NBA Preseason 2012: Each Team's Odds to Win This Year's Title
Though the Miami Heat are still relishing last season's exploits, it's never too soon to start thinking about the possibility of winning a title in 2013—that leaves 29 teams which are eager to put the past behind them and dethrone King James.
So, who's got the head start?
Of course, on the first day of the postseason, rosters won't look exactly the same as they do now. They'll be free of training-camp invitees. Some will have been modified at the trade deadline. A few will include some late free-agent additions.
A lot can happen between now and April.
But with the bulk of the offseason now history and the preseason underway, the 2012-13 season is coming into clear view. We have a better sense of which rookies will make the most impact, how lineups will take shape, and whether locker rooms are moving forward with winning cultures.
Putting odds on who will win the NBA Finals is still guesswork, but it's slightly more educated guesswork at this point.
Here's a look at each team's chances of winning it all. Who are you predicting to come out on top?
Charlotte Bobcats fans have far more reason for hope this season than they did last, and most of that hope is thanks to rookie and second overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The roster at large is still beset by raw prospects, a lack of interior scoring and a backcourt rotation clogged with undersized, shoot-first guards. There's not a whole lot that makes sense about this rotation just yet, but the front office has certainly taken important steps toward turning things around.
New head coach Mike Dunlap will keep plenty busy attempting to turn this club into an up-tempo, defensive-minded unit—and he'll have some help from young building blocks like Kidd-Gilchrist and the shot-blocking Bismack Biyombo.
The bigger problem is how this team is going to score. Its two best options are probably Kemba Walker and Ben Gordon, but it won't be easy to keep them both on the floor for extended stretches, given how much they give up in size (and the fact they'd both be looking to score rather than facilitate).
Optimism aside, the Bobcats are still a mismatched mess. This isn't the year we'll see many results from what amounts to an epic regrouping.
Title Odds: 200/1
Head coach Jacque Vaughn isn't even thinking about the playoffs, much less a championship—at least not quite yet.
After coaching under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Vaughn will be more interested in building a championship culture than winning anything immediately. He'll have some intriguing talent with which to work, including rookies Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson in the frontcourt.
He'll also be leaning heavily on veterans like Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington to contribute the lion's share of veteran leadership to an otherwise young squad.
This is the definition of a rebuilding project. Enjoy the ride.
Title Odds: 200/1
Detroit Pistons fans would like to believe this team's young talent counts for something—and it does.
But Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight aren't nearly enough to get the club over the hump this season, and Andre Drummond is still a raw work in progress. With the exception of Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince and maybe Corey Maggette, those youngsters won't have much veteran help, either.
The other thing working against the Pistons right now is that, while they're technically getting better, they're just not getting better as quickly as other teams at the bottom of the standings. The Cleveland Cavaliers are steadily surrounding the game's best young point guard with some help, and the Washington Wizards are surround their own up-and-coming point guard with solid veterans.
The Pistons have surrounded Monroe and Knight with guys who would have been a lot more helpful five years ago
Title Odds: 200/1
I wasn't one of the people who were completely sold on taking Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in this summer's draft. That said, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot going for them, and it's far too soon to put a ceiling on Waiters.
"Ceiling" doesn't even belong in the same sentence as Kyrie Irving, who looks poised to take his game to Chris Paul-type levels.
All that potential doesn't amount to much as far as this season goes, though Irving has already put his stamp on the team as its best player (by far). At the moment, though, the Cavs must face some sobering realities.
Anderson Varejao does some nice things on the floor as a rebounder and defender, but I'm not sure there's a single team in the league that's scared of him. And unless C.J. Miles is due for a breakout season, the Cavs are average at best in the middle and on the wing.
Tristan Thompson has great upside, and there's plenty to like about young guys like UNC product Tyler Zeller and fourth-year forward Omri Casspi. If the latter can return to the shooting consistency he displayed as a rookie, he'd make a strong case to start at the 3.
