The NBA this year has been both exciting and unpredictable (as per usual). As we hit the All-Star break we start to get a better understanding of where teams are headed for the rest of the season. The trade deadline has passed, buyout market has until March 1st and a lot of teams reach a point of clarity. I have spent the last 55 games trying to get these right (I watch a ton of basketball, thanks NBA League Pass). In this article, you will find my thoughts on all 30 teams regardless of whether or not they can actually win a title this year!
Legit Contenders aka “Has The Best Player In A Series
Boston is the best team in the Eastern Conference at 42-17 and it is on the backs of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and team defense. The Celtics have a top 5 team defensive rating (as of 02/17/23), have 6 guys averaging over 0.5 steals per game, and 5 guys averaging over 0.5 blocks per game. This team has learned from the mistakes they made against Golden State in the Finals last year and that makes them even scarier. They have the depth to not take the foot off the pedal heading into the playoffs and no team in the East will want to see them.
You can’t mention this team without first giving credit to their 2x (should be 3x after this year) MVP. Nikola Jokic has been a special player that has learned to adapt to different defensive schemes thrown at him which has shown his exceptional ability of finding a balance of playmaking and scoring. Joker is averaging 24.7 points per game, 11.5 rebounds per game and 10.1 assists per game (as of 02/02/23). As a team offensively they are basically unstoppable boasting the best offensive rating in the league (118.2 as of 02/17/23). The supporting cast is very strong but I am going to be keeping an eye on rim defense especially in close games because it can be an Achilles heel for them.
Well, this paragraph was a lot less pleasing pre-trade deadline. I mean come on… KEVIN DURANT and you only gave up two wing pieces? I get it that Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges were very important to Phoenix but this move immediately makes them a title contender in the West this year. A lineup that includes Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Ayton can beat anyone in a myriad of different ways and I don’t care who the 5th player is. They go through stretches last year in the playoffs as well as this year in the regular season when Devin Booker is struggling, the offense stalls. They won’t have to fall back on the Chris Paul pick and roll heavily because well…Kevin Durant is the best scoring forward of all time.
This team despite only getting 17 games out of their second best player (Khris Middleton) has managed to be the 2nd best team in the Eastern Conference at 41-17. I hate to be cliche but when you have Giannis Antetokounmpo on your team, you will always have a chance to win the title. He helped take the Celtics to 7 games in the second round of the playoffs last year without Middleton. This is good rebounding, well coached defensive team that is going to have a good chance to win the Finals led by the Greek Freak.
Instead of 1 best player in a series potentially, why not two? The Harden and Embiid experiment specifically in pick and roll has been nothing short of great this year. Harden is averaging 1.097 points per possession on pick & rolls including passes which is in the 85th percentile and 1.526 PPP on pick and rolls when trapped which is in the 94th percentile. All of those fancy numbers to say when you watch them, he is effective and Philly is successful when he is the pick and roll ball handler. Harden and Embiid have missed some time but it seems like they both are hitting strides here at the right time and the supporting cast of Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton are playing well also. Not that I have extreme confidence in this team to win the title but this is definitely the best opportunity Joel Embiid has had playing at the peak of his powers.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that youth is a factor in this team not being a title contender. We are passed that. When their best 5 of Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillion Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Steven Adams play together, they seem unstoppable at times. They showed last year they can be competitive in a playoff series and beat other good teams. The added level of defense that JJJ has brought to them since he has been healthy is enough to impact multiple games in a series. Also, did I mention they have Ja Morant who can take over and win a game for them at any moment? The question is going to be how healthy they can stay down the stretch.
“There’s Something Holding Me Back”
Golden State Warriors
The dubs can’t seem to figure out how to get a dub on the road this year (7-22 at the break). Now, while I get that is concerning their record at home makes up for it (22-7 at the break). You can never fully count them out. Through the 2020-21 season, the Warriors had never lost a playoff series (16-0) where Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green had started every game (via Warriors Nation). This year they are having to play the young guys and the numbers are showing it. They are 1st in pace in the NBA. They are playing fast but the offense and defense are both about the middle of the league. A good push after the all star break can put this team in the right position to make a run.
