Now that we are past the all star break, it’s about time to get serious. We are 60 games in for each team, and we now know the identity of every team. In this article I’m gonna be talking about what I think is the most crucial factor for each team. This is going to be a larger list of contenders than I actually think but for sake of the article I am extending my list.
Milwaukee Bucks: Supporting cast
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA and by far deserve it. They are 51-8 and are on pace for record breaking seasons offensively and defensively. Giannis is the front runner to win back to back MVPs and the lose of Malcom Brogdon has not effected them at all. Giannis has improved his game drastically. He is shooting 32% from 3 this year compared to his 26% last year. However, he can’t do everything. He’s going to have to rely on his team to knock down shots in big spots. Khris Middleton is a big part to what this team does. He is having a great season and was rewarded in making his second all star team. He’s averaging 21 points a game and shoots 44% from 3. He is the guy they go to when they need a bucket late in games. If he can establish himself as a closer, then this team will be even harder to beat. Eric Bledsoe needs to be that true point guard the team needs. Giannis is the focal point in the offense most of the time, but every team needs that true point guard to run the half court offense late in games. Last year he had a horrific performance from 3 in the playoffs shooting 17% from 3 in the Eastern Conference Finals. He is a decent 3 point shooter, shooting 35% this year. He just needs to be that guy in the playoffs. George Hill is going to have to continue to play well too. He has been a huge spark off their bench and is leading the NBA in 3 point percentage at 50% attempting almost 3 a game. Those are the main 3 that need to play well but for this team everyone just needs to shoot well. Giannis will drive and kick and he needs his guys to knock down shots like they have this regular season. Donte DiVincenzo, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, Ersan İlyasova, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews, and Marvin Williams-who was a great buyout signing-need to play big minutes for this team. I know I just listed like the whole team but these are their established 3 point shooters who they have put around Giannis perfectly. Ultimately Giannis is gonna do him, you just need the guys around him to play well.
Los Angeles Lakers: supporting cast
With the Lakers it’s the same story as the Bucks. They have surrounded Lebron perfectly with shooters. Lebron is playing on the best team he has ever been on and Lebron will be Lebron in the playoffs. Enough said about him. Anthony Davis is looking like the DPOY front runner. He is the true anchor for this team and does a great job protecting the rim. What’s so great about this team though is how bought in they are to what they do. Everyone on the team plays defense and hustles. They look like they have so much fun when they play, and every role player understand their role and defers to Lebron and AD. This team has tons of Finals experience. Danny Green has to be playoff Danny Green. Last year in the playoffs he was a little inconsistent but still alright. Quinn Cook is going to have to knock down big shots. Rondo is a great playoff player as well. JaVale can provide valuable minutes same with Dwight Howard. All of those players have been to the Finals. Other than them, players like Troy Daniels, KCP, Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma need to play well.
Toronto Raptors: keep doing you
A “Finals Hangover” is definitely not the identity of this team. They play with a different type of swagger than I’ve ever seen. They play like winners and like they have been their before which they have. Siakim has taking a huge leap this year being named an all star starter. He should be up for most improved again. His scoring has jumped 6.5 points and is filling the void of Kawhi better than anybody’s expectations. Kyle Lowry is still the gritty vet we all love and plays with that Nova dog mentality. Fred VanVleet is going to need to have his big moments like he did last year in the playoffs. OG Anunoby is going to have to step up as well as all of their other role players like Gasol, Ibaka, Boucher, Ronde Hollis-Jefferson and Norman Powell. There isn’t much to say about this team they just need to keep playing with the same swagger and confidence they have played with in the regular season and carry their momentum into the playoffs.
Boston Celtics: young talent step up
The Celtics have been one of my favorite team to watch this year. They have played in so many close games and Jayson Tatum and crew always find a way to make it interesting in the end. Kemba has been the perfect addition for this team and his attitude as well as his play style mesh well with the rest of the squad. The leap that Tatum has made this year has been exponential and a key to this teams success. We saw hints in his rookie year in the playoffs of how great of a prospect he could be when he took Lebron to 7 games in the eastern conference finals with no Kyrie or Gordon Hayward. His scoring averages have gone up by almost 8 points and he is shooting more efficient in every area. At the young age of 21 (March 2nd: turning 22 tomorrow) he has demonstrated all the tools to be a future superstar in the league. Jaylen Brown has also taken a massive leap this year and seems a lot more bought in to what the Celtics are trying to do this year rather than last year. His point averages are up by 7 and he is also shooting more efficient in every category. But the Celtics aren’t as much worried about the success of these guys as they are some of the others. Rookies Grant Williams, Carson Edwards and Romeo Langford are all going to have to step up and play big playoff minutes. After losing Kyrie and Al Horford in free agency, this team is relying a lot on the young talent they used their draft capital on this year for their success. I look forward to seeing this team in the playoffs because as a team everyone is bought in offensively and defensively because all they wanna do is win. Pair that with a coach of the year candidate in Brad Stevens and you could be playing until June.
