Now that All Star Weekend is over, only one third of the NBA regular season remains and the focus now shifts to the contenders–and pretenders–in this year’s title race.

The Boston Celtics have set themselves apart as the best team this year so far with a 44-12 record. They are the best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment with a gap of six games separating them from the second place Cleveland Cavaliers which highlights how dominant they have been this season.

The offseason addition of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to their core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and Al Horford has paid off, at least for now. However, the success of their campaign will ultimately be judged by whether or not they can finally win the franchise’s 18th NBA title this June. This team has made it to five of the last seven Eastern Conference Finals, so a “championship or bust” mindset this season is more than appropriate.

The Celtics stand alone in the first tier of East contenders, but the five teams right behind them in the standings have all the tools to spoil the party contingent on a few variables.


One team that was expected to go toe-to-toe with Boston are the Milwaukee Bucks who have not lived up to the lofty expectations that came after they brought in Damian Lillard during the summer to join Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last month’s firing of newly installed head coach Adrian Griffin followed by the questionable hiring of Doc Rivers to replace him further muddles the outlook for the Bucks. Nonetheless, the presence of Lillard and Antetokounmpo should still give them even just a remote fighting chance in any seven-game series.

Last year’s NBA Finalists, the Miami Heat, and the Philadelphia 76ers also entered the season with hopes of winning the championship, though injuries have pushed them down to the middle of the pack.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers and the New York Knicks are exceeding expectations this year and have earned the right to be considered a part of this second tier of Eastern Conference title aspirants. The biggest concern surrounding Cleveland and New York is their relative lack of deep playoff experience, but they do have the personnel necessary to make a serious run.

Over in the West, the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets seem to be coasting through the regular season and this has them at fourth place behind the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Clippers. This race is actually much tighter than it seems though and the Nuggets are only three games behind the West-leading Timberwolves which makes these next few weeks even more exciting.

All four of these teams–Denver, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers–could finish with the top seed in the West and have a chance as well at going all the way to the NBA Finals. The Nuggets are favored given that most of last year’s championship-winning team is still onboard while the veteran core of the Clippers poses a tough match-up for any team in the league.

Like the Cavaliers and Knicks in the East, the inexperience of the Timberwolves and Thunder may hinder them this year, yet it would not come as a surprise if the talent of their superstars in Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, respectively, can carry them all the way.

Three veteran-laden teams in the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, and Golden State Warriors, along with the Sacramento Kings, comprise the second tier of contenders that has emerged in the West. These four teams have rosters that leave much to be desired, but they do have the type of superstar talent that could carry them to a second or even third round appearance in the playoffs.

Parity in the NBA has only continued to grow this year and the race for the championship is as unpredictable as it has ever been. With a plethora of worthy contenders surfacing, this season may see the streak of a different NBA franchise winning the title extend to a historic seven years. This ongoing run of six consecutive unique champions is currently tied with 1975-80 for the record.

Boston has made a strong case so far that they are the best team in the league, but it would be far from an upset–although it would be an absolute disappointment–if they get booted out of the postseason in the second round and another team winds up hosting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.