We’re at the halfway point in the NBA and several teams have risen to the top. I’ve identified what I consider the eight best teams. With how the Eastern Conference is shaping up I could only choose two, while the west has six teams that are vying for finals splendor.
Strengths: They have the best player in the NBA in LeBron James. They play suffocating team defense despite the lack of a rim protecting big man.
Weaknesses: Dwayne Wade’s “maintenance” and lack of size down low are the two biggest hindrances to Miami winning another championship.
Outlook: When healthy, the Heat are the most talented team in the NBA. It helps to have LeBron James, of course, but Dwayne Wade, when he’s played, as still been effective and very efficient. Chris Bosh has also become more efficient and as a team the Heat are shooting over 50%. The Heat still struggle defending teams that have big players in the low post, and their biggest obstacle happens to be the Indiana Pacers who boast three good frontcourt players in Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola. Over the next few months, the Heat hope to get Oden into better shape for their inevitable playoff series against the Pacers, but for now they’ll pace themselves during the season as a second seed, ensuring health over home court advantage.
Strengths: The Pacers are the best defensive team in the league and Paul George has become a legitimate MVP candidate.
Weaknesses: Can struggle to score, with only the 19th ranked offense in the league.
Outlook: The Pacers looks to complete the season with the best record. With the Heat resting players to ensure health, the Pacers shouldn’t have to check their rearview mirror too often. One of the Pacers largest weaknesses last year was the bench which has seen a boost from Luis Scola as well as the return of Danny Granger. Granger will need to round into shape and be that 12-15 ppg scorer off the bench and give the Pacers another go to player outside of George.
San Antonio Spurs
Strengths: The Spurs are wise and smart, able to plug and play with many different pieces, allowing them to overcome injury and rest veteran players.
Weaknesses: The Spurs have not performed well against the top teams in the league.
Outlook: As good as the West was last year, the Spurs will have even tougher road to the finals. The Spurs have had trouble stopping the best offensive teams in the league this year, not a good sign for any playoff matchup they may draw. Returns of three of their best defensive players (Kawai Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter) will help, but even with those pieces the Spurs have looked out of sorts against top teams. If any team can clean it up, it would be the Spurs who still have Tony Parker and a coming-on-strong Tim Duncan.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Strengths: Kevin Durant is playing angry, and it bodes well for him. They boast a top five defense and offense.
Weaknesses: It’s hard to pick out any weaknesses when Russell Westbrook is healthy and the development of the bench with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb has come far. There are some mental issues, most notably head coach Scott Brooks, who still insists that he maintain his rotation, despite matchups or how well a players is playing.
Outlook: Barring an even longer term injury to Russell Westbrook I expect the Thunder to finish the Western Conference with the best record. Many of the issues that plagued the Thunder early in the season; weak bench, can Durant jump another level, have been answered, and even with Westbrook’s injury the Thunder have kept pace.
Strengths: Improved defense and winning without Chris Paul.
Weaknesses: Size off the bench.
Outlook: The mental toughness of head coach Doc Rivers is starting to show. An injury to an MVP candidate in Chris Paul first took its toll, but the Clippers have responded and displaying sterner stuff. Blake Griffin isn’t letting himself get pushed around (well not quite as much) and JJ Redick’s return has allowed Jamal Crawford to terrorize teams off the bench. Paul’s return to the team in its current form will only add to this new found toughness. The Clippers should make a good run for the second or third seed in the second half of the season.
Portland Trail Blazers
Strengths: Offense and grit.
Weaknesses: Defense and the bench.
Outlook: The Blazers had a terrific run to start the season, but after at 25-6 start the Blazers have gone8- 6, in other words, they are falling back to earth a little bit. The Blazers are still in terrific shape to finish the season with home court advantage in at least the first round, but they still aren’t ready for a finals run. The defense is seeing a slight improvement which isn’t enough to push the Blazers into the contenders’ category yet. The bench, with CJ McCollum back is also playing better, yet better is relative to being near the bottom of the league. I expect a third seed at best, most likely a fourth.
Golden State Warriors
Strengths: Defense and shooting
Weaknesses: Bench and ability to grind.
Outlook: The Warriors have had quite a few up and downs this season. Injuries and chemistry have come and gone and the Warriors are starting to look like who they are supposed to. They’ll always be able to score, and there defense is much improved, but in games where the pace has been slowed, their ability to grind it out, they’ve struggled. Stephen Curry is great, and deserves to be starting in the All-Star Game, but he’s so phonetic and it doesn’t help to calm his team down. Last year in the playoffs the Spurs were able to slow it down and grind the games out, something that does not befit Curry and the Warriors. Fortunately, home court advantage isn’t a necessity for the Warriors and a low seed such as fifth or sixth won’t mean they aren’t a favored with their capabilities.
Strengths: Size and Scoring
Weaknesses: Effort and defense.
Outlook: Effort and defense are basically the same thing. A team with Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard should really be better defensively. They are middle of the pack, but Dwight was supposed to shore that up. I worry that they play too fast, if they aren’t getting those easy baskets, they struggle. That’s the playoffs. That’s why they got Dwight Howard. Don Nelson teams where fun to watch too, but they never won a championship.