Which NBA Teams Can ACTUALLY Win the Title?
by Aaron Lynn
The offseason has been filled with Kyrie Irving drama. Regardless of whether or not he plays this season, Brooklyn will have one of the most potent offenses ever assembled (again) and I would argue they have better depth than they've showed in seasons past. Long-time Spurs point guard Patty Mills was a great offseason addition and veterans Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge may not make a huge contribution on the court but will make their presence known in the locker room.
#1 East Seed: Milwaukee
#1 West Seed: Utah
Eastern Winner: Brooklyn
Western Winner: Golden State
NBA Finals Champion: Brooklyn Nets
MVP: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn
MIP: Jordan Poole, Golden State
ROTY: Jalen Suggs, Orlando
DPOY: Bam Adebayo, Miami
I expect young center Nicolas Claxton to take a big step forward behind Blake Griffin, who showed that he is still plenty capable. This team will once again be the most deadly from deep with the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Joe Harris. Durant was simply amazing last season following an Achilles injury and was literally a toe away from lifting his team to a Finals appearance. I believe Durant will win MVP and the Nets will take home a title. They will need to get through Milwaukee though, which is no easy task.
The defending champs are back and poised to make another deep postseason run. Almost every key piece from the 2020-2021 championship team (the franchise's first title in 50 years) returns short of P.J. Tucker and Bryn Forbes. Giannis Antetokounmpo won NBA Finals MVP, and, oh by the way, he's just getting started at only 26 years of age. He could be even scarier with a more consistent jumper, especially considering he might be the most physically dominating player we've seen since Shaq. Khris Middleton had several key performances in the Bucks' run lasts year and Jrue Holiday is a nightmare defensively for opposing point guards. Donte DiVincenzo missed all of the postseason but should return this year for Milwaukee to add key depth along with new additions George Hill and Grayson Allen.
Winning back-to-back titles is challenging, but certainly doable considering Antetokounmpo's tremendous skill and his supporting cast. Brooklyn appears to be the biggest hurdle in the Bucks' way. It should be an entertaining regular season as both teams look to claim the #1 seed in the East.
The 2-time MVP is only getting better.
Los Angeles Lakers
Despite a first round exit to the eventual West winners Phoenix, any team with LeBron James is an instant title contender. The roster received yet another makeover in the offseason, most notably trading for star Russell Westbrook to pair with LeBron and Anthony Davis. Carmelo Anthony also joins this team as do veterans Rajon Rondo (again), Dwight Howard (again), and DeAndre Jordan. Younger options include Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, and Sekou Doumboya, but this will still be one of the oldest rosters ever constructed.
It's hard to know what to expect from this team considering there is almost a complete turnover in roster outside of the core of LeBron and AD. Last year there were issues with health and the Lakers struggled to hit the 3 ball in key moments down the stretch of their series against Phoenix. I worry that they got worse in both areas (considering with more age comes more injuries). I'm also going to be watching Anthony Davis' conditioning, considering he has faced multiple injuries in just the past two seasons. Still, bet against LeBron at your own risk. I don't think this team will win a title but they will certainly be in the mix.
Golden State Warriors
You might be surprised to see the Warriors here considering this team has missed the playoffs the last two seasons. However, there are big expectations once again considering Klay Thompson should (hopefully) return from back-to-back season-ending injuries at some point this season. Steph Curry is back and as lethal as ever and there is excitement among Warriors fans with young talent that has been developed in the two-year post-season hiatus. The organization is extremely optimistic about the progress made from Jordan Poole, who I expect to win the Most Improved Player award this season. For the first time in several years, Golden State hung onto both of their draft picks and took Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Expect lots of threes from Moody as well as new addition Otto Porter, Jr.
There could still be some growing pains considering the roster may need some time to gel especially depending on when Thompson is back. However, when Curry, Thompson, and Green are all on the court, only LeBron James has been able to beat that trio. Sure, there's concerns about health and developing young depth, and those concerns are valid. I just trust Curry too much and have them in the NBA Finals this season.
