The Davids vs. The Goliaths
Did the race for the NBA championship just become more than a two-man contest? At the beginning of the 2016-2017 NBA season it seemed like foregone conclusion that for the third year in a row we would be seeing the Warriors and Cavaliers. Now this series has brought some incredible moments for NBA fans, like Lebron’s block being better than Kyrie’s dagger, don’t @ me.
LeBron went coast to coast on that block and locked on Igualdola like a 23 year old in a wife beater driving a supped up Honda locks in on high school chicks. It was unbelievable and helped break the stalemate of momentum between the two teams, swinging it to the Cavaliers for the remainder of the game. The NBA record setting 73 win Warriors had fallen to the best player on the planet the last 10 years, LeBron. Irving established in this series that he does indeed have ice in his veins and with a supporting cast of Kevin Love, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Richard Jefferson, it’s a first-rate squad. So when the Warriors spent the offseason signing Kevin Durant and the perceived weakness of the Eastern Conference, Round 3 seems inevitable.
Not so fast.
The Warriors and Cavs rematch is still the most likely scenario, I am not disputing that. But other teams aren’t just going to roll over while these two race to the finish. Let’s first look at the Western Conference.
The Western Conference
Kevin Durant was just diagnosed with a hyperextended knee and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season and be reevaluated before the playoffs. The Warriors, who have a four game lead over the second seed Spurs, will most likely retain the #1 seed in the Western Conference. They still have Curry, Thompson, and Green, who are three of best 20 players in the league and the core of the 2014-2015 championship team. So yeah they are still pretty good. But what if Durant still isn’t healthy when the playoffs roll around? What IF another team could COMPETE with the super team in the playoffs?
My current favorite to knock off the Warriors is a team led by a heavily bearded, triple double machine by the name of James Harden of the Houston Rockets. With no disrespect to Spurs fans, I love how Mike D’Antonis Rockets want to come out and play the same brand of basketball as the Warriors. They are a pace and space offense who loves the three ball. I mean LOVES the three ball. Ten times in NBA history has a team attempted 50+ three pointers in a game, all have come in this NBA Season and the Rockets have graced us with eight of them. They have the record for most 3 point attempts in a game, with 61, sixty fucking one. This team doesn’t want to play defense, for one James “Defense is for Squares” Harden is leading them.
For all of his offensive prowess, the man just doesn’t like defense
They want to come out and outscore you. They are probably the only team that would take the approach of going shot for shot with the Warriors as a means to beat them. With the addition of Lou Williams, this team has as many snipers as the Green Beret. Williams joined forces with, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly, Sam Dekker, Ryan Anderson, and Harden who all like to shoot from deep. This potential series would showcase the top two offenses in the league and have more fireworks than a redneck 4th of July. Please Santa? Can NBA fans get an early Christmas gift?
San Antonio Spurs
I would be remiss to not have the Spurs as my second favorite to pull the upset over the Warriors. Greg Popovich is a badass, plain and simple. This man was put on Earth to be a leader of men and coach the sport of basketball. He has led his team to five championships since taking over as head coach in 1996 and in the regular season has 1,089 wins to 485 losses. With the Spurs recently clinching the playoffs, this will be the 20th consecutive year they have reached that destination, TWENTY CONSECUTIVE TIMES. He could also be the most quotable man in all of sports.
The floor general of this team is perhaps the quietest and most humble superstar (and MVP candidate) we will ever see, Kawhi Leonard. He turns into a lethal assassin on the court, who plays tenacious defense and hits game winners seemingly on a nightly basis, all without so much as a smile.
He is in the best top 10 NBA players who you don’t hear enough about and is surrounded by wily veterans with plenty of championship experience. This includes, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobli, and David Lee who have a total of 11 NBA championships among them. Combined with other tenured Spurs Danny Green and Patty Mills and semi-recent newcomer Lamarcus Aldridge you have a team that boasts the second-best record in the NBA. The Spurs have arguably the best defense in the league and over the last 8 regular season against the Warriors they are 4-4. They have not faced each other in the playoffs since the Warriors have become the Warriors about 3 years ago, so this would make for a compelling chess match-up between Popovich and Kerr. If Santa can’t deliver the Rockets and the Warriors, I think this series would do just fine.
Honorable Mentions: Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers
In my opinion, the Utah Jazz are the best story of the 2016-2017 NBA season. They are currently 40-24 and are sitting as the fourth seed in the Western Conference. First-time all-star and emerging superstar Gordon Hayward and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert lead them. They have become a legitimate threat after finishing ninth in the Western Conference last year with a 40-42 record. They are getting solid seasons from George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Derrick Favors, but they need one more all-star caliber player before they are ready to play a seven game series with the likes of the Warriors, Rockets and Spurs.
