Ranking NBA’s top five title contenders: Warriors ahead of Celtics; 76ers, Nuggets miss cut
With less than a month left before the start of the 2022-23 NBA regular season, there is still a lot to be decided in the seed races. But no matter how it shakes out, I believe that a fairly reliable picture of the championship, although quite extensive, is beginning to emerge.
Below are my top five contenders for the title so far…
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Having won 21 of the last 23, the Bucks look like the best team in the Eastern Conference, at least as they continue to embarrass Chris Middleton back into the fold.
The fact that Milwaukee currently has the best record in the league despite the Big Four Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Middleton, and Brook Lopez (who could be Defensive Player of the Year) starting in just five games all season, is a bright red warning for any contender, especially if Middleton, who had a season-high 31 in Milwaukee’s big win over Sacramento on Monday, settles into something closer to his typical playoff performance and efficiency.
Yannis should get more love MVP than him. He is arguably the most unstoppable force in today’s game, and the Bucks are full of power behind him. Depth. Versatility. Shooting. In a playoff environment where the margins between opponents are extremely small, guys like Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles, Jay Crowder, Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen don’t have access to the classic big shot RPG mode, and Javon Carter and Holiday are ready to give you point guard 48-minute fit.
What worries me about Milwaukee? Crime. This is the bottom half of the block. They raise threes but fail to create a quality half court image. Accurate Middleton pretty much fixes this. If you get Giannis to put his head down and break through a few defenders in stagnant conditions, you might have a seven-game chance to counter his unforgiving force.
2. Phoenix Suns
Kevin Durant could miss the rest of the regular season with just three games for the Suns, but if any superstar can survive an extended absence and jump straight into the postseason fire without hesitation, this is Duranwhich has a history of catching fire after a long absence from the fire.
If, in theory, we were to end the Phoenix-Milwaukee Finals, you could well bet in favor of the Suns, a bit, because they’re uniquely built to emphasize Milwaukee’s fall defense – and neutralize Lopez’s rim defense, with the trio of the most versatile pick-makers roll and deadly pull-up shooters in NBA history.
Plus, the Suns have one of the best pacemakers we’ve ever seen on Chris Paul. Keep the Milwaukee in slower half court play and you’ll have a better chance of beating them.
For me, the first swing guy is DeAndre Ayton. In the three games Duran played, his touchdowns were almost halved. He needs to be deployed offensively, not only because he is deployed defensively, but also because he will have so much room to operate in short shots and deep forces with defenders scattered around Booker and Durant.
Paul is another swing guy. He’s dropped this season and he probably won’t be the main throw maker or the snake robot pulling his elbow like he was in the past, but assuming everything that’s happening now will continue to happen in the future like you go broke. Things change, for better or worse, often in the blink of an eye, and I’d bet Paul will play an important role in the playoffs.
Teams are going to leave Josh Okogi, Torrey Craig, and even Damion Lee (who has been on a roll all season) open for Durant and Devin Booker to see double, but Paul will see for himself how much cushioning is provided and how he exploits those opportunities, either by attacking space and finding corner shooters, or pulling the trigger himself, can go a long way in deciding Phoenix’s fate.
Do I have any concerns about Phoenix? Yes. Depth and 3-point shooting. Indeed, these underdogs will have to pick up and make a relatively significant number of three-pointers for Phoenix in the playoffs. The Suns aren’t 3-point attackers, and even with two arguably the best mid-rangers in the game, it’s hard to beat a 3-2.
3. Golden State Warriors
I don’t attach any importance to Golden State’s ineptitude in the regular season. I can’t explain it, but as long as they make the first round series (far from guaranteed), they will fold and be just as dangerous as they were last year when we also tried to write them off. top-tier contender at several points in the season just to watch the win in its entirety.
So, for the record, you’ve been warned: sleep on this team at your own risk.
Two Keys: Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II. Wiggins is irreplaceable in this team. He was the second most important player on the 2022 championship team. First, will he come back? And secondly, if he does, is he going to get back in rhythm?
As for Payton, the Warriors outscored rivals by almost 16 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court during last year’s playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass. His ball pressure, his passing energy, his half court shots, he’s absolutely vital, which is why the Warriors paid to bring him back after letting him walk to Portland over the summer.
So, same deal as Wiggins: Will Payton be back healthy for the playoffs? And if he does, will he jump right into the rhythm? Because it has to happen immediately. The Warriors have an extremely tough first-round matchup, no matter how it goes.
But if they work, it’s a sleeping giant. Stephen Curry is still, in my opinion, the most powerful player in the world and Klay Thompson has been in vintage form since the beginning of the calendar.
4. Boston Celtics
Boston is close to any of the top contenders. They have all the markers of the championship: top five in offense and defense, an elite duo of Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, maximum depth with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, versatility in shooting, placement and defense, one-on-one creation, defense under the basket with Robert Williams, experience, bitterness from last season’s rapprochement, etc.
A potential Boston-Milwaukee conference final would be a war, and while I’ve favored Boston in most of my analyzes throughout the season, I’m leaning towards Milwaukee right now. They’ve been great for the last six weeks and I can’t ignore the fact that Milwaukee is likely to win last season with a healthy Middleton.
I look at the big players in Boston as a big swing factor. First task: to return the aforementioned Williams healthy and hold he is healthy in the postseason. In last year’s playoffs, the Celtics were 8.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively, according to CTG, when Williams was on the floor. He’s about as effective as any under rim defenseman in the league when he flicks his covering radius and vertical shot, and on the other hand, his offensive rebounds are a big advantage.
Then there’s Al Horford, who is only a few months old at 36 and still going strong. Of all players who attempt at least four 3-pointers in a game, Horford is second in the league (behind teammate Malcolm Brogdon) by a 45.3% margin. More than a quarter of Horford’s 3-pointers have come from corners this season, a career high, and he’s hitting 49% of them. If he continues to be a safety valve of sorts while Tatum and Brown are gaining attention, it will be very difficult for Boston to win.
Concern? This support shooting doesn’t continue, which the Celtics need because they don’t reach the rim at high speed. The Celtics stop moving the ball at the wrong moment, get drunk one on one, and Robert Williams, who has never been able to stay healthy for a long time, gets injured again. Tatum’s wrist will already require surgery in the off-season; what if it gets worse again? Who knows how much it bothers him already.
What about Grant Williams, the guy who more or less won Game 7 against the Bucks last season for Boston with seven 3s? He is one of the biggest wild cards in the postseason. If he’s hot at the right time, like Horford, Boston gets really tough.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
When the Clippers signed Russell Westbrook, I wrote that if they won the championship it would be in spite of Westbrook, not because of him. Some part of me still thinks they can handle it despite him.
Since Jan. 1, Kawhi Leonard has made 49% of three-pointers, the second-highest percentage in the league of any player with at least four points in a game, behind only Kevin Durant, who has only played seven games in that time.
With Leonard playing at this level and seemingly as healthy as he’ll ever be and ready to play big minutes for what is hopefully a long postseason, the Clippers have what could be the most dangerous guy. in the playoffs. He has proven it before. I believe that under the right circumstances he can do it again.
With Leonard and Paul George playing together on the floor this season, the Clippers are scoring an elite 120 points and leading the opposition by nearly eight points per 100 CTG possessions. We’ll see how often Tai Liu gets smaller in minutes without Zubak with the addition of Mason Plumlee, but whatever his line-up decisions are, he has options.
The Clippers have spare points in Normal Powell. I love Terence Mann. They have shooting, defense (in theory) and building a half court. I wish they could get to the free throw line more and that’s a concern…