Though it seems many years off and like an impossibility at this particular point in time, there will in fact be a day when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers don’t play each other in the NBA Finals. As they say, Father Time is undefeated. As others say, shit can change in a hurry in the NBA. Both are bound to happen, but the question is, how quickly will they happen. How long will it take for Father Time to catch up to LeBron James, and whenever it does, will he have enough help around him to get back to the NBA Finals? How many years until this Warriors core breaks up? How long will it be until another Super Team emerges, either organically or by design through Free Agency?
I don’t have definitive answers to any of those questions, but what I can do just as well as anyone else is speculate on what changes might be coming in the following years that could lead to a match-up in the NBA Finals other than Warriors/Cavs. Below I have a list of twelve NBA teams (I know, this must seem like a lot of teams, just hold your horses). These ten teams are the only teams I see as varying degrees of likely candidates to dethrone either the Cavaliers or Warriors, and they will be presented to you in reverse order of how soon they could possibly prevent this familiar Finals match-up. So when you see that the Chicago Bulls are #10 on the list, that means the ten teams ahead of them have a better chance of making the NBA Finals before the Bulls do.
One thing to make note of before we move forward … you’ll probably notice some teams that made the postseason this year missing from the list. That simply means I don’t see a legitimate NBA Title window opening any time soon. So for example: you’re eventually going to read about the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves chances of competing for an NBA Title. Neither of those two teams made the Playoffs last year. However, I have their odds of winning an Eventual NBA Title better than those of teams like the Toronto Raptors or Memphis Grizzlies, neither of whom made the list of ten.
#10: Chicago Bulls
When does their window open: As soon as they stop paying Dwyane Wade 20-plus million dollars a year.
Why do they have a chance: If Wade doesn’t opt-in to his $23.8 million dollar deal next year the Bulls will have a max contract slot available this summer, but even if Wade realizes he can’t get that kind of money elsewhere and stays in Chicago for one more season, the Bulls are only one year away from having an abundance of cap space in the summer of 2018. Chicago is among one of the biggest markets in the league and they can pitch Free Agents on a long-term partnership with Jimmy Butler so long as Butler remains committed to the Bulls.
Butler is probably one tier below being a true franchise guy (i.e., LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, etc.). He could be the best player on a title team (at some point) but he needs way more help than past-their-primers like Wade and Rajon Rondo and a handful of mediocre role players. If the Bulls paired Butler with a great coach (which, in fairness, Fred Hoiberg might be), another star or pseudo-star (could the Bulls possibly take an extended look at Blake Griffin) and great role players, that’s a perfectly fine roster that could at least sniff Conference Championship contention.
#9: Utah Jazz
When does their window open: When they re-sign Gordon Hayward this summer.
Why do they have a chance: This is all dependent on Hayward’s status, which as I wrote about a few weeks back, is likely tied to George Hill‘s status as well. George Hill isn’t a household name, but the Jazz were decidedly better when he was on the floor last season. Utah was 33-16 when Hill played last season, a 55 win pace when you stretch that over an 82-game regular season. Whether or not 55 wins translates to title contention is up for debate … whether a fully healthy Jazz team could compete with the Warriors over a seven game series is a separate, but totally related question. In their seven meetings with the Warriors this year, the Jazz went into the game with their regular starting five only once, Game 1 of the 2nd Round, and they lost by 12 in Golden State.
The Jazz have an identity — they slow the pace, grind it out, force teams to score against a stingy half-court defense with the premiere rim protector in the NBA, and trust that their offense can score enough points to close the deal — and clearly it’s worked to the degree that they made this list. There is no doubt the Jazz need more of a scoring punch; that’s Utah’s biggest bugaboo. If they are going to make the next step, they’ll need another Gordon Hayward leap, an expansion of Rudy Gobert‘s offensive arsenal, some draft luck, or a healthy Rodney Hood/Alec Burks combo to bolster a league average offense.
#8: Portland Trail Blazers
When does their window open: If it’s going to open it will be sometime in the next two years.
Why do they have a chance: Even though the Blazers have a ton of money tied up long-term in guys with borderline undesirable contracts or guys who don’t move the needle (i.e. Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard for roughly $52 million each year until the summer of 2020), they still have two foundational pieces locked up for the same amount of time (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum), one more that they’ll likely have to shell out some cash for next summer (Jusuf Nurkic), plus three 1st Round picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.
The Blazers haven’t made a single draft pick for themselves since 2013, so they’re in desperate need of an infusion of young talent. They nailed their Lillard and McCollum picks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but struck out with their other 2012 pick (Leonard) and traded away their 2015 1st Round selection (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson). The extent to which Lillard and McCollum have excelled is found money … if they can get anything close to that sort of production from the 15th, 20th or 26th picks this year they’ll be in great shape.
