5 NBA Teams Under Most Pressure to Win 2015 Championship
No NBA team and its players enter the regular season tacitly thinking, "Look, we better not win a championship this year."
Actually, allow me to clarify: Almost no NBA team thinks in those terms. There are tankers—like Sam Hinkie's Philadelphia 76ers—that are actively trying not to win.
Most, though, are trying to win. Some of those teams are even expected to win. Even fewer of those are staring at must-win campaigns.
Those clubs are the ones we care about here. Not only are they capable of winning a title next year, but, for whatever reasons, their championship clocks are ticking louder than most.
If they do win, all is good.
If they don't, their clocks begin ticking louder or, worse, stop ticking at all.
Not every championship hopeful faces the same pressure.
Certain franchises are trying to win titles. They may even be built to win titles. But any disappointment will pale in comparison to those that follow because they're not as ready to win those titles.
Dirk Nowitzki's championship window is closing, which puts pressure on the Mavericks to win by default—especially after he took a ridiculous pay cut (three years, $25 million) and they spent $46 million on Chandler Parsons.
Thing is, the Mavericks are more of a fringe contender. They lack that bona fide superstar in his prime and don't carry the same weight other Western Conference powerhouses do.
Though an early playoff exit and failure to bring home a title would be disappointing, it would not be at all unexpected.
Golden State Warriors
This is all about justification.
Even after passing on Kevin Love, the Warriors still have one of the league's best starting fives. But they'll now have to improve upon last season's performance, justifying their decision to roll with who they have.
Except on the sidelines. They also have to justify canning the only coach, Mark Jackson, to guide back-to-back playoff teams since the early 1990s for a more expensive novice in Steve Kerr.
Portland Trail Blazers
LaMarcus Aldridge's impending free agency will be an issue until he says otherwise.
So, he said otherwise.
"I'm happy to stay (in Portland), happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two," he told The Oregonian's Joe Freeman in July. "I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part."
Still, as optimistic and loyal as Aldridge may seem, the last thing the Blazers want to do is follow last year's (mostly) bright showing with a potentially mindset-melting dud.
San Antonio Spurs
Relax, this is basically a compliment melded with an unsettling dose of reality.
The San Antonio Spurs are a different breed of sustained dominance. They win, and they do so consistently, never stopping, so long as their core remains intact.
Next season the entire gang will be back, so the Spurs will be expected to adequately defend their crown in what will be another case study of San Antonio-based mortality.
Let us not forget, though, that this could be it for the Spurs' Core Four. Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich are locked down on multiyear extensions, but Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are entering the last year of their deals, each of them now on the wrong side of 37.
How much longer do Duncan and Ginobili have left? The Spurs cannot be sure. They weren't even sure coming off last season's title run.
Win or lose next year, they'll face the same pressing questions regarding their fate—only this time, with no contracts holding Duncan or Ginobili down, they're more likely to walk away.
That's why it's preferable the Spurs continue their time-thwarting, age-mocking ways: So the outcome of Duncan's and Ginobili's decisions—no matter what—feel that much sweeter.
What happens when you take the team with the NBA's worst winning percentage since 2010 and throw in a LeBron James, a max extension for Kyrie Irving and the acquisition of Kevin Love at the expense of Andrew Wiggins?
Instant rebuilds laced with win-now edicts happen.
First things first: What the Cleveland Cavaliers have done is instantly reestablish themselves as a championship contender. It doesn't matter that they slogged through four years of bedlam or that James is more responsible than anyone else for the rewards their ineptitude yielded.
This team is barely recognizable from the one Cleveland fielded last year. That's instant gratification and rebuilding at its most confusing.
And with this new team comes renewed expectations. Gone is the fleeting moment when it looked as if James escaped the pressure-packed Miami Heat for the comfort of absolution in Cleveland. That grace period has been replaced by what Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal describes as mounting championship strain.
"The pressure was never going to be off LeBron, simply because he's, well, LeBron," Fromal wrote in July. "Adding Love to the equation takes the pressure dial switch up a few more notches. Adding Love at LeBron's behest ratchets it up further still."
Lose, and James loses. That's never a good thing.
Lose, and perhaps Love's free agency goes from mere formality to formative cliffhanger.
Lose, and the Cavaliers will have failed to meet the lofty bar they've succeeded in setting for themselves.
Los Angeles Clippers
There's more at play here than new Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer going bananas—presumably after sucking down a couple cases of Tantrum—and pretty much guaranteeing his latest playtoy will be drowning in championship dap.
The Clippers haven't made it out of the second round since Chris Paul arrived in 2011. During that time, meanwhile, the Clippers have shipped out star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe, handed new pacts to Blake Griffin and Paul himself and "traded" for Doc Rivers, who is expected to begin contract-extension talks with Ballmer, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
To wit: They've made a series of non-tweaks that show they believe in their current core taking them the distance. And they have to prove that now.
For all their bluster, Griffin and Paul have never won anything. Griffin only just proved he can anchor an above-average basketball team without Paul, and Paul has made it past the second round of the playoffs fewer times than the more frequently criticized Carmelo Anthony: Zero.
"When I say that we are Clippers, now, it means something," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per NBC Los Angeles.
Division crowns are nice. Top-three conference seeds are respectable, too. But for the Clippers, there is no substitute any longer.
There is only proving their existence means something more than first- and second-round exits.
The Cavaliers stole the Chicago Bulls' offseason thunder.
It's up to the Bulls to steal it back.
Signing James wasn't enough of a splash for the Cavs to overshadow what the Bulls did this season. But landing Love was.
Suddenly the case for Chicago as Eastern Conference favorites is tougher—though Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta makes an impassioned argument on the Bulls' behalf. Widespread support or not, the Bulls still have demons to purge.
Coach Tom Thibodeau and crew have navigated enough adversity to last a decade. Their performances in the aftermath of on-court tragedy—losing Rose, battling team-wide injuries, etc.—have always been inspiring and created hope for a specific future.
That vision is here now. There is no waiting anymore. The Bulls have the team they want and the personnel they consider healthy and talented enough to take the Eastern Conference and win a championship.
All that's left for them is to, you know, actually do it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
"Close calls" is the Oklahoma City Thunder's middle name.
Something always seems to be standing between them and the NBA title they appear to deserve. Whether it's an injury to Russell Westbrook or Serge Ibaka, or a date with the Miami Heat or Spurs gone awry, the Thunder cannot get over their championship hump.
That needs to change. Like, now.
Kevin Durant's free agency is a closer-than-you-think two years away, and the Thunder need to give him reasons outside crazy-devout loyalty to stick around. And since their sales pitch won't come in the form of paying luxury taxes for another star or traveling back in time to retain James Harden, there is only winning.
Writing for ESPN The Magazine, Howard Bryant reminds us how difficult a task that stands to be:
Maybe all he needs is the right point guard to provide him the ball in more advantageous positions, a coach who knows how to run an offense and an offseason conditioning program to get stronger, add more muscle and improve his low-post play, penetration and mismatch recognition.
Whatever the solution, the current plan isn't working. Durant might be the MVP, but when it comes to championship basketball, the wheel cannot be reinvented. Many have tried. All have failed.
Another season of failure only drags Durant's looming decision and Oklahoma City's long-term future further into the spotlight.
Winning a championship is the universal remedy to this problem.
In Oklahoma City, where funds are scarce and the years-long dynamic still etched in marble and virtually inflexible, it's the lone remedy to what can only be described as a real problem.