Back in July, when the dust of the Kawhi Leonard money moves in Los Angeles and the star swap in Houston cleared, we ranked seven NBA championship contenders. There have been no additional major moves, but we’ve seen about a month of action from the teams we deemed contenders this summer and those who originally fell short. And some things have changed.
What changed? Stephen Curry broke his hand, for one. I was firmly in the camp that believed Curry and the Warriors would have a great season. They are not. Honestly, Golden State looked awful before Curry got hurt. Now it’s a nightmare. The Warriors have the worst record in the NBA and instead of being in the league’s top pier they are firmly among the nine teams starting an early NBA Draft watch.
Also, a few of the teams listed as honorable mentions back in July have been surprisingly good. We’ll get into those three teams and the six surviving contenders in this updated ranking of the NBA’s championship contenders.
There’s just one honorable mention this time that I thought long and hard about including, but couldn’t in the end (primarily because odd-numbered lists are much more appealing than even-numbered lists, this is how the sausage is made folks): the Miami Heat. I want to see one more month of this before I buy in that they can beat the other East heavyweights in a seven-game series.
Pascal Siakam has exceeded all of the highest expectations, OG Anunoby is fully back, and the Raptors have hardly missed a step after losing Kawhi in the offseason. Toronto is currently No. 7 in offense thanks to Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet, and No. 5 in defense thanks to Siakam, Marc Gasol, Lowry, and Anunoby. What a nice core! It would be absolutely crushing for the Bucks to lose to this version of the Raptors in the playoffs. But it’s totally not off the table, is it?
Boston has been the biggest surprise contender (if you, like me, exclude Miami). Gordon Hayward was playing incredible basketball before he broke his hand — he should be back soon enough to regain the good vibes and push the Celtics to their highest level. And though the magical Nets trade package has been fully realized, Boston still does have a Grizzlies draft pick to play with on the trade market should a center come available. (Imagine if they’d just kept Aron Baynes!, which seems like it would have been possible had Boston known the Hornets wanted Terry Rozier enough to do a Kemba Walker sign-and-trade.)
Why is Boston here if Miami isn’t? The Heat are relying quite a bit on two rookies (Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro) and one third-year player (Bam Adebayo). Boston is young, but Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have carried a team deep into the playoffs before. Add in Kemba, Hayward, and Marcus Smart, and that’s a good mix of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance.
7. Utah Jazz
Utah has the No. 1 defense in the NBA, which is hardly a surprise. It’d be a surprise if they weren’t in the top three in defense. What’s surprising is the offense is No. 23 in the league. That’s not sustainable. And frankly, looking at their roster, it’s not sustainable. It will get better. Mike Conley had a shockingly tough start, Donovan Mitchell has had some really rough shooting nights that have led to losses (Mitchell is having a good season overall, though), and the supporting cast isn’t really coming through. One note of concern: Joe Ingles has been quite bad on offense. He’s 32 years old. It’s worth monitoring.
But elite defense gets you a long way, even in the West, and the Jazz still have that.
I am generally a Nuggets skeptic based solely on belief in Jamal Murray’s ultimate upside. But Denver has been pretty great, and it’s worth acknowledging that if things break the right way, they could find themselves in a conference finals series, and anything can happen from there these days. In a reversal from previous years, Denver’s offense is average right now while its defense is pretty good (No. 7). The offense will perk up once players start hitting shots on normal levels. If the defense holds, this is a strong out in the playoffs for any of the better teams.
The Sixers have had a super weird start to the season, including Joel Embiid’s two-game suspension for tussling with Karl-Anthony Towns. Philly should have an elite defense; the defense is ranked No. 10. With Embiid and Tobias Harris, the Sixers should have a good offense; the offense instead has been average.
Things should sort themselves out, and facing Embiid and Ben Simmons in a playoff series seems perilous for the other East contenders. The Raptors are the only other team with the size at center to stand a chance on Embiid at this point, and they don’t have Kawhi to bail them out on offense this time around. That’s why I’m keeping Philly so high.
James Harden is better than ever. Russell Westbrook has fit in remarkably well. Harden’s Rockets cause enormous problems for some of the other West contenders — we already saw Houston beat up the Clippers (albeit without Paul George and with a less-than-100-percent Kawhi). Mike D’Antoni is not coaching like a lame duck. This team could absolutely win the championship if they can conjure up a little more defensive resistance on the perimeter and one of the four LA superstars trips up.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Folks, we sure are talking a lot about Malcolm Brogdon given how good the Bucks look. No. 4 offense and No. 8 defense, and Giannis Antetokounmpo looks better. Better! That guy is still improving his game! The Bucks should be considered the overwhelming favorite in the East until something bad happens to them, the Celtics trade for a starting center, Chris Boucher gets fully unleashed in Toronto, or things click in Philadelphia. I just hope the Bucks end up more like the 2015-18 Cavaliers and less like the 2007-11 Magic.
The Lakers are better than expected, and have been the best team in the NBA through the first month. The defense has been a revelation — Frank Vogel can coach, folks — and LA is getting the best versions of its role players (not including Kyle Kuzma, who started the season hurt and is shaking off the rust still). Anthony Davis has played at an MVP caliber. LeBron James has played at an MVP caliber. Shooting remains a concern, and Davis has had some shoulder issues. But this team is fantastic, and we know how good LeBron and Davis have been in the playoffs in the past. A potential Lakers vs. Clippers series is not an easy pick.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are just 10-5 and fourth in the West despite a huge favorable home-road split so far. But it’s scary that they’ve been this good with Kawhi and Paul George playing a total of 27 minutes together, all in a single game. Everything we thought about the Clippers is true: they have really strong depth on both sides of the ball beyond Kawhi and PG, and they are well-coached. This is just about a perfect championship contender. Kawhi’s health is the red flag: he started to look a step slow before he sat out a few games with soreness. The Raptors managed his rest more aggressively than the Clippers appear to be doing. That’s worth watching.
Otherwise, nothing has dispelled the notion of the Clippers as the title favorite with the exception of the Lakers’ phenomenal start.