Lakers, Bucks and Clippers are cream of the NBA crop, but which one deserves to be the championship favorite?
Breaking down the matchups and championship chances of the league's three best teams
The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and though potentially impactful buyout players could still relocate, we now have a pretty good idea of what rosters are going to look like for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs, which are less than two months out.
With the seemingly overnight destruction of the Warriors, this year's championship chase was billed as the most wide-open in recent memory, and three clear teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers — have risen to the top. Below I will rank those teams in order of championship chances based on a variety of factors.
No. 1: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers and Lakers are likely going to meet at some point in the Western Conference playoffs, and when they do, it'll be close to a coin-flip series. But to me, the slight edge should reside with the Clippers, who can win a game and/or series in multiple ways, through multiple players and on both ends of the court.
While the Lakers' tank of playmakers runs dry beyond LeBron James, the Clippers have three elite individual scorers in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Lou Williams, all of whom can single-handedly create elite offense outside the schemes so often rendered obsolete by playoff-prepared defenses. The Clippers rank sixth offensively, per NBA.com, a borderline elite ranking even while basically coasting through the season.
Defensively, the Clippers also rank sixth in the league, per Cleaning the Glass — a borderline elite mark and yet merely a baseline representation of the defense we can expect them to be playing come playoff time.
Consider this: Per John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Clippers have the best defensive rating in the league — 105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions — against the top 13 offenses. In other words, even with Leonard load-managing and George having missed 21 games, and even before they added Marcus Morris into the mix, the Clippers have been able to raise their defense to the level of the challenge at hand.
The personnel tells the tale. Leonard, George, Morris and Patrick Beverley compose what is probably the most daunting, versatile defensive perimeter in the league. Then, even if you somehow penetrate that switching, rotating, smothering fortress, the Clippers, though lacking an elite shot-blocker, are holding teams to under 53 percent shooting, the eighth-best mark in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
Getting back to the aforementioned Morris — his addition can't be overstated from three different, arguably equally important vantage points. First, he's another capable one-on-one scorer. Second, he's a 43 percent 3-point shooter for when defenses inevitably collapse on Leonard and George. Third, Morris is a stout, 6-foot-9 defender who can check elite wing scorers.
Statistically, Morris has been one of the stingiest — relatively speaking — LeBron James defenders in the league. Do the math, and that's three Clippers in Leonard, George and Morris who can take turns guarding LeBron, but who do the Lakers have to guard Leonard and/or George? LeBron is a stretch for any length of time. So is Danny Green.
The Lakers guard the 3-point line and the rim at elite levels, but you can maneuver in between, and Leonard, George and Williams are in-between assassins. Leonard, specifically, is a matchup nightmare for the Lakers. In two games vs. the Lakers this season, both Clipper wins, Leonard has tallied 65 points.
A potential Finals matchup with Milwaukee would pose different matchup questions for the Clippers, but generally speaking, if you can reasonably cover LeBron, you can reasonably cover Giannis — to the extent that either one of those guys can be guarded. The Clippers have a multitude of lineups with the requisite length and strength to at least represent a formidable wall in front of Giannis, and they also have the versatility to chase and close out to shooters when he kicks.
Going the other way, the Bucks have the top defense in the league by an appreciable margin, but their reliance on drop techniques that concede the third-most 3-point attempts and sixth-most mid-range attempts in the league are well chronicled. The Clippers have the best mid-range player in the world in Leonard (at least as long as Kevin Durant is in street clothes), and George and Lou Williams are lethal, too.
Williams could be especially problematic for Milwaukee with his pick-and-roll mastery alongside Montrezl Harrell. If Brook Lopez drops on that action, Williams can do as he pleases coming off that pick. If Harrell plays Lopez off the floor, Milwaukee's ability to protect the rim takes a big hit. Giannis can cover a lot, but can he cover everything?
Ultimately, reasonable minds can disagree about whether the Clippers are the rightful title favorite. They have not looked like the best team in the league for any sort of consistent stretch this season. But Kawhi, and by extension the Clippers, have earned the latitude that comes with the performance Leonard put on in last year's postseason.
