The offseason is a time of hope for many NBA fans. Every team goes into each season with a sense of excitement that this could finally be their year to make a run towards the playoffs. For a select few teams, the dream of the NBA championship is actually achievable this season and some teams like Cleveland and Golden State would actually be let down if they fail to create a rematch of last season's epic finals.
The NBA, more than any other major sport, has very little parity at this point in time. Some teams go on surprising runs for several years, but for the most part it will be the same select group of teams fighting for the championship that we have seen the past 3-5 seasons. On the flip side, we will also see familiar teams battling for the number one draft spot as well.
This list will provide insight on the top 8 teams that have realistic championship expectations in 2016-17, and the seven teams that should be keeping a close eye on the NCAA this year in preparation for a high lottery pick. Without further ado, let's take a look at this countdown.
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15 Contend: New York Knicks
A true sleeper this season is the New York Knicks. A team that has wallowed in mediocrity for the past four seasons is now primed to make a run to the playoffs in 2016-17. This offseason has seen a major transition from a rebuilding franchise to a team that is stockpiling known veterans to finally surround Carmelo Anthony with the talent that he needs to thrive.
The trade with the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose brings a former MVP into the mix at point guard. Rose is no longer the player that many thought was the future face of the league, but he is still effective and a major upgrade from Jose Calderon... if he can stay healthy that is.
The signings of Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings were solid additions and bring much-needed size and depth. A starting five of Rose, Courtney Lee, Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and Noah should be plenty enough to make some noise in the weak Eastern Conference. If the Knicks can stay healthy and mesh well under new head coach Jeff Hornacek, it could be an exciting season in the Big Apple.
14 Bottom: Miami Heat
The Miami Heat made a surprising run into the Eastern Conference playoffs last season, even providing the Toronto Raptors with a scare in the second round. It was an exciting season for Heat fans and hopefully they enjoyed it because they won't experience another serious playoff run for some time.
The roster still has enough talent to compete in the weak Eastern Conference but the loss of franchise face Dwyane Wade and veterans Luol Deng will be too much for them to overcome in 2016-17. Look for Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside to carry the team until Chris Bosh returns (if Bosh ever returns), but ultimately come up short.
The Heat franchise has shown an ability to rebuild quickly in the past, but that was with Dwyane Wade always in the mix. Losing Wade is like losing the heart of this franchise and the Heat will feel the repercussions of this for the next several seasons.
13 Contend: Utah Jazz
Expectations haven't been this high in Utah since the John Stockton and Karl Malone era. The Jazz have flown mostly under the radar going into this season but they boast one of the more balanced and deep rosters in the stacked Western Conference. With an abundance of young, proven talent in Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks, the Jazz are ripe to make a run this year.
The general manager, Dennis Lindsey, recognized the window of opportunity and complemented the young core with reliable veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw. These acquisitions will provide the team with playoff experience and a calming influence that will be extremely valuable.
Championship windows often close very quickly in the NBA and the Jazz are pushing their chips in on this season. They will have to show they can compete with the top Western Conference teams, but they will have their chance in what should be a deep playoff run this season.
12 Bottom: Sacramento Kings
DeMarcus Cousins voiced his displeasure with the Sacramento Kings draft selection of Georgios Papagiannis after the team traded the eight overall pick to the Phoenix Suns (ultimately turned out to be the athletic Marqueese Chriss). The team also drafted Kentucky Wildcat Skal Labissiere, another interesting selection that shows the Kings affinity for big men, despite already having Cousins and Willy Cauley-Stein on the roster.
Last season the Kings won 33 games, their highest win total in nearly a decade. While it appears the Kings could be on the up and up with star Cousins and the reliable Rudy Gay, but in a Western Conference that continues to get tougher all signs point towards a likely regression for the Kings. Cousins is crazy talented but has shown to be unmotivated at times and is not shy to voice his displeasure with the Kings roster moves. This can create a deadly divide in a locker room that lacks a true veteran presence.
The Kings will be tough but that toughness will not translate to success this season. Hopefully their executives keep a close eye on the NCAA season because they will be selecting another lottery pick next draft... hopefully this time they can appease their star Cousins.
11 Contend: Boston Celtics
The Celtics became a dark horse team to land Kevin Durant late into the Durant sweepstakes this offseason, ultimately losing out to the Golden State Warriors, but the team did add All-Star power forward Al Horford. This team was a surprise success last season and quickly became a fan favorite with their exciting play, led by their minute and uber electric point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Defensively, this team should be able to match up well with any team in the Eastern Conference not named the Cavaliers. It's a team that lacks a lot of marquee names but collectively they get the job done as a complete team. If the Celtics can continue to develop the chemistry they displayed last season, they will surely finish near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Home-court advantage in the playoffs will play huge dividends for this team as they thrive off the energy of the Boston faithful. They aren't as talented as the Big 3 Celtics years ago (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce), but they don't have to be given the state of the conference. With third overall pick Jaylen Brown now in the mix, look for this team to make some serious noise in 2016-2017.
