NBA Teams That Could Be Surprising Title Contenders Next Year

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2018

NBA Teams That Could Be Surprising Title Contenders Next Year

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Legitimately joining the race for an NBA title is hard. The contenders clique is inherently exclusive. More than half the league earns a playoff bid, but most postseason squads are steppingstones prolonging the inevitable.

    The Golden State Warriors have only made it harder to gain entry into the Association's upper-most crust. Don't mistake this for ruining basketball. They have not. But they've eradicated the devil-may-care contender.

    Every potential candidate must be viewed in the context of how it'd fare against this post-modern Goliath over the course of a seven-game series. By that measure, maybe seven teams qualify as championship hopefuls right this second. (They are outlined here.) And even that might be steep.

    Fortunately, in this instance, we're allowed to play up the Eastern Conference free-for-all. Reaching the NBA Finals is a feat unto itself, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, even when left alone, are no longer sure things. 

    That will be the running theme throughout this exercise: determining which squads have the best shot at winning their conferences after not registering in the title discussion this year.

    Teams in the East will have an easier go at receiving consideration, but the West will have its fair share of representatives thanks to tottering timelines outside Oakland and Houston. 

Not-so-Shocking Surprises

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    New Orleans Pelicans

    Playing Anthony Davis at the 5 looked good on the Pelicans. They also started to figure things out with he and DeMarcus Cousins before the latter's Achilles injury. With Nikola Mirotic in tow, they'll have the capacity to shape-shift identities if they re-sign Boogie.

    To be clear: The Pelicans are closer to disarming long shot than partial surprise. They're not flush with trade assets, and their best-case offseason consists of adding a cheaper shooter and re-signing a star big man who is recovering from a career-altering setback and never fully proved to be a perfect fit. 

    Still, New Orleans has Davis, a reborn Jrue Holiday and the hope that immediate windows may be closing in Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio.

       

    Oklahoma City Thunder

    People around the league are starting to believe the Thunder have a "far better chance" of retaining Paul George than initially advertised, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein (h/t Thunder Wire's Cody Taylor). And you can't really blame them.

    Signing with the Los Angeles Lakers will tug at George's heart strings, but the Thunder can offer him an extra year and higher annual raises. That financial security could play heavily with someone who isn't four years removed from a devastating leg injury. 

    Landing in Hollywood also doesn't guarantee him a crack at the reigning champs. Even if he makes the move in tandem with LeBron James, even if the Lakers flip some of their kiddies for a third star, the Warriors remain out of reach. The resulting Lakers wouldn't have the depth to tout more than an outside chance at taking home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

    Oklahoma City is a safer bet in that sense. The Carmelo Anthony situation is less than ideal ($27.9 million early termination option), but Andre Roberson's return changes everything. The starting five pummeled opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions with him in it—third-best mark among 29 lineups to total at least 300 minutes.

    Keep George, and the Thunder can make noise. Staggering Anthony's minutes from the other two stars will help with offensive balance, and general manager Sam Presti has the taxpayer's mid-level ($5.3 million) to add Joe Harris some complementary shooting.

       

    Utah Jazz

    The Jazz led all teams in point differential per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. Just think about what they'll be able to do with a full year of Rudy Gobert.

    And a more seasoned Donovan Mitchell.

    And a healthy Thabo Sefolosha (non-guaranteed).

    And more Jae Crowder-at-the-4 units. 

    And a flexible cap sheet that assures them of at least the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million).

    Chills. Did anyone else just get...chills?

Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Nuggets don't have to make wholesale changes to belong on this list. They owned a top-10 point differential per 100 possessions, with a respectable defense, before Paul Millsap's mid-November wrist injury. And nine of their 10 most-used lineups finished the season with a net rating comfortably in the green.

    Three of the Nuggets' most important players haven't even entered their prime. Gary Harris (24), Nikola Jokic (23) and Jamal Murray (21) will all be under 25 when next season tips off. They're going to get better. Ditto for some of their other fliers. They should hit on one of Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles and this year's No. 14 pick. Throw Torrey Craig in there, too.  

