Why Every Top-10 NBA Contender Will and Won't Win a Title This Year

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 2, 2021

Why Every Top-10 NBA Contender Will and Won't Win a Title This Year

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Glass-overflowing optimistic fans of the NBA, you're in luck.

    Glass-bone-dry pessimists, so are you.

    We're here to both plan championship parades and rain on those very same parades. More specifically, we're here to explain why every top-10 contender—simply selected as the 10 teams with the highest average rankings in winning percentage and net rating—will and won't win the 2021 title.

    So, no matter if you're looking for reasons to feel confident or worried, we have something to satisfy that need.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: Opponents can't handle this offense.

    Individually, there's no right way to defend Kevin Durant. Or James Harden. Or Kyrie Irving. All three are three-level scorers, hyper-efficient shooters and capable playmakers. They're the kind of offensive weapons that opponents simply hope to bother every once in a while, because shutting them down isn't happening.

    Having all three on the same roster is the real-world embodiment of a cheat code. Injuries and absences have limited them to just seven games together, but those moments are basketball magic. With those three on the floor, the Nets have averaged an earth-scorching 122.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Brooklyn is more than a three-man team, but that trio is what moves the needle in a championship race. If all three are healthy, it's hard to see a defense containing them four times in seven games.


    Won't Win Because: Defense matters, and the Nets don't play much of it.

    The Nets have allowed at least 120 points 17 times this season. Three of their opponents poured in more than 140 points, and only one of those games went to overtime.

    The All-Star Game thinks this team should play more defense.

    The Nets are 26th on the season in defensive efficiency, and they didn't exactly help that end with the recent additions of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Consistently outscoring everyone is tough, even for an attack with this much firepower. There might come a time when Brooklyn needs to roll up its sleeves and string some stops together, and there isn't a lot of evidence suggesting this squad can do it.

Dallas Mavericks

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: Luka Doncic is making another leap and bringing the Mavs with him.

    You know that thing where a 22-year-old MVP candidate just somehow stumbles into an even greater level of production, and suddenly both he and his team are unstoppable? Let's call it Luka-ing, because it doesn't exist anywhere else outside of Dallas.

    Doncic had long wowed with volume production, but his recent spike in efficiency is rendering defenses powerless against him. Over his last 19 outings, he's putting up 30.4 points per night on 52.2 percent shooting overall and 44.4 percent shooting from range.

    Since that stretch started on Feb. 6, the Mavs are 16-7—15-4 when Doncic has played—with the league's fifth-highest offensive rating. Despite an offseason investment in defense, Dallas' key to postseason success remains the offensive wizardry of Doncic and, to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis.


    Won't Win Because: The defense still isn't good, and the offense is no longer historically elite.

    The Mavs focused on the game's less glamorous end this offseason, trading for Josh Richardson, re-signing Willie Cauley-Stein, adding Wes Iwundu and drafting Josh Green. They've tried keeping the attention on defense by introducing a Defensive Player of the Game belt, basically a slightly less cool offshoot of the University of Miami's famed Turnover Chain.

    But Dallas has actually dipped in the defensive ratings from 18th last season to 22nd now. And while that group could at least counter with the most efficient attack in league history, this group sits just 10th in offensive efficiency on the season.

Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: The Nuggets found their big-wing stopper to complement their three-headed offensive monster.

    Denver wasn't looking for superstardom when it landed Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline. It already has that department covered with Nikola Jokic and, if you catch them on the right night, sometimes Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., too.

    Those players—Jokic more than anyone—are responsible for putting the Nuggets in the championship discussion with an offensive efficiency bettered only by the Nets and Los Angeles Clippers. But the hope is Gordon can nestle in as the missing puzzle piece that pushes last season's conference finalists out of the West and into their first ever NBA title.

    "Anyone who watched the Nuggets closely the first half of this season knew they'd be vulnerable against LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic or even Brandon Ingram in a potential playoff series," Mike Singer wrote for the Denver Post. "Gordon, the Nuggets hope, is the answer."

    If the Nuggets have a legitimate star-stopper, their own stars have the firepower to shine brightest over four consecutive playoff series.


    Won't Win Because: The offense remains inconsistent around Jokic, and the defense might be more than a Gordon away from championship-level.

    Murray has been held to single-digits five this times season. Porter has more games with fewer than 10 points (seven) than he does outings of 25-plus (five). Both are still chasing the consistency delivered by full-fledged stars.

    That isn't super surprising when Murray is 24 years old and Porter is only 22, but it is a worry when this offense might need to be near-perfect to compensate for the club's so-so defense (16th overall).

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: They have championship-level talent, and it's all coming together at the right time.

    For all of the various star-combos seen across the Association, one could argue L.A.'s Kawhi Leonard-Paul George tandem trumps the rest. The modern NBA is built around versatility, and these two do it all on both ends of the court.

    When Leonard and George are healthy together, the Clippers are bulldozers. They are 24-8 with both in the lineup and have an incredible plus-16.4 net rating across the 762 minutes in which they've shared the floor.

