The Nuggets have all the ingredients to make a deep run. The Pelicans, not so much.
A lot has changed since we went from being NBA title contenders to the new year. Back then, my very scientific method (aka vibes) gave the Filled the second best chance to win it this season, and the Sun— in the middle of a downturn — he came in on his ninth. Needless to say, the NBA landscape looks a little different in the final quarter of the season, with the dust almost completely settled post-trade roster wise and the All-Star break. This is how I would list the contenders for the home stretch of the season…
This team always seems to have injuries, and we have no idea when Zion Williamson will return. Even if he’s back in time for the postseason, how long for the Pelicans having fallen, the climb will be too steep for them this year.
The Mavericks are just 3-4 since Kyrie Irving started for Dallas.
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The Luka Doncic-Kyrie Irving pairing wasn’t great back in the early going. Although Dallas entered Tuesday with a plus in minutes, the defense probably wasn’t great when the two shared the floor. I don’t see how the Mavs put together a quality group around those two this year, even with a healthy Maxi Kleber. Maybe there will be a chance this season if Irving sticks around. So far, this is mostly token reference.
Another team that isn’t really defending well enough to make a deep run. At the same time, I have to show my respect for the incredible offense of the Beam, Mike Brown and Sacramento. It doesn’t feel completely impossible for the current third seed in the West to get into the Finals.
The Cavs are a pure rated bet and have the profile of a team on both sides of the ball that can win it all, appearing in the top 10 in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency. Despite a recent surge from Milwaukee and the continued steady play of the Buttons out West, it is Cleveland that is firmly in second place in the net rating behind only the Celts. (Denver is closer to sixth than third.) The problem is experience. The Cavs have yet to play in big games together, and I think that will be an issue compared to the rest of their conference rivals.
After an 11-game winning streak earlier this year, Memphis is just 5-10 since Jan. 18. It’s not exactly exciting. Even before that I had questions about this team’s halfcourt offense and how it would fare in the postseason. I want to see the Grizzlies take more swing at the trade deadline than Luke Kennard, a shooter who doesn’t really shoot enough. The supporting cast still feels thin.
Stephen Curry has been so good when he’s on the floor this year. He is set to return from injury soon, and will join Klay Thompson who looks all the way on the offensive side of the ball. This team has put up too many battles for me to put them lower on this list. In fact, I’m nervous about putting them this low. The depth is shaky. They desperately need a healthy Gary Payton II for the playoffs. But if you’re a fan of another Western Conference team, do you want your squad responsible for the effort of Steph, Klay and Draymond Green? Historically, that has been an almost impossible task when all three are healthy.
Kawhi Leonard is playing more and more like the player who dominated the 2019 and 2021 playoffs, the latter of which had solid title potential until he got hurt. His health means the Clippers’ chances, and Leonard has recently been comfortable with an increased workload. However, the depth of this team is a double-edged sword. Arrival rotations shorten replay time. Does Ty Lue definitely know the right combinations to play in big moments? Will Russell Westbrook still start? At some point, it would be nice to see this group put together a sustained streak of success. Until then, I’m a little cooler than many of my peers.
5. 76 er
Philly might be higher on this list if it didn’t have to deal with two juggernauts in the conference. The James Harden-Joel Embiid pick and roll remains one of the most lethal actions in the game. And after such an early start to the season (by his standards), Embiid has really picked up his play on the defensive end of the floor over the past few months. PJ Tucker’s value goes up in the postseason, and the role players were generally solid here. However, the Sixers have not shown that they can reach the heights of the Bucks and Celtics. It will be tough for them to overcome that huge hurdle.
We haven’t seen Kevin Durant on the floor yet, but the Sun quarter here. If KD and Chris Paul can stay healthy, it’s hard to see this team losing. The wing depth is really solid, and Deandre Ayton has had some great playmaking moments in the past. Counting on Durant and Paul to stay on the floor for four rounds is a desperate proposition, however. And it’s time for this team to gel properly before a deep run. That’s why Phoenix finishes behind the other squads on this list.
The Nuggets have a comfortable lead atop the Western Conference and look ready to break through with their core duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
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No. 1 in the West. No. 3 in the net rate. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray played in the big games of the playoff together. And all the role-players are having a blast playing against the Joker. People will question Denver’s defense, even though it plays at top-10 efficiency with Jokic on the floor. (The offense has historically been good when he is on the court. He is unstoppable.) The Buttons All the ingredients are there to make the Finals. At this rate, it would be disappointing if they didn’t at least reach the championship series.
Boston is the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. Their two-way cap is probably higher than any other outfit in the league. It’s very hard to separate them from the best team on this list, but…
… the tiebreaker goes to Giannis Antetokounmpo. For the first time in this season’s rankings, the Bucks are on top of this list. Milwaukee entered Tuesday on a 14-game winning streak. Khris Middleton is still not playing his usual load of minutes. And the depth next to Giannis is the best it’s ever been. More importantly, Giannis is an MVP-class player who can take his game to a place few can in the postseason. Give him Milwaukee’s current roster, and it’s very difficult — even with the team’s offensive issues — to see how an opponent will be able to match both him and the Bucks’ versatility.