1.5.21

Evaluating the Contenders for the NBA Title

Basketball is back after a very short break and this season promises to be one of the weirdest yet. It is impossible to not see COVID affecting every team at least once throughout the season. Many of the top teams will be coming off a heavily abbreviated offseason which might force coaches to adjust rotations to lighten the load for some veterans. Today we’re looking at eight teams that have a shot at winning the title this season. The list is in no particular order, and before Brooklyn fans get mad at me let me explain why they aren’t on this list. I know Kevin Durant has looked good so far, but I just want to see him play for a month at this level and then I’ll be all the way in. I also am extremely suspicious of Kyrie Irving staying healthy for a long stretch this season. I’m sure Brooklyn will make me eat my words by the end of the season, but I want to see it before I believe it.

LAL

The rich get richer. Title winning teams almost always get objectively worse the following offseason: players get older, some are traded, some sign elsewhere for more money or a larger role. These teams also rarely have the assets or cap space to replace lost players or make any significant upgrades. This is why what LA accomplished is so impressive. It’s hard to quibble when a team wins the title, but it was clear LA lacked ballhandling juice throughout the regular season and playoffs. Their offense was an adventure, and not in an exciting way when LeBron was on the bench. Adding Dennis Schroeder, who was dynamic as the 6th man and third guard in Oklahoma City last year, is a nice upgrade. His 3-point shooting may regress from his career high last year of 38% (his previous high was 35%), but he’s still a better option than Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. Signing fellow 6th Man of the Year Award finalist and winner Montrezl Harrell for the midlevel exception was also a good piece of business. The fit with Anthony Davis is questionable, but he is clearly going to provide more energy and better offense than Javale McGee and Dwight Howard. Finally, getting Marc Gasol to come over from Toronto and delay a return to Spain was huge. Though he’s near the end of his career, Gasol was still able to spearhead an elite Toronto defense thanks to his IQ and savviness. With LeBron and Davis back and healthy again for another season, it’s hard to find a reason that LA shouldn’t be the favorite for another title this season.

Miami

Miami had a pretty lowkey offseason. There was a lot of noise about whether they would hoard their cap space for the loaded free agent class of 2021 or would they throw Houston a massive offer for James Harden. In the end they lost some rotation pieces and added other role players to replace them. Losing Jae Crowder to Phoenix hurt, but Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless should give them 70-80% of what Crowder did. While Goran Dragic certainly won’t play at the same level he did in the bubble, it’s not hard to imagine Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson taking a step forward. While their run to the Finals was semi-surprising, it wasn’t built on a foundation of unsustainable play. They play with a purpose and flow on offense that generates easy looks for their shooters. As long as Jimmy and Bam are healthy and playing, their free throw rate should be near the top of the league. Their defense may be weak at the point of attack, but it’s elite on the wing and backline, and Erik Spoelstra is adept at developing game plans that stifle opposing offenses. There is no reason they shouldn’t be considered a contender for the Finals again.

LAC

The playoffs were an absolute disaster for the Clippers. Blowing a 3-1 to Denver, double-digit leads in multiple closeout games, Paul George bricking everything, and chemistry issues bubbling up left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Doc Rivers, who took a lot of heat for his lack of in-game adjustments, is gone, as is Montrezl Harrell who was a massive disappointment in the bubble and gave voice to the chemistry issues that plagued the team. In are Ty Lue, who knows how to lead a team with interesting personalities to a championship, and Serge Ibaka, one of the more sought-after free agents for contending teams. Ibaka provides a cleaner fit than Harrell, thanks to his shooting and rim protection. The Patrick Beverly, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka lineup will instantly become the group that every reporter will clamor to see in crunch time. The pressure will be immense this season. George re-upped his deal to stay locked into LA, but Leonard still has a player option following this season. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see him leave if the team disappoints again.

Milwaukee

Speaking of pressure. Milwaukee’s playoff performance only ratcheted up the stress on the front office and Coach Budenholzer this season. Milwaukee will most likely be the #1 or #2 seed again. Their style of play, letting Giannis play downhill while spacing the floor with shooters, and a defense that prioritizes protecting the rim will always be a winning formula. Jrue Holiday is an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, and they signed some quality bench players for the regular season in DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, and Torrey Craig. Ultimately the regular season doesn’t matter. This team needs to show up and make serious noise in the playoffs. This season will be about integrating Holiday and building chemistry between him, Giannis, and Khris Middleton. Brook Lopez needs to prove he can hit threes more consistently, and Donte DiVincenzo needs to make another leap.

Denver

Though not as talked about as other teams out west, Denver enters this season as Finals contenders. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are as dynamic a pair as anyone in the league, and Michael Porter Jr. has the chops to be the third star the team needs. He’ll need to prove to coach Mike Malone he can be trusted on the defensive end, but he won’t be exposed as badly during the regular season as he was in the playoffs. Will Barton should be back and fully healthy, giving them another option on the wing, and hopefully, Gary Harris discovers his shot again. Jerami Grant leaving for Detroit hurts, especially considering it wasn’t because of money, but JaMychal Green is a fine substitute in the regular season. The playoffs will be another story, but hopefully MPJ will be able to handle those minutes. Continuity will be Denver’s greatest strength and should carry them to a top 3 seed in the west.

Dallas

Luka Dončić is nothing less than an MVP candidate this season. The third-year player is a bona fide superstar, and Dallas has done an excellent job putting a team around him. Kristaps Porziņģis will miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from his torn MCL, and his health is a huge factor in how much noise they make in the postseason. Trading for Josh Richardson strengthens their defense, and he has more upside as a secondary playmaker than Seth Curry does. James Johnson finished last season strong in Minnesota, but whether any of that will carry over to Dallas is hard to predict. Rick Carlisle is still a top-five coach in the league and will be more adept at managing player absences than others.

Boston

Boston enters the season a slight notch below Milwaukee and Miami but is still a real threat to come out of the East. Losing Gordon Hayward for essentially nothing (they got a massive player exception, but that doesn’t help them right now) and having Kemba Walker go down until January after an injection in his knee puts a damper on their season. However, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are all really freakin’ good. Tatum is a superstar, Brown an All-Star, and Smart is their best defender and heart of the team. Even with an average supporting cast, those three are good enough to carry a team to a top-three seed in the East. In such a compact season, it helps that Boston’s core is younger and may not require the tactical rest and games off as some of the more veteran teams, giving them a leg up in the regular season.

Philadelphia

When was the last time Philly had a quiet offseason? Every year, no matter what, Philly always creates a ton of talking points before they even take the court. Doc Rivers comes in to replace Brett Brown, and Daryl Morey is hired to run basketball operations. Rivers will be responsible for creating a culture of accountability and organizing an offense around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid while Morey addressed and will continue needing to improve the team’s shooting and playmaking. Bringing in Seth Curry, who is an elite marksman, and Danny Green should give Embiid and Simmons more room to operate. Saying goodbye to Al Horford means Tobias Harris should get more run at the four and opens up more minutes for Matisse Thybulle. This team just makes much more sense than it did a year ago and should expect to compete for the conference finals.

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