road to the playoffs
Creeping up on the NBA All Star Break teams are more familiar with the chemistry of new teammates and acquired philosophies. Once again, the Western Conference looks stacked but surprisingly, the Eastern Conference is finally starting to deliver on previous offseasons of hype regarding the group's collective prowess. There are some surprises this season but the league is looking very strong, build of a dense number of superstars and guys on the rise. Let's take a look at the positioning as it stands near the All Star Break.
(1) ATLANTA HAWKS: Starting with the most pleasant surprise in the entire NBA takes us to the ATL. The Atlanta Hawks are no longer a disinteresting franchise who struggle to get attendance at Philips Arena. They are a deep, well-rounded roster who pose a threat to any other franchise who wishes to represent the East in the Finals. A matured, seasoned Jeff Teague has the luxury of playing with a tough group of big men that offer good interior presence along with great skill i.e. Paul Millsap and Al Horford. As a unit, the Hawks will be a tough out if they can play cohesive basketball in high pressure situations. There is a bevy of tough, physical workers on this roster- Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Carroll and Shelvin Mack are good playoff pieces and with the sharp shooting and reliable free throw shooting of veteran Kyle Korver, the Hawks look to soar above the rest of the tightly-knit Eastern Conference.
(2) TORONTO RAPTORS:
This is also a very dangerous bunch to contend with. TOR can spread the floor and knock down shots from all over the floor with DeMar DeRozan and other contributors like Terrance Ross; the Raptors' version of Trevor Ariza and streaky guard Greivis Vásquez. It always helps to have a phenomenal point guard as Toronto has in Kyle Lowry, undoubtedly the NBA's most underrated facilitator/scorer. The athleticism on this squad makes it go, supplemented by capable big men like Jonas Valanciünas and banger Amir Johnson to add physicality. Self-dubbed 'The North' is yearning for playoff success after a disappointing end to their season; a frustrating loss to the Brooklyn Nets. The fan base in Toronto has primed itself for expectations and the Raptors will need to deliver in order to satisfy the pressures of being a country's only NBA team.
(3) WASHINGTON WIZARDS:
DC Rising continues to climb to their newly high expectations under the furthered improvement and tutelage of the young backcourt of John Wall-Bradley Beal. That is not all though; the Wizards have added veterans like Paul Pierce and utility big men like Kris Humphries to help with a playoff push now that they have the taste of winning a series under their belts. The luxury of having a skilled player like Nené come off the bench in big games is valuable if Marcin Gortat and company stay out of foul trouble. The Wizards will need to efficiently close out games if they wish to reach further heights this season. No doubt remains that Randy Whitman has done a good job developing the young superstars and meshing them with experience. If Washington has home court advantage, they will need to protect their floor at Verizon Center and give D.C. the playoff pride they crave so badly.
(4) CHICAGO BULLS:
Bulls fans everywhere can exhale a deep sigh of relief...for now. Derrick Rose looks comfortable and confident after extended periods of anxiety and unavailability. It's crazy because this is the best Bulls roster since probably the last time they won the title and here they sit (for now) at fourth in the conference. Like the teams ahead of them yet perhaps most effectively, Chicago has great inside presence with legit 7-footers Joakim Noah and the scoring touch of another champion-Pau Gasol. Head coach Tom Thibodeau hopes to have the blessing of health this postseason and show why analysts have been expecting more; there are rumblings about his job security. A healthy dose of Jimmy Butler on both ends of the floor and some complimentary spark play from Taj Gibson could be keys to this type of success. The Bulls play tough defense but will need further secondary scoring to make real noise at United Center. They have some championship experience at different levels on their team but those that are not accustomed to going deep in tournaments need to get on board if they want to ride a different version of a Chicago train that rises above the rest.
(5) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS:
This short ride for the Cavs has been...interesting to say the least. David Blatt and LeBron have had definite rough patches so far...poor team chemistry, ambiguous personal feelings and even a stint of injuries made this a bad basketball team for a stretch. Cleveland has not been an easy adjustment for F Kevin Love thus far but he is slowly adjusting to his new situation. James and Kyrie Irving are the top scoring options right now, as exclaimed numerically when Irving dropped a cool 55 on the Blazers. Dan Gilbert and his general manager can't be knocked for lack of effort, however. After luring LeBron back to Ohio, they swiftly made key acquisitions, picking up reliable big Timofy Mozgov and infamous spark plug J.R. Smith. Most NBA fans will obviously monitor this team's progress but if they can get their house primed in time for the playoffs, the Cavs could make a splash year one with its new marketable core. If not, 'The Land' will just look extra lame. Somebody tell Nike.
