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Which teams do you trust beyond the Bucks as legit title contenders?

The Milwaukee Bucks have separated themselves from a pack of contenders in recent weeks and cemented their status as clear favorites to win the 2023 NBA championship, even in an era of parity.

They have lost twice since Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from resting his sore left knee in January — by 3 points to the Philadelphia 76ers and in overtime to the Golden State Warriors. Their NBA-best defense and seventh-rated offense in that span has left opponents losing by double digits per 100 possessions.

Antetokounmpo is the best player alive, and he is making a case for a third MVP award in five years. Over the course of Milwaukee's recent run, he is averaging 32.5 points (on 57.4% shooting), 11.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 30.4 minutes per game. The Bucks are +206 in Antetokounmpo's 618 minutes since Jan. 23.

Milwaukee is hitting every benchmark necessary for a title team and doing it at the right time. The Bucks are two years removed from putting it all together in the playoffs and delivering the franchise's first title in 50 years. They might have repeated last season were it not for Khris Middleton's absence against the Boston Celtics.

Since rejoining the starting lineup last week for the first time since mid-December, Middleton is beginning to look like the wing who elevates Milwaukee from formidable to borderline unstoppable. Jrue Holiday might make an All-NBA team this season. Brook Lopez is an All-Defensive center who can score inside and out. The addition of Jae Crowder rounds out a rotation that is as massive as it is skilled. They are frightening.

The Bucks are now tied with the Celtics for the best odds to win the championship, according to BetMGM, but even Boston has question marks. In fact, there are reasons to doubt every other contender entering the final few weeks of the season. Let us break down those issues and our confidence level in each of them.

Boston Celtics wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have not been thee mark of consistency since they dominated the NBA's All-Star Game. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)
Boston Celtics wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have not been the mark of consistency since they dominated the NBA's All-Star Game. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Boston Celtics

  • Record: 48-22 (second in the East)

  • Net rating: 5.5 (tied for first in the East)

  • BetMGM title odds: +340 (tied for first in the East)

  • Confidence level: ★★★☆☆

The Celtics entered this season as championship favorites and looked the part for the first few months of the season, despite the suspension of head coach Ime Udoka and a late start for injured All-Defensive center Robert Williams III, both of whom played integral roles in helping Boston reach the 2022 NBA Finals. They were the league's only team in the top five for both offensive and defensive rating in mid-January.

The Celtics are 13-10 since losing to the Orlando Magic on Jan. 23. They have fallen below the Bucks and are in danger of losing the No. 2 seed in the East to the Philadelphia 76ers. Their offense has sputtered. The stagnancy and carelessness that plagued them in the Finals have reemerged. Williams has missed the last six games with a hamstring injury in the same leg that cost him the first two months of the regular season.

Since leading ESPN's MVP straw poll in mid-December, Jayson Tatum has fallen out of the race. He can look like the most lethal scorer alive on one night and a wayward gunner on another. Tatum has shot 40% or worse on 11 occasions in the calendar year, missing two-thirds of his attempts in seven of those outings. Likewise, Jaylen Brown's inconsistencies have him fighting for an All-NBA spot that was once his to lose. (Falling short of that recognition would cost Brown the ability to sign a supermax extension in the summer.)

Following their second loss to the New York Knicks in a week's time earlier this month, first-year Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla offered "zero" concern. Not two weeks later, after a loss to the 16-win Houston Rockets, Mazzulla conceded cause for concern, especially with their effort on "the margins: the free throws, the rebounding, the turnovers, the second chances. Regardless of who you play, that's playoff basketball at its finest, the ability to win those situations, so it's concerning that we're inconsistent in that."

There is concern about Mazzulla's contributions to the team's tepidness, too. Whereas Udoka laid into his players publicly and privately, Mazzulla has empowered them to play through their lack of tenacity, and the response has not yielded the same results as late last season. Mazzulla's inexperience shows most in his feel for personnel decisions on the fly, especially when it comes to Marcus Smart or Derrick White. Boston just lost assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, a Udoka holdover who held sway with the players, to the job at Georgia Tech, so Mazzulla will also be entering his first postseason at the helm at less than full staff.