Realistically, the Clippers are the only team that can match the Lakers' two-man star power, and their supporting cast is stronger. Again, Williams is deadly. Harrell is a beast. We've talked a lot about Morris. Landry Shamet is shooting over 41 percent from 3. Beverley is a defensive dog and and just under a 37 percent 3-point shooter. Now they're about to pick up Reggie Jackson, who reportedly agreed to a buyout with Detroit. This team is stacked — not quite as deep as the Bucks, but plenty deep enough with more than one star to lean on.
And it's not like they're completely coasting through the season. They have the sixth-best net rating in the league. They're No. 3 in the West, just one game back in the loss column of the Nuggets for the No. 2 seed. That said, they're also tied in the loss column with the No. 4 Jazz.
Again, the Clippers will likely go through the Lakers at some point in the playoffs, but falling to No. 4 (assuming the Lakers hold on to the No. 1 spot) would mean having to face them a round earlier before LeBron, Anthony Davis and Co. have had to go through a potentially difficult and exhausting second-round series with a team like Utah or the Rockets.
Still, all of this data and matchup-logic considered, mixed with a little bit of gut feel that we are again sleeping on the easy-to-sleep-on Leonard as the true playoff giant we saw last season, leads me to lean Clippers, slightly, in this ranking.
No. 2: Los Angeles Lakers
While everyone else is going small, the Lakers play two 7-footers together for significant minutes and rely heavily on three. And LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the best two-man combo in the league. Ultimately, if the Lakers are going to win the championship, that's going to be the blueprint: Top-end talent and sheer size.
All told, the Lakers are top-five in total offense and defense, per Cleaning the Glass. Their two-big lineup of LeBron, Davis, JaVale McGee, Danny Green and Avery Bradley has the third-best net rating in the league among all lineups with more than 200 minutes played together.
First, they lack consistent one-on-one playmaking outside LeBron, who is the only Laker we know who can generate elite offense for not just himself, but everyone else in a playoff setting. The Clippers, as mentioned, can go depend on three different guys on the perimeter to create that kind of offense.
Also, as mentioned above, the Clippers can guard LeBron with either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, but who do the Lakers have to guard those two? LeBron? OK, in theory that's one, though in reality he's not that kind of defender anymore and Leonard, again, has eaten the Lakers up this season. Danny Green? Maybe Anthony Davis in spurts? Missing on Marcus Morris hurts for both the one-on-one offense and the defense he is capable of providing. Now he'll be providing that defense against them.
The Lakers have a lot of tough perimeter defenders, but they're all small. Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rondo. Even Green is only 6-6. A potential matchup with Giannis in the Finals would seemingly necessitate Davis trying to guard him, which would be fascinating. Milwaukee allows a lot of 3-point attempts, but the Lakers aren't a great 3-point shooting team, especially out of pick-and-roll sets, which specifically test Milwaukee's dropping bigs.
Still, LeBron and Davis are just so great, and the size the Lakers play with creates so much rim protection and second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass, the margin for error with the rest of their parts is pretty great. It's not like they can't shoot. Through the All-Star break, they're 11th in 3-point percentage. LeBron and A.D. would both be leading MVP candidates if they weren't on the same team. The fact that they are on the same team is, pretty simply, the foundation of every Lakers championship conversation.
As far as this ranking, I'm putting the Lakers second because I think they're the second-best team of the three we're talking about. But in reality, the team I think is better than them, the Clippers, is in their pre-Finals path, which would, on paper, give the Bucks a better championship route and chance.
No. 3: Milwaukee Bucks
They've got a shot to win 70 games. They have arguably the best player in the world. They have a better net rating than the 2015-16 Warriors that won 73 games. They have the No. 1 defense (by a mile) and No. 2 offense in the league. They're deep. They have a stable of capable 3-point shooters. Khris Middleton is making a run at All-NBA. Eric Bledsoe is making a run at All-Defense. They just picked up Marvin Williams for good measure.