This Cavs team has been really good in large part to the awesome backcourt pairing of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. They have handled some small injury stretches very well and continued to win in a tough top of the eastern conference. I know with Mitchell people probably think he is a best player in the series type of guy. While I think his play this year has shown that, this team is built to rely on him in crunch time because of the construct of this roster being perimeter dominant on offense. I think it was a good idea to not move Okoro (who’s been good this year) and not try to expedite this title push. They are very capable of going for it this year and have 3-5 more years to try to win the title if they don’t win it all this year.
Los Angeles Clippers
Want to take a wild guess on what is holding me back from having them as contenders?
You guessed it. How am I supposed to know when my best two players are available to play consistently. I know in the playoffs there aren’t “rest games” but when you get deep into the playoff rounds you are playing games every other night. Kawhi Leonard and Paul Georges time with the Clippers has been nothing short of injury riddled and I can’t buy into a contender if the best team isn’t on the floor. The Clips are a good defensive team with a deep bench of versatile wings and floor spacers and at the deadline improved upon previously their worst position (point guard) by upgrading with Bones Hyland.
The offense featuring Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving is awesome. The Mavericks have done a lot of things to make it very apparent that they want to capitalize on this opportunity having Luka and getting Kyrie at a discount certainly helps. The supporting cast of Christian Wood, Josh Green, Dwight Powell, and Tim Hardaway Jr will get less offensive load which will help give Dallas situations where they can be more effective off ball with Kyrie and Luka having the ball on offense a lot. The question will continue to be the defense for Dallas. We know how awesome Luka can be in the playoffs as they made the Conference Finals last year so maybe it might not matter.
You didn’t have the Sacramento Kings as a top 4 seed in the west at the All-Star break either. This team is so much fun and Mike Brown has them playing HARD on defense. They are very young and don’t have a ton of playoff experience outside of Harrison Barnes. DeAaron Fox has been the best player in the clutch this season which in my opinion is a big reason they have won as many games as they have. When you have a player impacting crunch time as much and as effective as he has, you are going to win close games more often. If they keep lighting the beam, the Kings will be hosting a 1st round playoff series.
New Orleans Pelicans
I hate to sit here and question health as a big factor but Zion and Ingram have both missed extended periods of time this year. They have only played in 12 of 59 possible games before the All-Star break. That is not good for your chances to even make the playoffs. The roster is very deep and has a lot of guys that fill their role competently. They don’t have a reliable point guard. Jose Alvarado is in there for the defense and CJ McCollum has been playing the primary ball handler role but he is not someone you want being your primary playmaker in crunch time. They are coached well and showed potential in the playoffs last year vs Phoenix taking them to six games. If you are a Pelicans fan, you are hoping for some good health down the stretch to kick start a winning streak that would be vital for their playoff momentum.
How can I doubt Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo? Thats why they are in this tier. They were a Jimmy Butler three pointer away in game 7 last year from being in the Finals. This team is the same rough and tough defensive nightmare team that gives people problems. The current construction of the roster lacks one important skill in todays NBA: 3 point shooting. They are 28th in the league 3 point percentage as a team. I can’t justify that being sustainable for 4 straight playoff rounds. Don’t be surprised if this is the last chance at a Finals with this core if they don’t make some massive changes this offseason.
“Anything Is Possible”
Los Angeles Lakers
The supporting cast the Lakers acquired at the deadline was definitely an upgrade from the standpoint of fit with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. D’Angelo Russell as an off ball scorer is an upgrade from Russell Westbrook. Jarred Vanderbilt fills a very important role as a rebounder and rim defender. Malik Beasley brings a capable scoring and wing defending presence. The team will have to show a good consistent increase in 3 point percentage to be more of a one trick pony team relying on its two best players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Those two together fully healthy is obviously a scary duo that can give anyone a problem when they are healthy. A lot has to go their way down the stretch for them to win a title but hey… “Anything Is Possible”.
Needs A Heaven Sent Miracle
The Timberwolves got rid of the guy that I think was holding them back and in return got a really good facilitator in his place. Does Mike Conley instead of D’Angelo Russell swing them into title contention? Absolutely not. But it does unlock Anthony Edwards as an off ball scorer more and get better open shots as Conley is a great playmaker. In terms of competing for the title, if Quinn Snyder couldn’t figure out how to make Rudy Gobert effective in the playoffs then what tells me that Chris Finch will be able to? If Karl Anthony-Towns can get healthy down the stretch they can scare someone in the 1st round but that is the extent of their playoff chances as currently constructed.