The Celtics are projecting confidence that they can close out their current six-game road trip strong, clean up at home against a light schedule the rest of the way and reintegrate a healthy Williams in the meantime. Yet, Boston is entering that stretch with the same questions it had seemingly answered two months ago.

Phoenix Suns

  • Record: 37-32 (fourth in the West)

  • Net rating: 1.9 (third in the West)

  • BetMGM odds: +450 (first in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★★★☆☆

Kevin Durant has played no more than 71 minutes with Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton or Devin Booker since joining the Suns at the trade deadline. He might be the most seamless fitting superstar in NBA history, but there is no precedent for the best player on a championship team having so few reps with his teammates.

Should there not be more concern that Durant will miss three weeks for rolling his ankle in warmups? General manager James Jones told the Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin, "If the playoffs started today, he'd be out there," but injuries to the 34-year-old's knees and feet are mounting now more than ever. Can the Suns count on the slender 7-footer to survive a playoff gauntlet when he could not navigate a workout?

This is to say nothing of Paul, who is nearing his 38th birthday and has gutted through various ailments from the playoff grind for a decade now. It is a struggle for him to reach the finish line each year. Booker is 26 years old, and even his groin injury, which sidelined him for two months, might linger into the offseason.

The Suns traded three of the top six rotation players from their run to the 2021 Finals — Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder — to acquire Durant. That left a hole on the wing that Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie and Ish Wainwright have tried to fill. How any of them fit with Phoenix's $137 million quartet will remain a mystery until Durant's return. Phoenix could spend a first-round series against the defending champion Golden State Warriors figuring out just how much their aging stars can carry a lack of depth.

Denver Nuggets

  • Record: 46-23 (first in the West)

  • Net rating: 3.7 (second in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +700 (second in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★★☆☆☆

The Nuggets are crumbling before our eyes, and Nikola Jokic's three-peat MVP chances are deteriorating along with them. They have lost four straight — all to sub-.500 teams, including the already eliminated San Antonio Spurs. Like Boston, Denver seems to believe it can coast on suboptimal effort until the games start to count for real again, which is concerning for two teams that have plenty left to prove in the playoffs.

"Who the hell are we to think we can play three quarters and win a game?" Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after Tuesday's loss to the Toronto Raptors. "Everyone we play is playing for something. ... Maybe we've gotten a little soft with success. We've been on cruise control for so long, No. 1 in the West since Dec. 15. I just told our players, 'We've gotten away from who we are. We have success for a reason.'"

Denver's defense has dipped to 18th in the NBA, easily the worst among any team with serious aspirations of winning the title, and it has been worse since the All-Star break. The offense can only sustain so much, and even that third-rated unit has been in search of reliable shooters not named Jokic or Micheal Porter Jr.

Just as Jamal Murray was flashing signs of a full recovery from his torn left ACL, inflammation in the same knee sidelined him for a handful of games last month. He left Sunday's game with soreness, and you could see him still battling its balkiness on Tuesday. The Nuggets cannot afford to feature Murray on either end of the floor if he cannot mitigate the impact of opposing point guards. Otherwise, they will ask everything of Jokic — a demand that has left them winless beyond the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons.

Philadelphia 76ers

  • Record: 46-22 (third in the East)

  • Net rating: 4.4 (third in the East)

  • BetMGM title odds: +1100 (third in the East)

  • Confidence level: ★★★★☆

The Sixers have been a monster for months now. Their record (34-10) and net rating (5.8) since Dec. 9 easily lead the league, and Joel Embiid is gathering momentum as the season trudges toward the playoffs. Since the MVP debate turned toxic at the start of this month, he has averaged 36.7 points on 60/50/82 shooting splits, including a 31-point, 10-assist effort in victory against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Meanwhile, James Harden posted a season-high 38 points in that same win in Milwaukee. Few, if any, guards have been as dependable offensively as Harden since his early December return from a foot injury. That Philadelphia's ascent coincided with that return is no coincidence. The increased reliability of Tyrese Maxey as a secondary playmaker alongside Harden — or the lead creator behind him — has helped, too.

