NBA Title Contenders and Pretenders – With just 1 game remaining in round one of the NBA playoffs just 9 teams remain. There have been many exciting series and many more to come. However, we are far enough into play to figure out who are the title contenders and who are the pretenders.
Brooklyn Nets (East #2 Seed) – I think it is extremely obvious that the Brooklyn Nets are the team to beat in the NBA right now. They currently sit as a heavy favorite (+175) to win the NBA Finals and are (-130) to win the Eastern Conference.
This team has everything a championship team needs. The Nets big 3 Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden all are averaging over 24 points in the postseason.
Harden has been instrumental all season long for this team. Harden is coming from Houston where he was taking just about every single shot, so for him to slide back to become the third option and one of the best facilitators in the league is impressive.
Kevin Durant who is the postseason’s 3rd highest scorer has looked nothing short of unstoppable. He is one of the all time greatest scorers and has proven that throughout the season and the start of the playoffs.
The Nets role players have also provided them with some support although it has not been needed so far. Joe Harris is shooting over 50% from long range so far and Nicholas Claxton looked amazing in game 5 against the Celtics.
The Nets have a series coming up against the Bucks. I think if they get by the Bucks there is nothing that stands in their way on the path to a title. Not many teams have enough to match up with the big 3 of Brooklyn. It is virtually an unguardable trio averaging 85 points from per game on over 50% shooting during the playoffs.
Who can stop the Nets?: The Bucks
My Prediction: The Bucks defeat the Nets in 7 games in the Conference Semifinals. If the Nets get past the Bucks they will win the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee Bucks (East #3 Seed) – This is a Milwaukee Bucks team I was extremely high on coming into the playoffs. They were not heavy favorites against the Heat, but they dominated them in a four game sweep with game 1 being the only close contest.
Giannis Antetokounmpo looked unstoppable all throughout the series against the Heat. He is able to get to the rim at will. He is averaging 24 points and 15 rebounds and I do not think there is anyone in the league who can stop his size and athleticism.
Khris Middleton has been playing well averaging 21 points per game. He has been able to knock down the three ball at a 40% clip.
Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday have both been contributing with averages right around 15 points per game. Jrue Holiday has been facilitating well, averaging 9.8 assists per game.
The Bucks have an extremely solid defense holding the Heat to a 39% field goal percentage which is the lowest in the playoffs by any team and they only allowed 97 points per game.
This series should provide some entertaining matchups in which we will see the reigning DPOY Giannis matched up with KD, Jrue Holiday who I think is quite honestly a top 3 defensive guard in the NBA will battle with Kyrie Irving, and Middleton matched up with Harden.
Who can stop the Bucks?: The Nets
My Prediction: Like I said above I believe the winner of this series will win the championship and I am taking the Bucks over the Suns in the finals.
Phoenix Suns (West #2 Seed) – The Suns just did what no other team has done in 14 tries against Lebron James: bounce him out in the first round of the playoffs.
If Devon Booker shoots the way he did against the Lakers there is no team in the West stopping the Suns. Devon Booker averaged 30 points in the 1st round and shot the 3 ball at a 42% clip.
Chris Paul’s shoulder has been a big question and has hampered his scoring a bit, but he still has been able to facilitate well and score when needed.
Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton have really found themselves late in the season and early into this playoff run. Both men showed off their amazing physicality and size and were able to contain Lebron James which is something not many other can. Crowder also scored the ball well and seemed to find his shot in Game 6.
I think the matchup between Jokic and Ayton is going to be one for the ages and if Monte Morris continues to score like he has this should be a fun series to watch.
Who can stop the Suns?: The Nuggets or the Eastern Conference Champ
My Prediction: I like the Nuggets to put up a fight in this series. At the end of the day, the Suns have too many pieces and I think they will reach the NBA Finals and fall to either the Bucks or Nets.
Denver Nuggets (West #3 Seed) – Some people may disagree with me here simply due to the fact the Nuggets are playing without star point guard Jamal Murray. I think the Nuggets with Murray would have made a run to the Finals. I do think they still have a chance but it will be difficult to beat the red hot Suns.
Nikola Jokic should win the league MVP and rightfully so. In a series many people wrote off the higher seeded Nuggets, Jokic absolutely dominated Jusuf Nurkic and any double team or trick the Blazers threw at him. He averaged 33 points and shot 42% from beyond the arc. I cannot say enough about Jokic, but I refuse to count the Nuggets out of any series even without their second leading scorer (Murray) if Jokic continues to play at this level.
Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon both looked good in round 1. Porter Jr. averaged 18 points however I noticed him taking some questionable shots. He is a talented scorer and I would like to see him get in the paint more and stick to taking uncontested 3s.
I think the most notable play has come from Austin Rivers and Monte Morris, two guards who have come off the bench and absolutely sparked this team. Morris has been dynamic and Rivers has stepped up to make some big shots.
Who can stop the Nuggets?: The Suns, or the Eastern Conference Champion
My Prediction: I have been down on most of the higher seeds, but I think the Suns will be too much to overcome without Jamal Murray. However DO NOT count this Nuggets team as a title contender.