    The supporting cast has been a little up and down around them, but it's been (almost) all good of late, save for Tuesday's head-scratching loss to the Orlando Magic. Even with that stumble, L.A. has won six of its last seven games with a plus-16.2 net rating over this stretch. And considering how often players have been in and out of the lineup, it's reasonable to think this club hasn't shown its best yet.

    "We definitely see something building here," Luke Kennard said, per Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. "We're getting more comfortable with each other, that's the big thing. ... A lot of new pieces this year, obviously, so we're getting very comfortable and we know there's another level that we can get to, as well."


    Won't Win Because: They collapsed in last year's playoffs and still have question marks at point guard.

    Even with the changes to the lineup and at head coach (from Doc Rivers to Tyronn Lue), there are enough leftover pieces to look at this team sideways based on last year's choke job in the conference semis. In case anyone forgot, the Clippers lost a series in which they won three of the first four games—two by double figures—and led at halftime in Games 5, 6 and 7.

    L.A. needs to prove it can deliver in pressure-packed moments, because it absolutely wilted in its first try.

    Also, the Clippers have lacked playmaking all season, and with all due respect to the legend of #PlayoffRondo, forgive us for being skeptical this issue will be erased by a 35-year-old who was averaging 3.9 points and 3.5 assists for the Atlanta Hawks prior to the deadline deal.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: LeBron James and Anthony Davis both wear Purple and Gold.

    Sure, that's the boring answer and the most obvious one, but it's boring and obvious because it's true.

    James and Davis are two of the top mismatches in basketball. There isn't a blueprint for slowing down a 6'9", 250-pound locomotive who attacks the rim like a Julius Erving-Shawn Kemp mashup and reads the floor like Magic Johnson. Just like there's no way to handle a 6'10" interior force who has handles, a jumper, bounce and maybe the most dominant defensive arsenal in the business.

    If these two are healthy, the Lakers should be considered championship favorites until proved otherwise. In the 517 minutes they've spent together this season, they have roughed up opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions.


    Won't Win Because: James and Davis aren't healthy, and the supporting cast is spotty around them.

    Nitpicking the supporting actors in a picture anchored by James and Davis feels a little like sitting down for a steak dinner at a five-star restaurant and worrying the bread might be stale.

    Saying that, the concern level certainly rises when neither James (ankle) nor Davis (calf) are on the floor and won't be for the foreseeable future. This team isn't special (or anything close to it) without its stars.

    Last season, the Lakers had one player not named James or Davis average more than 10 points in the playoffs: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 10.7. The margin for error is razor thin (or non-existent) if James and Davis aren't on the floor and dominating.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: Giannis Antetokounmpo is a soul-snatcher, Khris Middleton is the perfect sidekick and Jrue Holiday is an overqualified third banana.

    Any discussion worth its weight in basketballs about the NBA's best player on the planet must include Antetokounmpo. Considering he's the reigning MVP (twice) and Defensive Player of the Year, maybe the conversation should start and stop with him.

    Then, there's Middleton, who's so perfect for the Robin role it's no small wonder the word "holy" doesn't come up more in his post-game pressers. He can star or fit the system on either end of the court, and he reads the game to know exactly how much Milwaukee needs from him any given night.

    This season, Holiday arrived to round out the Bucks' Big Three. Like his costars, he can create, score and defend multiple positions, and when they have it rolling, he can dig in as a defender and operate as an off-ball sniper.

    Milwaukee has played 648 minutes with those three on the floor and buried opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when they're out there.


    Won't Win Because: They've been too easily game-planned against in the past and don't have the deepest roster.

    In each of its last two playoff trips, Milwaukee has gone from cruising at high altitude to collapsing in an instant. The defense has been slow to adjust, and the offense has struggled to adapt when teams pack the paint against Antetokounmpo and take away his transition opportunities.

    Have the Bucks done enough to avoid their previous pitfalls? Having Holiday and P.J. Tucker around should give the defense more flexibility and the offense more shooting. Saying that, the Milwaukee teams that tripped up in the past were more successful in the regular season than this group, so we'll believe the Bucks are finally built for the postseason when we actually see it.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: Joel Embiid is unstoppable, and this defense is dominant.

    How do you stop a healthy Embiid? It's a question 29 other teams have been grappling with and failing to answer all season.

    The 7-footer has never been more powerful, and even if his absences take him out of the MVP race, he'll still have MVP numbers. He's equal parts defensive anchor and offensive superstar, and his growth in the latter has been so great you wonder if he fell into a tub of radioactive waste this offseason and came out of it with superpowers. His 29.9 points per game are easily a career-high, as are all three levels of his 52.5/42.2/85.9 shooting slash.

    With Embiid powering the offense—with some assistance from Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris—the Sixers could find just enough scoring to complement their second-ranked defense on the road to a title.


    Won't Win Because: Embiid can't stay healthy, and this offense has some major issues.

    Embiid has never played more than 64 games in a season, and he has already missed out on 16 contests in this campaign. If he gets injured at the wrong time, Philly's championship dreams would be dashed in an instant. The Sixers have outscored opponents by 12.0 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and been outscored when he's not.

