The seven teams with a real chance of winning the NBA title

A handful of NBA teams continue to vie for placement at each conference as we near the final two weeks before the February 9th trade deadline, with the true contenders already splitting from the pretenders across the league.

Perhaps one of the mediocre teams will jump into the smaller group of title contenders with a big-name pickup before the deadline, but at this point it’s hard to imagine more than seven or eight teams with legitimate ambitions to lift the championship trophy in June.

Here’s our late January snap of teams looking like they could win the title as they are currently set up:

1. Celtics (35-14)

After a nine-game winning streak, the Celtics have lost back-to-back wins (against upstart Magic and the Heat) and head into the national televised duel with the Knicks on Thursday night. But the defending Eastern Conference champions still hold the league’s best record under Joe Mazzulla in his debut season after replacing Ime Udoka. All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the highest-scoring tandem in the NBA with a combined 57.9 points per game, and Malcolm Brogdon has brought more depth to the role of sixth man.

2. Dollars (30-17)

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles against the Toronto Raptors during the second half of their NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on January 4, 2023 in Toronto, Canada.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has kept the Bucks at the top of the Eastern Conference for most of the season, even without Khris Middleton.
Getty Images

Two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves to be part of this conversation again (in the top three, at least) for leading the Bucks with 52 wins despite three-time All-Star Khris Middleton appearing in just seven games , before returning the rotation in Monday’s 150-point burst against Detroit. The 2021 NBA champions led the Celtics to seven games last season in the Eastern Conference Finals without Middleton, which could reportedly be seen as the most impactful addition to any competing lineup ahead of the trade deadline.

3. Nuggets (34-14)

Nikola Jokic is a front-runner, having earned a third straight MVP award, which would make the Serbian big man the first player since Larry Bird (1984-86) to win that many straight. The only others to accomplish the feat? Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Jamal Murray started slow after missing all of last season following ACL surgery, but he has averaged 20.0 points and 6.1 assists in his last 36 games to help the Nuggets the best record in the West, after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last Spring by the Warriors.

4. Nets (29-17)

Brooklyn will likely be without Kevin Durant (knee) for a few more weeks, but Kyrie Irving and the Nets have had back-to-back road wins in Utah and Golden State after dropping their first four in KD’s absence. Health and availability continue to be issues for a team led by this duo and Ben Simmons, but they were rolling with 18 wins in 20 games before Durant’s last injury.

5. 76’s (30-16)

Joel Embiid #21 and James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers talk during the fourth quarter against the LA Clippers at Wells Fargo Center on December 23, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Sixers hope the pairing of Joel Embiid and James Harden can take the 76ers past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Getty Images

The Sixers have not progressed past the second round with Joel Embiid as their star — that drought dating back to when Allen Iverson led them to the Finals in 2001 — including an early elimination by the Heat last year in James Harden’s first postseason with the team. Philly has won 18-4 after a 12-12 start, including five straight wins, all on the road, and goes into the showdown at home to the Nets on Wednesday.

6. Warrior (23-24)

The defending champions have stayed in the 7-10 play-in range in the West all season, although stars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins have each missed at least 10 games through injury. The Warriors are currently in 10th place, but just two losses separate the five-seeded Clippers (24) and the 13th-place Lakers in the bewildered West. But with Jordan Poole averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game, no team will want to face this battle-hardened core at full strength when the Warriors reach the postseason. In fact, on Tuesday, FanDuel still listed the Warriors as having the fifth best odds (+850) to win it all, behind the Celtics, Bucks, Nets and Nuggets.

7. Grizzly Bears (31-16)

Memphis has lost three straight games after an 11-game winning streak, and Ja Morant and Steven Adams sat out Monday’s loss in Sacramento with injury hints. That group — also featuring underrated 20-point scorer Desmond Bane — won their first round of the playoffs against the Timberwolves last year before falling in the second round against the Warriors.

The rest

Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings drives to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Golden 1 Center on January 21, 2023 in Sacramento, California.
Domantas Sabonis shoots 60.9 percent from the floor and 35.8 percent from the 3-point line, both career highs for the Kings big man.
NBAE via Getty Images

The Kings have emerged as one of the most exciting attacking teams in the league behind De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis and have risen to third place in the West, but this year will have to be enough to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The rising Cavaliers added the star the Knicks wanted (Donovan Mitchell), but this top four in the East will be hard to beat. Zion Williamson and the Pelicans could also be a year away out west. The Heat come in, go 15-7 after a 12-15 start and surpass the Knicks by the coveted No. 6 spot for now.

