Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at June after winning in the NBA Finals is the true measure of a team’s worth by nearly everyone’s standards. Many fans, athletes, and coaches consider any season that doesn’t end in a parade a failure. And yet, virtually every season, we find out fairly early on that there are only a handful of teams (or less) with any real hopes of winning a championship. In fact it’s rather easy to point out before the season even begins who we will be seeing playing meaningful games in April, May, and June in the playoffs.
Barring an unforeseen in-season trade that tips the scales (they’re rare, but they do happen), major injury, legal problems/suspensions, or unexpected issues of chemistry (on- or off-court) the teams are mostly who they are going to be already. At the time of this article, we are nearly two months from opening night and most transactions have taken place that will have any real bearing in the standings. Last season was a bit anticlimactic just because the pool of real and true contenders for the trophy was so little. It appears that this season is even less so… with Golden State and Cleveland being all but guaranteed in writing of a Finals rematch. There are a few teams, however, that are fringe contenders and would not shock people completely by beating out the Warriors or Cavs. Several more teams are a step away from being contenders themselves. It does, after all, take hard work and great luck to become a championship contender.
In this article, we will explore 15 teams that are perhaps just one piece away from challenging the Warriors and Cavaliers for the crown.
15 San Antonio Spurs: A Time Machine
The closest we can tell to a championship spoiler this season is, as usual, the Spurs. This year, however, they are doing it without the talents and leadership and savvy of Tim “The Big Fundamental” Duncan. The Spurs, even without Duncan’s now-modest contributions, are a dangerous team with a great coach and some tremendous talent.
The new foundation of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge is a fine one. The bench is smart and plays to the system implemented by Pops Pau Gasol who, while very much so on the wrong side of 30, has shown to be a great player still and should provide production at the big positions. In order to be put in the same sentence as the Curry/Durant/Klay/Draymond/Iggy Warriors, however, the duo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would have to be in their primes as opposed to staring down retirement. Expect the Spurs to be in the thick of it all, as they are every year. Don’t expect, however, them to be the last team standing… provided nothing major happens.
14 Toronto Raptors: 20 and 10 From the 4
Canada’s only team met Cleveland in the Conference Finals last year - the most successful year in Raptors franchise history. The fact that they outlasted the other teams in the East had as much to do with blind luck and seeding as it did their talent level. It was nearly universally agreed upon by people who know that the 2016 Raptors played well above their potential in getting to the penultimate series.
The Raps lost Bismack Biyombo, who will be tough to replace, to free agency. Ultimately however, replacing Biyombo with Austrian rookie Jakob Poeltl and whoever else they can find, won’t move the needle too much. Their big acquisition last season of DeMarre Carroll will essentially be their big acquisition this season, as much of his time as a Raptor was lost to injury. While DeMarre is a plus on the defensive end, the biggest weakness of the Raptors will continue to be offense. Presumably to not give up too much size, coach Casey will start DeMarre at the small forward position and move Terrence Ross to the bench (where he belongs for now). That leaves a hole at the 4 with a neon sign above it that reads “OPPORTUNITY”. Jared Sullinger, the most high profile player added this offseason, is a great piece… but unless he can show us something we haven’t yet seen, he is not Toronto’s savior.
13 Boston Celtics: A #1
We don’t want anyone to misunderstand, we are very fond Isaiah Thomas as a sparkplug and disrupter of All-Star quality and we think the world of Al Horford (and think it was a HUGE get for Boston and their perceived free agency troubles). What the Celtics lack is the same thing they’ve lacked for several seasons now… a true #1 option to be complemented by all the great role players and competent young fellas they currently have on the team.
In trying to rebuild a contender from the ashes of the Pierce/Garnett/Allen/Rondo championship team, Danny Ainge has stockpiled picks and solid young players in the hopes of parlaying them into a superstar (with the ulterior hope that they just luck into a star along the way via the draft). Al Horford is a great player, but at best, he is a Number Two option on a championship team. Lucky for the Celtics, they are still stuffed to the gills with good, young players and tantalizing draft picks (such as the upcoming pick swap with Brooklyn that may yield a franchise player).
12 Los Angeles Clippers: More Balance
This is now year six of the Clippers trying to win with the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. While coach and team president Doc Rivers has been insistent that he is running the whole thing back again, the ever-growing chorus of chants for breaking things up has reached a fever pitch. Year in and year out, the Clippers find themselves as being ‘pretty damn good’ in a league where only ‘really damn good’ wins anything of consequence. And, because of that, the Clippers have been stuck in a cold comfort purgatory… a super low pick in the draft, almost zero cap space to add to the roster, and just enough success to where they lose virtually every productive role player from the previous year to a more lucrative contract elsewhere.