Jordan Poole is poised for a breakout season
Devin Booker's first taste of the postseason was a long run all the way to the Finals. He had his fair share of incredible performances and struggles but the overall message is clear, Booker is an emerging superstar (if he wasn't already). Pair him with the likes of Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton, and solid young depth and you have a formidable team that is quite capable of reaching the Finals again this season. Mikal Bridges might be one of the most notable young stars and just signed an $80 million deal a couple days before the season.
Depth in the frontcourt was a bit of an issue in the Finals when Dario Saric went down with injury. Torrey Craig also battled injury and is now a member of the Indiana Pacers. The Suns added Javale McGee but may need to make a trade to improve depth, considering the West should be better than last season and another Finals trip will be more difficult. Still, this team is one of the most fun to watch of all 30 franchises and could very well make another deep postseason run.
Ben Simmons was quite literally afraid to shoot in the playoffs in the biggest moments of the 76ers season and made it clear that he would never play a game for Philly again... until he returned to camp with about a week remaining in the season. It's unclear of whether Simmons will play (or if the 76ers want him to play). However, with Joel Embiid alongside of Tobias Harris, Danny Green, and others, the Sixers still have a chance to compete in the East. If Simmons doesn't play, that might open the door for more minutes for Tyrese Maxey, who I expect to have a breakout year.
This team made the Finals two seasons ago and adds star point guard Kyle Lowry to try and get back to that spot. Considering offense is sometimes hard to come by from this team, Lowry should help. Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and NBA champion PJ Tucker round out the lineup. The Heat should cause problems once again for East teams and if, in the off chance, that Victor Oladipo can restart his career in Miami, the Heat could be very dangerous.
How will the Simmons saga end?
New York Knicks
Julius Randle won the most improved player award and helped guide the Knicks to their first postseason appearance in nearly a decade. That being said, it was a quick exit for the Knicks. They bring in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier which should help balance the offense and leave less on the plate of Randle. If Mitchell Robinson can stay healthy, he is as formidable a shot blocker as they come. Rookies Emmanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin looked impressive and will be called upon to be key players off the bench for New York. The Knicks won't sneak up on anybody this year and the East as a whole took a step forward. I expect New York to make it back to the postseason but they are still a year or two away from truly competing for a title.
Trae Young had some electric performances in the postseason, most notably against the Knicks. He's joined by Bogdan Bogdanovic, who, in my opinion, might have been the most underrated addition from any team last season. John Collins is a freak athlete with great touch around the rim and a solid jumper. Clint Capela returns as one of the league's best shot blockers and rim runners. Like New York, nobody will be surprised by the Hawks this year. I still think Atlanta is a year or two away, although if young talent overachieves, anything is possible.
Luka will be one of the frontrunners for the MVP at just 22 years old. Expect his best season yet in part because he will work under new head coach Jason Kidd, a fomer great NBA point guard. While I don't know if Kidd is the answer as a whole, I do think he can serve as a great mentor to Doncic. There was a bit of beef between Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic at the end of the season. I have significant concerns that Porzingis won't be happy as the second option (or maybe third, considering Tim Hardaway's emergence) as well as his ability to stay on the court. I also worry about the overall depth of this team. Still, Luka alone means that Dallas is poised to finally win a playoff series, but probably not more than that.
When Jamal Murray went down with an ACL injury, many believed that all hope was lost for the Nuggets. That's when Nikola Jokic cemented his MVP season by still getting the Nuggets back to the postseason. Jokic has improved every season and will need to be amazing yet again considering Murray will still be out for several months. Reports in the offseason are that he has slimmed down and will be in his best shape entering this season. Michael Porter Jr. has emerged as a star and is a reason why I believe Denver earns a top-4 seed in the West this year. Will Barton and Monte Morris will need to step up as well.
Portland Trail Blazers
I love this Portland team. I can't get enough of Dame Time and they will, once again, be one of the most fun teams to watch in the entire league. Unfortunately, this squad still can't play defense, at least not to the extent needed to make a deep run in the postseason. Chauncey Billups is the head man now who must solve that problem, otherwise, Damian Lillard's future in Portland might be more and more uncertain.
The MVP is slimmer this year and could be even better.
