Updated Championship Odds for Every NBA Team Entering the New Year

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2018

Updated Championship Odds for Every NBA Team Entering the New Year

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    Every NBA team has a New Year's resolution regarding the championship.

    But not every squad can aim at the upcoming title. The Association might have the widest gap in sports between its haves and have-nots, due to the impact of superstars and clusters of them in certain spots.

    The 2017 portion of this campaign already spotlighted who's in the running, who's on the outskirts and who's more concerned with draft-lottery odds. The Western Conference looks top-heavy in a terrifying way, with several juggernauts boasting multiple-star rosters. The Eastern Conference seemingly always runs through LeBron James, but maybe there's finally an obstacle capable of snapping his streak.

    Our championship odds account for respective roads to the title, since they aren't all created equally. They also weigh to-date production, growth potential and special circumstances like players lost to or recovering from injuries.

Not in a Million Years

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    Lloyd Christmas had better odds than this batch of bottom-feeders.

    Sacramento Kings: 1000-1

    Sacramento's 12-23 record doesn't leap off the page as abnormally atrocious, but its efficiency numbers should. The Kings have the Association's worst defense and worst offense. During the 2010s, only one club (the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats) held the lowest spot in both categories and just the following three closed campaigns with bottom-two rankings at both ends:

    • 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers, who lost 65 games during Kobe Bryant's retirement tour.
    • 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who posted the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
    • 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers, who went 19-63 after LeBron James bolted to South Beach.

    The Kings' leading scorer and rebounder is Zach Randolph, a 36-year-old who ranked 245th in real plus-minus last season. The top distributor, De'Aaron Fox, sits tied for 53rd in average assists with 3.7. Only four rotation players have above-average player efficiency ratings, and three of them are interior bigs.

    Atlanta Hawks: 1000-1

    The Hawks are too early in their rebuilding phase to have great quality or quantity in their prospect collection. So, they're pinning their hopes on an average starting point guard (Dennis Schroder) and some complementary youngsters (namely, John Collins and Taurean Prince), while giving significant minutes to plenty of veterans who aren't long for Atlanta.

    It probably took longer than it should have to blow up the old core—the five starters from the 60-win squad exited over a three-year period—and the reconstruction effort could be even more gradual. Atlanta has the league's only sub-.300 winning percentage (.278) and no discernible direction out of the cellar.

    Dallas Mavericks: 1000-1

    The Mavs might look like they're drowning with their lowest winning percentage in 20 years (.324). But they're actually treading water while Dirk Nowitzki caps his career and Dennis Smith Jr. gets his going.

    The Diggler's days of leading a playoff charge are beyond him, and it's unclear who will eventually spark the organization's next surge. Dallas is probably better than its record—tied for 26th in winning percentage, tied for 22nd in net efficiency—but extra losses won't hurt a team in need of upside-rich prospects.

    Brooklyn Nets: 1000-1

    Could Brooklyn have been relevant if Jeremy Lin stayed healthy and D'Angelo Russell avoided knee surgery? It's possible, although the Nets still would have been facing a talent deficit more often than not. With Lin and Russell sitting, though, the shortage is crippling.

    They do smart things on offense under head coach Kenny Atkinson, racing at a top-five speed and launching threes at a top-five rate. But they're badly missing a focal point—defensive specialist Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is trying his best without Russell—and their bottom-third defense isn't helping.

    Phoenix Suns: 750-1

    Phoenix comes closest to rivaling Sacramento's two-way misery. The Suns are the only other club in the bottom five on offense (26th) and defense (28th), although they'd avoid that distinction if you threw out their brutal three-game start under ex-skipper Earl Watson.

    Since interim coach Jay Triano took over, the Suns have been a little plucky. They don't have the bodies to pull many upsets, but they have a winning record against sub-.500 squads (11-7) and the top individual talent (Devin Booker) of this quintet of teams. If these clubs weren't essentially eliminated already, Phoenix would be the best bet to make some noise.

