By Conor Harrington,
Sports Business Writer
The 2017 NBA playoffs are shaping up to be a great one as the season enters its final stretch. The season has been a historical one as Russell Westbrook, the favorite for the Most Valuable Player award and point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is almost assured of becoming the second person in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. He would join NBA legend Oscar Robertson if he accomplishes the feat. However, after the exit of fellow Thunder superstar Kevin Durant in free agency, the Thunder are only a middle of the pack team in a top-heavy Western Conference, on pace to finish just sixth in the conference.
Speaking of the Western Conference, fresh off back-to-back appearances in the NBA finals, one NBA championship, an NBA record 73 wins last season, and the addition of Durant, it should come as no surprise that the Golden State Warriors are once again on track to clinch the top seed in both the West and the entire NBA. Right behind them are the NBA’s very own pillar of consistency San Antonio Spurs.
In their first season without soon-to-be first ballot Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion Tim Duncan, the Spurs stayed the course and have secured their 18th consecutive 50-win campaign, led by MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Just behind them are fellow Texans: the Houston Rockets, led by yet another MVP candidate, James Harden, who leads the league in assists and is second in scoring. This Rockets team broke the record for made three-pointers in a season and can outscore any team any day of the week.
The West’s middle of the pack includes the always the bridesmaid and never the bride Los Angeles Clippers led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Deandre Jordan; the upstart Utah Jazz led by Gordon Hayward and NBA blocks leader Rudy Gobert; the Thunder; and the ever-present Memphis Grizzlies featuring Mike Conley, the highest-paid player in NBA history. The battle for the eighth is essentially down to Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers or Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Portland has the playoff experience, so expect them to be playing at least four games of postseason basketball, but not too many more.
In the Eastern Conference, many expected the Cleveland Cavaliers, the defending champions led by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love would coast rather easily to the top seed in the east. However, the have faced stiff competition from the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors. The Celtics, coached by Coach of the Year frontrunner Brad Stevens, and led by Isaiah Thomas, third in scoring; as well as new free agent signing Al Horford, and the defensive prowess of Avery Bradley, are the best challenge to Cavaliers. They will meet once more this season in a game that could very well confirm who takes the top spot. The Washington Wizards, with new coach Scott Brooks, with star point guard John Wall leading the helm, are back in the playoffs and would be a dangerous second round opponent for Cleveland or Boston. The Toronto Raptors officially entered win-now mode by trading inconsistent Terrence Ross to Orlando for proven Serge Ibaka. The All-Star tandem of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan is arguably the best guard combo in the league, but a noticeably weaker frontcourt could be their undoing.
For the last four spots, there are seven teams all within five games of each other. Even though they are in the midst of a skid, the Atlanta Hawks should rather easily clinch a spot, most likely the fifth seed. The Miami Heat, in their first year without franchise icon Dwyane Wade, have overcome a dreadful start and should also clinch a spot. Erik Spoelstra’s team may not finish above .500, but he is a legitimate candidate for Coach of the Year. The Milwaukee Bucks, led by athletic freak Giannis Antetokounmpo, are likely to make the playoffs as well. Unfortunately, Kemba Walker is very unlikely to single-handedly carry the Charlotte Hornets into the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls, led by a “big three” of Rajon Rondo, Wade, and Jimmy Butler are far too inconsistent to put any faith into. That leaves the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. Indiana’s Paul George is a better player than Detroit’s Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson, so Indiana is the safe pick for the final spot. The final games of the regular season playoff push are always interesting, and this year should be no different.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 4th, 2017 print edition.
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