The All-Star break has come and gone – and brought us one of the best Slam Dunk Contests we’ve seen in decades. With the trade deadline now gone as well, it’s time for the grind to resume as the 2015-16 NBA season begins its home stretch. Things will start to heat up from here but we won’t see things really catch fire until March Madness is in the rearview as well.
Now that we pretty much know what teams will look like as they make their playoff pushes and reach for the title, let’s break down who has the best shot.
1. Golden State Warriors
Don’t act like you didn’t see this coming. I think we’ve all seen this coming since they won it all last June. This is essentially the same team that won the title last year… Except they might be better? Is that possible? The Warriors have a chance to set a new record for wins in a season – and even if they don’t quite achieve that monumental milestone, they’re going to be an incredibly tough out in the playoffs. They’ve yet to lose back to back games this season — who’s going to beat them four times in seven games? They’ve only lost 5 games so far the entire season. You could say they’ve got a shot at the title.
2.San Antonio Spurs
Ol’ reliable. I know some people are tired of watching the Spurs in May and June year after year, but you know what? Pop and the Spurs aren’t tired of winning yet. If you don’t like it, have your favorite team beat them… They can’t? Join the club. The Spurs have been incredibly dominant and consistent for what seems like a lifetime at this point. They’re well coached, the roster is well-constructed and they play well together. And just when you think their reign might finally be coming to an end, they add another All-Star big man who is fitting in better and better as the season progresses. Good luck stopping this train.
This is starting to look a lot like last year’s NBA Playoffs, isn’t it? Cleveland is the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference and it’s no secret why – they just have the best roster. A healthy trio of LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love along with an improving supporting cast makes for a very capable, championship-caliber team and a serious threat to the Spurs and the Warriors. LeBron isn’t getting any younger and this could be the best chance he’ll ever have to bring a championship to Cleveland. When he turns it on, he’s still the most dominating player in the game (or at least 1A beside Curry right now) and he’s not afraid to go after what he wants. Best of luck to anyone standing between this man and a title for Cleveland.
4.Oklahoma City Thunder
This is where things start to get interesting. KD, Russ and the Thunder are awesome. But they haven’t been able to put it together – they have fallen into the good-but-not-great category year after year. LeBron has owned Durant and OKC in the regular season and the playoffs and he’s not even the toughest test on their schedule. Oklahoma City has top-end talent to get it done. Kevin Durant is incredible and Russell Westbrook appears to get better every single game, but they haven’t been able to do it alone. For the Thunder to bring a title back to OKC this summer, Durant and Westbrook are going to need some help from the supporting cast like we haven’t seen before.
Who saw this coming back in October? Not I. Toronto has been sensational in the first half of the year and currently own the second best record in the East, behind only LeBron and the Cavs. This ranking and their shot at a championship comes with one major caveat though – the health of DeMarre Carroll. If he is unable to return this year or return to form, the Raptors will fade down the stretch. However, a healthy Carroll makes them a very legitimate contender and could conceivably represent the East in the NBA Finals – especially when you consider the health issues Cleveland has faced in the last year. This might be the most exciting story to watch unfold as the weather warms up.
Teams on the cusp:
It’s no secret that Clippers have the talent to win it all. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan are a formidable trio. But they are betting at finding ways to lose than they are at finding ways to win. It’s more to do with individuals than the team — a perfect example is Blake Griffin hurting himself while fighting a team employee. The Spurs don’t have these problems. The Clippers do.
Bravo, Danny Ainge, bravo. Boston has gone from cellar-dweller to legit contender in the blink of an eye. The Celtics are improving under the tutelage of Brad Stevens and own the third best record in the East after the break. While they’re a virtual lock to make the playoffs, it’s hard to bet on them against some of the NBA’s best just yet.