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Setting The Pick – Championship Contender Tiers

Jayson Tatum Boston Celtics Jayson Tatum - The Canadian Press

The NBA is going through a changing of the guard right before our eyes.

This year’s postseason has been filled with nail-biting finishes and iconic moments that will be replayed on highlight reels for a while.

What’s strange about it all this season?

The players typically responsible for those statement moments are nowhere to be found.

No goodbye waves from Damian Lillard, no chase down blocks from LeBron James, no sleep-time celebrations from Stephen Curry.

All the major moments this year have come from the younger generation.

Whether it’s Anthony Edwards’ dunk to seal their first-round sweep, Jamal Murray’s two dagger jumpers to eliminate the Lakers or any of New York’s dramatic clutch-time performances this year, the new kids are front and centre.

There are eight remaining teams, and all of them are led by a superstar in their 20s.

Let’s tier this new era of championship contenders based on their paths to the Larry O’Brien trophy.


Unconvincing pole position – [1] Boston Celtics (-115)       


Having clinched the top seed three weeks before the regular season finished, Boston has been in a tier of their own for months now.

Given their path to the Finals, it’s been their championship to lose.

But every time the crown is there for the taking, the Celtics give us reason to doubt them.

With both Cleveland and Boston down their starting centre, it was the Cavs who found a way to do damage in the interior.

The Celtics were the second-best defence only behind Minnesota in the regular season, but struggled all night without Kristaps Porzingis, allowing 60 points in the paint.

Offensively, Boston will likely not shoot 23 per cent from deep again – their 16.5 three-pointers made per game in the regular season was third-most in NBA history.

But with their reliance on the three-ball, they become susceptible to nights like these when shots aren’t falling.

The key to their championship success comes down to defence.

Derrick White and Jrue Holiday combine for the best perimeter defensive duo in the league.

But with Porzingis’ status uncertain, they’ll have to develop a contingency plan quickly to protect the paint better.


Chase pack – [2] Minnesota Timberwolves (+300), [3] Dallas Mavericks (+950) and [4] Oklahoma City Thunder (+800)


Minnesota is currently -115 to come out of the West, and it all has to do with their recent form.

First, they completely dismantled the Phoenix Suns who were pegged as the more experienced, playoff-proven squad with multiple All-NBA players.

Even though the Wolves were swept in the regular season 0-3, they flipped the script, returning the favour during the opening round on both ends of the floor.

Then in the semis, Minnesota backed up claims as the most threatening matchup to the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

In Game 2, Nikola Jokic looked more mortal than any other game over the past two years.

The Nuggets got completely unravelled getting blown out in Ball Arena.

Down 0-2 as the higher seed, only five teams in NBA history have ever come back from that deficit, according to ESPN’s stats guru, Matt Williams.

Minnesota owned the league’s top defence during the regular season, which led to Rudy Gobert earning his fourth Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

But now that they own the league’s best offensive rating in the postseason as well, opponents need to be on alert.

Onto my next choice for the chip, the Mavericks came through with a critical win in Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Luka Doncic has been underachieving all playoffs, so it was relieving for Mavs fans to see him shoot 52 per cent from the field and 5-of-8 from deep.

Up until Thursday night, Doncic was 17-of-75 from behind the arc and under 40 per cent from the field.

It’s actually quite shocking that Dallas is alive while Doncic has been this cold.

Defensively they’ve gotten huge contributions from Derrick Jones Jr. and deadline acquisitions PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford.

Heck, even Kyrie Irving is having a massive impact on that end.

The Mavericks’ chances live and die as Doncic goes.

If this Thursday night performance was his get-right game, there’s no reason they can’t make a Finals appearance.

The Thunder were the second-last remaining team to go undefeated in the playoffs.

Even though Dallas took back homecourt advantage from them Thursday night, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company have proven they have the poise to make a championship run.

All year, I had been doubting their championship aspirations mainly due to their youth.

Their rise has been so meteoric, it felt far too soon considering their starting five had a combined 20 games of playoff experience.

To their credit, they’ve proven they can hang and are gaining attention for their strong defensive play.

This series might ultimately come down to three-point shot making and has a great chance at going the distance.


Don’t count us out – [5] Denver Nuggets (+1700) and [6] New York Knicks (+1500)


If we’re having an argument over sheer talent and ability, Denver still deserves to be in the discussion as the best in the NBA.

When it comes to their championship prospects this year, history is against them.

In the last 20 years, only three teams have overcome an 0-2 deficit as the home team (all in the first round):


-          the 2005 Dallas Mavericks against the Houston Rockets

-          the 2017 Boston Celtics against the Chicago Bulls

-          the 2021 Los Angeles Clippers against the Dallas Mavericks


The worry for Denver isn’t just their circumstance, but the manner in which they were defeated in Game 2.

After being handed his third MVP trophy in four seasons, Nikola Jokic is under the most pressure he’s ever been defending his honour as both MVP and defending champs.

Their Game 3 tilt is essentially a do-or-die and might require a herculean effort, considering the form of his teammates.

Jamal Murray is shooting 37.5 per cent from the field and needs to find something over these three days of rest between Games 2 and 3.

Sadly, it may be all for naught if Minnesota maintains their level of two-way dominance they’ve displayed all postseason.

Regardless of where things settle for New York, this playoff run will be graded as an A+.

They deserve a ton of credit for competing this postseason without Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson and Bojan Bogdanovic.

Now that OG Anunoby is also out for Game 3, their rotation has gotten razor-thin.

Even Jalen Brunson is less than 100 per cent as he leads the league with 35.6 ppg.

The Villanova Knicks have become a brand-name staple this season, with Josh Hart racing down the court 48 minutes a night and Donte DiVincenzo lighting it up from deep.

It wasn’t long ago that the Knicks were synonymous with losing and underachievement; seven straight seasons missing the playoffs will do that to you.

This version of the Knicks should give fans tons of optimism.

All their core players are under the age of 30 with the front office still capable of landing one additional star player.

They’re one piece away from truly being a championship contender but the culture and identity of the team is in place. I’d be buying Knicks stock ahead of 2024-25.


So you’re telling me there’s a chance – [7] Cleveland Cavaliers (+9000) and [8] Indiana Pacers (+8000)


At the bottom of the pile, Cleveland put together an impressive blowout victory over the Celtics who’ve lost two Game 2s in a row.

With that said, this Cavs team has lost a lot of the steam that carried them to a 17-1 stretch over the winter.

Throughout both rounds, Cleveland has gotten far too reliant on Donovan Mitchell to jumpstart their offence.

Darius Garland has taken a step backward in Mitchell’s shadow, and Evan Mobley has failed to elevate as a shotmaker.

After Game 2, one can wonder if they found a winning formula.

They successfully leveraged Mobley’s size against an undermanned Celtics squad.

If they can outshoot Boston three more times from deep, who knows what can happen.

Onto the final team, Indiana can have the consolation award for biggest overachiever in the Eastern Conference.

During the off-season, their win total sat at 37.5 games. To finish as the sixth seed with a 47-35 record and be in the Conference Semis, they’re headed in the right direction.

That said, it’s clear over two rounds their defence will need some reinforcements if they want to be legitimate championship contenders.

Their 120.6 defensive rating is second last only ahead of the Phoenix Suns.

Credit to them for owning the top offensive rating so far, but as we’re seeing from the very best in the league, it takes two-way excellence to rise to the top.