But let's be honest: A lot would have to go perfectly right for Cleveland to make any serious headway in the standings this season.
The team is getting better, and it's future may be one of the brightest in the NBA.
Be patient, though.
Title Odds: 200/1
It's going to be kind of strange watching the Washington Wizards this season (to whatever extent you actually watch the Washington Wizards anyway).
There's certainly something worth watching about John Wall, but he'll miss some time early in the season due to a right-knee injury. Nene's battling plantar fasciitis, a condition that's been known to creep up repeatedly. That presumably leaves the starting lineup with two new veterans (Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza) and rookie Bradley Beal.
You have to like the early signs from Beal, but he'll be facing a lot of responsibility until Wall's running the show again.
There's lots of talent on this team and several intriguing prospects on the bench, but it won't be easy to find points early in the season—not until everyone's healthy and beginning to click with one another.
We'll probably see some progress in March and April, but it will be too little and too late for the Wizards to grab a playoff spot.
Title Odds: 200/1
The Sacramento Kings had the league's worst defense last season, and the organization certainly didn't acquire a platoon of veteran defenders over the offseason.
The improvement will have to come from within, and to some degree, it probably will.
Head coach Keith Smart has had some time to diagnose the Kings' ills on the defensive end, and it would be surprising not to see some improvement.
Meanwhile, a front line featuring DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Thomas Robinson is pretty imposing, but it's also young—much like the rest of the rotation. Tyreke Evans will spend more time in the backcourt this season, where he's been at his best, and we should see more development from second-year point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Scoring isn't this club's problem, not so long as Marcus Thornton is lighting things up. The uncertainties lie in defense, maturity and consistency.
Sacramento has a better chance of taking the next step than some of its lottery-bound compatriots, but not by much.
Title Odds: 200/1
New Orleans Hornets
The biggest story in New Orleans will be the development of rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, but the best scorers will be Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson—young veterans who will make the Hornets better than your average bad team, for whatever that's worth.
By the end of the season, they may even be a pretty decent team.
The problem is that Davis and Rivers aren't the only young pieces. The Hornets will still rely heavily on 25-year-old Greivis Vasquez at the point and 22-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu on the wing. As talented as this roster is at the very top, it's sorely lacking depth and veteran leadership, also known as the kinds of things teams absolutely need to be consistently competitive.
Chances are New Orleans will begin investing in those kind of additions once the youth movement begins coming into its own.
Besides, another lottery pick wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Title Odds: 150/1
The Houston Rockets are among the league's most raw and untested teams, but they were also built to overachieve—something that's become a bit of a trend for the club.
Who better to lead them, then, than a point who was at his best playing alongside the likes of Jared Jeffries and Steve Novak? Jeremy Lin will thrive with the Rockets, and the only question becomes how quickly his teammates—including three impressive 2012 first-round draft picks—will follow suit.
Given how active the organization attempted to be on the trade market this summer, it wouldn't be surprising to see this team make a move or two before the deadline in February.
That makes it even harder to gauge where the Rockets will wind up by season's end. A trade could either further entrench GM Daryl Morey's club into rebuilding mode, or it could involve leveraging young assets for a proven veteran—two very different directions.
Either way, it's a safe bet the Rockets will be watching the postseason from home once again.
Title Odds: 125/1
Portland Trail Blazers
The good news for the Portland Trail Blazers is that they have one of the league's very best power forwards and a big-time candidate for rookie of the year running the point.
The bad news is that they also have arguably the thinnest bench in the league. There will be worse teams with indisputably better benches.
So new head coach Terry Stotts will have a solid core with which to work, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews. He just won't have much else. In the short term, this will be an opportunity to begin building something special—but this club isn't going anywhere until it adds some depth and experience.
You get the sense that the front office decided it was still too soon for guys like Gerald Wallace, Jamal Crawford and Marcus Camby to make any difference.
Portland will need those kinds of players to make a run, but it just wasn't ready last season.
Thus the rebuild.