    Let this core marinate alongside a healthy Millsap, and the Nuggets are postseason shoo-ins. Re-signing Will Barton and bringing back Wilson Chandler (player option) only elevates their ceiling. And despite stances to the contrary, they have room to maneuver for outside talent.

    Denver is expected to try using its No. 14 selection to pawn off Kenneth Faried's expiring salary, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn). This could be a preemptive move to shed money before offering Jokic a max deal (team option). It could also be a play to join the free-agency fracas.

    Consider what team president Josh Kroenke said, per The Athletic's Nick Kosmider

    “We had a couple opportunities to shed salary over the last year or so, and for us it's always been about basketball. We've paid the (luxury) tax before. I don't think we're afraid to do it again. With the way our team is going, we would be very shortsighted to make a move right now, with the young bunch we've accumulated so far, for financial reasons. We're going to keep building and keep grooming this group, and we're going to see what kind of opportunities come up in the draft and free agency in the next few weeks."

    Interesting doors open for the Nuggets if they're willing to pay the tax. Jokic's contract hold will sit under $3 million once they decline his club option. Offloading expiring salaries for Darrell Arthur, Chandler and Faried gives them more than $15 million in wiggle room. They have Barton's $6.7 million free-agent hold to play with as well.

    Dumping that much money without taking back anything in return won't be easy this summer. The Nuggets have the sweeteners to make it happen. Some combination of Beasley, Hernangomez, Lyles, Tyler Lydon, this year's pick and future first-rounders will get rid of Arthur and Faried. Chandler shouldn't need much, if any, sugarcoating. 

    Jump through the necessary hoops, and the Nuggets, already a riser, will have the coin to add a marquee name and then go over the cap to re-sign Jokic. Their outlook warrants some respect.

Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Sneaking into the contenders circle is contingent upon a lot of things going right for the Indiana Pacers. 

    Myles Turner needs to make a leap. Domantas Sabonis needs to take more baby steps. The two of them, together, must figure out how to defend with the other on the floor. 

    The offense needs to rebound from a post-All-Star malaise (23rd in efficiency) and prove it can prop up top-10 placement amid an overabundance of long twos. Indy will need something out of the No. 23 pick. It will need even more from a fluid cap sheet—either in free agency or on the trade market.

    That final caveat is most critical. The Pacers have more than $30 million in non-guaranteed money on the books, all under team control. Another $13.8 million is wrapped up in Thaddeus Young's player option, which he will "seriously" consider declining, according to Wojnarowski.

    Chiseling out $25 million in room will not be a problem. The Pacers will have effortless access to more than $40 million if Young opts for free agency. This isn't the summer to go superstar shopping, but it is the offseason for small-market aggressors to strike.

    Barely one-third of the league will be working with more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. At least half of those teams will have little to no interest in wooing impact players who don't fit transitional timelines. 

    Absence of big spenders grants the Pacers unique leverage. They have the money to swoop in and overpay restricted free agents (Aaron Gordon, Rodney Hood) or the piggy bank to pluck two or three second-tier names. Think Trevor Ariza, Will Barton, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyreke Evans, JJ Redick, et al.

    Playing the offseason close to the vest even leaves Indiana sitting pretty. Any combination of Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Al Jefferson and Cory Joseph provides an alluring cap-relief anchor for teams selling A-list talent at the trade deadline.

    Again: The Pacers are walking a fine line. A handful of things must break in their favor. Even then, they'll need an existing Eastern Conference threat or three to regress. But they do have most important component of any wild-card entry already in place—someone who wrapped 2017-18 as one of the NBA's 20 most valuable players, by most catch-all metrics, in Victor Oladipo.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    So, er, is this even bold enough? Sure, the Lakers have zero established superstars on the roster. Next season's place in the title discussion rests on them successfully poaching O.T.P. (other teams' players).

    Similar cases are treated as flimsy, often impossible. This one should be no exception. And it wouldn't be...if the Lakers' hopes were solely tethered to signing Paul George and LeBron James.