Should the Clippers hold fast, they have another definite piece of the puzzle in 3-and-D wing JJ Redick. The rest of the players on the team are a motley assortment that vacillate between washed up, hardly adequate, or a 50/50 redemption case. Just one more player at the level of Redick or above in the lineup, or the rest of the bench going up one small notch (Speights would need to be the 10th or 11th man) would do it… and have the Clips setting course for the Conference Finals.
11 Charlotte Hornets: A Scoring Wing
The Hornets took a large step back this offseason when they lost both Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee to free agency and replaced them with Marco Belinelli and the hope that a healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will finally add an offensive component to his game. Bad news for Buzz City, but points are going to be very tough to come by this season without some outside help being brought in.
Kemba Walker is tremendously talented, and Batum has his flashes… but apart from that there is absolutely nowhere to dump the ball in hopes of a bucket. At this point, injuries and time have derailed all but the slimmest glimmer of hope that MKG will ever be anything other than an elite stopper. Jeremy Lamb was not the scoring savior Rich Cho had hoped for when he unshackled the kid from his “I Am the Replacement for James Harden” chains in Oklahoma. The highest profile addition this summer was lumbering stiff Roy Hibbert… and he replaces outgoing Al Jefferson who, while the league has changed to the point of his irrelevancy, was at least able to fake and bully his way to some needed points off the bench. Perhaps Cody Zeller or Frank Kaminsky will surprise us with some unworldly development in the offensive arena. More likely, however, is that the Hornets will continue to be a shooter away yet again.
10 Milwaukee Bucks: A One With Range
To clarify, Milwaukee is not one piece away from competing this season. The Bucks are still a young team finding themselves… but they certainly do seem to have a dangerous team to move into the future with. There is something holding them back from making real waves in the playoffs in the next few years, however. Coach Jason Kidd, himself a former point guard with a lack of shooting prowess (until he found his 3-point shot later in his career), has been unable to find the point guard to lead his extra-long Bucks into battle.
Kidd has run through Brandon Knight, Jerryd Bayless, Nate Wolters, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Ennis, Jorge Gutierrez, Jared Cunningham, Greivis Vasquez, and Michael Carter-Williams in his very short tenure. While they just splurged on Matthew Dellavedova this summer, it’s clear he’s not expected to be the long-term starter. It is also clear that MCW has worn out his welcome in Milwaukee… and that the Bucks will now work on trying out The Greek Freak, 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo, at the point. Giannis can’t shoot, but he does give the team enough of a mismatch at his position that he may be able to compensate for his weaknesses. If Giannis isn’t the solution, the Bucks better divest themselves of some young talent to find someone… solid point guards are one of the easiest things to find in the league at time present.
9 Indiana Pacers: A Myles Blossom
Indiana overhauled their team and playing style this offseason. We know that Paul George will be an incredible two-way player, but we know very little else about this new ‘run and gun’ Pacers team. Nate McMillan, the new head coach, will have many new pieces to try to fit together into a cohesive unit. Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, and Al Jefferson are all talented players… but it remains to be seen how well they all gel together with the other acquisitions and the returning cast.
On paper, the Pacers seem to have gotten deeper and more talented. With all the wheeling and dealing, though, they still read as being a hair behind the other competing teams in the league. While Monta Ellis could conceivably be flipped for another piece, it is unlikely to tip the scales dramatically enough to make Indy anything other than a fringe possibility for the Conference Finals. The best hope for Indiana becoming a fearsome powerhouse is the internal development of promising 2nd-year big man Myles Turner. A combo big with shooting range out to the three-point line, he proved to be an exciting revelation late in the season… after having been selected 11th overall in the draft. If he can put things together and improve on his play, the Pacers will be well on their way to the promised land.
8 Detroit Pistons: A Wing Who Can Bomb
If you haven’t noticed, the NBA is currently suffering from a shortage of talented wing players, especially at the shooting guard position. Once an overabundant resource, the scarcity at that position has caused some insane contract offers and some severe disappointment from both fans and front offices. Players that should have developed have not, and those that have have not developed as much as their teams would like.