Title Odds: 100/1
The Phoenix Suns could be a fun team to watch next season, and not just because there's enough young talent here to build a better-than-expected product.
"Fun to watch" doesn't imply a postseason berth, though.
And "fun to watch" could quickly turn into a far more painful viewing experience if this bunch spirals out of control, a distinct possibility given the number of new faces and lack of tested veterans on the roster (outside of Luis Scola and Jared Dudley). For the Suns to avoid the lottery, they'll need career-defining seasons from Marcin Gortat, Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley.
They'll also need more consistency from Shannon Brown and overachievement from prospects like Markieff Morris and Kendall Marshall.
If all that sounds unlikely, that's because it is.
This is the beginning of something new for Phoenix—life without Steve Nash. We won't really be able to assess it fairly for another year or two.
Title Odds: 100/1
We all knew there would one day be life after Chris Bosh.
The open question remains when that day will come.
While the 2012-13 season may not yield all the right answers for the Toronto Raptors, this much is certain: This team hasn't been this good since its franchise player took his second-tier talents to South Beach.
Point guard Kyle Lowry makes this team better immediately, as does swingman Landry Fields. Rookies Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas will make it better still soon enough.
Whether this is actually a playoff team, though, will depend on young holdovers like Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis.
It'll be easy for Raptors fans to get ahead of themselves. The pieces are in place, but they have some growing to do before aiming for anything more than that last playoff seed and a quick first-round exit.
Title Odds: 100/1
Though the Milwaukee Bucks boast one of the most electric backcourts in the league, the rest of this rotation is an awkward combination of guys with a lot of upside and role players with a lot of responsibility.
Neither a rookie like John Henson nor the improvement of young players like Tobias Harris is going to radically alter this club's fortunes.
Perhaps Milwaukee has what it takes to slip into the postseason this time around. It wasn't that far off last season.
But the Bucks are nowhere close to threatening the top teams in the East. They're the Utah Jazz of their conference, good enough not to be terrible, mediocre enough for it not to matter. It's hard to know what to make of Milwaukee's long-term plan, or for that matter, to even discern exactly what that plan is.
For now, then, expect the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks to vie for the right to be the first team swept from the playoffs.
Title Odds: 100/1
The perception that the Atlanta Hawks are in full-on rebuilding mode is misguided.
Sure, this club has virtually no chance of winning a title this season, but it's not as if it's comprised of unproven prospects and high-upside rookies. New GM Danny Ferry's transitional roster actually includes a number of veterans who've had a lot of success in this league.
In addition to holdovers like Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the Hawks spent the summer acquiring the likes of Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver and rookie John Jenkins. It's a flawed rotation to be sure—lacking a legitimate starter at the small-forward spot, among other things—but it's better than it looks at first glance.
There are good shooters on this team and guards with solid in-between games. There's a much-underrated combination at the 4 and 5 positions and more all-around depth than meets the eye.
Despite losing Joe Johnson, there's a case to be made this team will be a bit better this season (keeping in mind that Al Horford was missing in action for most of last season).
A glance at the final standings might not show improvement, but that will have as much to do with the overall improvement of the Eastern Conference as it does with what Atlanta is doing.
Keep in mind that a number of the veterans on this roster (Zaza Pachulia, Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow) have expiring contracts and that Jeff Teague will become a restricted free agent when the Hawks extend him a qualifying offer. That should serve as some motivation to overachieve.
For whatever that's worth, it won't be enough for a title.
Title Odds: 100/1
The Minnesota Timberwolves went to a lot of trouble this summer to assemble a roster that isn't significantly better than last season's.
Brandon Roy will make a difference, with his leadership if nothing else. Andre Kirilenko will fit nicely into Rick Adelman's Princeton offense. Derrick Williams will remind us why rookie seasons aren't adequate grounds for judging careers.
We all know we'll see something special out of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
Unfortunately, the Timberwolves really don't look like any more of a playoff team than they were last season. Maybe a more injury-free campaign will remedy that, but Minnesota will still have to outlast the Utah Jazz and the much-improved Golden State Warriors to even have a chance at getting crushed in the first round.
