The NBA's trade deadline has passed and the All-Star break is less than a week away. After that, the championship chase is on. It's hard to remember there ever being this many legitimate championship contenders. By now, we've usually narrowed it down to three or four realistic teams. Not this season. At least 10 teams have every right to believe they can win it all if things go their way.
Before we get to those teams, I'm going to make some enemies and rule some teams out. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been super fun and have a great future in place, but they're not a title contender this season. Neither are the Memphis Grizzlies, who, to me, feel like the Cavs of the West. Sorry, Atlanta Hawks, there will be no magical run this season. No go for the Raptors or the Mavericks, either.
Feel free to disagree, but you're going to have a hard time making a convincing case that any one of those teams can win four playoff series against the teams we're about to talk about. With that in mind, let's get to the real contenders, which I've broken into four tiers. Here we go.
Tier 1: The Favorites
They have the best record in the league. Perhaps it should be obvious that the Suns are the top title contender at the moment, but it isn't talked about that way because, in my opinion, the gap between Phoenix and the next two teams on this list, and even a couple teams from Tier 2, is borderline negligible. That's not a knock on the Suns, who are great. It's a nod to the wonderful parity that is painting a new "anyone can honestly win" NBA playoff picture.
The Suns' biggest strength? That they don't have a weakness. The only team with a top-five offense and defense, they are extremely versatile on both ends. They can switch on pretty much anything, thwarting all actions. Mikal Bridges is maybe the best perimeter defender in the league. DeAndre Ayton is a beast against the biggest of bigs in the middle and can handle himself on the perimeter.
Offensively, the Suns can play fast or late in the shot clock -- they're No. 2 in both half-court and transition offense. Chris Paul is still able to get wherever he wants off a simple high screen, they move the ball, and Devin Booker has become a knock-down 3-point shooter.
In the clutch? Forget about it. The Suns shoot 60 percent as a team when a game is within five points with five or fewer minutes to play. Booker and Paul are shooting 68 percent and 54 percent, respectively, on these clutch possessions. Those two getting to their midrange spot is among the most reliable offense in the league, so good luck out-executing Phoenix in a close game, and good luck blowing them out. If you are going to eliminate Phoenix, you are going to have to earn all four wins with minimal margin for error.
The Warriors are not a top-10 offense. That feels difficult to reconcile but it really comes down to two temporary factors: Stephen Curry went though the worst two-month shooting slump probably of his life, and Draymond Green, who organizes and dictates so much of what Golden State does in the half-court and transition, has been out for the last five weeks.
The Warriors don't put a lot of pressure on the rim that doesn't evolve from movement, which is harder to rely on in the postseason. Curry is the only truly reliable individual shot creator. I like Kevon Looney, but size is not a strength of this team. All of this shows to varying degrees on different nights.
Still, with all these relative struggles, or perhaps inconsistencies is the better way to put it, the Warriors have won seven of their last 10 and own the second-best record in the league, though their lead on No. 3 Memphis is down to two games in the loss column.
Curry's shot is starting to come around. He's creating more for himself and once again attacking the midrange (both huge positives). Klay Thompson looks like he'll be back to his old self by the postseason. Jonathan Kuminga is a potential playoff X-factor. Green coming back should re-solidify the Warriors as a top championship contender, though a slight notch below Phoenix in my book.
The Bucks have fallen to No. 5 in the East and have taken some full-strength losses that make you scratch your head. But they are 23-6 when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday actually play together. I do put the Bucks below Phoenix and slightly below the full-strength Warriors, and you could argue they belong in Tier 2 with all the rest of the virtually inseparable Eastern Conference contenders.
I'd feel a lot better if I knew whether Brook Lopez was actually going to come back and be the same player after back surgery, but Milwaukee did add an insurance policy in Serge Ibaka, who has all the makings of a player you thought was done only to watch him join a contender and seriously contribute. Pat Connaughton should be back in time to ramp up for the playoffs.
This would also help with the loss of Donte DiVincenzo:
The Milwaukee Bucks are closing in on signing free agent G/F DeAndre Bembry for the rest of the season, sources tell ESPN. The Nets waived Bembry to create roster space for the blockbuster trade with Sixers.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 15, 2022
At the end of the day, the Bucks have arguably the most dominant player in the world in Antetokounmpo. Middleton uses ball screens to get to his jumper as well as anyone in the league and he's a pull-up assassin. Holiday, as we've seen, can damn near swing a series by himself by harassing the other team's best perimeter scorer into a shell.
Bottom line: The Bucks are the defending champs. They get the benefit of the doubt that come playoff time they'll still be the team to beat in the East, if only by a margin about the size of the toe of Kevin Durant's shoe.
