A handful of NBA teams continue to jockey for positioning atop each conference as we approach the final two weeks ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline, with the true contenders already separating themselves from the pretenders across the league.
Perhaps one of the middling teams will vault into the smaller group of title contenders with a big-name pickup before the deadline, but as of now, it’s hard to envision more than seven or eight teams with legitimate aspirations of hoisting the championship trophy in June.
Here is our late-January snapshot of teams that look as if they can win the title as presently constructed:
1. Celtics (35-14)
After ripping off a nine-game winning streak, the Celtics have dropped two in a row (to the upstart Magic and the Heat) heading into Thursday night’s national TV clash with the Knicks. But the defending Eastern Conference champs still own the best record in the league under Joe Mazzulla in his first season after replacing Ime Udoka. All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the highest-scoring tandem in the NBA at a combined 57.9 points per game, and Malcolm Brogdon has added depth in the Sixth Man role.
2. Bucks (30-17)
Two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves to be part of that conversation again (at least in the top three) for fronting the Bucks to a 52-win pace despite three-time All-Star Khris Middleton appearing in just seven games before returning to the rotation in Monday’s 150-point outburst against Detroit. The 2021 NBA champs took the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last season without Middleton, who ostensibly could be viewed as the most impactful addition to any contending lineup before the trade deadline.
3. Nuggets (34-14)
Nikola Jokic is a front-runner to earn a third straight MVP award, which would make the Serbian big man the first player since Larry Bird (1984-86) to win that many in a row. The only others to accomplish the feat? Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Jamal Murray started slowly after missing all of last season following ACL surgery, but he’s averaged 20.0 points and 6.1 assists over his past 36 games to help the Nuggets to the best record in the West after getting knocked off in the first round of the playoffs last spring by the Warriors.
4. Nets (29-17)
Brooklyn is likely to be without Kevin Durant (knee) for another few weeks, but Kyrie Irving and the Nets have posted back-to-back road wins at Utah and Golden State after dropping their first four in KD’s absence. Health and availability continue to be issues for a team led by that duo and Ben Simmons, but they were rolling with 18 wins in 20 games before Durant’s latest injury.
5. 76ers (30-16)
The Sixers haven’t gotten past the second round with Joel Embiid as their star — that drought goes back to when Allen Iverson led them to the Finals in 2001 — including an early elimination by the Heat last year in James Harden’s first postseason with the team. Philly has gone 18-4 following a 12-12 start, including five straight wins, all on the road, entering Wednesday’s showdown at home against the Nets.
6. Warriors (23-24)
The defending champs have hung around the 7-10 Play-In range in the West all season despite stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins each missing at least 10 games due to injuries. The Warriors are currently in 10th place, but just two losses separate the fifth-seeded Clippers (24) and the 13th-place Lakers in the muddled West. But with Jordan Poole averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game, no team will want to face this battle-tested core at full strength if the Warriors reach the postseason. As of Tuesday, in fact, FanDuel still listed the Warriors with the fifth-best odds (+850) to win it all, behind the Celtics, Bucks, Nets and Nuggets.
7. Grizzlies (31-16)
Memphis has dropped three straight games following an 11-game winning streak, and Ja Morant and Steven Adams sat out Monday’s loss in Sacramento with injury designations. This group — also featuring underrated 20-point scorer Desmond Bane — won its first playoff round last year against the Timberwolves before falling short against the Warriors in the second round.
The Kings have emerged as one of the most exciting offensive teams in the league behind De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, rising to third place in the West, but making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 will have to be enough this year. The rising Cavaliers added the star the Knicks wanted (Donovan Mitchell), but that top foursome in the East will be tough to beat. Zion Williamson and the Pelicans also could be a year away in the West. The Heat are coming on, going 15-7 following a 12-15 start, surpassing the Knicks for now for the coveted No. 6 spot.
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Numbers to know: Knicks-Cavaliers
The Knicks escaped with a 105-103 victory over Donovan Mitchell’s Cavaliers on Tuesday night at the Garden. Here is a snapshot of the pivotal win, which snapped a four-game losing streak and brought their record to 26-23:
3️⃣6️⃣ Points for Julius Randle
8️⃣ Made 3-pointers for Randle, who had been shooting 28.9 percent from long range in his past 11 games.
4️⃣ Seconds remaining (4.4, to be exact) when Isaiah Hartenstein stonewalled Mitchell at the rim on a potential game-tying layup.
6️⃣ Team-high assists for Immanuel Quickley in his return to the lineup after missing a game due to a sore left knee. The Knicks outscored the Cavs by 14 in Quickley’s 27 minutes.
1️⃣1️⃣ Points for Obi Toppin in 10:22 of action, his second straight game in double figures after failing to hit that threshold since mid-November.
— Jonathan Lehman
That’s Hall, folks
Scott Rolen will be enshrined this summer in the Baseball Hall of Fame after barely eclipsing the necessary 75 percent threshold of the BBWAA electorate, of which I am a voting member. The eight-time Gold Glove third baseman will join Contemporary Era committee honoree Fred McGriff at this year’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown.
I used seven of my slots this year, down from the maximum of 10 one year ago. With David Ortiz elected, and Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling dropping off the ballot after 10 years of consideration, I added longtime Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins to my six holdovers: Rolen, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield and Billy Wagner.
Spinning this forward to 2024, the voting bodes well for Helton, the five-time All-Star first baseman with the Rockies, and Wagner, a dominant former closer who spent most of his career with the Astros, Phillies and Mets.
Especially when you consider that Rolen came so far from his first ballot appearance, when he received 10.2 percent of the vote in 2018.
Helton, in his fifth year on the ballot, jumped from 16.5 percent in his first year in 2019 to 52.0 percent one year ago to 72.2 percent this year.
Wagner rose from 10.5 percent in 2016 to 51.0 percent last year to 68.1 percent with two years remaining for consideration.
Helton, Wagner and the rest of the holdovers — including surging Andruw Jones (58.1%), Gary Sheffield (55.0% in his ninth year of eligibility) and first-timer Carlos Beltran (46.5%) — will be joined next year by likely first-ballot inductees Adrian Beltre and Joe Mauer.
Beltran clearly was hurt this year by his involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, but after a one-year timeout, I plan to add the former Mets center fielder to my list in the next voting cycle.
Not surprisingly, however, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez gained little traction in their candidacies. Both PED-suspended superstars received less than 36 percent of the vote, similar to last year’s totals.
Mikaela makes her mark
Nearly one year after a disappointing personal Olympic flameout, American skier Mikaela Shiffrin set a record on the slopes with a chance for more.
The 27-year-old Shiffrin won her 83rd World Cup alpine event Tuesday in Italy, eclipsing the previous mark held by retired former U.S. teammate Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin also moved within three wins of matching the overall mark of 86 victories by Swedish man Ingemar Stenmark.
“It’s hard to find words actually,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t think there are words to explain all the feelings.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist was shut out in six events at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Shiffrin has a chance to add to her victory total in the giant slalom early Wednesday and two more upcoming slalom races in the Czech Republic before the world championships begin Feb. 6 in France.