NBA mid-year benchmark report

Opinion: Cavaliers, Warriors figured to be the top two league contenders

Photo courtesy of | Cavaliers superstar LeBron James is having one of his best seasons yet while averaging 27.3 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game.

A little over halfway through the regular season, title contenders are beginning to truly separate themselves from everyone else.

While the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers remain the favorites to make the NBA Finals, other teams are showing they have the capability to knock them out of the playoffs.

The Boston Celtics trail only the Warriors in wins this season and are on pace to win 63 games. This would be their highest win tally since the 2008-09 season, when they won 62 games.

The team is led by newly acquired point guard Kyrie Irving and veteran big man Al Horford. Irving, who was traded to Boston in the summer, leads the team in scoring at 24.0 points per game.

Horford leads the team in rebounds, assists and blocks while also anchoring the team’s defense, which ranks first in the NBA.

The defensive turnaround from last season, when it ranked 12th is the main reason Boston has been able to keep winning despite the loss of Gordon Hayward.

The emergence of rookie Jayson Tatum has also helped, as his defensive versatility and offensive polish give the Celtics a valuable weapon.

The Warriors are still the favorites to win the NBA finals, even after getting off to a relatively slow start. They currently rank as the best offensive team in the NBA along with being the fourth best defensive squad.

Golden State currently has three players scoring at least 20 points per game. Steph Curry is leading the team with 27.6. Kevin Durant, who is also a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has 26.4 points per game. Klay Thompson has 20.5 on top of being a top defender for his position.

Throw in jack-of-all-trades Draymond Green and rookie Jordan Bell, and the Warriors seem set to cruise to the Western Conference Finals.

However, once they get there, the Warriors will likely have to deal with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets, currently the second seed in the Western Conference, have the second-best offense in the NBA but rank only 14th on the defensive side.

Right now, Houston poses the biggest threat to Golden State in the conference, in part because of the improvements caused by the arrival of Chris Paul. He offers the Rockets the ability to give James Harden breaks and more defensive prowess.

The San Antonio Spurs pose a threat as well, once star Kawhi Leonard gets healthy. Considered an all-time great defender, he’ll provide a boost to team that already ranks second on defense.

In the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors seem to have made the necessary adjustments to truly compete for a championship. Toronto’s offense is much more efficient and, as a result, ranks fourth in the NBA.

The Raptors, along with the Warriors, are one of two teams to rank in the top five in both offense and defense. The Raptors’ defense ranks fifth in the NBA.

Rookie OG Anunoby has been another key to the Raptors success, allowing for versatility and floor spacing they did not previously posses.

The Cavaliers are still a top five offense in the league, while the defense has somehow gotten worse this year. Cleveland ranks next-to-last on the defensive end of the floor, better than only the Sacramento Kings, who have the fewest wins.

The Cavs still have LeBron James, arguably the greatest player of all time, having arguably his best season ever. However, this is not the same team that blitzed the Eastern Conference in each of the last three seasons.

Irving is in Boston, and his impact on the team hasn’t been replicated yet. Whether it can retain its conference championship or not, the Cavaliers are still a good bet to win again because of James.

Some other teams may still emerge as true contenders.Right now, these six teams have the best chances of winning it all, each for different reasons. It could be a tight race.

By: Donnie Menke ~Staff Writer~