We are just about to the All-Star break, and there more teams with realistic championship chances than maybe ever. When was the last time a team that was considered a real title contender was not even in the top eight in their conference at the All-Star break? The Oklahoma City Thunder are just trying to find a way to just get that 8th spot in the playoffs, but most people are considering them to be a legitimate contender. At this moment we have seven teams that I would consider to have a real shot at bringing home the Larry O’Brien Trophy this season. This should be an even more exciting than normal post-season this year, especially in the Western Conference. Here is my breakdown of all of the contenders in the order of which I think have the best shot of winning it all:
1: The Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have been an outstanding offense for the past few season, but this year they have improved tremendously on the defensive end. New coach, Steve Kerr, has made a major impact on this team. He has lead them to an insane record of 41-9 with one game remaining before the break. The splash brothers have been darn-near unbeatable, and the emergence of Draymond Green has been key in their ability to spread the floor. Green is a stretch four that can knock down threes, but he can also finish around the rim and get rebounds if he needs too. I think the Warriors have the best chance of winning the title because they are the best all-around team. Jump shooting usually dies in a seven game series, but the Warriors aren’t just a jump shooting team anymore. Golden State can knock down threes, take the ball to the rack, and lock you down on the defensive end.
2: The Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were suppose to be good this year, but I don’t think anybody expected them to be this good. Coach Mike Budenholzer has turned the Hawks into the Eastern Conference version of the San Antonio Spurs. They are the total package. They play defense, hit threes, and pound it inside better than just about anybody in the league. Jeff Teague has developed into one of the most underrated players, not just point guards, in the entire league. Kyle Korver is a three point specialist that can catch fire at any time. Thabo Sfelosha was a huge get to improve their defense. Al Horford and Paul Millsap dominate the paint against almost everyone they’ve played this season. Memphis is the only team that worked the Atlanta bigs all season. Dennis Shroder is huge advantage for them off the bench. The Hawks use rapid ball movement, and excellent spacing to rip your heart out with an open three. The only thing i’m worried about with the Hawks is their lack of playoff success. They have been pretty average for a while now so I wonder how they will react when the lights are bright and the pressure is on because they are expected to win.
3:The Memphis Grizzlies
This team is so fun to watch. They are a veteran group that genuinely like each other and that is easy to see when they’re on the floor. Mike Conley is floor general that gets everything going, and you can always count on him when you need a clutch basket. Marc Gasol is the number one option offensively and he is also one of the best defensive players in the NBA. Zbo is a double-double machine that seems to get 20 and 10 every single night. Tony Allen is the spark plug of the Memphis Grizzlies. He gets the crowd into it, and literally only cares about winning. Allen is the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and it would be criminal if he isn’t first team all-defense this year. The Jeff Green trade was a huge part Memphis becoming a realistic contender. Green can play defense, take the ball to the hole, and even knock down the occasional three. He just adds another dimension that Tayshaun Prince just could’t bring to the table. Maybe the biggest asset Memphis has this year is the depth. Having Beno Udrih, Tony Allen, Kosta Koufous, and Vince Carter coming off the bench is a luxury that nobody else in the league has. The Grizz made a conference finals run two years ago so watch out for the Grizz this year! It would not surprise me at all to see a championship parade on Beale Street this summer.
4: The Houston Rockets
James Harden has been an absolute baller this year. The bearded-one is a serious MVP candidate, and quite possibly is the favorite at this point. The addition of Trevor Ariza was big for this team. Pat Beverly is a pest that nobody wants to play against, and Dwight Howard is the second best center in the game behind Marc Gasol. The Rockets don’t defend well, but they can light up the scoreboard. If Dwight Howard can stay healthy this team could still be playing in June. The Rockets are 36-16, but D12 has missed some games. With James Harden playing the best ball of his career along side a healthy Dwight Howard, this team can beat anyone.
5: The Cleveland Cavaliers
Any team with as much talent as the Cavs have is a legitimate title contender. Don’t let the rocky start fool you, the Cavs are a real team with superstar talent. LeBron, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving seem like they should be whooping everybody, but chemistry is a huge part of basketball. The Cavs have not had enough time to mesh together like they need too. The off-court distractions like the David Blatt rumors and the LeBron subtweet about Kevin Love haven’t helped either. The biggest positive the Cavs have going for them is that they are in the Eastern Conference. They can make it through the east playoffs without having to play their best basketball, at least until they face Atlanta.
6: The Oklahoma City Thunder
If the season ended today the Thunder wouldn’t even make the playoffs, but everyone still thinks they have a real chance to win the title. How insane is that? Never count out Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Surge Ibaka. Durant is the reigning MVP and can literally hit from anywhere. Russell Westbrook can absolutely explode on any given night. Surge Ibaka is still a force down low,and now they added Dion Waiters to help their bench. The Waitors move was big for them because they basically gave up nothing but got a guy that is capable of going off on any given night. Dion Waitors and Reggie Jackson together on the second unit is overwhelming for most second units in the league. If the west wasn’t already hard enough, the Thunder are going to be at an even bigger disadvantage than any other contender. OKC will not have home-court in any series. If anybody can overcome that it’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
7: The Dallas Mavericks
The Rondo trade catapulted the Mavs into being legitimate title contenders. Rondo isn’t a scorer but he can set people up like nobody else. The Mavs don’t need Rondo to be a scorer because they have Dirk, Monte Ellis, and Chandler Parsons. The Parsons addition was big this year because he is a three point shooter that can really help spread the floor. Dirk’s production is slipping, but he is still Dirk. Monte Ellis has had some huge games this year, but he has also had a couple of duds. Tyson Chandler has been a beast on the boards, and a huge defensive asset this season. Chandler was a huge part of their championship team a few years back. With all of the offensive weapons this team has, and the perfect point guard to set them up, Dallas is a dangerous team.
Non-Contenders That Barely Missed the Cut:
The Portland Trail Blazers
I know Portland beat Houston to get to the second round last year, but i’m a firm believer of the theory that jump shooting teams won’t win championships. With guys like Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Wesley Matthew i would not be surprised at all to see them in the second round, but I don’t think they can win it all. The Blazers need to improve defensively and not rely on outside shots as much before I can consider them a championship contender.
The Chicago Bulls
Pau Gasol is having the best season of his career and Jimmy Butler has turned into a superstar, but it won’t be enough to lead the Bulls to a championship this year. Derrick Rose has not been elite this year, and Coach Thibs is wearing his team down. The Bulls will be exhausted by the time the playoffs start. The positive for the Bulls is that they are in the east so they could realistically get to the conference finals, but I don’t think they would get passed Cleveland or Atlanta. If they somehow made it to the Finals, I would take any team out of the west to beat them.