Saturday, March 2, 2024

Ranking NBA’s top five title contenders: Bucks ahead of two West teams at the top; Nuggets miss cut

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With less than a month to go in the 2022-23 NBA regular season, there is still so much to be decided in the seeding races. But however it shakes out, I believe that a somewhat reliable championship picture, albeit a pretty vast one, is starting to develop. 

Below are my top five title contenders as is stands right now … 

Winners of 20 of their last 22, the Bucks look like the best team in the Eastern Conference, at least, as they continue to faze Khris Middleton back into the fold. 

That Milwaukee currently rocks the best record in the league despite the Big 4 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Middleton and Brook Lopez (who could be the Defensive Player of the Year) starting just five games all season together is a bright-red warning to any and all challengers, particularly if Middleton, who had a season-high 31 in Milwaukee’s huge win over Sacramento on Monday, settles into something closer to his typical production and efficiency in the playoffs. 

Giannis should be getting more MVP love than he is. He’s arguably the single most unstoppable force in today’s game, and the Bucks are loaded behind him. Depth. Versatility. Shooting. In a playoff landscape made up of supremely tight margins, guys like Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen are cut from the classic big-shot role-player mode, and Jevon Carter and Holiday are going to give your point guard 48-minute fits. 

What’s my concern with Milwaukee? Offense. This is a bottom-half unit. They jack up 3s but can struggle to create quality looks in the half court. An on-point Middleton goes a long way in remedying that. If you make Giannis put his head down and barrel through multiple defenders in stagnant settings, you may have a shot over seven games to withstand his relentless force. 

Kevin Durant could miss the remainder of the regular season after logging just three games playing with the Suns, but if any superstar is equipped to come off an extended absence and throw himself straight into the postseason fire without missing a beat, it’s Durant, who has a history of coming back on fire after long injury absences on fire. 

If, in theory, we were to end up with a Phoenix-Milwaukee Finals, you might well argue in favor of the Suns, slightly, because they are uniquely built to stress Milwaukee’s drop coverage — and neutralize Lopez’s rim — protection, with a trifecta of the most versatile pick-and-roll creators and deadly pull-up shooters in NBA history. 

Also, the Suns have one of the finest pace controllers we’ve ever seen in Chris Paul. Keep Milwaukee in a slower, half-court game, and you’ve got your best chance of taking them out. 

To me, the first swing guy is Deandre Ayton. In the three games Durant played, his touches cut almost in half. He has to be involved offensively, not only so he’s engaged defensively, but because he’s going to have so much room to operate on the short roll and on deep seals with defenders spread out on Booker and Durant. 

Paul is another swing guy. He has fallen off this season, and he likely won’t be the primary shot creator or snake-dribble-into-elbow-pull-up robot that he’s been in the past, but assuming that whatever is happening in the moment is going to continue happening in the future is how you go bust. Things change, for better or worse, often on a dime, and I would bet pretty confidently on Paul being a big factor in the playoffs. 

Teams are going to leave the likes of Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig and even Damion Lee (who’s been on fire all season) open in an effort to keep Durant and Devin Booker seeing double, but Paul will see plenty of cushion himself, and how he takes advantage of those opportunities, either by attacking space and finding corner shooters or by pulling the trigger himself, could go a long way in deciding Phoenix’s fate. 

Do I have any Phoenix concerns? Yes. Depth and 3-point shooting. Indeed, these outlet shooters are going to have to take and make a relatively significant amount of 3-pointers for Phoenix in the playoffs. The Suns are not a 3-point shooting offense as it is, and even with arguably the two best midrange players in the game, it’s tough to beat threes with twos. 

I don’t put any stock whatsoever in Golden State’s regular-season road ineptitude. I can’t explain it, but as long as they get into a first-round series (far from guaranteed), they’re going to reset and be as dangerous as they were last year, when we also tried to write them off as a top-tier contender at multiple points of the season only to watch the win the whole thing. 

So, for the record, you’ve been warned: Sleep on this team at your peril. 

Two keys: Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. Wiggins is irreplaceable on this team. He was the second-most important player on the 2022 title team. One, is he going to come back? And two, if he does, is he going to jump right back into rhythm?

As for Payton, the Warriors outscored opponents by almost 16 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court during last year’s playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass. His ball pressure, his transition energy, his half-court cutting, he’s absolutely vital, which is why the Warriors paid to bring him back after letting him walk to Portland over the summer. 

So, same deal as Wiggins: Will Payton come back healthy for the playoffs? And if he does, will he jump right into rhythm? Because this has to happen immediately. The Warriors are going to have an extremely difficult first-round matchup no matter how it falls. 

But if they get it going, this is a sleeping giant. Stephen Curry is still, for my money, the most influential player in the world, and Klay Thompson has been in vintage form since the turn of the calendar. 

