With a month of the NBA regular season already in the books, both conferences are starting to take shape and there's little shock that the Boston Celtics lead the league, but a few surprise names aren't far behind.
There’s plenty of basketball still to be played, but that doesn’t stop any of us making predictions based on the relatively small sample sizes we’ve seen thus far.
Below are four bold calls about the future of the season, with just over four months - and over 60 games - until the playoffs begin.
Before the season tipped off, even Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid acknowledged the growing gap between his side and the Eastern Conference favorites. After the Milwaukee Bucks added Damian Lillard and the Celtics moved for Jrue Holiday, the standstill Sixers were left in the dust.
With James Harden departing for very little immediate help, few mentioned the Sixers in the same breath as the other contenders. However, they hold a 12-6 record at this early stage, just two games behind the league-leading Celtics.
Backing a team that just paired the reigning MVP with a former Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse probably isn’t too big of an overreaction. However, I’m pretty certain the Sixers are being slept on.
The Sixers are sixth favourites for the NBA Championship. They’re +1400, twice the price of the 11-7 Phoenix Suns, that’s despite them having the best Net Rating outside of the Celtics.
The Sixers are solid defensively, boast the second-best Offensive Rating in the league and they have the flexibility to strengthen a roster led by a title-winning head coach.
With Tyrese Maxey putting up a strong All-Star case, I’d put the Sixers in with the Bucks and Celtics at the top of the East. Given that they have the best coach of that trio, they’re overpriced at +650 to win the East.
Sitting second in the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Magic are the story of the season so far. They’ve made waves with a 13-5 start and they were unlucky to miss out on the In-Season Tournament knockout stage.
When a side like the Magic holds a lofty position at this stage of the year, they’re often written off. Their start hasn’t been the toughest, but winning meetings with the Celtics and Denver Nuggets within the same week goes a long way to begin converting doubters into believers.
Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Celtics have a better Defensive Rating and the difference is marginal.
The Magic aren’t just a solid defensive unit, they’re a very versatile offensive side. Paolo Banchero’s smoothed the rough edges to his game, with his three-point percentage shooting up to 43%.
Between him, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs they have three very different kinds of ball-handlers, while Franz Wagner is a fantastic finisher.
In a very short space of time, they’ve gone from a team on the rise to one that has arrived. Don’t write them off as an easy first-round opponent for anyone in the East.
A big talking point going into the season was over the Golden State Warriors’ future, having gone all in by swapping 24-year-old Jordan Poole for 38-year-old Chris Paul. It’s hard to imagine a more win-now trade.
The problem is the Warriors aren’t winning right now. They’ve won eight of their first 18 games, while they’re 2-8 across their last 10.
They may have gone stretches without Steph Curry and Draymond Green, but that’s part of the problem. When you consider the miles in Curry’s legs and Green's impulsive antics, they’re bound to miss plenty more contests.
Even with Curry on the court, the Warriors aren’t cracking the top 10 in the league offensively. At the other end, their insistence on small-ball in a league that is only getting bigger limits them defensively, with their defensive rating below that of the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers.
The Warriors’ dominance over the past decade has been remarkable, but they're betting it all on the hopes that their aging players' skills will hold up. So far, that isn’t happening, leaving them to pay through the nose for a roster which simply can’t contend anymore.
It’s not much of a hot take to say we’ll all be raving about Jimmy Butler come April and May. However, until Playoff Jimmy gets going the Miami Heat are lacking a real figurehead who can catch the attention of neutrals.
Butler isn’t usually a regular season standout, last playing at least 65 games during the 2018/19 season. That has left Erik Spoelstra to get creative when it comes to keeping the Heat in the playoff mix.
Spoelstra, along with Miami’s impressive player development, have produced a roster that continues to compete when Butler sits out or can’t get going.
Look at how quickly Jaime Jaquez Jr. has slotted into the rotation, or the resurgence of Josh Richardson or even Kyle Lowry. Spoelstra brought Duncan Robinson back in from the cold during last season’s playoffs and he’s been a decisive presence.
On any given night, the Heat look like more than the sum of their parts. That’s due to Spoelstra, who is the best coach in the league by some distance.
He’s long overdue a Coach of the Year award and he is currently +3000 to win it this year.