The NBA season I just over a month old, but one thing that has become increasingly clear that there are only a handful of teams that have a legitimate shot a bringing home the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.
6. Chicago Bulls (11-7)
The Bulls are probably a surprise inclusion and a dark horse for sure. However, the Bulls meet the criteria of the past several Champions.
Chicago has a big three with Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Their big men are quality role players and they do the little things well. Doug McDermott (concussion) and Michael Carter-Williams (wrist) will be valuable contributors off the bench once they are healthy.
The Bulls have the fourth-best point differential in the league thanks in large part to a defense that allows slightly more than 99 points a game. The Bulls are also 6-2 in games decided by 10 points and to 4-4 against teams with a .500 or better record with a recent victory over the Cavaliers.
Chicago’s biggest problems are on the offensive end where they are 22nd in field goal percentage and 27thin three-point percentage.
5. San Antonio Spurs (16-4)
San Antonio has won 11-of-12. The Spurs are the lone undefeated road team in the league (11-0). They have the sixth-best point differential in the league but are just 5-3 in 10-point games.
San Antonio does not have a big three anymore. Kawhi Leonard is a star and LaMarcus Aldridge is solid. The rest of the main cast is kind of old and past their primes – Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Lee. Kyle Anderson has been a major disappointment.
The Spurs are the third best team in the West. The Spurs can be a threat in the playoffs if they can make an astute move prior to the trade deadline.
San Antonio is an excellent shooting team, leading the league in three-point percentage, as well as an excellent defensive team. The problem is, excluding Leonard and Aldridge, the Spurs don’t have a go-to-scorer. They also are not a very good rebounding team.
4. Toronto Raptors (13-6)
Are the Raptors really NBA title contenders? Yeah-but-no.
This is certainly the best team in franchise history, due to the fact that DeMar DeRozan has become a bonafide superstar. But it is hard to imagine the Raps beating the Cavs in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
That is not to say that if Toronto catches a couple of breaks, they can’t represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The Raptors have a big three – Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunasand DeRozan – and have the third highest point differential (+6.8) in the league. The Raps have not been blown out this season -- 8-0 in games decided 10 points or more. They also have shown they can win close games as they are 3-2 in games decided by three points or less.
DeMarre Carroll can be a shutdown defender and is a good three-point shooter. Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson are quality performers off the bench.
The Raptors are perhaps the second-best shooting team in the league as they rank second in field goal percentage, third in three-point percentage, second in free throw percentage and second in points per shot.
Defense is the Raptors biggest issue. Toronto ranks 14th in scoring defense, 21st in opposition field goal percentage, 19th in opposition three-point percentage and fourth in fouls committed. They also are not a very good rebounding team.
Toronto is 0-4 versus the Cavs, Warriors and the Clippers. Their only major slip ups were two setbacks to the Kings.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (16-5)
Is this the year the Clippers get over the hump?
The Clippers are 2-3 since getting off to a franchise-best 14-2 start. The Clips did earn an impressive victory over the Cavs this week.
Los Angeles’ bench is the key to their success. Crawford leads the unit that includes Marreese Speights, Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton. Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Brandon Bass round out what is the most experienced reserve unit in the league.
The Clippers are sixth in the league in both scoring and scoring defense. The Clips are a good three-point shooting team, making 10 a game, and own the second-highest point differential (+10.5). They are tied with the Warriors for the most games decided by at least 10-points with 13 (11-2).
The biggest concern for the Clips is the effort. Will they come out and compete ever single night?
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-5)
It is hard to imagine that the Cavaliers won’t get out of the East, but they have issues.
Cleveland has been handled easily in their last two games by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Clippers, respectively. The Cavaliers are 4-4 in their last eight games.
The Cavs are 5-3 in games decided by 10 or more points which is the worst of any of the six teams on the list. The Cavaliers were 32-8 in games decided by 10 points or more last season.
Kyrie Irving has taken another step in his development and can now take over a game. Kevin Love has also upped his production with his scoring and shooting efficiency rate being the highest of his career. Of course, LeBron James is there and the Cavs are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league.
One of the Cavs biggest problems currently is that J.R. Smith can’t throw the ball in the ocean. The veteran guard is averaging 8.1 points a game – his lowest since the 2005-06 campaign – and is shooting a career-worst 30.3 percent from the field. He has made 2.4 three-pointers a game but is only making 33.0 percent of those shots. Since missing three games in the middle of November, Smith has connected on only 13-of-50 shots from the field (26 percent) in his last seven contests.
The good news is that Channing Frye has returned after missing three games for personal reasons.
The Cavs are averaging nearly six more points than they did last year. However, they have gone from the fourth best scoring defense in 2015-16 to the 15th best scoring defense this season. In fact, their defensive rating is just the 17th best in the league (104.2).
Besides their defensive concerns, the Cavs biggest issue is at the backup point guard position.
1. Golden State Warriors (16-3)
The Warriors have won 12 of 13. They are one of two teams currently with a point differential of greater than 10 points with an NBA-high 11.8 points. Nine of their wins have been by double-digits, with seven being by at least 20.
The Dubs have the pedigree in two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant. Plus, Klay Thompson is perhaps the best third wheel in the league as he can shoot and defend along with the best in the league. Durant and Curry are the highest scoring duos in the league, include Thompson’s 20 points a game and it is no wonder why the Warriors lead the league with nearly 118.1 points a game -- which is more three points than their league-high - 114.8 points a game last year.
Add in Draymond Green at power forward and the Dubs have arguably the best starting lineup in the league. Green, a two-time First Team-All Defensive performer, brings toughness along with rebounding and the ability to make plays on both ends of the floor.
The Warriors are also the best passing team in the league, therefore they get a lot of open looks – leading them to shoot a league-high 49.6 percent from the field. They have improved their defense over the last eight games, allowing 100.8 points a game which is down from 108.2 over the first 10 games.
Overall, the Dubs are 21st in scoring defense surrendering 106.3 points a game though they are ninth in defensive rating at 101.7 as well as seventh in points per shot. They are also first in offensive rating at 113.8.
The center position and depth are the Warriors biggest issues. Rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, and turnovers are also a concern.