Pretender or Contender: Which 2023 NBA Title Favorites Can't Be Trusted?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 19, 2022

Pretender or Contender: Which 2023 NBA Title Favorites Can't Be Trusted?

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    James Harden (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

    The top of the NBA is loaded with talented and title-hopeful squads, as a number of teams could realistically take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy next summer.

    So, how can we tell the contenders from the pretenders?

    Looking at the last 10 NBA champions, a few things stand out.

    First, star power matters. Of the past 10 title winners, only one (the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs) didn't possess a top-five-ish player at the time. There are exceptions, obviously (the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons are a prime example), but a general rule of thumb is that having a true MVP-level player (or two) on the roster matters.

    Of the past 10 champions, these teams finished with an average ranking of 5.2 on offense and 5.6 on defense, yet only four teams (the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors, 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, 2014-15 Warriors and 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs) ranked in the top five in both categories. Every single Finals winner finished top-five in offense or defense, however, so being elite on at least one side of the ball is a must.

    Keeping these factors in mind, while also examining the top 10 NBA title contenders (based on FanDuel betting odds) on an individual basis, which teams can we actually trust to be able to win the 2023 Finals?

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    Memphis' 56 total wins ranked second overall in the NBA last season, proving that this team had officially arrived.

    Ja Morant could be an MVP candidate this year, although he may not even need to be since the Grizzlies went a sparkling 21-6 without him in the lineup and re-signed backup point guard Tyus Jones to a two-year, $29 million deal.

    This is still a young team with a core that should all be better, and newly acquired veteran Danny Green could make a big playoff impact should he make a full recovery from a torn ACL and LCL suffered in the playoffs.


    Pretender Argument

    Memphis had its moments in a second-round series against the Golden State Warriors, although it was clear which team had the experience advantage. The Grizzlies just weren't on the same level as the eventual champions, and it showed.

    Jaren Jackson Jr., the key to the team's defense, underwent foot surgery at the end of June and could be out until Christmas, as Memphis predicted a four-to-six-month recovery period. Rookies Jake LaRavia and David Roddy may be forced into roles immediately before Jackson can return.

    The Grizz also lost De'Anthony Melton via trade and Kyle Anderson to free agency, two key pieces to the team's bench and perimeter defense last season.


    Conclusion: Pretender

    Memphis is coming, but the team is probably still a year away, especially with Jackson starting the season on the shelf.

Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    Despite not having Jamal Murray for the entire season and getting just nine bad games out of Michael Porter Jr., Denver still finished with the No. 6 offense last season, a testament to just how incredibly good Nikola Jokić is.

    With all three, this has the potential to be the highest-scoring unit in the NBA, especially with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope now on board and second-year guard Bones Hyland likely making a leap.

    While most of the core pieces are still pretty young, this is a group that's already made the playoffs the past four years and reached the West Finals in 2020. The experience, and talent, should both be there this season.


    Pretender Argument

    As good as this offense can be, and with Jokić clearly checking the box as a top-five player, the defense has some concerns.

    A 15th-ranked defense from last season may have only gotten marginally better with Caldwell-Pope and newly signed Bruce Brown, and it could have even worse rim protection numbers if DeAndre Jordan is actually in the rotation.

    Michael Porter Jr.'s back and overall durability will forever be a concern, as he's averaged just 31.3 games per season in his four-year career.


    Conclusion: Contender

    Jokić could establish himself as the NBA's best player this season, with Murray and Porter possessing top-25 potential. As long as the defense is even slightly improved, this is a title-worthy offense.

Miami Heat

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    Contender Argument

    The floor for Miami is still extremely high with a core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro, even if we don't yet know what this starting lineup will look like.

    Butler is still a fringe top-10 player in the league even at age 33, and Adebayo is the centerpiece of a defense that ranked fourth overall last season. If he can add a reliable three-point shot to his game, the 25-year-old could quickly put himself right behind Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić for "best center in the league" discussions.

    This is still an extremely tough and veteran-heavy group with excellent coaching, something that should keep the Heat in the playoffs, even if a No. 1 seed in the East will be tough to repeat.


    Pretender Argument

    After losing P.J. Tucker in free agency, we still don't know who's going to start at power forward for Miami. Butler, Caleb Martin and rookie Nikola Jović aren't perfect fits, even if all three may see time there this year.

    Duncan Robinson fell out of the playoff rotation last year after making just 37.2 percent of his regular-season threes, and Victor Oladipo hasn't played more than 36 games since the 2017-18 season.

