The 2015 NBA Playoffs are less than three weeks away.
This is, of course, music to the ears of the diehard NBA supporter, but beyond that, the dawning of the playoffs brings newfound optimism in many cities across the country. In fairness, there are only a few markets where that optimism is actually well-founded, but the playoffs do provide an opportunity to make a lasting mark and that is part of what makes them riveting.
In this space, we will take a look at each and every “contender” for the NBA title. It must be stated that many of these teams are longshots (to say the least) at this stage of game, but each guaranteed playoff team (plus one or two) is included in our breakdown, simply for the purposes of being thorough.
For each squad, we will provide you with a reason that a championship parade could be taking place in their city. In some cases, the reason is exceedingly obvious, but every team has strengths that must be magnified in order to achieve the ultimate success, and we will remind you of those strong points.
Let’s take a look at the teams, coming to you in alphabetical order.
Atlanta Hawks – Balance
No one thought that the Hawks would run away with the number one seed in the East, but Mike Budenholzer and his team have zoomed past every expectation. The central story line surrounding Atlanta this season has been their success without the benefit of a singular superstar, and balance is the key to everything that the Hawks do on both ends.
Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague have all performed at a “star” level this season, but the Hawks generate top-10 units in offense (6th) and defense (8th) based on their across-the-board capabilities. Atlanta is currently second in the NBA in assists, with an uncanny ability to share the ball with dizzying ball movement, and defensively, they perform as a unit as if Budenholzer was simply pulling strings on the sideline.
It would be a mistake to say that the Hawks don’t have a lot of talent, because they do. However, the team concept and individuals filling specific roles are central to everything in Atlanta, and they have executed both flawlessly over the body of the season.
Chicago Bulls – Health
As usual, the Bulls are banged up. Tom Thibodeau drives his team on a nightly basis in a way that is unique only to him, and as a result, Chicago’s players seem to battle nagging injuries throughout each season. Beyond that, Derrick Rose is injured again, leaving the point guard position in peril and Chicago’s chance to legitimately compete in the East up in the air.
With that in mind, however, the Bulls are incredibly dangerous. If (and it is a big “if”) they are able to get Rose back and healthy, Chicago has one of the most talented rosters in the league, with a strong four-pronged attack in the frontcourt coinciding with a dynamic backcourt with Jimmy Butler and the aforementioned Rose.
The Chicago Bulls have a better net rating than the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies (among others) this season, and it isn’t difficult to imagine how much better they would be when healthy. There are many crossed fingers in Chicago.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Supreme Talent
The Cavaliers operating as a championship contender needs no explanation. Cleveland trails only Golden State in net rating since February, and led by a roster that has been infused with talent (Timofey Mozgov and JR Smith, to name two pieces), many see the Cavs as the favorite in the East despite Atlanta’s significant lead in the standings.
If there is one thing that will push the Cavaliers over the top, it is their incredible talent. LeBron James is still the best player in the world at this stage (and he has played like it since returning from a two-week hiatus earlier in the year), Kyrie Irving is capable of offensive explosions on any given night, and even Kevin Love has looked more engaged in the recent past. Beyond the “big three”, Cleveland now has role players that fill holes that surfaced earlier in the season, and the Cavs have quality depth across the board.
There are certainly question marks in Cleveland, namely in the person of David Blatt and the aforementioned Love, but the Cavaliers certainly look like a title contender. Oh, and they still have LeBron James.
Dallas Mavericks – Rondo Intrigue
After a 19-8 start, the Dallas Mavericks are just 26-21 since acquiring Rajon Rondo, and the team has outscored opponents by just 1.3 points per 100 possessions since the point guard arrived. Why, then, is he the key to a potential championship push?
Well, Rondo is still blessed with unique talents, as one of the best passing and rebounding guards in the NBA. Admittedly, the now 29-year-old has not looked like the star player that he once was, averaging just 8.9 points, 8.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, but Rondo has long been infamous for upping his game on the big stage, and the Mavericks will be in the playoffs.
The Rajon Rondo-Rick Carlisle marriage has been a rocky one, and that isn’t a shock. Still, these are two individuals with high basketball IQs, and fans of the Mavericks must place their trust in the duo to work things out, simply because there is no other option at this point in the NBA calendar.
Next: Golden State
Golden State Warriors – Defense
Instead of reading “defense”, the line above could simply read “everything”. The Warriors have been far and away the best team in the NBA this season, posting a 60-13 record to run away with the top overall seed in the league. Golden State leads the association in net rating, outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions (nearly double any other team in the NBA), and they have flirted with being the number one team in both offense and defense.
For purposes of this exercise, we will focus on defense, where Steve Kerr has this crew playing at an incredible level. Golden State has led the league on this end of the floor all season, allowing only 97.4 points per 100, and the Warriors have produced a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate in Draymond Green. Hilariously, Green may not be the best defender on his own team, as Andrew Bogut is operating at an incredible pace defensively while the Warriors look to keep him healthy by limiting his playing time.
