the Cavaliers in the East. But now they have lost four of their last six games and appear to be stumbling into the playoffs. There is definitely enough time to get hot and turn things, but only time will tell that. Right now, it is tough to see this team being the one to dethrone King James.
Prediction if they meet Cavaliers in playoffs: Cavaliers in 5
The Wizards have arguably the best backcourt in the NBA in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and have some solid role players surrounding them, especially with their deadline trade for three-point specialist Bojan Bogdanovic. It is just very hard to see this team posing that big a threat to the Cavaliers if they match up in the playoffs. Lebron and Kyrie are superior superstars than Wall and Beal. Love, Korver, and Tristan Thompson are superior role players than Otto Porter Jr., Bogdanovic, and Marcin Gortat. I don’t see the Wizards matching up well with the Cavaliers, and I don’t see this series being that competitive.
The Raptors are the dark-horse in this conference. They lost Kyle Lowry during the All-Star break, but that hasn’t had nearly the negative impact that many people thought it would, as they have gone 10-5 since the break. Demar Derozan has really steadied the ship with his scoring, along with their new addition in Serge Ibaka, who has been a strong presence inside for them. With Lowry expected to return in time for the end of the regular season, it remains to be seen what this team will look like with the threesome of Lowry, Derozan, and Ibaka firing on all cylinders.
Prediction if they meet Cavaliers in playoffs: Cavaliers in 7
Last year, the Raptors forced six games in the Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. If they match up again at some point in this year’s playoffs, I think the addition of Ibaka for the Raptors makes a difference, but not enough to win the series. I see the series being competitive and going the distance, but ultimately, I think home-court advantage would give Cleveland the edge, specifically with the energy and rebounding of Thompson, along with the three-point shooting of Love, Korver, and J.R. Smith.