National era NBA, unpredictable championship fronts

“It’s hard to tell which team will win,” is the consensus among fans and experts alike about this season’s NBA landscape. From the established powerhouses, to the super teams that have rebuilt their rosters, to the dark horses with explosive energy… the competition is so fierce that it’s hard to predict which team will reach the Finals and take home the big prize.

There are still a lot of games left to play, so we won’t start to see a clear picture of the playoffs until the second half of the season, and the favorites will be predicted based on injuries, mood, and more. One of the strongest favorites is the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Anchored by last season’s Finals MVP and arguably the best player in the game, Nikola Jokic (29‧211cm), the Nuggets have a solid core of championship contenders in Jamal Murray (27‧193cm), Aaron Gordon (29‧203cm), Michael Porter Jr (26‧208cm), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (31‧196cm).

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Jokic not being the same player he was last season. But the numbers don’t lie. In 34 games, he’s averaging 25.7 points, 9.1 assists (4th), 12.3 rebounds (2nd), 1.1 steals, and 0.8 blocked shots, which is close to a triple-double for the season. That’s on pace to match his numbers from last season. Still, the mixed reaction is largely due to fan expectations being raised after his breakout performance last season.

Jokic’s performance en route to the title was nothing short of spectacular. He summoned up legendary centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and even Michael Jordan, not to mention the best in the game. Not only is his skill set exceptional, but his overall impact on the game is invaluable to his team.

Murray, on the other hand, is a player who has polarizing opinions among fans. Based solely on last season’s playoffs, when he was the team’s second option behind Jokic, he’s arguably one of the best guards in the league. However, his contributions in the regular season have fallen short of expectations.

He’s averaging 19.7 points, 6.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 blocked shots, but he’s been plagued by injuries, both big and small, that have limited him to just 21 games. If Jokic is the control tower in the post, Murray is the ace up front. He has a temperament for the big game that has been described as “a different person in the playoffs,” so his health will be crucial to Denver’s chances of winning.

Among Western Conference teams like Denver, the Phoenix Suns are the most colorful team on paper. The Suns surprised everyone by acquiring Bradley Beal (31‧193cm) before the season. Beal’s scoring prowess has earned him a reputation as an option on some mid-to-low-tier teams. The problem is that Phoenix has Kevin Durant (35‧208cm), an all-time scoring machine, and Devin Booker (28‧196cm), a young ace who is making a name for himself.

In addition, they traded away DeAndre Ayton (26‧213cm), who didn’t fit in well with the team, and brought in Yusuf Nurkic (30‧211cm), a white center whose strength is team play. Currently, Phoenix has underachieved compared to its high expectations. There are many reasons for this, but injuries to key players have been a big one. The five or six teams in the middle of the standings are not separated by a lot of points, so a winning streak can change the standings quickly.

If they manage to stay injury-free and make it to the playoffs, they’ll be in for an upset. They could lose to any team due to inconsistent play and organization, but on the flip side, if one or two of their trifectas go down, they have a much better chance of winning. If the Triple Four can stay healthy and perform well throughout the playoffs, they will be a strong contender.

The Western Conference lead is currently being contested by the Minnesota Timberwolves (1st) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2nd). While the season hasn’t gone as expected, both teams have a lot in common: they’re young and hungry. Minnesota hasn’t finished higher than mid-table in any of the previous five seasons. Their best finish was seventh in the Western Conference.

This season, they’re also a team that’s rarely mentioned in championship lists. This season, however, they’ve been hot out of the gate. The team has shaken off the post-Garnett era of being a supporting cast and has become a force to be reckoned with. The team has been accumulating good resources, and the cogs are falling into place in terms of positional balance, team color, and more.

As the saying goes, “defense makes the difference,” and a team with a strong defense is guaranteed to have more than the basics. Add in a decent offense and you’ve got a recipe for success. That’s exactly what Minnesota is right now. They have one of the best offenses in the league and plenty of firepower. For starters, young ace Anthony “Ant-Man” Edwards (23‧193cm), the first overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, has lived up to the hype.

He’s averaging 26.3 points, 5.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 0.7 blocked shots in 29 games. The double post of Rudy Gobert (31-216 cm) and Karl-Anthony Towns (28-213 cm) is solid, with Gobert averaging 12.1 points, 1.3 assists, 11.7 rebounds (4th overall), and 2.2 blocked shots (5th overall) and Towns averaging 22 points, 3 assists, 9 rebounds, 1 steal, and 0.8 blocked shots, respectively, and the synergy between their different playing styles.

Veteran point guard Mike Conley (36-185 cm) continues to be a force on defense with his trademark game management and passing game, while summer camp recruit Naz Reed (24-206 cm) is a solid contributor with his height and scoring. Oklahoma City adds some young blood to the mix.

Led by the young one-two punch of Shay Gilgeous-Alexander (25‧198cm) and Chet Holmgren (22‧213cm), the team is still a force to be reckoned with, but given their age, they are expected to be even more valuable as the season progresses. Gilles Alexander is currently averaging 31.4 points, 6.4 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 0.8 blocked shots in 32 games. His team and individual numbers are so good that he could be in the running for regular season MVP, depending on the circumstances.

Holmgren is tied for Rookie of the Year alongside Victor Wembanyama. He’s averaging 17.4 points, 2.6 assists, 7.5 rebounds, 0.7 steals, and 2.6 blocked shots (5th) in 33 games, solidifying his status as the next big man and white star. He doesn’t do much offensively, but he’s a good shooter from the field and from three-point range, making him the type of player you can get a lot of bang for your buck. His defensive contributions are also high.

We can’t forget about swingman Jaylen Williams (23‧196cm), who is averaging 18 points, 3.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 30 games. He’s not flashy, but he’s a solid player who plays with grit, battles hard, and is a solid offensive finisher. In the past, Oklahoma City has had great prospects in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, but they’ve been unable to capitalize on them.

There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that all three are offense-first players and there is a lot of overlap in playstyle. On the other hand, Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren, and Williams are well organized by position. If they can keep this young big three together, Oklahoma City has a very bright future.

The LA Clippers can’t be ignored either. They have a pair of offensive-minded forwards in Kawhi Leonard (33‧201cm) and Paul George (34‧203cm), plus James Harden (35‧196cm). If they make the playoffs without injury setbacks, they’re worth a try against any team. LeBron James (39‧206cm) of the Los Angeles Lakers and Steph Curry (36‧188cm) of the Golden State Warriors have been a bit slow, but they have a lot of experience and are capable of taking down big teams in big games and short games.

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