Is it just me, or does it seem that the ship has sailed for this Los Angeles Clippers? Two years ago, it seemed like this team was poised to make a championship run, they had all the pieces. Chris Paul, Deandre Jordan, and Blake Griffin are all bona fide superstars. JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Mareese Speights, Austin Rivers, and Paul Pierce are all skillful contributors on this current Clippers team. Right now, they are 38-25 with the dreaded 5th seed, meaning they would likely not having home-court advantage in any of their playoff series. I know Chris Paul was injured which had been a huge hamper on this team, but will his return be enough? Most importantly the Warriors have the Clippers number, losing the last 10 regular season meetings to them. I just don’t see it, let JJ Redick tell you.
The Eastern Conference
LeBron delivered the first championship to Cleveland since the dinosaurs were roaming the Earth. For so long LeBron was the bad guy, the traitor, the guy who took the short cut to win a NBA championship. In the 2016 Finals the narrative changed though, he was the underdog, he was the one facing off against the super team (his team was pretty super too), and he came back to his city to deliver them a championship. Everyone loves the underdog and you could feel America get behind the Cavaliers. Good for you LeBron, you became the hero.
Fast forward to this January, the NBA world is back to hating crybaby LeBron and his incessant complaining about needing “more pieces.” The Cavs returned in the 2016-2017 season with virtually the same roster as the one that won the championship a few months before. They did lose Mozgov who got forgotten in the rotation during the Finals and Matt “Can’t Make a Shot” Dellavedova, devastating. I am going to side with Charles Barkley on this one, shut. the. fuck. up. LeBron. Seriously, just shut it. No one wants to hear you complain to the media about lacking playmakers when you have two other all-stars on your team. My disdain for this guy just resurfaced and I should have never let it go. He is the de facto GM, coach, and star of the Cavs and he makes sure he gets his way, a la Tristan Thompson getting paid $82 million. I am not here argue about his talent, I think he is the second-best player ever to step onto the hardwood. I simply just don’t like the guy, but I digress.
One of the reasons the Cavaliers were able to succeed in the Finals is because they steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs and arrived with fresh legs. They 4-0ed their first two opponents and only dropped two to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron has met little resistance from the East whether on the Heat or the Cavs since the Big 3 Boston Celtics broke up. LeBron is the equivalent of Darth Vader wiping out the Jedi, leaving no one to oppose him in the East. He has been building his Death Star in Cleveland, eradicating lowly East teams. Fortunately, he has not managed to destroy them all and those that have survived are building the Rebellion. Every day that passes they grow stronger and more poised to battle with Vader.
This was a close call for me, especially as a Wizards fan. The Celtics and Wizards pose the biggest threat to the Cavs in my opinion, but I am going to give a (very) slight advantage to Boston. They are 40-24 and only 3 games back of the leading Cavaliers. While the Jazz are my favorite story as a team, Isaiah Thomas is my favorite story as a player this season. How can you not love a 5’9 badass giving a figurative middle finger to anyone who ever doubted that he could compete at the highest level. He is averaging a shade under 30 PPG and is a living, breathing, fourth quarter hero. “Not to be cocky,” Isaiah Thomas told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor in January, “but I feel like I’m the best player in the world.” When going against the Cavaliers, this is the type of attitude I want my star player to have, to be fearless. He is a distant MVP candidate, but a MVP candidate nonetheless. But does Isaiah have enough pieces around him to truly compete with the Cavaliers in a seven-game series?
This is a very good team that is on the verge of being great. This left many Celtic fans wondering why they didn’t dig into their vault of prized assets to make a trade for a superstar to pair with Isaiah at the Trade Deadline. The rumors swirled about them acquiring Paul George or Jimmy Butler, the opposition coveting the protected first round pick the Celtics had gained from the Nets, an almost guaranteed top three pick in this year’s coming draft. But for superstars of George and Butler’s quality, the Pacers and Bulls garnered more than just the draft pick, looking to acquire a quality player such as Jae Crowder as well. Danny Ainge decided to stand his ground, believing the teams were asking for too much and did not make a single move at the deadline.
So the current Celtics team remains intact, the same team that established themselves as second in the Eastern Conference. And I don’t mean to make light of the team that is already formed around Isaiah, they have some true playmakers; Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and this past years third overall pick, Jaylen Brown. This team is for real and recently visited Quicken Loans Arena posting a 103-99 win, proving they can play with the big boys. With IT4 steering this team, I would never count them out of a game or a series. It just feels like this team is one more piece away. Perhaps they plan to use their potential top 3 pick themselves, especially with a heavily loaded draft class approaching. Maybe Danny Ainge is planning to make his run in 2 years from now, giving his stars some time to develop and when LeBron has a little bit more mileage on him.
