Re-Ranking Top 10 NBA Title Contenders Post-Kyrie Trade
Stretching 10 squads deep can be seen as ambitious. Only a handful of teams typically have the talent necessary to ferry championship dreams in any given year. But the Eastern Conference remains a wide-open mass of chaos, and the Western Conference has more fringe noisemakers than certified afterthoughts.
Rather than chain ourselves to a tight-knit clique, we'll open up the general definition of title contender to include teams with the most plausible shots at reaching their respective conference finals. And this tracks when you think about it. Getting that far in the postseason puts you within reasonable proximity of the NBA Finals, even if you end up getting knocked around in four games by the Golden State Warriors or Team LeBron James.
In the spirit of honesty, you can most likely guess how the tippy top shakes out.
Or can you?
Might Irving's relocation boost the Boston Celtics' appeal? Hurt the Cavaliers' stock? Send the Warriors into hibernation? And what about the dark horses? Who makes up the middle of the championship-hopeful pack?
Big-picture outlooks are getting thrown out the window here. We care only about next season, and the teams best suited, as presently constructed, to own it.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
This spot could have gone to any number of other teams. The criteria for the league's 10th-best title contender isn't very demanding. Sussing out squads that should contend for the four and five seeds is the goal.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz both received some consideration. The Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans sponged up some residual reflection, but not much else.
Landing on the Minnesota Timberwolves just feels right. They'll have two top-25 players after trading for Jimmy Butler if Karl-Anthony Towns tightens his defense in space, and swapping out Ricky Rubio for Jeff Teague should enhance the starting lineup's floor balance. And if Andrew Wiggins transitions to more of a catch-and-shoot role around Butler, Teague and Towns, forget it. Last year's 10th-best offense should approach top-five status.
Similar to other teams (mini-spoiler!), the Timberwolves have a case to move up this ladder. The defense should improve in Tom Thibodeau's second year at the coaching helm, and concerns over their lack of snipers are probably overblown. But their stock could also go the other way.
Butler is the only surefire plus defender they brought into the fold. Taj Gibson can be thrown in there if you believe Thibs will get him minutes at the 5—a headache-inducing task with Towns and Gorgui Dieng in the frontcourt.
That slight jam leaks over to the offensive end, too. Dieng has gradually extended his jumper, and Towns connected on 36.7 percent of his threes as a sophomore. But Gibson cannot function outside the paint, and Nemanja Bjelica's long-range clip plummeted beneath 32 percent last season. If Butler doesn't shoot a league-average rate from deep in consecutive seasons for the first time of his career and Wiggins doesn't build upon his personal-best 35.6 percent showing from the beyond the arc, Minnesota will have to navigate a cramped offense.
And yet, this isn't last year. The Timberwolves are not being crowned something they're not. Get a leap from Wiggins or a taste of 2013-14 Jeff Teague, and they could have a 48- to 50-plus-win squad on their hands. Rolling with them as a top-10 contender isn't foolproof, but this roster's makeup has the marquee-name power to throw the middle of the Western Conference for a whirl.
9. Milwaukee Bucks
Jabari Parker's second ACL injury isn't a blessing in disguise for the Milwaukee Bucks. He'll be a restricted free agent next summer, and they won't have much time to evaluate his market value upon return.
Soldiering on without him, however, does pave the way for some terrifyingly long and quick lineups that render this placement an underestimation of their ceiling.
Starting Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Tony Snell with Thon Maker in the middle allows them to switch everything. Quick hooks for Maker and Middleton's torn hamstring limited exposure for this group last season, but its 15-game sample was encouraging.
In the 135 minutes these five spent on the court, the Bucks posted top-five offensive and defensive marks while outpacing opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Their turnover rate would have ranked first overall (10.3), and they notched what would have been a fifth-place true shooting percentage (57.2).
Small-scale trials must be treated with skepticism, but this lineup did everything. And it should only improve with a clean bill of health for Middleton and additional seasoning for Brogdon and Maker.
Milwaukee would finish another spot or two higher if the bench boasted more appeal. Greg Monroe is solid in the sixth-man role, and the offense should squeeze enough frontcourt shooting from Spencer Hawes and Mirza Teletovic. But the defense doesn't look like it'll be very good, and the second unit wants for a high-end shot creator. Monroe and Matthew Dellavedova will be responsible for manufacturing a majority of scoring opportunities if head coach Jason Kidd is ever brave (foolish?) enough to sit Antetokounmpo, Brogdon and Middleton at the same time.
