This year, the road to glory runs through the Phoenix Suns. Anything less than a parade through the Valley should be considered a massive disappointment to Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and the rest of this immaculate cast of characters.
That should make picking four NBA Finals Contenders a futile effort. This is the NBA; the top teams rarely disappoint. Well, rarely isn’t never; the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, and 2004-05 Suns are reminders of that. Winning 60 games means you’re good, but it doesn’t punch your ticket to the championship. You still have to win when the lights get bright.
4 NBA Finals Contenders in 2022
Boston Celtics (+900)
The media coverage of the Boston Celtics is exhaustive. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the NBA is a two-team league featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and Celtics. Unlike the floundering Lakers, though, Boston deserves all the talk about them. Since January, they’ve been neck and neck with the Suns as the best team in the league.
The ascension of Jayson Tatum can’t be understated. Over the past three months, his work would vault him into MVP contention in any other season. Whatever “it” is, he figured “it” out. Gone are the days of dribbling the ball through the court and then taking contested, long-range two’s. The ball is moving at the TD Garden, and, as Jalen Rose likes to say, “the ball is magic.” When the ball moves, good things happen.
What else do they owe their success to?
1) Great defense under Ime Udoka. Great defense leads to easy offense; it’s the most sure-fire way to succeed.
2) Marcus Smart became a proper point guard. Over the past two seasons, his assists and assist rate have gone way up. All while his pull-up threes with 20 seconds left on the shot clock have gone way down. That’s character growth! Nothing does more for a team than the third guy understanding he’s the third guy. An understood team hierarchy is one of the more underrated aspects of a winning basketball team. He did all this while remaining one of the best defenders in the league. He’s not a pest. He’s a pitbull, getting under the skin of whoever he’s guarding.
Robert Williams should be back by the second round to help stabilize their interior defense. If that happens, they’re my favorite to come out of the east.
Phoenix Suns (+300)
The odds-on favorite by a wide margin. They’ve already locked up the best record in the league; again, by a wide margin. Like Tatum, Booker would be an MVP candidate in any other season, and he might not even be the best player on his team. So what’s stopping us from hanging the banner now?
Phoenix has some demons to exercise. Charles Barkley couldn’t get the Suns over the hump (although, to be fair to the Round Mound of Rebound, that hump was Michael Jordan, which is more like getting over the Matterhorn). Mike D’Antoni, Steve Nash, and the “7 Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns” may have revolutionized basketball, but they couldn’t get through the door either. CP3, the Point God, also has some ghosts. Just because those ghosts are mostly injury-related doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Since his stint with the Houston Rockets, Chris Paul has gone from best player to never make it out of the second round to best player never to win a championship. Chris Paul doesn’t have huge counting stats outside of assists; because of this, his trophy case isn’t stacked with MVP trophies. But make no mistake, every team Paul has played for has gotten better tenfold. In sports, you have to be one step ahead of your opponent, see the opening before it happens, and CP3 has done that better than almost everybody in basketball history. He tilts the board in your favor just by stepping onto the court.
I’ve gone over the numbers elsewhere with the Suns. They’re good, great even. One of the best five teams of the past 20 years, on paper. But Chris Paul and everybody else in the Phoenix Suns organization will tell you championships aren’t won in the regular season. Their place in the history books won’t be realized until June.
Milwaukee Bucks (+550)
It was a rocky start to the season for the defending champs. Brook Lopez was out for most of the season, Khris Middleton couldn’t recapture his 2021 form, and it was up to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to pick up the slack.
Pick up the slack they did. Holiday is having his most efficient shooting season ever (41% from three!), and Antetokounmpo should be the MVP favorite with four games remaining in the season. There’s some offensive efficiency and advanced stats that favor Nikola Jokic, but Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league.
This reminds a lot of the Russell Westbrook season. Westbrook played for a lousy team that he singlehandedly dragged to the sixth seed. Jokic plays for an equally awful team that’s currently…the sixth seed. The Joker is ahead of Antetokounmpo in all the stats that matter, I can’t argue against that. Not only is Jokic putting up crazy numbers, but he’s remaining efficient while doing it. So what’s the argument for Antetokounmpo? When he goes up against the other NBA championship contenders and MVP candidates, he continuously makes plays that win them the game. He puts up 40, breaks up possessions, makes game-saving blocks, and game-winning dunks (or game-winning step-back threes, apparently).
Jokic may be more valuable to his team in the sense that if he weren’t there, the Denver Nuggets would miss the playoffs entirely. But, it’s easier to go from bad to good than it is to go from good to great. Giannis Antetokounmpo brings the Milwaukee Bucks from good to great, and he’s the reason they’re a perennial championship contender. If it’s not the Suns or Celtics winning in June, it won’t be a shock cause it will be the Bucks. And it will be the Bucks because of him. He’s the best player in the league.
Memphis Grizzlies (+1600)
The Memphis Grizzlies aren’t just a fun team, they are legit contenders. They’re fourth in offense, fifth in defense, and third in net rating. Ja Morant and the running, gunning Grizzlies are sizzle and steak. They even remain great even without their best player. That’s the sign of not just a well-coached team but also a team with a deep roster.
They remind me of the Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan era Toronto Raptors; they’d keep chugging along no matter the injuries or roster construction. The Grizzlies just smashed a fully healthy Suns team with four of their best players sitting on the bench. It doesn’t make any sense. Memphis has broken through every marker you want to see a young team break through.
I hope it’s not too much, too young, too fast for the young Grizzlies, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Their whole bench goes out of their minds whenever anyone does anything of note. Their bench is as fun to watch as the team during games. There appears to be real love amongst the Grizzlies, and it’s downright wholesome.