Green, Bogut and even names like Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson can be considered high-end defenders by any metric, and with improvements from the likes of Stephen Curry (perhaps the MVP front-runner) and Harrison Barnes, good luck scoring against the Warriors.
Houston Rockets – James Harden
James Harden won’t let the Rockets fade into the night.
For all intents and purposes, Houston does not present a roster that is worthy of “contender” status, but their star shooting guard has been carrying the team for months. Dwight Howard has been largely absent, breaking up the two-man foundation created by Daryl Morey, but Harden is averaging 27.2 points, 7.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game while operating with the highest level of responsibility in the league offensively.
It must be stated that the Rockets will not win the championship without a return to stardom from Dwight Howard, but James Harden is still the most important piece of the puzzle. The question marks about his abilities (most notably on defense) have evaporated, and no one has been more integral to their team’s success this season than the 25-year-old Harden.
The YouTube videos chronicling his past defensive issues are still out there, but he isn’t that player anymore. James Harden is elite.
Next: Los Angeles
Los Angeles Clippers – Blake Griffin’s Return
Don’t look now, but the Clippers may be firing on all cylinders.
Blake Griffin returned from a 15-game absence on March 15, and after a loss in the first game against Houston, Los Angeles has rattled off seven consecutive wins. Over that time period, the Clippers are outscoring opponents by 15.5 (!) points per 100 possessions, and Doc Rivers has this team looking like the Western Conference contender that many expected.
Chris Paul has been the best player on the Clippers and that must be said. Paul has put together an under-the-radar MVP candidacy highlighted by strong play in Griffin’s absence, but they are now a complete team again with the high-flying power forward back in the fold, and given LA’s lack of depth, they must be healthy in the starting lineup.
In some ways, Blake Griffin has taken a step back this season, averaging “just” 21.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, but his health is paramount and the Clippers are looking rejuvenated.
Memphis Grizzlies – Grit ‘N Grind
It is rarely pretty, but there is a reason that pundits consistently mention the Grizzlies as a big-time contender in the West.
They are really good.
Memphis plays down to their competition at times, leaving their net rating (+2.7 points per 100) looking somewhat run-of-the-mill, but the Grizzlies are a 50-win club. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol form an incredible duo on both ends, with elite defense and the definition of “crafty” offense, while Zach Randolph does serious damage on the offensive end by dominating around the rim.
Defense is, and will always be, the calling card for the Grizz, though, and that is the Tony Allen influence. “Grit ‘N Grind” has been the movement for some time, but Allen is operating at a DPOY level this season, and with Gasol behind him, the athletic shooting guard is given the freedom to hound ball-handlers with relentless energy.
Memphis is a team that is capable of rising to the tide of the playoffs, and they are certainly able to hold the trophy in June.
Miami Heat – Dwyane Wade
Alright. We’ve reached the point where we must stretch a little bit.
The Miami Heat do not resemble a title contender in most ways, but by nature of their almost definite inclusion in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, we must address the team. Sadly, this team would almost certainly have the look of a threat if Chris Bosh was able to play, but with the team’s best player out for the remainder of the season, Miami’s theoretical ceiling is limited.
However, Dwyane Wade does provide a sliver of hope. Wade once carried Miami to a title with a relentless attack on the rim against Dallas in the 2006 NBA Finals, and the now 33-year-old has had a strong season. Wade is averaging 21.8 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game (22.76 PER) this season, and the Heat have done a nice job in limiting his court exposure.
If there is any semblance of hope at a long run, it will be on the back of “one last ride” for Dwyane Wade. Heat fans can dream.
Milwaukee Bucks – Length
The Bucks might be a bigger stretch than the Heat, simply because they don’t have a track record to back up any claim at upside. Still, Milwaukee has soundly outperformed expectations this season, and they are fun to watch on a nightly basis.
Jason Kidd’s team is blessed with incredible length, with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Michael Carter-Williams detracting from the opposition’s sight lines. That length and athleticism has positioned Milwaukee as the second-best defensive team in the league this season, trailing only the Warriors by allowing 99.6 points per 100 possessions, and the Bucks can muck up the game if they choose to do so.
There probably isn’t enough offense, especially with Carter-Williams in place of Brandon Knight, for the Bucks to make any real noise, but the future is bright.
Next: New Orleans
New Orleans Pelicans – The Brow
Anthony Davis is just ridiculous.
He is just 22 years old, but there is a statistical claim on Davis as the best player in the NBA this season, and he is the central reason that the Pelicans are on the verge of the playoffs. The 6-foot-11 power forward is averaging 24.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and a league-leading 2.9 blocks per game this season, and Davis leads the NBA (by a solid margin) with a 31.15 PER. Beyond that, his advanced metrics leap off the page in crunch time, and everything runs through him when it counts.