Second-string problems could be enough to rip the Bucks out of this conversation altogether. Then again, the East isn't strong enough to drag down the stock of last year's No. 6 seed—hence the ninth-place hedge. Besides, with a fast-rising top-seven player in Antetokounmpo on the docket, the Bucks are more likely to outperform this projection than undersell it.
8. Toronto Raptors
Finding the right spot for the Toronto Raptors is a tricky task. Their offseason was equal parts solid and uninspiring under the circumstances.
Re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka while adding CJ Miles without crossing into luxury-tax territory is a big-time win for team president Masai Ujiri. Pawning off the final $30.2 million on DeMarre Carroll's contract before the price of multiyear salary dumps reached two first-round picks also qualifies as a victory.
But bidding farewell to Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker stings. The Raptors were already light on defensive versatility, and these departures handcuff them further.
Dealing Joseph was probably unavoidable. He hits free agency after next season (player option), and Toronto will pay $55 million-plus annually for its starting backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Nabbing another wing skyrocketed up the list of priorities with Tucker joining the Houston Rockets, and the combination of Miles and Norman Powell should have enough juice to unlock some switcher's delight lineups that don't include DeRozan.
Losing Patterson ranks as the biggest blow of all. The Raptors don't have the frontcourt personnel to replace their resident turbo-charge button and plus-minus deity. Miles can defend up to power forward but can't offer minutes as a small-ball 5, and neither Ibaka nor Jonas Valanciunas offers the same defensive mobility.
Lucas Noguiera's length is now Toronto's best defensive asset up front, which doesn't sit right. Playing him or Valanciunas means Ibaka is at the 4 or on the bench, when he should be soaking up time at the 5, where he remains an actual mismatch against opponents.
Talent tends to prevail in the Eastern Conference, and the Raptors' core is still founded upon quality names. But their second-highest-paid player, in DeRozan, is one of the least reliable defenders, and they won't have added another dynamic to their roster unless Powell makes the leap he didn't last year.
Where 2016-17 was about chasing a top-three playoff seed, this season feels like the Raptors could struggle to stave off a fifth-place finish.
7. Washington Wizards
Although the Washington Wizards couldn't noticeably beef up their shallow bench, they didn't need to do anything drastic. The Eastern Conference is forgiving like that.
Tim Frazier and, when healthy, Jodie Meeks bolster the gaps Washington must fill behind Bradley Beal and John Wall. Marginal improvement from Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky takes care of the wing spots. And getting anything whatsoever from Ian Mahinmi will be like finding loose change between couch cushions—provided they make furniture big enough to store $16.7 million in coins.
Will Washington stretch 10 players deep without breaking a sweat? Not at all. Oubre is the surest thing coming off the bench, and head coach Scott Brooks isn't known for regularly emptying the pine.
Fortunately for the Wizards, they needn't win too many second-unit battles. Their starting lineup is good enough to carry the reserves.
Beal, Wall, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter Jr. logged nearly 500 more minutes than any other five-man unit last season, through which time they outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions—a net rating that would have placed second in the league overall. They fell off a bit during Washington's post-Christmas tear (plus-7.9 per 100), but that had more to do with a sad and sorry stretch in March (minus-8.3) than anything else.
Mixing in another year of growth from Oubre should also unlock a few more terrifying small-ball setups. Subbing in him for Morris last season improved the Wizards' efficiency at both ends. If he hits more threes next season—particularly from the corners, where he's shooting 21.2 percent for his career—they'll be able to make him interchangeable with Beal and Porter. Running out Morris at the 5 for a "Death Squad Light" feel should be on the table as well.
In other words: The East's relative East-ness, plus the retention of their six best players, leaves the Wizards sitting pretty.
6. Boston Celtics
How does a team that finished first in the East last season and then added two All-Stars in the heart of their primes fall outside the top five? By overpaying for one of those studs.
Signing Gordon Hayward was a no-brainer for the Celtics. Jettisoning Avery Bradley doesn't feel good, but he'll cost a boatload by 2018-19 and Marcus Morris' two-year, $10.4 million cap hit is a fantastic consolation prize.
Coughing up Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick for Irving is a different kind of all-in play. While dumping that draft choice and even Zizic doesn't adversely impact the Celtics' immediate outlook, consolidating Crowder and Thomas into a taller, if slightly souped-up, version of the latter absolutely does.
As ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote:
The loss of Crowder shouldn't be minimized. His RPM rating ranked him 20th in the league last season -- better than Irving or Thomas. That rating surely flatters Crowder's impact, but he's a versatile role player on one of the league's best contracts. Trading him simultaneously weakens Boston and strengthens the rival Cavaliers, a fascinating and unusual aspect of this trade between the top two teams in the East.
The loss of Crowder further compromises the Celtics' depth, a strength the past two-plus seasons since Thomas' arrival. Suddenly, Boston has lost five of the seven players who saw the most minutes for the team last season. (Only Horford and Marcus Smart remain.)
One of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum must have a breakout defensive campaign with Bradley and Crowder gone. Hayward and Morris can more than hold their own, but they're neither point guard nor LeBron James stoppers. Even with Crowder getting pushed around during the Eastern Conference Finals, he's at least someone to stash on the four-time MVP.
The lack of continuity here is damning if nothing else. Smart is now the Celtics' longest-tenured player. Think about that.
Looking beyond this season, into Thomas' next contract, they might be fine. At 25, with two years to go before free agency, Irving jibes with an attempt to straddle two timelines. And no one's saying the Celtics won't be good. They will be.
Their offseason moves just don't offer an ironclad guarantee they'll be much better off than last year—or even better off at all.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Incorporating a star like George always requires ample adjustment, but the synergy between himself and his new running mates should come with relative ease. Returning players are already accustomed to playing off Westbrook, Oklahoma City didn't add anyone else who demands specific usage, and the reigning MVP's own ball-dominant style won't clash with his partner's complementary star power.
George isn't some ancillary device. Let's make that clear. Only nine other players burned through more isolation possessions last season, and he'll want the ball with the game on the line (ask CJ Miles).
More than one-third of George's total shot attempts came off the catch during his Indiana Pacers swan song, and he's linking up with a point guard who spent this past year flinging passes to non-shooters who canned under 31 percent of their wide-open threes when striking his own 40 percent clip from the record.
This formation will work. Its appeal even holds up against Golden State, the benchmark against which all other contenders must be measured.
Adding George and Patterson gives Oklahoma City the defensive switchability to wreak havoc at a Death Squad level. The Raptors were a plus-31 in the 66 minutes Patterson saw as the lone big—and that's without getting to leverage George and Andre Roberson on the wings. Trot out Westbrook and Alex Abrines or Jerami Grant, and the Thunder should sing on both sides of the court.
Few other teams tout that versatility. And truth be told, if not for Patterson's left knee injury or the fact that head coach Billy Donovan cannot be trusted to bench $40.4 million worth of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, the Thunder would jump a few spots higher.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Lying is futile in this situation: Justifying the San Antonio Spurs' placement over the Celtics and Thunder rests largely on blind faith—devout conviction in the team's ability to rival, and maybe embrace, the small-ball craze without technically employing the personnel to do so.
These lines are hard to walk. Unconditional trust isn't quantifiable. But the Spurs have earned it. They haven't won fewer than 64 percent of their regular-season tilts over the past 20 years. Current NBA players—such as the Philadelphia 76ers' starting point guard, Markelle Fultz—have yet to live in a world where the Spurs aren't objectively dominant.
None of which inoculates them against criticism. Pau Gasol's three-year, $48.8 million deal is indefensible, even with a partial guarantee in the final season. Their point guard rotation will be a collective wild card long after a 35-year-old Tony Parker recovers from his torn quad. And head coach Gregg Popovich's affinity for Twin Tower lineups won't do them any favors against the Rockets, Thunder or Warriors.
Paying Rudy Gay, though, suggests the Spurs are ever so slightly willing to move away from tradition. He has the tools to headline three-wing, small-ball lineups with Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, as Adam Spinella pointed out for NBA Math:
Gay is versatility personified from the tweener 3 and 4 spot. He can score inside and out, share the ball, face-up, back his way toward the basket and initiate pick-and-rolls as both a handler and a screener. He’s finally ready for more time at the 4, as his rebounding rate has increased gradually throughout his career. Some are hoping to see him in a Boris Diaw-esque role within San Antonio’s offense.
Counting on Gay for game-changing contributions following his Achilles injury isn't ideal, and the Spurs will be entering uncharted territory even if he's healthy. LaMarcus Aldridge only logged 121 minutes as the solo big in 2016-17, over which time the offense pumped in points with league-worst efficiency. Lineups with Gasol on his own creamed opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions, but that experiment spanned just 82 minutes, many of which came against second-stingers.
