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For the first time since the retirement of Michael Jordan, the NBA championship is totally up for grabs. There are no favorites and close to a dozen teams who could walk away with the Larry O'Brien trophy. In a league that usually has two or three clear front runners every season, the NBA is experiencing perhaps its most unpredictable season ever.
The Western Conference alone is up for grabs. The Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Trail Blazers may be the top four seeds, but the bottom four seeds consisting of the Clippers, Mavericks, Spurs, and Thunder seem just as dangerous. I could make a strong case for why any of these eight teams should be favored to win the Western Conference regardless of their position in the standings. The West is that deep.
As for the Eastern Conference, it's substantially more shallow, but all the same unpredictable. The Hawks are running away with the #1 seed, but the Cavaliers led by LeBron James are coming on at full force. It's hard to pick against the Cavaliers given their recent surge of winning 18 of 20 games as well as the presence of LeBron James, but it's just as tough to pick against the Hawks who have an astonishing 48-12 record and a 10 game lead over the #2 seeded Raptors.
The two real dark horses in the Eastern Conference are the Bulls and the Pacers. The Bulls have such a deep roster with Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol that even without Derrick Rose they are still a threat. As for the Pacers, if they can make the playoffs and have Paul George healthy, there's no reason to not think that they have at least a shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference.
The uncertainty going into the playoffs makes things so much more interesting and exciting given that basketball is usually a really predictable sport. The Heat with LeBron James, the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe, and the Bulls with Jordan and Pippen were all clear front runners to win the NBA championship. This year, there is no team that is a front runner in the way that these teams were. The fact that the two best records in the league are possessed by the Hawks and the Warriors I think pretty much says it all. If those two franchises are the "front runners" to win the NBA championship, then we really do have a free for all on our hands.
While it is sometimes more fun to have a clear front runner and a team who everybody is chasing, NBA fans should embrace this current state of unpredictability since it is so unique and rare. We'll have plenty of NBA seasons where one or two teams are clearly the favorites to win the championship, but when will we get a season in which as much as twelve teams have a real shot at the championship? The answer could be never and that possibility should have every NBA fan glued to their TV sets come April, May, and June.
As for the teams involved in this madness, they too have to take advantage of this uncertainty because they may never get another shot at winning a championship. The Hawks and the Warriors rarely are in the championship picture and so they better capitalize while they are currently the top seeds in their conferences. As for the teams below them, they have to feel confident in their abilities to come out on top based on the fact that the Hawks and Warriors lack championship experience.
In conclusion, there's reason for fans and teams to be excited about this uncertainty. Fans can be excited by all the drama that is to come and teams can be excited by having a real shot at winning the championship. If I'm coaching any of these teams, I'm saying to my guys that we have to follow the advice of John Keating to "seize the day" and "gather ye rosebuds while ye may".
---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord for NBA news