The 2016-17 NBA regular season is still in its infancy, but it’s never too early to start talking about the championship picture—particularly because the competitive landscape is now fairly predictable.
So, with that in mind, we’re going to break down the two juggernaut championship favorites from the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, along with one dark horse who stands a chance of dethroning them both.
For the past six years, the Eastern Conference champion has been determined by one question: Do you have LeBron James on your team?
Nothing has changed. That much is abundantly clear early on. The Cleveland Cavaliers remain head and shoulders above the rest of the East. Their collection of stars and efficient role players has yet to transcend James, which is a problem if he ever gets injured, but with him, they’re absolutely untouchable.
Everything about this team is a reflexive success; they are a well-oiled machine. LeBron James flirts with triple-doubles nightly; Kevin Love has bought into his role as a spot-up sniper and rebounder; Kyrie Irving is taking up the mantle as their go-to scorer; Iman Shumpert is busting his butt defensively; Tristan Thompson crashes the glass and dives toward the basket; and J.R. Smith and Channing Frye fire catch-and-shoot like it’s nobody’s business.
This is balance unlike we have ever seen from the Cavaliers. If anyone other than them is representing the East in the NBA Finals, it will be a true upset.
Although things didn’t start off so smoothly for the Golden State Warriors, they have officially hit their stride.
Which is bad news for the rest of the league.
It was only a matter of time before this team became a terror. The Warriors, remember, took the skeleton of a 73-win team and added Kevin Durant to it. And that’s absolutely nuts—especially now that everyone has figured out how to play on the same team.
Stephen Curry and Durant aren’t having any trouble splitting shots; Klay Thompson has struck a balance between featured scorer and contributor, and Draymond Green no longer looks confused.
Defense is the team’s only weakness. And yet, the Warriors’ league-best offense is so good, it doesn’t matter that much.
Any team that isn’t the Cavaliers or Warriors must be considered a dark horse. Had we singled out one before the season, it would have been the San Antonio Spurs, or maybe one of the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.
But the Los Angeles Clippers have exploded. The Big Three of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan is healthy and humming, and they’ve cobbled together an all-bench lineup that helps mitigate the damage done by head coach Doc Rivers’ decision to not stagger the minutes of his stars.
With a top-five offense and defense, plus almost as much star power as either Cleveland or Golden State, the Clippers, while a championship long shot, look to have emerged as the perfect dark horse.