Led by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers stand tall atop the Eastern Conference. Despite injuries sustained along the way, the defending champions have held the pace they set last season. They’ve made savvy deals and look ready for another deep playoff run.
The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are Cleveland’s biggest threats to another Finals appearance. After signing Al Horford in the offseason, the Celtics have shown signs of improvement and could finally become legitimate title contenders. Like last year, Toronto has been on fire offensively, but considering how easily the Cavaliers dispatched the Raptors last season, Canada’s team might be more bark than bite.
After the top, there is a clear drop-off in terms of quality. Mid-level teams like the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls, and the Indiana Pacers have clear flaws that prevent them from making a serious playoff push.
In the competitive West, the perennial remain on top. With newly-signed superstar Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors appear to be the best team in basketball, posting the league’s top record and point differential.
Just behind the Warriors are the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has once again proved his wizardry courtside, maintaining his team’s standard of excellence despite losing the legendary Tim Duncan. With a new coach and supporting cast, the Rockets’ rise is one of the league’s surprising stories, spurred by James Harden’s explosive offence and rotation to the point guard slot in the backcourt.
A step behind this top tier sit the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. Utah has burst onto the scene after an injury-plagued 2015-16 season, in which they missed the playoffs altogether. With a set of familiar faces, the Clippers should once again prove a tough out in the playoffs, though they must stay competitive without star point guard Chris Paul unil he recovers from surgery in March.
Most Valuable Player
The race for Most Valuable Player has developed into a two-player contest between the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden. Westbrook has seen his production escalate to triple-double averages with the absence of Durant, while Harden has posted slightly less flashy statistics, but with exceptional efficiency. Ultimately, Harden trumps Westbrook by virtue of leading a superior team that should be a major presence in the postseason.
Rookie of the Year
In a season filled with disappointing rookie campaigns, the Philadelphia 76er’s Joel Embiid is the clear favourite to win Rookie of the Year. He’s scoring over 10 points more per game than the league’s next highest scoring rookie while providing stifling defence on the other end. Most importantly, his efforts seem to have helped his team turn the corner, as the 76ers have started to show flashes of competence this season for the first time in years.
Despite the presence of two pseudo-contenders in the East, the Cavaliers should sail relatively smoothly to the finals. In the West, the Warriors have a rockier path, but are still in a league of their own. James has shown that his teams are never to be counted out, but with Durant’s added star power Golden State will be tough to overcome. In a rematch of the last two seasons’ NBA finals, the Warriors should triumph.