By Dastan Haghnazari
The NBA playoffs are always full of surprises, but within the past few years, it was definite that the Warriors and Cavs ruled supreme over the NBA. This season the Cavs have been shaken up in a restructure, and Chris Paul has joined with James Harden to form a lethal duo in Houston. We may see new teams in the finals this year or tradition may dictate that the Warriors and Cavs will be in attendance again.
The West is the better of the two conferences, and it contains the best players in the league, apart from the King. Currently, I believe the best teams in the West are the Rockets, Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves. The Rockets and Warriors are the obvious favorites in the West for the one and two seed, respectively, and the rest of the seeding is almost a toss-up.
The Rockets have an explosive offense in Paul, Harden, and Capella, who so far this season are 28-1 when all play. Supporting players provide the stars with offensive options, and a deep bench allows for more rest. James Harden, the front-runner for MVP, has been consistent every night this year, and turned into one of the world’s best shooters. The Rockets will most likely secure the one seed, but the Warriors are closely trailing.
The Warriors super-team is nearly unstoppable. A 73-9 season without Durant, two recent NBA championships, and four all-stars in the starting line-up are just a few of the impressive facets of this Warriors team. With the additions of Durant, Young, and Bell, the Warriors have the best three-point shooters at their disposal. Steph Curry is an offensive threat anywhere on the court and whenever he is near the ball. Klay Thompson, Nick Young, and Kevin Durant provide high percentage nights, a necessary element of a championship contender in the modern NBA. Another finals appearance is expected out of this team, but other Western conference teams could pose a threat, especially with the power shift of all-stars this past off-season from the East to the West.
The Thunder tried forming a “super-team” of their own. They mustered together a triple-double monster, a top-ten shooting guard, and a player that’s great at mid-range jumpers. Westbrook and George lead the team’s offense through the back-court with a monstrous strength advantage, and they utilize Anthony as an another offensive weapon. With the increase of dunks, layups, and three-point shots, the mid-range jumper is seen as a low-efficiency-low-reward option that is never utilized. Anthony has mastered the “lost art,” and he utilizes his ability to take over the uncovered areas of the court and the holes of defensive game plans. Big-man Steven Adams is an aggressive center who does what needs to be done while inside the paint. They have proved that they are able to beat the Warriors and the Rockets and stand a threat to other top teams. The only foreseeable downfall of this Thunder team is an early matchup with the Timberwolves, who lead the season series 3-1 with one of the wins being a 16 point difference. Westbrook has been known to let his team down while attempting to bolster his personal stats, but this year ball distribution has been fantastic, and the more these three play together the better chance they have at making a Finals run.
The Timberwolves are in an interesting position with the recent injury of Jimmy Butler. Their record is unimpressive given the young talent they possess, and they lack a true leader with Butler’s absence. KAT is a fantastic big-man, Taj Gibson is a great defender, and Andrew Wiggins is a young offensive monster who can play lock-down defense. However, Wiggins lacks a great three-point shot and some say that he shoots too often. With the absence of Butler, Crawford steps in as a fantastic replacement at the shooting guard position. “J Crossover” earned his name through his many years of decimating players ankles, and he was a great sixth-man now made a starter. If Butler were to return, a deep bench including Crawford and Muhammad could contribute to a run for the Timberwolves. If Butler would not return, the Timberwolves would need Wiggins to step-up and have a few “perfect games” to taken down the the Western conference super teams.
The Spurs are an honorable mention in the West solely because of the coaching of Pops. With a fantastic coach, the Spurs could help knock out a better team or draw a series out longer so opposing players do not receive as much rest. There is little to no chance of the Spurs reaching the Western Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals, without Kawhi Leonard, but their early impact could be the difference between the Rockets and Warriors competing in the Western Conference Finals. All it would take is the Spurs to play the Rockets early for a team like the Thunder of Timberwolves to advance to play the warriors. Pop’s team will have an interesting impact on how the Western Conference plays out for the remainder of the season. Personally I don’t think Leonard will return, but do think the Spurs will still win a series.
The East stands less of a chance of winning the finals simply because of the firepower from teams in the West. The best teams in the East include the Cavs, Celtics, and Raptors. With the “new-look” Cavs of young athleticism, and Lebron James playing as himself, Cleveland is the premier team to stand a chance against any of the Western “super-teams.” The Raptors prove that the Cavs will definitely not have an easy route to the finals, especially with the loss of star point guard Kyrie Irving.
The Cavs have the best player in the NBA, and arguably the best player to ever live. Lebron James is not only clutch, but he has unguardable shots and lock-down defense in his arsenal. James is the perfect player, and with a team around him that understands its place, the Cavs stand a fighting chance in the East. George Hill commented on young players’ place on the team saying, “He’s [James] the Batman, and we’ve got to be all Robins.” The Cavs are the favored team in the East, and Lebron will most likely lead this team to a finals appearance where they will hopefully not be blown-out.
The Raptors find themselves in an interesting position as a barrier for the Cavs from the playoffs. They have improved immensely on defense this season and is the reason they are the top of the Eastern Conference currently. Lowry and DeRozan lead the back court, and the other fantastic Raptors players play solid defense but are not properly resting for the postseason. The Raptors capitalize on tough defense to win games. Unfortunately, when playoffs come around, every NBA team starts playing defense again, and the Raptors will find themselves as a slightly above average playoff team.
The Celtics find themselves as the best choice to dethrone the King. The Celtics have proved they can offensively overpower other teams and simply out man other teams with fantastic bench depth. Kyrie Irving is in command of Boston but lacks serious all-star power around that teams like Golden State have an excess of. The lack of Hayward for the season could result in poor team-chemistry if he were to return. Jayson Tatum and Al Horford help to support Kyrie’s offensive mastermind with tools Kyrie can utilize to win games. Horford has an uncanny rebounding ability and killer inside post-moves that help to dominate the inside game on both sides of the ball, and Tatum provides an all-around great player that the Celtics can use for whatever is needed of him.
The Pacers are an honorable mention and will affect the East in the same way that the Spurs will affect the West. Victor Oladipo, previously viewed as an average guard, is showing streaks of an all-star in his play this season. If the Pacers play well, they may advance one or two rounds before being eliminated.
The playoff picture heavily leans towards the Western side of things. Arguably, the Western Conference has three or four teams that are better than every team in the East. For the sake of a good series, I hope that the Finals will go to six or seven games, but with the Rockets and Warriors leading the charge, this is a very unlikely possibility. It will be a few years before power is distributed more evenly among conferences, especially if Lebron James moves to the Western Conference next year. Everybody left the East because nobody could dethrone him; if he were to go to the West, some Western stars would eventually move to the East, balancing the power difference between the two conferences.