The All-Star festivities have come and gone. We got to witness the thrills of the 3-point and slam dunk contests, as well as the exciting new format of the All-Star Game (they were really trying for a little bit there!). But now it’s time to get down to business. The early-season lull has passed. It’s time for the playoff push.
Teams find themselves in many different situations at this point. Some teams are shoo-ins for the post-season. They know they will have one of the top seeds in their conference and their main goal the rest of the way is mostly to stay as healthy as possible for when the games matter most. Some teams are bouncing around between the middle seeds, jockeying for position as they try to secure a first-round home series. Then you have the squads clinging for life or in the hunt for the last few spots. These teams are grinding right now, for every game has major implications on whether or not they will be watching the games from their homes come April and May. The following is a breakdown of all of this season’s contenders.
Just Stay Healthy
The Rockets currently hold a slim lead over the Golden State Warriors for the #1 seed in the Western Conference, with a 48-13 record. They are led by MVP-favorite James Harden, who leads the league in scoring at 31.3 PPG. When his running mates of Chris Paul and Clint Capela are both in the starting lineup, Houston has been nearly unbeatable this season. We all know that the path to the Finals runs through Golden State, giving the Rockets a lot of incentive to lock up the #1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. More than usual, this may be an elite team that plays to win until the very final game of the season.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have not skipped a beat since defeating LeBron’s Cavaliers 4-1 to capture last season’s championship. Mouth guard-chewing Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are all clicking, as the Dubs can likely cruise to a 60+ win season. There are no major flaws in this juggernaut of a team, and they will likely be the favorites no matter who they go up against throughout the playoffs. But could they possibly beat themselves? The Warriors are among the league leaders in technical fouls and have more ejections than all other teams. Perhaps the best hope for opposing teams is for Golden State to lose their cool.
San Antonio Spurs
Even in a year where Gregg Popovich has had to bench his franchise point guard in Tony Parker and has been without the services of his best player in Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are still sitting in the #4 spot in the West. This franchise practically invented the “just stay healthy” classification, as Popovich has mastered the long-term approach when it comes to managing his players. LaMarcus Aldridge is also banged up, meaning the Spurs will have to keep the ship afloat until their stars return. Leonard appears to be making progress with his injured quad, so perhaps San Antonio can have its full arsenal of talent once April rolls along.
The C’s have been at or near the top of the Eastern Conference all season. However, it would behoove them to keep their studs healthy down the stretch. Kyrie Irving has a well-documented history of ailments, while Al Horford is in his 30s and could use some fresh legs when the playoffs start. Brad Stevens is one of the brightest minds in the basketball world. He knows that the Celtics will need to be at full strength if they are to dethrone the Cavaliers as top dogs in the East, meaning he will be sure to give his starters plenty of rest as the season winds down.
Honorable Mentions: Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves
Jockeying for Position
It’s strange for a LeBron-led team to be in this position, considering his teams have been to the Finals every year since the 2010-2011 season. And yet, here we are three-quarters of the way into this thing, with the Cavaliers hanging on to the 3-spot in the East. After a flurry of deals at the deadline, the new-look Cavs seem to have been rejuvenated somewhat. They will need to develop a rapport with one another, and fast, if they want to make it back to the Finals. The middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference is tight as can be.
Oklahoma City Thunder
One game, the Thunder will look like a true title contender, with three future Hall of Famers operating in unison. The next game, OKC might look like a dysfunctional team still trying to find its identity. Such has been the season for Russell Westbrook and Co. This team currently sits in 7th in the West, though only one game separates them from the 3-seed, currently occupied by the Timberwolves. They would benefit greatly from securing a home series, as they are just 15-17 on the road this season, compared to 21-10 at home.
The 76ers are starting to hit their stride at the perfect time, going 8-2 over their last 10 games. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons continue to assert themselves as one of the best–if not the best–front courts in all of basketball, with Dario Saric, J.J. Redick and Robert Covington all contributing to the cause as well. This is a team no one will want to draw as an opponent in the first round, and their young legs are more than equipped to play on until the final game of the season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to assert himself as one of basketball’s brightest stars with his ungodly length, athleticism and skill. The Bucks currently cling to the 7th spot in the East, but if guys like the newly-healthy Jabari Parker progress towards their maximum potential by the time the playoffs start, this team can make a lot of noise in April and May. Though they have been plagued by inconsistency, as most young teams are, there is easily enough talent on this team to have home-court advantage in the first round.