Maybe Once in a Million Years

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    Orlando Magic: 750-1

    So much for that 8-4 start. The Magic have long since burst their bubble of optimism with two nine-game losing streaks in less than a two-month stretch. There's no reason to believe they'll snap their post-Dwight Howard playoff drought, and with a new front office that inherited most of this roster, there could be some significant shakeups on the horizon.

    Orlando has yet to hit its defensive stride under head coach Frank Vogel (tied for 25th in efficiency, no different that the rate from last season), and the offense is missing a No. 1 option. There are a couple interesting young prospects and a handful of movable vets on the roster, though, so the future doesn't have to be defined by doom and gloom.

    Memphis Grizzlies: 500-1

    It seems so strange seeing Memphis this low, but these aren't your slightly older cousin's Grizzlies. Tyreke Evans has their most total points. Dillon Brooks and Mario Chalmers hold the third and fourth spots, respectively. The typically stingy defense has December's worst efficiency.

    "The season's not going the way we all wanted early on, obviously," Marc Gasol told reporters. "It's not an easy situation for anybody."

    Things are bad enough on Beale Street for the ax to have already fallen on former coach David Fizdale. The Grizzlies say they aren't moving Gasol or Mike Conley, but it seems feasible their record could force them to consider a fire sale. A healthy Conley would help (only 12 appearances so far due to an Achilles injury), but their window to contend looks closed.

    Chicago Bulls: 500-1

    Did you know that "Magic" spelled backward is "Bulls?" OK, maybe that isn't true, but Chicago is basically following Orlando's blueprint—just in reverse order. The Bulls dropped 20 of their first 23 contests and posted a horrific minus-12.9 net rating over that stretch. But they're somehow 10-3 since Nikola Mirotic made his return on Dec. 8 and a top-five team in December.

    Of course, none of this is helping Chicago's bottom line, hence the odds not reflecting the team's latest trend. The Bulls desperately need to secure a top pick in the 2018 draft, and they should be open to shipping out any 25-and-over pieces if that's what it takes to fill the loss column.

    Los Angeles Lakers: 250-1

    It's possible the Lakers wind up with the best scorer (Kyle Kuzma) and top distributor (Lonzo Ball) of what looks like a loaded rookie crop. Brandon Ingram has obviously leaped forward from his freshman campaign, and L.A. is receiving previously unseen levels of efficiency from Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.

    But that's a ton of young players in heavy rotation, and the rest of the roster is comprised mostly of placeholding veterans. The offense has been a mess all season (28th), and the defense is starting to splinter (21st in December). Frustration has boiled over in the form of a team meeting, and any previous playoff talks now sound preposterous.

    Charlotte Hornets: 250-1

    Charlotte's number of pleasant 2017-18 surprises can be counted on one hand. Dwight Howard was already impressing before he dominated the defending champs with 29 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. And Jeremy Lamb has been posting the first above-average box plus/minus of his career (1.0).

    But everything else has either matched or fallen short of expectations. Kemba Walker isn't making the same impact as last year, Nicolas Batum has backtracked again and Malik Monk's big league transition has short-circuited his shooting success.

    This is a bad offense (23rd), a mediocre defense (tied for 11th) and the least threatening team of head coach Steve Clifford's tenure.

Getting Closer

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    Los Angeles Clippers: 200-1

    Self-destruct or stick with status quo? That's the question for the Clippers to tackle in the new year, and it'll have to be a hurried debate. L.A. just got Blake Griffin and Milos Teodosic back, recently lost Danilo Gallinari (for the second time) and won't have Patrick Beverley the rest of the way. Whatever franchise-defining decision is reached will be made with limited data.

    Resetting is a possibility, especially with DeAndre Jordan facing an uncertain future. Or the Clippers could use their injuries as a reason to delay any demolition talk. Griffin's star still shines brightly when he makes it inside the lines; it's just not powerful enough to transform this team back into a contender.

    Utah Jazz: 150-1

    It's hard to say the basketball gods hate the Jazz when they allowed Donovan Mitchell to slip to Salt Lake City, but Utah hasn't caught many breaks beyond its freshman phenom. Dante Exum might have lost his second season to injury in three years. Rudy Gobert has missed significant time to injuries in both legs. And someone turned the difficulty level all the way up on the Jazz's December schedule.

