carry the team to at least a second round appearance. And, with the skilled and athletic DeMar DeRozan, this team could make it back to the conference finals after pushing the Cavaliers to Game Six of the conference finals last year.
The Atlanta Hawks are an intriguing team to watch for the simple fact they lost Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers and Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers, but they are still a scrappy team that can give teams fits.
Led by Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap, this team likes to bang inside. Their perimeter players of Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr., though, operate outside the paint.
One thing comes to mind when thinking about the Milwaukee Bucks: the Greek Freak. Giannis Antetokounmpo is truly a next generation superstar. Right now, he is a star still trying to find out how to use his athletic gifts. He can handle the ball, pass to set up his teammates for good shots, rebound amongst the trees in the middle and can play outstanding defense because of his 6-11 frame.
Jimmy Butler is the engine that makes the Chicago Bulls nowadays. With a tough defensive mindset, Butler can also score in bunches with his 25 points a game. Butler will have to be the player to watch as Dwyane Wade has just returned from his elbow injury. It will take Wade—a threetime champion with the Heat—a few games to get back on track.
It will be interesting to see how Rajon Rondo performs, however. Once considered one of the best point guards in the NBA when playing for the Celtics just a few years ago, Rondo now tries to find himself alongside Butler, but he is still a very good passer, defender, rebounder and floor general.
Paul George is a superstar player in the NBA as he tries to lead his Pacers to a deep playoff run. George is a prolific all-around player with his ability to score at will, handling superiority, passing, lock-down defense and leading capabilities. Before his gruesome injury in 2014 at the summer Olympics in which he broke his leg, George was consistently challenging the Heat— back when LeBron James was on the team—in the Eastern Conference Finals.
His team, though, is just not as talented as they lost key players David West and Roy Hibbert, who were two low-post anchors used to challenge virtually any team three to four years ago. Lance Stephenson just came back, so maybe this will help the Pacers win a few more games in the playoffs.
Heading out to the Western Conference, where many would presume the competition is a lot stiffer, there are many intriguing teams—much like the East—that have real shots at making a deep run in the playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs are the second best team in the Western Conference, and it has a lot to do with their deep team, as well as Pop’s tactical coaching strategy, one that employs the offensive system to continually move the ball, make hard cuts and play great defense, which, of course, is Basketball 101.
Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard is an MVP candidate. His 25.7 points per game is the highest scoring average of his career, a feat that has many folks who follow the NBA in awe. Leonard—after his 2014 NBA Finals MVP year— has really developed himself into not only a great defensive player, but a great offensive player, one that can handle the ball with the best of them, can shoot well from mid-range and can pass the ball with precision.
Let’s not forget the Spurs acquired LaMarcus Aldridge last year. Aldridge is a sensational post-up player, and, of course, can score at will. With Tim Duncan retired, the Spurs will lean on Leonard and savvy veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, two players that helped Duncan win four titles in 11 years.
For years Mike D’Antoni was the laughing stock of the NBA because his philosophy is runand-gun, shoot a lot threes, but play little defense. After being in the NBA’s basement as the coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers the past two years, D’Antoni has re-emerged as a mastermind, a perception not bestowed upon him since his days with the Phoenix Suns when former point guard Steve Nash was winning MVPs.
D’Antoni switched this year’s MVP candidate James Harden from shooting guard to point guard, and it has worked as the Rockets currently are the third best team in the West. With his stubbly and thick beard, Harden combines his extraordinary dribbling ability with his innate gift to shoot threes and draw contact from defenders.
The Rockets will be a tough out for any team, and Harden’s 29.2 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebound averages are worth the price of admission.
For the first time since the 2011-2012 season, the Utah Jazz will be in the playoffs. But this time they will be led by former Butler prodigy and current Jazz star Gordon Hayward, a dynamic small forward who can handle the basketball, shoot the three and has a knack for finding the driving lanes.
One aspect that is worth watching about Hayward—besides his 22.5 points per contest— is his instinctive ability to probe the perimeter off screens, and know when to make the right play for his team. He has underrated athleticism as well.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are always a doozy to watch, especially when Paul is able to hook up with Griffin off of pickand-rolls. Last year, both Paul and Griffin were injured in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, as Paul suffered a broken hand and Griffin had a quad injury.
It’ll be interesting to see how these players respond after such unfortunate circumstances last year.
Ever since Kevin Durant left last summer to join the Warriors, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook has taken the NBA by storm. Yes, he is averaging a triple double with his 31.7 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 assists. This past Sunday, Westbrook set the all-time tripledoubles record with 42, passing Oscar Robertson.
Westbrook plays 100 miles an hour and he makes a lot of plays for himself and his teammates. With Westbrook going 100 percent of the time on offense, it will be a tragedy for anyone to miss Oklahoma City’s run.
In a stunning turn of events, the Memphis Grizzlies actually pulled off a win against the Warriors on Feb. 10, and that is in large part due to the play of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The trio has been together for half a decade, but they are still going strong.
Randolph’s lowpost game is fantastic, while Gasol’s post-up and mid-range ability and Conley’s ability to handle the ball and switch gears to get to the rim are fun to watch. If this team gets past the first round, the Warriors should be perturbed.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers are among the best guard combos in the NBA, which means they are must-see television despite them flirting with a sub-.500 winning percentage.
Lillard is this generation’s Isiah Thomas, but not the one who currently plays, rather the one who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990. McCollum has off-theball skills like Ray Allen. He is also a very good shooter on and off the dribble.
These two players will give fits to any player in the playoffs.
As we count down to the NBA playoffs, remember, these 14 other teams are mustsee television despite the likelihood the Cavs and the Warriors will meet again for the third straight season.