Yes, the Bucks have a case as the championship favorite.
Before this season even started I had two GMs tell me they felt the Bucks should be the clear title favorite. Part of this was based on Giannis just flat-out becoming more and more unstoppable, which has played out to form. The other parts were Milwaukee's core continuity and presumably softer path through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The East is no cakewalk at the top. The Miami Heat are more dangerous than most anyone thought they would be. So are the Boston Celtics. The 76ers have generally been seen as a disappointment, but their 25-2 home record and undeniable talent makes them a threat to win any series. The Toronto Raptors, the team that took out Milwaukee last season, are for real, and though Leonard is gone, there are guys on that team that can swing a series. In fact, you could argue it was Fred VanVleet even more than Leonard who ultimately crippled the Bucks last season.
Also, some of Milwaukee's advanced ratings are products of beating up on the lower-tier Eastern playoff teams and the doormats that exist below that in the form of the Hawks, Cavaliers, Knicks, Pistons, Hornets, Bulls and Wizards. The Bucks probably aren't quite as dominant as that historic net rating would suggest. They do have some potentially exploitable holes, ever-shrinking as they may be.
For one, Giannis' development as an increasingly willing and able 3-point shooter is a fun story, but it won't change the way he's defended. Truth is, Giannis could be making 40 percent of his 3s and defenses are still going to give him ample space and wall him off in the paint.
The good news for Milwaukee is Giannis is great enough to go over, through and around those walls, and when he does hit 3s, he has shown a knack for doing so in crucial spots. In fact, his 31 percent 3-point mark undersells his ability, and confidence, to take and make big 3s, and he's becoming more dangerous all the time at finding his shooters — of which the Bucks have plenty. George Hill is shooting 50 percent from deep. Middleton is shooting 43 percent. Kyle Korver is 41 percent.
You could argue those guys might not shoot up to their percentages in the playoffs, but the counter to that is the Bucks have a lot of shooters who could perform above their season averages — Pat Connaughton (31 percent), Donte DiVincenzo (33 percent), Wes Matthews (37 percent), Eric Bledsoe (33 percent), Brook Lopez (29 percent) and on down the line. Even the recently added Marvin Williams is shooting over 37 from 3 for the season. In Milwaukee, the ballboys probably shoot 3-pointers.
The odds of all those shooters going cold at the wrong time are slim. But it could happen. We're not talking about star players. Outside of Middleton, there's an inherent volatility to depending on role players to hit timely shots, and in this offense, particularly in the half-court, these peripheral contributions are even more paramount given Giannis' own perimeter deficiencies.
Defensively, the Bucks surrender more 3-point attempts than any team in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. Most of them are non-corner 3s, so they're smart about it, but with their big-dropping technique and paint-protecting priorities, teams are going to get an array of 3-point looks.
You look at all the shooters on a team like Miami, or Boston, or Toronto, and you can at least start to imagine a series in which the Bucks go cold at the wrong time, and their opponents get hot at the right time, and suddenly it's uh-oh time in Milwaukee.
If the Bucs do advance out of the East, which almost everyone would bet on, the matchups become really interesting with both the Lakers and Clippers (if any team other than those two were to somehow come out of the West, the Bucks would be a big favorite).
The Lakers aren't a huge threat from 3, but they are indeed, huge. The resistance Giannis would face all the time in the form of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard would be a real issue. Giannis and Davis potentially guarding one another would be a matchup made in indefensible heaven.
Milwaukee would have a clear advantage in transition with Giannis some kind of Ferrari/armored-tank super-vehicle in the open floor and the Lakers often playing two 7-footers and a 34-year-old LeBron James. The Lakers would not want to run with the Bucks. The Bucks would not want to play in the half-court against the Lakers. To me, half-court offense is always more viable in the playoffs.
In the end, the Bucks are the best team in the East. I'm confident in that. But I do not believe they are unbeatable, and in a Finals matchup with either the Lakers or the Clippers, I would make them the very slight underdog.