Not only are we on the brink of the 2016 NBA Playoffs, but we are likely on the brink of NBA history.
The reigning champion Golden State Warriors enter the playoffs as the clear-cut favourites but the challengers are lining up for a shot at the throne.
The logical challenger to the Warriors in the Western Conference looks to be the ultra-consistent San Antonio Spurs. At time of writing, the Spurs owned a remarkable 65-15 win-loss record, something that would ordinarily be enough to clinch the Western Conference top seed.
But this season has been far from ordinary.
And that’s thanks to the extraordinary performances and phenomenal consistency of the Warriors. Despite winning the crown last season against Cleveland, the Dubs returned bigger, better, faster and more in-sync as a team for this season.
Even the absence of Steve Kerr for the first month of the season wasn’t enough of a distraction as Steph Curry and the gang began the season by reeling off 24-straight wins.
Curry – last season’s league MVP – is an unbackable favourite to repeat his MVP feat whilst Draymond Greene’s talk has only been upstaged by his play on the court.
At worst, Golden State will equal the 1996/97 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins, but everyone knows the really special feat of that season was completing the journey by winning the Larry O’Brien trophy. Tuesday (Australian time) will see the Warriors host Memphis for a shot at the NBA record of 73 regular season wins, an accomplishment that can never be scoffed at – however anything short of a second-straight ring will be a failed season.
I’m a few hundred words into the column and I haven’t yet once mentioned LeBron James. Stunning, considering whenever you think of the NBA Finals you should also think about The King.
He hasn’t won them all, in fact he only owns two titles, but since 2007 LeBron has led his team to six Finals appearances. Two with the Cavaliers and four consecutive trips with Miami.
So, let’s get down to business, here are the contenders;
GOLDEN STATE (Projected starters: Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Greene, Bogut)
The reigning champs are loaded at every position and it could be argued that they possess the best point guard (this we know for sure), the best shooting guard, the best power (point) forward and the most potent bench in the playoffs.
Curry and co. should roll past a Utah squad who would be thrilled to just have made the postseason and whilst the Jazz have some nice young players – including South Australian Joe Ingles – the Dubs should nearly clean sweep round one.
The Warriors went 34-7 on the road this season, so entering any opposition building will carry no fear, particularly when they know they can put up a league best 114.8 points per contest. The health of last season’s Finals MVP Andre Iguodala will be important but with the offensive firepower of Curry and Klay Thompson and the versatility of Greene, expect GSW to roll in virtually unscathed to the Western conference finals.
SAN ANTONIO (Parker, Green, Leonard, Aldridge, Duncan)
Awaiting the Warriors in the WCF will likely be the Spurs. The model of consistency and excellence in the NBA for the past 20 years – or since Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich teamed up. As I said, 65 wins is a sensational effort but this team has been built – and prepped – to perform in the playoffs. If there is one thing the Spurs know how to do, it’s win and like Golden State, a comfortable path to the WCF should be strolled.
Free agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge and emerging superstar Kawhi Leonard now make this team go whilst championship-winning veterans Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan play important but lesser roles.
Aussie Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and former North Carolina standout Danny Green will also be called upon to provide some instant offence and tenacious defence.
CLEVELAND (Irving, Smith, James, Love, Thompson)
It looks a race in one in the East. Whilst the powerhouses sort themselves out in the rugged West, James and the Cavs should easily handle all-comers. They will likely sweep Detroit in round one and none of Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte should cause any issues. Toronto possess some playmakers and winning a game in Canada may be tough but the Raptors cannot be guaranteed a place in the East finals. The potential bogey for the Cavs looks to be James’ old team, Miami. With Dwyane Wade winding back the clock and a stellar starting five in place, the Heat can give Cleveland many headaches.
In the end, though, the greatness of LeBron and the help – and hopefully health, unlike 2015 – of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love should be plenty enough to give the King his seventh opportunity to win his third ‘chip. For Aussies, we are once again blessed with local talent as Matthew Dellavedova will play an important role backing up Irving as well as potentially playing some fourth quarter minutes as arguably the team’s premier perimeter defender.
OKLAHOMA CITY (Westbrook, Roberson, Durant, Ibaka, Adams)
There’s a notion in the NBA that star power can override any team’s shortcomings. For the Thunder to win a ring, this thought will need to come to fruition. Yes, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook join forces to be the league’s most dominant, destructive duo but truth be told, there is not much after 0 and 35.
Serge Ibaka is honest and can defend the rim but has not developed into the two-way force I expected him to become and New Zealander Steven Adams has had the same, slightly stagnated career path. Former Cavalier Dion Waiters will take some horrendous shots, rivalling only JR Smith, but for OKC to make a serious run at the Spurs or Warriors, they will need him to make plenty!
Westbrook could average a triple-double throughout the playoffs and KD can easily drop 40 a game but it might still not be enough to dent the hopes of the big two from Texas and California.
To be honest, I would be stunned to see anyone outside of Golden State, San Antonio or Cleveland win the 2016 NBA championship but that certainly does not mean there won’t be fireworks throughout the entire playoffs.
Sport has a happy knack of making fools like me who try to predict the outcomes look quite silly!
Despite being without All-Star forward Blake Griffin for most of the season, the Clippers will be a dangerous team in the West but it is unlikely they can seriously challenge SAS or GSW. In Chris Paul and Griffin they have serious star power and DeAndre Jordan, Paul Pierce, JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford are a handy bunch of role-players.
The most unlikely playoff-bound team Boston are unlikely to make too much noise but posting close to 50-wins in an NBA season is nothing to be frowned upon. Miami have winning-time players, Atlanta look built for the regular season and not for the playoff crunch. Out West, Memphis and Dallas a veteran squads with a couple of playmaking, shot-making stars but neither mob looks capable of upsetting the big dogs.
FINALS TIP: Cleveland Cavaliers v Golden State Warriors.
Stay tuned for my Finals preview but until then, enjoy what the NBA Playoffs have in store – it’s sure to be special.