Yes, sure—there is more parity in the NBA than ever before. In the Western Conference, for instance, the difference between 13th and 6th place in the standings is only 3.5 games. Much of the playoff crowd is, and will be, too packed for elevated distinction. Don’t get confused, though. As the All-Star break ends, we’re two thirds of the way through the season; not halfway, as many pundits often wrongly state. Less than two-dozen games remain—a long sprint—and who the true title contenders are should already be obvious to us. Don’t believe that the revamped Los Angeles Lakers, regrouping Golden State Warriors, perpetually procrastinating Los Angeles Clippers, or the brand new Kevin Durant Phoenix Suns are in that category. None of these teams are close enough to a 50-win pace, which has been a reliable threshold for title contention since 1995.
That was when the Houston Rockets repeated as champions, led by Hakeem Olajuwon. They did it after posting just 47 wins in the regular season, which was a weird one. A huge fissure in their title defense opened when starting guard Vernon Maxwell had an upsetting incident with a fan in the stands in Portland—he was suspended for ten games, and shortly afterward, the Rockets traded for Clyde Drexler. Beleaguered and disoriented as they entered the postseason, Olajuwon dug deep in the name of spite: David Robinson was named MVP instead of him, and the Rockets toppled the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs on their way to a quick dismissal of the young and unready Orlando Magic.
Since then, no team has conquered their own malaise and mid-season upheaval in the same way. They simply haven’t. So to believe that any of 2023’s neo-contenders can become bonafide champs over the next few months is to believe that a once-in-a-quarter-century occurrence is about to transpire. And it might, because once every quarter-century, the data tells us, it does. But it’s only four-percent likely. This is a lot of history and math to get to a conclusion more easily reached, though. Just using your eyes works fine, too: the Warriors are always tired and cranky with one another, the Lakers just came together, the Clippers more often resemble a science experiment than a basketball team, and you still can’t watch the real version of the Suns.
So who’s left? The Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks. The longlist, to be fair, extends to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Grizzlies have been a wild bunch lately, though, getting into too much trouble without the injured Steven Adams’ gentle, humble masculinity there to rein them in. His tactical attributes matter, too: he’s the screen-setter who gives Ja Morant a floor to fully dance on, and the interior presence who allows Jaren Jackson Jr. to roam with maximal terrorism. Adams’ timetable for return remains unclear—the Grizzlies are 4-7 since he got hurt—but even when he does come back, Memphis’ half-court offense and maturity both seem like hurdles too big for this season. And the Cavaliers’ situation is more simple: they’re just too young. Namely, Evan Mobley is. His offensive game is still raw. On that end, he is sometimes brilliant, but also sometimes non-existent. They’re troublingly dependent on Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland having scintillating scoring nights. When Mobley’s more consistent as a scorer is when they’ll Enter The Conversation for good—it’ll probably be next year.
And so there are four real contenders. Some may discount the Sixers, due to ominous patterns that precede them; a thread of bad juju and predictable collapse. There’s little rationale to project the continuation of such stuff, though, no matter how heavy the legacy of it feels in the heart. This has been a dominant team all season when healthy. If not for their very bad injury luck early on, they would be competing with the other three contenders for best record in the league—they’re not far behind as it is. The Bucks and Celtics need little explanation, and may be on a collision course toward another high-end mud fight, the outcome of which will again depend on Khris Middleton’s availability. And the Nuggets, after spending the past two years in the warm shadows as Nikola Jokic won MVPs with a depleted roster, are now whole and looking like one of the most capable offenses we’ve ever seen.
It is too late to get to the level these teams have reached. This is something that takes consecutive months of demonstrated quality to achieve, and there’s only about six weeks remaining. Marathon runners cannot make up for poor performance in the first 18 miles by over-pacing the last eight, and would probably injure themselves if they tried. The crowd of teams vying for entry into the title-contention realm look to finish the year strong, but they are doing so for next season, when they can build on the imprint the rest of this one leaves them room to make. Popular discourse about the matter is more fun if you believe in their short-term chances, and that, like all fun things, is fine. But there’s really no need to overthink it: the few potential champions are already here.