In the past five years, the Golden State Warriors have been in five NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been in four, and Toronto has the lonely other one. In other words, 27 other NBA cities have been watching the finals as uninterested spectators. Before that, Miami went to four straight finals, playing San Antonio two straight years, and Oklahoma City and Dallas the two previous trips. That’s seven teams in the last nine years.
After Kawhi Leonard chose the Los Angeles Clippers at 2am on Saturday morning, bringing Paul George with him, the league is wide open. There are at least seven teams in the West with a chance to win the championship, with at least another five trying to put an improved product on the court. In the East, Milwaukee and Philadelphia appear to be the favorites, but there are at least seven or eight other teams battling to be playoff teams this year, and maybe get in the way. For the first time in a long time, there’s close to 20 teams trying to win this season, and probably less than five trying to pick first. That’s a dramatic change.
So how do I sort out the league right now? Here’s how I see the title chances…
- The Beasts of the East- Milwaukee did lose Brogdon, which will hurt, but they had the best record in basketball last year, they have the reigning MVP, and they’re mostly coming back. Philadelphia swapped out Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson and Al Horford, and improved their bench depth dramatically over what finished last season for them. These two teams open as the favorites in a dramatically less top heavy East. The path to the finals isn’t totally clear (Indiana can potentially complicate things), but this is the least crowded pathway to the mountain top.
- Under Pressure Out West- I cant wait for the first LeBron-AD vs. Kawhi-PG game at the Staples Center. For the first time ever, both LA teams are expected to win the championship at once. You know what though? Golden State starts the season with three returning All-Stars, and will get a fourth back later in the year, so they’re expecting to win too. Oh, and as long as Harden and CP3 are both in Houston, they are expected to get a ring too. None of these teams get a break.
- The Emerging Western Elite- One can’t fault Portland fans for being excited about a Western Conference finals team bringing back their top star on a max deal, while keeping their core together. Denver had the second best record in the West last year and expects their young team to only improve. All Utah did was bring in several major upgrades to their young line-up that was emerging as elite over the last two years. All three of these teams expect to compete with the big four this year.
- The Crowded East- If Indiana can get healthy, they can challenge in the East. Does anyone think Toronto or Boston will fall way off this season? Nah. Brooklyn is at least a year from competing for a title with Kevin Durant likely out this season, but Kyrie and DeAndre Jordan will immediately improve them. Orlando finished strong last year, and they kept their best two players, so look for more improvement there. Detroit will look to keep Blake Griffin healthy to improve on their playoff appearance. Miami didn’t pick up Jimmy Butler to watch the playoffs, and they might not be done. As long as Bradley Beal is in Washington, they at least have a chance at the playoffs.
- Fighting for a Playoff Spot Out West- When is San Antonio ever not at least decent? They’ll be battling to get back to the playoffs like last year. Sacramento’s young vote just missed the playoffs, and they’ll want in. Dallas has a couple of very young stars, and they want to get in on this too. New Orleans will want to start the Zion era in the playoffs. If Westbrook isn’t traded, Oklahoma City can’t help themselves but to contend for a spot. Minnesota is a year removed from their young guys getting to the playoffs, and they’ll want to get back quickly. Even young Phoenix, who had a puzzling Summer, has to think they want to contend.
- Playing Out the Schedule- I thought about moving Atlanta and Chicago out of here, but give them one more year. The Knicks, Cavaliers, and Charlotte shouldn’t have much in aspirations in the East though. Memphis is the only team not trying this year, out West.
This should make for a fun year.