Who Has A Legitimate NBA Title Shot?

HEADING INTO APRIL, ONLY A HANDFUL OF TEAMS HAVE LEGITIMATE CHAMPIONSHIP HOPES

The first day of April is a great time to check in on the NBA. We have about half a month of the regular season left before the Playoffs begin. It's already very clear that only a handful of teams have a real chance to go the distance this Spring and Summer.

IN THE EAST...

It's going to be Cleveland and Atlanta fighting it out for the conference title barring major injuries to either team, or a summer surge from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago is playing better lately. But that's easy to do down the stretch when so many opponents are either tanking or coasting until the playoffs. Once everyone's going at full speed again, it's hard to see the Bulls matching up with the Cavs or Hawks.

Cleveland will be the #2 seed because it took them about 35 games to get their roster in order. They are clearly "Best in the East since the trades that created the current lineup. All that plus the championship experience of LeBron James is expected to carry the brackets.

Atlanta is still a very real threat though because:
*They have a depth of weaponry
*They play like the Spurs, and we KNOW that wins in the playoffs!
*They have the #1 seed, which gives them home court in every Eastern series.

Cleveland deserves its role as market favorite. Atlanta has more insurance in terms of dealing with unexpected surprises.

IN THE WEST...

Golden State has been amazing this season. They're dominating a killer conference. And, they're doing it with excellence on both sides of the floor. Charles Barkley and other pundits keep calling this a "jump shooting" team that isn't well-suited for the playoffs. You have to be BLIND to think that! Golden State has the best defense in the league when you adjust for pace and schedule. They have inside and outside threats. And, they're young and hungry!

The best threats right now behind Golden State are San Antonio (defending champions and peaking at the right time) and the Los Angeles Clippers (also peaking at the right time, but lacking depth).

Projecting the brackets is a bit of a mess because only three games separate #2 from #6. Home court advantage could loom large because so little separates those teams in the big picture. Let's look at potential strikes against the teams below Golden State in today's standings...

#2 Memphis hasn't yet shown they can win the biggest series in the postseason. And, they just got dominated by Cleveland, Golden State, and San Antonio in succession in recent days. That's a horrible way to prepare for the playoffs! Clearly, the Griz have some work to do if they want to catch up to the true elites.

#3 Houston is too reliant on James Harden. If he gets hurt, they're toast. If he wears down (which he will), they're toast. And, if the refs stop giving him calls down the stretch of close games (which is likely to happen), it's difficult to see the Rockets running the table. Maybe they make it to the second round this year. Maybe they go even further. Winning the West? Tough to see.

#4 Portland has been riddled with injuries...and will be a series underdog in the first round even if they have home court. The current roster wouldn't have earned a #4 seed over 82 games. A lot of heart...but too few healthy bodies at the worst possible time.

#5 LA Clippers definitely have the front line talent of a champion. But, they have the bench of a lottery team! This is likely to matter because the Western Conference playoffs are physically brutal. This team isn't likely to hold up through a success of wars. They're positioned in the brackets where a succession of wars is going to be most likely.

#6 San Antonio is playing great lately. But, that may be due to the rest of the league going into hibernation just a bit. Age is still a concern as is trying to win from the wrong side of the home court equation. It was easy to write this team back before the All-Star Break. They reached a peak so high in last year's playoffs that you have to allow for the possibility that another great run is possible. Ultimately, you can't see them as having a better chance than Golden State though.

We'll talk a lot more about the NBA once the playoffs get here in a couple of weeks. There's still some college hoops to wrap up with the NIT Finals and the NCAA Final Four. Next week brings the start of baseball. It will be wall-to-wall pro basketball with big game previews once the playoffs begin later in April.

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Here's what's coming up the next few days in the NOTEBOOK...

Thursday: NIT Championship Preview
Friday: NCAA Final Four Early Look...Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Saturday: NCAA Final Four Preview...Duke vs. Michigan State
Sunday: NBA Preview...Golden State vs. San Antonio (big one!)
Monday: NCAA Championship Preview
Tuesday: MLB Preview...Los Angeles Angels vs. Seattle Mariners
Wednesday: MLB Preview...San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers

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