As we reach the halfway mark of the NBA season, just six teams are on pace to finish with at least 50 wins. That would be a drastic decrease from last season, when nine teams won 50 and a field of contenders as crowded as any in recent memory fought for the title.
Let’s face facts here. There are only four teams that can win the NBA title this season: The Warriors, Spurs, Cavs and Thunder. That’s a far, far cry from what we witnessed a season ago, when we felt like, at times, maybe double-digit teams had a fighter’s chance to win it all.
Last year, Golden State was certainly the class of the Western Conference after going a mind-blowing 67-15 in the regular season, but the Rockets, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies each won at least 55 games and were deemed as legitimate threats to the Warriors in the chase for an NBA Finals berth. Remember, until their run to the title, the Warriors hadn’t won in the playoffs, and Steve Kerr was still a first-year coach who hadn’t conquered even one seven-game series, let alone enough to bring Golden State, of all places, a title.
This season, the Warriors and Spurs are both on pace for over 70 wins, which is beyond historically unthinkable, but other Western powers have fallen off. Memphis and Dallas are projected to win somewhat significantly fewer games this year than last, Houston is barely above .500 and Portland’s free agent exodus has it in rebuild mode for the foreseeable future.
Out East, Atlanta had four All-Stars and won 60 games last season, and Tom Thibodeau’s 50-win Bulls were considered a threat to eventual conference champion Cleveland.
This season? It just doesn’t seem like there’s much parity at all. Though the Cavs are just three games clear of Toronto for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, it appears that no one can threaten Cleveland, barring injury, for a spot in the Finals this season.
Toronto is 6th in the NBA in offensive rating behind its dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but key offseason acquisition DeMarre Carroll will be out for at least several more weeks following knee surgery. It may be a stretch for the Raptors to rely on Carroll as their primary postseason perimeter defender until his knee proves durable at some point this season.
Atlanta’s scoring is down, tallying over three points per 100 possessions less this season than last, in part because the Hawks have dropped from second to 19th in 3-point field goal percentage. Kyle Korver’s percentage from three has dropped over 13 percentage points from last season, to a very normal 36 percent.
With Chicago also down offensively under first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, and defensive stalwart Joakim Noah— who would be in the top 10 in defensive rating had he played enough minutes to be eligible— out for at least four months following shoulder surgery, it’s hard to take the Bulls seriously now, too.
And while Miami, Indiana and Boston are nice teams, nobody’s going to confuse them for contenders.
While the Cavs may have lost to San Antonio last week and were absolutely steamrolled against Golden State on Monday, they can take solace in having no legitimate competition in their own conference. As long as Cleveland stays healthy, LeBron’s team is the overwhelming favorite to come out of the East.
Out West, it seems like the conference is more top heavy and imbalanced than any year in at least a decade. A sub-.500 team is on pace to make the Western playoffs for the first time since the 36-win Clippers made it in 1996-1997.
To highlight the imbalance, just two seasons ago, the Mavericks were the eighth seed with 49 wins. In previous seasons, it took 50 just to make the eight-team field.
While overlooked, given what the Warriors and Spurs are doing, Oklahoma City may end up with 60 wins and still finish third in the conference. A 60-win team hasn’t finished third in the West since 1997-1998, when the Lakers finished with 61.
One could argue that the Clippers should be viewed as a contender, but that would be foolish. After finishing second in the league in net rating—the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions—last season, and vanquishing the mighty Spurs in a classic seven-game series in the first round, L.A. choked away a 3-1 series lead to Houston in the Western Conference semifinals, losing by double digits in each of the final three contests.
This season’s Clippers outfit is more than three points worse per 100 possessions, with the league’s 13th ranked defensive rating. Put it this way: To reach the Finals, the Clippers would likely have to beat two of Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in a best-of-seven series. That’s not going to happen.
So really, there are only four teams that actually have a chance to win the NBA title. That doesn’t mean that the league is boring. To the contrary. You have the opportunity to watch two of the greatest regular season teams in NBA history duke it out for home court advantage throughout the playoffs. And only one of those teams get to make the Finals!
So enjoy the second half of the NBA season. Not many teams may have a chance to win it all, but you’ll likely have two teams trying to best the 72-10 Chicago Bulls down the stretch. We may end up remembering the 2015-2016 regular season for a very long time, even if only four of the 30 teams have a real shot to win.