Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2022
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ERIC KILBY / CC-BY-SA 2.0 

Xiao lists teams as contenders or pretenders for the upcoming NBA season. 

The National Basketball Association (NBA) season will start soon with 30 teams vying for the championship. However, each year there are only a few real contenders. The rest are a mix of teams stuck in basketball purgatory, tanking for a top draft pick and young rebuilding squads. Here is my evaluation of all title contenders, dark horses and pretenders.

Legitimate title contenders: Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers

The Warriors are the reigning NBA champions. The core of the team remains strong. The electric duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are still deadly from range, Draymond Green is still a defensive anchor and Andre Iguodala is tagging along for one last dance. However, the most intriguing part of the team is their young promising players — Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman have each shown flashes of potential. If this trio continues to develop, the star power of the Warriors will almost be unmatched. The Warriors should be seen as favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

The Boston Celtics lost in a crushing game six defeat last year at TD Garden. They added Malcolm Brogdon in the offseason to alleviate some playmaking and scoring concerns off the bench. If Robert Williams “Time Lord” comes back healthy then this team has the best depth in the league. But what concerns me is the coaching situation. This season will be Joe Mazzulla’s first stint as a head coach. Will he be able to manage the egos that Brad Stevens could not? If the Celtics add Frank Vogel or another experienced coach to the bench, it would be a nice bonus. While I am optimistic in Mazzulla’s abilities, I am still nervous about another rookie head coach. Despite this, I believe the Celtics is the favorite to win the East. 

On paper, the Milwaukee Bucks with a healthy Khris Middleton is the best team on paper in the East. However, I am concerned that Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Middleton are all in their 30s. Will Giannis Antetokounmpo be able to carry the load if his co-stars do not age gracefully? Probably. Antetokounmpo is still the beast of the East, and while I think the Celtics has a slight edge over the Bucks, I would not be surprised to see Antetokounmpo in the finals again.

The only concern I have about the Clippers is health-related. On paper, and I reiterate on paper, this team is the best in the league. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and more — the team is legitimately stacked. In my opinion, if Leonard stays healthy, this team will win the championship. 

Dark horses: Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans

The Rudy Gobert blockbuster trade surprised everyone. Minnesota gave up four picks and a pick swap to acquire the big man from the Utah Jazz. I liked this move, and I still like this move. Small market teams need to go big; they cannot rely on free agency. Gobert provides a defensive presence alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and a roll man for D’Angelo Russell. Minnesota will be a team no one wants to see in the playoffs. 

The New Orleans core of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson will terrorize defenses. Guard CJ McCollum will probably average 18 to 20 points. Jonas Valančiūnas will continue to be a dominant offensive force at the five. If Williamson stays healthy, this team might make a deep playoff push. 

Pretenders: Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers

Perhaps naming Miami Heat a pretender is too harsh. I will never disrespect Miami’s front office; they are capable of finding and developing gems every year. Erik Spoelstra is a top-five coach in the league, and Jimmy Butler has a winning gene in him that I wish Jayson Tatum had. However, Kyle Lowry looked cooked in the series against Boston. Maybe he re-emerges as a top point guard, but he looks to be on the wrong side of 36. I could be wrong however, and I will not be surprised if Miami clinches the number one seed again.

Kyrie Irving stomped on Lucky the Leprechaun, and Brooklyn was never the same again. Irving and Kevin Durant have been non-stop drama since the offseason began. I doubt this team will be cohesive enough to do anything in the regular season or in the playoffs. 

Chris Paul looked old against the Dallas Mavericks. Choking another 2–0 series lead is just incredible. Deandre Ayton and Head Coach Monty Williams have not spoken since their meltdown against Dallas. This team is doomed for another second-round exit. 

I want James Harden to be healthy. The version of Harden we saw last year in Philadelphia is not the one we knew in Houston. That version of Harden was the greatest offensive machine since Michael Jordan. This version of Harden looks old and slow. If his hamstring injury is fully healed then this Philadelphia team will be dangerous. I just have very little faith that Harden can recapture his Houston form. 

Ja Morant is an exciting player, but I do not think he has enough surrounding star power to compete with the Warriors or the Clippers. Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. are great pieces, but I think Memphis needs one more star player to be considered a true title contender. 

Can Anthony Davis stay healthy? Can Russell Westbrook thrive in a limited usage role? The answer to both is no. LeBron James will have to somehow carry this roster to the playoffs at age 37. I honestly feel bad for him. It is unacceptable that he might legitimately have to drop 50 points every night for this team to sniff the playoffs. Unless the Lakers’ front office makes a massive trade, this squad is going nowhere. 

The darkest of dark horses: Sacramento Kings

Just hear me out. The Kings have a dynamic duo of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Kevin Huerter, Richaun Holmes and Harrison Barnes are nice supporting pieces. I think Davion Mitchell can develop into a top attack defender. 

Keegan Murray is my pick to win Rookie of the Year, who has the skills to make 17-20 points per game and make an immediate impact. This is the year Sacramento finally breaks its playoff drought. Maybe they make a surprise run to the finals, who knows? 

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