The next seven: Which teams can knock off NBA's best?
The next seven: Which teams can knock off NBA's best?
BOSTON – For most of this season, Golden State and San Antonio have been far and away the best teams in the NBA.
Not. Even. Close.
Cleveland has been the class of the Eastern Conference despite firing the winningest coach in franchise history and LeBron James while still dominant, looks for the first time … mortal?
As good as those teams are, it is by no means a sure thing any of them will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
There’s another 27 teams in the league but only a handful have a shot – a remote one in some instances, but a shot nonetheless – of actually upending one of these heavy hitters.
We’ll call them … the next seven.
Here’s a look at the seven teams that could potentially ruin what has been a trio of team’s chances to close out what has been an impressive regular season.
The Mavericks may not even be in the playoffs when all is said and done (they are currently the eighth seed in the West). But if they get in, the Mavs will not go out quietly.
Depth is certainly a concern when it comes to the Mavericks when you look at them relative to San Antonio and Golden State, but Dallas has enough upper-level talent to pull off an upset.
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the greatest players ever to play in the NBA. And while he’s certainly nearing the end of his career, he can still light a team up on any given night.
Wes Matthews is about as mentally tough a player as you’ll find. And if Chandler Parsons can go into contract-year mode and put up big numbers along with Deron Williams looking like the Utah Jazz Deron Williams for a week and a half, the Mavericks could indeed shock the world! That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ which is why they come in at No. 7.
The Hawks struggled to repeat the success they had last season, but seems to have found their stride of late. They are gradually working their way up the Eastern Conference standings and will likely finish somewhere between the third and sixth seed.
Atlanta has most of the key guys back from last season’s squad that made it to the Eastern Conference finals, so they know what it takes to make a deep playoff run.
Injuries have plagued them throughout the season, but they seem to be getting healthy both mentally and physically at the right time.
And when you look at Cleveland’s Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Hawks match up fairly well with all but James. If they can limit the impact of Irving and Love, the Hawks would have to feel pretty good about their chances if these two were to meet up in the playoffs.
One of the biggest surprises in the East this season, the Heat has managed to remain near the top of the conference despite injuries to key players across the board. They are all about defending at a high level which keeps them in most games. Dwyane Wade has played well and for the most part has remained free of any long-term injury. The wild card for them is Chris Bosh. If he does return in time for the postseason, that becomes an instant game-changer for Miami and potentially Cleveland’s run towards the NBA Finals. Bosh’s potential return, a healthy Wade and the interior defense of Hassan Whiteside collectively add up to a Miami team that could be very dangerous in the postseason.
The Celtics have morphed before our very eyes, beginning the season as a lock-down, defensive-minded bunch to becoming an elite scoring team in part because of improved shot-making and their defense. You would be hard-pressed to find a team with better depth in the East than the Celtics. The one area of concern they have is with the wing position, a position that will be tested in the coming weeks with Jae Crowder out with a high ankle sprain. There are teams with more “superstars” than Boston, but the Celtics’ role players have all stepped up at various times when given an opportunity to play a meaningful role. That experience and the confidence that it brings can make a deep playoff run for the Celtics a reality.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers’ crew has been an elite team out West all season, but looks and plays a step behind the top two teams. That could all change when Blake Griffin returns. While the Clippers have won at a good clip without Griffin, they don’t make a deep playoff run without him. Before his injury, Griffin was having the kind of season that would have likely landed him among the top-5 for league MVP. You can bet he’ll return with something to prove, as will the rest of his teammates who gained some much-needed confidence in his absence and know their window for being a legit contender is shrinking quickly. Depth is definitely a concern here, but if they can keep their core guys healthy and playing at the top of their game, there’s not a team in the NBA they could not beat in a best-of-seven series.
2. Oklahoma City
Superstars have a way of blinding us to when a good coaching job is in progress, but Billy Donovan’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Still, this team’s fate rests squarely on what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook do in the playoffs. If there's one knock against them and it is a legit one, it has to do with their inability to put teams away. They have blown 12, fourth-quarter leads this season - more than any other team. To have as much talent as they do, you have to believe the basketball gods will make that a little more balanced going forward.
Like every team on this list, the Thunder will need a break or two along the way that they did not count on but nonetheless benefits them in the long run.
As we have seen, this team has all the makings to potentially claw their way into the NBA Finals. In Serge Ibaka, they have a big man who can defend, rebound and stretch the floor. They have size in the frontcourt to go big, and enough skill and athleticism on the wings to play small ball and still be effective. And maybe most significant, there is a greater sense of urgency with them than any other team on this list. They’re not a young, up-and-coming team anymore. Durant can be gone after this season, and Westbrook could potentially bolt soon after. The time is now for the Thunder. Otherwise they could be the next could-have-been dynasty that’s torn apart and not have a single title to their name.
Kyle Lowry is the most underrated point guard in the NBA. Yes he’s an All-Star but you rarely hear his name mentioned among the top three or four in the game. He belongs in that conversation.
And DeMar DeRozan continues to improve as a scorer who can hit shots on the perimeter as well as finish around the basket. But the X-factor in their postseason success will be DeMarre Carroll. He was the big offseason addition they got from Atlanta who hasn’t played a ton this season because of injuries. He will be fresher than most players in the postseason because he has missed so much time, and that could come in quite handy in a best-of-seven against the Cavs where he will be matched against LeBron James whose shoulders may be a bit tired at that point from carrying Cleveland. They match up as well as any team in the East with Cleveland’s Big Three. And their role players, while not nearly as publicized as the Cleveland’s non-Big Three players, are poised to break out in the playoffs. And remember, Toronto has won two of the three matchups with Cleveland this season which would certainly be an added confidence booster if these two met in the playoffs.