Los Angeles Clippers (West #4 Seed) *(Still in Round 1) – This is simply a gut feeling. The Clippers have looked shaky. At certain points they look like an NBA Finals worthy team and at other times they make me wonder how they even made the playoffs.
I just don’t think the talent they have could possibly be counted out.
The Clippers need to see more consistent play from Paul George. He needs to be playing well in order for this team to function.
Kawhi Leonard has looked very good along with Reggie Jackson. Kahwi can lock down any star player on any team that remains and his defense will be essential for this team to continue to win games.
Who can stop the Clippers?: The Suns (Or the Clippers)
My Prediction: Could the road team really win every game in this series? I do not think so. I think the Clippers will fight past the Mavericks in Game 7 and beat the Jazz in Round 2. I think the Suns vs Clippers would be a great series, but my gut team will fall here.
Philadelphia 76ers (East #1 Seed) – I am going to go ahead and say the number 1 seed 76ers are pretenders. Yes, they had the best regular season in the east, but none of that matters in the postseason.
Philly played an underachieving Wizards team in the first round and looked solid, but the Wizards had nothing left to give. They simply did not have the pieces to compete.
With Joel Embiid’s health in question there are lots of question marks for this team. Embiid, who is an MVP finalist, has questionable status to start the next series after missing a game against the Wizards.
This is a team that despite having two three point specialists in Seth Curry and Danny Green shoots just 37 percent from beyond the arc. Without Embiid in the middle I don’t think this team will fare well.
Teams will not have to focus their attention as much on Embiid and this would lead to less open shots for the Sixers.
If Embiid does happen to play this team needs to effectively shoot the three ball and play lockdown defense in order to have success in the later rounds.
The Sixers will be able to get past the hawks with or without Embiid. Simmons should be able to contain Trae Young who averaged 29 in the series against the Knicks.
Who Can Stop the 76ers?: The winner of the Bucks – Nets series
My Prediction: The 76ers will win a tight series with the Hawks. I have the winner of the Nets – Bucks series controlling the 76ers in the conference finals.
Utah Jazz (West #1 Seed) – In my opinion this is a similar situation to the Sixers. I think the Jazz are a talented well-rounded team. I just don’t think they have what it takes to win the Western Conference let alone win the Finals.
The Jazz are not a deep team to start with. Donovan Mitchell looked great and healthy in his return to the series against the Grizzlies. The Jazz were not tested however and didn’t need much production from their bench.
Aside from Jordan Clarkson who plays nearly as much as the starters, the Jazz bench averaged just 17.8 points, 4 assists, and 10 rebounds. As the playoffs progress and the Jazz face tougher tests not having production.
Most teams who still remain have a solid sixth man just like Clarkson, but what sets the contenders apart from the pretenders is having a deep bench and not having lapses when the starters need to rest.
I think it will be an amazing battle for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert against Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingizis or Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. If the Mavs or Clippers can take the Jazz deep into the series they may very well win.
Who Can Stop the Jazz?: The Clippers or winner of Suns – Nuggets series
My Prediction: I think the Conference Semis will be an amazing series with whatever team they matchup with that will go 6 or 7 games. I am going to go with the Clippers over the Jazz here.
Atlanta Hawks (East #5 Seed) – Trae Young is one of the most electric young talents in the entire NBA. Trae Young averaged 29 points in the Hawks series versus the Knicks and silenced Madison Square Garden which hosted its first playoff matchup in years.
I am not taking anything away from the Hawks first round performance guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic and John Collins stepped up and made big plays. However, the dropoff in scoring between the Hawks leading scorer Trae Young and the rest of the teams averages is a huge gap.
The Hawks played an overhyped Knicks team. Derrick Rose played phenomenal in this series. He simply could not contain Trae Young. The defense of Rose and RJ Barret are going to be nothing compared to that of Ben Simmons who I think will fare much better in the containment of Young.
Other players are going to need to step up and make shots and I just do not see this team matching up well against a physical, skilled 76ers team.
Who Can Stop the Hawks?: The Sixers
My Prediction: The 76ers will win a tight series with the Hawks. Trae Young will be able to keep Atlanta in a few games in this series and put them in spots to win.
Dallas Mavericks (West #5 Seed) *(Still in Round 1) – After watching the first quarter of game 6 I nearly put the Mavericks as a fifth contender. However, after the first quarter Luka Doncic became human again. Luka has still played unbelievably, but I believe he can only carry so much of the load.
In order for this team to win against better teams they will need more contribution from Tim Hardaway Jr and Kristaps Porzingis.
Hardaway Jr. has shouldered a large load of the scoring, but with Luka averaging 30 plus he needs help from the rest of the offense.
If Luka continues to play at the level he has then the Mavs can play with anyone, but asking a guy to score 45 points on a given night is a tough ask.
Who Can Stop the Mavericks?: The Jazz or Clippers
My Prediction: I think the Mavs are going to fall to the Clippers in game 7. The Clippers are returning home with momentum.