Meet the NBA's Next Wave of Championship Contenders

Grant Rindner@grantrindnerContributor IIIMarch 15, 2013

Mar 13, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson (3)  during the first half against the New York Knicks at the Pepsi Center.  Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how successful teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have been over the past decade, every title window has to eventually close, and as one veteran contender fades to the background, there is the opportunity for a young one to take its place. 

The league is moving into an era where pounding the ball inside is obsolete, and though talented big men are still valuable, the teams that will be winning titles in 2015 and 2016 will be capable of exploiting their athleticism and running the fast break to perfection.

Though some of these clubs are still a piece or two away, these five up-and-coming teams have a great chance to vault into NBA championship contention over the next few seasons.

Houston Rockets

When the Houston Rockets get going on the offensive end, they are scarier than any other offense in the league. Their ability to penetrate the lane and hit open shooters on the wing makes them practically unstoppable, and they have young, improving players at nearly every position on the floor.

The acquisition of James Harden has worked out better than anyone could have anticipated, with the Bearded One averaging 26.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 45 percent shooting in his first season with Houston. Risky free-agent signings Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik have also proven successful for the most part.

What makes the Rockets so dangerous is their shot selection; they shoot almost exclusively open three-pointers and layups. The ability to create good looks has Houston leading the league in scoring at 106.9 points per game.

The Rockets are held back by their abysmal defense. Neither Lin nor Harden is a stellar defender, and Asik can only do so much work around the basket. For the Rockets to take the next step, they need to put as much pride into their work defensively as they do offensively. 

Still, with inexpensive pieces like Chandler Parsons and Thomas Robinson years removed from the peaks of their careers, Houston has the flexibility to pursue another marquee free agent to round out its gifted young core.

As Harden continues to grow as a No. 1 option and the Rockets' other players develop behind him, Houston, the youngest team in the league at 24.3 years on average, should become a true contender for the first time since the Hakeem Olajuwon era.

Denver Nuggets

Sitting at third in the league in scoring at 106 points per game, second in rebounds at 45 per contest and second in assists at 24.5 dimes, the Denver Nuggets are one of the most unstoppable offensive teams in the league.  

Though they struggle to shoot from outside, Denver's depth and young legs gives it the chance to play at a pace that is difficult for opponents to sustain for 48 minutes.

With the majority of their players in the midst of their primes and locked into long-term deals, the Nuggets have the opportunity to develop valuable chemistry while players improve individually. 

Ty Lawson has emerged as a star point guard, averaging 17 points and 7.1 assists per game, while Danilo Gallinari's 16.4 points per night are the product of much more than just outside shots. 

Factor in the work of Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee on the inside, and this Denver team has a true inside presence to complement its attack from the wings.

Naturally, Denver gives up a good number of points playing at such a torrid pace, but if McGee can continue to grow as a rim-protector and the team can lock up Andre Iguodala long term, it has the length and athleticism to turn into one of the league's better defensive squads.

Denver has been knocking on the door of contention for years, perennially earning a fourth, fifth or sixth seed, but with teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers poised to rebuild, a spot should open up for the Nuggets among the Western Conference's elite.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers' 2012-13 season has not been one of the franchise's most memorable, but this youthful group of Cavs have shown in spurts that they are capable of handling some of the league's best teams. 

Though Cleveland lacks depth at the small forward spot and a clear center of the future, it has one of the league's best young players at the point-guard position in Kyrie Irving.

Despite battling injuries to his shoulder and jaw among others, Irving is averaging 23 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists on 46.6 percent shooting from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range. As a sophomore, he has improved as both a scorer and a facilitator and was named to his first All-Star team in 2013.

This is a point guard-based league, and so long as Irving can stay healthy, he should only continue to improve and propel Cleveland closer to title contention.

His supporting cast includes rookie 2-guard Dion Waiters, who has shown the ability to consistently create offense for himself and his teammates, and improving second-year big man Tristan Thompson, whose hard work on the interior has turned him into a nightly double-double threat.

Cleveland should have a high draft pick in the first round of 2013, and one more quality piece could turn the Cavs into a true playoff contender.

Though the Cavaliers need to improve as a defensive team both on the perimeter and the interior, that will come as their young guards mature and the team finds a definite solution at center.

Beyond the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference is aging rapidly, with teams like the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics poised to look quite different in a few seasons' time. Somewhere, out of the woodwork, a new title contender in the East has to emerge.

Cleveland is still a year or two away, but this team could become a legitimate threat down the road as its young pieces improve.

Golden State Warriors

Finally healthy after an injury-plagued 2011-12 season, Golden State's Stephen Curry is showing his franchise point guard potential at last. Behind Curry's 22.2 points, four boards and 6.7 assists per game, the Warriors have ridden their athletic, energetic core back to playoff relevancy for the first time in years.

Offensively, the Dubs spread the floor well, highlighted by Curry's 45.5 percent shooting from three-point range, and they look to attack in transition whenever possible. With David Lee active in the paint, this Golden State team does not rely solely on outside shooting and can also beat teams from the post. 

Though Jarrett Jack may flee Oakland for a starting job while still in his prime, rookie Harrison Barnes should continue to develop as an all-around player next year. He is as athletic as wing players come, but he needs to become more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. 

With Klay Thompson developing as more than just an outside shooter, and Andrew Bogut looking to put his health issues behind him, the Warriors have the kind of youth that any rebuilding franchise would kill for.

As with many young teams, they sometimes lose focus on the defensive end of the floor and settle for outside shots, but as the Warriors' key players gain valuable experience in the brutal Western Conference, their ceiling as contenders will only grow higher.

For now, Warriors fans would simply be content with a playoff spot, but this team has the potential to be a title factor.

Utah Jazz

Though the Utah Jazz have been battling hard for the Western Conference's eighth seed in 2012-13, they possess as much high-upside young talent as any team in the NBA. 

For as well as Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have played for Utah, the future of this team does not lie in their 28-year-old forward tandem, but in the players backing them up. 

Third-year big man Derrick Favors is an athletic specimen capable of making show-stopping plays above the rim, and he is working diligently to polish his offensive game and become more than just a dunking threat.

The same goes for Enes Kanter, the team's sophomore reserve center who uses his size and strength to absolutely bully opponents in the paint.

Sixth man Gordon Hayward is also having a career year, notching 14.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per night while shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc. He is a crafty, versatile swingman capable of playing the 2 and 3 as well as doing some ball-handling duties.

Utah differs from the rest of the teams on this list because of its emphasis on big-man play, but the reality is the Jazz have the athleticism to contend with any of the league's quickest squads.

With Millsap and Jefferson both becoming unrestricted free agents in the 2013 offseason, Utah will have boatloads of cap space to use to both bring in new pieces and retain their emerging young players.

If raw prospects like Alec Burks and Jeremy Evans can develop into serviceable players on their rookie contracts, then this team could truly become something special.

Their ability to control the glass is something that sets them apart from many other young teams in the NBA, and that coupled with the athleticism of their young players will be what makes the Jazz a title contender if they can find a capable young point guard to run the show.

Statistics accurate as of March 14, 2013.


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