The NBA season is in full flow. The halfway point is coming up and the trade deadline and All-Star game are coming into focus on the horizon. Things change, of course, but there is much to be learnt from the start of the season and most teams worthy of contention will have shown signs of it through the first 40 games.
We were graced with a truly fascinating NBA Finals last year, with LeBron James finally bringing the championship to Cleveland and the record-setting 73-win Golden State Warriors choking in a series they had led 3-1. Adding Kevin Durant this summer made the Warriors instant contenders again, but what about the other teams? Can we separate the contenders from the pretenders?
Golden State Warriors – Contenders.
It is not even worth talking about. They have the best roster, a Championship-pedigree and a great coach and system. It is almost worth locking them into the Finals. Curry, Klay, KD, Draymond, Zaza. Lock them in! Come on, man!
San Antonio Spurs – Pretenders?
It seems like sacrilege to write off the Spurs but this is far from definite. Coach Popovich always makes his team one capable of winning the NBA title but this year, their first without Tim Duncan in the 21st Century, may well be out of reach.
Make no mistake, Kawhi Leonard is a defensive dynamo and a true superstar, capable of getting the better of any match up, even LeBron or Durant. His ability to pull the Spurs to a Championship is not guaranteed though. The former Finals MVP does not have the support he once had. LaMarcus Aldridge is a great scoring big and a slower Pau Gasol is still a nice piece but there is a lack of quality elsewhere. Tony Parker is not the player he once was. Manu Ginobili isn’t either. Their rotation options, Patty Mills and Danny Green, do not change anything. Parker and Mills and Green and Ginobili. That backcourt might just fall short.
Then again, never, I mean NEVER, write off Pop.
Houston Rockets – Pretenders.
No. Just no. Their ultra-fast offensive style is a joy to behold and James Harden is, arguably, the MVP at this point. In the playoffs, though, when the game often becomes slower, the Rockets will be caught out. Mike D’Antoni’s offence did not get the Phoenix Suns any real success in the postseason and it will be no different with Houston, even if both teams have the MVP (Steve Nash and James Harden(?)).
Harden is elite. He is among the elite of the elite. His scoring is insatiable and his passing, as the league’s leading playmaker, is constantly impressive, despite troubles with turnovers. Still, he will not be able to pull his team all the way to the Finals. He tried it before with Dwight injured and the Conference Finals were his limit.
His support is not weak. Eric Gordon is proving a lot of people wrong in Houston and he and the sweet-shooting big, Ryan Anderson, are great scorers. Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela are not bad support players either but the team around James Harden is not of the same ilk as their competition.
Los Angeles Clippers – Contenders.
Really? The L.A. Clippers are contenders but the Spurs are pretenders? Well, the Clippers have a great roster. In Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, they have a big three that excels in every way and on both ends. They are aging though and have been devoid of success, so the big three should be motivated by the knowledge that their window to bring a championship to the Clippers is fading, fast.
CP3 is the league’s most balanced point guard and one of the greatest of all-time. Blake is a dynamic power forward capable of passing, scoring and rebounding and DJ is the ultimate role-player-turned-star with his ridiculous efficiency. And beyond them, the team’s support is excellent. Los Angeles have one of the best bench scorers in Jamal Crawford and an elite three-point threat in J.J. Reddick. They even have a leader who has seen and done it all, in Paul Pierce.
The Clippers have it all. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a trio capable of challenging any team- if they can stay healthy. The gap between the Spurs and L.A. is small, very small, but just enough. After all, the playoffs are when star-power is more important than ever.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Contender.
Any team that has LeBron James is a contender. That is that. He has been in every Finals since 2011.
So yeah, it’s likely that LeBron will lead the Cavs there again in 2017. He is the league’s best player, after all, and the King dragged his hometown team back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors last year. No player guarantees playoff progression like LeBron James.
Beyond one individual though, the Cavs are the strongest team in the East. Kyrie Irving is one of the league’s best ball-handlers and can score at will. He is also a true clutch player, sinking a three to win the Finals in 2016 and winning game after game since. Kevin Love has finally found his role and is as effective as he has ever been in a Cavs uniform. Add in the board-dominant Tristan Thompson and snipers, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver, and the Cavaliers can go the whole way.
Toronto Raptors – Pretenders, but…
The Toronto Raptors are the second-best team in the East, but that does not say much.
With a roster led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Canadian franchise is strong, but not strong enough. They would likely struggle against the Clippers or the Spurs over seven games, let alone the Warriors or the Cavaliers.
That, however, could change. Acquiring Paul Millsap from the Atlanta Hawks, as the rumours have suggested, would make the roster truly worthy of contention. Just look at the starting five. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, Jonas Valunciunas. That group would worry any opponent. There is plenty of defensive strength in Lowry, Carroll and Millsap. And then there are those who can score in bunches with mid-range wizard DeRozan and other rotation scorers like Terrence Ross and Jared Sullinger.
With Millsap, the Raptors could conceivably grind out a victory against any team over seven games. It would not make them the best team in the league, or the second, or maybe even the third, but they would have every chance of making a push.
Boston Celtics – Pretenders.
The Boston Celtics are not there yet. Their defensive rebounding is a consistent worry, as it has been with any team where Al Horford plays center, and the team just cannot compete with the league’s best.
Isaiah Thomas is a tremendous scorer but his lack of size ultimately makes him a useless defender. Avery Bradley is a great defender and can contribute on offense, as can Jae Crowder. Horford is great on both ends, has a great defensive I.Q. and an unstoppable mid-range jumpshot. None of those players are the kind of stars who can drag a team further in the playoffs though. And without that, Boston’s roster is unlikely to be enough to compete with the superteam in Oakland or the King’s Cavaliers.
Of course, they do have the assets to make the moves necessary to elevate their roster to that next level, but all indications thus far point to a patient policy from Danny Ainge and the Celtics management. The C’s will have to wait for Championship number 18.
Utah Jazz – Pretenders.
The Utah Jazz are good. They are 25-16 at this point of the season but their young core is only just pushing into the upper echelons of the NBA. With George Hill running the point, Gordon Hayward dominating offensively and Rudy Gobert swatting literally (not literally literally) every shot that comes against him, the Utah Jazz are a team to be feared. Not a team that will challenge for the NBA crown though… Sorry.