First month foreshadows rest of NBA season

Nikhil Sriram, Contributing Writer

Throughout the first month of the regular season, there have already been breakout stars, new contenders and surprise upsets. It’s clear that fans can expect an exciting 2016-2017 NBA season. However, only the teams that continue their successes as well as build on their failures will be the ones fighting for a championship in April.

Atlantic Division

Winner last year: Toronto Raptors

The story: The Raptors dominated the Atlantic division last year, ending with a record of 56-26 on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry had very impressive seasons as both were named all-stars. The team did not make any big trades in the off-season and seems to just be attempting to build upon last year’s success. It has been working so far as they are 4-2 and top of their division.  

The New York Knicks have many new fresh faces and threaten to be a major contender if they are able to bring chemistry to the team. The team added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Brandon Jennings, and Courtney Lee in the off-season, making them a very well-rounded club. They also have a very talented sophomore in Kristaps Porzingis and a future hall-of-famer with Carmelo Anthony. So far, the team has not had much success; as they started out 2-4. However, they only have room to grow and look like they have lots of potential.

Things just never seem to go right for the Philadelphia 76ers. The signing of number one draft pick Ben Simmons appeared to be a step in the right direction for this club that only had ten wins last season. However, less than a month before the start of the season it was announced that Simmons had fractured his right foot and would be out for three to four months. Even with young center Joel Embiid leading the way, the team is still looking for its first win and doesn’t look like 2017 will be the breakout season for them.

The Boston Celtics are definitely a contender with their 3-3 record. With the signing of Al Horford, they will gain experience and maturity which will help the young team extensively.

The Brooklyn Nets are a struggling team which has been shown through their 3-4 record. They have talent, but cannot put it together. This season does not seem like it will be a breakout year for them.

The verdict: Simply because they have great chemistry while other teams are still trying to find it, the Raptors look like they will sweep up the Atlantic title.

Central Division

Winner last year: Cleveland Cavaliers

The story: The Central division appears much less complex than some of the other divisions. Coming off an incredible NBA finals run where they came back from a 3-1 deficit, the Cleveland Cavaliers do not appear to have let up on the gas with an on fire start of 6-1. The team did not make any big roster changes in the off-season and the trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love have played dominantly in the first few games. The Cavs look well on their way to another NBA Finals appearance.

There really are no major competitors in the Central division that might hinder Cleveland’s success. However, all the teams do appear to be working hard to compete for the other spots in the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose to the Knicks, but they did add 3-time champion Dwyane Wade to the lineup as well as 4-time all-star Rajon Rondo. The team has had a good start so far being 4-3, and they have a good amount of depth in their lineup that should allow for further success.

The other teams in the division, the Indiana Pacers, 3-4, the Detroit Pistons, 4-3, and the Milwaukee Bucks, 4-3, are all very skilled, but it looks like the Cavaliers will not be stopped again. However, the outcome cannot be fully decided yet.

The verdict: Since there are no other teams that can match their talent and depth, the reigning champion Cavaliers should be expected to win the Central title, and it is very likely they go to the NBA Finals again.

Southeast Division

Winner last year: Miami Heat

The story: The Southeast division looks to be up for grabs as there is really no dominant team as of yet. The Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets have both come out the gate strong as both teams have four wins. The Hornets, led by Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, are playing well at the moment with their 5-1 record. But only time will tell if they can keep it up.

The off-season was a grueling one for the Hawks as they lost all-stars Al Horford to the Celtics and Jeff Teague to the Pacers. However, the signing of three-time defensive player of the year Dwight Howard appears to have given the team a much-needed boost on defense considering their 5-2 record. The team has been able to turn strong defense into success on the offensive end with sharpshooter Kyle Korver and star forward Paul Millsap.

Besides that, there still is other talent in the Southeast division that may have some success this season. The Miami Heat lost veteran Dwyane Wade, but rising star Hassan Whiteside seems to be ready to fill those shoes. However, their 2-4 record does not signify success for the rest of the season. The Washington Wizards have not had much success with a 1-5 record even with the backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Lastly, the Orlando Magic lack a star player to rely on in close game situations which will most likely hinder an Orlando triumph. At the moment, their 3-4 record leaves them third in the division.

The verdict: There is no clear favorite in this division, but the experienced Hawks are the best bet at winning the Southeast title.

