Is your favorite team a title contender -- or a lottery lock?
The 2016-17 NBA season is flying by, probably because the games are so ridiculously entertaining.
Truly, between Russell Westbrook's quest to average a triple-double, the Golden State Warriors' pursuit of offensive history, LeBron James doing his thing, James Harden taking "Seven Seconds or Less" to a new level, Joel Embiid dominating as Rookie of the Year and so much more, this might be the best season in league history.
With all that said, there's only one thing that matters: Who will rise up and claim this year's NBA title?
When the season started, there seemed to be just two teams with any claim to the throne. Now that we're one-quarter of the way through the year, we're taking stock of every team's place in the NBA pecking order by breaking down the entire association into seven categories:
The vast majority of these teams are self-explanatory. As much as we like Joel Embiid and the Sixers, for example, Philly is destined for another year in the draft lottery. The Mavs are imploding, Orlando is treading water, Phoenix is too young, and the Nuggets are probably a year away from real playoff contention.
Includnig the Heat as a lottery lock might surprise some folks, but this team is miserable offensively and seems destined to regret the Goran Dragic trade for a long, long time. Still, if any "lottery lock" can make the leap to "playoff hopeful," it's Miami.
New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers
That's right, friends: with Jrue Holiday back and Anthony Davis playing like a man possessed, I'm slipping the Pelicans into the "playoff hopefuls" bin.
Same for the Wizards, who still have too much talent to let their slow start completely torpedo their postseason dreams. The Wolves probably aren't making the playoffs, meanwhile, but I refuse to count them out yet. Preseason biases die hard.
The Bucks' ability to remain in playoff contention despite an injury to Khris Middleton is laudable; at this point, I'm genuinely rooting for Milwaukee to keep playing into May. And in Sacramento, I'd love to finally see DeMarcus Cousins make the playoffs.
The Pistons? Well, they exist, which is pretty neat!
And lastly, we have the upstart Lakers. I'm calling my shot now: Los Angeles makes the playoffs this season -- and takes a game off of the Warriors, assuming Golden State secures the No. 1 seed in the West.
Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies
Lost in all the talk about the Knicks being a "superteam" is the fact that New York is pretty solid this year. I wouldn't bet on the Knicks to make it out of the first round, but they should manage to scratch their way into the postseason.
Same for the Pacers and Paul George, although I'm wary about Indiana this season. And in the Western Conference, Portland and Memphis seem like locks to round out the playoff field.
Second-round exit guaranteed
Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz
The Hawks are a different team with Dwight Howard — but they're destined to be eliminated by the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. That's just what Atlanta does.
Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler have somehow turned their overlapping approaches into a workable offense for the Bulls — in the regular season, anyway. Chicago's vets will figure out a way to get this team one playoff series win, but against the NBA's truly elite squads, the Bulls will come up short.
Russell Westbrook has enough ferocity in his pinkie finger to lead the Thunder into the second round of the postseason, but a one-man show only gets you so far. OKC's ceiling is pretty clearly the conference semifinals.
And the Jazz are my sleeper pick to go deep into the postseason this year, but Utah is still a season or two away from true Finals contention. Here's hoping the Jazz get to face the Warriors in the second round, giving Golden State a taste of what the future holds.
Conference finals or bust
Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets
None of these teams is going to make the NBA Finals; I feel extraordinarly confident saying that. Charlotte, Toronto and Boston simply can't beat the Cavaliers regardless of how well they play on both ends of the floor.
And as entertaining as watching James Harden run a Mike D'Antoni offense in the postseason would be, Houston has neither the talent nor the defensive discipline to represent the West in the NBA Finals. However, if things break right for the Rockets, this team could very well make its way to the Western Conference finals.
NBA Finals spoilers
Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs
Finally — the two teams that could turn this NBA season upside down.
Calling either the Clippers or Spurs "Finals hopefuls" would be overstating things; as well as both teams have played through the first quarter of the season, they're still well behind the Warriors in the West, to say nothing of the Cavs.
Yet both teams should concern Golden State, if nothing else. The Clippers have chemistry and longevity on their side; playing together for four years now has turned L.A. into a top-10 defense to go along with one of the NBA's best offenses.
The Spurs, of course, are on the other end of the spectrum — trying to make up for Tim Duncan's retirement and Tony Parker's continued decline. As long as San Antonio has Gregg Popovich on the bench and Kawhi Leonard wreaking havoc on both ends of the court, however, the Spurs have to be considered a potential spoiler in the postseason.
In the Eastern Conference? Sorry, but no one is topping the Cavs. Deal with it.
The inevitable championship contenders
Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors
I wish I could say that the chase for the 2016-17 NBA title is wide open. That would be a lie, however, and I would never lie to you, dear reader.
What can we say about the Cavaliers? Cleveland is cruising through the regular season yet still destroying opponents, setting records by knocking down 20 3s in back-to-back games and generally toying with the NBA. The only question for the Cavs is whether LeBron wants to reclaim the MVP award. If he does, no one can stop him.
And Golden State is rounding into the ridiculous force we expected this team to be. The Warriors are on pace to be the greatest offense in NBA history, and the defense improves with every passing game.
Anything can happen over an 82-game season and the playoffs, of course; just ask last year's Warriors team about inevitability. But if I had to put my money where my mouth is, I wouldn't wager a single dime on anyone other than Golden State or Cleveland to win the 2016-17 NBA title.
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