The NBA, like the NFL and Major League Baseball, has two types of teams — the haves and the have-nots.
As in, the league has four, possibly five, teams that have legitimate hope of reaching The Finals.
The other 25 or 26 teams?
They are The Have-Nots.
The Western Conference is thin, with only Golden State and Houston possessing legit championship aspirations.
Cleveland, Toronto and, possibly, Boston, can come out of the Eastern Conference.
The rest? The teams that reach the playoffs are regulated to being opponents, squads simply with the potential to be speedbumps to the contenders as opposed to roadblocks.
With all of that having been said, let’s take a look at how “The Haves” stand heading into play Sunday.
The wild-wild West
Golden State Warriors
Record — 54-18 (.750).
Current playoff seed — No. 2.
Remaining schedule — Utah, March 35; Indiana, March 27; Milwaukee, March 29; at Sacramento, March 31; Phoenix, April 1; at Oklahoma City, April 3; at Indiana, April 5; New Orleans, April 7; at Phoenix, April 8; at Utah, April 10.
The skinny — The Warriors at The Walking Wounded. Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee Friday night against Atlanta. He joins Kevin Durant (rib contusion), Klay Thompson (thumb fracture) and Draymond Green (pelvic contusion) on the the sidelines. That’s four guys who made the All-Star team this season, by the way. Golden State is all but locked into the No. 2 seed in the West. Green is probable for Sunday against Utah and Durant and Thompson are expected to be ready for the postseason. However, Curry’s status is the biggest story in the league heading to the postseason. The 30-year-old is averaging 26.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists a game this season and with him on the floor, Golden State is averaging 120.4 points per 100 possessions — the highest figure in the past two decades, according to NBA advanced stats. Curry is to be re-evaluated in three weeks.
Record — 59-14 (.808).
Current playoff seed — No. 1.
Remaining schedule — New Orleans, Saturday; Atlanta, March 25; Chicago, March 27; Phoenix, March 30; at San Antonio, April 1; Washington, April 3; Portland, April 5; Oklahoma City, April 7; at LA Lakers, April 10; at Sacramento, April 11.
The skinny — The Rockets are the NBA’s biggest enigma. They are going to finish with the best record in the league. James Harden looks to be a runaway winner of the MVP award. He and Chris Paul have found a way to not only co-exist, but to thrive in the same backcourt. But… and with any team coached by Mike D’Antoni, there’s always a “but” when it comes to the postseason. Last time we saw Harden in the playoffs, he laid a giant egg, shooting just 2-for-11 and turning the basketball over six times in a humiliating 39-point loss to San Antonio that ended Houston’s season. Paul has never been to a conference final, let alone The Finals. Harden, Paul and D’Antoni have all reached a point where it’s time to either (use) or get off the pot.
Is the East least?
Record — 54-19 (.740).
Current playoff seed — No. 1.
Remaining schedule — LA Clippers, March 25; Denver, March 27; at Boston, March 31; at Cleveland, April 3; Boston, April 4; Indiana, April 6; Orlando, April 8; at Detroit, April 9; at Miami, April 11.
The skinny — The Raptors have been one of the best stories in the league all season. Coach Dwane Casey retooled the team’s offensive philosophy in the offseason, which helped lure All-Star Kyle Lowry to reup and to continue to team with the Raptors’ best player, All-Star DeMar DeRozan, to form a top-3 backcourt. Led by one of the league’s best bench bunches, Toronto, which has a top-5 rating in both offense and defense this season, will finish with the best record in the East and have homecourt advantage up until The Finals. However, Toronto faces the same dilemma this season that plagued it the last two seasons — Cleveland. Led by LeBron James, the Cavaliers beat the Raptors in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago and swept them out of the conference semifinals last season. Last Wednesday, minus five rotation players, not to mention coach Tyronn Lue, Cleveland rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to take down the Raptors. The two teams play once more this regular season — April 3 at Quicken Loans Arena — which could serve as a preview for what is expected to be a rematch in the conference finals come playoff time.
Record — 49-23 (.681).
Current playoff seed — No. 2.
Remaining schedule — At Saracmento, March 25; at Phoenix, March 26; at Utah, March 28; Toronto, April 4; Chicago, April 6; Atlanta, April 8; at Washington, April 10; Brooklyn, April 11.
The skinny — The Celtics could be in trouble. All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving had what was called “minimally invasive” surgery on his left knee, the same knee in which he suffered a broken kneecap and was knocked out of The Finals when playing for the Cavaliers in 2015. He is expected to miss three to six weeks and despite all of Boston’s success this season, along with the wizardry of coach Brad Stevens, it’s difficult to fathom the Celtics having enough to hang with Cleveland, a matchup that would come in the conference semis should current seeding hold up. Minus Irving, surviving a first-round matchup against Washington, Miami or Milwaukee could be difficult to navigate for Boston, which struggled all season long for offense with Irving at the controls of the offense. With him on the shelf for several weeks, from where will the points come?
Record — 43-29 (.597).
Current playoff seed — No. 3.
Remaining schedule — At Brooklyn, March 25; at Miami, March 27; at Charlotte, March 28; New Orleans, March 30; Dallas, April 1; Toronto, April 3; Washington, April 5; at Philadelphia, April 6; at New York, April 9; New York, April 11.
The skinny — The Cavaliers have basically been five different teams since last July… the one that made a third consecutive trip to The Finals behind James, Irving and Kevin Love, the one that started the season after Irving’s wish to be traded was granted, the one that tried to adjust to Isaiah Thomas’ failed attempt to be integrated into the team on and off the floor, the version that flourished (for all of two games) immediately after the massive roster makeover by GM Koby Altman, the one that struggled as player after player — and eventually, Lue — went down, to the rendition we’re seeing now. With Love, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and Tristan Thompson all having returned from injuries, and with Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman and Lue expected to rejoin the fray in the coming days, the Cavaliers could be whole for the first time all season very soon and they’ve already won four in a row and five out of their last six. Behind the spectacularly relentless play of James, buoyed by the return of Love (averaging 20 points and 8 boards in 29 minutes a game since he came back) three games ago, Cleveland has scored 124, 132 and 120 points, with rotation guys still not being available. But they will be soon… which is bad news for the rest of the East and something you can bet even superpowers Golden State and Houston will be watching closely from afar.