The competition for an NBA title boils down to just a few teams

By DANIEL LANDY | February 22, 2018

James_Harden_(30852408515)
Keith Allison/CC BY-SA 2.0 James Harden has established himself as the frontrunner for MVP.

With All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror, it is time to look ahead to the latter portion of the NBA season, especially as the playoff positioning and the award races begin to come into focus.

Let’s start out by looking at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. For the first time in years, the Conference’s hierarchy briefly seemed muddled. LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers were reeling, and it appeared that the seven-plus year stranglehold that “The King” held on the East was in jeopardy. However, a flurry of trades before the February 8 deadline drastically changed the makeup of the Cavs.

Now, with a new group of young players and a tension-free locker room, the best player on the planet is in prime position to reach his eighth consecutive NBA Finals.

In addition, the Boston Celtics have cooled off considerably, and the Toronto Raptors are still largely unproven in critical playoff situations. 

Outside of the East’s top three, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Washington Wizards are both talented, young teams that are capable of pulling off an upset in the playoffs. However, I can only see such an upset bringing down Boston or Toronto. 

LeBron is always locked-in come playoff time, and he will have the Cavs well prepared for another Finals run. Cleveland will only lose at the hands of a superior team, which as of now cannot be found in the East.

The Western Conference will ultimately be decided in a tightly contested Conference Finals duel between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. 

The Warriors have cruised through the West in each of the past three seasons. However, this year they will have to face a well-equipped Rockets team. James Harden and Chris Paul must still prove that they can win in the playoffs, but together, their one-two combo will be tough for the Warriors to stop.

One key advantage that the Rockets may have over Golden State is their depth, which could play a major role in a potential seven-game series. Houston has seven players who are averaging more than 10 points per game, compared to Golden State’s four players. However, those four are all championship-proven All-Stars who know how to win critical games in May and June.

An interesting wild card out West will be the Oklahoma City Thunder. While I do not see the Thunder beating the Warriors or the Rockets in a series, they will give one of those teams all they can handle in the Conference Semifinals. A lengthy, physical series against OKC could fatigue Golden State or Houston considerably.

I still expect the Warriors to overcome the Rockets, but I also expect a tightly contested matchup that lives up to the hype.

Now for the race to the League’s most important award: the MVP. It is looking increasingly likely that this is the season in which James Harden will finally capture the award. 

The MVP race is all about the narrative, and Harden’s fits the bill. The Rockets guard — who was a second-place finisher in the voting for two of the past three seasons — is now having arguably the most impressive season of his career. As of the All-Star Break, he led the association with career-bests in points per game and player efficiency rating. He was also second in assists per game, value added and estimated wins added. Add the Rockets’ League-best 44-13 record to Harden’s personal achievements, and it is clear that he should be the frontrunner for the award.

With regard to the Defensive Player of the Year, I am rolling with Al Horford. It is only fitting to give the award to a member of the Boston Celtics, who currently have the best defensive rating in the NBA. Horford’s qualifications go beyond his role as a leader and a veteran presence on the League’s top defensive unit. 

When examining the analytics, he ranks among the NBA’s best in individual defensive rating, defensive wins shares, defensive points saved and defensive plus/minus. He may not have flashy numbers in the steals and blocks categories, but Horford is extremely deserving of the award.

As for the Coach of the Year, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey has surged to the top of the leaderboard — although the Warriors’ Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala were impressive stand-ins when Steve Kerr handed over his clipboard last week. 

Amid the turmoil in Cleveland and recent struggles in Boston, Toronto quietly snuck into the top position in the Eastern Conference standings. I am not ready to say that the Raptors are a legitimate threat to reach the NBA Finals. However, Casey deserves immense credit for the Raptors’ ability to improve, despite playing with largely the same roster that they have had for several years.

The Sixth Man of the Year race isn’t even close. My question isn’t who will win the award, but rather why this borderline All-Star is not a starter. 

Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers is a no-brainer, a shoo-in to capture the award. He leads the Clippers in points per game and has scored at least 35 points on seven different occasions this season. This includes a dazzling 50-point performance in a road victory against Golden State that put the entire League on notice. 

Why Williams doesn’t start for the ninth-best team in the West is anyone’s guess. However, the one thing his role as a reserve has done is guarantee that he will be bringing home an award after this season.

This year’s rookie class has had four standout performers, two of whom are neck-and-neck for the Rookie of the Year Award. Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma have had stellar starts to their respective careers, but it is the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell who are vying for the award. 

I personally believe that Mitchell is deserving of the award because of the tremendous impact that he has made for the Jazz. 

In the wake of Gordon Hayward’s departure from Salt Lake City last summer, Utah could have fallen into limbo without their former All-Star. However, Mitchell has made his presence felt in his first season and has the Jazz contending for a playoff spot. He has led the team in points per game throughout the season, as well as during the team’s current 11-game winning streak.

Though I personally believe Mitchell’s strong campaign warrants him this award, I think that the voters will ultimately choose Simmons for the award. His overall statistics are stronger than Mitchell’s, and the hype surrounding Philadelphia’s young core makes him the trendy pick. However, the individual influence that Mitchell has had on the Jazz should not be underestimated.

There will be plenty of exciting topics to discuss in the coming months. Let’s hope that the NBA delivers yet another exciting stretch run that brings more intriguing storylines into the fold.

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