    Even if the big fella stays upright, you wonder if there's enough offense around him to make this work. Spacing will always be tricky with Simmons running point, but Philly's shot-creation takes a big hit without him. While Harris has been all-caps AWESOME this season, his career percentages say he's shooting above his head, which could mean some ill-timed regression is coming.

Phoenix Suns

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: The roster is brilliantly balanced, and it shows on the stat sheet.

    For anyone reading this with free hands, how about a round of applause for James Jones? No, he hasn't gotten every decision right since taking control of this front office in 2019—no executive does—but he has helped turn one of the worst rosters in basketball into a legitimate power.

    Granted, a lot of this came through player development, but Jones stayed patient with this core and supplemented it with a star (Chris Paul), a perfect coaching hire (Monty Williams) and a handful of complementary role players. The roster just makes all kinds of sense now.

    Devin Booker handles top scoring duties, Paul is the lead playmaker, Deandre Ayton mixes it up on the interior and Mikal Bridges suffocates opposing scorers of all sizes on defense. The role players fit where needed, and everyone has managed to find his footing without stepping on any toes.

    This balance has yielded both the eighth-best offense and fifth-best defense. Only two other teams hold top-eight efficiency ranks on both ends of the floor.


    Won't Win Because: The rotation lacks postseason experience, and the roster may not be ready for the big stage.

    Suns lifers Booker, Ayton and Bridges have never been to the playoffs. Paul has never made the Finals. Williams has never coached a team past the opening round.

    That doesn't mean the roster is certainly incapable of rising to the occasion, but it does mean these are uncharted waters for just about everyone in Phoenix.

    Playoff rotations shrink, which will downplay the significance of the Suns' depth and increase the need for their stars to deliver. That's a lot to ask from players who have never been in this position before.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: Damian Lillard is an offensive sorcerer, and this entire offense can be too hot to touch.

    Master magicians can't match what Lillard has done this season. You know how illusionists will wow by making things disappear? Well, Lillard upped the ante by making absent people seem like they weren't really gone.

    The Blazers have played 47 games so far. CJ McCollum missed 25 of them. Nurkic missed 32. Zach Collins hasn't played one. Surely a rash of injuries like that buried this team, right? They wouldn't be on this list if that was the case.

    Somehow, Lillard has kept everything afloat, getting Portland to sixth in the conference standings and fifth in offensive efficiency. Now, that McCollum and Lillard are back, Robert Covington is fire-balling everything he launches and Norman Powell is hitting the ground running, Lillard and Co. can spend their stretch run climbing on both fronts.


    Won't Win Because: Defense matters, and the Blazers play even less of it than the Nets.

    For all of Portland's offensive success, this team has a negative net rating on the year (minus-0.2). Turns out, allowing opponents to average 116.6 points per 100 possessions—second-most in the NBA—is bad for the bottom line.

    The Lillard-McCollum backcourt is always going to be defensively challenged, and when Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter are in the same rotation, it's the real-world equivalent of turning the opponent's sliders up.

Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Will Win Because: This is, objectively speaking, the best team in the NBA.

    No matter the championship criteria put forth, the Jazz probably have it.

    Need a top-10 offense and defense, as hoops history says contenders do? Utah sits in the top five of both, a feat no one else is matching. Want stars? The Jazz joined the Nets as the only teams to send three players to the All-Star Game with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley. How about depth? Jordan Clarkson should run away with Sixth Man of the Year, and their rotation can go into double digits if needed.

    "They can shoot the three-ball extremely well' they've got multiple playmakers; they've got a big man that can put pressure on the rim," Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego said, per Eric Walden of The Salt Lake Tribune. "And I don't know many teams that can take away both the rim and the three from them. The Biggest thing is they defend. I mean, they're an elite defense. ... That's what allows them to be a title contender this season."

    The Jazz have embarked on several hot streaks this season. At some point, that switches from a club simply catching fire to one that's making the leap to heavyweight contender.


    Won't Win Because: Elite star power is a question, and so is postseason experience.

    If you pooled the NBA's top talents together and drafted them to new teams, how long would it take for a Jazz player to come off of the board? Oh wait, maybe that question was answered during the All-Star Game draft.

    Obviously, James and Durant ignoring Salt Lake City's finest became a talking point, but it's not like they were alone. When CBS tabbed the top 100 players entering this season, Utah didn't have a player in the top 20 (Mitchell was 21st). When SI ran the same exercise, the Jazz weren't represented until Gobert at 16. For ESPN, it was Mitchell at 18.

    That doesn't mean these assessments were right, and maybe they'd look differently if they were run now than in December. But who's the last NBA champion who didn't have a consensus top 10 player on the roster? Lately, a lot of champs have more than one.

    Maybe the Jazz can overcome this. Maybe Mitchell or Gobert (or both) can perform like top 10 players in the postseason. But those are big assumptions to make, especially when neither has advanced beyond the conference semis.


    All stats current through March 31 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.