7 Teams Poised to Be Future Threats in the NBA Finals

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2014

7 Teams Poised to Be Future Threats in the NBA Finals

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat are primed to be Finals contenders well into the future.
    The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat are primed to be Finals contenders well into the future.Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    With the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat slated to meet in the 2014 NBA Finals, 28 teams are forced to sit at home and watch. None of these squads will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy this season, but that doesn't mean all 28 are doomed for the future.

    For the sake of putting a number on "the future," consider the following analysis to be through the 2016-17 campaign. A three-year window is what we're giving these squads, which is the amount of time we expect to see yearly runs at a title.

    Breaking teams into three different categories, you'll find: lottery teams worth watching, playoff teams worth watching and true contenders. Roster makeup and potential will be the biggest factors while categorizing, but draft positioning, salary cap and free-agent possibilities will also be taken into consideration.

    The NBA would love to see parity increase over the next three years (and beyond), but most fans recognize that this is a star-driven league. Not everyone can be a contender, but a handful have bright futures immediately ahead.

Lottery Teams Worth Watching

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    Most lottery teams don't have enough going for them to be competitive each of the next three seasons. The Philadelphia 76ers are moving in the right direction, but picture them playing in June of 2015 and you might sprain something from laughing too hard.

    The Utah Jazz are young and growing, and the Phoenix Suns shocked the world with their play in 2013-14. But again, championship contenders sooner rather than later? Not so much.

    No, for a lottery team to make the cut, a big-time acquisition must be at least a possibility. The Boston Celtics are worth considering because of the recent rumors regarding Kevin Love, but at this juncture, two teams earn the nod ahead of the rest.

     

    Los Angeles Lakers

    The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off of their worst season in franchise history, their star is recovering from injury (while fighting age) and they have no head coach. This is far from a recipe for success, but a player of Love's caliber could change the outlook of the team immediately.

    The No. 7 pick will be nice for L.A. this summer, but it's the appeal of Los Angeles that will attract free agents. This is a team worth watching for that reason; not a team worth banking on, as there are too many questions and virtually no answers.

     

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    We'll make this one short and sweet. The Cleveland Cavaliers have another No. 1 pick to their name, and the addition of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker will do great things for the organization.

    Then again, their placement in this category is all about LeBron James. If James opts out of his deal with Miami and rejoins Cleveland to play with Kyrie Irving, Cavs fans can rejoice. If he doesn't, it'll be a long road to contention.

Playoff Teams Worth Watching

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    Any team that makes the playoffs is worth considering as a contender (out West, at least), but a handful stick out as having brighter futures than others.

     

    San Antonio Spurs

    How can a team in the 2014 Finals not be contenders through 2017? This team isn't going to have the fountain of youth forever. Another title run may be in store if Tim Duncan returns, but three years down the road, you're looking at a Kawhi Leonard-led squad that has hopefully maintained its winning ways.

     

    Portland Trail Blazers 

    Damian Lillard has seemingly one of the brightest futures in the NBA ahead of him. If the Portland Trail Blazers can retain its starting five for the next few seasons—LaMarcus Aldridge specifically—all it will need is bench scoring and a touch of defense to move into the next level.

     

    Toronto Raptors

    How exciting was it watching the Toronto Raptors throughout the 2013-14 season? With such a young core in place already, the future looks incredibly bright. Give this team a watch next year and hope that the youth continues to develop as planned.

     

    Washington Wizards

    With a backcourt comprising John Wall and Bradley Beal, you know the Washington Wizards are going to be good. Unfortunately, as this team matures, LeBron James will still be in his prime. That's a problem for any team looking to make a serious run out East.

Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls make the cut here with one astronomical contingency.

    Derrick Rose's health.

    According to Bulls general manager Gar Forman, Rose is expected to be "100 percent" in 2014-15.

    When he had the injury, we were very lucky that the meniscus could be repaired. He’ll come back and be 100 percent -- there’s no question in any of our minds. But because it was able to be repaired, he’ll have great stability in that knee and it will take away the chances that it becomes arthritic towards the end of his career.