Today’s back

The back cover of the New York Post, January 25, 2023.
New York Post

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Reference numbers: Knicks-Cavaliers

The Knicks got away with a 105-103 win over Donovan Mitchell’s Cavaliers at the Garden Tuesday night. Here’s a snapshot of the crucial win that ended a four-game losing streak and pushed her record to 26-23:

3️⃣6️⃣ points for Julius Randle

8️⃣ Scored 3 points for Randle, who had shot 28.9 percent from long range in his last 11 games.

4️⃣ 4️⃣ seconds left (4.4 to be exact) when Isaiah Hartenstein blocked Mitchell on the edge on a potentially game-changing layup.

6️⃣ Strong team assists for Immanuel Quickley on his return to the lineup after missing a game with a sore left knee. The Knicks outplayed the Cavs by 14 points in Quickley’s 27th minute.

1️⃣1️⃣ points for Obi Toppin in 10:22, his second straight game in double digits after failing to reach that threshold since mid-November.

Jonathan Lehmann

This is Hall, folks

Third baseman Scott Rolen #17 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws the ball at first base during the game against the San Francisco Giants April 29, 2002 at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, California.  The Giants won the game 8-5.
Scott Rolen was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his sixth year of eligibility.
Getty Images

Scott Rolen will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer after narrowly surpassing the required 75 percent threshold of the BBWAA electorate, of which I am a voting member. The eight-time Gold Glove third baseman will join Contemporary Era Committee honoree Fred McGriff at this year’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

I’ve used seven of my slots this year, up from a maximum of 10 a year ago. After David Ortiz was elected and Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling cast the ballot after 10 years of deliberation, I added longtime Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins to my six remaining: Rolen, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield and Bill Wagner.

Voting through 2024 bodes well for Helton, the five-time All-Star first baseman with the Rockies, and Wagner, a dominant former closer who spent most of his career with the Astros, Phillies and Mets.

Todd Helton waves to the crowd during the Mastercard presented 91st MLB All-Star Game at Coors Field on Tuesday July 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.
Five-time All-Star Todd Helton appears on course to be voted to Cooperstown, perhaps as early as next year.
MLB photos via Getty Images

Especially considering Rolen was so far from his first ballot when he received 10.2 percent of the vote in 2018.

Helton, in his fifth electoral year, rose from 16.5 percent in his freshman year in 2019 to 52.0 percent a year ago to 72.2 percent this year.

Wagner rose to 68.1 percent from 10.5 percent in 2016 to 51.0 percent last year, with two years left to consider.

The 2023 Hall of Fame voting results

Helton, Wagner and the rest of the holdovers – including upstart Andruw Jones (58.1%), Gary Sheffield (55.0% in his ninth year of eligibility) and freshman Carlos Beltran (46.5%) – will be in the next year will probably be first -election candidates Adrian Beltre and Joe Mauer.

Beltran was clearly hurt this year by his involvement in the Astros sign-theft scandal, but after a year-long hiatus, I plan to add the former Mets midfielder to my list in the next voting cycle.

Unsurprisingly, however, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez didn’t get much traction with their candidatures. Both superstars suspended by the PED received less than 36 percent of the vote, similar to last year.

Mikaela leaves traces

Race winner Mikaela Shiffrin of the USA celebrates on the podium after competing in the women's giant slalom during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Plan de Corones (Kronplatz), Dolomites, January 24, 2023.
Mikaela Shiffrin’s 83 World Cup wins is the most for a woman in history, and it may not be long before she holds the mark for any female skier in history.
AFP via Getty Images

Almost a year after a disappointing personal Olympic flameout, American skier Mikaela Shiffrin set a record on the slopes with a chance for more.

Shiffrin, 27, won her 83rd Alpine World Cup race in Italy on Tuesday, surpassing the previous mark of retired former US teammate Lindsey Vonn. Shiffrin was also just three wins away to match Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark’s 86-win total.

“It’s really hard to find words,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t think there are words to explain all the feelings.”

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was disqualified from six events at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Shiffrin has a chance to add to her overall win in giant slalom early Wednesday and two other upcoming slalom races in the Czech Republic before the World Championships start in France on February 6.

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