Benjamin Gottschalk | Staff Writer
Feb. 16, 2023
After some big splashes during the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s trade deadline, the power has shifted toward some teams and shied away from others. And as the league’s All-Star Weekend gets underway, the time comes to analyze what teams are serious threats and which are pretenders.
In the Eastern Conference, there are four genuine contenders for a championship. One is the Boston Celtics (42-17). After falling to the Golden State Warriors in last season’s NBA Finals, the Celtics entered this season as the title favorite, and they’ve been living up to the hype.
Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, it is no surprise that the Celtics have picked up right where they left off last season. With the duo combining for an average of 57.0 points per game, there is no reason to believe that their dominance will stop any time soon.
Next come the Milwaukee Bucks (40-17), led by two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s showing no sign of slowing down as the Bucks sit on an 11-game win streak. Averaging a double-double of 32.5 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game, Antetokounmpo is making a serious case for a third MVP this season.
Not far behind are the Philadelphia 76ers (38-19). With superstar center Joel Embiid posting a double-double of 33.2 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game, and James Harden averaging the league’s most assists per game this year with 10.8, the 76ers have a tandem that could rival just about anyone in the Eastern Conference.
One of the biggest sleepers of the season has been the Cleveland Cavaliers (38-23). With an established young core made up of 2022 All-Stars – Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen – and 2022 Rookie of the Year runner-up Evan Mobley, the Cavs were in search of a superstar in the offseason. They acquired Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz in September and instantly became a contender. The Cavs recently had a seven-game win streak, yet are still flying under the radar.
The Western Conference is much more closely contested. The conference’s fourth through eighth seeds are all within a game-and-a-half of each other, but there are two clear frontrunners. At 41-18, the Denver Nuggets hold the West’s best record, and the two-time reigning MVP is arguably having his best season to date in Denver. Averaging a triple-double Nikola Jokic is leading his team, alongside Jamal Murray, to a potential top seed.
The Memphis Grizzlies (35-22) are the other serious contender in the West, and it is all thanks to the emergence of Ja Morant as a superstar. Morant, averaging a team-best 27.5 points per game, is having a career year, and with a solid team around him, it has led to success so far for the Grizzlies. Morant, alongside Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., has been dominating opposition.
The Sacramento Kings (32-25) have arguably been the league’s biggest surprise this season. A team that hasn’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2005-06 is currently the third seed in the Western Conference. De’Aaron Fox (24.8 points per game) and Domantas Sabonis (18.8 points per game, 12.3 rebounds per game) has been a lethal combination this season. The Kings are a slept-on team and have the potential to be a big surprise come playoff time.
The two teams who made the biggest splashes during the trade deadline were two that have had deep runs in the past two postseasons, but are not living up to the hype this season. They are the Phoenix Suns (32-27) and the Dallas Mavericks (31-29), who each acquired a star from the Brooklyn Nets.
The Suns got Kevin Durant and paired him with a team that has already proven they can go far. The quartet of Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton has the potential and experience to win a championship.
The Mavericks have been seeking a superstar to pair with Luka Doncic for some time now, and at the trade deadline, they finally found their second superstar, Kyrie Irving. Doncic is also making a case in the MVP race, Putting Irving alongside an already-dominant Doncic will create a nightmare for opposing defenders.
Arriving at All-Star Weekend is a sign that the regular season is winding down. There a handful of teams who are already proving that they’ll be more-than-capable threats to cut down the nets in June.