Keep thinking long-term, Wolves fans, and hope KLove does the same.
Title Odds: 90/1
The Utah Jazz are as middling as they come.
They'll be slightly better than last season, but they remain an eighth seed at best. The backcourt is still a weak spot, and the depth added in the offseason makes the rotation better at the expense of opportunities for up-and-coming talent like Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward. It goes without saying that Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have been waiting for their turns, too.
It's always possible the Jazz will pull off a surprise season with a similar approach to the one taken last season by the Indiana Pacers. There are enough pieces here for a successful ensemble offense to emerge.
In this Western Conference, though, there are just too many obstacles for the Jazz to string together a series of wins deep into the postseason.
Title Odds: 75/1
Golden State Warriors
Last season was a transitional one for head coach Mark Jackson, but there will be some expectations this time around.
Though the Golden State Warriors will still be dependent on some relatively untested rotation players (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes), every indication is that these young guys are ready to produce. If Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut stay healthy, you're looking at a deceptively deep team, thanks to veterans like Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson and Carl Landry.
This is no longer just a team trying to develop young talent. It's ready to put that talent to good use.
Is it ready for another 2007-style upset? Maybe, but it would indeed be an upset.
Title Odds: 75/1
It's awfully hard not to like the Memphis Grizzlies.
They have an impressive core, always manage to overachieve and are one of those clubs that always seems to hang around no matter the opponent.
Liking the Grizzlies is one thing, but believing they have any real chance in a conference that spent the summer passing them by is another story. Memphis mortgaged its cap flexibility with big deals for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and the reality is that they're both a little overpaid—together, they'll make about $30 million this season.
Absent any moves, Memphis won't have cap flexibility going into any of the next three seasons, meaning uneventful summers (like this last one) could become commonplace. That's bad news for a club that hasn't been able to get over the hump, one that lost in the first round to a Clippers team that improved significantly over the offseason.
This is still a dangerous team. But it won't be favored against the teams it needs to beat.
Title Odds: 65/1
Ah, the difference an All-Star seven-footer makes.
Andrew Bynum isn't the only reason the Philadelphia 76ers all of a sudden look like a team with the potential to surprise the usual favorites, but he's a pretty good reason. Add a trio of shooters like Jason Richardson, Nick Young and Dorell Wright, and head coach Doug Collins has a lot to work with this year.
There's no more Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand, but it's hard to argue Philly's any worse for it in the final analysis. The team needed a legitimate interior scorer, and it needed long-range snipers. It got both.
When you factor in some improvement from Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, this squad has to be considered just a step behind deep, young rosters like those of the Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets.
These guys are active on the defensive end and more than capable of gutting out low-scoring, ugly wins.
With the added scoring punch this season, hopefully they won't have to. All the same, it's the teams with that kind of grit that find ways of upsetting the top dogs, and that bodes well for an unlikely contender.
Title Odds: 40/1
This is still very much Dirk Nowitzki's team, but the Dallas Mavericks will need a lot of help from some unfamiliar faces to avoid another first-round disappointment.
Those unfamiliar faces aren't without successful track records, however. In fact, Mark Cuban's franchise quietly rebounded from missing out on free agent Deron Williams and assembled a second-tier contender with some impressive credentials—two post scorers in Chris Kaman and Elton Brand along with a youthful backcourt of O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison.
The final product probably won't defend as well as the 2010-11 Mavs, but it has the potential to be a much better offensive team.
"Potential" being the key word.
We haven't seen O.J. Mayo at his best since the last time he was a full-time starter in 2009-10, and Darren Collison has some things to prove as well—especially when it comes to playing playoff basketball.
And if we're going to qualify our praise of teams like the Lakers on account of the fact that they haven't accomplished anything yet, that kind of caution is all the more applicable to the Mavs.
