There is still a lot up for grabs in the seeding contests with less than a month left in the 2022–23 NBA regular season. Yet regardless of how things turn up, I think a relatively solid, if extremely broad, picture of the championship is beginning to take shape.
My current top five title contenders are listed below.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks, who have won 21 of their last 23, appear to be the greatest team in the Eastern Conference, at least as long as they can keep fazing Khris Middleton into coming back.
The fact that Milwaukee has the best record in the league despite the Big 4 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Middleton, and Brook Lopez (who may win Defensive Player of the Year) starting just five games together this season is a stark warning to any and all challengers, especially if Middleton, who had a season-high 31 in Milwaukee’s decisive victory over Sacramento on Monday, settles into something more resembling his usual production and Giannis ought to receive more MVP recognition than he does. He is undoubtedly the strongest player in today’s game, and the Bucks have a stacked roster behind him. Depth. Versatility. Shooting. Guys like Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Bobby Portis, and Grayson Allen are cut from the traditional big-shot role-player mentality in a playoff environment that consists of extremely narrow margins, and Jevon Carter and Holiday will cause your point guard 48-minute headaches.
What makes Milwaukee a problem for me? Offense. This unit is in the bottom half. They can jack up 3-pointers but have trouble producing good looks in the half court. A focused Middleton really helps to change it. Over the course of seven games, you might have a chance to overcome Giannis’ unrelenting drive if you compel him to keep his head down and push through numerous defenders in static situations.
2. Phoenix Suns
After just playing in three games for the Suns, Kevin Durant might miss the rest of the regular season. Yet, if any superstar is capable of returning from a lengthy hiatus and launching right into the postseason without missing a beat, it’s Durant, who has a history of doing just that.
With a trio of the most adaptable pick-and-roll designers and lethal pull-up shooters in NBA history, the Suns are uniquely built to stress Milwaukee’s drop coverage defense and neutralize Lopez’s rim protection, so you could theoretically make an argument in favor of them if Phoenix and Milwaukee ended up playing in the NBA Finals.
Also, Chris Paul, who plays for the Suns, is among the best pacemakers we’ve ever seen. You stand the best chance of eliminating Milwaukee if you keep the game at a slower pace and in the half-court.
In my opinion, Deandre Ayton is the first swing man. Durant played in three games, and his touches were practically cut in half. He must participate offensively because, with defenders split out on Booker and Durant, he will have plenty of room to maneuver on the short roll and on deep seals. He must also participate offensively in order to remain engaged defensively.
Paul is a different swing man. As a result of his slump this season, he probably won’t be as effective at creating shots or pulling up after dribbling into an elbow as he once was. But, on the assumption that current trends will continue in the future is how you go bankrupt. Things may change quickly, for better or worse, and I would wager quite confidently that Paul will play a significant role in the playoffs.
In an effort to prevent Durant and Devin Booker from seeing double, teams will leave players like Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig, and even Damion Lee (who has been on fire all season) open. However, Paul will have plenty of cushion, and how he takes advantage of those opportunities—either by attacking space and finding corner shooters or by taking the shot himself—could be crucial to Phoenix’s success.
Do I have any worries about Phoenix? Yes. 3-point shooting and depth. In fact, Phoenix’s outlet shooters will need to attempt and make a sizable number of 3-pointers during the postseason. Although possessing probably the two finest midrange shooters in the league, the Suns don’t have a strong 3-point shooting offense, making it difficult to counter threes with twos.
3. Golden State Warriors
I make absolutely no inference from Golden State’s poor road performance during the regular season. They’ll reset and be just as dangerous as they were the previous season, when we also attempted to write them off as a top-tier contender at various points of the season only to watch them win the entire thing. I have no idea how this works, but as long as they get into a first-round series (far from guaranteed), they’ll be just as dangerous as they were then.
You have therefore been forewarned: Don’t sleep on this team.
Gary Payton II and Andrew Wiggins are the two keys. Wiggins is irreplaceable on this team. He was the team’s second-most crucial player in the 2022 championship. First, is he going to return? And second, will he immediately resume his rhythm if he does?
Regarding Payton, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors outscored opponents by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court during the previous season’s playoffs. The Warriors paid to re-sign him after letting him walk to Portland over the summer because of his crucial ball pressure, transition intensity, and half-court cutting.
Thus, the question is the same as it was for Wiggins: Will Payton be fit for the playoffs? And if so, will he quickly find his rhythm? Because this needs to happen now. Whichever happens, the Warriors will face a very challenging first-round opponent. This is a sleeping giant, though, if they can wake it up. Since the year’s beginning, Klay Thompson has been playing at a high level, while Stephen Curry continues to be, in my opinion, the most significant player in the world.