10 Bottom: Philadelphia 76ers
If the NBA season occurs and their isn't talk of the 76ers tanking, did the season really happen? Seriously, how many top draft picks does this team need before they finally make a run towards
respectability the playoffs. This roster is actually in the nascent stages of being considered formidable, as they have young talent in Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, Jared Sullinger, and Joel Embid, but they have yet to show any signs of competing in the East.
For Sixers fans who have remained loyal this far, it will eventually turn around and the franchise will compete within the next three seasons, but it will not be this season. As mentioned, they have a lot of young talent, however, their high draft picks are all forwards or centers which creates an issue in the guard driven league that the NBA is transitioning to. Simmons is a generational talent and is well worthy of the number one selection. His addition will make this team fun to watch but it will take several seasons to translate to wins.
The 76ers rise is coming, slowly but surely. Sixers fans need to just keep holding on to their hope for the future of the franchise through another disappointing 2015-16. (Note to Sixers management: Please draft a guard in 2017).
9 Contend: Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles' second favorite team returns nearly the same roster that they've run with for the past several seasons, but injuries and DeAndre Jordan's free throw shooting have hindered their championship hopes each year. With Chris Paul, Jordan, and a healthy Blake Griffin, this team will continue to be a team to watch in the Western Conference.
The Clippers also have a reliable bench with the addition of Marreese Speights (aka Mo' Buckets), Austin Rivers, and the extremely talented scorer Jamal Crawford. Combine that with the NBA's new rule change that should help prevent the hack-a-Jordan strategies that teams employ to slow down the Clippers otherwise high-powered offense and it could spell trouble for other teams in 2016-17.
Chris Paul is still one of the best point-guards in the league and coach Doc Rivers has always shown an ability to get the most out of his players. This season is a make or break one for the Clippers and they will be in championship contention all year long.
8 Bottom: Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns finally gave in and decided to rebuild, a decision that is roughly 4-5 seasons too late. The Suns have an exciting mix of young talent with Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Alex Len, and all rookie first team selection Devin Booker. The biggest weakness on the roster was at the forwards spots and the Suns addressed this in the draft with the selection of Dragan Bender (#4 pick) and Marquese Chriss (#8).
Neither Booker, Bender, or Chriss will be older than 20 years old by the end of next season. The youth movement is exciting and the Suns did well in bringing in veterans Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa to help guide and develop the young roster. But in the NBA, youth very rarely translates to wins and Suns fans will have to be patient in the development of their star-studded teenagers.
The Suns will be picking in the lottery next year but if their youngsters can show potential and develop over the season, look for the Suns to trade their pick for a solid veteran to come in and help the team compete for a playoff run in 2017-18.
7 Contend: Toronto Raptors
Last season the Toronto Raptors made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals and fought admirably after falling behind two games to none to the Cavaliers. This season should follow a similar path for the Raptors as they are still one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors return the same starting five from last season and signed all-star Demar Derozan to a long-term contract. They did lose upstart center Bismack Biyumbo to free agency this offseason but replaced him with rookie first round pick Jacob Poetl. The talent is still there and another season of playing together should result in even more chemistry for the young and hungry roster.
One of the issues in last season's playoff run was the well publicized confidence issues of starting point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry was the Raptors' best player for much of last season but failed to produce to the level he's capable of in the playoffs. If he can return to form, it could very well be what the Raptors need to force a rematch against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals this year. Drake should start writing lyrics for a possible championship soundtrack now.
6 Bottom: Orlando Magic
The Magic appeared to be rebuilding their roster with homegrown talent in Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fornier, and Aaron Gordon, but they inexplicably traded Oladipo and the 11th overall pick in this year's draft to Oklahoma City for veteran power forward Serge Ibaka. Why they would trade for an aging Ibaka, who plays the same position as Gordon (who needs playing time to develop), is anybody's guess.
The roster is still very young and shows promise but this trade, whether it was on purpose or not, signals that the Magic have entered a full rebuild mode. Even in the weak Eastern Conference, it would be surprising to see this collection of players compete with most teams night in and night out. The Magic will be tanking for the number one draft pick by the time the all-star game rolls around in 2016-17.
With their young and athletic talent, the Magic will be entertaining to watch but don't expect that entertainment to translate to wins.
