Previewing the NBA Playoffs and the contenders

With the postseason of the NBA fast approaching, the competition looks stiffer than it has been for the past four years. After LeBron James left Miami to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the league would seem to be without a superpower capable of constantly threatening for a title. However, with the emergence of several teams in the league – most notably the Golden State Warriors – the open playoff competition looks like it is going to be as exciting as ever.

Although the Eastern Conference has not seen the success it has in the past over the course of the year, there are still a couple legitimate contenders. The Atlanta Hawks have taken the league by surprise this year and top the conference with the second best record in the entire league. After bottoming out last season the Cleveland Cavaliers are another contender with the return of LeBron James. While these two teams might be in a weak conference, they are not to be taken lightly, and either team could end up holding the trophy come the end of the NBA Finals.

With a season that might be the best in franchise history, the Hawks have amassed a 57-19 record with their incredibly effective system, put in place by coach of the year contender Mike Budenholzer. The team is led by a starting five that won the player of the month together in February, as all five are so incredibly effective and equally significant to recognize one player for their success. Among the topmost efficient teams in the league on both offense and defense, Atlanta sports a team full of versatile scorers who spread the floor with their shooting and uses the space to get to the basket. At the same time – on the other end of the court – they own one of the stingiest defenses in the league, anchored by the all-stars Paul Millsap and Al Horford. After dominating the regular season, the Hawks are looking to make a splash in the upcoming NBA playoffs.

While the Atlanta Hawks function off of their incredibly efficient system and roster balance, the Cleveland Cavaliers function off of their superstars and supporting cast. While they might have failed to mesh early on in the season, after a few trades and some time to adjust to each other’s games, Cleveland has been one of the most dominant teams of the NBA’s second half of the season. Cleveland’s “big three” of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have been incredible offensively, and with the additions of Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, the defense has been coming around as well. If the Cavs’ superstars can continue to harmonize on and off the court, they might be one of the most difficult teams to beat.

Where the really interesting competition lies is in the Western Conference. With contenders from the first to eighth seed, the field is wide open – one would think. However, after a historic season, the Golden State Warriors seem to be the favorites to win it all. Determined to defy father time and continue their dynasty, the San Antonio Spurs are – as always – a legitimate contender. The Houston Rockets have one of the favorites to win MVP this season in James Harden, and with Dwight Howard coming back from missing extended time injured, they look intimidating.

The Rockets have faced several injuries to key players this season, most notably their superstar center Dwight Howard and their defensive savant of a point guard in Patrick Beverly. While their team has been working short-staffed, James Harden has been making up for it and more. One of the favorites to win the MVP, Harden has put up incredible numbers, leading the Rokcets to the second-best record in the best conference in the league almost singlehandedly. If Harden can keep up this incredible play and if Dwight Howard can come in and play at an elite level immediately, the Rockets are a real threat to win it all.

The San Antonio Spurs, led by one of the best trios in the history of the game – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – a young budding superstar in Kawhi Leonard, and one of the best supporting casts in the game, are back for another. The Spurs have exceeded 50 wins in a season for the past 16 seasons in a row while winning 5 championships, including last season’s. One of the best dynasties the game has ever seen, coached by perhaps the best coach ever in Gregg Popovich, the Spurs should never be left out of contender consideration.

The best team in the game by far this season has been the Golden State Warriors. Second in the league in offensive efficiency and first in the league in defensive efficiency, the Warriors are the cream of the crop. The “Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are one of the best shooting duos of all time, devastating their opponents with a relentless barrage of three pointers. The Warriors sport a deep and versatile bench that could probably be a winning starting five, and one of the best defensive players in the league with breakout star Draymond Green. Golden State dominates in every area of the game, and is setting a new franchise record for wins in a season. If any team would be considered the favorite to take home the trophy, it would be the Golden State Warriors.

The playoffs are a whole new competition this year, with a deep and compelling collection of contenders. While none of these teams should be underestimated, if the Golden State Warriors continue their incredible dominance, very few teams might be capable of stopping them.

All statistics from espn.com and nba.com

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