Friday, April 19, 2024

Why these 15 NBA teams can actually win a championship this year: Breaking down title contenders in six tiers

The conventional wisdom of NBA postseason basketball is that there are a set, often small, number of actual title contenders. Parity is a wish. A few big dogs dominate, this thinking and much of the game’s history goes, for better or worse.

But if you let yourself believe this year — and accept the idea that the game’s best two teams could maybe in fact lose come the playoffs — a whole world of possibilities open up. For years, the league office angled for a playing field filled with would-be champions. Perhaps we’re getting close to that reality. 

Or perhaps we’re already there. After a handful of teams won all of this century’s titles — including Steph Curry and LeBron James winning seven of nine — something like variety has crept in, from the Raptors to the Bucks to the Nuggets pushing their way to glory. Even Steph and LeBron’s past two wins felt more like swan songs than reminders of dominance.

So in the spirit of the idea that more teams may have a better chance of winning it all than has been true for decades, here’s a very optimistic list of 15 teams that could win it all — a list full of tiers, possibilities and the shortcomings that could hold them back.

Tier 1: The big dogs

Two teams are clearly the game’s best, especially come the playoffs:the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.

No surprise here, and not a lot to say. For the rest of this list to matter, one or both of the Celtics and Nuggets would need to see themselves beaten by a lesser foe. 

Both are in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, historically a marker of a championship team. But repeating is easier said than done, and the West is loaded with talented teams capable of making that route for Denver loaded with landmines.

And for the Celtics, who, astoundingly, are first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating, real questions hang over Jayson Tatum in the playoffs. Yes, the additions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis were masterstrokes by the front office. But it’s also true Tatum has been one of the game’s worst clutch shooters over the past five seasons, and champions, we know, need their stars to get them there.

They’re the favorites in the East, just as Denver is in the West. But the rest of the game is chock full of beguiling challengers.

Tier 2: Talent vs. experience

There are two teams here with regular seasons set to make you believe but a lack of experience that old NBA heads will tell you is, for now, a fatal flaw. I happen to buy into this logic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves have spent the season battling for the top spot in the Western Conference with Denver, repeatedly shining against great teams, racking up the kind of stats and seasons champions can spring from.

The Thunder are particularly alluring as a rising power to believe in. They’re exceptional on both sides of the ball, are deep and wildly athletic, and boast star power from likely MVP and Rookie of the Year runner-ups in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren, respectively.

They are, on paper, a championship-level team, checking off so many of the boxes needed to compete. But experience matters, and almost without exception young teams with no playoff experience need to lose to learn. SGA has never gotten past the first round, has only played in the postseason with OKC once, and is surrounded by guys with little or no playoff experience. 

There’s a similar sense in Minnesota, where, while a bit more experienced, their best player is still Anthony Edwards, a 22-year-old rising star who’s never been out of the first round. Throw in the injury to Karl-Anthony Towns, and an often-lackluster offense, and you worry.

But each team plays great defense. Each has a star who looks like a future top-five player. And both teams could make people like me eat my words when we say youth doesn’t win in the NBA playoffs.

Tier 3: The Doc Rivers Quandary

Good news: The Milwaukee Bucks are phenomenally talented. Khris Middleton is back. They’ve won 10 of their last 12, including three of four during a tricky West Coast swing. And they have in Giannis Antetokounmpo one of the best players on earth, a proven champion and former MVP capable of carrying a team. With Damian Lillard looking more in sync, and other Eastern Conference teams battling injuries and inconsistencies, Milwaukee could not be better positioned. 

The bad news, at least for many around the NBA: Their coach.

I’ve written a lot about this, from why I hated the hire for Milwaukee to why his exit from Philly was good news for the Sixers to that moment when Rivers, in classic Rivers fashion, watched his 2020 Clippers team blow a 3-1 series lead in the second round of that year’s playoffs.

But past performance does not also dictate future results. And the Bucks, if Doc turns out to be the right hire after all, can absolutely win it all.

