The front-runner to win the NBA championship usually isn’t a point of much debate this late in the season. The NBA has always been a top-heavy league throughout its history: there is usually a clear-cut best team, and that team usually wins the title.
That is not the case this year, and it might not be the case anytime soon as the NBA has taken steps to achieve the parity seen in the NFL and MLB. While it felt like most of the league was playing for second place during the heyday of Tim Duncan’s Spurs, LeBron James’ Heat, or the Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Warriors, this year any competitive team can reasonably talk itself into being a real contender.
After a hyper-active trade deadline reset rosters across the league, we thought it would be a good time to take stock in the championship picture. Let’s rank the 2023 championship chances of every team in the NBA.
The NBA teams tanking for Victor Wembanyama
30. Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets are in the odd position of having a franchise player (LaMelo Ball) and basically nothing else. Ball was an NBA All-Star in his second season at 20 years old and has plenty of low-hanging fruit in his skill set to get even better, but he desperately needs some help. There just isn’t much upside on this roster after him.
29. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs have a few solid young veterans (Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell) and added three first round picks to the roster through the 2022 NBA Draft. What they really need is a franchise superstar to help slot the rest of their pieces into proper roles. Can the organization that once landed David Robinson and Tim Duncan through the lottery really hit it big again for Wembanyama? Their odds will be as good as any team’s, if nothing else.
28. Houston Rockets: The Rockets’ young rebuild already has some promising pieces, but they are so, so far way from being able to win consistently. Jalen Green is an incredible scorer with his ability to attack the rim and bomb threes with volume. Alperen Sengun is a tremendously creative offensive center who has real offensive upside despite his athletic limitations. We love the non-stop motor of Tari Eason at the four, and Jabari Smith Jr. will be useful if he remembers how to shoot again. This team really needs a veteran point guard to set the table. For now, the rebuild doesn’t appear to be transitioning to its next phase any time soon.
27. Detroit Pistons: How much juice the Pistons’ rebuild really has ultimately depends on how high Cade Cunningham’s ceiling goes. If the former No. 1 overall pick can be the All-NBA talent we envisioned when he entered the draft, Detroit’s future should look pretty damn good. The concerns about his athleticism and shooting are real, though, and his season-ending injury only complicates that evaluation. Detroit added two other serious talents through the 2022 draft: guard Jaden Ivey has tons of upside but needs serious refinement, and we love rookie center Jalen Duren as a finisher on offense and rim protector on defense. The Pistons need wings and need shooting ... but they really need Cunningham to be the superstar everyone thought he’d be.
26. Utah Jazz: The Jazz were widely expected to be among the worst teams in the league after trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert over the offseason, but new head coach Will Hardy found magic at the start of the season with a mismatched group of journeymen and role players. The Jazz were hanging in the play-in mix up until the trade deadline when they finally committed to their long-term direction by selling off so many of their key pieces. The Jazz are now trying to get in position for Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson, and they’re already flushed with so many future draft picks from other teams. There are already some real building blocks for this team: Lauri Markkanen blossomed into the league’s most improved player and a first-time All-Star this year, rookie center Walker Kessler has been opening eyes with his rim protection, and there are still some good veterans left over. This rebuild is just beginning.
25. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were quietly one of the big surprises of the season before Tyrese Haliburton’s injury. Haliburton looks like a franchise player at point guard who has made serious strides as a scorer while leading the league in assists. The Pacers nailed their first round pick this year by selecting Bennedict Mathurin, who’s combination of slashing and shooting has made him the league’s second best rookie. Indiana hit big on their second round pick, too, in point guard Andrew Nembhard, who will be a rock solid rotation piece moving forward. Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, and T.J. McConnell are good vets who can keep this team competitive in the present and future. If Indiana hits it big in the lottery again, the future of this core will suddenly look extremely enticing.
24. Orlando Magic: It took a decade after the Dwight Howard trade, but the Magic finally have a bright future. They made the correct decision at No. 1 overall in the last draft by taking Paolo Banchero (there should never have been any doubt). Franz Wagner is also a stud, and should be one of the NBA’s better second-options long-term. Orlando has been playing above .500 ball since getting a real point guard in the lineup with the return of Markelle Fultz, and everyone will be on this team making a jump into the playoffs next season. Still, the Magic need more shooting and probably an extra facilitator, but the foundation is in place and it’s good enough for Magic fans to dream big.