I don’t know what to expect from this team come playoffs, they are young, so there is a chance they will fall short of the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves. On the other hand, they do what many other young teams don’t; defend and defend well. However, the aforementioned Raptor teams also defended well and struggled mightily in the playoffs anyway. This was primarily due to their opponents shortening the bench. While the regular season Raptors would boat race opposing teams’ benches, they wouldn’t get the same luxury in the playoffs. I don’t know if these Grizzlies will have the same issue, but it’s an interesting point to watch for come playoffs.
Six Other Teams of Intrigue
Miami Heat (+1000)
I thought the Miami Heat were falling apart down the stretch. They went 8-7 in March, and Jimmy Butler tried to go Latrell Sprewell on Erik Spoelstra (Spoelstra looking like he was game to fight Butler with Udonis Haslem standing right there is an all-time ‘hold me back’ moment). They were unraveling and Heat culture enthusiasts everywhere were panicking. Since then, they’ve beaten the Celtics, Raptors, and Chicago Bulls. You’ll recognize them as three very talented teams.
The Heat have the best roster in the league that doesn’t feature a top 10 guy. If Butler, Lowry, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro are healthy, that’s a stacked roster, and they’ll be an issue for anybody. Even though they’re the one seed, I don’t see Miami getting past Boston or Milwaukee, but they’re talented enough and well-coached enough it wouldn’t shock me to be eating crow once the playoffs roll around.
Dallas Mavericks (+2200)
Do you miss the James Harden era Houston Rockets? No? Me neither, but if you are a pervert who enjoys watching one player foul baiting and taking step-back threes, you’ll love Luka Doncic and this year’s Dallas Mavericks. Watching them is the opposite of fun, but they are really good at basketball. Since the trade deadline, they have the fourth-best record behind the Celtics, Grizzlies, and Suns.
I don’t think they’re Finals contenders, but they have enough talent to upset anybody, and with Doncic, you have a player who can take over and win any game by himself. That’s the truth of basketball; if you have the best player on the court, you have a chance to win almost any series.
So why aren’t they one of the genuine contenders? We haven’t seen this heliocentric style win when it counts. It doesn’t matter if it was Harden, Allen Iverson, Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Antetokounmpo in 19-20 (remember how disappointing that Bucks team was considered?), or Michael JEFFREY Jordan, one guy running your offense doesn’t win in the playoffs. The closest anyone in the top-20 of single-season usage percentage came to winning a title was Iverson in 2000-01 when they lost to the Lakers in the finals. Doncic would have the eighth-highest single-season USG% of all time if the season ended today. History says that’s not going to win you a championship.
Brooklyn Nets (+650)
This one is simple; the Brooklyn Nets have one of the best two players in the league in Kevin Durant and another top 20ish guy in Kyrie Irving. The only reason they’re fighting for a play-in spot is due to injuries. If KD and Irving are healthy, they can beat anybody. Milwaukee, Boston, and Miami pray they don’t crash their seed. It’ll become the best first-round series since Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs in 2015.
Los Angeles Clippers (+4500)
Teams that I’m not mentioning in my NBA Finals Contenders column; Utah Jazz, Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Bulls, and Golden State Warriors. So why are the 39-40 Clippers mentioned as a team that might crash the party? There are some strong whispers that Kawhi Leonard might be back. He’s the most clutch playoff performer of our generation (when healthy). Paul George is back, Norman Powell is coming back, and with Kawhi lurking, I’m excited to see these guys potentially cause a first-round upset. If you’re a fan of longshot bets, the L.A. Clippers should be your team.
Minnesota Timberwolves (+7000)
Welcome to the show, Minnesota Timberwolves. You’ve officially ascended from the basement, leaving the Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings as the two worst-run franchises in the NBA. You’re no longer part of that exclusive club, congratulations. Now we get to see what you can do in the playoffs for the first time since Jimmy Butler dragged you there.
I’m excited for the Timberwolves. They have a fun team (fastest pace in the league) and Karl-Anthony Towns is a hard out for anybody. Anthony Edwards is a human highlight reel and one of the best interviews in the league. Seeing how he reacts to the limelight will be fun to watch. I don’t think they’ll go too deep in the playoffs, but I could see them upsetting the Warriors, Nuggets, Mavericks, or Jazz, depending on how the bracket breaks.
Toronto Raptors (+6000)
Most of the teams listed are exciting because of the players they have. The Raptors have exciting players (if it weren’t for a slow start, Pascal Siakam would’ve had a strong All-NBA argument). But the real reason you want to watch the Raptors in the playoffs is the coaching. Nick Nurse frustrates the hell out of opposing coaches. If you give Nurse too many games to figure out your team, you’re in trouble.
Most of the time, the Raptor’s half-court offense is pretty miserable. Unless Siakam is putting someone in the spin-cycle or Fred VanVleet is tossing bombs from the logo, they’re in the mud. On defense, though? This team fly’s all over the court. They create the most turnovers in the league, grab the second-most offensive rebounds, and grab more loose balls than anybody. They’re pests, and they irritate the hell out of whoever they play. They’re a perfect candidate for a team that could upset a higher seed.
The Real NBA Finals Contenders
The Celtics, Suns, Bucks, and Grizzlies are the four teams I expect to see in the conference finals. If the Nets and Clippers are healthy, they could crash the party as well. Sorry to the Philadelphia 76ers, but I don’t trust James Harden when it counts, and you shouldn’t either. Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors have disappointed, and while they have the stars, they don’t have the depth to go deep. The Nuggets have one great player and not much else. Everybody else is just gunning for an upset.
*All odds courtesy of everygame.eu