Boston is right there with any of the top contenders. They have all the championship markers: top-five offense and defense, elite duo in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, top-end depth with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, shooting, lineup and defensive versatility, one-on-one creation, rim protection with Robert Williams, experience, the bitter taste of getting so close last season, etc. 

A potential Boston-Milwaukee conference finals would be a war, and though I’ve favored Boston in most of my analysis throughout the season, I am leaning Milwaukee now. They’ve just been so great over the last six weeks, and I can’t ignore that Milwaukee likely wins last season with a healthy Middleton. 

I’m looking at Boston’s bigs as a big swing factor. First order of business: get the aforementioned Williams back healthy, and keep him healthy for the postseason duration. In last year’s playoffs, the Celtics were 8.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively, per CTG, when Williams was on the floor. He’s about as impactful as any rim protector in the league when he’s clicking with his coverage radius and vertical pop, and on the other end his offensive rebounding is a major advantage. 

Then there’s Al Horford, who is a few months from turning 36 and still rock solid. Among all players who are attempting at least four 3-pointers per game, Horford is second in the league (behind teammate Malcolm Brogdon) with a 45.3% clip. Over a quarter of Horford’s 3s are coming from the the corner this season, by far a career high, and he’s making 49% of them. If he continues to be that kind of safety-valve option while Tatum and Brown are drawing the attention, Boston is going to be very tough to beat. 

Concerns? That support shooting doesn’t continue, which the Celtics need because they do not get to the rim at a high rate. The Celtics stop moving the ball the wrong time, get one-on-one drunk, and Robert Williams, who has never been able to stay healthy for long stretches, gets hurts again. Tatum’s wrist is already going to require offseason surgery; what if he re-aggravates it? Who knows how much it’s really bothering him already. 

What about Grant Williams, the guy who more or less won Game 7 against the Bucks last season for Boston with seven 3-pointers? He’s one of the biggest postseason wild cards. If he’s hot at the right time, same as Horford, Boston becomes really tough. 

When the Clippers signed Russell Westbrook, I wrote that if they were to win a championship, it would be in spite of Westbrook, not because of him. There’s still a small part of me that thinks they can pull it off in spite of him. 

Since Jan. 1, Kawhi Leonard’s 49% 3-point clip is the second-highest in the league among all players taking at least four per game, trailing only Kevin Durant, who has only played in seven games over that stretch. 

With Leonard playing at this level, and seemingly as healthy as he’s ever going to be and ready to play big minutes for a hopefully long postseason stretch, the Clippers have what could be the most dangerous guy in the playoffs. He’s proven that before. I believe, under the right circumstances, he can do it again. 

When Leonard and Paul George have been on the floor together this season, the Clippers are scoring an elite 120 points and outscoring opponents by almost eight per 100 possessions, per CTG. We’ll see how often Ty Lue goes small in the non-Zubac minutes with the addition of Mason Plumlee, but whatever his lineup decisions, he has options. 

The Clippers have the bench scoring in Normal Powell. I love Terance Mann. They have shooting, defense (in theory) and half-court creation. I wish they got to the free-throw line more, and it’s troubling that just six teams get to the rim less frequently than the Clippers. They have to make a lot of shots to compete with the top teams, and I’m not sure I trust Lue to consistently bench Westbrook for however long is necessary. But I just can’t get Kawhi and PG playing at their height out of my head. If they hit that peak, the Clippers can win it all. 

Apologies to…

  • Philadelphia 76ers: I cannot trust a defense that is covering for James Harden and Tyrese Maxey to hold up through four rounds. I don’t think Harden will be a 40% 3-point shooter through the playoffs. I don’t believe in Doc Rivers. The Sixers just aren’t creative enough offensively, and I believe they will eventually have to lean on guys to make individual plays and shots, and it won’t work against the real contenders. 
  • Denver Nuggets: Don’t quite believe in the defense. Asking Jamal Murray to go bubble mode is too much. 
  • Memphis Grizzlies: Uncertainty around Ja Morant and Steven Adams, and ultimately I don’t trust a team in the playoffs that is so dependent on transition. Memphis’ inability to create consistent half-court offense is where they fall off the top-contender list for me. 
  • Dallas Mavericks: Can’t stop anyone. Sorry. 
  • Sacramento Kings: Same as Dallas.
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: They’re going to give some team, or perhaps a couple teams, fits. Donovan Mitchell is an electric playoff scorer. Darius Garland is cash. The twin towers are a defensive load. Ultimately, I don’t think Cleveland takes or makes enough 3s to overcome the collective talent gap between them and the top contenders; Issac Okoro’s shooting, in particular, has fallen back to earth, and that 3-spot is a pressure point for Cleveland when defenses can leave a shooter with two non-shooting bigs already on the floor. 
  • Los Angeles Lakers: Not going to happen. 
  • New York Knicks: Not enough talent. 
  • Miami Heat: Save your Culture talk. 

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