Maybe it's just the pervasive optimism of the NBA offseason talking, but it sure seems like the 2014-15 championship chase features more worthy contenders than ever.
But that's not really the case. Not exactly, anyway.
The summer brings rebuilt teams, wiped memories and fresh hopes, so we should be clear right up front that this is probably not the best time to take a detached, objective look at the NBA title landscape. After all, without seeing any would-be contenders take the court yet, we can't say for sure if their potential flaws will reveal them to be something less than title-ready.
And anyway, it's tricky to measure how wide-open a championship race truly is.
Are we supposed to trust the opening odds provided by Vegas? If there's an inordinate number of clubs with a statistical shot, does that tell us anything?
Your annual reminder that sports books set odds based on where the most money will be bet, not on which teams have the best chances to win.— Brett Pollakoff (@BrettEP) August 25, 2014
For whatever it's worth, when Bovada sent out its first set of odds after Kevin Love officially joined LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he and his new team had the best ones: 5-2, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.
Pincus also noted that the defending champion San Antonio Spurs came in second with a 4-1 shot. After that, the Chicago Bulls sat at 11-2, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a 6-1 chance, and the Los Angeles Clippers rounded out the top five with a 12-1 mark.
That's a quintet of teams with relatively rosy championship outlooks.
We don't have to go back very far (though we do have to do some digging through the Internet's deeper, darker crevices) to find a season in which more teams had at least as good of a title shot as the 12-1 Clips do this year.
Ahead of the 2006-07 season, seven teams were listed as having championship chances of 11-1 or better, according to Pinnacle Sports (via TheSpread.com): the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons.
For the record, the Spurs downed the Cavs that year, giving rise to this delightful picture:
Ready your grains of salt on that point, though. Fluctuating odds are a given in the gambling community. Depending on where you get them, you're liable to find vastly different numbers. Still, that eight-year-old data is enough to prove that we're not heading into some kind of unprecedented title free-for-all—at least not as far as the oddsmakers are concerned.
Anecdotally, though, this year does feel a little different than the past few seasons.
For starters, we didn't have to do much deep thinking to determine which club was the top preseason title threat in any year between 2010 and 2013; the Heat held that distinction easily. Before that, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics held dual primacy for three years, with the Spurs always lurking on the fringes.
What's changed now, and what feels fresh about the upcoming 2014-15 season, is that it's easy to make a credible championship case for a huge number of teams, and then just as quickly point to a potentially fatal flaw for each of them.
This is the summer of mental whiplash.
Think the Cavs deserve unquestioned favorite status? Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (subscription required) has a SCHOENE projection system that thinks they'll win a league-high 68 games.
But even he's not so sure a defense that features Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Sieve Brothers, can rightly be called title-worthy:
There is evidence that good defenses tend to beat good offenses in the NBA Finals, and only one team has won the title with a below-average regular-season defense since the merger. (That team, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, was a major fluke; those Lakers had the league's best defense in the playoffs.)
Besides, James himself encouraged everyone to pump the brakes on championship talk in his return announcement with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins: "I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic."
James said that before Love joined him. But the addition of yet another new piece to a team with preexisting chemistry problems, one with loads of young players who still need to come together, doesn't exactly ease the concerns surrounding the Cavs.
The point is, it's just as easy to talk yourself into the Cavaliers winning a title as it is to talk yourself out of it.
The same is true for the handful of other teams with at least semirealistic ring-related dreams.
The Spurs are battle-tested and historically underrated, and they just finished one of the most dominant runs in memory. They're sure to repeat!
Then again, they're all a year older, lack the motivating sting of falling short that galvanized them last season and simply have nothing left to prove. They've also never repeated.
The Chicago Bulls are bigger and badder than before, and Derrick Rose is back in MVP form! Let's all rush to hand them the Eastern Conference crown they won in 2010-11 and 2011-12!
As always, Tom Thibodeau's boys are an injury away from the fourth seed and a second-round out.
Surely the Oklahoma City Thunder will break through this season! Kevin Durant has usurped King James' throne, and the growth of role players like Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson means KD, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will no longer be a three-man show. Let's size up OKC for its rings right now!
Oh wait, Scott Brooks is still coaching the Thunder.
The list goes on. We haven't even mentioned other excellent yet still flawed teams like the Clips, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards or Miami Heat. Would it be a complete and utter shock if one of those squads caught some breaks and won it all?
Not really. But every one of those teams has at least one serious question mark.
You get the idea: There are no seemingly indestructible juggernauts. Instead, we've got enough deeply flawed would-be kings to make George R.R. Martin do a double-take.
It's hard to say why things have shaken out this way. Maybe it's just chance. Maybe we're just living in a golden age of parity. Who knows?
One potential explanation that should probably concern the NBA: When you have a handful of teams that are actively trying not to be competitive, you sometimes see talent that should have been dispersed across a 30-team league consolidated among a powerful few.
Think about it: There's a finite amount of talent in the league. If the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and other alleged tanking enthusiasts don't want any of it, it still has to go somewhere. Even if it's just a player here or there, if useful rotation guys (or even stars) wind up joining the teams at the top of the food chain, it changes the power balance drastically.
In days past, Shawn Marion might have been overpaid by some desperate lottery team. Now, those teams have no interest in vets who could impart some respectability to a rebuilding effort. They want dirt-cheap assets and picks.
So Marion is playing for Cleveland on a minimum deal.
That's just one example, but it illustrates the polarization of the NBA that could be responsible for a dying middle class. And when the league is increasingly made up of teams that are either really good or really bad, you get more contenders than you'd normally expect.
It's great for fans to see more teams be a part of the title conversation, but only if they're fans of one of those teams. For supporters of squads with no chance (or desire) for a ring, it's not so fun.
Ultimately, there might be as many as 10 teams with legitimate championship chances—even if each one has a major question mark or two. So in some sense, we really might see a wide-open season. But it's more interesting (and perhaps more concerning) to note that there's an even larger number of teams that, by design, have no shot whatsoever.