The NBA 2016-2017 regular season is coming to a close and playoffs is just around the corner. Some teams have already locked a spot while many are still scrambling to get their ticket. But we know that not all teams are actual ring contenders. Thus, we made a list of teams who are in excellent position to win the Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy (and not just there for a nervous first round appearance). This draft is based on seeding, team condition, possible playoffs match-ups, and momentum. Check it out!
Special Mentions: Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Clippers, and Utah Jazz
5. Houston Rockets (win-loss record: 51-23)
Houston is currently one of the hottest teams playing in this season. In fact, they are third in the overall league ranking in terms of win-loss record (only behind Spurs and Warriors). Everyone still remember how their movement of set pieces and changes in positions raised eyebrows early in the season. But it is clear that it is all for the better. Currently, Rockets are considered a formidable powerhouse in the league with James Harden embracing the point guard position and also acting as their primary scoring option. With his groundbreaking season performance (averaging 29.3 ppg, 8.0 trb, and 11.3 ast), Harden is obviously one of the leading candidates to win the KIA MVP award.
Nevertheless, playing in a slaughterhouse, that is the Western Conference, threatens their playoffs campaign. Assuming that chips will fall into the right spot, there is a good chance that Rockets will play the Spurs in the Conference Semis and the Warriors in the Conference Finals. That would be an uphill battle. Add to the fact that defense is suspect for this team. Historically, NBA championships are won by defense. And Rockets still need to keep their consistency at the defensive end of the floor if they want to go deep into the playoffs.
On a brighter note, their acquisition of Lou Williams will probably play a big factor for their postseason run. This move gave the team another offensive option and depth (which is very important for a seven games series).
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (win-loss record: 47-26)
This team has been playing sloppy since January 2017. And they certainly do not look like champions as of the moment. San Antonio Spurs smashed them last Monday, 103-74, as they showed another underwhelming defensive performance. They were already 7-9 in their previous 16 games before heading to Texas.
Their offense is working but their defense is just non-existent. Cavs showed terrible transition defense (a facet that Warriors heavily exploit) throughout the second half of the season, allowing 1.19 points per possession. Kyrie Irving, though an offensive specimen, is a defensive liability when it comes to pick-and-roll. Their PNR defense, specifically when stopping the roll man on play, is fourth worst in the league. They are also fourth worst in both deflections per game and loose ball recovered. Currently, they are ranked 23rd in their overall defensive efficiency. This is not the usual environment that breeds champions. The hustle and the defensive mentality is just not in place. The injury of newly acquired center Andrew Bogut also hurt their chances. Above all, I think they miss the playmaking ability and the defensive intensity of Matthew Dellavadova.
Despite these problems, many are still expecting the Cavs to come out of the Eastern Conference. After all, they are the defending champions and their back-to-back Finals appearance is still fresh in our memories. Lebron James is even having his best regular season based on statistics (averaging 26.0 ppg, 8.4 trb, 8.8 ast). JR Smith is back after he was sidelined due to a thumb injury. Though I think it will take some time before he can fully integrate into their plays.
Cavaliers have a history of coasting during regular season. It’d be more interesting if they are capable of gearing up this postseason. And if they can, some are curious to see one of the worst NBA defensive unit vying for a chip.
3. Boston Celtics (win-loss record: 48-27)
Lebron James reached the Finals for six-straight years, under two teams (Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers). Many critics correlate Lebron’s success to the ‘softness’ of the East. For the longest time, East lacked legitimate championship contenders with real postseason experience. Is Eastern Conference a cake walk this season? Well, not anymore. Boston Celtics are making their case.
The momentum of Boston Celtics as the season ends is simply astounding. The effort and the development of this team throughout the year is nothing short of impressive. C’s currently share the top seed with the Cavs. Them securing the top seed is important given their lack of experience come playoffs. It will give them better odds over other teams given their excellent 27-10 home record. They are simply the best “dark horse” of the league. The 5’9 Isiah Thomas has become a force to reckon, currently being packaged as the one of the best, if not the best, point guard in the Eastern Conference (along with Irving and Wall). Al Horford’s ball IQ and adaptive gameplay is also important when we talk about their current success. At the age of 30, he is ranked eight among league centers and 32nd in overall net point differential. He can pass, guard the paint, and shoot mid-range and threes. More importantly, the team is improving as a unit.
But like Rockets, Celts run an excellent offense but the team simply lacks defensive consistency. And superiority on the glass is shaky. They are ranked 24th in offensive rebounds and the corresponding defensive stat needs a lot improvement. If Horford, Johnson, and Crowder can adjust and address this problem, this team can give the Cavs a run for their money.
2. San Antonio Spurs (win-loss record: 57-16)
The Spurs is considered the winningest NBA unit for the past two decades. Most of these wins are of course anchored on Tim Duncan, the best power forward to play the game bar none. That is why many fans and analysts are wondering if they can afford the transition from Duncan to Kawhi Leonard. And yet, here we are. Spurs are currently holding the second best win-loss record of the league, silently haunting the top seed of the West. The team is still a well-oiled machine under the tutelage of ‘the’ Greg Popovich. They are 4-1 against Cavs and Warriors this regular season. And Kawhi is in the mix of MVP candidates (averaging 26.0 ppg, 5.9 trb, 3.5 ast, 1.8 stl) and DPOY candidates. San Antonio is currently the top defensive team of the league, trailed closely by the Warriors.
Their major problem, however, is their aging (though capable) line-up. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasul struggled throughout the season, especially with injuries. Parker’s ability to guard elite point guard (by the name of Westbrook, Harden, and Curry) is also in question. Though the longer minutes given to Patty Mills is becoming a staple answer to this puzzle. If the team can maintain their health and momentum, we might see a historic Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and the Warriors. And a championship is not elusive this season.
1. Golden State Warriors (win-loss record: 60-14)
After sidelining Kevin Durant, Warriors are still keeping their rhythm and their hard-fought top seeding. Durant suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a bone bruise in his left knee. Fortunately, he is expected to comeback by the start of postseason. Curry and Thompson, backcourt shooting extraordinaire, are still firing in all cylinders. And Draymond Green’s floor presence dramatically improves their net rating by 11.6 points per possession.
Even though their win-loss record this year is not as impressive compared to the previous season (this is attributed to the loss of bench fire-power and gradual gelling of key players), Warriors are without a doubt the biggest fan fave to win it all this season. They are the top offensive team of the league and the second best defensive team. Aside from their turnover woes, it is pretty hard to point an exploitable hole on their present game. When healthy, they are the best team by a significant margin. This is how good they’ve become after the integration of Durant into their system.
It would be very interesting to see how this present Golden State Warriors compete with the defending champions.