Golden State Warriors (36-15)
All NBA centre Demarcus Cousins has played a grand total of just 60 minutes of basketball this season, and the reigning NBA champions are yet again on top of the west. There have been questions around Draymond Green; is he past it? has he slowed down? Klay Thompson started the season in the worst shooting funk of his career. Yet, all of this is just noise, as the class of the Warriors shines through, even as they seem to be cruising in auto pilot. It is terrifying to think this team obviously has a higher gear, and at the same time lead the league in points per game, assists per game, field goal percentage, and offensive rating.
Steph Curry is having another sparkling season, posting 29 points per game while shooting 44% from three and 49% from the floor. Kevin Durant, who somehow seems forgotten, is lightly dropping 27 points per game, on 50% shooting from the floor, and 38% from 3. Both should be getting considerably more MVP buzz, yet it seems almost blasé, mundane to an audience tired of the dominance of the team from the bay area. However, we must remember we are privileged to watch arguably the greatest collection of talent in one squad, with their starting five stuffed with All NBA players, performing and dominating season after season. While there have certainly been more questions around this year’s team, with Draymond Green no longer looking quite at the level of last year’s Defensive player of the year campaign, and a slight concern over depth, this team would have to self-combust to not be holding the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the playoffs.
Currently sitting second in the vaunted Western Conference with a record of 31 and 15, the Denver Nuggets are surely one of the surprises of the season. Though many agreed they would be in contention for a playoff berth, few could’ve predicted a team that missed the dance last year, would spend the best part of the season vying with the Golden State Warriors atop the western conference.
The Nuggets revolve around the unique talent of likely all-star Nikola Jokic, the 7ft giant with implausible playmaking ability. The big man from Serbia is averaging 19 points, along with 10 rebounds, and a historically prodigious mark of 7.7 assists, the most assists for any player above 6ft 10 other than the great Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic, though unique, is no fad. A PER, player efficiency rating, of 26.95 lands him in the territory of the best players in the league, above both Steph Curry and Lebron James, and he merits legitimate MVP consideration, alongside Curry, Harden, and Antetokounmpo.
The Nuggets are amongst the most exciting teams to watch in the whole association, each night playing with a fluidity and motion built around the core of their unique talisman, sitting third in the league for assists per game, and boasting an offensive rating of 113.1, 4th highest in the league. Alongside the big Serbian, Jamal Murray is finding more consistency to his game, averaging a career high in points, and forming a fearsome pick and roll tandem with Jokic. Will Barton is returning from injury, and Paul Millsap is a veteran presence on the youngest team in the league and will be essential down the stretch of the season.
While impressing in the regular season is one thing, translating their success in to playoff series victories is another matter entirely. Questions abound around their defensive vulnerability, though improved from last season to 12th in the league, a Jokic led squad is still vulnerable to a team like the Rockets, who could expose them from the perimeter, and their youth may show come April.
Oklahoma City Thunders (30-18) Western Conference
Oklahoma City Thunders, like the Indiana Pacers, they are not being talked about in the race for the NBA title. Having one of the best defences in the league is propelling them to the top of the standings in a Western conference containing the all dominating Golden State Warriors, which is nonetheless an impressive feat. Keeping Paul George alongside 2017 MVP winner Russell Westbrook, who is still averaging a triple-double a game for the third year running. A feat that is not even matched by the Hall of Fame legend, Oscar Robertson, who could only average two seasons of triple doubles. Oklahoma City Thunders own version of the ‘Big Three’ in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams is propelling them to hopefully a deep playoff run, albeit they face the Warriors then that dreams comes crashing down like a Led Zepplin. In today’s NBA where shooting a good percentage from the three-point line is how you win, OKC has been one of the worst teams shooting the three in the league at 34.1% ranking them 25 out of 30. However, going into depth why their defence is so good, we need to look at the stats. OKC have the third best defensive efficiency rating in the league, they are also third in rebounds per game behind 1st eastern seed Milwaukee Bucks and the 4th seed western Portland Trail Blazers; in steals per game they are first in whole of the NBA. OKC are also the 5th highest scoring team in the NBA, and that is astonishing considering they are as mentioned, one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. It just goes to show, that defence is not yet dead in the NBA.