    No one has assumed Gordon Hayward's old post as primary option—Mitchell is already the closest—and the defense has fallen from the elite ranks without Gobert at full strength (tied for 11th). The Ricky Rubio experiment has been disastrous (41st among point guards in real plus-minus). Utah usually plays hard and smart under head coach Quin Snyder, but there's no workaround for a lack of top-level talent.

    Miami Heat: 150-1

    Miami has become a master of inconsistency. The Heat recently snuck a loss to the lowly Hawks into a 7-3 stretch and followed that encouraging 10-game run with a mystifying 24-point home loss to the Nets.

    "We have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to us that's extremely perplexing," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Brooklyn defeat, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "Sometimes we compete at an extremely high level. You can see it and you can feel it. Then we have these games that are unexplainable."

    The Heat can use injuries as an excuse to some degree—Hassan Whiteside has missed more than half the contests, and Dion Waiters can't shake a nagging ankle issue—but good teams don't lay as many eggs as Miami already has. This might be a playoff participant, but nothing suggests it will be a difficult out in the second season.

    New York Knicks: 150-1

    The last time the Knicks had a winning percentage north of .500, they sent two players to the All-Star Game (Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler), won 54 games and advanced to the second round of the 2013 playoffs. This 'Bockers bunch is unlikely to match any of those achievements, but it's been a while since the Big Apple had a reason to be this optimistic about the blue and orange.

    New York has a legitimate star in Kristaps Porzingis. The 7'3" unicorn makes the Knicks 8.7 points better per 100 possessions and could produce the league's first season-long stat line of 20 points, two blocks and 1.5 threes (Kevin Durant is also clearing those marks). Courtney Lee has been rock solid, and 30-plus-point outbursts have been engineered by Tim Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley.

    The Knicks aren't great at either end, and they've been disturbingly averse to attacking outside (last in three-point makes and attempts). They're also not the deepest bunch and don't have a second star alongside Porzingis. Their record seems likely to show their faults before the season closes, which wouldn't be a bad thing given the need for another high-ceiling prospect.

    Philadelphia 76ers: 125-1

    These odds might feel a bit low for a team with two studs in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but it's appropriate for this stage of their careers. Embiid is the senior member despite playing only 57 career games, and his health history still demands careful management. Simmons, meanwhile, is the Rookie of the Year favorite, but he doesn't have a jumper (30.8 percent) and struggles with ball control (3.9 turnovers per game, seventh-most).

    The Sixers are on the rise, but their lack of experience and depth could keep them from climbing higher. Their 17.3 turnover percentage is the league's highest since 2014-15, and their .286 winning percentage is December's fourth-lowest.

Crazier Things Have Happened

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    Portland Trail Blazers: 100-1

    That the Blazers are winning more than losing should surprise no one. They haven't had a sub-.500 season since 2012-13, and their scoring tandem of Damian Lillard (25.2) and C.J. McCollum (21.0) is among the league's best. But the fact Portland is generating so many of its triumphs on the defensive end (fifth) raises more than a few eyebrows after last year's 21st-placed finish.

    This defense, though, could be turning back into a pumpkin (tied for 15th in December), which could expose this squad's offensive challenges. Jusuf Nurkic (14.5) is the only other nightly double-digit scorer, while its top five is rounded out by former throwaway Shabazz Napier (traded before for a protected pick that didn't convey and later for cash considerations) and defensive specialist Al-Farouq Aminu.

    Detroit Pistons: 80-1

    The Pistons seem unlikely sellers given their 20-15 record, but Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press recently suggested nothing is off the table. While Ellis dubbed Avery Bradley and plateauing former first-rounder Stanley Johnson as the "main trade assets," he also said it's possible Detroit would entertain offers for Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

    Detroit's win-loss tally might be bloated from a 10-3 start (10-12 since), and this club only defeated two winning teams in December (Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs). Losing Jackson for six to eight weeks with an ankle injury won't help reverse this trend. If the Pistons start sliding down the standings, they might have to shift their focus beyond this season.

