For the first time since 2014, the march to the NBA Finals promises some drama.
The Warriors have met the Cavaliers in each of the last three finals, with Stephen Curry’s All-Star crew besting LeBron James and company twice. But both teams look vulnerable for different reasons entering the NBA Playoffs, which begin Saturday.
Unlike the other major sports, pro basketball’s postseason doesn’t offer much hope of a mid-tier team getting hot at the right time and winning a championship. Excluding the lockout-shorted 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons, all but two of the 64 conference champions since the league moved to a 16-team playoff format in 1984 won at least 50 games.
With that historical trend as a cutoff, here’s a look at the six teams with any conference title hopes.
Houston Rockets (65-17)
Presumptive league MVP James Harden leads the NBA’s most prolific outside shooting group. They’re the only team to attempt more 3s than shots inside the arc. Harden has yet to prove he can elevate his game in the postseason, but perhaps his special season will continue and break that trend.
Toronto Raptors (59-23)
Despite twice hitting a LeBron-shaped wall in playoffs past, the Raps made few, small offseason changes. It paid off as DeMar DeRozan is having a career year, and their widely-lauded “Bench Mob” has been a difference maker. With home-court advantage, the North may finally break through in the East.
Golden State Warriors (58-24)
The defending champions’ quartet of All-Stars (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) all missed time this year. When healthy, they’re still the team to beat. A potential meeting with Houston looms, and they’ll need all the firepower they can get.
Boston Celtics (55-27)
With stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward not expected to return from injuries before next season, they’re a long shot to reach the finals.
Philadelphia 76ers (52-30)
The Process has been trusted, and Philly arrived as a contender earlier than expected. All-Star Joel Embiid and rookie stud Ben Simmons — and most of the roster — lack playoff experience, but perhaps they just don’t know any better than to keep their active 16-game win streak going.
Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
Only a fool would dismiss the Cavs’ chances as long as LeBron is around. Still, this is the King’s weakest supporting cast since his pre-Miami Heat days. Kevin Love and a bunch of role players will have to be enough.