I think it is physically impossible to win a championship if your lead ball hander and scorer is that bad on defense. I understand Dejounte Murray is there to help take the opposing teams best ball handler on defense but it doesn’t fix the problem. Trae’s shooting splits are below his career averages this year (42.8% FG% & 32.4% 3PT%) however he is averaging over 10 assists per game. This shows me despite the slumps he is finding other ways to help his team out. This team made a run to the Conference Finals in the 2020-21 season so we know they can win playoff series but from what I have seen this year they aren’t capable of stringing it together for long enough.
New York Knicks
Before you come at me Knicks fans, consider this. You have a team that is stuck between having good young talent and a coach who is stubborn in his ways and wants to play his veterans only for way to many minutes. That is not a recipe for a championship contender. You have guys like Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle who can be #2 and #3 pieces on a championship team but they are by no means going to lead you to a title. Then you have guys like Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin who are young and continuing to develop into potentially being impactful players for a championship team. It is a very interesting place to be and the Knicks need to decide this offseason what the general direction of the team is moving forward.
This team very quickly went from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to a conglomerate of assets and picks. The issue is I can’t put them in the tier below (“You’re Doing Amazing Sweetie” aka Not This Year But Things Are Looking Up) because I don’t know what those potential picks and assets amount to yet. I also can’t put them into the better off bottoming out for Wemby and Scott tier because they are 17 games away at the break from the top 4 odds at the number 1 pick. They have good enough talent that they can stay competitive and besides being 34-24 would be a HUGE fall from grace. So fittingly, it would take a heaven sent miracle for this group of young guys to win this years championship.
“You’re Doing Amazing Sweetie” aka Not This Year But Things Are Looking Up
This team exceeded my (and probably a lot of peoples) expectations. I picked them to finish 15th in the Eastern Conference and trade Myles Turner. The resigned Myles to an extension a few weeks back and are 12th in a tough east. They have done a great job putting together pieces of a young core that will exciting to watch develop together over the next couple of years without sacrificing their draft capital. They have actually improved upon it. In this years draft they have their own 1st, top-12 protected Celtics 1st, top-14 protected Cavaliers 1st, least favorable of Rockets, Mavs & Heat 2nd, and top-55 protected Spurs 2nd. Not to mention they have their first every year between now and the next decade. Things are looking good in Indiana.
Oklahoma City Thunder
A championship is the last thing on the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sam Presti’s mind and rightfully so. They have a superstar player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a great rotation of up and coming young guys showing this year what they are worth when given the best opportunity. Everyone knows the kind of position they are in when it comes to draft picks. The reason they are in this tier is because of how impressive the young core has been playing a ton this year. Guys like Jalen Williams, Jaylin Williams, Josh Giddey, Tre Mann and Ousmane Dieng to name a few. They have a promising future and showing they can be competitive as they are currently the 10 seed (28-29) going into the break.
Did I mention they are getting their number 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren back next year?
In Danny Ainge we trust. He turned Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell into a competitive team with an All-Star piece to begin the rebuild around in Lauri Markkanen and a ton of picks. This team was projected to be horrible this year and in prime contention for Victor Wembanyama. Instead, they have a valuable rotation assets to build around moving forward like Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbaji and Collin Sexton. It is going to be an interesting thing to watch how Ainge uses these picks especially in a draft with 2 highly touted prospects.
The hardest part for young, rebuilding teams is spending years of draft picks on finding “the guy” to lead your team to a title. It appears the Magic may have found the foundational piece to build around in Paolo Banchero. On top of that they have a core of young guards as well some great talent in the front court in Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. Orlando is making the right choices lately and if they keep making them at the rate they are they will be competing for championships sooner rather than later.
Was Better Off Bottoming Out for Wemby (Or Scoot)
First of all, they are paying an almost 30 year old Bradley Beal an annual average salary of $50,203,930. He needs to be the first thing dealt because as currently constructed if that is your most expensive star that is also your best player, you aren’t winning a championship. Kyle Kuzma is an impending free agent and why they didn’t move him for younger and more valuable pieces at the deadline is beyond me. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager Tommy Sheppard have no clear vision of the future as they traded away Rui Hachimura to clear up minutes for other players at the position. How about trade your veterans that you are overpaying and go in a direction towards gaining a young asset that can potentially change the direction and future of franchise? I’m sorry Wizards fans. It’s hard to watch.