4. Boston Celtics
Boston is a top contender on par with any other. With a top-five offense and defense, an elite point guard duo in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, top-end depth with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, shooting, lineup and defensive versatility, one-on-one playmaking, rim protection with Robert Williams, experience, the bittersweet memory of coming so close to winning last season, etc., they possess all the necessary components to win the championship.
A Boston-Milwaukee conference final would be a battle, and while I’ve generally preferred Boston throughout the season in my analysis, I’m leaning Milwaukee right now. They’ve just been so fantastic the past six weeks, and I can’t deny that Milwaukee would have won last season with Middleton healthy.
The big men for Boston are a key swing player in my eyes. The first priority is to restore and maintain the health of the aforementioned Williams during the postseason. When Williams was on the floor during the playoffs last year, the Celtics’ defensive efficiency increased by 8.2 points for every 100 possessions, according to CTG. When his coverage radius and vertical pop are in sync, he’s nearly as effective as any rim protector in the NBA, and on the other end, his offensive rebounding is a significant asset.
Al Horford is another, who will turn 36 in a few months yet is still invincible. Horford is second in the league (behind teammate Malcolm Brogdon) among all players who are making at least four 3-point attempts per game with a 45.3% clip. Horford is shooting 49% of his 3-point attempts from the corner this season, which is a career-high percentage. Boston will be incredibly difficult to defeat if he continues to serve as that kind of safety-valve option while Tatum and Brown are the center of focus.
Concerns? The Celtics need this assistance shooting to continue because they do not frequently get to the rim. Yet, it does not. Robert Williams, who has never been able to remain healthy for extended periods of time, is injured once more as a result of the Celtics stopping the ball from being moved at the wrong time and getting one-on-one drunk. What if Tatum aggravates his wrist further? It will already require surgery after the current season. Who knows how much he has already been bothered by it. What about Grant Williams, who used seven 3-pointers to help Boston win Game 7 over the Bucks in the previous campaign? One of the biggest wild cards in the postseason is him. Similar to Horford, if he gets hot at the proper time, Boston gets incredibly tough.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
I predicted that if the Clippers won a championship, it would be despite Westbrook, not because of him, when they signed him to a contract. I still have a tiny bit of hope that they can succeed despite him.
Kawhi Leonard has shot 49% of his 3-point attempts since the start of the year, which ranks second in the NBA among all players who attempt at least four per game, behind only Kevin Durant, who has only appeared in seven games during that time.
The Clippers may have the most dangerous player in the playoffs with Leonard performing at this level, appearing to be as healthy as he’s ever going to be, and prepared to play significant minutes for a presumably lengthy postseason period. He has already shown that. I think he can accomplish it again given the appropriate conditions.
This season, the Clippers have outscored opponents by nearly eight points per 100 possessions when Leonard and Paul George have been on the floor together, according to CTG. With the arrival of Mason Plumlee, we’ll see how frequently Ty Lue plays small in the minutes without Zubac, but regardless of his lineup selections, he has choices.
Normal Powell is the Clippers’ bench scorer. Terance Mann has my heart. They can create half-court plays, shoot, and defend (theoretically). Just six teams get to the rim more frequently than the Clippers, which is concerning. I wish they would make more free throws. To compete with the best teams, they need to make a lot of shots, and I’m not sure Lue can continually bench Westbrook for however long is required. But Kawhi and PG playing at their height just won’t leave my mind. The Clippers have a chance to win it all if they reach that peak.
Philadelphia 76ers: A defense that is supporting Tyrese Maxey and James Harden cannot be relied upon to last four rounds. Through the playoffs, Harden won’t likely maintain a 40% 3-point shooting percentage. I don’t have any faith in Doc Rivers. The Sixers’ offense simply lacks imagination, and I think they will eventually be forced to rely on individual plays and shots from players, which won’t work against the true contenders.
Denver Nuggets: Don’t entirely trust the defense. Jamal Murray shouldn’t have to switch into bubble mode.
Memphis Grizzlies: There is uncertainty surrounding Ja Morant and Steven Adams, and ultimately I don’t trust a playoff squad that depends so much on transition. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! a.
Dallas Mavericks: Nobody can stop you. Sorry.
Sacramento Kings: similar to Dallas.
Cleveland Cavaliers: They’ll cause problems for one or possibly a few teams. Donovan Mitchell has a powerful playoff scoring game. Cash is Darius Garland. The two towers add to the burden of defense. Issac Okoro’s shooting, in particular, has regressed, and that 3-spot is a pressure point for Cleveland when defenses can leave a shooter with two non-shooting bigs already on the floor. In the end, I don’t think Cleveland takes or makes enough 3s to overcome the collective talent gap between them and the top contenders.
Los Angeles Lakers: Not likely to occur.
New York Knicks: Too little talent.
Miami Heat:Don’t talk about culture.