    That quote comes from an interview on ESPN Chicago 1000 (h/t ESPN’s Nick Friedell), and it points to a bright future for both the star and the franchise—a franchise that was atop the conference before Rose fell. As B/R's Ben Leibowitz put it, "The long-term importance of a healthy Rose still far outweighs the short-term risk/reward of rushing him back to action."

    Rose aside, the Bulls are seemingly prepared to enter the post-Carlos Boozer era. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times, the power forward—who is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career—is likely to be gone this summer with Chicago's use of the amnesty clause.

    Taking his place alongside Joakim Noah will be either a budding Taj Gibson or Nikola Mirotic, who is an absolute stud from across the pond.

    Adding even more potential to this roster is Jimmy Butler. There is, of course, the pipe dream of Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony also coming aboard. But looking at the pieces already in place, Butler seems like someone who can make a difference for years to come.

    All this said, if Rose is out, so are the Bulls' chances. Cross your fingers, Chicago. Health could equal championships in this particular scenario.

Golden State Warriors

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    When the annual coaching carousel began this season, the Golden State Warriors were the obvious No. 1 choice for prospective head coaches. According to Rob Mahoney of SI.com:

    [Steve] Kerr’s choice, while surprising, makes plenty of basketball sense. A lot goes into an arrangement like this one, from personal relationships to job security to the sheer weight of financial compensation. Those factors and more were Kerr’s to parse for himself. Yet when it came to choosing which of these two rosters he would rather coach, I see no reasonable argument in New York’s favor.

    To summarize: There was plenty of rationale behind Kerr's choice of Golden State over a team like the New York Knicks, but the No. 1 reason is that it's a championship contender and will be for the foreseeable future.

    Looking at the Warriors' roster, it has a wonderful collection of blossoming stars as well as stars in their primes. The better news is that Steph Curry, Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Andre Iguodala aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

    So what could keep the Warriors out of contention? For starters, health. Curry's ankle, while reliable as of late, will be a looming concern as long as he's playing. Additionally, with guys like Bogut, Lee and Iguodala locked up long-term, recurring injuries could change the perspective that being "locked up" is a good thing.

    Luckily for the Dubs, guys such as Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green should continue to grow, giving management contingency plans if something goes awry. In fact, management has done such a spectacular job of acquiring talent, there's really no reason to doubt anything about the direction of the team at this time.

    Stay healthy, continue to develop and watch Curry grow into an even bigger star than he is today. That's a recipe for success, and it's what will push the Warriors closer to a championship.

Houston Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets didn't show it with their results in the 2014 postseason, but they're championship contenders waiting to explode.

    Despite losing in Round 1 to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets are dangerous not just tomorrow, but immediately. Think about it: If Damian Lillard hadn't shocked the world with his walk-off three-pointer in Game 6, the series would have gone back to Houston where the Rockets would have had the advantage in a crucial seventh contest.

    When looking ahead, it's important to consider that 2013-14 was only this group's first real season together. Chemistry wasn't an issue for Dwight Howard's new team the way it was with the Los Angeles Lakers, and neither was health.

    The bulk of the core is young, with Howard being the veteran of the roster. Youngsters such as Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Troy Daniels have shown promise at different times, and Patrick Beverley gives the unit the defensive nuisance it needs in a point guard-centric league.

    Considering salary, Harden and Howard are locked up for major money and numerous years, but the team is just 25th in league-wide payroll. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are about to change that by cashing in big-time in 2014-15, but their contracts end the following summer, which is the same summer Chandler Parsons will be due for a raise.

    The Rockets need to improve defensively, but with Asik and Lin bound to take pay cuts in 2015 (if they're even on the team), that will give this roster a chance to upgrade. Bringing in a defensive specialist will be ideal, but this group also has youth that is bound to improve over the next three seasons.

Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers have begrudgingly been added to this list, but not without seriously considering dumping them in the "playoff teams worth watching" category.

    Ultimately, Indy gets the benefit of the doubt, as it did what no other team out East did in the postseason: beat the Miami Heat twice. The hope is that, while the Pacers exposed themselves as phonies in the playoffs, they will bounce back in 2014-15.

    Roy Hibbert's disappearing act is concerning, yet uncharacteristic compared to 2013's postseason. Evan Turner turned out to have virtually zero return on investment, but avoiding midseason deals could help preserve chemistry next season.