(6) MILWAUKEE BUCKS:
Admittedly, I do not regularly watch the Bucks play but thus far, they have had a pleasant year with new head coach Jason Kidd. Maybe it took him a while to get acclimated from jumping straight from player to head coach (who would have thought?) but he is without question working with tremendous raw talent, headlined by number two overall draft choice, Jabari Parker. Point guard Brandon Knight is having a very nice season which has helped propel MIL over .500. Knight is a well fundamental guard who contributes on both ends of the floor. However, how he would fare in one on one matchups versus the likes of Wall, Lowry, Irving, Rose, etc. is an entirely different story. OJ Mayo adds another scoring threat but he isn't to be relied on to expdct consistency. Zaza Pachulia is a fair inside presence on a team that is lacking in exemplary skill down low. Parker will continue to blossom and fine-tune his game to the NBA level so maybe Milwaukee looks to make another move at the trade deadline to continue bolstering Kidd's toys.
(1) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Was it really just a case of Marc Jackson holding back his players last season in their departure in the playoffs? Steve Kerr is Coach of The Year candidate in the early portions of his regime. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the most dangerous backcourt in the NBA shooting the basketball. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have been provided enough complimentary pieces to come gunning for the conference. Tough defensive teams can beat the Warriors but only in favorable circumstances. Golden State has a healthy Andrew Bogut and if he remains so, could be vital for playoff success. Draymond Green has taken over as most effective player in the paint and with other good depth like vet Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Marreese Speights and David 'Can't Bust Em Buddy' Lee in the post for tough boards and utility buckets. This is a team that is a bona fide contender if they hit their peak stride at an opportunistic stretch of the playoffs.
(2) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The team that may pose the greatest threat-individual matchups- to the Warriors may play at FedExForum. The Grizzlies are the NBA's most stout interior team with a phenomenal duo of the graceful and fundamental C Marc Gasol and a looks-may-deceive bulldog of a PF named Zach Randolph. These two are potential playoff anchors on a defensive team that already has an improved Mike Conley running an efficient offense with proper secondary scoring- Tony Allen and even Vince Carter still contributing in his diminished version. Coach Lionel Hollins does not get enough credit for the job he does with a focused roster. Tennesseans have a pro sports franchise to be proud out.
(3) HOUSTON ROCKETS
James Harden is a serious MVP candidate right now. How much of that comes from the free throw strike is another question but the Rockets are playing great basketball and have loaded their team to a more than respectable exhibition this campaign. Dwight Howard is facing health problems currently; a knee procedure that will require re-revaluation in four weeks and although he still doesn't display the most prowess in his offensive post game, the strength and athleticism (if restored) could be dominating attributes for a playoff run. However, there is not much confidence in their remaining roster to take down the other top dogs in the West. Getting Trevor Ariza back was smart; a valuable playoff asset with effective defense and three shooting capabilities. Patrick Beverly is a capable guard to run McHale's offense and if Howard is not healthy they will need to lean on top rebounder Donatas Motiejunas and swing forward Kostas Papanikolaou.
(4) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
More publicity and press is given to Doc Rivers and his team which flashy high risers; Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The only issue with these two, despite their great athletic talent and the improved shooting of Griffin is that there are better styled playoff forwards within a stacked division. Chris Paul needs to play disciplined down the stretch, keep turnovers to a minimum and the Clippers will have a prime opportunity to advance. Spark plugs like Jamal Crawford, JJ Redick and utility players Matt Barnes and even Glen Big Baby Davis will need to prove a supplementary compliment to the great system that Rivers wants to effectively utilize in the knock out rounds.
(5) PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
After a thrilling dispatch of the Houston Rockets in last year's run for the O'Brien Trophy, the Rose Garden boys aim their sights at loftier goals. Stud guard Damian Lillard and the multi-faceted force of F Lamarcus Aldridge is a very skilled 1-2 scoring and playmaking punch that could be a handful for the majority of NBA teams if they are at the top of their game. Nicolas Batum is a viable double-double threat on any night and swing guard Wesley Matthews can contribute offensively. The Blazers will need ample interior support from guys like C Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman to match the floor spreading that Aldridge is capable of. If all the gears are rotating for this club, they could be a sleeper to take down one of the top seeds.
(6) DALLAS MAVERICKS
Rick Adelman's bunch has been playing some good team basketball most of the season once they acclimated with a couple of the new pieces they acquired; most notably facilitating point guard Rajon Rondo and swing player Chandler Parsons. Rondo was an excellent acquisition for a team that has capable players around to spread the ball to- the electric Monta Ellis and an aging future Hall of Famer, PF Dirk Nowitzki. Tyson Chandler's return reverberates the interior presence Dallas had when they won their first Title in 2011. Adelman is one of the greatest coaches in basketball on they put the world on notice last postseason, taking the eventual champion Spurs to the brink of seven. No other team posed much of a threat to San Antonio but to the chagrin of Mark Cuban, they ultimately were bested by another Texas team. This postseason, the Mavs wish to circle teams they pose an advantage to and be the sharks in the NBA's metaphorical tank.