Auburn Hills — The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the top two teams in their respective conferences and appear on a collision course for a third straight meeting in the NBA Finals.
Season over — well, not so fast.
It would be presumptuous to fast-forward through the final two months of the NBA regular season and early rounds of the playoffs. But the early returns have shown that the preseason predictions are holding up.
The secondary questions center around the other teams trailing them, who could pose a challenge when the playoff roll around. Even those races are weeding out some of the pretenders, as the margin between the first and fourth seed in the East is seven games; in the West, that gap is 12 games.
Injuries to key starters Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have pushed the Los Angeles Clippers down to the fourth seed in the West and the Washington Wizards have put things together behind John Wall and Bradley Beal to reach the third spot in the East. The San Antonio Spurs are staying close to the Warriors, with an ever-improving Kawhi Leonard and a well-rounded James Harden has the Houston Rockets in third position.
With the Feb. 23 trade deadline approaching, contending teams are going to try to improve dramatically to gain an edge. The Raptors made a risky trade for Serge Ibaka to strengthen their frontcourt and the Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and others are considering other moves to prepare for a run.
Because the All-Star break comes with most teams having about 25 games remaining, it’ll make for an intriguing sprint to the final two months, a prologue to the NBA playoff season.
Here’s a look at Rod Beard’s picks for the NBA major individual awards:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
James Harden, Rockets: It was a two-man race through the first half of the season, but Harden has surged in recent weeks, getting the Rockets to third place in the West. His numbers, like Westbrook’s, are head-spinning (29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists). Defense still is an issue, though.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs: In what has become an all-too-familiar refrain, the Spurs have been under the radar in the regular season. Leonard, the two-time defensive player of the year, has improved his offensive game (25.9 points, 3.3 assists) and has taken the leadership mantle from Tim Duncan.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder: To consider that Westbrook is averaging a triple-double (31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 10.1 assists) is remarkable in itself. In the West, though, it needs to lead to wins — and the Thunder is in seventh place. That may cost him winning the MVP in some voters’ eyes.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Rudy Gobert, Jazz: In his fourth season, Gobert, at 7-foot-1, is averaging a double-double (12.9 points, 12.6 rebounds and a league-best 2.5 blocks). He was snubbed from an All-Star selection this year but he’ll get more notice as Utah continues to improve — they’re up to fifth in the West.
Leonard, Spurs: The defending two-time winner, Leonard is the gold standard for wing defenders. He has good size (6-foot-7) and excellent athleticism and routinely takes on the best offensive player from the opposing team.
Draymond Green, Warriors: His versatility to guard multiple frontcourt positions and to switch onto guards on the pick-and-roll is uncanny. Numbers don’t tell the story of his importance to the Warriors, especially on the defensive end — but just watch him.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Joel Embiid, Sixers: He was the third pick in the 2014 draft but injuries — and sticking to “The Process” — have kept him on the shelf until this year. He’s posting 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds, in only 25 minutes per game. Discussion over.
Brandon Ingram, Lakers: With 8 points and 4.1 rebounds, he’s gotten his feet wet in learning the ropes with the young Lakers squad. His game still is evolving and he’s played the most minutes of any rookie, though they’re not finding early success.
Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks: He’s found a key contributing role with the Bucks, where he’s averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 assists — highest among the 2016 draft class. He’s shooting 42 percent on 3-pointers and has carved out a role off the bench.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: At 6-foot-11, he’s one of the hardest players to guard in the league. He got his first All-Star selection, after posting 23.4 pts and 8.6 rebounds, playing multiple roles for the Bucks.
Devin Booker, Suns: After a very good rookie season, Booker has emerged as one of the best young players in the league. He’s boosted his numbers to 21.1 points — up from 13.8 as a rookie — and 3.2 assists, while hitting 37 percent on 3-pointers.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets: In his second season, he’s improved his scoring by more than six points. He’s averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists). He’s also hitting 37 percent beyond the arc and has been solid in the middle for the Nuggets.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Scott Brooks, Wizards: After missing the playoffs last season, the Wizards are 12 games over .500 and in third in the East. It’s a big turnaround, despite some reported friction between backcourt mates John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat: After an 11-30 start, the Heat had a 13-game win streak — all without Chris Bosh. They’ve assembled a disparate bunch of pieces and found a good streak to jump in playoff contention, just two games behind the Pistons for the No. 8 spot.
Mike D’Antoni, Rockets: They’re a legitimate dark-horse contender in the West because they’ve built some depth behind Harden, including the getting the most out of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and the emergence of Clint Capela.
Lou Williams, Lakers: A consistent scorer, Williams fills the role of bench scorer as well as anyone in the league. He’s posting 18.6 points and hitting 39 percent on 3-pointers and is the veteran presence for the growing Lakers.
Eric Gordon, Rockets: He’s continued his role a go-to scorer, meshing well to form a potent combo with Harden. After coming from the Pelicans, he’s fit in well and still can hit from beyond the arc (38 percent).
Wilson Chandler, Nuggets: He’s been under the radar a bit in Denver and after missing last season, he’s bounced back with 15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. His contributions have helped them teeter on the brink of the playoffs.