Not tanking, just not any good
23. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls have had something of a nightmare season with so many close losses in crunch-time and the sad reality that Lonzo Ball isn’t coming back from injury any time soon. DeMar DeRozan remains a savant scorer from mid-range, and Zach LaVine looks back to being the best version of himself after a slow start following offseason knee surgery. The Bulls can beat anyone and lose to anyone as they’ve proven all season, but there just isn’t much upside on this roster. Chicago badly needed to do something — whether it was buying or selling — at the trade deadline, but chose to do nothing. Does top executive Arturas Karnisovas have any plan for how to rescue his failed on-the-fly rebuild? It doesn’t look like it. Chicago desperately needs Patrick Williams to pop in Year 4, and should try to see what they have in rookie first round pick Dalen Terry, who hasn’t played at all. If the Bulls don’t completely blow it up this offseason, they certainly need a reset to get more future assets and different pieces that might work better together.
22. Washington Wizards: It feels like the Wizards compound their own mistakes year-after-year with no real path forward. Bradley Beal should have been traded for a haul of draft picks years ago; instead he’s the only star in the NBA with a no-trade clause. Picking up Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma in trades were nice moves, but there isn’t enough supporting talent around them to maximize their talents. Johnny Davis is struggling in the G League as the No. 10 overall pick, and needs to pick it up soon to avoid being the next in a long line of Washington draft busts. The Wizards have some good players and a little bit more depth than you might think, but the ceiling on this group just isn’t high enough to justify keeping it together long-term.
21. Portland Trail Blazers: Loading up on wings over the offseason was supposed to fix the Blazers’ defense. It hasn’t happened: Portland has a top-five offense and a bottom-five defense for what feels like the 10th year in a row, which once again equates to an average team that constantly feels like it’s treading water. Damian Lillard has been perhaps the league’s most electric scorer over the last two months, but he still doesn’t have enough help. The backcourt pairing with Anfernee Simons is still too undersized, and it feels like the defense needs a real rim protector in place of Jusuf Nurkic. Hey, at least the rookie Sharpe is super cool.
20. Toronto Raptors: Toronto’s dedication to building a team exclusively out of 6’9 forwards has given them an enticing roster on paper that doesn’t actually work on the court. There’s just not enough shot creation or outside shooting here, at least not when Fred VanVleet is shooting the ball as poorly as he has been this season. The defense should be the bread-and-butter of this team, but it somehow ranks outside the top-half of the league despite being No. 1 in steals. The rest of the NBA was waiting for a Raptors firesale, but instead they added a piece by trading a future first rounder for center Jakob Poeltl. A few more roster tweaks and improved depth could possibly get this team back into the East contention mix soon. It’s just not happening this year.
In the middle for different reasons
19. Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder were supposed to be in the Wembanyama derby this season, but instead have a legit chance to make the play-in tournament. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has gone from star to superstar this season, establishing himself as one of the best young players in the league. Josh Giddey is making a leap in his second season, too, and rookie Jalen Williams is also asserting himself as a core piece. Just wait until Chet Holmgren debuts next season. The Thunder are fun already, and they’re going to be very good very soon.
18. Brooklyn Nets: The Nets could talk themselves into a small chance at winning the championship this year with Kevin Durant playing at an MVP level and Kyrie Irving still capable of moments of brilliance. Irving decided to blow that up by demanding a trade a week before the deadline after failing to reach a contract extension. Fast forward a week later and Irving was in Dallas, Durant was in Phoenix, and suddenly the Nets were flushed with future draft assets. Brooklyn now has no chance to win it all, but this should still be a playoff team with some intriguing pieces on the roster. There are so many talented 3-and-D wings here, led by new arrivals Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith. Young center Nic Claxton has had a breakout year and should be Brooklyn’s long-term answer in the middle. The big question here will be shot creation, but Spencer Dinwiddie can fill that role admirably for the rest of the year. The Nets did well in their returns for Durant and Irving, but their dreams of winning a title are deferred to another year.
