The Nuggets have all the ingredients to make a deep run. The Pelicans, not so much.
A lot has changed since we last ranked the NBA title contenders to start the new year. Then, my highly scientific method (aka vibes) gave it Nets the second best chance to win it all this season while the Suns— in the middle of a recession — came in ninth. Needless to say, the NBA landscape looks a little different in the final quarter of the season, with the roster almost completely cleared at the deadline after the trade and All-Star break. Here’s how they would grow the list of contenders for the homestretch of the season…
This team always seems to struggle with injuries and we have no idea when Zion Williamson will be back. Even if it’s back in time for the postseason, with how far the Pelicans have fallen, the climb will be very steep for them this year.
The Mavericks are just 3–4 since Kyrie Irving debuted for Dallas.
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The early returns of the Luka Doncic-Kyrie Irving pairing have not been impressive. While Dallas entered Tuesday with a solid advantage in its minutes, the defense was predictably not great when the two shared the floor. I don’t see how the Mavs put together a championship team around those two this year, even with a healthy Maxi Kleber. It might be possible this offseason if Irving sticks around. For now, this is mostly a token reference.
Another team that realistically doesn’t defend well enough to make a deep run. At the same time, I have to show my respect for Bam, Mike Brown and Sacramento’s incredible offense. It doesn’t feel completely impossible for the current third seed in the West to sneak into the Finals.
The Cavs are a good score and have the profile of a team on both sides of the ball that can win it all, appearing in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Despite the recent surge from Milwaukee and his continued solid play Nuggets from the West, it is Cleveland that is consistently second in net rating behind only the Celtics. (Denver’s third-place finish 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 the conference contenders.
After an 11-game winning streak earlier this year, Memphis is just 5–10 since January 18th. Not exactly inspiring. Even before then I had questions about this team’s half-court offense and how it would hold up in the postseason. I would like to see it Grizzlies take a bigger 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 been on the floor this year. He’s set to return from injury soon and will join a Klay Thompson looking all the way back on the offensive side of the ball. This team has been through too many struggles for me to put them lower on this list. In fact, I’m nervous about putting them so 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 really want your team to be responsible for trying to beat Steph, Klay and Draymond Green? Historically, this has been a nearly impossible task when all three are healthy.
Kawhi Leonard is playing more and more like the player who was dominant in both the 2019 and 2021 playoffs, the latter of which had strong title potential until he got hurt. His health equals the Clips’ chances, and Leonard has looked comfortable with an increased workload recently. However, the depth of this team is a double-edged sword. Rotations shorten playoff time. Does Ty Lue know without a doubt the right combinations to play in big moments? Will Russell Westbrook keep starting? At some point, it would be nice to see this team put together a sustained run of success. Until then, I’m a little cooler towards them than many of my colleagues.
Philly might be higher on this list if they didn’t have to face two juggernauts in the conference. The James Harden-Joel Embiid pick and roll remains one of the most lethal moves in the game. And after such an early start to the season (by his standards), Embiid has significantly elevated his game on the defensive end of the floor in recent months. PJ Tucker’s value goes up in the postseason, and role players have generally been solid here. However, the Sixers haven’t shown they can reach the heights that the Bucks and Celtics have. It will be difficult for them to overcome this huge obstacle.
We still haven’t seen Kevin Durant on the court, but I have Suns fourth 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 great moments in the playoffs in the past. Still, counting on Durant and Paul to stay on the floor for four rounds is a bleak proposition. And time is running out for this team to gel before a deep run. That’s why Phoenix ends up behind the other teams on this list.
The Nuggets have a comfortable lead atop the Western Conference and look poised to break through their two-man core of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
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#1 in the West. No. 3 in net rating. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have played in big playoff games together. And all of the role players thrive off playing Joker. People will question Denver’s defense, even though it plays with top-10 efficiency with Jokic on the floor. (The offense has historically been good when it’s on the field. It’s unstoppable.) The Nuggets they have all the ingredients to reach the final. At this rate, it would be disappointing if they didn’t at least make it to the championship series.
Boston is the only team in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. Their two-way ceiling is probably higher than any other outfit in the league. It’s very hard to separate them from the top team on this list, but…
… the tiebreaker goes to Giannis Antetokounmpo. For the first time in this season’s rankings, the Bucks are at the top of that list. Milwaukee entered Tuesday on a 14-game winning streak. Khris Middleton is still not playing his regular minutes. And the depth next to Giannis is now the best it has ever been. More importantly, Giannis is an MVP-caliber player who can take his game to a place few are capable of in the postseason. Give him the current roster that Milwaukee has, and it’s very difficult — even with the team’s offensive issues — to see how opponents will be able to match both him and the Bucks’ versatility.