As with the Bucks, the Pistons still need to get in some reps before becoming a true contending team. They did squeak into the playoffs last season, and gave Cleveland about as big a scare as they received in the playoffs as is possible from a team that got swept. The wing situation in Motown looked to be in good hands between Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (we know, what a name!). Johnson, a rookie last year, looks to be on his way. Tobias is a borderline All-Star player (who is still only 24) and should keep Johnson’s seat warm for him for the time being. KCP, however, failed to take the leap many expected him to last year. Billed as a shooter, Caldwell-Pope averaged just 30.9% on his three-pointers during the season. All hope is not lost, however, as he shot a blistering 44.4% in the series against the Cavs (with three makes per game!). Short of the breakout that might come this year, the Pistons will have to go fishing for the answer at shooting guard.
7 Memphis Grizzlies: Threes, Threes, Threes
Last season was a nightmare for the Grizz. So many players were hurt for so much of the season that we, as fans, were never able to see what Memphis could really accomplish. The knock against them had been, in the past, a lack of three-point shooting. With a shooter putting the ball through the net, it would open up the offense for big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low; making the team even more fearsome than it currently is.
In the pursuit of shooting over the whole Grit’n’Grind era, a number of players have been brought in. Not a one has lived up to their status in Memphis… and the whole team has suffered for it.
Most recently, Chandler Parsons has been signed to provide offense to the defense-first squad. An injury risk himself, Parsons did manage 41.4% shooting on his 3s last season (albeit on just 1.7 makes per game). If Chandler finds himself engaged and healthy for the season, and the ball winds up in his hands on the perimeter enough, he very well could be the balm Memphis needs. Of course, that is all provided that the rest of the team can stay on the floor as well.
6 Houston Rockets: Harden’s Robin
Last season was a trainwreck in Houston. Thought to be a true contender for the crown after having met Golden State in the Conference Finals the year before (and superstar James Harden coming in 2nd in MVP voting), the team got off to a funky start and never recovered. Coach Kevin McHale had lost the confidence of the team, and was fired mid-season. Replacement J.B. Bickerstaff never amounted to much more than a cardboard cutout of a coach with the face left blank. As such, he had no real power to keep the team from falling apart. The disgust that stars James Harden and Dwight Howard had for each other showed on the floor and in interviews, and eroded the fragile chemistry the team had shared the season prior.
This summer, coach Mike D’Antoni and his high-octane offense were brought in to re-establish Houston as a force in the West. Gone is Dwight Howard, who left as a free agent and may wind up being a case of addition by subtraction. In are Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon from New Orleans, presumably to feast on long-range shots made possible by Harden’s ball-handling and penetration. What is missing from Houston (provided everything goes well this year) is a secondary star to create opportunities for the rest of the team by drawing opposing players into their orbit. As the season goes on, we may find that the de-emphasis of defense under D’Antoni may be another hole to plug up… but for now a true 2nd option (Gordon once appeared to be capable, but chronic injuries have robbed him of any real star potential) is the most obvious need in Clutch City.
5 Denver Nuggets: Star Power
Denver has done a fine job in making a heady little roster for themselves. Stocked deep at every position with promising young talent, they appear to be a team well on its way to a recurring playoff spot. The team is inexperienced, and it will be a couple years (at least) before they are dangerous… but they are on the right path.
What Denver is lacking is something they haven’t had since they traded Carmelo Anthony away. The Nuggets are a fine collection of players, but they are missing a real leading man; they are a body without a head. Danilo Gallinari, the centerpiece of the return for Carmelo, was once hoped to be the “Man” in Denver. Time, and his inability to stay on the court and off crutches, has shown that he is not the answer. Of the returning roster, only Emmanuel Mudiay appears to have the raw talent and temperament to become a 1st option… and as his turnovers and poor shot selection have shown, he is yet a ways away from becoming that kind of player (fret not Nuggets fans, he’s still only 20). Nurkic and Jokic are both fine players, but appear to have ceilings as borderline All-Star players. The good news for Denver is that their loaded frontcourt should be able to serve as the foundation of a trade for a star who has either grown disenfranchised or has worn out their welcome with their current club (yes, even after trading away Joffrey Lauvergne for two 2nd rounders).
4 Minnesota Timberwolves: Maturity
If you are looking for a real “Team of the Future” look no further than Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves, now in their first year of the Tom Thibodeau regime, are as full of talent and promise as any team in the league. Just this summer, the Wolves drafted presumed ROY favorite Kris Dunn to back up passing warlock Ricky Rubio (still just 25 himself). The team features 5 more keepers all under the age of 24… including back-to-back Rookie Of the Years Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, especially, looks like a potential all-time player.