Tier 4: They have a shot despite real question marks

The New York Knicks. The Cleveland Cavaliers. The Los Angeles Clippers. The New Orleans Pelicans.

Each of these four teams have shown flashes of being good enough. And each, as we approach the business end of this NBA season, have serious drawbacks.. 

Let’s start with the team I’d argue beg for the most belief, the Knicks. They’re 15-2 when OG Anunoby plays, and the team’s defensive rating has jumped considerably since his arrival. Yes, he and Julius Randle remain injured, each with nebulous return dates. But this team, even without them, has been a joy to watch behind star Jalen Brunson. And if he does get his co-stars back, the Knicks are good enough to go very, very far.

The Cavs, too, have injury issues — in this case to Donovan Mitchell. But that’s a top defense they boast, a lot of depth, and, if Mitchell is back and healthy for the playoffs, a player poised for a postseason breakthrough. Like the Timberwolves, they’re great on D and not offensively, but there’s been flashes of a great team in Cleveland this season, and, until the playoffs, last.

Then there’s the Clippers and Pelicans, each dangerous, each hard to believe in despite obvious talent. For the Clippers, who have lost their way lately, there’s still no doubt all that skill and starpower, especially if Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, can do something special. That’s probably why they have the third-best odds behind Boston and Denver to win it all.

And the Pelicans have been sneaky great. They’re also in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, Zion Williamson has been healthy and in great shape, and after Tuesday night have won seven of their past eight. 

Zion, and the Pelicans, have felt like fool’s gold the past few years, but there’s belief in New Orleans they may be close to cashing as a team they’ve always believed could be contenders if only their superstar could stay on the floor.

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

Tier 5: Incredibly dangerous uber-underachievers

Yes, of course, the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks are flawed and unflinchingly disappointing this season. Yes, a single loss — or two — could end things before the actual playoffs even begin if they indeed are play-in bound.

And yes, some of these teams, like Miami, Phoenix and Dallas, may yet play their way out of that NBA version of Russian roulette.

But several — some would argue all — of these teams can make deep, deep playoff runs if things go their way. There’s a lot of “ifs” in such scenarios, but no doubt other teams do not want to face any of them in the playoffs, especially Golden State.

I still think the Warriors are good enough to make a very deep run if they can get to the playoffs on the opposite side of the bracket of the Nuggets. They still have Stephen Curry. Since Draymond Green‘s return to the starting lineup in January following his suspension, the Warriors have the ninth-best defensive rating in the league — a critical improvement for a defense that was downright bad without him. Klay Thompson has been mostly outstanding since moving to the bench. And this is, largely, still the team that won it all two years ago.

They are the best of the how-are-they-in-the-play-in teams that saw themselves as top-tier contenders at the start of the year, but not the only ones. Any team with a healthy LeBron and Anthony Davis can do damage (see last year). I don’t buy the Mavericks, but many do, pointing to what Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving bring in terms of pure scoring talent. I do believe in the Heat, even if many others don’t, because the Heat Way is a real thing (again, see last year).

Vegas, the eye-test and the talent of each team point to the same conclusion: These possible play-in teams are much more dangerous than their spot in the standings. 

Tier 6: If the MVP comes back…

The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders… if Joel Embiid returns by the playoffs and is healthy enough to perform like he was earlier this season. That might be the biggest if in the NBA right now, but the Sixers can’t be ruled out as longshots just yet.

Want to believe, but don’t

The Magic have been on a roll. The Pacers have cooled off, along with Tyrese Haliburton. And the Sacramento Kings are so fun, and so electric, but even an optimist’s view of NBA would-be contenders need a team to play some defense. Even the Bulls have been plucky of late.

But, no, they don’t make this list. 

Still, if you look at the other teams mentioned above just the right way, nearly half of the NBA can appear capable of being a true playoff threat. And that, whatever happens, makes the game much more appealing than in past years.

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