In the Northwest Division, the Oklahoma City Thunder is the obvious champion. The team is effectively the same as they were last year, so one can expect the same Larry O’Brien-less result, especially if Kevin Durant keeps deferring to Russell Westbrook in crucial crunch time playoff situations. The Portland Trail Blazers are the only other notable team in the division and will definitely make the playoffs, but failing to upgrade their team in the offseason guarantees their championship irrelevance.
The Golden State Warriors are not the best team in the Pacific Division, but do stand the best chance out of all the second-tier Western Conference teams of gaining elite status. They still have room to improve on offense and that all starts with the continued development of young shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The true best team in this division is the Los Angeles Clippers, who had their playoff run mired by former owner Donald Sterling’s racism. They are defined by their lack of playoff success though, despite having one of the best duos in the game with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and one can expect that to continue with the Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs still standing between them and the Finals.
The league champion San Antonio Spurs are the easy favorite to win in the Southwest Division that has three other probable playoff teams in it. One wonders how much longer a team with such an old core of guys can maintain this caliber of play, but they deserve the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. The Houston Rockets lost Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in the offseason, so if either Dwight Howard or James Harden misses extensive time due to injury, this team will be watching the playoffs from the couch. The Memphis Grizzlies have a strong frontcourt, but they also have an older core of guys. Plus, Marc Gasol and Tayshaun Prince will be free agents next year. The Dallas Mavericks are a lock to make the playoffs and will likely be the league’s most efficient offensive team after adding Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to play with Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.
Division Winner: San Antonio Spurs
The Brooklyn Nets are old and lack depth, so injuries to their core of Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, or Joe Johnson could squash their playoff shot in the Atlantic Division. Tim Hardaway Jr. is the key to the Knicks playoff hopes because the Knicks ride on the shoulders of Carmelo Anthony, but someone else needs to step up, and the most likely player to do so is Hardaway. Will that happen? Not unless Hardaway can play starter’s minutes. The Toronto Raptors may not run away with this division, but they should win it as Jonas Valanciunas continues to develop into a double-double guy.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the championship favorite in the Central Division thanks to LeBron’s homecoming and Kevin Love’s arrival, but the difference to win a championship this year and just missing may lie with Dion Waiters. If Waiters can step up and be the fourth offensive threat on this team, then no defense will be able to stop them. The Chicago Bulls’ championship hopes lie with Derrick Rose’s health. If Rose is healthy, they have a shot, but if not they then will make the playoffs as a middling seventh or eighth seed.
The Southeast Division title will be hotly contested between several teams with the most likely winner being the Washington Wizards. Swiss-army knife Trevor Ariza left during the offseason, so Paul Pierce was signed to be the utility player the Wizards need in order to be successful. Whether the Wizards win the division or not may depend on how much Pierce has left. The Charlotte Hornets could also win the division, but they certainly have the look of a playoff team in the East, and the acquisition of Lance Stephenson helps their cause tremendously. Plus, the team could open up offensively if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist learns how to shoot. The Atlanta Hawks could either sneak into the playoffs as an eighth seed, or just miss out. Al Horford is back and Paul Millsap displayed All-Star talent. Jeff Teague stepped up last season, but if he develops his offense than the Hawks would finally be a complete team and compete for the division title.
Last but not least, the Miami Heat lost the best player in the game, but still has a very strong starting five, which now boasts Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts. Chris Bosh will be asked to be the leader of the team, and if he can reproduce his more aggressive post play from his time with the Raptors then the Heat could very well win the division.
At this point, however, my pick for the NBA Champion: San Antonio Spurs.
Jonathan is an avid sports fan who also provides fantasy sports updates for FantasyPros.com. Email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @hogz4lyfe.