The NBA offseason has reached arguably its most deserted point: August. At this time of year we’re all wandering around like Will Smith in I Am Legend But instead of looking for people we’re searching for even the tiniest bit of NBA news. While there may still be some shoes to drop—with names such as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell still lingering in the rumor mill—it’s possible none of those players are moved before the start of the season. So with where things stand at this exact moment, let’s run down who I believe to be the top five title contenders if the playoffs were starting today.
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Eyebrow raised: Suns, Grizzlies
Let’s actually start with two teams who fashioned themselves title hopefuls in 2022 that may be on shaky ground after this summer. The Suns appear to be mostly running back the same crew from the team that won a franchise-record 64 games, JaVale McGee notwithstanding. Phoenix’s starting five should remain one of the better units in the league, and Deandre Ayton particularly could be in a better headspace without his contract situation lingering. Still, the bench remains a question mark here. I would’ve liked to see this team try to bring in a stronger backup for Chris Paul after Cam Payne’s playoff struggles, especially considering CP’s injury history.
As for the Grizzlies, their regular season could be a slog with Jaren Jackson Jr. expected to miss significant time. Meanwhile, the subtractions of Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton robbed the team of some of its depth. I’m interested to see how much they’ll have in the tank come postseason time.
I need to see an improved James Harden before I’m ready to put Philly at the adults’ table. The Sixers had a great offseason, though. PJ Tucker and Melton will bring some much needed oomph to the supporting cast. And Tobias Harris still looms as someone who could be moved to find a better fitting piece next to the two stars.
Denver was beset by injuries last season, with Jamal Murray missing the whole year and Michael Porter Jr. missing most of it. The Nuggets were thriving in 2021 when both were healthy, particularly after the acquisition of Aaron Gordon. Murray and MPJ should be ready to go by the fall, giving reigning MVP Nikola Jokić his best chance at a Finals appearance yet. The additions of wings like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown should also pay dividends here. The Nuggets have long needed some extra might on the perimeter defensively, and both can provide more than what the team has worked with the last few years. I would not be surprised to see a Murray-KCP-Brown-Gordon-Jokić lineup close many fourth quarters.
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You can’t ignore the greatness of Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if Milwaukee’s offseason left me wanting more. If Khris Middleton were not injured during the playoffs, the Bucks likely would have made a second straight finals. It’s not that simple, of course. Brook Lopez will be 35 next April, how much does he have left in the tank? Is there enough depth in the frontcourt if he takes a step back? The same can be asked about Wesley Matthews—turning 36 in October—and the backcourt. Meanwhile, the big offseason addition was Joe Ingles, a soon-to-be 35-year-old coming off a torn ACL. Milwaukee has a deeply enviable core with Giannis, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Yet I’m not fully confident in the surrounding pieces. One more wing would go a long way. Giannis is just too good to put them any lower.
It’s really simple with the Celtics: The best team in the East added two very good quality role players (Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari) without giving up anyone significant from their playoff rotation. Brogdon, should he stay healthy, can be a steadying force offensively and plug right into Boston’s defensive scheme. Gallo gives the Celts even more frontcourt versatility and his shooting will force tough decisions for opposing defenses. Also Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III and Grant Williams could all probably still improve a bit? This is the scariest team in the East by far.
I can’t have the defending champs lower than second, even if the losses of Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. will be felt. Both were important contributors during the most recent title run. While Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green are nice pickups, they don’t do the same things as the players who left. The front office is taking a bet on Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman to all take big steps forward. That could happen, and it would make the Dubs even more dangerous than last season. Clay Thompson should also look a little bit more like peak Clay after actually getting back on the court this year.
On paper—with a heavy emphasis on on paper—this team is sick. The Clips appear to have the best mix of shooting and defense in the league, two things that tend to be pretty important come playoff time. They also have incredible depth and a hilarious amount of lineup flexibility. They can play a more traditional look with Ivica Zubac at center. Or they can go small and get really funky. Ty Lue has a plethora of options to put around Kawhi Leonard and Paul Georgewith John Wall, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr., Norman Powell, Terance Mann and Robert Covington literally all bringing something to the table. Sorting out minutes could create some headaches, but it’s ultimately a good problem to have. Whatever is thrown the Clippers’ way, Lue should have an answer for. Ultimately, though, it will come down to Kawhi and PG both being ready to go during the postseason. If they’re good to go, LA could be a cut above everyone else.
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