When the 2016-17 NBA season tipped off in late October, the Golden State Warriors were the heavy favorites to win a third straight Western Conference title and Cleveland was the same in the East. Not much has changed roughly a third through the season.
You will see Super Bowl futures change all the time. A top contender like the Patriots could go on a two-game losing streak or a quarterback could get hurt. Shoot, the Dallas Cowboys were about fifth on the odds to win the NFC title to open the season and now lead it. Major League Baseball and the NHL also can see some changes at the top of each conference during their long seasons.
Yet that doesn't happen much in the NBA because it's such a superstar-driven league. The teams that are favored in the preseason to win their conferences usually do because they have the best player(s). There's a reason no team has won an NBA championship without a bona-fide superstar since the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Before that, you might have to go back to the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics.
Warriors Are Who We Thought They Were
On BetOnline's NBA odds, Golden State is -250 to win the Western Conference. While the Warriors aren't going to break their own record of 73 regular-season wins, they to no surprise have the best mark in the NBA and could approach 70 wins unless they really shut it down at the end of the season to rest their key guys -- exactly what they didn't do last season, and it might have cost them. Kevin Durant has fit in almost seamlessly as he leads the Warriors in scoring, free throws made and attempted and total blocks, and is second in rebounding and third in scoring. Teams can't possibly guard Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson without one getting open. The Warriors lead the NBA in scoring, assists, steals, blocks and field-goal percentage. They simply play beautiful, unselfish basketball. The only Achilles' heel might be a lack of a rim protector like Andrew Bogut was the past two seasons.
Barring a season-ending injury Durant or Curry, everyone else is pretty much playing for second in the West. The San Antonio Spurs have the second-best record in the conference, as expected, and are the +400 second-favorites. Even without retired Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, the Spurs still win with defense as they are No. 4 in defensive efficiency. San Antonio went to Oakland and destroyed the Warriors on opening night, but that was a fluke. Unfortunately, the teams don't play again until March 11.
The key for any teams below San Antonio would be to finish third in the West as opposed to fourth and thus avoid the Warriors until the conference finals. The Los Angeles Clippers (+800) and Houston Rockets (+1600) figure to finish in spots 3 & 4 in whatever order. It helps Houston's cause some that Clippers star Blake Griffin could miss up to six weeks following knee surgery.
East Just A Two-Team Race?
A LeBron James team has won the Eastern Conference title six seasons running and there's no reason to think that will change with the Cavaliers as -275 favorites on NBA picks and with the East's best record. You might be asking why Cleveland's odds to win the East are shorter than Golden State's in the West even though most believe the Warriors are the better team. It's simply because the East is so much weaker overall.
I could see Cleveland actually finishing with the second-best record in the conference. Coach Tyronn Lue already has shown he's going to give nights off to LeBron, Kryie Irving and Kevin Love, and Love is dealing with some minor knee problems as well. The Cavs plan to trim James' minutes in January and February.
Frankly, I don't think the Cavs care at all whether they finish with the top seed. Plus starting shooting guard J.R. Smith has a fractured right thumb and could miss six weeks. That may not even be a big loss considering Smith was averaging just 8.8 points on 33.7 percent shooting. But it does thin out a roster that already was lacking depth. Guard Mo Williams had surgery before the season, hasn't played and is in some sort of limbo after ripping the team in October. Cleveland also lost backup center Chris Andersen to a season-ending knee injury.
Toronto (+800) has a legitimate shot at finishing with the East's best record. The Raptors, not the Warriors, lead the NBA in points per 100 possessions. DeMar DeRozan is among the NBA's scoring leaders and Kyle Lowry is his typical All-Star self. It remains the East's best backcourt. But those two really struggled shooting the ball in last year's playoffs even though the Dinos reached the East Finals before falling to Cleveland in six.
Boston (+1200) has underachieved thus far after adding big-time free-agent Al Horford this offseason and has had trouble keeping all its key players healthy at once. Horford has missed some games and perhaps has been moderately disappointing. The Celtics aren't going to challenge in the East without trading some of their many assets, including the Nets' first-round pick in 2017, for a star like Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins. Add him to the Celtics' core and then we have a championship contender.