After three months of competition, we have a clear picture of how the 2022 NBA playoffs will look like. Some teams could still sneak into the big party, but it's hard to see them going further than the first round.
Right now, there's no clear favorite to win the championship. Nevertheless, some squads are looking stronger than the rest of the competition and have a better bid to the championship given how well they've performed during the first half of the season.
ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry, just like the rest of us, has a list of candidates that he believes can compete for the championship. Most fans will agree with his list, but others won't take anything from it.
The analyst shared a piece where he explains why the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies are his six contenders.
The Nets are the Las Vegas favorites because they have more talent than anyone. Kevin Durant is playing at a ridiculous level, and if James Harden and Kyrie Irving can simply be available to contribute here and there, that might be all this team needs.
Since Nov. 17, Milwaukee owns both the best record (20-9) and the best net rating (+6.4) in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks have one of the best players in the world, a two-time MVP who is now squarely in his prime. Milwaukee is 2-0 against Brooklyn this season, including an impressive win last week at Barclays. In case you'd forgotten, the Bucks are the defending NBA champions. Exactly half of the previous 10 NBA champions got back to the Finals the very next season.
The Bulls have been a great story this season. They have won 13 of their past 16 games and currently sit atop the East. If the season ended today, they'd have home-court advantage. But there's one key indicator that helps explain why both BPI and the Vegas oddsmakers don't see them as a true title contender just yet: defense.
Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson's glorious return to action Sunday night reunited the Splash Brothers and briefly put the Dubs back atop the Western Conference standings. Golden State is winning with a familiar formula.
Draymond Green is once again leading the NBA's top-ranked defense, while Stephen Curry has emerged as an MVP front-runner by scoring 26.8 points per game and torching opponents from downtown. Steve Kerr's offense is again leading the league in assist percentage (by a country mile), while the roster is as deep as it's been since the championship years.
Maybe the Suns are not as glamorous as the Lakers or the Warriors, but glamor doesn't win games. Solid two-way basketball teams do, and that's exactly what the defending West champs are. The Suns boast both a top-10 offense and a top-five defense.
The combination of Chris Paul and Devin Booker has been especially brilliant in clutch situations this season, and these two All-Stars can both make winning plays in big moments.
Before the season began, Vegas pegged the Grizzlies as a .500 team and gave them +10000 odds to win the title. But the Grizzlies have proved the prognosticators wrong. They are officially a problem, and it's not absurd to think that they could win it all this season.
Consider that since Dec. 1, Memphis has the best record in the league (18-4), best net rating (+12.6), best defensive rating (102.6) and third-best offensive rating (115.2). The Grizz also top the NBA in rebound percentage (54%), offensive rebound percentage (34.7%), fast break points per game (17.4), paint points per game (57.1), second chance points per game (19), opponent turnover percentage 16.5%) and points per game off turnovers (20.7).
Something interesting from Goldsberry's picks is that neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor Miami Heat are present there. However, Kirk named them 'dangerous loomers,' given their ability to overcome bad situations and the quality on their roster. The Lakers not being there is understandable, but the Heat have had a better season than the Californians. Perhaps the absence of some players had an effect on this decision, but Miami can surprise a lot of people in the postseason.
As for the Lakers, they are a struggling team right now. Russell Westbrook wasn't a good addition; Anthony Davis hasn't lived up to expectations and the veterans haven't stepped up to help LeBron James compete this season.
We're still three months away from the playoffs and some things could change, especially with the trade deadline arriving. Once we're there, it's a different conversation, but it's hard to disagree with Kirk's picks on this one.