A look at teams positioned to make a finals run
The long, strange trip that is the NBA regular season has finally come to a close. Once again, basketball fans were treated to a year of intriguing storylines, surprising performances and all-around drama. Blockbuster trades and major injuries have resulted in impactful roster changes across the league. Young phenoms and new heros have emerged as elite playmakers, inserting themselves into the mix of the league’s perennial all-stars ready to chase a championship ring. But while flashes of individual brilliance are enough to win in the regular season, each club will need its entire roster to contribute when title hopes are on the line. Let’s break down which franchises are entering the playoffs with the best shot at championship contention, and what will help or hinder each team in its quest to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy this June.
The Unpredictable East
Legit: Toronto, Cleveland
Interesting: Boston, Washington, Philadelphia
Not quite ready: Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee
The Good: The backcourt and the bench. With the Raptors earning the East’s top spot for the first time in franchise history, the Eastern conference has had a different one-seed in each of the past seven postseasons. Although four of the five starters are the same as last season, this is a Toronto team that feels more confident and poised to make a deep playoff run. Not unlike previous seasons, Toronto’s backcourt, led by all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, is the strength of this team. At age 32, Lowry is still playing over 30 minutes per night while averaging just over 16 points per game and shooting above 40 percent on threes. At shooting guard, DeRozan has rebounded nicely after having a career year in scoring last season. Averaging 23 points and just over five assists per game, DeRozan has shown that he can be a top-ten scorer and drop dimes, too –– he shattered his single-season record for assists this year. Even if Lowry or DeRozan experience a brief scoring slump, the Raptors have the talent and experience across the entire lineup to take the pressure off the two all-stars. The center power forward tandem of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka has also given the Raptors production out of its frontcourt this season. And when Lowry and DeRozan get their much-needed rest, sharpshooting guard Fred VanVleet and veteran point guard CJ Miles have both contributed well in the scoring column off the bench this season.
The Bad: Lowry and DeRozan getting over past postseason failures. Securing the top spot in the east is nice, but that alone is not good enough to erase the previous four postseasons that have ended in heartbreak for the team up north. The Raptors will need its superstar backcourt to kick into high gear to make a run, but to a lesser extent than in past seasons given how well the bench is playing. The Raptors are a well put together, balanced ball club; they do not do much of anything poorly. But Lowry and DeRozan must get over the mental block that has, for whatever reason, contributed to the Raptors downfall in the past. Toronto will only go as far as its backcourt will take them.
The Good: LeBron. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the other team in the East that has a real shot at winning a title, but that’s really only because the Cavs have a player named LeBron James. The four-time MVP has been on an absolute tear over the last month and a half. James averaged over 30 points in the month of March and ranks third in the league in scoring over the entire season. In his 15th NBA season, James totaled a career-high in assists and is having one of his best three-point shooting seasons in several years. The King has proven that he can do it all by himself, and maybe he still has enough to get the otherwise lackluster Cavaliers where they need to go this postseason. But in the midst of a roster that has much to prove, forward Kevin Love might just be that player who takes pressure off James to perform at superhuman levels each night. Love is a talented scorer who can get buckets from beyond the three-point line as well as in the post, so his scoring abilities will be needed to keep the Cavs floating above water.
The Bad: Defense. Cleveland gave its roster quite a shakeup just before the trade deadline. Before the Cavaliers front office orchestrated the multitude of trades in early February, the Cavs were nine games above .500. After the trades, the new look Cavaliers won 17 of their 25 contests. Guards Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood have been the most productive out of the batch of newcomers, but it remains to be seen if Cleveland possesses a true championship caliber roster that can back up LeBron. The team ranks third to last in defensive rating and has struggled to keep opposing teams in check all season, so the Cavs will need to start with tightening things up on the defensive end before anything else. Other than that, the plan is to give the ball to James and let the rest flow from there.