What the Timberwolves have in short supply is age in their core. Veterans Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, Brandon Rush, and Nikola Pekovic will presumably help show the young pups how to conduct themselves. But really, it is Father Time and all the harsh lessons of grueling seasons filled with heartbreak and missed calls (refs respect seniority in the league) that will ultimately mold Minnesota into the team they will wind up becoming. Whether or not they are championship material remains to be seen, and we won’t know for some time. What we do know, however… is that things are looking up in the Land of 1,000 Lakes.
3 Chicago Bulls: Boiling 3 Alphas Down to 1
It is cheating, a bit, to call Chicago one step away from being a contender in the league. The Bulls had a horrendous season last year under 1st-time head coach Fred Hoiberg. With the spectre of Derrick Rose no longer hanging over the franchise, it appeared the keys had been turned over to two-way wing star Jimmy Butler. Butler and Hoiberg did not get along in their first season together, and it appeared from the start that things would not end well if both were on the same team come February 2017.
Rather than trade away Butler to start fresh (since it is very apparent that the front office is more interested in backing Hoiberg than Butler at this point), the Bulls did the unthinkable. It started with the signing of curmudgeon/savant Rajon Rondo, whose chronic need for control of the ball to be effective, would seemingly limit the growth and potential of a Butler-run Bulls team. Compounding that probable miscue came the signing of Chicago legend Dwyane Wade… a fading, but still effective superstar… who just so happens to play roughly the same spot as Butler (and also needs the ball to be effective). Rondo was interviewed after the signing of Wade and informed the press that the team now had 3 Alphas (meaning that Rondo was indicating that he did not intend to take a backseat to Wade and Butler on this team)... but that they would learn to live with it. The truth of the matter is that three strong personalities on the roster is doable, but the overlap with Wade and Butler most especially (and the fact that all three players will require the ball or give up some of the better aspects of their game) virtually guarantees that the team will underperform. Only a trade of one of those three (it would seem Butler makes the most sense) for players with more deference or who play another spot (think upgrades to the power forward and/or center positions) will right the ship in Chicago.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder: A Yang For Russell’s Yin
By now everyone and their mothers know about the situation in Oklahoma City. Once a promising virtual contender, even to the point of having made the Finals in 2012, the team was irrevocably damaged by the departure of co-franchise player (and former MVP), Kevin Durant. While Durant has left Oklahoma for the greener pastures (metaphorically) of Oakland, the Thunder are not in as dire straits as one would think.
The team, as it is currently constituted, is still a playoff team. Russell Westbrook is a force of nature and, even if he played 1-on-5 in an 82 game season, he’d have a legit shot of making the playoffs. The rest of the roster is loaded with several good-to-very good players like Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter. The team does need, however, a second star. Westbrook’s maniacal mindset will likely cause him to crash and burn his team in the pursuit of doing everything by himself. While he does trust his teammates and their talent levels, he simply needs another player with enough gravitas and force of will to demand that he relent on occasion (instead of him being the workhorse). While there aren’t many resources to draw from in order to accomplish obtaining a 2nd star, there have been known to be some players gifted from the heavens (or the league office) to teams from time to time. Enes Kanter, Domantas Sabonis, and Mitch McGary might not be enough to get something back… but it’s a start.
1 Utah Jazz: Killer Instinct
Utah is yet another up-and-coming team. Perhaps, though, their timeline is closer than the Minnesotas, Milwaukees, and Detroits of the league. With the addition of veteran studs Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill to an already potent roster, the Jazz have become the in-vogue choice for biggest playoff surprise this upcoming season. It is a fair judgment to make and, even for a relatively casual fan of the game, is an easy one to deduce.
Where Utah still is lacking, however, is in the closer department. Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward are the most potent scorers on the team, and are the most likely to have the ball at the end of the game. Derrick Favors seems poised to be an All-Star at least a couple of times, and shoots a very high percentage thanks to his time spent near-ish the rim. While any of those three (or perhaps Dante Exum down the road) could be the full-time closer for the team, any hopes of putting games away is currently relying on committee instead of a dedicated personality. Should Utah get a long-term piece with the same mentality as a Draymond Green or a Westbrook, the rest of the league ought to be put on notice that this is a Jazz world and they’re all just living in it.
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