With the All-Star break behind us, the NBA season really hots up from here on in.
Currently, there are three types of teams – the title contenders, the teams making a push to sneak into the playoffs and the rest, who are simply hoping to develop their squad without winning too many games.
A draft pick is all the bottom teams are concerned with now.
So, let’s look at the teams who are up to the challenge from the Eastern Conference.
ATLANTA – The Hawks have undoubtedly been the surprise packet of the NBA season.
Still – despite sitting atop the Eastern standings – many are left querying the credentials of this team.
Their roster lacks a superstar who can score 50 points on any given night but no less than four players (Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Al Horford and Paul Millsap) made the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
It would take a catastrophic collapse for the Hawks to miss out on the top seeding in the East, meaning they will have home court advantage over every team in the playoffs.
And with a 30-4 home court record, it will take a mighty effort to see them beaten on their home court.
CHICAGO – Three years ago, Derrick Rose was the NBA’s premier point guard and was destined to lead Chicago to greatness not seen since the Michael Jordan days.
His knees had other ideas, though and the Bulls have had to gallantly battle through the past seasons without their former league MVP.
Health, once again, is the key to any hopes the Bulls may have of taking the NBA’s crown.
Rose must stay healthy throughout the pre-season, All-Star centre Joakim Noah must return to his Defensive Player of the Year award-winning best and down the stretch, coach Tom Thibodeau must get his players some rest to ensure his team heads into a long playoff series fully healthy and relatively fresh.
CLEVELAND – Whenever you have the best player in the world you are somewhat of a chance to win it all.
Despite James Harden and Stephen Curry’s push for this year’s MVP award, LeBron James is still the premier basketball player on the planet.
What the Cavaliers had hoped for though, was the maturation and growth of Kyrie Irving.
With and without James on the hardwood, Irving has shown glimpses of sheer brilliance, twice dropping 50+ points.
His natural ability to score takes the pressure off James whilst the mid-season acquisition of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov has revitalised the slow-starting Cavs.
Mozgov will be crucial inside as the Cavs potentially face Horford, Pau Gasol, Roy Hibbert and Washington’s combination of Nene and Marcin Gortat.
And I didn’t even mention Kevin Love, a perennial All-Star and 20-10 performer.
INDIANA – For mine, Indiana are making up the numbers unless one thing changes – and it may.
Paul George is nearing a return to NBA basketball and him anything close to his best makes the Pacers a tough team to deal with.
Admittedly Lance Stephenson is gone but we have seen how tough it was for Miami to get past them with a fit and firing George leading the charge.
Expecting triple-doubles from the swingman is a bit much but with improved performances from David West, Solomon Hill and Hibbert, no one will wants to deal face Indy for seven games.
TORONTO – The Canadian’s began the season is white-hot form and earned a hefty lead atop the Conference standings but when All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan missed significant time, the Raptors came back to the pack.
Currently sitting in third place, home court is theirs to lose for round one but they would want to get back to the early season form.
They are 3-7 in their past 10 games at time of writing.
Toronto has a three-headed monster in the backcourt with All-Star Kyle Lowry, DeRozan and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams providing bunch scoring off the bench.
WASHINGTON – Like Toronto, the Wizards began the season in rare touch but have had to endure some injuries to key players as well as a severe drop away in form.
Emerging guard Bradley Beal has had more troubles with his leg and will need to be closely monitored until the playoffs begin.
Nene and Gortat provide the Wiz with an inside presence that not many other teams possess whilst John Wall is a proven big-time performer who will be called upon the take this squad deep into the playoffs.
Savvy veteran Paul Pierce is the X-factor in all this as he can step up and score 25 points on any given night.
WHO WINS THROUGH?
IF the playoffs were to being today, I would take the Hawks, Cavaliers, Raptors to get through round one easily whilst Washington should get hot enough to scrape past the ailing Bulls in a long, tough series which will be decided by Wall’s brilliance versus Rose’s ill-health.
Whether or not they win home court, Cleveland would defeat Toronto whilst the Hawks will continue to defy and win through the Eastern Finals.
As much as it has been refreshing to see Atlanta’s team-first ethos and dominance throughout the regular season, the NBA is all about superstars and Cleveland have three to the Hawks zero.
King James will be his scoring, passing, rebounding, defending dominant self whilst Irving can light it up in a heartbeat and I firmly believe we will all see the best of Kevin Love come playoff time.
Come back in the next few days when we look at who might face Cleveland in the NBA Finals.