The NBA season is just about a third of the way through and we’ve seen some interesting things unfold so far this year. The Warriors set the world on fire out of the gate as they found ways to win en route to a 24 game win streak to open the season. On the flip side of that, we’ve seen the 76ers stumble to a 1-27 record that puts them on pace to be even worse than their 9-73 team in 1972-73, which to date, is the worst team in an 82 game schedule in NBA history.
The Eastern Conference, which is where teams that had 33 to 38 wins at the end of the year were still in the playoff picture, has played strong basketball this year: 10 teams are above the .500 mark this season while the Knicks are right at the break even mark. Meanwhile, the young Jazz are holding the eighth spot in the Western Conference despite being three games under .500 at this point in time. Whether these things hold by the time the regular season comes to a close is anyone’s guess.
Who will end up hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy as NBA champs when the season is over? Well, that could be anyone’s guess but we’ll take a look at three contenders to be cutting down the nets when things are all said and done six months from now.
Golden State Warriors
Best Odds – 7/4 with Sky Bet
Current Record: 26-1
Golden State won their first title in 40 years with their championship victory over the Cavaliers a season ago and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down at this point in time. The Warriors have been very good, even with Luke Walton holding down the fort as interim coach while Steve Kerr is continuing to recover from back surgery and hopes to be back in the next two to three weeks.
The Warriors bounced back from their first loss of the season to the Bucks by plastering the Suns 128-103 and then getting revenge by beating Milwaukee 121-112. With Stephen Curry playing out of his mind, averaging 31.8 points, 6.2 assists and 2.15 steals a game while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 45.3 percent from three point range; it’s hard to argue with the Warriors. Klay Thompson is playing solid basketball as Curry’s running mate with 19.3 points per game and he’s shooting 43.7 percent from three point range. Draymond Green has become like Magic Johnson playing as a point forward as he puts up 14.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and a team leading 7.1 assists per game plus 1.3 steals and 1.44 blocks.
Golden State is leading the league with an average of 116 points per game, which overshadows that they are 21st in scoring defense as they give up 102.6 per contest. The Warriors are 4th in rebounding with 47.1 boards per game and lead in assists with 28.9 per game. If Golden State can stay healthy, with their depth, the Warriors are going to be the team to beat in the league. Everyone will need to try Golden State off their perch. Their mid-January matchups with our next team will tell a lot of how things are going.
San Antonio Spurs
Best Odds – 9/2 with Sky Bet
Current Record: 23-5
San Antonio is like a Timex watch: they take a licking and keep on ticking. The Spurs are another year older but their veteran leaders and Svengali of a coach in Gregg Popovich keeps San Antonio near the top of the standings. San Antonio has gone 15-0 at home this season and while they are just 8-5 on the road, three of their losses are by three points and another was by seven. The Spurs have only lost once by double figures with a 104-90 defeat to the Pelicans.
The Spurs have been bolstered by the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge via free agency from Portland in the offseason. He’s put up 16.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game since coming over for San Antonio to help take pressure off Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Popovich is giving his guys plenty of rest as Kawhi Leonard (team high 21 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2 steals) is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Duncan is only playing 26.6 minutes per game, Parker is playing 26.9 per contest and Ginobili sees the floor just 19.6 minutes a night.
San Antonio isn’t a high scoring offensive team though they are 11th in the league with 102 points per game. The Spurs are 5th in rebounding with 46.2 boards per contest, 2nd in assists with 25.2 per game and they bring the league’s stingiest defense to the table. San Antonio is giving up just 88.9 points per game this year, which is 4.5 points better than second place Miami. The Spurs are second in the league in opposing field goal percentage as teams shoot 42 percent from the floor. San Antonio is deep, talented and experienced in the postseason; with Popovich doing his job, the Spurs will be there when the conference finals come around. A seven game series between the Warriors and Spurs would be highly entertaining.
Best Odds – 11/4 with bet365
Current Record: 17-7
Cleveland has had their share of struggles this season but they seem to be getting things together as they’ve won four straight entering Sunday’s contest against the pathetic 76ers. The Cavaliers still have the league’s top player, or at least one of the top guys, in LeBron James. He contributes a team leading 26.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. One of the biggest issues for the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals last season was that James didn’t have much in the way of support as both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were both out of the lineup.
Love has been back with a vengeance this season for the Cavaliers as he’s put up 17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and he’s played in all 24 contests. Kyrie Irving has been out since Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a knee injury but he’s expecting to make his return Sunday. If he returns and gets back to full speed, it will be interesting to see if there are enough shots to go around for that trio, not to mention the shot-happy J.R. Smith, who takes 11.1 shots in 31.7 minutes per game. Cleveland hopes that Iman Shumpert can get healthy as well; he’s played just two games this season.
The Cavaliers are in the middle of the pack offensively as they are 13th in the league with 101.6 points per game. Cleveland has been good on the glass as they are 8th in the league in rebounding with 45 boards per game. The Cavaliers are 8th in the league in assists with 22.9 per game and they bring the 3rd best scoring defense in the league: Cleveland allows just 96 points per game on the year. The Cavaliers are tied for 9th in three point field goal defense as they hold opponents to 33.7 percent from beyond the arc.
One can never count out a team that has King James on it. If Cleveland can keep Love and Irving healthy while keeping guys like Smith, Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova from firing shots up that they have no business taking, it will go a long way to making Cleveland’s chances better for winning that elusive title. That’s a pile of big ifs right now but the Cavaliers get the benefit of playing in the East where there are no clear cut powerhouses in the conference. Cleveland has to be the favorite in the Eastern Conference, which would send them to the Finals; once there, it’s anybody’s game.
There are other teams that are just off the fringe in the discussion for being a contender for the NBA title. Oklahoma City has been good this season as they have a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the mix. The Thunder still needs to develop some rotation depth and find some defensive help as Enes Kanter doesn’t get it done on that end of the floor. Indiana would be a dark horse candidate with a healthy Paul George, who has taken the league by storm after missing the majority of last season.
Still, the previous three are a cut above anyone else in the league and if you had to try and pick a winner, it would have to come from that trio. Until Golden State slows a bit, they have to be considered the favorites to repeat as champions.