17. Atlanta Hawks: Trading three first round picks for Dejounte Murray was supposed to be the move that put Atlanta over the top, but instead this team remains average, just like last year. Murray has been pretty awesome all year, but it hasn’t mattered because Trae Young lost his three-point shooting touch (32.6 percent), the rest of the team is allergic to even taking threes (Atlanta ranks No. 29 in three-point rate), and the defense still isn’t good enough. Picking up Saddiq Bey at the trade deadline was a good move for a team that needed wing depth and shooting, but the work can’t stop there. It’s still possible to salvage this iteration of the team, but it’s going to be hard without owning their own draft picks. The climb up the East will have to start with Young. This franchise will only go as far as he takes them.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves’ decision to trade five first round picks (counting rookie Walker Kessler) for Rudy Gobert looked like one of the biggest overpays in league history from the moment it went down. It doesn’t look much better halfway through its first season, but at least Minnesota is playing better ball lately. Anthony Edwards is emerging into a stud primary option and looks like he could be an All-NBA guy in the near future. Gobert has helped keep the defense on the fringes of the top-10. The pairing between Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns — when the latter is healthy — still doesn’t feel optimized, but for the moment Minnesota can talk itself into incremental progress and see where this roster goes from here.
Dreaming of a playoff run
15. New York Knicks: The Knicks were one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments a year ago, but have got back to respectably thanks to a smart offseason and some internal improvement. Signing Jalen Brunson away from the Mavericks was a brilliant move. Julius Randle is proving he wasn’t just a one-year wonder back in 2020-2021, and earned All-Star status once again. Some of the young pieces are developing into nice players, too, led by the backcourt combination of Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes. The Knicks are still star hunting and have a surplus of future picks at their disposal if they want to make a move, but at least this is a team fans can feel good about rooting for after such a bummer season a year ago.
14. Miami Heat: The Heat came within a Jimmy Butler three-pointer of going to the NBA Finals last year, but this season has been a struggle from the jump with a very similar roster. Butler has been in-and-out of the lineup with injuries, and the offense has been terrible without him, currently ranking No. 27 in the league. The lone bright spot for Miami all season has been the play of Bam Adebayo, who is having the best season of his career offensively while still being one of the league’s top defenders. Just when it seemed like this Heat season was destined to be mid, Miami has began to turn it on in 2023 as their players have started to get healthy. We know Butler is a monster in the playoffs, and we know Erik Spoelstra is still perhaps the game’s best head coach. It hasn’t been pretty for the Heat this year, but things are trending in the right direction at the moment. This franchise has earned the benefit of the doubt.
13. New Orleans Pelicans: The Pelicans were atop the Western Conference midway through Dec. and seemed to have a real shot at an NBA Finals run. Then Zion Williamson went down with a hamstring injury that is going to linger well beyond the All-Star break, and now the team is just trying to stay afloat in the play-in race. Williamson’s injury eliminates any margin for error for this team, but if he can get back to 100 percent before the playoffs, the Pelicans have the pieces to put up a fight against anyone they face in the postseason. Williamson is an incredible scorer at the rim, and he has some very good shot creators around him in Brandon Ingram, C.J. McCollum, and Jonas Valančiūnas. The Pelicans have some intriguing shooters and defenders around their stars, but it’s fair to wonder if they can protect the rim well enough or get up threes with enough volume to win three playoff series and reach the Finals. The Pelicans’ future is bright, but this may not be their year just yet.
12. Sacramento Kings: The Kings have the longest playoff drought out of the four major professional sports — they haven’t made the postseason since 2006! — but this year they are finally having the season Sacramento fans have been dreaming about for so long. Their bold decision to trade Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis has paid off in the near-term: Sabonis has played arguably the best ball of his career, and has paired brilliantly with speedy lead guard De’Aaron Fox in the two-man game. The Kings wisely surrounded Sabonis and Fox with knockdown shooters on the perimeter, and it’s helped them build the second most efficient offense in the NBA entering the week. Sacramento can score with anyone, but their defense doesn’t have enough rim protection or a stud wing stopper that teams typically need in the playoffs. This has been an amazing year for the Kings, but it’s hard to believe they can make a run in the West with such a shaky defense. Sacramento will simply try to out-score everyone, which will be fun to watch if nothing else.
Needing a deep playoff run
11. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks spent the first half of the season reckoning with their decision to let Jalen Brunson walk to the Knicks in free agency. They’re going to spend the rest of their season trying to make it work with his de facto replacement, Kyrie Irving, after an incredibly bold deadline deal for the enigmatic superstar guard. Pairing Irving with MVP candidate Luka Doncic gives the Mavs a chance at another deep playoff run after making the conference finals last season, but it won’t be easy to pull off with such a short runway. Doncic and Irving is now the best pair of shot creators in the league, and Irving’s spot-up shooting should be a perfect fit when Luka is cooking with the ball in his hands. The questions come on the defensive end: the Mavs lost their best wing stopper Dorian Finney-Smith in the Irving trade, and still lack a strong defensive force on the interior. Doncic and Irving feels like something of a boom-or-bust pairing: it’s going to be spectacular when it’s working, but everything with Kyrie tends to be harder than it should be. The real X-factor for the Mavs now might be young wing Josh Green, who is just starting to scratch the surface of his talent in his third year. The Mavs have talent, but it’s also a combustible mix.