The Jazz are one of the most deadly outside shooting teams in the league. With a great bench including both the sixth man of the year Jordan Clarkson and runner up for that award Joe Ingles and an impressive starting lineup, I believe Utah will take the top seed in the West this season. The reason that I don't have them as a main contender (yet) is because I fear they will live (and eventually die) by the three in the postseason. Donovan Mitchell could be one of the biggest stars in the NBA for the next decade. The time is now for him to take the final step and guide his team all the way to the Finals.
On the Verge
Last year was a disappointment, to say the least. Brad Stevens was reassigned to the front office and in steps in Ime Udoka. Jaylen Brown missed the playoffs entirely last season, but, when healthy, he and Jayson Tatum are one of the most dynamic duos in the league and are only getting better. Kemba Walker left for New York so it could be point guard by committee with Dennis Schroder and Payton Prichard. Al Horford is back at center but there's definitely some concerns at that position, in my opinion. The Celtics have work to do if they want to join the real contenders.
There's lots of relatively well-known names on this new roster, those being DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, and Zach Lavine. Alex Caruso and Tony Bradley are also offseason additions that should add depth. The question is, how does this interesting roster come together as a team? My immediate reaction is that this team will struggle to score from outside and will be a below-average defensive team. The most likely scenario is that the Bulls will wind up in the play-in tournament, but, if you're an optimist, a 5 or 6 seed isn't unattainable.
Los Angeles Clippers
It might seem odd for a team that made the Western Conference Finals last season to appear here, but I have some serious concerns about the Clippers. The most obvious concern is the timetable of Kawhi Leonard's knee injury, which could keep him out for the entire season. Paul George was great in his absence in the playoffs and could have one of his best seasons this year. There's a big assumption that Terrence Mann and Reggie Jackson can continue their improbable playoff play and there's also the assumption a back injury doesn't continue to plague Serge Ibaka. Maybe they will prove me wrong, but considering more teams are improving in the West with the Clippers taking a step back, I just don't see a legitimate contender in the Clippers this year.
Can this newly comprised Bulls team make noise in the East?
The Grizzlies are seriously talented and have what is perhaps the best young core in the entire league. Ja Morant is a highlight waiting to happen and is a great competitor. Jaren Jackson got a well deserved pay day in the offseason but will need to stay on the floor this season after a meniscus injury caused Jackson to miss most of the season, and he was inconsistent when he did play. Steven Adams is in at center instead of Valanciunas which I believe to be a slight downgrade. This Memphis team is on the rise and has overachieved the last couple of seasons. For now, though, I believe Memphis might still get stuck in the play-in tournament.
Charlotte - LaMelo and a host of athletic talent will make this team fun to watch, but they aren't contenders yet.
Cleveland - The roster is odd, heavily loaded with fowards and centers. This team will outwork a lot of teams and steal some wins, however.
Detroit - A good season from 1st pick Cade Cunningham will be the mark of success for a team who could end up with the 1st pick again next year.
Houston - Honestly, same as Detroit, just with 2nd pick Jalen Green. Getting value for Eric Gordon would also be helpful.
Indiana - Considering Carlisle is in at coach, the Pacers are probably the best team in the last category. Could be a darkhorse playoff team.
Minnesota - A team that could be on the rise if young talent gels well with Karl-Anthony Towns and DeAngelo Russell.
New Orleans - Another losing season is another season closer to losing Zion.
Oklahoma City - The team won't be good, but Sam Presti's actual goal might be getting every single draft pick in a single year. SGA for MIP?
Orlando - There isn't really a star or go-to player on this team. The Magic might feel more optimistic if Mo Bamba can have a good season.
Sacramento - Stuck in no-man's land. Fox and Hield continue to improve, but Bagley simply must be better to help this team and to avoid being a bust.
San Antonio - How long will Pop stay around for a rebuild? Keldon Johnson won gold and will now look for better success in the NBA.
Toronto - The Lowry loss will hurt, and Siakam isn't healthy to start the season, either. There's still an outside shot at the playoffs if things go right.
Washington - If Dinwiddie can bounce back well from an ACL and Hachimura shows improvement, Beal will elevate the Wizards to the play-in again.
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