Title Odds: 40/1
The Brooklyn Nets are as much of an unknown quantity as any team going into November.
Let's start with the obvious: We know very little about how these guys will play together. The starting lineup is replete with players who haven't spent more than half of a season together, owing to Brook Lopez's injuries, the 2012 midseason acquisition of Gerald Wallace and this summer's trade for Joe Johnson.
It's also fair to say we've seen varying degrees of efficiency and defensive intensity from franchise star Deron Williams. That could have more to do with self-preservation amidst a throw-away season, but that's not saying much until Williams proves otherwise.
Then there's the bench.
We know what we'll get out of specialists like C.J Watson and Reggie Evans, and you can expect to see second-year guard MarShon Brooks become an even more dangerous scoring threat in a sixth-man capacity. As for Andray Blatche and Josh Childress—the jury's still out. That's an important question, the difference between this team having a deep rotation and relying almost exclusively on six or seven guys.
Ultimately, the Nets need Brook Lopez to become an All-Star. They need him to become a consistent third option behind Williams and Johnson, and—most importantly—they need him to become a better rebounder and defender.
Brooklyn's title odds don't suffer from a lack of upside. They suffer from a lack of guarantees.
If all goes according to plan, the sky's the limit.
Title Odds: 35/1
Indiana Pacers fans won't be happy with this placement, so let me say this: I genuinely like this team and would love to see it reach the conference finals.
I just don't think there's any chance whatsoever it gets past those conference finals.
The Pacers could probably beat a number of the teams ranked ahead of them in seven-game series, but the difference is that Indy just doesn't have the same upside. Whereas the Clippers or Knicks are capable of clicking at the right time and posing a threat to virtually any club, the Pacers are still missing some critical pieces—namely a difference-maker on the offensive end who can create plays for himself and others.
Paul George will be better, and that's exciting. George Hill could take his game to another level.
The chances that Danny Granger, David West or Roy Hibbert takes a big step forward, though? Not as large.
So while the Pacers have evolved a bit, they haven't come far enough. They look dangerously close to becoming the next Memphis Grizzlies, a perennial dark-horse contender destined for disappointment in the first or second round.
The Pacers will once again be the underdog we'd love to see pull it out, but they're an underdog for a reason.
Title Odds: 30/1
Los Angeles Clippers
Though the Los Angeles Clippers didn't acquire a Lakers-like haul of superstar talent, there's no doubt they did an incredible job of adding depth and radically overhauling what was an underwhelming bench unit in 2011-12.
Besides getting a healthy Chauncey Billups back (the presumptive starter at shooting guard), the organization brought in Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes. You'll note an impressive range of skill sets in that bunch, and you'll also note the ridiculous amount of combined experience.
All of a sudden, a team recently defined by young talent like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan now looks like one of the most veteran rotations in the league.
It's still hard to see the Clippers taking out the Lakers, Thunder or Spurs.
For all that could go right, plenty more could go wrong. Lamar Odom might come up short in an attempt to bounce back from the worst season of his career. Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups could get hurt. Jamal Crawford could go cold.
The good news is that the Clippers aren't relying on aging role-players alone. Chris Paul will be Chris Paul, and Griffin and Jordan will be better—the former benefiting from attention to be given to a shooting specialist and the latter having cultivated a much-improved post game.
Conclusions to be drawn? The other L.A. team will have a better title chance than most.
But don't hold your breath.
Title Odds: 30/1
New York Knicks
This isn't the New York Knicks' last chance to win a title, but it feels like it's going to be about as good a chance as they have at any point in the near future.
While you have to like veteran additions like Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas, you also have to acknowledge that these guys aren't getting any better in 2013-14.
However, despite a relatively active offseason, we should begin to see some legitimate chemistry from this team's core—if we're ever going to see it, anyway.
Plus, the Knicks are doing the kinds of things teams typically do before taking that next step. They've spent an entire offseason under head coach Mike Woodson. Amar'e Stoudemire worked with legendary post Hakeem Olajuwon to refine his interior offense. Raymond Felton came into training camp in much better shape than he had coming into his 2011-12 flop with the Portland Trail Blazers.