Just no one tell Isaiah that.
The Washington Wizards
Full disclosure, I am a huge Wizards fan so I am going to try and keep this as unbiased as possible. This is a team that once sat at 2-8 and was only 6-12 at the beginning of December. DC had their pitchforks and torches and were ready to set this whole organization ablaze. It appeared Ernie Grunfeld had blundered another offseason. He missed on KD and Al Horford and his big signing was Ian Manhimi for $64 million, a guy who missed the first 45 games of the season. I read articles that were suggesting a complete fire sale; trades of Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, and *GASP* John Wall, were all on the table. Doomsday had come.
There is an old adage in sports though and I believe it is something like “winning cures everything,” yeah that sounds about right. I am not sure if Scott Brooks lit a literal fire under this teams ass or they realized that they needed each other in order to win, I am going to guess a combination of both, but god damn it this team figured it out. The Wiz climbed back from the depths of hell itself and has become a force in the East. As I speak, they are 38-24, third place in the East, and only 1 game behind Boston. How the fuck did this happen you may ask? John Wall’s play hasn’t changed too drastically, but he has also never been the reason this team loses. He comes out and COMPETES every night, he doesn’t take any nights off, he is a dawg. He is averaging a career high in points, assists, and steals at a 22.6/10.8/2.0 stat line, he’s just doing John Wall things. Bradley Beal has already eclipsed his most games played in the regular season. It’s never been a question of ability, but availability for this young star. He is averaging a career high in points with 22.9 and is the leading scorer on the team, do your thing Brad. Otto Porter is having a breakout year and is leading the league in 3pt %. Marcin Gortat is averaging a double double and has become a maestro at running the pick and roll with Wall. And Markieff Morris has big nuts, no really.
At one point this team had posted a 17 home game winning streak from December to February. The question going into the All-Star break was their bench and since the All-Star Break that seems to have been answered. Considered a “meh” trade at the time, Bojan Bogdanovic has been electric off the bench, benefiting from amount of open looks this team provides. Manhimi started off slow since his return but has been a force as of late. Jason Smith, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Brandon Jennings are rounding out a productive second unit.
The hands down best game of the season occurred when the Cavaliers visited the Verizon Center a few weeks ago. The Cavs narrowly escaped with an overtime win, but the Wizards proved they are ready to compete. The ceiling for this team is what they make it.
“I got a club in the Raptors arena, championships, celebrations during regular seasons.” Drake said it best, the only cause for celebration for the Raptors has been regular season success. The Raptors are looking for more than that though, made clear by their high level of activity at the trade deadline. This team didn’t make any significant additions in the offseason, so it makes sense they would acquire some additional playmakers to pose a bigger threat to the Cavaliers. They went out and got Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to provide some much needed front court support. The most important part of this team and most critical to its progress revolves around the back backcourt of Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry. This team goes where this duo takes them and that’s not a bad gig considering they are two dynamic all-stars.
Unfortunately, Kyle Lowry who is averaging a career high in PPG with 22.8 required wrist surgery at the end of February. His return by the end of the regular season is questionable, but should almost certainly be ready come playoff time. This has left Derozan to shoulder the load and he has been handling it quite well. Derozan is also having a career year with 27.6 PPG (this should only go up with Lowry out) dwarfing his previous best of 23.5 PPG. He is doing this efficiently by posting a FG% of 46.7%, his best since he was a rookie coming off the bench. I recently attended a Wizards/Raptors game and observed his incredible knack to draw fouls, he is one of the best in the league at it. The issue for this team is that production takes a drastic dive after Derozan, Lowry, and Ibaka . Valancunias is the only other player to average over 10 PPG for this team. This leads to the conundrum what if Lowry or Derozan have an off night (now just Derozan)? There is no one to pick up the slack, this team is heavily reliant on their stars to perform.
This led to a tough stretch from January 18th to February 14th when they posted a 4-11 record. but they seem to have righted the ship and sit firmly as the fourth seed. The rub with the fourth seed, is that it shows digression and not progression for the Raptors. This is a team that finished 56-26 last year and only one game behind the first seeded Cavaliers. The fourth seed isn’t good enough. This is the perpetual story for the Raptors for the last 3 years, an admirable team, but just not quite good enough. Thus I have selected them only as the third best threat to beat the Cavs.
Honorable Mentions: No one else in the East stands a chance
Who else is ready to skip ahead to the playoffs?