Pacific Division

Winner last year: Golden State Warriors

The story: There is no doubt that the leaders of the Pacific division are the record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors. However, 2016 was a disappointing year for the squad as they lost the aforementioned 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cavaliers. Nevertheless, the signing of former MVP Kevin Durant certainly increases their chances of winning this year. While there was lots of backlash for Durant’s decision, he cannot be blamed for wanting to go to the Warriors. He will be joining reigning MVP Stephen Curry, as well as all-stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. However, it has been shown in their early games that they lack the down-low paint presence which has hurt them. The determining factor for the team’s success is going to be how well they are able to work together and adapt especially considering the two humiliating losses they suffered to the Lakers and the Spurs in their first seven games.  

The Warriors are definitely the powerhouse of the Pacific, but there are plenty of other strong teams. The Los Angeles Clippers have had a good start to the season so far, and are at the top of the division with a 6-1 record. Forward Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul lead the way. Also, the L.A. Lakers have had an impressive 4-4 start especially without legend Kobe Bryant. The addition of Luol Deng and the drafting of Brandon Ingram appear to be working for this young Lakers team.

The other Pacific teams, the Phoenix Suns, 2-6, and Sacramento Kings, 4-5, both seem to be overshadowed by the Warriors and Clippers, but they have lots of potential and are almost guaranteed to be a post-season competitor in the future.

The verdict: With the addition of Kevin Durant, no other team will be able to guard the Warriors defensively, and they have a great chance to go above and beyond just the Pacific division title.

Southwest Division

Winner last year: San Antonio Spurs

The story: The Spurs have been the dominant team in the Southwest division for over a decade now. Even with the retiring of legend Tim Duncan, the Spurs seem to already be showing their powerful presence this season with a 5-2 record. In their first game of the season, they took down the powerful Golden State Warriors in a 29 point rout. Defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard is showing not only his defensive prowess, but also his skills on offense early into the season. Combined with big men Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are a force to be reckoned with this season.

The New Orleans Pelicans are off to a poor start this season and are still looking for their first win of the season after eight games. This is coming even with Anthony Davis’s exceptional play since the start of the season, as he is averaging 30 points a game. If this strong play from Davis continues, the pieces may begin to fall into place, but he will need support from his teammates if any success is to come out of it.

The remaining teams, the Houston Rockets, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Memphis Grizzlies, all made the playoffs last year. Dallas has not had a great start as they only have two wins after seven games. However, Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki can always be counted on to turn it around. The Rockets have a decent 4-3 record at the moment. James Harden, shooting guard for the Rockets, is playing phenomenally, averaging 31.5 points and 12.3 assists. The Grizzlies are third in the division with a 4-4 record, and duo Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have a chance to bring true success to the team.

The verdict: The experienced Spurs look like they will carry their dominance another year with their talent on both ends of the floor to win the Southwest division title.

Northwest Division

Winner last year: Oklahoma City Thunder

The story: The off-season before the 2016-2017 season was a dramatic one for the OKC Thunder. Losing Kevin Durant may have been the single worst thing that could’ve happened to this quickly developing ballclub. However, star point guard Russell Westbrook has not let his team go down without a fight. He is averaging more than 33 points and almost averaging a triple-double as well which last allowed the team to have a very impressive 6-1 record. If Westbrook can get support from the rest of his team, players such as Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams, this Thunder team can be very successful. But it is all on Westbrook, so he must stay healthy.

The Portland Trail Blazers have had an impressive start to the season with a 5-3 record. Damian Lillard has been playing very well for the team, but similar to the Thunder, Lillard needs a supporting cast that he can count on to continue their success. Even if that does take place, it is still going to be tough to get past the Thunder, Warriors, or Spurs in the post-season. Still, by adding depth to the lineup, the team gives themselves a much better chance.

For the Utah Jazz, it is going to be tough to qualify for the playoffs. They are a talented team, but their is simply much more experienced competition against them. However, small forward Gordon Hayward’s team have had a strong 5-3 start and may prove us wrong.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are a young developing team that have gained some great players through the draft. This year may not be the one with an embarrassing 1-5 start, but look for them going deep into the playoffs in the next few years.

The Denver Nuggets suffer from the same problem as the Magic because they lack a player they can rely on to be clutch. Until they find this, it is going to be tough to contend. Their 3-4 record leaves them fourth in the division.

The verdict: While there are other talented teams, the Thunder have the best chance at winning the Northwest division title as long as Westbrook keeps up his high level of play and is supported.