Milwaukee Bucks (34-12) Eastern Conference
The Milwaukee Bucks are a young exciting team coming into their own this season. This year they are the 1st seed in a reinvigorated Eastern Conference. Giannis Antenkounmpo & Co are holding up against the conference favourites, Toronto Raptors who were predicted at the beginning of the season as the only team with a feasible chance of beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals. Antenkounmpo also know as the ‘Greek Freak’, is putting on an MVP season averaging a double-double of 26.6 PPG, 12.6 RPG along with 5.9 APG, 1.5 BLKPG and 1.4 STLPG and many twitter highlight videos. The Bucks is a future dynasty in the NBA with the age of the star players of the team, Antenkounmpo (24), Khris Middleton (27), Eric Bledsoe (29) and Malcolm Brodgon (26). The main core of the team being under 30 and Thon Maker who has a high ceiling of potential, asking for a trade, the Bucks have assets to use to improve the team. The Bucks are a team going from strength to strength and they are showing it this season. Boasting a lethal combination of a great defence and attack, losing only 12 games so far, the lowest in the league as well as having the best win percentage of .745%. Is it wrong to think that they can win the NBA Finals this year or is it to early to say? Who knows only time will tell when the playoffs come around in April.
Toronto Raptors (37-16)
This is a season of high risk, and potential high reward for the Toronto Raptors. Starting the season off trading the face of the franchise Demar Derozan, a player likely to have his jersey number retired in Air Canada centre, for former DPOY and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, a free agent in the summer, was a swing for the fences move from GM Masai Ujiri. The Raptors must impress upon Kawhi that he can win in the north, and that means at the least making the Eastern Conference finals, and most likely would require a trip to the NBA Finals.
To this end, Toronto are executing the plan to a pretty good standard. Currently sitting behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference, Toronto boast an impressively deep rotation of widely skilled, modern style players; Pascal Siakam received some interesting all-star buzz; OG Anunoby has played well and should prove a versatile piece come playoff time; Fred Van Vleet is the perfect offensive energy off the bench; and though all-star point guard Kyle Lowry is oft overlooked, he continues to play effective defence, and has been an elite level facilitator for this squad.
However, when it comes down to it in a playoff series, it will come down to the play of Kawhi Leonard. Posting 27.6 points per game, and nearly 8 rebounds he is having a stellar season, even if the media coverage of the raptors always pales in comparison with their American counterparts. The Bucks have all the buzz; the Sixers are a darling young team; the Celtics were the presumptive favourites in the East before the season; yet it may well be that in the playoffs Kawhi asserts himself as the best player in the conference and takes the Raptors to their first NBA finals in franchise history.
Indiana Pacers (32-15) Eastern Conference
The record of 32-15 may seem flattering to the Pacers. However, they are a team that has improved from last year, in which they had a record of 48-34, and with the current projections they should pass that record. Having the fourth best record in the league, only behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors, who are all favourites to make it to the NBA Finals, shows how criminally underrated they are as a team. Pacers fans can also boast that they have the second-best team defensive efficiency rating, only being the eastern conference 1st seeded bucks. But, and a really big but, there star man Victor Oladipo is out for the rest of the season with a serious ruptured quad tendon in his right knee. Oladipo’s numbers, apart from his assists have all gone down across the board, but the loss of his influence in the team as the star man will hugely impact the team’s potential success, as seen when Oladipo comes in with the clutch. Oladipo’s injury has reduced the small peripheral chance they had of making it to the NBA Finals. Without Oladipo in the squad, they will struggle to get past the first round in the playoffs. Unless Tyreke Evans can fill the void in the shooting guard role or players like Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanović and Thaddeus Young step up, sadly for Pacers fan they will see the year go out with a whimper rather than a bang.
By Joe Graham and Danny Hodges
(all stats and standings correct at time of publishing)
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