Denver Nuggets: defense
Denver’s defense this year is so far 18th in the league in points per game. Yes this isn’t bad, but I think it is the peak for this team. This team has few players that make an impact defensively that get lots of minutes. When it comes to the playoffs, hiding players who aren’t great on defense becomes a lot more difficult. Mike Malone has done a great job this year and should be up for coach of the year. Hiding Jokic and Jamal Murray on defense in the playoffs will be an extremely difficult task for him though. The players that really make an impact on the defensive end for this team are not their main scorers. They are Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Mason Plumlee. Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant occasionally will provide some energy as well. My point in saying this is that none of these players are one of the main sources of their offense. Most are bench players and others are role players on offense. The lack of 2-way players on this team may hurt them in the long run because it can get very hard to sub in the heat of the moment in a playoff game. Also, teams will attack your weakness in a 7 game series once they start to figure you out. As much as the game is fun to watch on offense, there is still 2 sides of the ball and you need guys that are going to be difference makers on both sides.
Los Angeles Clippers: stay healthy
When healthy, in terms of talent the Clippers have put together the most talented roster in the league. However, this year they have played only 5 games with their entire team available. Essential pieces to this team have missed time due to injuries such as Paul George, Patrick Beverly and Landry Shamet. Also as we all know Kawhi gets his load management games which doesn’t help. If the playoffs started today they would be a 3 seed and that is solely because of their talent. Multiple players and their coach Doc Rivers have come out and said that they don’t believe that they are playing their best basketball yet they are sitting tied for second in the grueling Western Conference with a 41-19 record. The additions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson will only help their chances as well. Marcus Morris gives them not only 3 point shooting but effort and grittiness on defense which only adds to the teams identity. Reggie Jackson also can come in and slow the game down in the half court for the bench when need be. I think this team is in a great spot to win but they need to get healthy towards the end of the season to start gaining some team chemistry before the playoffs. As soon as they can get everyone on the floor they can start to really lock in defensively with all of their talent in not just their stars, but in the rest of the team as well.
Houston Rockets: Get hot
The Rockets are a team that lives and dies by the 3. They lead the league in 3 point attempts by far and their entire offense revolves around it. James Harden is one of the scariest players in the league when he gets hot and after seeing the scoring run he went on last year, it is possible it happens again. Last year he went on the second longest run to only Wilt Chamberlin of consecutive 30+ point games. Although the streak ended at 32 he finished 2019 averaging 36 a game. If he gets hot at the right time this year don’t be surprised if this team makes a run, although getting past a great defensive team like the Clippers in the west might not be so easy. Now that they have proved that they can make the small ball lineup work in the regular season, they need to carry it into the playoffs. In a 7 game series, teams start to scheme more and can find the best way to attack an opposing team. It will be interesting to see if D’antoni’s system works in the playoffs like it has so far in the regular season.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
Utah has been atop the West almost all year but recently have dropped to the 5 seed. This teams defense as well as offense is good enough to make them contenders but I don’t know if they have it all figured out quite yet. Mike Conley is struggling this year. His points per game has dropped by almost 7 points and he has yet to find his role on this Jazz team. They recently had to move him to the bench for Royce O’Neal to start. It is unfortunate that Conley is having this type of season because he has always been known as a very solid point guard who plays good defense and can score the ball for you. He has not turned out to be that player this year for the Jazz. The Jazz need to find a way to help Conley find his role with the team behind their young stud Donovan Mitchell who has been exceptional this year and their defensive anchor Rudy Gobert.
Philadelphia 76ers: spacing (duh)
If you are a fan of the blog you know I love to talk sixers. I couldn’t really tell you why I like talking about them so much. Maybe it’s because of how intriguing of a team they are. They have 2 different center pieces on their team which is almost unheard of. You can build a playoff caliber team around Ben Simmons and Joel Embid but maybe you can build a championship caliber team if you pick one of them. Right now both of them are injured and it is not looking good for them which is why I barely put them on this list. However, with their abundance of talent on their team they were too hard not to include. The additions of Alex Burks and Glenn Robinson haven’t been great for them so far. In 8 games Glenn Robinson has failed to make a 3 after shooting 40% from behind the arc for golden state for the first half of the season. Although Alec Burks hasn’t been bad, his numbers have also taken a bit of a dip but one would expect that when you go from the Warriors to a team full of talent. Unfortunately his 3 point percentage is down though to 31% with the sixers compared to his 38% with the Warriors. I’ve talked a lot about Embid and Simmons in prior articles but mainly they either need to figure out a way to play with each other or fire Brett Brown and find a coach who can make a system that fits Embid and Simmons in an offense together because their talents and potential are undeniable.
Like I said, this is a very broad list of contenders. There are certainly tiers of contenders but I think that this is a fair broad list. If there is a team that you think I left out or a team that shouldn’t been on here let me know and I’d love to discuss. I’m always looking for feedback and someone to talk basketball with so feel free to leave your comments. I look forward to the playoffs this year and I think it will be very entertaining.