Speaking of hard to watch, we have the Chicago Bulls. They are in a position where they are going to have to realize that Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, and Zach LaVine aren’t winning you a championship. Defensively alone, that would be a far fetched idea. I don’t blame them for taking the Knicks offer at the deadline because quite frankly an offseason trade where value is not diminished by a deadline may warrant a bigger price for LaVine. For me, one of the biggest things holding the Bulls back is consistent problems at point guard. I love Lonzo Ball but it hurts to watch him continue to struggle to get healthy and the Bulls need him. I think this offseason they need to tear it down and accumulate assets and picks.
The price for OG Anunoby was multiple picks and players potentially at the deadline. There were contenders that were interested in Fred VanVleet. They have Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam who are winning pieces for a contender as well. It appeared they were sellers. Then, they traded for Jakob Poeltl? I was just as confused as you were when I found out about that. While I think Poeltl can be a good piece for you moving forward, he is going to demand a ton of money this offseason. They are definitely in a better position in terms of having talented young players. I am struggling understanding how they continue to build on what they have. But who am I to doubt Masai Ujiri?
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers are the core inspiration of this category. You have an almost 33 year old (turns 33 on July 15, 1990) small point guard who by the time his contract reaches its end will cost a WHOPPING $63,228,828 if he accepts his player option in 2026-27. Portland tells us they are committed to winning and building around Damian Lillard. Yet, then went out and traded Gary Payton II and Josh Hart for Cam Reddish, Matisse Thybulle, Ryan Arcidiacono and Kevin Knox. It makes no sense and yet Lillard (God bless him) wants to continue his career there. I respect him wanting to do right by Portland but they have shown enough that they are doing right by him. I would not be surprised if this offseason we see a teardown similar to the Utah Jazz last year. Unfortunately, they don’t have a Danny Ainge to magically save the day.
The bad category is not a bad thing. All these teams have a foundation to build upon. The Pistons specifically have their marquee prospect to build around in Cade Cunningham. They also have promising young players in Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart and James Wiseman. At the All-Star break being 15-44 without Cade playing is a great place to be in trying to get a top 4 pick. This team when they were all healthy early in the year showed promise as a team. When you are losing games it gives young guys time to figure things out and learn from mistakes. The Pistons moving Saddiq Bey and keeping Bojan Bogdanović at the deadline was confusing from a direction standpoint but none the less Detroit is headed in the right direction with a great chance at a top prospect in the 2023 NBA draft.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs know exactly what they want. They want Victor Wembanyama (or Scoot Henderson). The fact that Gregg Popovich did not retire and appears to be committed to rebuilding should show you the level of excitement and commitment of the organization moving forward. They have put together a good core of young guys like Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones and Jeremy Sochan. The fits of both Victor and Scoot would be awesome for this core moving forward. We have seen what the Spurs organization can build with a generational prospect and this team and its future may be no different.
The Charlotte Hornets have LaMelo Ball which is a good thing to build on. The Hornets were a competitive play-in team last year and then the offseason from hell occurred. Miles Bridges and James Bouknight, both were big parts of the Hornets young core, had separate legal issues this year. Kenny Atkinson took the head coaching job and then chose to return to Golden State instead. Montrezl Harrell also had his legal issues that were eventually dropped and he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers in free agency. Needless to say, the Hornets have lost what winning culture they were building. Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak have a very important task of building a good core around LaMelo Ball to keep him happy and in Charlotte.
This one is tough to write. I love the Rockets fans and community. But even they would say this is deserving. I don’t have any way I can sit here and blame anyone. This is a young, inexperienced team and they aren’t winning games. They are 13-45 at the break, 30th in offensive rating and 28th in defensive rating. Thats not to say I don’t like their core but right now they don’t look like a cohesive unit most nights. I think that is partly a testament to head coach Stephen Silas potentially not being a great fit for this team moving forward. He appears frustrated and could be fired this offseason after 3 seasons in Houston and a record of 50-162. Any top pick in this draft will be a great thing for the continued growth of this young core but if you are the Rockets front office or the fans, you are praying for Victor or Scoot.