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As the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaches, teams have—for the most part—figured out their identities and separated themselves into groups of contenders and non-contenders. But even the teams with the best shot at winning the championship still have issues.
For our purposes, contenders are defined as teams with a reasonable hope of making a run to the NBA Finals. In the Western Conference, there’s still a sizable gap between the Golden State Warriors and every other team, but there are a few that merit a mention as having an outside chance to unseat them.
In the East, there’s a gap between the top five teams—all can be considered serious threats to win the conference—and the others. All respect due to the likes of Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte, but they are a clear step below the Raptors, Bucks, Pacers, Sixers and Celtics.
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Although no other team in the Western Conference can be considered on the Warriors’ level, there are a few that could have at least an outside chance of making a run to the Finals if everything breaks right.
The Denver Nuggets have been the West’s biggest surprise this season, trailing Golden State by just half a game for the No. 1 seed. While Nikola Jokic is having a career year that will surely earn him his first All-Star nod and maybe even some fringe MVP consideration, this is a young group with no playoff experience that may not be ready for that stage yet.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have the league’s fourth-best defense, and Paul George is putting together an MVP-caliber season. But the Thunder haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since Kevin Durant‘s departure in 2016, and Russell Westbrook may once again prove too unpredictable to be counted on.
Behind a historic string of scoring performances from James Harden, the Houston Rockets have righted the ship following a disappointing start to the season. But they have some significant injuries: starting center Clint Capela could be sidelined until after the All-Star break after undergoing thumb surgery, and Chris Paul has missed significant time with a hamstring injury.
Paul’s injury is particularly concerning given his age (33) and the fact that he missed part of last year’s Western Conference Finals with a hamstring injury. If the supporting cast isn’t healthy, it may be too much to ask for Harden to carry the Rockets past the Warriors by himself.
The Los Angeles Lakers are the biggest wild cards among the Western Conference also-rans. LeBron James has been out since Christmas with a groin injury, and the Lakers have been wildly inconsistent without him. If he stays out much longer, they could be in serious danger of missing the playoffs. But if he’s fully healthy by the postseason, they can’t be fully counted out. LeBron is still LeBron.
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Biggest Hurdle: Burnout
Odds are, the only team that will be able to beat the Warriors will be…the Warriors. This season has already seen more turmoil for the two-time defending champions than the previous four years of the Steve Kerr era combined, highlighted by a highly publicized November on-court argument between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant that did nothing to quell the widespread speculation about the latter’s upcoming free agency.
Ask the Jordan-era Bulls, the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers or any of LeBron’s Heat or Cavaliers teams of the past eight years, and they’ll tell you that playing into June year after year is hard. None of those groups did what the Warriors are attempting to do this spring: make five straight Finals. Golden State nearly lost to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals last season, ultimately prevailing in seven games.
Despite their relative struggles (they’re on pace to win “only” 57 games), the Warriors have still shown they can blow the doors off any team on any given night. DeMarcus Cousins has only played in two games since returning from his torn Achilles, but he looks to be fitting nicely into the offense. If he’s fully acclimated by the playoffs, the Warriors will be even harder to beat than they already are.
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Biggest Hurdle: Shooting
The most remarkable thing about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP campaign is how devastating he is without possessing any semblance of a three-point threat. He’s never been great from beyond the arc, but this season he’s shooting an atrocious 18.2 percent from three.
The Bucks have a few capable shooters, including Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez. But as a team, they rank 18th in three-point percentage. That can be mitigated in the regular season, but their weakness on the perimeter can be more easily exploited in the playoffs, when teams drill down on each other’s playbooks.
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Biggest Hurdle: Kawhi Leonard’s Health
When fully healthy, the Raptors have been arguably the league’s best team this season. Kawhi Leonard has been every bit as good as advertised, and a breakout year from Pascal Siakam has made the Raptors dangerous.
But Leonard, who missed all but nine games of last season in San Antonio with a bizarre quadriceps injury, is still sitting out on back-to-backs and has missed the past three games for what the team is calling “load management.”
All of this is to make sure Leonard is healthy for the playoffs, and if he is, Toronto has as good a chance as anyone to make it out of the East and maybe even unseat the Warriors as champions. However, it’s been so long since Leonard has played every game that it cannot be taken for granted that he’ll do so.
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Biggest Hurdle: Chemistry and Depth
The Sixers have been winning since the mid-November trade for Jimmy Butler, but questions about his fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid remain. Embiid has expressed frustration with his lack of touches, while Simmons’ refusal to shoot makes him an awkward fit on the wing next to the ball-dominant Butler.
An equally big concern is Philadelphia’s depth. Outside of the three stars and veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick, the supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired. Can the Sixers count on consistent production from the likes of Wilson Chandler, TJ McConnell and Mike Muscala?
Last season, the Sixers added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova on the post-deadline buyout market, and both gave them good minutes in the playoffs. Philadelphia will almost certainly be active on that front again this year. The Sixers don’t have many assets left to trade after giving up Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the Butler deal, so the buyout market will be their best bet to add bodies for the postseason run.
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Biggest Hurdle: Top-End Talent
A year after shocking the NBA by remaining competitive post-Paul George, the Pacers are no longer a nice surprise—they’re a playoff threat who can hang with anybody with a balanced roster and the league’s second-best defense.
Unfortunately, star power almost always wins out in the playoffs over strict roster balance. Victor Oladipo is a go-to scorer who can take over a game at any time, but if their opponent can shut him down, who’s their second option to carry them?
Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young are excellent complementary players, but Indiana doesn’t have a second star like the other Eastern Conference hopefuls do.
Still, this Pacers team took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs last year. They’re well-coached, defensively elite and just good enough at everything that they have to be taken seriously.
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Biggest Hurdle: Consistency
Some nights, the Celtics look like they have it all figured out. Other nights, Kyrie Irving makes a point to tell the world that he called LeBron James to apologize for not realizing how hard it is to be a leader of inconsistent young players.
This Boston team is talented—we know that. But over halfway into the season, players are still figuring out their roles. Gordon Hayward has slowly worked his way back into shape after missing all of last season with an ankle injury, while Jayson Tatum hasn’t exploded yet in his second season. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier have arguably regressed.
During the offseason, it was easy to assume that Boston would be the favorite in the East after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals with Irving and Hayward sidelined. But it’s not that simple. It’s taken time for the Celtics to figure out who they are, and they still aren’t all the way there yet.