Team to beat: Golden State Warriors
When a team is fortunate enough to have four All-Stars and two former MVPs on their roster, they are the obvious team to beat. While they fit this description, Golden State also has something to prove this season. After losing three straight games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s finals, the Warriors are on a crusade to avenge their mishap. Barring a miracle, the San Antonio Spurs are the only team that have a chance to stop Steph Curry and company from making their third straight finals appearance.
Dark horse: Oklahoma City Thunder
Full disclosure: This author predicted the Thunder would miss the playoffs halfway through the season. However, an important lesson has been learned; don’t underestimate Russell Westbrook. If anyone can carry a decent team to the semi-finals with sheer willpower, it’s Westbrook. The Thunder front office orchestrated a heist of the Bulls’ roster at the deadline and added front court depth and outside shooting in exchange for a handful of peanuts. The Thunder certainly won’t be eliminated in the first round and may surprise in the second. It all depends on whether the team gets the fifth or sixth seed.
Biggest disappointment: Utah Jazz
It’s time for the Jazz to come back to reality. They had a great season and small forward Gordon Hayward and centre Rudy Gobert are talented players, but neither of the two stars are truly elite. Their offence is second-to-last in the league in scoring and third-to-last in assists this season. It would be a different story if power forward Derrick Favours had finally had his long-awaited breakout season, but he’s averaging a lowly nine points per game. Expect a first round exit from Utah.
Team to beat: Cleveland Cavaliers
Even though the Cavaliers have been struggling lately, there is no doubt that point guard Kyrie Irving and forward LeBron James will hit their stride come playoff time. James is in it for championships, not regular season accolades. His “resting” during the season may have cost the Cavs some wins, but in the process he made sure he was healthy for the postseason stretch. Forward Kevin Love and guard J.R. Smith have both been dealing with injuries that have contributed to the team’s recent slow-down, but both are now back and healthy. Barring injury, there’s no reason the Cavs shouldn’t repeat as Eastern Conference champions.
Dark horse: Washington Wizards
With John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, the Wizards have two of the best guards in the game. The dynamic duo has led Washington to unexpected regular season success after a disappointing 41-41 2015-2016 season. The often overlooked forward Otto Porter Jr. has been lights out this season and established himself as a viable third scoring option for Washington. With wing Bojan Bogdanovic bolstering the bench, the Wizards have the potential to be playoff sleepers in the East.
Biggest disappointment: Toronto Raptors
Last year’s Raptors made it to the conference finals, so expectations are high on this side of the border. However, the cataclysmic meteor hanging over the Raptors right now is how effective All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry will be coming off of wrist surgery on his shooting hand. While the Raptors did improve their roster at the trade deadline with the addition of power forward Serge Ibaka, neither Lowry nor star guard DeMar DeRozan play well off the ball, limiting the amount Ibaka can be incorporated into the offence. Ultimately, their over-reliance on Lowry and Derozan makes them prime candidates for a second round exit.