The Good: Defense and balanced scoring. The Celtics are returning to the postseason with a very different lineup from one year ago. The team is littered with veteran leaders and talented youngsters who are hungry to compete as underdogs this postseason. Experienced forwards like Marcus Morris and Al Horford provide steady scoring alongside the youthful ensemble of guards like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown. 20-year-old forward Jayson Tatum has also been an excellent contributor in the starting lineup, and so has fourth-year guard Marcus Smart off the bench. All are averaging double-figures in scoring, showing how balanced and versatile Boston is on the offensive end. Boston’s biggest strength, though, is its team defense. Head coach Brad Stevens’ lineup is talented top to bottom and boasts the best defensive rating in the league. Smart, Brown and Tatum are all in the top-ten when it comes to defensive win shares. With its best player out of the lineup, Boston can depend on its defense to turn stops into much needed extra offensive possessions.
The Bad: No Kyrie. The Celtics were dealt a huge blow this past week when news broke that all-star point guard Kyrie Irving will sit out the entire postseason after undergoing knee surgery. Irving was acquired via trade this offseason and has lived up to his billing in the 60 games he played this year for Boston. An NBA champion in Cleveland, Irving’s postseason experience would have been a key asset for Boston. The Celtics will have a difficult time filling the void that Irving’s absence will leave, especially on the offensive end.
The Good: Ben Simmons and team basketball. The 76ers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2012, when they knocked off the one-seed Chicago Bulls. They are not as big of an underdog this year, but they may feel like they are given how awful the team has been over the past five seasons. The number-one overall pick, Ben Simmons, has been incredible for Philadelphia this season. The rookie scored in double figures, is fifth in assists and is third in rebounding among guards. It helps to have a couple sharpshooters to dish to, though, as veteran guard J.J. Reddick and forward Dario Saric are hovering around 40 percent from beyond the arc. Speaking of dishes, the 76ers are second in the league in assists per game, demonstrating how well head coach Brett Brown’s squad is able to share the basketball and find the best shot each possession.
The Bad: Embiid’s health. All-star center Joel Embiid is Philadelphia’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker and is the heart and soul of this Sixers team. Just when Philadelphia was finally getting a full season out of him, Embiid fractured his orbital bone at the end of March. His injury will keep him sidelined for at least part of the first round of the playoffs, but his return might come too late. If Philadelphia really wants to make a deep playoff run, it will need its best player healthy.
The Wild West
Legit: Houston, Golden State
Interesting: Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City
Not quite ready: Utah, Minnesota, New Orleans
The Good: The Beard and the offense. The Rockets have far and away been the league’s best team this season. Head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offensive juggernaut has at times been unstoppable. The Rockets attempt an NBA-leading 42 threes per contest and are second in the league in points per game. Much of Houston’s offense goes through all-star guard James Harden, who has put on an MVP-type performance from start to finish this season, averaging just over 30 points per game. The Beard has been virtually unguardable, terrorizing opposing defenses with his uncommon shooting ability and tendency to get to the foul line –– his 10 free throw attempt per night average is tops in the league. When Harden is not draining step back triples or going to the line, he’s slashing to the basket and finding open teammates for easy baskets. His 8.8 assists per game ranks fourth among all players. Houston has constructed a roster built to score. With shooters who can splash home triples from every part of the floor, Harden and all-pro point guard Chris Paul have plenty of options to dish to. The Rockets are a nightmare to defend and will have no trouble pushing the pace against any team.
The Bad: Defense and the frontcourt. The defense this season has improved, but not necessarily to a championship caliber level. Fortunately for the Rockets, they can outscore almost anyone without having to put in as much effort in stopping the other team from scoring –– but this could come back to haunt them when they match up against other western teams that are firing on all cylinders offensively. The lack of rebounding and interior defense has also been questionable. Starting center Clint Capela is athletic and fits Houston’s game, but outside of him the Rockets do not have much of an answer defensively for teams with skilled low-post players.