Whether Philadelphia's perimeter defense holds up in high-stakes playoff games is another matter. De'Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker and Jalen McDaniels can help, but each is a sacrifice on the other end. Tatum, Brown and Boston's backcourt depth are the Sixers' kryptonite, and a second-round rematch awaits. Whoever earns the No. 2 seed might even need to survive the Miami Heat in the first round.

Do you trust Embiid's conditioning enough for him not to fade in fourth quarters, as he so often has in his playoff career? Do you trust Harden to overcome his own playoff foibles at 33 years old? Do you trust Sixers head coach Doc Rivers to adjust everything around them once the first sign of adversity arises? How you answer those questions determines whether you trust their regular-season success to translate.

As long as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are playing, it will be hard to ever doubt the Golden State Warriors. (Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports)
As long as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are playing, it will be hard to ever doubt the Golden State Warriors. (Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports)

Golden State Warriors

  • Record: 36-34 (sixth in the West)

  • Net rating: 0.5 (tied for sixth in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +1200 (third in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★★☆☆☆

Every time the defending champs look formidable again, they regress. You can pretty much set that clock to their location. The Warriors are challenging the Nuggets for the best home record in the NBA this season, and they are competing with the Rockets, Spurs and Detroit Pistons for the league's worst road record.

Is this the mark of an aging core that has been to six Finals in eight years and can no longer find the drive to perform in regular-season road games? Or is it cause for larger concern? The Warriors are currently positioned to travel for the start of each playoff series, beginning in Phoenix, where they have won once in three years.

The Warriors managed to nurse their stars through the playoffs last season, when Andrew Wiggins emerged as their second-most important player. To rely on replicating those circumstances this year is a tall order. Asked recently if Wiggins, who has not played since the All-Star break for undisclosed personal reasons, will return, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said, "That's the hope," which does not engender great confidence.

Likewise, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have respectively experienced struggles from their age and injury history, and 35-year-old Stephen Curry has twice returned from prolonged absences for shoulder and leg injuries. Still, the Warriors are outscoring opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with that trio on the floor this season, a number that rises to 16.5 at the Chase Center, where they win 80% of their games.

Games like Monday's against Phoenix, when Curry and Thompson combined for 48 first-half points on 11-for-15 shooting from 3, leave open the possibility they can patch together enough contributions from Donte DiVincenzo, JaMychal Green, Anthony Lamb, Jonathan Kuminga and Andre Iguodala to make another run.

Los Angeles Clippers

  • Record: 37-33 (fifth in the West)

  • Net rating: 0.0 (11th in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +1300 (fourth in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★☆☆☆☆

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have combined to average 52.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 9.2 assists on 50/42/90 shooting splits over the past two months. It is hard to quit a wing combo producing at that level.

The Clippers are still searching for the right combination of players around them four years into their pairing. They have a wealth of talent to draw from, including Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Eric Gordon, Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington, but they find ways to lose in excruciating fashion.

Late-season additions of Gordon, Russell Westbrook, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland have not steadied a perpetually unstable ship. The decision to immediately start Westbrook resulted in five consecutive losses out of the All-Star break and reeked of catering to names on the backs of their jerseys. Lineups boasting Westbrook have crept back into the black over the last three games (all wins), and the starting lineup du jour — Westbrook, Leonard, George, Morris and Ivica Zubac — is now +13.8 points per 100 possessions.