5 Contend: San Antonio Spurs
Two words: Gregg Popovich. This description of why the Spurs will be in championship contention this season could end there as they have the best coach in the league (perhaps of all-time). Popovich has developed a system in San Antonio that works year in and year out and that will be no different in 2016-17.
The Spurs did lose all-time great power forward Tim Duncan to retirement (moment of silence) but replaced him with Pau Gasol. The roster has a good mix of veterans in Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Manu Ginobili to complement their young superstar Kawhi Leonard. Leonard's development will continue and he will be in consideration for the NBA regular season MVP award.
The Spurs are consistent and don't get much attention during the regular season due to their "boring" playing style, but they will surely grab one of the top seeds in the Western Conference playoffs. Parker and Ginobili aren't getting any younger; can they make one final run for a ring sans Duncan?
4 Bottom: Los Angeles Lakers
It's officially the post-Kobe era for the Los Angeles Lakers. As strange as it will be not seeing number 24 in purple and gold shooting 30+ times a game, it should be a welcoming sight for Lakers fans. Kobe is one of the greatest of all time (probably the best pure scorer ever) but his reluctance to retire the past several years simultaneously set the Lakers rebuild back as well.
This roster has a lot to be excited about in rookie Brandon Ingram and second-year man D'Angelo Russell. Throw in flashy power forward Julius Randle and the consistent Jordan Clarkson and the Lakeshow has a formidable future four if they can continue to develop and stay together. But the Lakers' offseason moves leave many scratching their heads.
The Lakers should clearly be focused on developing their young guys and maximizing their playing time this season, yet they signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to sizable free agent contracts this offseason. Expect this team to start off slow and once the losses begin to pile-up early, the young guys will be given the majority of the playing time again down the stretch. It's a big year for the Lakers in terms of showing they can survive life without Kobe, but they will certainly be picking near the beginning of the 2017 NBA draft.
3 Contend: Golden State Warriors
If you're reading this, you're probably saying something along the lines of, "this writer is an idiot... this is the best team ever assembled. How are they behind the Cavs?" But the philosophy here is that to be the best, you have to beat the best and as of right now the Cavaliers are still the champs. Golden State broke the all-time NBA record for wins in a season last year, a record that many thought was untouchable. What's terrifying is the Warriors drastically improved their roster with their addition of superstar Kevin Durant this offseason.
Forget Big 3s, this team has a legitimate Big 4 with Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and of course the reigning MVP Stephen Curry. The NBA has never experienced a team with this amount of talent and it will be very interesting to watch how this team meshes as the season goes on. When you are running out a lineup of all-star caliber players, you are going to win a lot of games. Injuries may be the only thing that could derail this team's championship dreams.
Is it possible for this team to break the win record they set last year? Or will they struggle at the beginning of the season to find chemistry? Either way, sit back and enjoy this team because it's unlikely the NBA will see a team this talented ever again. Look for them to avenge their finals performance last year in a rematch with the Cavaliers.
2 Bottom: Brooklyn Nets
No team is more depleted in terms of talent this year as the Brooklyn Nets. They lack any young players to truly be excited about and the veterans that are in the mix are simply not very talented, other than Brook Lopez.
There is no denying that this team needs a high draft pick next season to jump start their rebuilding process and keep fans attending their gorgeous Barclays Center. Oh wait, they won't get one, Boston has their pick... The signing of Jeremy Lin makes sense but he doesn't bring the same "Linsanity" that once took the league by storm. Needless to say, opponents will be licking their chops to stack their stats before resting the entire fourth quarter when they blowout the Nets this season.
The fact that this team is in the terrible Eastern Conference (have I mentioned how bad the Eastern Conference is yet?) might allow them to compile more wins than the Lakers, but there is no doubt that the Nets will be gunning for the #1 draft pick in 2017, which will in turn go to Boston for the Pierce/Garnett trade a few years back. So basically, the Nets are screwed.
1 Contend: Cleveland Cavaliers
Again two words could wrap up this description: LeBron James. The king of the Eastern Conference is currently also the king of the NBA. His finals performance last season (and the season performance) was incredible. James affects the game unlike any other player in the league and he will have the Cavaliers coast through the weak Eastern Conference, per usual.
Kyrie Irving established himself as a true clutch player with his performance in last season's playoffs and he will look to continue to embarrass other NBA point guards with his smooth handles and scoring ability. Kevin Love will be an interesting player to watch this season given his apparent lack of chemistry with the team, although winning tends to clear up any animosity in the locker room.
The Cavs return nearly the same lineup and will receive an upgrade at the backup point guard with their sneaky good draft selection of Kay Felder. The roster isn't as deep or talented as Golden State, but again two words: LeBron James. The King will square off against the Warriors in a rematch of last season's finals and another victory would only add to the discussion of LeBron James as the best of all time.
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