You get the feeling that things are coming together at the right time, and for the first time in a long time.
But it's still just a feeling, one that ultimately hinges on a lot of follow-through, an injury-free season and an MVP-caliber performance from Carmelo Anthony.
It could happen.
Title Odds: 30/1
The Denver Nuggets don't quite fit the "contender" mold, but they're as good as any team that doesn't. They're more than a dark-horse candidate, but they're less than a legitimate one.
And that makes them scary.
The amount of young talent on this team is staggering, and the up-tempo attack in which it's employed is dangerous. Just ask the Lakers, who certainly had their hands full in the first round last season.
You also won't find many teams with this kind of depth. Head coach George Karl will have 10 or 11 players he can consistently rely upon playing roles in his rotations, and his go-to guys aren't bad either—especially 24-year-old point guard Ty Lawson, who averaged 16.4 points and 6.6 assists last season (just his third in the league).
Center JaVale McGee reasons to be better, and swingman Andre Iguodala reasons to make this team better. Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari both have worlds of untapped potential.
Even so, you can find other rosters with more star talent. You just won't find many which play so well together and run the court so effectively.
A title might be a stretch, but you can rest assured these Nuggets will make the West's more established contenders work for it.
Title Odds: 22/1
I'm giving the Chicago Bulls the benefit of any doubt about whether Derrick Rose returns in time for a serious postseason run.
If he doesn't, that obviously changes the equation pretty dramatically.
While his extended absence will threaten Chicago's place in the standings, it will also make the rest of this team more self-reliant. For a group that can so easily depend on MVP talent, that probably won't be a bad thing come playoff time.
The bottom line is that a healthy Rose will still have a very good supporting cast in Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton. He'll still have a deep bench and one of the very best coaches.
It's easy to forget just how good this team was before a depleted version fell short to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
So long as Rose is back and in rhythm, you can't count this club out of anything.
Title Odds: 20/1
The first half of the Boston Celtics' 2011-12 campaign was characterized by the kind of doom and gloom that typifies clubs in their twilights—trade rumors, a middling record and questions about retirement.
Needless to say, the postseason changed all that, and the offseason changed it even more.
Veteran Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have proven they can still play, especially when it counts. Rajon Rondo has proven to be one of the very best point guards in the league, especially when it comes to making guys like Garnett and Pierce look good.
But the more exciting things about this season's Celtics are the unknowns, namely what kind of contributions they'll get from newcomers Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger—along with Jeff Green, who's returning to the team after a year away with a heart condition.
With one of the deepest guard rotations in the league (at least when Avery Bradley returns from shoulder surgery), we should expect Boston to flat-out dominate some teams on the perimeter.
We should also expect to see head coach Doc Rivers mix up his lineups and make the most of what probably ranks as the most versatile roster of his tenure.
Of course, the relevant question in terms of a title is how Boston will fair against the Miami Heat (and, to lesser degrees, the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets). The Celtics' postseason experience isn't as much of an edge as it used to be, not with Miami's recent success.
The good news, though, is that Boston came within just one game of making the NBA Finals last season, and with an inferior roster by any measure.
You can argue that three or four other clubs have better chances at winning it all this season, but only by a narrow margin.
Title Odds: 18/1
Oklahoma City Thunder
There's less separating the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat than last season's NBA Finals might have suggested.
That series just didn't show the Thunder at their best, and that can't be attributed exclusively to Miami's dominance, LeBron's superiority over Durant or any other headline-ready hype. The Heat did what they had to do.
But OKC made it a heck of a lot easier on them—thanks especially to a struggling James Harden and a supporting cast that underperformed. These guys just weren't hitting shots they typically hit, and the Thunder were ill prepared for Miami's versatility. It was a learning experience, yes, but not a sign that Scott Brooks' young team was a distant second place.