Tier 2: Knocking on the door
Philadelphia finally has the elite playmaker in James Harden that we've all long believed was its missing title-contending piece. Now the question becomes defense and shooting. Losing Ben Simmons hurts the first one, losing Seth Curry hurts the second one. That stuff becomes negligible, perhaps, if Harden plays at an All-NBA level every night. He didn't do that in Brooklyn. Was that situational? Was he tanking his way out of there. Or is he just not quite the same player?
I don't think it's the latter, but then again, I don't think Harden needs to be completely dominant. At the least he's going to be very good, and that is enough to open the floor for Embiid, who no longer has to battle with Simmons for space in the paint and has a legit scoring wingman to alleviate such a heavy late-game burden.
Half-court offense is no longer a problem for the Sixers. In fact, it's a major strength. That flips the calculus on everything.
Tyrese Maxey now becomes a secondary scorer-creator and a massive X-factor in the playoffs, which is the role he fits right now, rather than a guy who has to play at a championship level every night in his second season for his team to compete. If I knew that Harden was going to be consistently elite for the rest of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, I'd have the Sixers in that first tier. But I don't know that just yet.
If it comes down to Sixers-Bucks, I'll take the Bucks. If Giannis and Embiid cancel each other out, Holiday can make life miserable on Harden and give me Middleton over Tobias Harris eight days a week.
Miami has just about everything: No. 7 in offense, No. 6 in defense, No. 5 in net rating, and the top record in the Eastern Conference. The Heat have discovered through a bunch of unexpected absences this season that they are super deep. Percentage wise, they're the best 3-point shooting team in the league.
Pretty much everyone can put the ball on the floor and pass for Miami. It's a beautiful thing to watch them leverage the hard close outs aimed at containing their multiple shooters into swing and skip and kick-out passes for 3s. The Heat generate the sixth-most points off assists in the league.
In terms of being built specifically for the playoffs, Miami is loaded. Defensively, the Heat can switch everything. They have a big in Bam Adebayo who can thrive in any defensive setting; he might be overmatched against Embiid and/or Giannis, but who isn't? The Heat have multiple playmakers in Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro, all three of which can be trusted to initiate individual and late-game offense.
Herro, for my money, is the best shot creator on the team, and that's not a suggestion that Butler or Lowry has taken a step back. Herro is awesome and mentally built for the big stage. I do worry about Herro's defense in closing lineups, but Miami has enough, theoretically, to cover for him with a lineup of Lowry, Adebayo, Butler and P.J. Tucker, just as an example. Miami is absolutely for real and capable of beating any team in the Eastern Conference in a seven-game series.
Tier 3: Wild Cards
Brooklyn is the wildest wild card in the bunch. You have to completely remove from your thought process that they're currently the No. 8 seed and coming off an 11-game losing streak. Kevin Durant has been out for the last month, and Kyrie Irving has played in just 14 games (the Nets are 3-11 in those games, for what it's worth). Oh, and did I mention James Harden doesn't play for them anymore?
Enter Ben Simmons, who potentially fits much better than Harden with this team. In a perfect world, Simmons is defending and Durant is scoring and Irving is handling. That's a far more balanced plate than three score-first stars. Simmons should be a real weapon as a cutter and screener/roller; the paint will be more open for him with good spacing in Brooklyn and no Joel Embiid occupying his preferred real estate, and we know the attention Durant is going to draw.
Simmons can also rebound and push with shooters all over like he did in his first playoff run with with the Sixers, when they were one of the most fun teams to watch and seemed to have the makings of a perennial contender for years to come.
ben simmons on what his role will be like in brooklyn: "i try to compare it to my early seasons with jj redick, ersan ilyasova and marco belinelli, just the way we were flowing and playing."— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) February 15, 2022
Seth Curry wasn't just some throw-in for the Nets, either. This is one of the best shooters in the league who can knock down the midrange at Durant-like clips. Patty Mills. Irving and Durant. Maybe Joe Harris. Cam Thomas. LaMarcus Aldridge picking and popping. Simmons needs shooting all over and never quite had it in Philadelphia; now he does.
Curry isn't the scorer Harden is, but in terms of allowing Durant to operate 1 on 1, he's arguably more dangerous for a second defender to leave off the ball. You can live with a Harden 3. Curry will kill you. Maybe New York will lift its vaccine mandate, thus allowing Irving back full-time by the playoffs. If it all works, Brooklyn becomes a Tier 1 contender.
But there's a flip side to this coin. New York doesn't lift the mandate, Irving isn't back full-time, and now Durant is without a wingman scorer half the time. Simmons doesn't find his full rhythm and, even with better spacing, screws up the half-court flow. Durant winds up having to do too much and the Nets, again, fall a foot short against one of the Eastern Conference's many worthy foes. If the Nets even get out of the play-in tournament in the first place.