    A lot will depend on how much gas the 36-year-old Lowry has left in the tank, as he matched the highest turnover percentage (19.3 percent) of his 16-year career last season.


    Conclusion: Pretender

    The East is only getting stronger, and with so many questions revolving around this roster, it's tough to believe Miami is still one of the elite teams in the conference.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    This version of the Sixers didn't get much time together last season following James Harden's debut on Feb. 25, although Philly possessed a very encouraging net rating of plus-17.6 when Harden, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris all shared the floor.

    Adding P.J. Tucker, De'Anthony Melton and Danuel House to the core should help a defense that ranked 12th following the Harden trade, bumping it up to a championship-caliber level.

    Newly signed Montrezl Harrell is an upgrade over DeAndre Jordan as a backup center, but Embiid's health and overall play will still very much dictate how far this team can go.


    Pretender Argument

    Between some of Harden's playoff meltdowns, Doc Rivers' recent postseason coaching and Embiid's injury history, there's a lot of blowup potential here.

    Harden also shot just 40.2 percent overall in the regular season with Philadelphia and 40.5 percent in the playoffs, and at 33, he is far from the offensive force he was even a few years ago. Still an elite playmaker, Harden will have to keep taking a step back and let players like Embiid and Maxey take on primary scoring roles.


    Conclusion: Contender

    Daryl Morey did an excellent job of turning Ben Simmons into Harden and now filling out the roster around his stars. If Embiid is healthy come playoff time, these Sixers are definitely contenders.

Phoenix Suns

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    No team won more than the Suns' 64 games last season, and this is a core that remains largely unchanged.

    Devin Booker could make his case as a top-10 player this year, especially if Phoenix does a better job of managing Chris Paul's workload. The 37-year-old point guard played his highest minute total (32.9 per game) since the 2014-15 season.

    Dario Šarić's return from a torn ACL will be a nice boost to the frontcourt, and players like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson should only keep getting better.


    Pretender Argument

    Can the Suns really repeat a plus-33.4 clutch time net rating again, one that more than doubled any other NBA team? Will Ayton be happy in Phoenix after originally signing an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers? Can this team shake off one of the biggest Game 7 collapses in NBA playoff history? How long can Paul truly keep up his All-Star form? Will the summer Kevin Durant rumors have any effect on this locker room?

    There's no questioning the talent this team possesses, as the Suns were the only franchise to rank in the top five in both offense and defense last season. Still, there's a lot of questions that need to be answered and some legendary clutch play that may never be duplicated again.


    Conclusion: Pretender

    The Suns are still going to be very good, but the Ayton situation feels far from settled and Paul is destined for some decline. A title window that was open the past two years could be closing if this roster doesn't make a trade.

Golden State Warriors

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    The defending champions are returning their top-five leading scorers from last season, get James Wiseman back from knee surgery and had the NBA's most underrated summer signing by getting Donte DiVincenzo on a two-year, $9.2 million deal.

    They won the 2022 title while rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody were playing limited minutes, players with sizable upside who should now become regular rotation members. Wiseman could make a huge impact on both ends of the ball with his size, shooting and rim protection ability as well.

    Klay Thompson enters the year healthy for the first time since 2018-19 and could look even better now with the rust shaken off.


    Pretender Argument

    Losing role players like Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson hurts, and Andre Iguodala, a valuable locker room voice, could end up retiring.

    It's also a little concerning that Stephen Curry made just 38.0 percent of his three-pointers last season. He'll turn 35 before the 2023 playoffs begin.


    Conclusion: Contender

    The Warriors just won the title and could be even better with a healthy core together and players like Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody looking like potential stars. The fact that this team only possesses the fifth-highest betting odds to win the 2023 championship seems low.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    Clippers lineups featuring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had a net rating of plus-17.9 in 2020-21, ranking in the 99th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. While durability is a concern for both, Los Angeles has two players who could be top-10 talents and play both sides of the ball at an extremely high level.

    This has also become the deepest team in the NBA, one that could easily stretch the rotation to 12 if it needed to. John Wall is an upgrade over Reggie Jackson, even if he may function best as a sixth man on this roster, and Tyronn Lue is one of the top coaches in the league today.

    Los Angeles is going to beat a lot of teams simply by going small with players like Robert Covington or Marcus Morris Sr. at center, surrounding Leonard and George with shooters and defenders. With respect to the Lob City era, this is the best Clippers team (at least on paper) that we've ever seen.


