Is it a bit early for 2017 NBA Championship predictions? The trade deadline has come and gone and the rosters have had 75% of the season to work with one another.
The final quarter of the season is under way. The playoffs begin in five weeks. That’s right folks, the 2016-17 NBA season is entering its stretch drive. And to the surprise of many pundits and talking heads, the heavily favored and touted preseason favorites to reach the Finals for a third consecutive year are struggling to beat back legit threats in their respective conferences.
The defending champion and East leading Cleveland Cavaliers, led by Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, have been unable to gain separation from Boston, Washington, and Toronto, but they’re still the favorites by a longshot to come out to the Eastern Conference.
Out West, the latest and greatest professional superteam known as the Golden State Warriors, owners of the league’s best record, are fending off a furious surge from the Tim Duncan–less San Antonio Spurs, now led by rising MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors themselves are looking mortal now that they’re Durant-less until sometime in April. This has opened the door for some.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are winning with their one-man brand of triple-doubles for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The question is can they keep that up that pace in the higher-stakes, higher-intensity NBA playoffs against more well-rounded systems that don’t revolve solely around one playmaker? History says no, but let’s take a look at what the oddsmakers and projections say about the teams with the best chances.
All this drama makes for great headlines, but does any of it really matter if Vegas doesn’t take notice? According to the online sports betting sites, sportsbooks believe that Cleveland and Golden State are actually under siege? Let’s take a look and ponder the notion together.
The Warriors are pulling away from the Cavs as the money favorites to win it all. Kevin Durant is having an MVP type season, and has successfully navigated the pitfalls that plagued his tumultuous exit from Oklahoma City. Or has he? Failure to win a title, especially against LeBron, means Durant will be right back where he started before he left for greener pastures.
Golden State -135
Speaking of LeBron, his not-so subtle efforts to light a fire under his teammates, as well as the front office, have yet to pay dividends. Andrew Bogut was supposed to solve the Cavs’ low post woes until he broke his leg in his first game with the team. Oops. They still need a rim protector and rebounder, and their defense has been underwhelming since February. Until further notice, Cleveland is playing second fiddle to the Warriors. However, that could very well change once the calendar flips to May.
Real or Imagined?
Is this San Antonio Spurs any different than the last eight or nine that always flew beneath the radar even when they were winning championships? Yes and no. They still have the game’s smartest and most strategic coach in Gregg Popovich. They still boast the most fundamentally sound defense of any team in the NBA. They still play with the same controlled calm that signified the Tim Duncan era.
San Antonio +600
The difference is the aforementioned Kawhi Leonard, a two-way superstar who has improved dramatically in each of his six NBA seasons. Not since the early years of Duncan have the Spurs featured a feared scorer and stalwart defender as their top dog.
If any team shocks the world by taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it will be San Antonio. And they will have Leonard to thank. Best to jump on this price before it drops.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Isaiah Thomas and James Harden rank second and third in scoring, respectively. And they are the only reasons why anyone talks about the Celtics and Rockets. Both teams are fun to watch, but neither plays a lick of defense.
LA Clippers +2800
Watch as they crumble in a sad, pathetic heap during the playoffs against the likes of Cleveland and San Antonio. At this point in the season, it’s hard to believe that they’ll beat one of the three elite teams in a seven game series.
Hey, what about the Clippers? Uh, what about them?
Maybe Next Year, Maybe Never
If only LeBron James didn’t exist, then maybe Toronto and Washington would be receiving more than casual praise for their efforts.
These two wannabe Eastern contenders have arguably the best two backcourts in the league with the combination of Kyle Lowry/Demar Derozan in Toronto and the John Wall/Bradley Beal duo in Washington, but the lack of a killer instinct and experience in a deep playoff run from either team means they are merely jesters in the court of King James.
This is a Joke, Right?
That sound you hear is guttural laughter from sportsbooks taking bets on either of these painfully average franchises to win it all.
Now to be a jerk, but quick, name a player from the Jazz that isn’t Gordon Hayward? If you said Rudy Gobert or Rodney Hood, congratulations. Everyone else can take solace in the fact that knowing the correct answer to that question doesn’t amount to much. Kinda like the Jazz.
What It Takes to Win an NBA Championship
For the vast majority of NBA champions, the not so big secret to playoff success is having a combination of necessities. That is, a superstar (or two) that steps up when the team needs it the most and a team composed, a couple of budding semi-stars and players with deep playoff experience with defined roles. Very rarely has a team come out of nowhere to win an NBA Championship and that’s why every year, the real contenders are few and far between. Bet accordingly.