Basketball is the only sport of the four major sports where there are near guarantees for the playoffs before the season starts. Football, baseball and hockey all have pre-season favorites to make the playoffs, but there will always be surprises and disappointments in those sports. Aside from a choice few (i.e. the Patriots or the Broncos), there are virtually no guarantees in those three sports. Basketball, however, is wholly different. The smaller team size puts a larger impact on individualism and coaching, making for fewer surprise playoff contenders and more preseason playoff guarantees. Also the playoff format, which allows 16 out of 30 teams and the top eight in each conference to enter, permits any team with any semblance of competence to squeak into the playoffs.
The greatest of the NBA elite is not even a team, but rather a single player who can transform any trash team into an immediate final contender. That man is, of course, Lebron James. Whichever team he happens to find himself on instantly transforms to the top of the elite. This team happens to be the Cavaliers, making them the kings of the NBA for the time being until James’ athleticism and elite prowess decline. Case in point, the Cavaliers were basement dwellers in the four seasons that Lebron was in Miami and immediately skyrocketed to the top when he returned in 2014-2015.
The second team of the elite is the team that perennially makes the playoffs with a consistent roster of players and team leaders. That team is the San Antonio Spurs, lead by coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs seemingly have an endless depth of talent that is ready to take the reigns when the past generation declines. David Robinson handed off his role on the two-time championship Spurs to Tim Duncan, who brought three more titles (having won two with Robinson leading the team). San Antonio is always in the talk for top three in the western conference, and with younger players like Kawhi Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge, there is no end in sight for the Spurs’ dominance.
The Golden State Warriors are part of a new breed of elite teams that can consistently be counted on to make a run in the playoffs. Steve Kerr’s coaching prowess and the amount of sheer basketball talent on that team makes them an instant title contender. Now, with the addition of Kevin Durant, it is highly unlikely that the Warriors do not at least make it to the conference finals.
The Clippers are also part of this new elite, with huge talent but no real playoff success. The narrative of course is that Chris Paul can’t make it out of the second round, but he consistently reaches the playoffs as the leader of a talented franchise. The Toronto Raptors are the newest of this breed of talented young teams, without any past finals success. Young stars Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan are blossoming into the NBA elite, guaranteeing Toronto a high seed in the weak east come playoff time. Of course, many more franchises will make the playoffs from year to year. The Pacers, Bulls, Heat, Hawks and Rockets seemingly have a chance every year, but they are not among the elite, who are nearly guaranteed a spot. The NBA has so much parity among the teams ,with talent differences and coaching prowess. A few teams, namely the Cavaliers, Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Raptors, occupy the NBA elite. These teams, with their current roster and coaches, will be a top seed in this year’s playoff run, guaranteed.