With the NBA season heading into the All-Star break, it is around that time that people start evaluating who are real contenders to win the title and who is going to make noise in the playoffs.
Everyone is aware of the success of the star-laden Golden State Warriors who have thus far steam rolled the rest of the Western Conference to a league-leading 45-8 record. Lead by multiple MVP’s in guard Steph Curry and newly acquired forward Kevin Durant, along with superstar talents such as guard Klay Thompson and forward Draymond Green, it is no surprise that they have fared so well. With a historic ability to kill you from the three-point line (4 of their 5 starters averaging over 35% from beyond the ark) and their unmatched ball-movement and chemistry (3 of their 5 starters averaging over or close to 5 assists per game), they have made it look easy. The reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers are the other team that has proven to be dominant, and it’s no surprise to the rest of the league. With their King, Lebron James, continuing his 14-year reign atop the NBA landscape averaging 25.8 PPG, 8.7 APG, and 7.8 RPG, they have once again claimed the top of the Eastern Conference. With Golden State and Cleveland being last year’s championship matchup and already the de facto picks to return again this year, let’s look at who I think their biggest challengers are in their respective conferences.
The Western Conference
There is a lot of talent in the West, with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin making the LA Clippers a nightmare for teams in the paint, and MVP candidate James Harden dominating on offense and leading a talented group of young guns for the Houston Rockets. However, the team that the Warriors should be most concerned about is elsewhere in Texas. The number two seeded San Antonio Spurs have been a force for over 20 years under legendary head coach Gregg Popovich. With five NBA championships under his belt, he is attempting to win his sixth in a completely new fashion: Tim Duncan-less. Their future Hall of Fame power forward, Duncan, retired at the end of last season and they now attempt to shape a new era behind former NBA Finals MVP and young phenom, Kawhi Leonard. Averaging 25.6 PPG, Leonard continues to be a stable and scary threat on offense. And with multiple NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards under his belt already at the young age of 25, he leads a defense that includes power forward LeMarcus Aldridge and center Pau Gasol. They make things difficult for opposing teams offensively with their length and ability to vigorously defend the paint and perimeter. Experienced veterans in the backcourt with guards Tony Parker and Danny Green make it hard to defend them beyond the three-point line. All of that on top of great depth with talent coming off the bench in the form of forwards David Lee and Kyle Anderson, and guards Jonathon Simmons, Patty Mills, and Manu Ginobli, their depth and versatility seem to be a dangerous combination going forward and one to which the Warriors should be paying close attention.
The Eastern Conference
The East has struggled of late, being the second best conference for years now. With superstar talent in Toronto lead by all-star guards Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, and the emerging guard combo of John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington, the East is seeing a resurgence. There is one team that stands above Toronto and Washington in the standings, though, and appears to be far ahead of the pace of what was expected to be a long rebuilding process – the Boston Celtics. A young bunch of guys, including their 40-year-old head coach Brad Stevens, have frustrated teams with their depth and chemistry. In the offseason, they added center/power forward Al Horford and he has paid dividends on both sides of the ball. They can beat you defensively with depth in the paint that includes Horford, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk, and sometimes small forward Jae Crowder. They can beat you from the perimeter with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, rookie Jaylen Brown, and Crowder. They can beat you with their pure ability and chemistry on the floor or just by utilizing their depth – which goes 11 or even 12 deep – to tire teams out. But their real weapon is the development of superstar point guard Isaiah Thomas who is second in the league in scoring, averaging 29.9 PPG. He is also dominating in the fourth quarter, leading the league by averaging over 10 PPG in the final quarter. Their depth, mixed with their ability to beat you in so many ways makes them a real threat. And the success of Isaiah Thomas and his unmitigated clutch ability in the fourth quarter makes them potentially a dangerous threat to the Cavs, who they trail by only 2.5 games in the Eastern Conference standings.