10. Los Angeles Lakers: As I write this blurb, the Lakers currently sit with the seventh-worst record in the NBA and are a couple spots outside of the play-in tournament. LA has been a bad team for most of the season, but a trade deadline haul that completely revamped the rotation around LeBron James and Anthony Davis gives this team a chance to go on a real run. If James and Davis can get healthy, stay healthy, and play at their best level, the new reinforcements should be a wonderful fit around the two superstars. D’Angelo Russell adds a dash of playmaking and spot-up shooting, Jarred Vanderbilt adds defense and rebounding, Malik Beasley will be a volume gunner off the bench, and Mo Bamba and Rui Hachimura should fit in nicely, too. LeBron might have wanted a third star like Kyrie Irving, but improving the depth to such a significant degree might help even more. The Lakers’ biggest problem right now is they’re running out of time: they need to play at a high level for the rest of the season, and that means James and Davis have to stop missing games. There is no margin for error the rest of the season for this group. But if the Lakers can get into the postseason, no one will want to see them in a seven-game series.
9. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors always knew it was going to be difficult to reach the NBA mountaintop again after a dazzling run to their fourth championship last season. While Golden State’s core remained in place, they did lose plenty of quality role players who made a big contribution in helping the team win four playoff series. One of those players, Gary Payton II, is now back in the Bay after the Warriors finally decided to cut bait on former No. 2 overall draft pick James Wiseman. It’s a move the Warriors badly needed to fix a floundering defense ... if Payton is healthy enough to contribute. The Warriors just haven’t looked like the Warriors all year, but it would be foolish to count them out. For Golden State to go on another run, Draymond Green needs to get back to being a defensive savant, Jordan Poole needs to be more consistent as a scorer and shot creator, Andrew Wiggins needs to rediscover the level he played at during last year’s playoffs, and Stephen Curry needs to stay healthy after sustaining a second injury this season. Curry has been incredible all year when he’s on the court, but the rest of his teammates haven’t been holding up their end of the bargain. Golden State is down, but they’re certainly not out yet.
8. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have been in championship-or-bust mode since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back in 2019 free agency. Now in Year 4 of the experiment, the Clippers’ superteam era has mostly been defined by missed games from the two stars. This year has been no different even as Leonard returned from ACL surgery, and it’s created a situation where no one really knows what to make of LA’s other team. Leonard and George are crushing opponents when they’re together on the court — the two-man pairing is +10.6 points per 100 possession entering last week — but they just haven’t played enough minutes together. The Clippers’ depth, which was so touted coming into the season, has been a bit underwhelming. The point guard play hasn’t been great, either, and now Russell Westbrook has been added to the mix as a buyout candidate. Whether that will help or hurt LA is up for debate. The Clippers still have plenty of firepower around George and Leonard, but it’s on head coach Ty Lue to make sure he’s maximizing his lineups and pushing all the right buttons. This Clippers team could make a deep playoff run, it’s just hard to trust because we’ve seen so little of them at full strength.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs entered the week No. 2 in the NBA in both point differential and net rating. Those are markers of a team that has serious championship aspirations, but the public will be skeptical the Cavs can actually pull it off because the team is so new and they didn’t do anything at the trade deadline. Cleveland has two great 6-foot guards in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, and two wonderful 7-foot big men in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, but they’ve been searching for a starting-caliber wing all year without much progress. Isaac Okoro has been playing better ball as of late, and buyout pickup Danny Green could help if he’s healthy, but the Cavs mostly feel like they’re a year away. This playoff run will be essential for getting Mobley experience on a big stage, and to see how Mitchell and Garland balance the shot-creation duties. Ultimately, the Cavs need to get Mobley more involved to reach their true potential, and that falls on the star guards. Cleveland should win at least one playoff series, but it’s hard to convince yourself they can win four.
