The NBA Landscape approaching the playoffs
With the NBA regular season progressing rapidly, the Western and Eastern Conferences are starting to produce frontrunners.
As the NBA playoff picture becomes clear, some teams have hit their stride at the perfect time while others are starting to fall off the radar. The Western Conference has produced some of the most dominant teams throughout the NBA, but the Eastern Conference is shaping up to have a more competitive finish to the season.
The Phoenix Suns have been a wrecking ball all season; with a well-rounded veteran like Chris Paul and an exciting young core out of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, the Suns are real title contenders. They currently bolster the best record in the NBA at 57–14 and show no signs of slowing down. With the help of their coach Monty Williams, the Suns were able to piece together a finals run last season, but fell short to the Milwaukee Bucks. This year looks different for Phoenix, though;.They are playing with the confidence of a championship team and have a commanding nine-game advantage over the second western conference team, the Memphis Grizzlies.
Memphis has definitely exceeded some expectations, and with Ja Morant playing like the superstar the organization believed he was when they selected him second overall in the 2019 draft, they could cause some havoc in postseason play. This would be the first playoffs that Morant has ever played in, and since he is still young for his NBA career, the shift from the regular season to the postseason could prove to be a tough adjustment for him. On top of that, the Grizzlies have the second youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 24. The question remains, does this team need the experience in order to win in the postseason?
Rounding out the Western Conference contenders are the Golden State Warriors led by one of the sharpest shooters in NBA history, Steph Curry. The Warriors are back, and they look hungrier than ever – it almost feels like the NBA has been transported back a couple of years. After a few disappointing seasons, the Warriors are starting to find their rhythm again. Adding Klay Thompson back to the line-up gave Curry his splash brother back and re-established the classic big three in the Bay: Draymond Green, Curry, and Thompson. Unfortunately, in last Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics, Curry sustained a sprained left foot ligament. He will be re-evaluated in two weeks, and hopes to make a return for the playoffs.
Looking towards the Eastern Conference, the picture is a lot less defined than their Western counterparts. While the Miami Heat are currently leading the conference, last year's champions are on their heels. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals last year, and finally brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Milwaukee after 50 long years. They kept a good amount of their core from last season, and will look to repeat the success they found last season. Although Antetokounmpo has remained his dominant self, it’ll be interesting to see the different game plans teams use to lessen his blow.
Following the pack is the Philadelphia 76ers, who have now added former MVP James Harden to an already solid line-up. Much of the media about the 76ers was focused on the fallout between the organization and Ben Simmons. Simmons, a part of the Harden trade, is still looking to make his debut with the Brooklyn Nets, who currently sit at number eight in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers have looked comfortable with this trade, as the Harden-Embiid duo is one of the scariest in the league.
The Boston Celtics recently passed the Chicago Bulls to claim the four seed in the East due to 12–3 winning rampage over the last 15 games. The Celtics have been one of the hottest teams in the entire NBA, ranking number one in the East for point differential at +5.5. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have experienced the playoffs before, even making it to the Eastern Conference Championship in 2018 and 2020 but losing both. Will their new coach, Ime Udoka, finally be able to take them over the hump?
While the Eastern Conference title contenders are still under great discussion, the Western Conference has started to produce a clearer picture. The Suns, Grizzlies, and Warriors are looking incredibly strong and starting to pull in the title conversation. Both LA teams have struggled, although seemingly having some of the strongest rosters in the NBA. With some of the usual contenders having a rough year, the Western Conference has opened up, and these three teams are enjoying the limelight.
A lot of questions are yet to be answered surrounding the top teams in the east. Are the Nets gonna come alive when postseason hits? Was the Cleveland Cavaliers success a fever dream? Are the Heat getting the respect they deserve? Can the Bulls contend with the bigger named teams? These questions could be argued for hours with no solution in site, but the postseason is a tell-all. No matter who makes the playoff or at what seed, this postseason is set to be a thrilling one.