We are in the final stretch of the regular season and things are spicing up as teams prepare for another blockbuster summer of play-in and playoff action.
We have taken a look at both conferences, exploring which franchises stand to dominate proceedings, and which we expect to fall short.
The Boston Celtics are on top, that much is clear. They have been the best team in the league virtually all season, ranking top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Even with recent injuries causing a small blip in form, the frontcourt power of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has kept them in pole position.
What does that mean for their playoff ambitions? Well, hopefully, a more successful stab at becoming champions than last year’s stint. This time around, there’s not even any guarantee that Stephen Curry or the Golden State Warriors will be there to stop them.
Add in a roster that runs deep with versatile players for head coach Joe Mazzulla to rotate with and you can expect consecutive appearances in the finals.
The same applies to the Milwaukee Bucks, in a slightly different principle. Although they have had a worse time of injury absences, that did not stop them from progressing far in the postseason last year. They did that without defensive stalwart Khris Middleton, and he’s since made a resurgent return.
Will their talisman Giannis Antetokounmpo remain fit? The ‘Greek Freak’ has been managing a wrist sprain and recently had to leave a game prematurely due to knee troubles. That could be the deciding factor in whether their post-season trek is fruitful.
For Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, that should not be a concern. The Sixers have had him back on court alongside Harden, and Tyrese Maxey for the second half of the season, and they offer opposing defences a devastating pick-and-roll combination.
There are still some areas to pad out. The 76ers do not have the deepest roster, and that could become one-player light if Harden chooses to hop franchises once he becomes a free agent this summer.
Still, they should be able to easily make the playoffs without too much chaos. The same cannot be said for the Brooklyn Nets.
The choice to move on from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving has left them in a completely different state from where they were three months ago. They now have Mikal Bridges leading the attack on the perimeter, who they brought into the starting five after trading with the Phoenix Suns.
With Spencer Dinwiddie, Cameron Johnson, and Cam Thomas making up the rest of the attack, the Nets will have a real challenge on their hands jostling for positioning alongside the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Further down the standings, things get a little more intriguing. The Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors are occupying the eighth, ninth, and 10th spots in the East, all within three games of a potential upset.
The Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons, in their transformative eras, will miss out and set their eyes on the lottery trade.
The West has been wild this season, and it goes without saying the Denver Nuggets seem to be shooting their way to the finals.
In the past two seasons, they have not had any real depth, what with key starters Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. recovering from long-term injuries.
But that’s all in the past now. Murray and MPJ are healthy, Nikola Jokic is eyeing up a historic third straight MVP, and Michael Malone’s side is ready for a deep playoff run.
Elsewhere in the West, there are other pretenders to the throne. The Memphis Grizzlies lead the charge with Ja Morant and his declaration he and his team will be “fine”.
If they are not able to build on Saturday night’s victory over the Nuggets, then that statement holds no power. Indeed, they were 4-10 on either side of the All-Star break, before last night’s 112-94 win snapped that streak.
They should at least make the playoffs, but what will be the consensus if they are eliminated in the first round?
Joining them in the hunting pack are the revamped Phoenix Suns, led by Durant and the returning Devin Booker. Once they get going, they should really get going.
The Los Angeles Clippers will hope that their attacking duo of Kawhi Leonard-Paul George can also make a finals breakthrough in the fourth season of playing together.
That leaves the Dallas Mavericks with the option of using their new-look, deadly duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to make a late dash for the play-in tournament. The league’s most explosive one-two scoring punch expects themselves to do so, but that leaves us one franchise short: the Warriors.
Curry might still be recovering from a knee injury, but even with him in the ranks, the Dubs are not the same team that won the championship last year. Even if they did claim the final play-in spot, there’s no guarantee they will be able to do much with it.
Combine this with the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, and Portland Trail Blazers are lurking nearby, and Steve Kerr will need to rally his players for the fight to come.
The teams set to miss out will then be the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs…and the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s a tough blow to LeBron James’ hopes and dreams. But with Anthony Davis’ dubious injury record and their upcoming schedule proving to be dogged, we don’t expect them to make the cut.