Of course, the Blazers could take the advice of Lillard and McCollum and make a play for disgruntled Indiana Pacers star Paul George. George is rumored to have a desire to play for a title contender, and if Portland could secure a Lillard, McCollum, George and Nurkic top four, they would have just as good of an opportunity to challenge the Golden State Warriors as anyone else in the Western Conference. If a trade like this were to materialize it would require some sort of commitment from George that he wouldn’t leave in Free Agency the following summer.
The Pacers have been adamant that they have no intentions of trading George; this stance would have to change if George made it clear he had no intentions of re-signing with Indiana next summer. If George made a move towards forcing their hand (ideally sometime before the 2017 NBA Draft for the sake of this upcoming hypothetical trade), the Blazers could come in with an offer that looks something like this:
Paul George and Al Jefferson to Portland … Allen Crabbe, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, 15th Pick in the 2017 Draft, 26th Pick in the 2017 Draft, 2018 1st Round Pick, 2020 1st Round Pick, Right to a Pick Swap in the 2021 Draft
It would be a bold, championship-chasing move for Portland to make, and an admittance of defeat by the Pacers. Frankly, it feels like those are the directions both teams should be trying go.
#7: Washington Wizards
When does their window open: It’s as open right now as a car window is when you think you’ve rolled it all the way up but it isn’t all the way up and then it rains that night and your seat is wet the next morning and you think, “What the hell, how did my seat get so wet? The window is barely open!” but it turns out it was open enough that your seat is completely soggy now and that’s how you need to drive to work.
Why do they have a chance: The Wizards were one game away from an Eastern Conference Finals meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it’s hard to imagine that the Wiz wouldn’t have put up just as good of a fight as the Celtics did. But this is probably where they max out. It’s unlikely (not impossible, but definitely unlikely) that Washington turns into something more than a team whose description reads “Yeah, they absolutely could win the Eastern Conference if they catch a few breaks along the way.”
That’s not a terrible position to be in for the time being. It’s certainly better than the helpless reality many teams know all too well: you win somewhere between 30 and 45 games each year and know that there is limited opportunity to make any meaningful gains towards contention. John Wall and Bradley Beal are 26 and 23 years old respectively. If the Wizards shell out the cash to bring back 23-year old Otto Porter, they’ll have a respectable trio that can continue to grow and improve together over the next half of a decade. And, ya know, if they catch a few breaks along the way, the Wiz might have an honest to God shot to play in the NBA Finals.
#6: Minnesota Timberwolves
When does their window open: I expected the Wolves window to open at the beginning of the 2016-17 season so, um, I’m not totally sure.
Why do they have a chance: They have the 1st overall picks from the 2014 and 2015 NBA Drafts (Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns), plus another 2014 lottery pick (Zach LaVine), a 2016 lottery pick (Kris Dunn), and whoever they get with the #7 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to build around. That’s enough lottery talent to build around, especially when you look at the potential of Wiggins and Towns.
When dialed in, Wiggins is one of the better two way perimeter players in the league. His mid-post game is already miles ahead of most 22-year old’s, but his improvement from three-point range (30 percent in year two to 36 percent in year three) is what makes it feel like he might be on the verge of a full-fledged leap in year four. Wiggins biggest issues today are what made some analysts critical of him when he was leaving Kansas to enter the NBA. Wiggins still battles bouts of inconsistency and plays with a lack of fire too often. It’s Wiggins’ fourth season and the Wolves clock is beginning to tick. If Minnesota doesn’t maximize their collective potential because Wiggins isn’t present all of the time, that’s a real shame.
This may end up a moot point if Karl-Anthony Towns’ rapid and borderline startling ascent continues. Unless you were a League Pass subscriber last season you probably didn’t catch much of Towns and the Wolves, but let me advise you that Towns is actually better than the stats show, and his numbers are downright ridiculous. In year two Towns averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds, and finished with 54-37-83 shooting splits. Many people who are smarter than me have broke down how Towns needs to improve as a defender before the Wolves make a leap, but let’s for a second marvel that Towns is putting up never-before-seen numbers for a player who has been able to drink legally in the United States for barely 200 days now.
Towns’ defense will round into shape eventually; his rim protecting skills are passable for a second year big and the presence of Tom Thibodeau should lead to him and Wiggins playing defense more consistently and with more passion. There are other holes in the Wolves roster that they will need to address over time. They aren’t nearly good enough to contend as is, but damn it do they play hard. The Wolves have been totally unafraid and compete like hell when they play the Warriors … they even famously won an overtime thriller at Oracle Arena two years ago as Golden State was chasing the ’96 Chicago Bulls regular season wins record. That’s a great confidence boost for a young team that, by most people’s standards, underachieved last season. Let’s see if winning in Golden State is something they can do in the postseason a few years down the road.