    New Orleans Pelicans: 75-1

    Good luck finding a more productive duo than New Orleans' super-sized combo of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. The modern "Twin Towers" are collectively providing 52.0 points, 22.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 3.6 blocks per game, which almost makes the Pelicans' 18-18 record seem impossibly low.

    But outside of Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore, there's been little support for the uber-talented twosome. Plus, this defense hemorrhages points (107.7 per 100 possessions, 24th). If the Pelicans don't put a hot streak together soon, they could pull the plug on their two-big experiment, with Cousins slated for 2018 free agency. Should they stay the course, they'll have to find creative ways of adding depth.

    Denver Nuggets: 75-1

    Denver is strange—strange enough to not know if that's a compliment or a criticism. The Nuggets might have the league's most unique fulcrum in Nikola Jokic, a 6'10" center who can't jump over a phone book but can pass like a point guard. Their top free-agent addition in years, Paul Millsap, is out for the foreseeable future after tearing a ligament in his left wrist. The rest of their roster overlaps in some areas and skips others altogether.

    "The roster as assembled by general manager Tim Connelly is full of wings, power forwards, and tweeners of all shapes and sizes," SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote. "There is not a traditional point guard, or even a standard three-man, but the sheer amount of talent is obvious."

    This offense can be dominant, but it grades out closer to good than great (ninth). The defense measures as serviceable (tied for 18th), but some nights that label seems awfully generous. Inconsistent point guard play might derail any dreams of postseason success, or there might be enough multiskilled players and frontcourt playmakers for Denver to prove a tricky matchup over a seven-game series.

    Milwaukee Bucks: 66-1

    Is Giannis Antetokounmpo the ideal centerpiece? Well, league executives had their pick of the litter in NBA.com's annual survey, and 21 percent chose the Greek Freak as their preferred building block (trailing only Karl-Anthony Towns, 29 percent). Save for perimeter shooting, Antetokounmpo does everything. He's on pace to join David Robinson as the only players to average 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, 1.5 steals and one block.

    How good is the rest of Milwaukee's cast? That's up for debate. Khris Middleton is posting career marks in several counting categories, but his three-point percentage is way down (35.7; 43.3 last season). Malcolm Brogdon has been up and down since moving to the second team behind Eric Bledsoe, who's failing with his three ball (30.3 percent) but helping in other areas (18.2 points, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals).

    Then, there's Jabari Parker, who looked like an All-Star last season but is rehabbing his second ACL tear since December 2014. If he picks up where he left off, maybe Milwaukee becomes a thorn in the side of Eastern Conference elites. But if he's slow out of the gate, the Bucks might be too much of a one-man show to hang with well-rounded playoff foes.

Indiana Pacers: 60-1

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    Normally, it'd be foolish to declare anything definitive a full month (and then some) before the All-Star break. But do we really need to wait to crown the Indiana Pacers as this season's biggest surprise?

    Once Paul George orchestrated his exit this offseason, virtually all playoff plans were closed indefinitely. The scant few that remained involved third-year big man Myles Turner leaping to an All-NBA level and spearheading a postseason charge almost singlehandedly.

    But we all forgot one thing—when Victor Oladipo is in the Hoosier State, he's more than capable of heroics. Roughly an hour away from the college campus where he made himself the second selection in the 2013 draft, he's now forced his way into All-Star discussions (maybe as a starter) with per-game marks of 24.9 points on 48.5 percent shooting (42.3 outside), 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals.

    "This isn't just a hot shooter," the Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote of Oladipo. "It's a player who reinvented himself. ... He expanded and mastered his repertoire of moves, which not only makes him a go-to scoring option in end-of-game situations but opens up everything else for him on the floor."

    Against all odds, Indiana has ascended to the seventh spot in offensive efficiency. It stretches out defenses with a horde of floor-spacing bigs—including sophomore Domantas Sabonis, who arrived with Oladipo in the George trade—and lets the likes of Oladipo, Darren Collison, Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph attack off the dribble.

    The Pacers aren't overloaded with talent, though, and their 21st-ranked defense could be a fatal flaw. But they have demanded the respect of the East and own victories over the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice), Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs.