New Orleans Pelicans
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon in late January, it was hard to imagine that the Pelicans could survive over the long haul without half of their All-World big man combo. And yet, they are 7-3 over their last 10 games, with Anthony Davis quickly becoming a serious MVP candidate with one video game-like performance after another. E’Twuan Moore and Jrue Holiday have been excellent as the 35-26 Pels look to move up from the 6th seed in the Western Conference.
Portland Trail Blazers
Due to the size of their market, it is easy to forget about the Portland Trail Blazers and their tandem of dynamic guards in the backcourt. But Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will continue to do their thing regardless of if you pay attention or not. Combined, they are averaging nearly 50 points and 10 assists per night as the 36-26 Blazers currently occupy the 4th spot in the Western Conference. Jusuf Nurkic and Shabazz Napier have each had excellent seasons as well, making it very dangerous to sleep on Portland when the playoffs begin.
Honorable Mentions: Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers
In the Hunt
After finishing last season on an incredible 31-10 run, the Heat returned this season with essentially the same group. It comes in flashes, but for the most part, they have not been able to replicate last year’s style of basketball that led to such an incredible stretch. They have plenty of very good basketball players–namely Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic–but no stars, which is a tough formula in today’s game. The Heat should be battling for those final few playoff spots for the rest of the season.
The Pistons made it very clear that they mean business this season when they traded for star power forward Blake Griffin in late January. It has not yielded immediate results, as they are 4-6 in their last 10 games and are currently 9th in the East–2.5 games back from the Heat. Griffin and Andre Drummond will develop more of a chemistry with more floor time together, and it appears that Stan Van Gundy may be coaching to save his job this season. This should provide a level of urgency, which will make for some intense basketball down the stretch.
Denver has been steady all season, hovering just over the .500 mark all the way to their current 33-28 record. They have one of the league’s most skilled big men in Nikola Jokic, who essentially plays point-center for them. The most important development for this team might be the return of Paul Millsap, though. As a team leader, a scoring option and one of their best defenders, Millsap’s veteran presence on and off the court should help Denver tremendously as they hang on to the 8-seed in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
When the Clippers traded away their star forward Blake Griffin, it was viewed by many as the white flag for this season. Not so fast, though. The Clippers are 7-3 over their last 10 games and sit just a half game back from Denver for the last playoff spot in the West. Lou Williams has been a lightning bolt off the bench, while Austin Rivers and DeAndre Jordan have done their thing as well. Doc Rivers has the Clips playing excellent basketball despite a lack of star power, further asserting himself as one of the league’s finest head coaches.
Somehow, someway, the Utah Jazz have managed to stay in the hunt this season. After losing Gordon Hayward this past off-season, the Jazz still sit at a respectable 31-30 record, just 2 games back from a playoff spot. Donovan Mitchell has emerged as a dark horse candidate to win Rookie of the Year and is certainly a piece that the Jazz can build around for years to come. Ricky Rubio is having his best season in terms of shooting percentage, which has always been a tough area for him. Though they will need some help to sneak into the playoff party, Jazz fans certainly have a reason to smile this season regardless of where they end up.
Honorable Mentions: Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Lakers
Unlike the past few seasons, there is an increased sense of parity in 2017-2018. The Cavaliers (or essentially whatever team LeBron is on) are no longer a lock to return to the Finals. You could easily see the Raptors or Celtics knocking them off their perch. What if the 76ers put it all together just in time? In the West, the Warriors will likely face some serious challenges, too, in the form of the Houston Rockets. And what if Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge are at full strength for the Spurs when the playoffs start? Are you going to bet against Pop in a best-of-7 series?
The point is, this season should be fun because of the unpredictability of it. The Golden State Warriors may very well hoist the trophy after the final seconds have ticked away on 2017-2018, but it is certainly not a given at this point. So, buckle up and enjoy the race to the end of the season. It will serve as an exciting prelude to the yearly drama that is the playoffs.