Teams One Piece Away from Title Contention in 2017
Distinct tiers separate teams in any league.
There are the bottom feeders, your Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Pelicans. There are your contenders, powerhouses such as the New England Patriots and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Well ahead of the "rebuilders" and just above the "middling" tier are the franchises seemingly one piece away from championship contention.
Now, this is more difficult to quantify by the sport. NFL teams can in some cases indeed be one piece away, but it is easier to identify NBA teams with this status because of the number of players on the floor by comparison.
Regardless, these teams clearly have the surrounding pieces and either the upside or proven performance to otherwise contend should the biggest need get properly addressed.
These are the teams one piece away from title contention in 2017.
From Super Bowl winner to missing the playoffs, the Denver Broncos need some serious help in the most important area of all.
Peyton Manning rode a stallion off into the sunset, Lombardi Trophy in hand, leaving the Broncos with choices such as Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian (more on our buddy Brock Osweiler soon, don't worry).
The Broncos only got 16 touchdown passes and nine interceptions from Siemian through 13 games while he completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Rookie Paxton Lynch didn't exactly flash during his chances.
Plug a capable veteran in at quarterback and the Broncos get right back to competing for titles. He doesn't fix a struggling offensive line, but an actual ability to get the ball out sure helps. The weapons at skill positions such as Emmanuel Sanders are elite, as is the Von Miller-led defense.
Tony Romo, anyone?
Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant isn't walking back through that door, as the Oklahoma City Thunder don't figure to be as fortunate as the Cavaliers in a few years by getting a superstar player to come back.
Still, plug in another capable scorer on the Thunder, and it's right back to the top of the Western Conference.
It's fun to watch Russell Westbrook average a triple-double at 31.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game. But it'd be nice if the team had a player who could average better than 16 points per game like Victor Oladipo does.
Truth be told, the Thunder have a solid presence down low with Steven Adams and solid rotational guys such as Jerami Grant. If the rotation had a forward who could score and create spacing on the floor, Westbrook wouldn't have to do so much on his own.
Maybe this is easier said than done, but Westbrook's video game-esque numbers have the team barely hanging onto a playoff sport. Getting him a complementary scorer as a running mate would have the Thunder back in the top three of the conference.
Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox seem to have it all.
Chris Sale and David Price. Dustin Pedroia, Mitch Moreland, Xander Bogaerts and the rest. David Ortiz—wait.
With Big Papi gone, the Red Sox have a giant hole in the lineup not so easily filled by Hanley Ramirez or anyone else. We're talking about 38 homers and 127 RBI that just walked out the door, which were Ortiz's best numbers in a decade.
After winning the American League East and getting swept out of the postseason, many would suggest the Red Sox made strides this offseason. But with Ortiz gone, call it two steps forward, one leap back.
For now, the Red Sox have one major missing piece of the equation.
The John Wall-Bradley Beal combo continues to go to waste with the Washington Wizards.
While Washington has been on a nice surge as of this writing, the team still sits on the outside of the playoff picture after a miserable start.
It doesn't fall on Wall, who averages 23.7 points per game alongside 9.9 assists. Neither does it fall on Beal, who averages 21.8 points and shoots 45.1 percent from the floor.
Otto Porter Jr. spaces the floor nicely while shooting 43.8 percent from deep, but Markieff Morris only averages 12.9 points and Marcin Gortat sits at 11.2.
The Wizards need a makeover underneath the basket. A player who can scare opposing guards out of the lanes, clean up on the boards and create spacing while passing well would work wonders for one of the league's best backcourts.
It's asking a lot for a market like Washington to pull in such a player, but the blueprint for title contention isn't hard to figure out.
The Philadelphia Phillies aren't back just yet, but they aren't so far off, either.
Philadelphia has executed one of the smarter rebuilds in the MLB, which showed when the team finished with a better-than-expected record of 71-91 last year, especially over-performing before the break.
With studs like Odubel Herrera still developing, Jeremy Hellickson helping lead the rotation and a deep farm system built through savvy rebuilding, the Phillies look like a team simply missing an explosive bat to really make a push.
Given the erratic nature of the National League East outside of Washington, the Phillies could use some of that free cash or simple front-office savvy to make a move and compete for the playoffs—or more—sooner than expected.
The Boston Celtics, via plenty of media hype and president Danny Ainge, have much in the way of bark but little bite.
Boston looks like a playoff-bound team this season, though in the Eastern Conference it's not the most impressive status in the world. The front office did a great job getting Al Horford in free agency last offseason, but it still feels like the team misses something special.
Make no mistake, Isaiah Thomas looks great while averaging 26.9 points per game. Avery Bradley has been a great surprise this year as a guy who not only averages 17.9 points but also shoots 40.6 percent from deep in 34.9 minutes per night.
But what else? The roster needs a forward who can score at will and take some of the pressure off the backcourt. Until the front office makes a move and finds such a guy, or until Jaylen Brown potentially blossoms in a few years, the Celtics might amount to a launching pad for the better-rounded teams such as the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors.
The Houston Texans might be on the way to the playoffs this year, but to classify them as a contender would be a gross misstep after the team won the miserable AFC South while benching a starting quarterback.
Indeed, quarterback is the missing piece here. The Texans won't give up on Brock Osweiler, who got benched, because they can't afford to justify doing so—he signed a $72 million contract last season, per Spotrac.
But a different quarterback would work wonders after Osweiler threw 14 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. Lamar Miller is a talented back, DeAndre Hopkins is a legitimate No. 1 wideout when he gets some help and Will Fuller V is one of the most promising young deep threats in the league.
On the other side of the ball, Jadeveon Clowney has started to live up to his billing and J.J. Watt hasn't gone anywhere. The window looks like it is shutting in a hurry, but if the Texans could find a veteran who can sling it, they might seem like a threat after cruising through the AFC South this season.
New York Knicks
Folks had to know bringing on Derrick Rose wouldn't be enough.
Rose with Carmelo Anthony is great, so long as the system keeps working. So far, it has the Knicks hanging around in the middle of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference, which is respectable enough.
Rose isn't lighting up the scoreboard at 17.4 points per game, which makes his average of 4.4 assists look even worse. Thankfully for the Knicks, Anthony sits on 22.3 points per game and Kristaps Porzingis looks ahead of schedule, averaging 20.1 on 45.4 percent shooting from the floor.
The Knicks could use some serious help underneath the basket. Grabbing Joakim Noah has had the anticipated result, as he hasn't even averaged a block a game and only plays 22.4 minutes. Better defense down low and a guy with some offensive threat would better open up the offense.
For now, New York's middle-sized three, not a big three, doesn't have the impactful fourth player to step up when the team needs it.
Imagine if the Detroit Lions had a productive running back. (It's almost a shame we can't rip open a portal to the 1990s and go get a guy named Barry.)
Seriously, Matthew Stafford had Calvin Johnson leave this past offseason, so he did what good quarterbacks do and pulled off a silly nine fourth-quarter comebacks. He has a pair of quality receivers in Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Even the Detroit defense is quietly allowing just 21.8 points per game.
Stafford's running backs? The rushing offense averages 3.8 yards per carry this year. No player has breached the 100-carry mark because...why bother? Ameer Abdullah hasn't worked out, and like Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington, he only looks like a change-of-pace player.
Fielding a strong running game, simply because of the respect Stafford and his weapons command through the air, shouldn't be this difficult. If the Lions can go out and get a workhorse veteran or even a rookie who fits the system, Detroit would be labeled an instant contender.