After a strange and exciting 82-game prelude, the NBA playoffs are well under way. The stage is now set, and all the initial 16 teams entered the tournament with the belief that they can win it all. With New Orleans and Boston out of the race, the championship picture has already begun to come into focus. Here’s a look at the teams with the best chances to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this June.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have been the most dominant force in the NBA this season, running through the rest of the league on their way to a franchise record 67 wins. Inheriting a well shaped team from Mark Jackson, Head coach Steve Kerr has been a force in Oakland, molding Golden State’s collection of talent into a cohesive, well-oiled team. The Warriors excel at both ends of the court, boasting the best defense in the league along with a high-octane offense capable of both outstanding efficiency and explosive displays of volume scoring.
The Warriors have tremendous star power in MVP front-runner Stephen Curry and scoring machine Klay Thompson, but they also boast perhaps the deepest team in the league. Draymond Green may not have won Defensive Player of the Year but he played his way into the discussion, and Andrew Bogut ranks among the best defensive centers in the league. It will be a tough round two in the stacked Western Conference, but the Dubs have done nothing to disprove the idea that they’re the favorites to take home the title.
What a difference a year can make. Thirteen months ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers had just finished a grueling 33–49 season and had already turned their attention toward the draft. Now, with the return of LeBron James and the addition of Kevin Love, the Cavs suddenly find themselves contending for the NBA championship that eluded them during The King’s first tenure. The mid-season acquisitions of several key pieces, including center Timofey Mozgov, defensive catalyst Iman Shumpert and explosive scorer J.R. Smith, helped to revitalize the team and solidify the Cavaliers as a team to beat in the East.
Of course, Cleveland’s success or failure still rests largely on the shoulders of their superstar triumvirate. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had no prior playoff experience, but that didn’t slow them down in the opening games against the Celtics. LeBron James, meanwhile, enters the playoffs as the grizzled veteran of the group. After a shaky beginning to the season, James has played at an MVP level in leading the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East. Until Kevin Love’s injury and J.R. Smith’s suspension the Cavs had a relatively weak field standing in their way. It’s hard to imagine anything less than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in the Cavs’ future. Of course, LeBron and crew have set their aspirations a little bit higher than that.
The Atlanta Hawks may be one of the least respected number one seeds in recent memory. Despite putting together a tremendous year and cracking the 60-win plateau for the first time in franchise history, there have been doubts hanging over the team all season. Atlanta no doubt benefited from one of the weakest schedules in the NBA, and the path to the Finals has not been so easy. With no true superstar to lead them, those lingering doubts aren’t likely to go away any time soon.
Still, second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer was selected Coach of the Year award for a reason. Budenholzer has clearly displayed his strong Gregg Popovich influence, molding the Hawks into a selfless, efficient, effort-driven team that very much resembles the team from San Antonio. Though they may not have a single dominant star, Atlanta does boast four All-Star players in Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. It will be an uphill battle for the new-look Hawks, but they’re experienced, superbly well-coached and deep enough to withstand the rigors of a long playoff run if they can get passed the Brooklyn Nets.
Los Angeles Clippers
It’s been a long, painful season for a certain section of Los Angeles basketball fans, but things have gone considerably better for the Staples Center’s “other” tenants. After some mid-season struggles, the Clips finished off the season by rattling off 14 wins in their final 15 games. The dynamic duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is back in full force, with Paul playing at the top of his game and Griffin finally healthy and back to his former explosive self. However, DeAndre Jordan has been the true revelation for this year’s iteration of Lob City. Jordan has been positively sensational on the boards, and he’s a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end. His offense has also improved, as evidenced by his impressive scoring outputs in Blake Griffin’s absence.
If the Clips have one glaring weakness, it’s their bench. Other than the former sixth man Jamal Crawford, the Clippers have one of the weakest benches in the league. Every other bench player for Los Angeles has a negative net rating, allowing more points than they score when they’re on the court. This problem was on full display in game one versus the Spurs, when Doc Rivers was forced into playing his starters for nearly the entire game after the bench failed to hold the lead. This could be the team’s undoing over the long haul, but if the Clippers can get past the reigning champion Spurs, they just might have enough talent among their starters to pull off a deep playoff run.