Washington Wizards: 50-1

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    The Washington Wizards are both the team we expected and one we still don't really know. Maybe that train of thought is hard to follow, but so are the Wizards, who recently bookended a puzzling 14-point loss in Atlanta with victories over the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets.

    "It's definitely up and down," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. "Early part of the season, it's like if we were a ride at Six Flags, we'd been pretty popular, right?"

    John Wall has questioned the team's focus when playing lesser squads. Considering how long this core has been together, one would hope that isn't the issue.

    Then again, who knows what to make of D.C.'s conundrum? The Wizards actually fare better against teams .500 or better (11-6) than they do those with losing records (9-10).

    The starting five seems stout on all sides, but it's posted a "meh" plus-1.5 net rating this season. The bench is an issue once again, but Kelly Oubre is coming into his own, and Mike Scott has been throwing fireballs from everywhere (57.4 percent overall, 40.5 from three). This isn't a top-five team on either end, but it's top half at both and top 10 overall.

    The Wizards are hard to handle when Wall and Bradley Beal are at the height of their powers. When they're not, they can look light on creators and difference-makers on the offensive end.

    Washington is always a threat to make a deadline splash—Bojan Bogdanovic, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat in recent years—and maybe a deal is out there that would boost these odds. If not, this predictably unpredictable bunch looks unlikely to shatter its second-round ceiling.

Minnesota Timberwolves: 50-1

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    Maybe it didn't take a stroke of genius for the Minnesota Timberwolves to realize Jimmy Butler was worth adding this summer. But obvious moves can still be game-changers, and this one looks the part.

    "Butler has been everything for the Wolves," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "First a facilitator. Then a vocal critic. And now an unrestrained guiding force, scoring all the big baskets, gutting out huge minutes and quietly nosing into the MVP conversation as Minnesota rolls to its best start in more than a decade."

    Butler began his tenure in Minnesota—and second go-round with head coach Tom Thibodeau—with a feeling-out process. He took the team's third-most shots in October, while letting youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins drive the offense. But Butler climbed to second in November, and in December he's now holding the top spot by nearly three attempts per game (18.4 to Wiggins' 15.5).

    This is how the hierarchy should look, since Butler is in his prime, while Wiggins and Towns could be years away from reaching their own. It also explains how Minnesota went from having the 13th-best net rating through the end of November (plus-0.9) to the fourth-highest mark in December (plus-3.6).

    It hasn't solved all of the Wolves' issues, of course. This still doesn't look like a playoff-caliber defense (tied for 25th), and the minutes totals are becoming predictably worrisome. Butler (second), Wiggins (tied for eighth) and Towns (14th) are all among the league leaders in playing time, which perhaps explains why Minnesota has already dropped six games that it led after three quarters.

    But giving Butler the keys put the Timberwolves in their best position to win. Even if this campaign won't include a championship ending, they're about to snap their 13-year playoff drought in spectacular fashion.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-1

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    If only Paul Revere had been born centuries later—and developed a fondness for roundball—he'd be racing across the basketball landscape to warn everyone: "The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming!"

    OKC has suffered just four defeats—one in controversial fashion—since the start of December. It has revamped the offense to put Russell Westbrook firmly in the driver's seat, Paul George in a supporting role on the passenger side and Carmelo Anthony in the backseat with Steven Adams. Whether it's the perfect setup isn't even that important; the fact it gave this reshuffled roster direction looks invaluable.

    "There's no confusion," George said, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "We're just playing. We trust one another. We're on the same page with one another. We just figured it out, how to close, how to play well, how to tighten up. We're just comfortable, I think."

    Despite some early-season stumbles, the Thunder never lost their fear factor. There was simply too much firepower for both their offense and late-game execution not to be corrected. And since they've been defending at a top-five level all season, it was scary to think what could happen if (or when) the other elements clicked.

    The offense can still look clunky, as it's heavy on isolations and light on ball movement. But OKC's ceiling sits among the NBA's highest. While the sample size is tiny, the Thunder own a 3-1 record against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.