That is no different from the same lineup with Mann in place of Westbrook over a larger sample size. They entered the break on a promising 10-4 run, even though the first six of those wins came from losing teams. For every glimmer of hope, there are countless question marks. Their only wins against anyone ahead of them on this list in the last three months came against the Suns without Durant and the Warriors without Curry.

"We have what it takes," George told reporters last week. "It's just putting it together on both ends, but we have what it takes. Even within the losses, we've proven we can compete, and it's just small stuff that we've got to clean up and take ownership of. But we have all the intangibles, the personnel, the coaching. Everything that a championship team or a team that can compete for one has, we have in our locker room."

Ty Lue is a good coach with championship experience and great feel for identifying adjustments. Even he has been unable to extract a consistent winner out of a misfit rotation that theoretically runs 12 deep. It may all click come playoff time, but that would be a first in the two years since Leonard tore his right ACL.

Dallas Mavericks

  • Record: 35-35 (eighth in the West)

  • Net rating: 0.3 (eighth in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +2200 (tied for fifth in the West)

  • Confidence level: ☆☆☆☆☆

If you think Durant's arrival and swift departure from the lineup has complicated matters for Phoenix, wait until you get a load of his former Brooklyn Nets teammate in Dallas. Since the Mavericks dealt two rotation players, including their best defender, and a pair of first-round draft picks for Kyrie Irving in early February, they have submitted the league's 24th-rated defense and dropped firmly into the play-in tournament.

With one fewer loss than the 12th-place New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas is in danger of missing the playoffs — a potential disaster for the prospects of satisfying the demands of Luka Doncic's career on this franchise.

The Mavericks have a 24-year-old three-time All-NBA first-team selection averaging a 33-9-8 on career-best efficiency, and they cannot keep their heads above .500. LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers at age 25 because he could not get his 60-win team back to the Finals for a few years. This must be weighing heavily on Dallas. The depth chart is alarming. Head coach Jason Kidd often refuses to play Christian Wood more than 20 minutes a night, even though the organization traded another first-round pick to get him.

And then the Mavericks made their big investment into Irving, the most mercurial star of his generation. Since taking "a wrong step" in a loss to the Pelicans last week, Irving has missed the last three games for "precautionary [measures] at this point in the season." Doncic has also missed the past three games with a thigh strain. When they are on the court together, the Mavericks are scoring at a ludicrous rate — 124.2 points per 100 possessions — but they are running out of time to determine if that is enough to win.

Irving is a free agent at season's end, when he reportedly wants a four-year, $200 million contract. This will be the biggest decision of the Doncic era in Dallas. Sign Irving and tie the remainder of Doncic's deal to someone who has played no more than 54 games in a season since 2019 for reasons that range from injuries to protesting vaccines and sharing antisemitic material on social media. Do not sign Irving and concede that you just gave away most of your remaining tradable draft assets this decade for nothing.

What a choice.

Memphis Grizzlies

  • Record: 41-27 (third in the West)

  • Net rating: 3.9 (first in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +2200 (tied for fifth in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★☆☆☆☆

Ja Morant is eligible to return to the Grizzlies on Monday, less than a week after he checked himself into a counseling program following a string of eyebrow-raising incidents. He and his associates have thrice been accused of brandishing guns over the past year, most recently when he videoed himself with one at a strip club on Instagram Live. That preceded his exile from the team, an eight-game suspension and counseling.

Two days into his rehabilitation, Morant was on ESPN telling Jalen Rose he feels as "mentally good" as he has "in many years" from a few therapy sessions, Reiki treatments and some anxiety breathing to "release all that stuff from my body." He is expected to return shortly after he is eligible to Monday. Whether he is prepared to carry the burden required of a superstar on a contending team is another matter entirely.

Morant's status is far from the only question mark Memphis is facing. The Grizzlies lost reserve forward Brandon Clarke to an Achilles tear. Starting center Steven Adams has not played in months and could miss the remainder of the regular season with a strained ligament in his right knee, and the defense has cratered without him. On the court, Dillon Brooks could shoot the Grizzlies out of another playoff series at any time, and off it his trash talk is writing checks the team cannot afford to cash right now. The Grizzlies are a wounded target.

