In the NBA, the All-Star Weekend is typically a great place to assess and rank teams. After a lighthearted weekend of dunk contests, celebrity games and skills challenges, what follows is the final stretch of the regular season. The trade deadline has recently passed with some significant trades made across the league, but teams still have several weeks to finalize their rosters before the postseason. As of now, here are the top six teams in the NBA:
1. Golden State Warriors
Defending champions, the most offensively proficient team in the league, fifth in overall defensive rating and a starting lineup with four All-Stars that includes the greatest shooter in the history of the game, a top five shooter of all time and one of the most unstoppable scorers of all time, the Warriors remain the scariest team in the NBA.
At this point in the season, nothing is new for the Warriors: they’re winning in a spectacular fashion. It might be fair to say most fans and analysts have become somewhat jaded to their success during the regular season, as they’ve set some outstanding regular season records and have made it to the Finals the last three years in a row.
They’re not unstoppable, but they’re extremely difficult to keep up with over the course of an entire game. For instance, in their recent game against the SA Spurs: It was a three-point game going into halftime, but ended in an easy 17 point win for Golden State. They are an unrelenting offensive force and what makes them so frightening is the fact that they lead the league in two crucial categories: assist to turnover ratio and field goal percentage.
They’re not just chucking up threes, they are playing smart, fundamental basketball under a game plan devised by Coach Kerr. The Warriors are deservedly the favorites to come out of the West and win it all.
2. Houston Rockets
The number one threat to the Warriors in the West, the Houston Rockets’ biggest strength comes from their offense. They are the second most offensively proficient team in the league, which is a tricky stat in this case, as Houston’s system of offense revolves around a considerable amount of iso-ball, the antithesis to Golden State’s “spread the ball and get everyone involved on every play” attitude.
When that system is spearheaded by MVP candidate leader James Harden and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, however, it’s a fairly effective way to create an offense. To quantify their effectiveness, they are 26 – 1 when Harden, Paul and center Clint Capela are playing together.
Currently on a nine-game winning streak, they last beat the Timberwolves by a whopping 18 points, with 22 of 47 threes made and Harden putting up 34 – 12 – 6. With Harden arguably having the best season of his career and now being backed by the strongest supporting cast he’s had since he arrived in Houston, the Rockets pose a serious threat to anyone at this point in the season.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers were at the center of attention for all the wrong reasons the majority of this season. After high hopes for a strong comeback year, veteran point guard and former league MVP Derrick Rose suffered multiple ankle injuries that greatly restricted his performance, and he was eventually traded from the team.
All expectations of PG Isaiah Thomas enhancing the Cavs’ system with his ability to score were quickly, and maybe unfairly, dropped after his few slow, lackluster performances (despite the fact he is coming off a gruesome hip injury). There were multiple reports of distrust between players and coaches in the locker room. Their defense is notoriously ranked 28th in the league and it remains their biggest liability going forward.
In spite of the unwanted drama, inconsistent performances and questionable coaching decisions, the Cavs are ranked third in the Eastern Conference. They made the biggest moves of any team before the trade deadline by virtually reinventing their roster: They traded six players (including Isaiah Thomas) and brought in four young, promising role players.
These trades already look like the right move for the organization, as the Cavs immediately dominated over the Celtics and look rejuvenated on the defensive end of the floor. Most importantly, LeBron James is playing some of his best basketball, recently dropping 37 – 8 – 8 against the OKC Thunder and averaging 26.3 – 8.1 – 8.9 for the season. It may be too early to bet on the Cavaliers taking it all this season, but their last-minute trades have stirred expectations for postseason success.
4. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are in a strange spot going into the All-Star Break. Having lost four of their last five games, their last two losses have come from blown leads and a failure to close the game.
Injuries are creeping around: LaMarcus Aldridge has missed the last two games due to a sore knee, but is expected to come back after the break, Leonard remains absent due to his quadriceps injury and has been rumored to want out of San Antonio and Ginobili left Tuesday’s game early due to an apparent foot injury, but his official status hasn’t been released. They’ve also lost all four regular-season matchups against Western Conference leaders Golden State and Houston.
Despite this, they’re ranked fifth overall in the league and have a strong defense, ranked second behind Boston. Their fundamental style of basketball is enough to contend with any team. They did, after all, compete for around three quarters in their last game against Golden State without several starters and key players. Barring injury, the Spurs actually have a legitimate shot in the West.
5. Boston Celtics
It’s difficult to say that Boston is no longer the favorite to come out of the East, as they’ve looked so great throughout the season thus far, but their performance against Cleveland has, at the very least, put them in check. It’s possible their 22 point loss was a fluke, it’s possible the drastic change in the Cavs roster disrupted the game plan Boston had and caught them off guard or it’s possible the improvements made by the Cavs were enough to propel them past Boston as the favorites in the East. To say the latter definitively, however, wouldn’t be fair to Boston; they still have the remainder of the season to construct a game plan.
After all, there’s a reason why they’ve been the favorites in the East all season. They still boast the number one ranked defense in the league and they still have offensive weapons that can attack from every spot on the court. They lack experience, but make up for it with their drive and hunger, led by NBA Champion Kyrie Irving. Ranked third overall in the NBA, Boston is still in a great position entering All-Star Weekend.
6. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors lead the East going into the break and have impressive, recent wins against powerhouses such as Boston, the Trailblazers and a dominating performance over the Cavs last month. DeRozan and Lowry continue to prove that they are one of the most well-built backcourts in the NBA, averaging 24 – 4 – 5.1 and 16.5 – 5.7 – 6.4, respectively.
The biggest criticism to be made for Toronto over the past couple of seasons is their inability to perform in the clutch. Despite making it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, they lost in an apparently uneven matched series against the Cavs 4 – 2.
The year prior, they were swept in the first round by the Wizards. There is no doubt the Raptors contain the talent — they’re entering the break with a close win over the Heat and they are approaching the postseason with the potential to obtain the No. 1 seed — they just need that cold, clutch mentality when it matters the most. That being said, this could be the year they make it past the Eastern Conference.