#5: Philadelphia 76ers
When does their window open: Probably sooner than most people think … and no, I don’t have an exact answer.
Why do they have a chance: The Sixers are in the exact position that any team who willingly sucks for four consecutive seasons would possibly want to be in … they have a young roster that features a few notable blue-chippers, a boat-load of cap space, and they are coming off of a season where they absolutely overachieved, and yet they still possess a Top 3 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. I mean, if you’re a 76ers fan and you’ve remained patient over these last few years trusting that “the process” would work out, I imagine that you’re uncontrollably giddy right now.
Let’s assume that the Sixers can’t snag a semi-big name in Free Agency — and for the record, I’m in the “Kyle Lowry is going to give Philadelphia a serious look this summer” camp — but even if they can’t, there are still pieces in place that make it appear as if the Sixers could turn some heads during the 2017-18 season. As has been the case since Philadelphia drafted him, much of the 76ers success in the short-term and long-term depends on the health of Joel Embiid.
Embiid dazzled in only 31 games last season; it was a small sample size for sure, but the Sixers were actually a net positive in the limited time when Embiid was on the floor last season, an unthinkable figure for a team that won 28 games. In just 25 minutes per game, Embiid averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Those numbers, stretched on a per 36 minute basis, are favorable to those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s rookie season. Scoff at the comparison if you’d like, but the numbers don’t lie and neither does the eye-test. Embiid was doing stuff that Rookie bigs can’t usually do.
“The Process” isn’t the only bright spot in The City of Brotherly Love. Dario Saric, a draft and stash pick from 2014, should win 2017 Rookie of the Year. Ben Simmons, the #1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, will be one of the top contenders to win 2018 Rookie of the Year after sitting out all of last season. Jahlil Okafor has his warts, but I’m still convinced he could find a niche as a back-up big who gets a fair amount of touches in the post with bench heavy units. The #3 pick in the upcoming draft belongs to Philly, but the Sixers could end up packaging this pick with other pieces in a win now move.
If I were running the Sixers (and if anyone in Philadelphia is reading this, I’m very available if things with the Colangelo’s don’t work out), I’d be patient, pick the best available player at #3, make a run at Lowry during Free Agency (even if you have to pay a big price for him, you have the cap space to do so and you can groom his replacement along the way), and try to compete right away with a young, talented roster. There’s no need to sacrifice your youth just to try to win now when, in the Eastern Conference, the development of Embiid, Simmons and Saric might get you close to contention quicker than expected.
#4: Houston Rockets
When does their window open: If the Rockets are going to contend for a title, it’s gotta be right now.
Why do they have a chance: This was the most difficult team to place on the list. The Rockets won in Golden State during the regular season this year (a double-overtime instant classic) and many experts pegged Houston as the lone Western Conference team that could hang with the Dubs in a seven game series because of the unpredictably that comes with a series where teams bomb 80 threes combined per game. Then the last game and a half of the Western Conference Semi’s happened … the Rockets fell victim to a truly devastating collapse. First, a total meltdown down the stretch in Game 5, then an embarrassing no-show in Game 6 on their home floor. Just like that the Rockets were ousted, James Harden was again a punching bag for the media and fans, and the prevailing narrative from the series was all-too-familiar “D’Antoni-ball can’t win in the postseason.”
I don’t buy it. I’m not saying Mike D’Antoni is destined to win a title or will win one any time soon, I just don’t think it’s accurate to say that this is fundamentally a problem with D’Antoni. The case could be made that the pace slows in the Playoffs and offenses become easier to stop, but Game 2 of the NBA Finals was one of the fastest Finals games ever. Those days where all Playoff games slow down to a crawl are behind us.
I think that it’s probably, to some degree, a fluke that D’Antoni didn’t make an NBA Finals in Phoenix. That three-year window from ’05-’07 should have produced one NBA Finals appearance. I also think it’s probable that if the New York Knicks didn’t gut their roster to acquire Carmelo Anthony six months before they could have just signed him as a free agent, the Knicks would have had more immediate and eventual success than they did.
The Rockets will be fine next season. They don’t have a ton of cap room, but they have some movable assets if they were desperate to try to bring in another established star to play with James Harden. And if they don’t, they bring back nearly every piece of an offense that was, by the numbers, among the best in NBA history. Not a bad place to start.
#3: Milwaukee Bucks
When does their window open: Hold on, let me check my calendar … oh good, I found it! It looks like Milwaukee’s window is actually open starting right now.
