As the season comes to an end, teams jockey for positioning in their chase for the NBA championship. Disappointment lies ahead for teams destined to be denied in the early rounds of the postseason. But which of these playoff-bound teams are truly title contenders?
Five Real Contenders for the NBA Championship
Let’s start in the east. Despite three straight heartbreaking losses to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are poised to return to the conference finals. They’ve lost their lead in the standings but remain within striking distance with 16 games left. Jaylen Brown has been stellar despite playing through a facial injury that requires a mask. The All-Star forward averages career-highs in points, rebounds, and steals per game. He is also playing more minutes and has attempted more three-pointers and free throws per game than in any previous season.
Jaylen Brown tonight despite the loss:
12/26 FG pic.twitter.com/GS9Qdwmk4a
— CelticsMuse (@CelticsMuse) March 7, 2023
Everyone knows how good Jayson Tatum is at this point, but the real key to this team’s run will be their depth. Besides the two-headed monster, Boston has the usual contributions from starters Marcus Smart and Al Horford. The second unit is where the Celtics can pull away in games. Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White provide instant offense with their aggressive approach, yet both are willing to make the extra pass and find an open teammate. Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser stretch the floor, and Grant Williams and Luke Kornet are intense and intelligent players. When Robert Williams comes back, this team gets even deeper. There’s still a chance that Danilo Gallinari will return from a knee injury in time for the playoffs too.
In the Eastern Conference, it comes down to Boston and the next team on this list.
Did someone say depth? Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the greatest basketball players in the world and will retire as one of the best ever to do it. However, this Bucks team is stacked when healthy. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are All-Stars, and Brook Lopez has become an offensive weapon, teaching Bobby Portis some deadly tricks along the way. Jevon Carter has played well this year, and Wesley Matthews is a contributor when healthy. Milwaukee also has floor spacers in Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Joe Ingles. Add the newly acquired Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic into the mix, and the Bucks might be the deepest team in the conference.
After all of the trade deadline madness out west, the Denver Nuggets still reign supreme. Nikola Jokic is the frontrunner for the MVP award yet again, and for good reason. He’s had 25 triple-doubles so far this season, averaging 24.5 points and 10 rebounds per game.
The Nuggets have now won 29 straight games when Nikola Jokic records a triple-double.
The longest streak of all-time… 🤯 (via ESPN) pic.twitter.com/LCEg047faq
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) March 4, 2023
Denver is unbeatable at home, with a 29-4 record at the time of writing. At 16-15, they are also the only playoff team in the west with a winning away record. This bodes well for any playoff matchup the Nuggets find themselves in. Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. round out a talented core that each average at least 17 points per game. With six players averaging more than 11 points per game, this is another deep squad that should at least be playing in the conference championship.
NBA Championship Outsiders
Here we go. Kevin Durant has fit right in with this team, shooting an absurd 69% from the floor in his three games. Phoenix overcame a first-half deficit to beat the Mavericks in Dallas, a good showing for a potential playoff rematch. Putting Durant on the court with Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton makes this team a threat to go the distance. The question is, do they have depth?
Devin Booker & Kevin Durant as teammates so far:
36.0 PPG, 7.7 APG, 5.3 RPG, 56% FG, 50% 3P
26.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 7.3 RPG, 69% FG, 53% 3P
Suns 3-0. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Y39G4frx6w
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) March 6, 2023
Josh Okogie has played well lately and should continue to see plenty of open looks when in the starting lineup. Cam Payne, Torrey Craig, and the recently signed Terrence Ross give the Suns a solid second unit, and I still believe that TJ Warren can provide a spark off the bench. If Paul and Durant stay healthy, Phoenix could be headed back to the NBA Finals.
Behold, a dark horse. The Clippers finally snapped a five-game losing streak with a win over the short-handed Grizzlies. The word of the day is depth, and this might be the deepest team in the NBA. If Paul George and Kawhi Leonard stay healthy, this team could beat anyone in a best-of-seven. Ivica Zubac is stout in the paint and has Mason Plumlee to back him up. Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, and Robert Covington are all capable defenders that can play multiple positions in the frontcourt. The same can be said for backcourt running mates Terance Mann and Norman Powell. Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland add quality minutes to the rotation as well.
If Ty Lue can figure out the right rotations and Russell Westbrook is a good fit, this team could be in the mix for an NBA championship. I have them taking on the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.