And that's the other thing. We'll see how it goes post All-Star, but there's a very real scenario in play where the Nets have to beat a Toronto and/or a Charlotte or Atlanta just for the right to play the Heat or Bucks or Sixers or Bulls in the first round. There's a pretty real chance this team doesn't get to the second round. But it could also win the whole thing and nobody would be terribly shocked.
This, of course, is dependent on Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning, which is sounding halfway realistic, particularly with Porter. If they both come back and can find even a decent rhythm, Denver is more than a sleeper contender: It might be the best team in the West, flat out.
Look at what this team was post trade deadline last season after the Aaron Gordon addition and before the Murray injury. That Nuggets team, in my mind, would've gone to the Finals. They were awesome. And Gordon has been pretty awesome again this season. In terms of perfect fits, that's one of the better deadline trades we've seen in a while.
When Nikola Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets play at an offensive rate that would qualify as No. 1 in the league with a top-five defensive rating. Jokic just doesn't have the weapons he needs around him. Will Barton can't be a primary guy on a contending team. But if Barton is in a bucket-getting bench role, now we're talking. Suddenly Denver's bench would go from a unit that just attempts to tread water in non-Jokic minutes to an actual threat with Murray or Porter teaming with Barton as second-unit anchors.
I am really hoping to see Murray and Porter back this season. Unlike most teams, the Nuggets have been together for years. That familiarity should allow them to rediscover their chemistry very quickly if the core comes back by mid-March. They wouldn't be the favorite, but they would throw a total wrench in the Western Conference power structure. Nobody would know exactly where to slot them, and regardless of seed, they would become a team that could absolutely get on a Finals run.
Tier 4: Long shots
This feels totally disrespectful to what the Bulls have accomplished to this point, hovering between the No. 1 and 2 seed in the East despite being without Lonzo Ball for the last month and Alex Caruso for the last three weeks. Zach LaVine missed almost two weeks in mid-January. The Bulls have played exactly .500 ball over their last 22 games but built up enough of a cushion to keep their place in the standings.
Early on, Chicago made its hay on the strength of the scrappy defense of Ball and Caruso creating turnovers and general chaos and turning that into transition points, and of course on the elite half-court scoring of LaVine and particularly DeMar DeRozan, who has been a top-5ish MVP candidate most of the season. DeRozan has scored at least 35 points on at least 50-percent shooting in each of his last six games. The last player to do that over six straight games was Wilt Chamberlain in 1963.
So why isn't Chicago in a higher tier? One, they don't match up with the Bucks or 76ers. They have nobody to even begin to guard Embiid or Antetokounmpo. So right away they are matchup dependent. But even if they avoid both those teams, I just don't think it's a realistic blueprint for DeRozan to play at this level throughout an entire four-series championship run.
The Bulls have to make a lot of hard, contested shots, and I've lost trust in Nikola Vucevic as a championship big man, even as a third option. His defense will be detrimental in every series. How many steals can Ball and Caruso generate? I don't see the Bulls getting enough stops or DeRozan continuing to play like Michael Jordan.
But I'm not ruling it completely out. It's not just DeRozan, after all. LaVine is a bonafide stud. There's an energy about this team when it's clicking that could well fuel a Hawks 2021 run, where the right matchups fall into place and the next thing you know you're two games from the Finals.
The LeBron James factor remains real. You just can't rule this guy out. There is a scenario in which LeBron controls everything and Anthony Davis rediscovers his Bubble shooting form on the fly that makes the Lakers dangerous.
There are lineups with Austin Reaves and Malik Monk alongside LeBron and AD that leave you thinking, "Man, all this talk about the Lakers stinking is overplayed," but the issue always becomes Russell Westbrook. Either Frank Vogel trims his minutes or he accidentally stumbles into a red-hot stretch. Either way, I'm just not going to rule out LeBron and AD going on a nuclear run. It's not likely. But it's not impossible.
Broken record time: The Jazz still have a small-ball problem. They can't credibly defend it, and they can't credibly match it on their end. Rudy Gobert has to be on the floor because Utah gets beat so much on the perimeter, but teams are going to pull him out of the paint at every opportunity.
Donovan Mitchell is an elite, playoff-proven scorer and Utah has shooting around him. They bomb away from 3. If they get hot, the offensive blueprint is there, but the lineup dilemma is too big an obstacle to label the Jazz as much more than a championship long shot.
Brad Stevens says this is the most dynamic defense he's been around, and if the Celtics were to make a run, that would be the foundation. But what makes them an honest dark horse in the postseason is their offensive upside. It's not consistent. It can get super stagnant. But Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can score at a championship level.
If they do, and the peripheral parts can shoot above their statistical profile, there's a scenario in which the Celtics pull a first-round upset and get the right matchup and ultimately ride that momentum into a conference finals berth. And if you get that far, you're at least a dark horse.