Toronto Raptors: 33-1

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    The Toronto Raptors make you want to believe: that their newfound commitment to pace, movement and three-point shooting has brought their offense out of the dinosaur age; that their decreased reliance on All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry makes them more dangerous as a whole.

    That after spending the last several seasons in the shadows of the elite, they're finally ready to break through and translate their regular-season triumphs into full-fledged playoff success.

    But there are reasons to be skeptical, and they're not all tied to the failures of postseasons past.

    Take their 11-3 sprint through December, for instance. Only the Warriors closed 2017 on a higher note (13-2). But just two of Toronto's December opponents entered the matchups with winning records. The Raptors beat one (Indiana), but compiled the 10 other wins—and two of the losses—against losing squads.

    And this wasn't an anomalous stretch. On the season, Toronto sits an underwhelming 7-8 against clubs at or above .500 and a whopping 17-2 against those below it. It's hard to determine, then, how much of the success—fourth-best winning percentage, third-highest net rating—is legitimate.

    "You can't look at records," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, per Sportsnet's Michael Grange. "You look at records in this league, you're gonna get embarrassed. And then you're gonna be writing about how bad the Toronto Raptors play against bad teams."

    Casey is correct in the sense that if Toronto was struggling with bottom-feeders, it would probably signal a much greater issue. But if these Raptors are good and still not great, then what has changed? If you're withholding judgment on Toronto until the postseason, you are not alone.

San Antonio Spurs: 25-1

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    If you spotlight only this season, the San Antonio Spurs aren't much different than Toronto. In fact, the Alamo City's finest have a worse winning percentage, a lower net rating and a barely better record against .500-or-better opponents (9-9).

    So, why the better odds on San Antonio's end? Because the Spurs force you to believe they're for real. You don't wager against Gregg Popovich, especially when he's overseeing one of the Association's stingiest defenses.

    And—most importantly—you don't think this group is anywhere close to its ceiling when Kawhi Leonard, an MVP finalist last season, has barely broken a sweat due to a nagging quadriceps injury. Not to belabor that point, but San Antonio is playing at a 55-win pace despite getting almost nothing out of its most important player on both ends (and having Tony Parker less than half the time).

    "It's a good time to get everybody playing, everybody feeling good, get Kawhi and Tony back to their usual selves, back to their rhythm and feeling good," Manu Ginobili said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "I think we are accomplishing it slowly because they haven't been back for so long. But they are really showing progress."

    It's still fair to wonder how this aging club will fare in the postseason. The treacherous path out of the West might require more offensive horsepower and athleticism than the Spurs possess. But they'll have experience, tremendous coaching and nasty defense on their sides, all of which have keyed past playoff victories.

Boston Celtics: 15-1

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    One year removed from 53 wins and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the Boston Celtics have one of the NBA's premier first-year players.

    Credit two things for that: Brooklyn's egregiously shortsighted aspirations from a few years back, and this autobiographical summary of Jayson Tatum's NBA transition.

    "I figured it'd be more difficult," Tatum said, per Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. "I didn't think I'd play as much. But things have worked out for the best."

    No one foresaw Tatum being this good, this quickly. He's shooting better from the field (51.2 percent, up from 45.2) and outside (47.5, 34.2) than he did at Duke. He's also the No. 3 scorer (14.2) on the East's No. 1 seed. And no one knew he'd get this much playing time (31.1 minutes), a workload necessitated by Gordon Hayward's gruesome injury on opening night.

    That said, the Shamrocks haven't resembled a contender of late. They've gone a mediocre 10-6 in December and posted the month's 10th-best net rating (plus-2.6). They're also starting to slip at the defensive end, a potentially troubling trend given the amount of youth in their rotation and their lack of a reliable second scorer.

    But there's good news here. Kyrie Irving is still an offensive wizard, the team still owns NBA's top-ranked defense (in spite of the slip) and head coach Brad Stevens is still a genius.

    With all that in mind, Boston firmly remains in the thick of the championship hunt.

Houston Rockets: 8-1

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    The Houston Rockets are one LeBron James away from holding the best championship odds outside of Oakland. (And they seem to know it.)