Why do they have a chance: I gushed about Milwaukee’s outlook a few weeks ago, and in a conscious effort to save y’all some time since this thing is already pretty wordy, I’ll give you the option either move on to team #2 on the list or watch these Giannis Antetokounmpo highlights, which I’m sure will convince you Milwaukee’s inclusion in the top three is warranted.
#2: Boston Celtics
When does their window open: It’s cracked open right now, but the Celts could go Stone Cold Steve Austin and shatter that glass and be a real effing problem at any minute now.
Why do they have a chance: The Celtics get a narrow edge over the Bucks simply because there are so many more directions that Boston could go in. They could stand pat, use every single one of these draft picks they’ve acquired over the years and eventually find a superstar through the draft. Or, they could package those picks with a few able bodied rotation players (the type that the Celtics aren’t lacking) and land themselves a bonafide star in order to contend immediately. Both options are available, it really all depends on how open Danny Ainge interprets LeBron James’ championship window to be.
LeBron will be entering his 15th season next fall, and there isn’t any historical precedent for a superstar being this good for so long. Next year may be the year LeBron slips. Maybe he remains the best player in the game for another five years. I really have no idea what to expect. But if I were running the Celtics (and again, if anyone in Boston is reading this, I’m very available if you’re displeased with the job Danny Ainge has done), I’d be looking at the situation as if we need to keep our window open for as long as possible and maximize our opportunities to improve … in other words, I’m not trading away all of my picks and assets. I would remain patient, hope the Brooklyn Nets stink again next year, hope that Chris Paul leaves the Clippers so that 2019 pick that LA owes you materializes into something nice, and use all of those picks unless someone absolutely blows me away with an offer.
For example, let’s say a disgruntled Anthony Davis decides next summer that he absolutely doesn’t want to be a Pelican anymore. Even though he still has a few years left on his deal, he demands a trade — for the record, I’m aware this is unlikely. And let’s assume the Celtics have another top 3 pick in the NBA Draft thanks to Brooklyn. Couldn’t you try to snag The Brow with that 2018 pick, the 2019 pick that belongs to LA and two young stars in the making? Wouldn’t New Orleans at least have to think about it?
Here’s the great news if you’re a Celtics fan … even if an opportunity like this doesn’t pop up, you still have a championship window that should be open longer than any other team in the NBA.
#1: San Antonio Spurs
When does their window open: The San Antonio Spurs championship window is open for as long as Gregg Popovich is their Head Coach.
Why do they have a chance: No matter what you want to believe about how the Western Conference Finals would have played out had Kawhi Leonard stayed healthy, it’s impossible to just ignore the fact that the Spurs were running the Warriors off of their own home court in Game 1 before Kawhi Leonard twice re-aggravated his already injured ankle. For the record, I don’t think the Spurs would have won the series even if Kawhi remained reasonably healthy, but I can say with a good deal of confidence that I think the Spurs would have at least won Game 1.
Now what that means in the big picture is kind of unclear at this very moment. It may end up meaning something if the Warriors end up sweeping the Playoffs. It would mean that, by some measure, the Spurs came closer to beating Golden State than anybody else did, and that means they have some sort of psychological or literal on-court edge over the rest of the competition heading into next season … or something like that.
Even still, the Spurs, as constructed, don’t have the depth or the star power to hang with the Warriors. Kawhi Leonard is better than any Spurs fan could have ever imagine, but he alone can’t out-duel the Dubs. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are both well-beyond the primes of their careers, and the same could be said of Pau Gasol, David Lee, and even LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been an overall disappointment since the Spurs signed him two summers ago. Many people don’t realize this, but the Spurs are actually in the midst of a rebuild. Yes, that sounds crazy considering they’ve won 128 regular season games over the last two seasons.
The Spurs have re-tooled on the fly in a way that probably only they can. Kawhi has been groomed to be the heir apparent to Tim Duncan, and unknown youngsters like Jonathan Simmons, Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray are now capable rotation players. Kawhi and the Spurs unforeseen youth movement isn’t enough to get past Golden State though … and here’s where we get to the inevitable “Could Chris Paul sign with the Spurs this summer?” portion of the column.
Paul would be leaving a ton of money on the table if he left Los Angeles and signed with the Spurs, but this dude must be rolling around in cash every night based on how much air time his State Farm commercials get during the NBA Playoffs. If money isn’t an issue, Paul will sign with the Spurs (who would need to tinker with their roster to get the space necessary to sign Paul) and give himself the better chance of beating Golden State than he has if he remains a Clipper. The move would take an insane amount of pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and it could breathe some life into the otherwise lifeless LaMarcus Aldridge. As a basketball fan in the super team era, I’m openly pulling for Paul to head to San Antonio.