Who takes advantage should Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers stumble?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The consensus belief in the basketball world back in October, before the season began, was firm and widespread and unapologetic: Golden State or Cleveland would cradle the trophy come June. Two teams, winners of the last two titles, and hoarding players with a combined seven MVP winners between them, presented a very compelling case for themselves.

And the winner may eventually be the Warriors or Cavaliers, who are both dealing with injury issues now but with good health will be tough to deny come playoff time. But suppose there’s a setback and some drama and a twist of fate? Suppose another team comes along and shakes up that scenario? Which of the realistic contenders not named Golden State or Cleveland is best equipped to pull a shocker?

What the 2016-17 season has taught us so far is that there isn’t a near-perfect team anywhere. Even the Warriors before Kevin Durant’s injury were astonishingly mortal some nights, unlike a year ago when they smoked through a 73-win season. And the Cavs have a worst record over the last two weeks than the Timberwolves. Injuries, no surprise, have kicked a handful of teams in the groin harder than Draymond Green. That’s what the NBA is dealing with here in the stretch run: A weakening, if only temporarily, of the top teams in East and West.

But if the basketball gods are suffering from Warriors-Cavs fatigue and searching for a replacement, we examine those who are best qualified to win what would be the most unexpected title in years.

ROCKETS: After the two obvious choices, is there a team more captivating and fun to watch than Houston? The Rockets spray 3-pointers all over the place, run the floor when necessary, are orchestrated by the remarkable James Harden and sparked by the feisty and loquacious Patrick Beverley. They’re not quite on the entertainment level of Mike D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix with Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, but you can see the link between them.

The question now becomes: Will these Rockets share something else with those Suns, who despite their whiplash-inducing offense never reached The Finals?

The Rockets rate in the bottom half defensively league-wide but if you score at the rate they’re at — 112.2 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Warriors — then it’s not as pressing of an issue. If those 3-point shots fall for Houston (currently on pace to destroy the single-season records for attempts and makes) and Harden keeps twisting up defenders on isolation plays, good luck for any team trying to keep up.

And that’s the trick for the Rockets, to shoot a high percentage from deep for a solid two months; otherwise they’re fairly ordinary and would have trouble reaching the West finals.

SPURS: The LaMarcus Aldridge heart situation is unsettling. It puts a dose of mystery and will torpedo any shot of San Antonio going deep into the postseason if he can’t suit up.

Assuming Aldridge is all clear for the postseason, the Spurs still have concerns, none of which involve Kawhi Leonard or Gregg Popovich. The development of Leonard’s shooting stroke, especially from deep, has elevated him among the top half-dozen players in basketball. He’s slowly erasing doubts about his ability to carry a club the way predecessors like David Robinson and Tim Duncan did. Pop once again has the Spurs humming defensively (only 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, No. 1) and playing unselfishly and hard.

Still, this team’s backcourt situation is wobbly. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are fighting age and looking more vulnerable than ever, and no one else is good enough to command big minutes and big shots. The Spurs will require a string of consistently big nights from Leonard and Aldridge, which they’re capable of giving.

CELTICS: They’re just 5-6 since Feb. 15 and suddenly fending off the Washington Wizards for the No. 2 spot in the East. Easily, this is the toughest stretch of the season for the Celtics, perhaps due to being on the road. But is this also an indictment against Boston being a legit title contender?

We’ll know the answer to that in the coming weeks when and if the Celtics can indeed finish second to the Cavs — or even better, pull even with or overtake the Cavs here in the dog days of March. Lots will depend on whether the Celtics find somebody with gusto other than Isaiah Thomas, which of course is the story of their season.

That person could be Avery Bradley, finally removed from his minutes restriction following his 18-game absence with a bum Achilles and anxious to once again be a reliable second option. He’d be better in this role than Al Horford, who in his first season in Boston is confirming that he’s a really complimentary scorer and below-average rebounder (6.6 per game) whose biggest asset is defense.

The good news is the Celtics can go nine- or even 10-deep. The not-so-good news: Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and the rest are role players who rarely if ever go on a tear.

WIZARDS: Wait. How did the Wizards sneak into this conversation? Well, by going 25-7 since Jan. 6, for starters. And the John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt, healthy and intact for once, is officially one of the better guard tandems around.

Everyone needs to see a larger sample size from the Wizards to be fully converted, but Washington is headed in that direction. They’re still giving up far too many points (105.9/100, 16th) and aren’t getting enough rebounds as you’d like to see from a contender. Still, most of the problems that plagued this team before Christmas are gone, and Scott Brooks finds himself in the running for Coach of the Year.

Where the Wizards finally end up will depend heavily on the continued development of Otto Porter, who’s the league’s most dangerous 3-point shooter. Bojan Bogdanovic (45 percent from deep) was added at the deadline to supply outside shooting depth and he’s proving a good fit along with Porter, Beal and Markieff Morris from the perimeter.

Are the Wizards merely on a hot streak, or is this for real? Given the evidence so far, this is the best team Wall has ever had in Washington, although the playoffs will show their true identity.

CLIPPERS: Yes, laugh at the Clippers if you wish and wonder why their “title” chances are remotely better than, say, Utah’s. Have the Clippers even gone to the West finals in the Chris Paul era? No. And aren’t they currently scuffling in the 4-5 slot in the West? True.

Actually, the Clippers belong in the conversation precisely because of that; there’s the scent of desperation with Doc Rivers’ team which realizes this could be their last decent shot. Paul, Blake Griffin and JJ Redick are free agents this summer while Jamal Crawford, still frisky, is pushing closer to age 40. They’re not firmly in the top four in the West mainly because of injuries to Griffin but the core is proven and productive.

Even better for the Clippers, Rivers finally has a solid bench, with Marreese Speights and even Austin Rivers giving a lift. Lots will depend on how the matchups fall, because the Clippers routinely get ambushed by the Warriors. But an anxious team can be dangerous, and if the Clippers don’t reach the promised land this summer, a breakup, or at least a reasonable roster change, could be in order.

OTHERS: The Raptors added Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to a team that needed a defensive upgrade and toughness, but their fate lies with Kyle Lowry’s repaired shooting wrist. Will it be fully healed enough for him to return before the playoffs, as scheduled? And what happens if a defender takes a swipe at it? Toronto needs his deep shooting and playmaking to have any chance. He means that much.

The Jazz are perhaps a year away, assuming they re-sign Gordon Hayward this summer as expected. If nothing else they’re built to be a tough out in the playoffs this spring. That’s what happens when Hayward’s an All-Star, George Hill has a career year and Rudy Gobert puts himself as the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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