We are nearly halfway through the NBA season, and the year 2023 is rapidly approaching. That feels like a good time as any to rank contenders in the NBA. These are the teams who I believe can actually win a championship this year, though some need more breaks than others. In a season defined by an uneasy parity, there are arguably more contenders than ever …
See No. 10 below.
The Cavs and Pels are in the same category for me: one year away. Young teams typically need some shared playoff experience before they can win a ring. Cleveland missed the playoffs last season, while New Orleans was a first-round exit. Both have some reinforcements in the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Zion Williamson. Those guys can and have made a significant impact for these clubs so far. Still, they still need a little playoff seasoning before they can finish the job.
Phoenix lives on the razor’s edge of catastrophe and inspiring story. Devin Booker’s injury is a concern. So is depth. The team needs to make a trade. Chris Paul looks older than ever. And despite all the obstacles and not having their starting lineup for most of the season, the Suns are only three games behind first place in the West. I can’t quit this team.
I hate to put Memphis this low, and I will deservedly draw the ire of Grizzlies fans. The Grizz have been near the top of the standings all season, even though Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane have played only four games and 55 minutes together. The lack of shooting on this team is starting to worry me, though. Can we trust the likes of John Konchar, Santi Aldama and David Roddy in a playoff series, for example? Are those the guys who are even going to play? There are still some rotation gymnastics that need to be sorted out here. And Ja is obviously Ja. I just need to see some more reps from the supporting cast in big moments.
Now things are getting tricky. The Sixers have been fantastic this season, and both James Harden and Joel Embiid are thriving. They’ve been climbing the standings even without spark-plug guard Tyrese Maxey, who is set to return from injury soon. The “Harden may want to return to Houston” reports are a head-scratcher, though. Do we need to worry about his investment level? And the East is really loaded this year. Overall, I’m impressed with Philly. Putting them this low has more to do with how I feel about other teams on this list.
This may even be too low, frankly. I’m not convinced healthy Steph, Dray and Klay can be beaten in a playoff series. This team needs more vets, and I think that will happen before the start of the postseason. One or two pieces could unlock this whole thing. Then you look at the Dubs’ league-worst road record and think, the regular season has to mean something, right?
The Joker is giving us MVP-level play for the third straight season, Jamal Murray is rounding back into normal self and Aaron Gordon is a stealth All-Star. Meanwhile, offseason pickups Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have provided very solid support. This is the best team Denver has put around Nikola Jokić, and this is probably the best chance he’s had to win a title. My fear? The defense, which is seventh-worst in the league. Can they make it work around Michael Porter Jr. and Jokić in a playoff series? Denver needs significant improvement on that end of the floor to be taken more seriously. You also can’t count out an MVP.
They are starting to put things together, and Kawhi is showing flashes of being the two-way Terminator again. This is ultimately a bet on the Clips’ lineup flexibility and high-end talent. In a different season, I don’t think I could put them this high. In a year without a clear juggernaut, Los Angeles has more time to bring its veteran team along more slowly. The Clips have a proven playoff coach and a two-time Finals MVP with a high-IQ rotation. All the ingredients are here, and even if the dish is a long way from being cooked, I’m more confident in this final product than most.
On one hand, Milwaukee’s defense. On the other, its half-court offense. I’m excited to see this team integrate Joe Ingles and Khris Middleton into the rotation, and hopefully the latter especially can help when the scoring bogs down and Giannis Antetokounmpo is asked to go one-on-one. It’s very hard to separate the top three teams on this list. Since the start of the season, Milwaukee’s defense has taken a slight tumble, and the offense is in the bottom third of the league. While there are good reasons to believe both will improve, I don’t love that combination.
The Nets are the hottest team in the NBA, and Kevin Durant is playing like MVP Kevin Durant. Brooklyn is top 10 in both offense and defense, and the defense especially has made a massive improvement since the start of the season. The role players have been fantastic, and don’t look now, but Ben Simmons has been looking very comfortable in the defender/distributor role everyone has been clamoring for him to play. What really has me excited ultimately is this version of Durant has an argument for best player in the world. You don’t want to see Durant like this in a playoff series. If—a massive, giant, room-filling IF—this team can avoid distractions, it is a serious problem for the rest of the league.
A beautiful team for the modern NBA. The Celtics are the realized version of what the Clippers have been trying to be. Incredible flexibility to play big or small. Defenders at every position. Outstanding shooting. Depth. Finals experience. Boston checks every box. The Celtics are on pace to have the best offense in NBA history, and after a slow start to the season, are now seventh in defense. If there’s one team that’s separated itself from the pack, it’s Boston.