The NBA All-Star break (which included a surprisingly good All-Star Game, despite its tedious introductions) is over! The league resumes play on Thursday night with six games on the schedule and contending teams renewing pursuit of playoff spots and championships.
Following the trade deadline — at which the Cavs notably improved themselves, while rivals largely stood pat — we have a better idea of what teams have as they rev up for a playoff run. But even though some teams have improved recently, how many of them really have a shot at the title? Are we destined for another Golden State-Cleveland rematch or have other teams given themselves a legitimate shot at a ring? We put the question to our staff:
How many realistic NBA title contenders are there?
Alex Putterman: I’ll probably regret this answer when the Warriors go 16-2 on the way to another championship, but I see three title contenders: Golden State, Houston and Cleveland.
There’s no need to explain why the Warriors belong in this conversation. They’re a win off the league’s best record, but no one can match their talent and pedigree. Steph, KD, Klay and Draymond will be championship favorites as long as they play together. But Golden State figures to get a real challenge from the Rockets, who are 44-13 on the season, 2-1 against the Warriors and 25-1 when Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela all play. Houston has the offensive firepower to run with Golden State in shootouts and can match up comfortably with Steve Kerr’s famous small lineups. The Western Conference Finals could be a lot of fun.
Reluctantly, I’ll also tab the Cavaliers as a title contender for two simple reasons: 1. The Eastern Conference. 2. LeBron James. The ever-underwhelming East means the revamped Cavs remain favorites to reach the Finals. LeBron’s playoff gear means they would have at least a puncher’s chance if they get there, in a way Toronto or Boston doesn’t. I wouldn’t exactly bet on Cleveland to take home the trophy, but given that Ty Lue’s team is only two years removed from a title and employs the world’s best player, I won’t count these guys out either.
Jay Rigdon: The Eastern Conference is such a jumble of relatively evenly matched teams (and the Cavs have looked so shaky, although their trade deadline may change that) that it really feels like we have a shot at seeing a fresh team make the Finals. That’s a big deal; the last time the East was represented by a non-LeBron Cavs/Heat team was all the way back in 2010.
Having said that, while it’d be nice to see Toronto or Boston (or even a more surprise team, like the Pacers or 76ers) make the Finals, and while any team has a nonzero chance in a seven game series, there are really only two realistic title contenders, and they don’t play in the East.
The Warriors are amazing, and the favorites. Their virtues are obvious, in that they have two of the top four players in the league, one of the best coaches, a few more star players, and a collection of roleplayers that’s led to one of the greatest runs in the history of the league.The Rockets are playing inspired basketball, have one of the top four players in the league themselves in James Harden, will theoretically have Chris Paul healthy and ready to go for the playoffs, and possess the kind of offense that makes anyone beatable.
Those two teams are the overwhelming favorites to meat in the Western Conference finals, and the winner will be overwhelming favorites to win the title against whoever comes out of the East.
John Cassillo: There are likely six, because we really don’t know what the Spurs and Cavaliers can do for an extended period of time at full strength. Both teams also have their own championship pedigrees (and for the Cavs, the added bonus of LeBron James). They can’t be counted out until they’re actually eliminated from the playoffs.
The other four are the teams they’re staring up at in the standings. Though the defending champion Warriors have struggled of late, you should doubt them at your own risk. Boston and Toronto both stand a chance against the Cavs athletically, and have played with the current rosters longer, which could yield its own advantages. Houston has clearly put something special together this season and seems to be a legitimate challenger to the Warriors atop the West with James Harden playing out of his mind all year.
The NBA rarely does surprises past the opening round, and experience usually wins out over a lack thereof (sorry this time, T-Wolves). It would be shocking if the 2018 champ came from outside of this group.
Matt Clapp: I’d be fairly surprised if the Warriors didn’t win, but I do feel that there are three teams with a realistic shot: the Warriors (obviously), the Rockets, and the Cavaliers.
The Rockets have been one half game better than the Warriors, have a better point differential than the Warriors, and have just about matched the Warriors’ offensive efficiency. James Harden is the NBA MVP to this point of the season, Chris Paul is Chris Paul, Clint Capela is eighth in the NBA in PER (and two of the players ahead of him are Harden and Paul), Eric Gordon chips in 18.5 points per game, etc. They’re capable of matching the Warriors’ firepower in a seven-game series, and their defense has been a top-10 unit by most metrics. Again, I’d still take the Warriors here, but it wouldn’t be totally stunning if the Rockets were better over a seven-game sample.
Then the Cavs, who look like a different team after their trade deadline craziness. It’s still hard to get a good read on just exactly how good they are, but they clearly look better and it’s fair to expect them to only improve as they play together more. Oh, and they have LeBron James. Come playoff time, it’s hard to bet against LeBron.
Additionally, the Eastern Conference is so weak. We don’t know if Gordon Hayward will return for the Celtics (and how effective he’d be even if he returned), and they’ve looked rough in recent weeks. The Raptors have been outstanding, but it’s still tough to trust them in a playoff series vs the top teams; we have to see that first. So, if the Cavs are anything close to “fixed”, they may not have a very difficult path to the Finals, and if you just get there you have a chance (especially when you have LeBron James).
Liam McGuire: To me, there are four teams:
Golden State – Even in a season where the Warriors aren’t playing up to their usual standards, they’re still far-and-away the most talented team in the association. Right now, it seems they’re bored with the regular season. Come playoff time, nobody (obviously) wants to face them.
Toronto Raptors – My own bias aside, the Raptors are a legitimate threat to come out of the East. They’ve got one of the best backcourts in the NBA with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, their young bench might be the best in the NBA and Dwane Casey has adapted to the new NBA. The only thing stopping them is their past: Can Lowry and DeRozan be their regular version selves in the playoffs? That remains to be seen.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets are a well-oiled machine who might be the only team in the West that can best the Warriors. Adding Chris Paul has proven to be a brilliant move and the team’s depth is about as good as it gets.
Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron James. Even with the struggles and recent roster change, never doubt LeBron James.
Still, a Warriors championship feels inevitable.