    Pretender Argument

    We don't know what Leonard will look like coming off a torn ACL, or if he and George can each play more than 52 games for the first time together.

    Losing Isaiah Hartenstein in free agency has left the Clippers without a true backup center, which could turn into a real issue if Ivica Zubac has to miss time.


    Conclusion: Contender

    Leonard and George together have proved to work, and this is the best group of quality role players around them since the star duo was assembled in 2019. Health is obviously an issue, but a full-strength Clippers squad could be the NBA's best team.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    This is easily one of the most talented rosters in the NBA, with Kevin Durant still functioning as a top-five player as he approaches his 34th birthday.

    Kyrie Irving should be at his best with unrestricted free agency approaching, especially since no team outside of the Los Angeles Lakers expressed interest in executing a sign-and-trade for him this past summer. Lineups that featured both Durant and Irving had a net rating of plus-13.2 last season, ranking in the 98th percentile overall.

    This has a chance to be a really good supporting cast, especially if Ben Simmons looks like the playmaker and all-world defender of two years ago. Any scoring from him is the sprinkles on the icing on top of the cake.

    There's plenty of role players to like, especially with Joe Harris returning from ankle surgery, Seth Curry, Royce O'Neale, Nic Claxton, Patty Mills, Cam Thomas and newly signed T.J. Warren.


    Pretender Argument

    If there's ever a team that can't be trusted, it's these Nets.

    Irving hasn't hit the 70-games-played mark in a season since he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016-17, while Durant tried to leave Brooklyn and is now playing for a coach in Steve Nash and general manager in Sean Marks who he asked to be fired.

    What could go wrong?

    This has worst-chemistry-in-the-NBA potential, and Irving's impending free agency could loom over the franchise, as could a potential trade re-request from Durant.

    Chemistry truly matters, especially if a team has championship aspirations. If the Nets stumble out of the gate, who in this locker room is pulling people back together?


    Conclusion: Pretender

    This Nets team is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Are they talented? Absolutely. Are they to be trusted? Not at all.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contender Argument

    Only the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks had better offenses than the Bucks last season (No. 3 overall, 114.3 rating), and it's safe to say Milwaukee can leapfrog a now-rebuilding Jazz team.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best and most dominant force in all of basketball, can control a game on both ends and already has the experience of a Finals MVP under his belt. Milwaukee can use him as both a ball-handler and a center, as his 6'11", 242-pound frame can cover the entire floor in just a few strides.

    Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday remain the perfect supporting cast, as the Bucks had a net rating of plus-12.6 when all three were on the floor together last season. Add in Joe Ingles, rookie MarJon Beauchamp and the return of players like Bobby Portis, Serge Ibaka and Wesley Matthews, and Milwaukee has some real depth behind its stars.


    Pretender Argument

    There's not much to not like about these Bucks, who may be coming off back-to-back titles if Middleton didn't sprain his MCL last spring. Milwaukee still pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics to seven games without its second-leading scorer.

    Ingles is coming off a torn ACL and will likely miss the first few months of the season, and some slippage from 34-year-old Brook Lopez should be expected. Middleton also had wrist surgery in July but is expected to be fully recovered sometime near the start of the season.


    Conclusion: Contender

    This team has the talent, chemistry, experience, star power and depth to win a second title in three years. In a rapidly improving East, a healthy Bucks squad is still the team to beat.

Boston Celtics

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    Contender Argument

    Boston had the NBA's No. 1 defense last season and finished first in our recent East starting five rankings, even with Donovan Mitchell joining the Cleveland Cavaliers and P.J. Tucker signing with the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Malcolm Brogdon gives the bench a major injection of talent, and most of this core (save for Al Horford) has yet to hit their peak. Now with the confidence to know they can make it past the East Finals, there's no way the Celtics get off to another slow start and have to claw their way up the standings.

    Jayson Tatum isn't as good as the No. 1 option on a lot of these other top teams, but he's still an elite wing who looks more than capable of leading a franchise to a title.


    Pretender Argument

    It was a big blow to lose newly signed Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL before the season even began, as Boston needed his size and shooting off the bench. This is a roster that could also use another big behind Robert Williams III, Horford and Grant Williams.

    The Celtics need Brogdon to help bump up an offense that looked sluggish at times last season, although the 29-year-old has topped 64 games just once in his six-year career.


    Conclusion: Contender

    Boston had the NBA's best net rating from Halloween to the start of the playoffs, a stretch that's too long to be a fluke. This is a stifling defensive team that will be even better putting the ball in the basket with Brogdon now coming off the bench.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

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