NBA Finals or bust
6. Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year. After emerging as the league’s biggest surprise with a 56-win season last year, Memphis has fully transformed from up-and-coming to contending behind the superstar shot creation of Ja Morant. While Morant’s thrilling aerial assaults on the rim get most of the attention, the Grizzlies have become a great team because of their defense. Jaren Jackson Jr. has finally reached his potential as an elite rim protector, the wings can pressure the ball in the halfcourt, and Steven Adams is a magnet for rebounds inside. The Grizzlies are not a great three-point shooting team which makes every possession more difficult, but the team plays with such an immense confidence that it feels like they can overcome anything. Memphis’ time as a championship threat begins now.
5. Phoenix Suns: We begged the Suns to put their best assets on the table for Kevin Durant when the superstar requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets over the summer. Phoenix finally pulled it off at the trade deadline, and in the process renewed their championship chances. Durant is still capable of playing like the best player in the league, and Devin Booker now might be the NBA’s best sidekick. Chris Paul suddenly has less pressure to consistently produce as a scorer, but his playmaking and spot-up shooting will continue to be essential. The real swing factor here is Deandre Ayton: the former No. 1 overall pick should flourish playing with so many skilled pick-and-roll ball handlers but has to play with more force and finish consistently at the rim. The Suns’ depth will be tested on this playoff run. KD and CP3 will need to stay healthy, which is always a big if. A trade like the one the Suns made for Durant only makes sense if it gives you a real shot at a title, and Phoenix has that. Now let’s see if they can pull it off.
4. Philadelphia 76ers: It feels like the Sixers have every ingredient for a championship team. Philly has a legit MVP candidate in Joel Embiid at the center of everything it does, it has a worthy co-star in James Harden as a shot-creating lead guard, it has players who can stretch the floor and score in a hurry, and guys who can do the dirty work. The Sixers rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. They get easy points at the foul line to keep the offense moving, and they have enough shooters to come back from a big deficit. There are plenty of reasons to trust the Sixers to make a deep playoff run, but the shared postseason struggles of Harden and head coach Doc Rivers will keep most people skeptical. Harden is one of the best players of this generation, but he has routinely come up short in the biggest games over the years. Rivers has blown so many playoff leads ever since leading the Celtics to the 2008 championship. With Harden pending as a free agent this summer, this really might be the Sixers’ only crack at winning the whole thing.
The championship favorites
3. Milwaukee Bucks: We know the Bucks can win the championship because we’ve seen them do it before. Milwaukee showed us the formula for how it can win only two seasons ago, with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing like the best player in the world, Khris Middleton creating in the halfcourt down the stretch, and Jrue Holiday functioning as a two-way wrecking ball always lurking to change the momentum of the game. Add in Brook Lopez’s masterful rim protection, and Milwaukee knows what works. The problem this season is it still hasn’t gotten back to the best version of itself, mostly because of Middleton’s injury issues. The Bucks will never make it look pretty, but the blueprint still has a chance to hold.
2. Denver Nuggets: It feels like league diehards have been waiting forever to see Nikola Jokic with his full supporting cast, and now it’s finally here. Jokic feels like the front-runner to win this third straight MVP this season and might have assumed the mythical title of the best player alive. The question with the Nuggets has always been how capable the rest of the roster is around him, and this year’s group is good enough to dream of winning it all. Jamal Murray is back from his ACL surgery and is back to being the dynamic pull-up shot-maker he looked like in the bubble. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the best shooters alive, and it’s impossible to contest his shot at 6’10. Aaron Gordon is simply too good to be this team’s secret weapon anymore, acting as an athletic play-finisher on offense and go-to stopper on the defensive end. The depth is better after adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown in sharp offseason moves, but it’s going to be a question in the biggest games. Jokic feels ready for his big moment, and he finally has enough around him to get him there.
1. Boston Celtics: The Celtics have been playing like the best team in basketball for more than a year now, with last season’s stunning turnaround at the halfway point giving way to an NBA Finals appearance and a group with the best net-rating and point-differential at the All-Star break this year. Boston feels like the most complete team in the NBA this season, and not just because they are the only team top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Jayson Tatum has turned himself into an MVP candidate, Jaylen Brown is one of the best No. 2 options in the game, and there’s so much size, shooting, and ball handling around them. The Celtics are not unbeatable, but they usually don’t beat themselves. It’s a team that knows exactly what it wants to do, and one that has never questioned if everyone is buying into their roles. The league might be wide open right now, but the Celtics are the team to beat.