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Friday, September 20, 2019

Ranking the top 10 NBA contenders post-trade deadline

Joel Embiid 76ers

The NBA trade deadline has passed, which means we more or less know what teams will look like in the NBA playoffs. There will be a few new faces who join playoff teams, but the bulk of these rosters are in place. With most of the season behind us, we also know who will likely be making the playoffs and seeded highly for a Finals run.

Keeping in mind the trade deadline activity, here are the top ten contenders to take home the title in June.

10. Utah Jazz

The Jazz were ultimately quiet at the trade deadline despite being linked to Memphis guard Mike Conley. In the end, they will go with what they had, which isn’t bad. Donovan Mitchell is a star, and Rudy Gobert is playing with a point to prove after being a quite egregious All-Star snub. They’re not really deep enough to challenge the best of the West, and they don’t really have enough in the way of top-level talent, but they’re good enough to cause a few headaches.

9. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers were widely expected to fade after Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, and they still might, but they’ve defied those predictions thus far. The Pacers are winners of six in a row to surge up to the third spot in the Eastern Conference standings, with the likes of Myles Turner leading the way. Without Oladipo, it’s hard to see the Pacers getting that far in the East playoffs, but they’re playing well. As long as that’s the case, they can’t be counted out.

8. Boston Celtics

The Celtics have plenty of room to move higher on this list. They have a top-tier talent in Kyrie Irving and enough good players around him to challenge anyone in their conference. There are clear problems here, though. Irving’s pending free agency has been a distraction lately, Gordon Hayward hasn’t turned out to be anywhere near as good after his injury, and there are some worrying signs coming out of the Boston locker room. They’re talented and well-coached and can beat anyone, but they have to get better than they are right now to avoid a disappointing end to their season.

7. Houston Rockets

The simple truth is as long as the Rockets have James Harden, they can beat anyone. How far they can go in the playoffs will prove largely dependent on what kind of help he gets from his supporting cast. Clint Capela should be back soon, and they will hope that Iman Shumpert can provide some valuable defensive contributions after acquiring him at the deadline. Harden will be the MVP, and the Rockets will go as far as he can carry them.

6. Denver Nuggets

Denver stood pat at the deadline as they lost three straight in a rather untimely swoon. They’re still second in the West, but they need a healthy Paul Millsap to be at their very best. Nikola Jokic is a matchup nightmare and they’ve gotten very good guard play, particularly from emerging star Jamal Murray. They’re second in the West for a reason. Plus, they’re only just now adding Isaiah Thomas to the equation. They’re still unlikely to beat Golden State in a seven game series, but they’re very much a team on the rise.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook may still be the face of the Thunder, but Paul George, averaging a career-best 28.7 points per game, is the one getting MVP buzz. That pairing, plus the supporting cast led by Steven Adams, has Oklahoma City looking like real contenders again. Though behind Denver in the standings, they’ve won 11 of 12, and that includes wins over Philadelphia, Houston, and Milwaukee. In other words, the Thunder can beat anyone. Even with a quiet trade deadline, they may well be the biggest threat to Golden State’s dominance within the West.

4. Toronto Raptors

The addition of Marc Gasol gives Toronto an excellent center who can pass and score, and it only makes them deeper top to bottom. Kawhi Leonard is having perhaps his best NBA season, Kyle Lowry is averaging nine assists per game, and their supporting cast is excellent. The only real problem Toronto has is the fact that the East is really good this year, and their depth will matter less in the playoffs when teams just ride their starters farther. At this moment, Philadelphia may have surpassed them in terms of the starting five. It would be an intense series, but the Raptors may still be a little bit weaker than their biggest foes at the top.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

The Tobias Harris trade gives Philadelphia perhaps the most formidable starting five outside of Golden State. The “weak link” is probably J.J. Redick, who’s averaging almost 19 points per game while shooting almost 40 percent from three-point range. The Sixers have well and truly completed The Process and can play with anyone in the league at this point, even if they don’t have the depth of some of their closest rivals. They’re a legitimate threat to reach the Finals.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

There’s no denying what Milwaukee has done in the East this season, sitting 42-14. They have a rock solid starting five with every member averaging double-digit points, and adding Nikola Mirotic to the mix will only help them stretch the floor and be more threatening. Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are an excellent guard combination. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a full-fledged superstar, and few players are more fun to watch. The Bucks are for real, are outstanding defensively, more than hold their own offensively, and have a star to carry them.

1. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors didn’t have to do anything at the deadline because they are the Warriors. DeMarcus Cousins essentially counts as an in-season acquisition and he has fit in seamlessly to the NBA’s best team. For all the chatter about dysfunction, Kevin Durant’s impending free agency and its impact on the team, the Warriors have been running smoothly of late and are still just about impossible to do anything about when they’re playing at their best. They’re still the team to beat, and it’s hard to see them failing to come out of the West at the bare minimum.



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