Top NBA contenders at the All-Star Break

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The Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.

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   As the all-star break comes to a close, teams are getting a feel for where they are at for how the second half of the season will turn out and who are real contenders. When looking at the Eastern and Western Conference standings, I have a good feel for who are real contenders this year. 

   While the Eastern conference is visibly weaker than the Western Conference, the Eastern conference has four teams that I can see in the finals serious contenders for the NBA Championship. These two teams have the best shot in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks as of right now are the best team in the Eastern conference without question and own the best record in the entire NBA with a 46-8 recond. The Bucks are led by the former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, guard/forward Khris Middelton, and point guard Eric Bledsoe. Giannis this year has been without question a stud and is looking like a top candidate to win the MVP award again. Giannis is a monster when driving to the bucket and when he goes to the paint to put the ball through the hoop, you better get out the way or you will be on his highlight reel. He leads the NBA in points in the paint, efficiency, and is tied for the most double-doubles with 43. He is fifth in rebounds with 13.5 per game and second in the NBA in points per game with 30. Khris Middleton, a top five player in the entire NBA in shooting percentage from the three and free throw line. Middleton averages a very respectable 20.4 points per game with 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Point guard Eric Bledsoe has been a great third option for the Bucks this year averaging 15.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. This Bucks team is also a team with a lot of depth and along with a great starting lineup. The team as a whole leads the league in points, rebounds, and is seventh in assists per game. The Bucks are having a superb season so far with no sight in slowing down after the break.

Toronto Raptors: The Raptors have proved doubters wrong so far this season after the departure of Kawhi Leonard sitting second in the Eastern Conference with a 40-15 record. They have been playing very well heading into the break winning fifteen and of the last sixteen games. The leader of the team is point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry has been consistent over the last five years and has been the same impact player this year. He’s averaging 19.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.6 assists. He is accompanied by a very talented rising star, Pascal Siakam. Siakam is the most talented piece on this team averaging 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and has been a top ten defender in defensive win shares. For those who don’t know what defensive win shares is, it’s a defensive rating of a player’s points allowed per 100 possessions. Another important part of this team is Fred VanVleet, who has been having a career year and needed to step up after Kawhi’s departure. He has been playing career highs in minutes played, points, rebounds, and assists. He has been taking more shots than ever and is shooting 41.2 percent from the field. The most impressive stat about VanVleet is that he sits fourth in the NBA in steals per game with 1.9. The Raptors have multiple solid pieces on this team and veteran bigs Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will be the keys to how far this team can go. This team is on a mission to prove the doubters wrong and still be a legitimate contender and will try to win back to back titles.

 

Now looking at the Western Conference, there are multiple teams that are legitimate contenders but it comes down to two teams in this conference as well.

Los Angeles Lakers: Looking at this team at the break, sitting in first place in the Western conference at 41-12, having the best duo and arguably both top five players in the league in LeBron James and Anthony Davis makes this team look championship ready. In his seventeenth year in the NBA, LeBron has been nothing but spectacular and is still a force to be reckoned with averaging  25 points, 10.8 assists, and 7.8 rebounds a game. At 35 years old, LeBron is the league leader in assists per game and is second in the league in fast breakpoints. His main partner in crime is Anthony Davis. Anthony is in the prime of his career and was traded to the Lakers in a huge deal that sent many young pieces and draft picks to the Pelicans. Anthony is in the midst of another great year putting up 26.6 points and 9.2 rebounds. While those two players are the stars of the team, this team as a whole plays well together putting up top ten numbers in points, rebounds, and assists as a team. The Lakers have many big bodies on the roster with the likes of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard. These guys are important to why the Lakers lead the league in second-chance points and second in points in the paint. Being able to shoot the ball from a close range is why this team is second in the league in offensive rating. How far this team can go will be dependent on the Lakers continuing to get second-chance points and use their length and height.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers sit third in the Western Conference with a record of 37-18. This team has one of the deepest lineups, if not the deepest in the NBA. The Clippers also have the two-headed monster duo: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The duo, however, hasn’t been together on the court very much this year due Paul’s hamstring injury. Kawhi also is on “load management.” Load management is when a team intentionally rests a player just to give him the night off. It’s been controversial around the NBA. Earlier in the season, the Clippers were fined $50,000 for head coach Doc Rivers’ comments regarding why Kawhi was not suiting up. The NBA said Rivers’ comments“were inconsistent with his health status,” according to USA today. The load management will help Kawhi and this team come playoff time and Kawhi’s body will feel more refreshed. When Kawhi is on the court he puts up 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. He is also a great defender with 1.8 steals per game and is a top-five player in the NBA. The bench depth of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams is fantastic and both are good enough to easily be starters on other teams. The Clippers rely on their bench heavily and it pays off. The bench is tied for most points per game off the bench with 50.8 and is fourth in the NBA in net rating. If the Clippers are at full strength by the playoffs and the continuance of play from the bench, they have the best shot at winning the NBA championship this year.