Davis is far from a one-trick pony, however, as his defense is nearly as impressive. His unique combination of length, athleticism and strong IQ forms one of the most terrifying forces in the league, and the Pelicans are scary when he is playing at top level.
It must be stated that New Orleans has little to no chance of coming out of the juggernaut that is the West, but Davis could turn into Superman himself, and I wouldn’t bat an eye.
Next: Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City Thunder – The Machine
It has been said previously, but the fact that the Thunder cannot form a healthy, cohesive unit for a potential playoff run is sad. Kevin Durant, who happened to win the 2013-2014 NBA MVP award is gone for the year, and any thought of a magical playoff run probably evaporated with that news. Still, Russell Westbrook is going to do everything in his power to change that.
If the NBA handed out a “player of the half-season” award, Westbrook would win going away. The ferocious guard is averaging 31.0 points, 10.6 assists and 8.9 rebounds per game in 20 contests since the All-Star Break, and for the season, his stat line rivals anyone in the NBA.
No one plays at a more breakneck pace than Westbrook on a nightly basis, and that performance is the basis for his ability to carry OKC to a record they probably shouldn’t possess given their injury woes. Russell Westbrook is one of the best athletes in the world, and for the Thunder to have any prayer of sneaking past the Warriors in round one to gather toward a title push, he must continue to be superhuman.
Portland Trail Blazers– Arron Afflalo
This is going to seem odd to some, especially if they are not diehard NBA fans.
Arron Afflalo is the key to Portland’s season.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are, without question, the two best players on the Portland roster. However, there is a case to be made that Wesley Matthews was Portland’s most indispensable piece, and Matthews is gone for the season after he sustained a freak injury on March 5.
Enter Afflalo, who was originally cast as the primary backup to both Matthews and Nic Batum, and fortunately for Portland, he has a long track record of success as a starter. The 29-year-old Afflalo isn’t quite the dynamic shooter that Matthews is, but he is an above-average starter at the shooting guard spot, and if Portland did not pull the trigger on a trade to acquire him from Denver in February, the Blazers could be written off entirely.
Portland probably isn’t winning a title without Matthews, but Arron Afflalo takes the odds from inconceivable to improbable, and that is a big jump.
Next: San Antonio
San Antonio Spurs – Reemergence
Tony Parker hasn’t had a great season. The 32-year-old is suffering through his worst statistical production since his “sophomore” campaign in the NBA, and San Antonio’s 19 losses can be directly tied to when Parker doesn’t play at his best.
Kawhi Leonard has missed 18 games this season. He, like Parker, has had some ups and downs offensively, including an ugly 44.3% shooting mark before the All-Star Break.
Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, both players are back in full force.
Parker is shooting a blistering 55.3% from the field on the way to 18.4 points per game in March, while Leonard has upped his production to 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game over the same time period while operating as perhaps the most terrifying defender in the league. Non-coincidentally, the Spurs are one of the best teams in the league over that time period, posting an 11-3 record with a league-best +13.5 net rating.
Translation? The Spurs are back, and everyone should be mindful. San Antonio may not win back-to-back titles, simply because teams like Golden State and Cleveland are exceptionally good, but the Spurs are firmly in the mix after the reemergence of Parker and Leonard.
Toronto Raptors – Offense and More Offense
The Toronto Raptors are easily the worst defensive team that currently occupies a playoff spot.
The Toronto Raptors still possess the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
In case you couldn’t put the pieces together, Toronto is very good offensively. The Raps are sitting in a tie with Cleveland for the third-best offense in the league over the body of the season, scoring 108.0 points per 100 possessions, and Dwane Casey has this group humming on that end.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan form a solid one-two punch on the perimeter, with Jonas Valanciunas more than capable of scoring up front and a strong offensive duo in Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez off the bench. Unfortunately, only Lowry can be described as even anything approaching an above-average defender of that quintet, and the Raptors will be trying to outscore opponents in April and May.
The Raptors have a tough road ahead, but if they catch fire over a series, they will force their opponent into a scoring war.
Washington Wizards – Guard Play
After a 29-13 start to the season, the Wizards are just 12-20 since January 19. That drop in production can be directly tied to the offense, as Washington has scored only 98.6 points per 100 possessions over that time period, and Randy Wittman has been under justifiable scorn as a result.
However, Washington does have the benefit of arguably the most talented backcourt in the NBA. John Wall has battled health issues since early in the season (and he isn’t blameless for the slide), but the freakishly athletic guard is still posting 17.7 points and 9.8 assists per game with high-end defense when he wants to play it. Next to him, Bradley Beal has still struggled to reach his considerable ceiling, but it isn’t inconceivable that either (or both) could break out when the playoffs arrive.
The Wizards aren’t likely to make a run due to their overall offensive issues (paging Randy Wittman…), but in the same breath, it isn’t fun for the opposition to see Wall and Beal on the other end.