The NBA begins today with reshuffled teams, upstarts looking to become contenders and young players looking to transcend to stardom this week. Despite tons of retooled and determined teams, there are only a few who can vie for the Larry O’ Brien championship trophy at the end of the year.
Check out these eight teams and why they might have a chance at the ring.
A Grizzled Squad
I don’t think anyone wants to either watch or face Miami’s ferocious defense besides fans foregoing South Beach for FTX Arena. This bodes well for their contending status even if it’s not always pretty.
Miami’s three stars — Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and the newly-signed Kyle Lowry — offer maybe the NBA’s greatest collection of grit and grizzle. Offense is where things are questionable, with the Heat’s season threatening to grind to a halt if Tyler Herro can’t rebound from a sophomore slump. Though the team’s lacks depth, PJ Tucker and Duncan Robinson round out a squad that offers a winning fit.
The Forgotten Men
Just a season removed from an impressive Eastern Conference Finals run, the Boston Celtics didn’t have enough juice or enough depth to endure last year’s NBA season. They feature a young and versatile top three stars in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart long-term, and upgraded depth around them, swapping a declining Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier for slippery scorer Dennis Schroder and brawny big man Enes Kanter. With much expected from the surprising Payton Pritchard and deadeye Aaron Nesmith and solid rotation guys Robert Williams, the Celtics have some players.
With Brad Stevens off to the front office, maybe first-year head coach Ime Udoka will inject some Spurs magic after apprenticing under Greg Popovich. It’s hard to see them knocking off Eastern conference titans, though.
Always the Bridesmaid…
Despite losing star guard Jamal Murray to a torn ACL, Nikola Jokic still carried an undermanned Denver Nuggets to the West three seed (and an MVP) last season. Though the Nuggets are seemingly stuck with just being really good, Murray is supposed to be back at full strength this year, set on a Mile High revenge tour.
The dynamic duo will need Michael Porter Jr. with Denver fans hoping he continues his ascent (and learns how to play better D). With Aaron Gordon already in the fold bringing more size and athleticism, this team has the makings of a contender. The Nuggets will still have to navigate a Western gauntlet just make it to the championship altar.
The Regular Season Champs
Last year, the Jazz fell right off that cliff between regular season and playoff ball. After finishing first in the West last season with shooting and ball-movement system gravitating around Rudy Gobert, the Clippers’ knocked them out in round one. The Jazz need higher-quality perimeter defenders after L.A. exposed them with a five-out strategy that nullified Gobert. How that’s going to happen with Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles on defense remains to be seen.
The stakes continue to rise for the Jazz after years of playoff failures with this core. It’s a dangerous squad that rose to the top of the West last year with a deadly offense. Don’t sleep on playoff redemption.
The Road Runners
The name doesn’t quite fit with the aging Point God, Chris Paul, controlling the O, but the rest of the young Phoenix Suns can gun. After finishing runner-up to the Bucks last year, Phoenix is running it back with the same squad that got them to the finals. Free agent backup center Javale McGee and bench shooter Landry Shamet will reinforce an athletic bench.
If Devin Booker can ascend to superstardom and young studs Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson can keep growing, the Suns should continue to cruise in the desert. It’s going to be a long year, though, and the Phoenix coaches are going to have to help Paul healthy and spry at 36 years old.
The Old Gods
Instead of signing the perfect fit in Buddy Hield, the Los Angeles Lakers are letting it go retro. The super-sized squad brought in retreads Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza, old-buddy Carmelo Anthony, and the x-factor in Russell Westbrook to an already star-heavy team.
Though Lebron James, Westbrook, and Anthony are long-time veteran friends, it remains to be seen how Westbrook’s inefficient game and Anthony’s defensive liabilities are going to fit in with the disciplined team. Still, with Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol returning as well, the Lakers should make it into the playoffs where they’ll be a massive and experienced team — and a very tough out.
The Milwaukee Bucks, as the reigning champs, should be able to play with newfound freedom now after exorcising their postseason demons. Mike Budenholzer can experiment with new roles for maybe the most well-matched big three in stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.
Still, Milwaukee played 23 games en route to the championship with Holiday and Middleton jumping on a plane to Japan for the Olympics the day after the parade. They also lost P.J. Tucker, a key defensive cog.
Bringing back George Hill (free agency) and Donte DiVicenzo (injury) should help. The Bucks remain the team to beat as long as they remain healthy, but there’s much that needs to go right and a lot of load-balancing needed for them to repeat.
The Brooklyn Nets, even without James Harden and Kyrie Irving last year, came within a Kevin Durant toe’s-width of knocking off the mighty Bucks. Though Irving remains a total question mark, Harden is back and healthy, which, with two MVP candidates, makes Brooklyn the class of the league.
Fans didn’t get to see the Nets at full strength much last year, but the team was transcendent when it was together. Scary thing is, the supporting cast is better than last year. Signing Patty Mills as Irving insurance was a brilliant move. Even without Irving, Mill can carry the offensive load when the stars are sitting. They will have lineup flexibility with Bruce Brown’s energy and defense, sharpshooter Joe Harris spacing the floor, a veteran stretch four in Paul Millsap, three-and-D guard Jevon Carter and a rejuvenated Blake Griffin on backup. Heck, LaMarcus Aldridge might have a little left in the tank if the Nets are desperate for a score.
Like last year, if Harden and Durant are healthy, there’s not much stopping the Nets. And if it’s only Durant, they’ve got a few more capable toes to finish the race this year.
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