    Space City checks off the historical requirements of having both a top-10 offense (second) and defense (10th). The Rockets also meet the multiple-superstar standard with James Harden and Chris Paul, who post a plus-9.6 net rating when they play together. And they've even met the modern demand for multipositional defenders with the terrifying trio of Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute.

    Oh, and they employ the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Eric Gordon, who's already reached 25 points on nine different occasions; they have perhaps the league's stretchiest big man in Ryan Anderson, whose average attempt comes 19.4 feet from the basket; and they have one of the most effective pick-and-roll screeners in Clint Capela, who feasts on the optimal spacing created by this analytically driven offense.

    The list could continue—Nene doesn't age, Gerald Green may have found his ideal system, the regular starting five is undefeated—but you get the idea. The strengths column is extensive, which it has to be this close to the top. It's also the reason we're not worried about the recent five-game skid, and why they're even less concerned.

    "We've been going with the thing 'so what, what's next?'" head coach Mike D'Antoni said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "You do it in good times and the bad times. This is a bad time. So what? You get the next game."

    Houston isn't without its faults. This isn't the deepest rotation around, and it might have more one-way specialists than two-way talents. But the real weakness keeping it from owning even better odds is not rostering LeBron or Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

Cleveland Cavaliers: 4-1

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    You ever try to talk yourself out of the Cleveland Cavaliers making a fourth straight Finals appearance? The arguments against it almost make themselves, don't they?

    You can't win with the 29th-ranked defense! Isaiah Thomas will demand more adjustments than he's worth! No one guards the rim! No one guards the perimeter! LeBron's playing time is terrifying; even 33-year-old cyborgs need a breather!

    But that last one trips you up, doesn't it? As soon as James comes into the equation, Cleveland's path to the championship round gets crystal clear.

    No one else has the King, and no one else has claimed his crown. This season—his 15th in the league—might be his best yet. He's the clubhouse leader in both PER (30.3) and box plus/minus (10.5), numbers that might get him the elusive fifth MVP.

    "I think people have just grown accustomed of what I do, and it gets taken for granted at times what I do because I do it so often and it's been a constant thing for so long," James told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "It's like, 'Oh, that's what LeBron's supposed to do.' It looks easy, but it's not."

    No one should mistake James' current challenge as easy. Return Cleveland to the Finals, and he'll have successfully integrated Thomas, won with a defense anchored by Kevin Love, withstood Tristan Thompson's steep decline and elicited elite play from a club that's started Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Jose Calderon at point guard.

    Bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to Northeast Ohio, and James will have potentially shocked the greatest team in history. Again.

Golden State Warriors: 5-8

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    No team has a winning percentage north of .800, but the Golden State Warriors cleared that mark over the recent 11-game stretch they played without two-time MVP Stephen Curry (9-2, .818). If they aren't vulnerable when the greatest shooter ever sits, then what are they when he suits up alongside the Dubs' other three All-Stars?

    The Memphis Grizzlies might have some colorful descriptors after being on the wrong side of Curry's return. Golden State blitzed the former grit-and-grinders for 141 points, 38 of which came from the human torch on an absurd 13-of-17 shooting (and an even more bonkers 10-of-13 from long range).

    "What can you say?" Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, per Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "The guy goes 10-of-13 (from three) after not playing in an NBA game for a month. The other team went 15-of-21 (from three) so even they were hot. Steph makes everybody shoot better I think. It's crazy."

    Golden State has its lowest winning percentage under Kerr (.784), but it might have the best roster.

    Curry and Kevin Durant masterfully share the alpha roles, with the latter also seizing the early lead in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Draymond Green keeps stuffing stat sheets at a superstar level. Klay Thompson has never been more lethal beyond the arc or inside it. The bench houses multiple players who would start elsewhere, or would-be rotation regulars getting squeezed out by the ridiculous depth.

    The average Golden State game is a 9.8-point win. Even if the Dubs are a step or two behind their normal pace, they're as (or more) dangerous than ever and by far the likeliest team to go championship parading next summer.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com, and current heading into games on Dec. 31.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.