Again: This placement isn't entirely logical. But the Spurs are still the Spurs. They have Leonard, a top-five superstar, and minimal changes were made to their 61-win roster. They deserve the benefit of the doubt over potential superpowers working through more turnover.
3. Houston Rockets
Both superstars are accustomed to working on the ball. Harden has gone from the Rockets' offensive lifeline to their actual point guard. Paul tallied the league's highest assist rate during his stay with in Los Angeles. Someone will have to make more concessions than the other, many of them wholesale.
Paul is the most likely candidate—and that's a good thing. After all, he orchestrated this situation on his own accord.
"He left because he wanted to be with James Harden," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said of Paul's exit, per Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "Let's not get that twisted."
Top-10 players don't deliberately switch teams without considering the trade-offs. Paul knows the sacrifices that await him. He delayed his next payday by a year to embrace them. He will spend more time away from the ball, as a spot-up shooter, complementing Harden. And he'll probably like it.
Lighter on-ball workloads should come as welcomed respite with his 32nd birthday in the rear view. It helps conserve energy for his defensive stands, and the job itself, to a player like him, is just plain easier. He averaged almost as many points per spot-up possession last season (1.10) as Damian Lillard (1.12) and has canned 43.9 percent of his catch-and-fire treys since 2013-14 (145-of-330).
Houston's supporting cast only drives up its curb appeal. Clint Capela and Nene are dangerous rim-runners who can switch onto some perimeter defensive assignments, and Eric Gordon may never have to shoot off the dribble again. The same goes for Ryan Anderson (or maybe Carmelo Anthony).
Thanks to the additions of Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, meanwhile, the Rockets have assembled a viable Death Squad rival. Tucker shouldn't play center with Draymond Green frequency, but surrounding him with Harden, Mbah a Moute, Paul and Trevor Ariza creates a five-out nightmare that should have the chops to survive on defense.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Go ahead. Say it. Your subconscious wants you to:
Cleveland might end up being better off without Irving.
Feel better? You should. Because it's true. It might only be for one season, until James maybe, possibly, probably bolts in free agency. And Thomas' hip injury could ruin everything. But, assuming the Cavaliers stay healthy, the point stands.
Thomas is more of a lateral move from Irving than people care to admit. Teams will of course roll with the 25-year-old who's six inches taller when given the choice, but Thomas doesn't cede offensive status to Irving outside one-on-one situations. He added far more value as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and spot-up shooter last season, according to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles. And overall, even though he hemorrhaged points on defense, he still brought more all-around value to Boston's cause.
Plus, Crowder is the wing Cleveland has needed since James returned for his second go-round. Acquiring Butler or George would have made more of a difference, but the Cavaliers will do some damage when they use James and him at the 3 and 4.
Get enough shooting from Iman Shumpert to keep him on the floor, and they'll have the perimeter pests to cover up for Thomas while defending like a top-tier blockade. Head coach Tyronn Lue will get all the fist bumps if he's willing to play Crowder, James, Shumpert, Thomas and JR Smith at the same time.
Whatever the Cavaliers get from Zizic is a bonus. Maybe he doesn't play. Or maybe he puts an end to their carousel of backup 5s. On top of that, with Jeff Green, Cedi Osman and Derrick Rose coming off the bench, the Cavaliers suddenly feel...deep.
Step back and look at the big picture, and you're encouraged to feel uneasy about the future. James and Thomas are free agents next summer, and the Cavaliers don't have the cap flexibility to make additions if they stay. They'll have to dangle that Brooklyn pick to broker a meaningful acquisition.
Long-term outlooks don't have any bearing on this placement, though. Right here, right now, the Cavaliers have not only the personnel to continue lording over the East, but to take a more legitimate crack at the Warriors as well.
1. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors needn't have done much to wrap up this top spot. They won 67 games and traipsed their way to a second title in three years. Retaining Durant and Stephen Curry would have been enough to slot them miles above the rest of the league.
Except, they didn't stop there.
Last season's entire core is essentially coming back, from Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West. Ian Clark, now of the New Orleans Pelicans, ranks as the Warriors' biggest loss. They'll get over it.
And their good fortunes don't end here, either.
Durant accepted nearly $10 million less than he could have earned next season to stick around. And Nick Young joined the party at the taxpayer's mid-level exception. And Omri Casspi signed for the minimum.
Somehow, during a summer in which plenty of big names swapped locales, the reigning champ strengthened its position as much as anyone without traveling great lengths to create any significant flexibility.
Here's hoping the Warriors let next June's NBA Finals last more than four games.