The NBA regular season is heading towards an exciting finale. As we hurtle towards the playoffs, the Western Conference’s eight is still unknown and playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference is crucial as teams look to avoid the Milwaukee Bucks until the Conference Finals.
The two Los Angeles teams remain the favourites out West, with the Los Angeles Lakers leading the way at the top of the conference. The Clippers are muddling through the regular season, efficiently turning on their best performances to secure wins.
The Lakers and Clips were favoured at the start of the year, and they are still in the top three along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and his unstoppable Bucks. Milwaukee currently own the largest point differential in NBA history, well ahead of Michael Jordan’s all-conquering Bulls and the 73-win Warriors.
Khris Middleton earned a second All-Star spot this season. Brook Lopez is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and George Hill is barely missing a shot. Despite losing Malcolm Brogdon, which looked to be a significant blow, the Bucks are cruising past opponents. Antetokounmpo and Middleton’s minutes are way down as a result.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis have formed a tandem as fearsome as we all expected. The Lakers’ third and fourth-best players might not be as talented as the Bucks or Clippers, but the LeBron-AD duo has been unguardable. The non-James minutes are the concern for Frank Vogel – missing out on Darren Collison was a disappointment.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George haven’t shared the floor all that much. Patrick Beverley has been hurt. Marcus Morris has been getting settled in. None of it seems to matter, though, as Doc Rivers’ team occupy second in the West. That historic defence hasn’t been seen too much, but they have flicked the switch when required and locked opponents up.
It would be reckless to suggest the Bucks, Clips and Lakers are flawless, but their flaws are less alarming than the chasing pack.
While the Rockets have been great since going super-small, their defence against size is a concern. How they cope on the boards, and deal with the physical battering through the postseason, is a giant question mark.
The Celtics have a new-found superstar in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown is a three-and-d maestro. Gordon Hayward has regressed after a good start, however, and who knows what Kemba Walker’s future is health-wise.
The Sixers have injury concerns for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The offensive fit needs time to get sorted, and their absences have stolen crucial games from Brett Brown. Tobias Harris hasn’t proven he can be relied on in clutch situations either.
Utah and Miami have been poor of late. Their defences have been shoddy, and a pair of veterans – Andre Iguodala and Mike Conley – are yet to be anything other than a problem for Quinn Snyder and Erik Spoelstra.
The reigning champion Raptors have been immense. They could yet finish second in the East, and there’s so much to praise them for, but they – like all the others – are a long way off the top Lakers, Clippers and Bucks.
Long way clear
Cases can be made for some of the outsiders. There’s plenty to like about Boston, Houston and even the Sixers. To predict any as NBA champions at this stage is far-fetched, however.
The Bucks, Lakers and Clippers are in a league of their own. They have five superstars between them and elite defensive upside.
Each of the teams looking to catch them must spend the rest of the regular season figuring out a plan on how to win four out of seven against Leonard, LeBron or Giannis.