    As Chris Mannix of SI.com has stated, "The Pacers don't need to be torn down. Just tweaked a little."

    If for no other reason, the Pacers are contenders because of a weakened Eastern Conference. The group of 15 will likely be better as a whole than it was in 2013, but while certain teams are getting healthy and continuing to grow, it would be unwise to assume the Pacers have completely plateaued.

    With Paul George being one of the best young players in the game, it's hard to believe he's reached his ceiling. George Hill and David West both have productive basketball left in them, and, of course, Lance Stephenson can be an integral part of the rotation if he re-signs this summer. 

    The Pacers have work to do, such as finding consistent scoring options and bolstering the bench, but out East anything is possible. And who knows, the Heat may even blow up the roster with the Big Three opting out and leaving South Beach.

    Here's to wishful thinking, Indy.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers have been a borderline elite team since the procurement of Chris Paul in 2011, but with the addition of Doc Rivers this past offseason, it's easy to see how a Western Conference championship could be on the horizon.

    Under Rivers, we saw legitimate improvements from both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, which is something critics across the league had been waiting for. Griffin (who posted career highs in points, assists and free-throw percentage) improved his mid-range game; Jordan (who posted career highs in points, blocks and rebounds) became the defensive presence we expect him to be.

    According to NBA writer Chris Palmer, in a guest column for Bleacher Report, Rivers asked Jordan to "study and emulate" the following players before the season began: Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Tyson Chandler and Bill Russell. Rivers' message was a simple one.

    "I told him all those guys had rings," said the coach.

    Rings are what every team is after, but it's teams like the Clips that have an advantage over most. They have a selfless leader in Paul, averaging 9.8 assists per game since his arrival, and they have the allure of the L.A. market, which will help sign crafty veterans with limited spending. 

    Locking up Jordan will be a priority following the 2014-15 campaign, and it will take a big paycheck to do just that. As long as the big man doesn't regress, it will be money well spent, and the only task moving forward will be adding a defensive center off the bench to complement an already deep rotation.

Miami Heat

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    As long as the Big Three remain in South Beach, the Miami Heat are going to be in the running for a championship.

    More specifically, as long as LeBron James remains in South Beach, Miami will be a contender.

    No disrespect to what Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have done (not to mention the myriad of role players Erik Spoelstra has brilliantly worked into his system). The two superstars have played an integral role in the team's success, and without them, the Heat may not be in their fourth consecutive championship series.

    But do you remember what the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like when James took them to the Finals in 2007? It wasn't pretty. This is a guy who wins games, and barring a catastrophic turn of events for the Heat, he should be in South Beach alongside his superstar sidekicks.

    Entering the 2014 offseason, Miami has players coming off the books left and right. We could see a whole new set of role players next year, but again, Spoelstra knows how to work them into the rotation.

    When looking at the rest of the Eastern Conference, it's easy to project teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards as hopefuls down the road. Even the Cleveland Cavaliers could qualify if they can make the right pick and obtain quality free agents.

    The problem is, all those teams still have to get past the Heat. Miami's roster is built as if management were using an Xbox, and until that changes (or health becomes a significantly bigger concern), the rest of the conference better watch out.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have virtually no money to spend during the 2014 offseason. Their biggest signing is going to be the 29th pick in the draft—or more likely: the re-signing of Caron Butler.

    The Thunder have the 10th-highest payroll in the NBA because of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, but you know what? 

    It really doesn't matter.

    OKC has built a championship roster, and it's done it organically. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka have all earned paychecks based on their time with the Thunder, and while Kendrick Perkins is the exception to the rule, the team is already grooming his replacement in Steven Adams. 

    Alongside Adams, there are plenty of young pieces to develop into the future. Jeremy Lamb has proven he's a scorer at heart, Reggie Jackson is more than reliable off the bench and guys such as Perry Jones and Andre Roberson have yet to scratch the surface of their potential.

    Looking ahead, Westbrook and Ibaka are locked into contracts through the 2016-17 season. Durant will have a chance to test the free-agent waters after 2015-16, but if all goes according to plan, he'll be a champion by then who is ready to re-sign.

     

    *All contenders are listed in alphabetical order, and all information regarding player salary and team salary is courtesy of HoopsHype.com and reflects the 2013-14 season.