“It goes Warriors, then Spurs, then Cavaliers. Everything after that is just white noise. Filler until the Western conference finals roll around and the real contenders faceoff against one another.”
This is pretty much the opinion of every single NBA analyst, pundit and expert–maybe besidesCharles Barkley.
For every fan though, it’s boring dialogue to hear. Of course the top 3 teams in the NBA are the top 3 favorites, we all know this. What fans want to hear is something else; some points to why a dark-horse contender at a 3rd, 4th or 5th seed has the potential to take down a juggernaut, to have a shot at the championship.
This is what we want, yet we’re not going to get it. The way the NBA season has been so far, it’s almost impossible even for the boldest of talking-heads to go against the grain.
The Warriors just beat the season record for most wins (or least amount of losses, which ever you want to roll with), the Spurs have one of the best defenses in recent history as well as the best ever 2nd seeded win-loss record and the Cavaliers have LeBron James, someone who has made the NBA finals 5 years in a row.
Especially when talking Warriors and Spurs, it’s hard to ignore the numbers. Logic prevails and you’re pretty much laughed off the screen if you argue for the 13 other teams in the field.
Luckily for me, I’m not an expert. I can talk about the playoff hopes of the “other” teams without being banished to the awkward corner of the room with guys like Skip Bayless or Stephen Smith.
So, to share the love, here are a few teams that seriously do have a fair shot at competing for the championship. Crazier things in the NBA have happened, like the ’94 Nuggets beating the Sonics first round, the ’06 Warriors led by Baron Davis taking down the Mavericks or the ’04 Detroit Piston ‘bad boys’ taking home the championship.
Outside of the top 3, OKC is the first team most analysts talk about when it comes to contending teams. The ranking though, from Cavs to Thunder, is so huge that it has actually made the Thunder a dark-horse pick.
In order to even get to the Western finals, they’ll need to get past both the Spurs and (most likely) Warriors; both series’ arguably tougher than anything coming out of the Eastern Conference.
Yet, don’t sleep on this team. They have two of the five best players in the NBA, one a former MVP the other one of the most dominant guards in the league. The issue falls to depth; they have great talent in Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Steven Adam even Dion Waiters, yet none of these guys are quite good enough to relieve some of the pressure off of Westbrook and Durant.
Ibaka, especially, needs to step up. The last time, and I guess only time, OKC reached the NBA finals in 2012 was a large part thanks to the role Ibaka played on the defensive end. After that playoff run, many expected him to continue to excel and eventually create a big three dynamic on the team, though, he’s never really reached that level.
In order to have any shot at getting far into the 2016 playoffs, they need Ibaka, or really any other 3rd man, to consistently play a high level of basketball. Someone who can make the open shot, play consistently hard defense and force some attention away from the dynamic duo. As good as Durant and Westbrook are, the two of them aren’t quite good enough to take down a historically great Warriors or Spurs squad in a seven game series alone.
This is pretty much it for the Clippers.
The lineup of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick and <fill in the blank> has had zero luck in getting at minimum a western conference showing. If it were a 4v4 game, this squad would probably have a few titles, but the lack of reliable small forwards, underwhelming benches and a notorious reputation with referees across the league has made for a losing battle for the Clips.
Yet, with the window closing, you’d think there’d be some desperation on this roster this year. Both Griffin and Paul will guarantee step-up to the plate, Redick and Jordan (outside of needing to hit free throws) should as well be reliable and the bench this year, with Pierce, Green, Aldrich, etc., looks as good as it has ever been.
More importantly, even above the Thunder, the Clippers actually match-up pretty well against both the Warriors and Spurs. All season, they’ve played the Warriors tough, really only falling when the bench comes out, while last year they beat a Spurs squad first round (though understandably not as talented as they are this year).
If Paul and Griffin don’t need to carry the full-load as per usual, the supporting and bench cast taking off the pressure that they potentially could, I could definitely see this Clips squad stretching out some of these series’ and maybe hitting some favorable game winners to move forward through the playoffs.
There’s got to be one team that can take down the Cavs, and sorry Raptors, it’s not going to be you.
The Heat, as old as they are, have a damn good roster. Filled with playoff experienced guys like Wade, J. Johnson, Stoudemire, Haslem and Deng, as well as young guns like Winslow, T. Johnson, even Dragic and Whiteside, it’s a shock that no one is really giving this team any recognition.
The biggest issue, and if you noticed the one name I excluded so far with Bosh, are injuries. Unlike the Thunder or Clips, where depth and bench reliability are the biggest concerns, the main issue with the Heat is the almost uncontrollable issue of injury.
With Bosh already out, if Wade goes down you can kiss those playoff chances goodbye. Yet, if the whole roster does manage to stay healthy, I could see this team going the distance. With a fairly favorable road to the Eastern finals, the resourceful and well-coached Heat could take down the Hornets then most likely playoff newbies in the Raptors.
A series against the Cavs would be the one to watch in the Eastern conference. Obviously there’d be some mind games against Lebron, who has a man crush on Wade and the Heat, while player-to-player matchups work out quite well for the Heat. I really think as far as Eastern conference competition, the Heat may have the kryptonite against this impressive Cavs roster.
With that said, even with the impressive feat of getting past the Cavs, any of the top four teams out of the West would have the advantage matching up against the Heat squad. Still, an NBA finals showing from such an overlooked roster would be great to see.