    Things have taken a turn for the plausible in light of Kawhi Leonard's trade request. The San Antonio Express-News' Jabari Young first brought word the 2014 Finals MVP was looking for a change of scenery. Wojnarowski then identified the Lakers as Leonard's preferred landing spot.

    This doesn't have to mean anything. Other teams have received Leonard's stamp of approval—including the Celtics and New York Knicks, according to Woj and his colleague Ian Begley. The San Antonio Spurs are not entirely limited by their disgruntled star's wish list, either. They will field inquiries from all over and, knowing them, make a decision virtually independent of Leonard's stated or indirect preferences.

    That won't exactly harsh the Lakers' vibe. Leonard's foray into free agency next summer (player option) will scare more than a few squads out of their best offers. The Lakers won't share those same concerns. They've already made his preliminary cut. And more than that, trading for him doesn't remove them from the LeBron or PG13 sweepstakes.

    Getting off Luol Deng's contract is paramount to this pipe dream. The Lakers could look for third- and fourth-party salary sponges, but their asset cupboard might give the Spurs enough to weed out intermediaries. As ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote:

    "Sending back [Lonzo] Ball or [Brandon] Ingram alone probably wouldn't get a deal done with the Spurs. Since Deng must be included in this version of a deal, the Lakers are going to need to add more value. That could mean parting with All-Rookie first-team pick Kyle Kuzma, whose ability to create shots is less valuable on a team with three superstars."

    Shipping both Ball and Ingram to San Antonio leaves the Lakers within striking distance of a three-superstar coup. The same applies to moving Ball, Kuzma and other Deng buffers. Renounce all their own free agents, waive their non-guarantees and presto! They're there.

    Different offseason permutations exist. The Lakers could wind up with two of George, James and Leonard. Or one. They could whiff on all of them. It doesn't matter. Their mere proximity to this fantasy-turned-reasonable overture demands inclusion. 

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Remember when the Milwaukee Bucks were the Celtics and Sixers? You know, the next great Eastern Conference superpower? 

    How about when Giannis Antetokounmpo was the heir apparent to LeBron James' throne? And when debates focused on not if he'd ever win an MVP award, but how many Maurice Podoloff trophies he'd amass?

    Good times. 

    The Bucks wrapped 2017-18 as the NBA's biggest underachiever. Winning 44 games was whatever. They endured a coaching change. Eric Bledsoe didn't have a training camp to acclimate himself. Things happen. 

    Losing to a Boston squad without a battle-tested No. 1 scorer was, and remains, less forgivable. Bledsoe was outplayed by Terry Rozier. Tony Snell forgot what a made basket looked like. It took a damning 2-0 series hole for then-interim head coach Joe Prunty to dust off Jabari Parker. Antetokounmpo may have been the best player for the majority of the seven-game rock fight, but the Celtics made him look more vulnerable than usual because of his shaky jumper.

    That shouldn't bode well for a team ill-equipped to make noticeable changes. The Bucks do not have cap space or an obvious path to getting it. Luck needs to be on their side for them to re-sign Parker (restricted) and unlock the full mid-level exception. And then they still need to figure out the awkward fit between him and Antetokounmpo.

    Hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach has to be the driving force behind an appreciable leap. And it might be. The Bucks' most glaring weaknesses aren't matters of talent, but approach. They ranked 25th in corner-three defense and allowed opponents to reach the rim more often than any other team, according to Cleaning The Glass. A more conservative, down-to-earth scheme will remedy rival shot profiles.

    Plus, the Bucks' unique blend of length, switchability and ball-handling isn't just for show. It has worked in practice. They deployed six lineups that logged at least 90 total minutes and outpaced opponents by six or more points per 100 possessions. No other team had more than five qualified arrangements (Toronto Raptors).

    Bake in LeBron James' free agency and the potential slippage of an overachieving Raptors faction, and the Eastern Conference continues to beg for new blood at the top. Philly and Boston are already there. Milwaukee, at long last, could be too.

                     

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.