This has been one of the most entertaining regular seasons that the NBA has seen in quite some time. There are stakes for almost every team over the last couple weeks of the regular season, so most teams will be motivated to finish strong ahead of the playoffs. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are seen as the team to beat in the Western Conference although they won’t finish in the top four, while the Brooklyn Nets are the favorites in the Eastern Conference after acquiring James Harden early in the year.
Team to Beat – Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers were in contention for the top spot in the Western Conference before the injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Lakers struggled with their two superstars out of the lineup for several weeks, leading to them stumbling in the standings. They are now dueling with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers to avoid the play-in round, and if they finished behind those two teams, they might have a hard time defending their title.
There’s no doubt that this team has the highest ceiling in the Western Conference despite the mediocre regular season. Davis is one of the best big men in the NBA, and James is still playing at an elite level despite being 36 years old. Montrezl Harrell was a great addition in the offseason and picking up Andre Drummond shortly after the deadline gives this team a lot of size. The guard play isn’t great, but James has thrived as the set-up man for this offense.
Biggest Challenge – Utah Jazz
The No. 1 seed in the Western Conference is likely to be either the Utah Jazz or the Phoenix Suns. Utah is a far more dangerous team in the playoffs though considering how the Jazz play defense. They rank first or second in the NBA in most defensive categories, and both the interior and perimeter defense are elite.
Rudy Gobert will be out to make amends after his last postseason was subpar, and the guard play is strong. Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson have all shined at points this season, and Bojan Bogdanovic can be a real difference maker.
Team to Beat – Brooklyn Nets
We haven’t seen the Brooklyn Nets make it out of the second round of the playoffs in almost two decades, but they are the most likely team to come out of the Eastern Conference given the star power on the roster. Although Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have all missed significant amounts of time due to injury this season, Brooklyn has kept pace with Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the standings.
Durant and Irving are healthy and playing at a high level, while Harden is expected to be ready for the playoffs. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan give the Nets size off the bench, and role players like Joe Harris have taken on larger roles when necessary.
Biggest Challenge – Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid was the frontrunner to win the NBA MVP this season before he missed almost all of March due to injury. Embiid played just three games in the month of March, but he has been able to stay healthy for most of this year. He has proven that he is the most dominant center in the Eastern Conference, and Embiid can take over the game for long stretches.
Philly has a secondary star in Ben Simmons, and he is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. Simmons has yet to develop a shooter’s touch, and might never develop it at this point, but he does so many other things that make him valuable. The Sixers have three players making at least 40% of their threes too in Tobias Harris, Danny Green, and Seth Curry.