Nevertheless, this team will be relying almost exclusively on improvement from within and better luck next time.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world in which making roster adjustments often backfire or slow down a team's collective growth. You can't argue with GM Sam Presti's decision to keep this group together, especially when working with a core that's made up of guys 24 years of age and younger.
At the same time, the Heat remain the league's team to beat, and the Lakers its most improved contender. Though conventional media wisdom would give the Thunder an edge over the Spurs, that wisdom relies on the same kind of head-to-head logic that suggests OKC will continue to come up short against the Heat.
Just as the Thunder weren't at their best against Miami, the Spurs weren't at their best against OKC. If you look at each team's body of work, San Antonio has the edge.
That said, from the Boston Celtics on up, the five best teams in the league are on virtually equal footing, so these odds should be filtered accordingly.
Title Odds: 12/1
San Antonio Spurs
The running narrative that the San Antonio Spurs just weren't young or athletic enough to keep up with the Oklahoma City Thunder is unadulterated nonsense.
Gregg Popovich's club just went cold at the worst possible time. It wound up on the wrong side of a close Game 4 and a close Game 5, and Tony Parker had a bad series by his standards. San Antonio started the series with a 2-0 lead, however, and it was playing some of the best basketball we've seen any team play in recent memory.
It's not that Tim Duncan was too old. He was having his best season in years. Nor was it that Manu Ginobili ran out of gas. He had three very good games in the series.
San Antonio doesn't have a wide margin of error, though. It needs its supporting cast to drain three-pointers, and that just didn't happen when it needed to in the conference finals. The looks where there—they just didn't go down.
I'm guessing they do next time.
I'm also guessing that Kawhi Leonard will be a beast this season and that midseason additions like Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will be even more effective after a full offseason around this roster.
Don't let the Spurs' quiet offseason fool you.
Christmas came early for general manager R.C. Buford when he made those midseason moves, and it's worth noting that the rotation's young, up-and-coming role players (Danny Green, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair and Patty Mills) are all coming into their primes.
They're also building upon what essentially constituted a collective breakout season that established San Antonio as one of the deepest teams in the league.
When the Spurs are clicking, they're as good as any team in the league. Don't bet against them clicking when it counts this time.
Title Odds: 5/1
Los Angeles Lakers
We've heard it before: The Los Angeles Lakers are the league's best team now, at least on paper.
That on-paper qualification is important when making predictions with title implications. More than any other point in the season, success in the postseason requires more than an abundance of talent.
Of course, the Lakers have more than talent alone. They have one of the game's very best all-time scorers, one of its best all-time facilitators and one of its best all-time defenders. Between the three of them, they also have a ton of postseason experience.
What they don't have is a history of playing with one another.
For all the reasons to believe the chemistry will come together, there's every possibility something could go wrong, from injury to locker-room unrest. The reality is that the Lakers are an aging Frankenstein monster of Hall of Fame greatness. They're still a team attempting to create a post-Phil Jackson identity and a team whose bench suffered even more of an overhaul than the starting unit.
Based on what we know now, then, yes, the Miami Heat still have the edge.
It goes without saying that could change at a moment's notice.
Title Odds: 5/2
If you're a Miami Heat fan (bandwagon or otherwise), you'll be pleased to see yet another ranking in which your team comes out on top.
If you're tired of the Heat ranking atop said rankings, take solace in this: The distance between Miami and everyone else isn't nearly as great as it's hyped to be. And no, the Lakers aren't the only threats to their preeminence.
The Boston Celtics came within 48 minutes of keeping LeBron James ringless, and those Celtics will be even better this time around. So too will the New York Knicks, who were injured and out-of-sorts in last season's first round against the Heat. There's no guarantee Erik Spoelstra's club makes it out of the Eastern Conference, much less wins another title.
The differences between the five best teams in the league are marginal. They're all playoff tested, well coached and incredibly talented. They've all proven capable of winning at the highest level.
The Heat just happen to have done so most recently.
Title Odds: 9/4
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