Still, when Morant and Adams are available, Memphis has been on the short list of most formidable teams in the West for two years running. The chance remains, at least, Memphis can be nearly whole just in time.

Doubt the Los Angeles Lakers at your peril ... if they can manage to keep LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor in the NBA playoffs. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports)
Doubt the Los Angeles Lakers at your peril ... if they can manage to keep LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the floor in the NBA playoffs. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports)

Los Angeles Lakers

  • Record: 34-36 (10th in the West)

  • Net rating: -0.3 (12th in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +3500 (seventh in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★☆☆☆☆

First and foremost, the Lakers need a healthy LeBron James to return. He has missed the last nine games with a foot injury and is not scheduled to be reevaluated for another week, when the Lakers will have nine more games to figure out who they are. James has barely played with his new teammates since the Lakers revamped their roster at the trade deadline, and learning to complement him is not a seamless process.

They also have to keep Anthony Davis healthy and performing at the level he has been (for the most part) since returning from his own foot injury. James and Davis have barely been able to stay on the court long enough to make the playoffs for three years running, much less survive four rounds, and a postseason berth is far from a guarantee this season. They have to get there first, and the road ahead is not as easy as it once seemed, especially after Wednesday's loss to the Houston Rockets without either James or Davis.

The Lakers are not without further complications. Their perimeter defense can get cooked by the West's wealth of elite guards, and first-year head coach Darvin Ham will be challenged to mold a patchwork roster into a cohesive unit, never mind meeting the need to adjust whenever that cohesion frays on the court.

Regardless, they have James and Davis, and that has been enough before in a vulnerable conference.

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Record: 44-28 (fourth in the East)

  • Net rating: 5.5 (tied for first in the East)

  • BetMGM title odds: +4000 (fourth in the East)

  • Confidence level: ★☆☆☆☆

All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell has transformed the Cavaliers from a pretender to a contender, but it is no easy task to ask any team to make the leap from losing in the play-in tournament to winning the title.

Ultimately, second-year big man Evan Mobley will determine whether they will deliver a LeBron-less ring to Cleveland. As good as Mobley is already, he is still a leap away from becoming the difference-maker the Cavaliers will need. His frontcourt pairing with Jarrett Allen will keep Cleveland in games defensively, but the lack of spacing both bigs create on offense will not help when playoff games require a halfcourt grind.

The fifth spot next to Mitchell, Mobley, Allen and Darius Garland is still a question. Caris LeVert can fill that role on some nights. Third-year wing Isaac Okoro is showing promise. Danny Green is hobbled. None of them is dependable in the role the Cavs need them to be as 3-point specialists and defensive stalwarts.

Cleveland's negative net rating and .500 record (over 40 games) in clutch situations reflects how relatively minor issues can add up to bigger problems when the competition escalates in the postseason. Bad news: Any of them could threaten to end Cleveland's season. Good news: They are all fixable by next year.

Sacramento Kings

  • Record: 41-27 (second in the West)

  • Net rating: 2.7 (third in the West)

  • BetMGM title odds: +5000 (eighth in the West)

  • Confidence level: ★☆☆☆☆

They are the Kings. That's it.

In all seriousness, Sacramento has been the best team in the West for two months, climbing into second place. Their offense is the NBA's best on the season, scoring a record 122.6 points per 100 possessions, and they are even more efficient late in close games. De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are legit All-NBA performers now, and they have the shooters around them to keep defenses from honing in on them.

Sacramento also has a bottom-five defense, allowing 115.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst of any playoff team. No team has ever won a title with so porous a defense, and it is hard to believe the Kings will be the franchise to do it on their first trip to the playoffs since 2006. Hope I'm wrong. They're a great story.