Contrary to what they may say publicly, the bulk of NBA players, especially the superstars, would love to win the MVP award. This doesn’t make them bad people; it simply makes them human. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the same thing; it’s always nice to be rewarded for one’s excellence. Yet, just because it feels good to be recognized for one’s hard work and dedication, it hardly makes it the ultimate prize. Basketball is, after all, a team game.
As nice as individual awards are, any player’s primary goal is to win a championship. With less than a month to go in the 2016–17 regular season, the distinction between the pretenders and the contenders is more clear than ever. In fact, according to the latest Vegas odds, one team is heavily favored to take home the 2017 NBA Championship. And to be honest, it’s not even close. Take a look for yourself.
8. (tie) Utah Jazz
These aren’t the Utah Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton, but that doesn’t make them any less legit. Led by first-time All-Star Gordon Hayward, who’s averaging 21.8 points per game, and defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, Utah is limiting the opposition to 96.7 points per game (first of 30) and has the third-best defensive rating (105.1) in the NBA.
Sure, this group is just 5-5 in its last 10 games. However, at 45-29 on the year, the Jazz currently hold the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. If you ask us, it would be a mistake to overlook them.
8. (tie) Toronto Raptors
In the 2015–16 season, the Toronto Raptors proved to be one of the most formidable teams in the NBA. Led by the All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors went 56-26, won the Atlantic Division, and earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Despite all the progress made by the team in the North, Toronto came up short in the Conference Finals; they fell four games to two to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the Raptors have taken a step back in 2016–17, they still remain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They’re putting up 107.2 points per game (ninth of 30), hold the fifth-best offensive rating (112.4) in the league, and sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 45-29 record. The odds may be stacked against them, but with Lowry and DeRozan leading the way, anything’s possible.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Despite going 53-29 during the 2015–16 regular season, finishing fourth in the Western Conference, and looking like a legitimate title contender heading into the postseason, the Los Angeles Clippers did what they usually do: They fell apart. Sure, you can chalk the club’s first-round exit up to injuries. It doesn’t change the fact the Clips failed to meet expectations. Fortunately, the 2016–17 seasons offers a chance for redemption.
With Doc Rivers at the helm; one of the best point guards in the NBA in Chris Paul continuing to run the show (when he’s healthy); and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan using their combined size and athleticism to overpower the opposition, there’s no reason to think LA can’t, once again, compete for an NBA championship. Of course, given how competitive the Western Conference is, if the Clippers fail to bring their “A” game, then we expect it’ll be another quick playoff exit for this group.
6. Washington Wizards
Thanks to the tone set by the dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards are one of the hottest NBA teams. This group has the ninth-best offensive rating in the league at 111.0, is putting up an impressive 109.2 points per game (fifth of 30), and has won its last three contests. With a record of 45-28, Washington currently owns the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference. It’s clear these Wizards mean business.
5. Boston Celtics
How does a team that finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 48-34 record suddenly earn a place among the top title contenders for the 2017 NBA Championship? Simple, it makes a major splash in free agency. By signing power forward Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million max contract, the Celtics showed the league that they are legit; that Boston is a place where superstars want to play. And it has paid off in a big way.
Boston, like Washington, is one of the hottest teams in the league. The C’s are 8-2 in their last 10 games, have one of the premier closers in the NBA in point guard Isaiah Thomas (29.1 PPG), and are now in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 48-26 record. The Celtics are a confident bunch, and that should scare the rest of the NBA.
4. Houston Rockets
After a disappointing seasons in 2015–16, the Houston Rockets are, once again, near the top of the standings in the Western Conference. Now that James Harden runs the point, where’s he’s averaging an NBA-best 11.3 assists per game to go along with 29.4 points a night, the Rockets have the best offensive rating (115.4) in the league and are putting up 115.8 points per game (second of 30). This change of pace, literally and figuratively, has resulted in a 51-22 mark, the third-best in the Western Conference.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Although it was hardly surprising, the announcement of Tim Duncan’s retirement still made a major impact. That’s what happens when arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game decides to call it a career. No matter what happens, the San Antonio Spurs can never replace the Big Fundamental. It’s impossible. Still, this hasn’t prevented the Spurs from contending in 2016–17.
Behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio is limiting the opposition to just 98.1 points per game (second of 30) while holding the second-best record in the Western Conference at 57-16. Head coach Gregg Popovich’s squad is more than capable of challenging for an NBA title. Vegas certainly agrees.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers are not the favorites to take home the 2017 NBA Championship, but they still have something — or rather someone — that sets them apart from the rest of the NBA: LeBron James. As everyone already knows, this future Hall of Famer is the ultimate difference-maker.
Led by the King, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs are putting up 110 points per game (fourth of 30). And yet, this group has struggled mightily since the All-Star Break, and now finds itself in second place in the East Conference with a 47-26 record. If the Cavs hope to stand any chance of repeating, they need to get out of this funk — and fast.
1. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors may have blown a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, but they rebounded in a major way this past offseason, signing superstar Kevin Durant in free agency. And if you thought the Dubs were scary before, that’s nothing compared to a lineup featuring KD, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and two-time league MVP Stephen Curry.
Golden State has the top record in the NBA (59-14), leads the league in points per game (115.9), and has the second-best offensive (115.4) and defensive (103.8) ratings in the game. Even with KD’s recent injury, the Warriors have a chance to be the best offensive team in NBA history. At this rate, it’s hard to bet against the Dubs.