Golden State Warriors
The Good: Four all-stars and depth. It is nearly impossible to beat the Warriors when they are at their best. The pair of former league MVPs Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are among the most talented offensive players in the league. Curry can get open and catch fire shooting from anywhere on the court and Durant, with his lengthy frame and skilled ball handling, can match up against any defender. Durant has even elevated his defensive game to new heights as he has become a top-10 shot blocker this season. Shooting guard Klay Thompson is also known for his three-point shooting ability, but his defensive skill often goes overlooked. Expect him to be matched up against the best offensive player on each opposing team. The final piece is forward Draymond Green, whose intensity and versatility is unrivaled. Like Thompson, expect Green to take on the toughest defensive assignments and run as the point-forward when Curry rests. Even with these four off the floor, the Warriors have a veteran bench that can still give opponents headaches. Forwards Andre Iguodala and David West are essential for keeping the Dubs running while the starters sit.
The Bad: Health and turnovers. The four all-star starters have only been on the floor together in half of this season’s games. The Warriors were rarely 100 percent healthy at any point over the regular season, and that wear and tear may take a toll on this banged-up roster as it enters another long playoff push. Curry is likely to return at some point during the postseason, but it is unclear when that will be and whether he will truly be healthy. Golden State also has a tendency to get sloppy with the ball and commits the fifth-most turnovers per game. The Warriors will need to keep the mistakes at a minimum, especially if they want to outlast a fierce offensive threat like Houston.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Good: The backcourt. Guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have improved their game tremendously. They both average over 20 points per game, and Lillard is the league’s fifth best scorer. Adding a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and veteran forward Evan Turner into the starting lineup has also helped take some of the pressure off Lillard and McCollum to do everything, which is a real upgrade from last season.
The Bad: Depth. Portland has a high-powered, balanced starting five. When those starters need rest, however, the Blazers have struggled to keep up. With no proven leader off the bench, head coach Terry Stotts will have to find a rotation that keeps a few starters in at all times to maintain order.
San Antonio Spurs
The Good: Aldridge and Popovich. Forward LaMarcus Aldridge has elevated his game significantly over the last month. In the 12 contests since March 13, the 32-year-old has averaged just under 30 points and nine rebounds, and has shot over 50 percent from the field in 10 of those games. Although not a young man himself, Aldridge’s play has been enough to keep seasoned vets like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol engaged. But do not forget that the Spurs have one of the greatest coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich. He has been able to get the most out of his aging roster by inserting the likes of Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and 21-year-old Dejounte Murray to keep the energy up on both ends of the floor.
The Bad: Where is Kawhi? San Antonio has lost a bit of its mystique of being a legitimate title competitor. The Spurs are in the postseason for the 21st consecutive season, but this time are without superstar Kawhi Leonard, who has played in just nine games this season. His status remains a mystery as it was reported that he was recently cleared to play but has not shared when or if he plans to return to the court in the postseason. Without him, the Spurs are simply not as good and will have a nightmare matching up with Houston or Golden State.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Good: The big three. You are probably thinking of reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, all-star Paul George and all-pro Carmelo Anthony, right? Then you are two-thirds correct. The real third piece to the Thunder’s big three is actually Steven Adams, not Anthony. Anchoring down the center position, Adams provides true stability to the Oklahoma City lineup. Adams is an expert rebounder, defender and post scorer. Westbrook and George will do their thing by averaging over 20 points a night, while Adams will consistently score in double figures and win extra possessions for the Thunder to take advantage of. And obviously, Westbrook is one of the best players in the league right now and has the ability to take over any game with his ferocity and athleticism. George is also one of the game’s most skilled scorers and defensive forwards. If the three of them –– Westbrook, George and Adams –– can get hot at the same time, the Thunder will be a curious team to follow this postseason.
The Bad: Inconsistency and depth. Outside of Westbrook and Adams, the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent in terms of production. George and Anthony seem to score in streaks, and there is no true point producer off the bench. The defense has been mediocre as well, especially since noted defender Andre Roberson went down with a season-ending injury in January. It will be interesting to see if the Thunder can remain competitive with Westbrook off the floor.
Written by: Dominic Faria — firstname.lastname@example.org