With the player movement that has taken place in recent offseasons, including that of this year, it’d be easy to be fatalistic about the 2012-13 NBA champion.
After all, the Miami Heat proved themselves to be far ahead of the pack with their dominant NBA Finals performance; the Los Angeles Lakers’ acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash have pushed them to front of the class in the West; and the Oklahoma City Thunder come back hungrier and more experienced after each offseason and, after last year's postseason, have just one hurdle left to clear.
But is it a foregone conclusion that a Miami, OKC or Los Angeles will win the title?
Far from it. That's just not how this league works.
It's easy to forget how tenuous championship runs are and that nearly every title-holder has had a close call against an inferior team. And, interestingly enough, when you take stock of the teams to which recent champions have almost lost, it isn’t exactly a murder’s row.
The 2011-12 Boston Celtics led the Heat 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The 2008-09 Houston Rockets pushed the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals.
And in the 2007-08 postseason, the Hawks gave the Celtics all they could handle in the first-round series that proved to be the highlight of Joe Johnson's tenure in Atlanta.
These aren’t aberrations, mind you. In the NBA and all professional sports, teams and individuals experience swings in motivation and, for the lack of a better word, spiritedness, even on the biggest stages. Historically, there have been very few squads which consistently put opponents away in four or five games. The dynasty Bulls did it. The 2001 Lakers did it. But most champions recover from “scares” en route to the title.
So, it stands to reason that unless one of this year’s contenders belongs in the pantheon of all-time greats (doubtful), the 2012-13 title-holder will find itself backed against the wall at some point.
Let’s look at the NBA contenders in tiers to understand why that may be especially problematic for the top contenders this season
Los Angeles Lakers
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
Los Angeles Clippers
Now more than ever, the tier-two teams have firepower and, more importantly, experience. With the exception of the Denver Nuggets and the new-look Brooklyn Nets, each club has won a playoff series in the last two years.
And each is on the upswing, showing no signs of stalling out. There are no perennial also-rans here, like those Deron Williams Jazz teams which repeatedly and discouragingly bumped their heads against the ceilings of their potential.
Through the maturation of their young talent (Pacers, Nuggets, Grizzlies) or offseason reshuffling (Nets, Clippers, Celtics), the tier-twos have refreshed rosters.
Baggage, so to speak, isn't an issue.
That's why, if there ever were a time for a dark horse to win the NBA championship, it’s now.
While the smart money would be on one of the top-flight contenders to take the title, the league’s fourth-through-10th-best teams are strong enough to capitalize on the missteps of more talented opponents—not just once, but several series in a row.
And with the reigning champs being especially prone to lapses that leave them vulnerable to upset; the Thunder still young yet; and the Lakers old, injury-prone and just coming together, the window for the NBA's second tier is open as wide as we've seen it in recent memory.