Led by the multi-talented Golden State Warriors, there are at least five teams with a legitimate chance of winning this year’s NBA title.
The other four teams with the talent and leadership skills to win the whole thing are the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Stacked with an All-Star cast that includes Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors are so superior to anyone else in the NBA that whoever they meet in the playoffs, it won’t be a fair fight.
Curry won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award the past two seasons, and Durant won it three years ago.
And anyone who thought Curry’s star was fading because of the appearance of Durant need only to look at how effective he was when Durant was sidelined with a knee injury. The Warriors went 15-4 when Durant was sidelined.
Here are the five things to watch for in the upcoming playoffs, which start Saturday.
Following his much-discussed free agency move from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors last summer, Durant appears to be poised to finally win his first NBA title. Curry and Durant are arguably two of the top three most prolific players in the world, which is why Golden State is heavily favored to win its second championship over the past three seasons. Durant took plenty of heat for leaving the Thunder so he could join the Warriors. Especially since it was partly Durant’s fault that the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in losing last year’s Western Conference Finals in seven games.
In what will be the most interesting first-round matchup, long-time friends Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden of the Houston Rockets square off in a battle between the top two candidates to win this year’s Most Valuable Player award. Westbrook broke the NBA’s single-season record for triple-doubles with 42, and also became the second player to average a triple-double for an entire season. Westbrook led the league in scoring (31.6 points per game), was third in assists (10.4) and 10th in rebounds (10.7). Harden finished second in the league in scoring (29.1), first in assists (11.2), tied for 21st in rebounds (98.1) and also had 22 triple-doubles.
The defending NBA champion Cavaliers are limping into the playoffs with losses in seven of their past 11 games, including the past four. Granted, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving didn’t play in all of those losses. But there have been signs all season that this year’s Cavaliers aren’t as lethal as last year’s group which gave the city of Cleveland its first championship in 40 years. Like his early days with the Cavaliers, this year’s playoffs will be a huge challenge for James.
Forget for a second about winning an NBA title. Or even reaching the NBA Finals. Chris Paul has yet to get one of his teams to a conference championship. That is almost unimaginable for a player now in his 12th season and widely considered to be one of the top three point guards in the NBA. The Clippers as a whole have been flying under the radar for quite some time. But they have assembled enough talent in recent years to either win an NBA title, reach the NBA Finals, or at least get out of the second round of the playoffs. And if one of those three scenarios doesn’t occur, forward Blake Griffin and Paul are both expected to opt out of the contracts this summer and become free agents.
Thanks to what the Boston Celtics accomplished in the regular season, this could finally be the year LeBron James will NOT be playing in the NBA Finals. James played in the Finals the past six years, with Miami from 2011-2014 and with Cleveland the past two seasons. But since the Celtics are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, all they have to do is win their home playoff games and they’ll advance to the NBA Finals. And wouldn’t the NBA love it if the franchise that has won more world titles than anyone reaches the championship game this season? With Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics have enough firepower to win the East.