This year seems like any one of 10 teams, if everything breaks right, could win the NBA championship. It’s crazy. But we’ve narrowed it down to the five teams we think have the best chance.
How did we choose our five?
We looked at three sources of information. The Las Vegas betting favorites, according to BetMGM, because the people matter! FiveThirtyEight’s title odds, because we like to take into account current play, injuries, etc. Finally DunksandThrees aNET rating, because we want a full sample of which teams relative to their opponents have performed the best this season.
As you can imagine we had a number of different teams from all three sources. Taking the top five teams according to each metric gave us 10 different teams. Only one team appeared in the top five on all three sites. The league-leading Phoenix Suns. We took the remaining teams that appeared the most frequently, and for our final team we went with the people.
While these five teams are the most likely to win in our estimation, they all have a fatal flaw that can be exploited and prevent them from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
1. Phoenix Suns
The Suns have the best record in the league at 49-12, they are No. 1 in aNET with a top five offense and defense, the only team in the league with that distinction. FiveThirtyEight has them tied (more on who they are tied with later) with the best chance at winning the Finals (16 percent), and they are tied with the Golden State Warriors as betting favorites to win it all at +450.
Last year’s runner-ups are even better this season and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they are crowned champions in June.
Their All-NBA point guard and leader Chris Paul is out for the rest of the regular season, but should be back in time for the playoffs. His health could be their fatal flaw, but we want to look at something more specific.
Assuming they have their full roster, secondary and tertiary shot creation is this team’s fatal flaw. You might be asking yourself, how could a team ranked third in aORTG with Paul, Devin Booker, and DeAndre Ayton struggle on offense?
In the playoffs there are no bad teams, and you play the same team at least four times over the course of a week to 10 days. Scouting goes to an entirely different level in the postseason. Walk into an NBA locker room before a regular season game and you see a white board with some bullet points. Before a playoff game, players have binders stacked with info.
It’s just different.
If the Suns run into a team with size and length that can really bother the Point God, his shot creation for himself will be limited. He’ll always find a way to create for others, because that’s his super power. But for the Suns to win it all he will have to score more than he does during the regular season, and scoring over length is extremely difficult. We saw what the Bucks did the last four games of the 2021 NBA Finals.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The defending champs have been sort of on cruise control all season. They’re 10th in aNET, tied with the Denver Nuggets for the third best chance at winning the Finals (13 percent), and have the fourth-best odds to win it all, according to Las Vegas at +650.
The Bucks have the reigning Finals MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s a top MVP candidate this season, and a defensive player of year candidate as well. He’s a rising tide that lifts all ships.
However the team’s defense has slipped. That’s not because of Giannis. That’s due to the absence of Brook Lopez. With Lopez and Giannis on the floor the Bucks mashed teams on the defensive glass. Playing good defense and holding your opponent to one shot is a recipe for success. They also miss Lopez on the offensive glass, as extra possessions demoralizes your opponents on defense.
Lopez allows Giannis to be a roaming weak side disruptor. Two 7-footers makes paint scoring pretty difficult. If Lopez isn’t himself come playoffs, and who knows, because he had back surgery, that makes the Bucks more susceptible on defense, and the right opponent can exploit that.
3. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are second in aNET, have the ninth-best chance at winning the Finals (3 percent), but are the betting co-favorites (Suns) to win it all at +450.
When you have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green healthy you’ve got a chance. This core has won three NBA titles and play off one another with sublime brilliance. David Thorpe of TrueHoop refers to the Warriors offense as the Cuisinart. A system of constant cutting, screening actions, and ball movement that leaves defenses helpless.
Though they’ve been just ON on offense this year (13th in aORTG), they’ll be just fine come playoffs. Defense is their fatal flaw. How could this be? They are ranked No. 1 in aDRTG.
This is true but based off the work they did in the early part of the season when they were playing like a juggernaut and Green was healthy. He hasn’t played since Jan. 5 as he deals with a back soreness that’s caused a calf issue. The Warriors have struggled on both ends as a result.
When he returns they will be elite again on defense, but how will Green match up against the big bruising centers like Ayton and Nikola Jokic? Green has made a career off allowing the Warriors to go small by playing center, forcing opponents who are not equipped to do the same.
Kevon Looney is a fine player, but will have trouble with Ayton and Jokic. When the Warriors go small with Draymond at the 5, the Suns and maybe a possibly healthy Nuggets team can exploit the size mismatch.
4. Boston Celtics
Can you believe it? A team that started the season 10-10 with Marcus Smart calling out Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Critics were questioning if first-year head coach Ime Udoka was the right man for the job. This is all a reminder that the NBA season is long.
The Celtics are ranked fourth in aNET. Vegas has them with the eighth-best odds but a longshot at +1800, and FiveThirtyEight has them tied with the Suns for the best chance at winning the title (16 percent).
The Celtics are the second-ranked defense in the league, mere hundredths of a point behind the Warriors. Plus they have two elite shot creators in Brown and Tatum. That’s a recipe for a deep playoff run.
But, they struggle as a team to create easy baskets. That’s due to the heavy isolation from the two aforementioned players. You need elite one-on-one scoring to win in the playoffs, but if the other team knows that’s the only offense they have to worry about, you become easy to defend.
The Celtics are 18th in aORTG. How do they generate enough scoring on nights when Brown and Tatum don’t have it going?
5. Philadelphia 76ers
The final team choice was tough as we debated the 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. Ultimately we went with the people. Vegas has the 76ers with the fourth-best odds at +700. They have the sixth best chance of winning the Finals (10 percent) according to FiveThirtyEight, and they’re 11th in aNET.
The reasons why they can win is because they have the likely league MVP or runner-up in Joel Embiid, who is a monster, and they traded for James Harden, who is suddenly playing like an All-NBA MVP candidate again. Guess those hamstrings are all better now …
Throughout the history of the NBA, a dominant big man and dominant perimeter player has spelled success. Even in this new age of basketball it still works.
But the 76ers lack depth and wing shooting. They lost backup center Andre Drummond in the deal to get Harden, and though he didn’t play all season, Ben Simmons also played backup center while he was in Philly. The team also lost sharpshooter Seth Curry in the trade.
Embiid and Harden are great and might be the best one-two combo in the league. But they can’t play 48 minutes a night in the playoffs. They have injury histories, and a compounded workload in the stress of the playoffs without competent relief doesn’t bode well.
Not to mention defensively Harden needs to be in a switch scheme. You don’t play switch with Embiid on the floor. When a good team goes small and attacks Harden, what’s the counter? Head coach Doc Rivers has his work cut out for him.
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