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【nohu architecture】NBA contender tiers: The teams that can win the 2023 title
发布日期:2023-09-23 10:20:52

Thenohu architecture NBA All-Star break is in the rearview mirror, and the second half is set to begin -- although calling it a half is a misnomer. Teams have fewer than 25 games left to play in their 82-game schedules, so the race for the championship is officially on.

In most years, coming out of the All-Star break, a handful of teams have separated themselves from the pack to look like serious title contenders, but this season's race is unusually wide open, and if we've learned anything from last season -- when the Phoenix Suns ran away from the pack in the regular season only to flame out in the second round of the playoffs -- being atop the standings in February guarantees nothing.

【nohu architecture】NBA contender tiers: The teams that can win the 2023 title

So while the Boston Celtics enter the stretch run with the league's best record (a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks), there are at least 10 teams that can harbor some level of championship aspirations, with a handful of teams looming on the fringes of the race.

【nohu architecture】NBA contender tiers: The teams that can win the 2023 title

With that in mind, let's break down the NBA's contenders into tiers and take a look at what makes each team a title threat.

【nohu architecture】NBA contender tiers: The teams that can win the 2023 title

Note: Teams are listed within each tier by order of current regular-season record.

The top shelf

Boston Celtics

Last NBA title: 2008
Last Finals appearance: 2022

According to all the key indicators, the Celtics have been the NBA's best regular-season team for the past year. This season, they lead the league in net rating because they pair the league's third-most efficient offense with its fourth-most efficient defense.

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The team has continued to thrive under first-year coach Joe Mazzulla, but one thing to watch in this season's playoffs will be the club's increased reliance on 3-point shooting and the performance variance that habit invites. Last season, Boston ranked eighth in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, but under Mazzulla, the Celtics have surged to first in that category. It is fair to say this team lives and dies by the 3. When Boston has made 40% or more of its 3s this season, the Celtics are 23-0, but when the C's have shot 34% or worse, they're just 9-12.

Boston's trip to the Finals last season was no fluke, but it was also aided by an untimely injury to Milwaukee's Khris Middleton, who missed the entirety of their epic second-round series. This season's path to the Finals could include consecutive series against Cleveland and Milwaukee. Those two rank first and second in defensive rating, respectively, and also rank in the top 10 in fewest 3-pointers allowed.

Milwaukee Bucks

Last NBA title: 2021
Last Finals appearance: 2021

Speaking of Milwaukee, the Bucks enter the second half of the season as the hottest team in the NBA. They have won 12 straight and have yet to lose in 2023 when Middleton, who is still battling right knee soreness, has been able to play. The Bucks' title defense last season was derailed by Middleton's injury, but this recent hot stretch is a compelling reminder that Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. might be the best team in the league when whole.

Still, despite the recent win streak, the Bucks have a net rating this season of plus-3.2, closer to that of the New York Knicks (plus-2.3) than to that of the league-leading Celtics (plus-6.2).

Denver Nuggets

Last NBA title: Never
Last Finals appearance: Never


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Nikola Jokic & Co. are running away with the Western Conference, having opened up a five-game lead on the second-place Memphis Grizzlies. Still, the Nuggets don't get the respect given to a typical 1-seed out West because of how they've fared over the past three postseasons. Nuggets supporters can point to 2020, 2021 and 2022, when Denver was eliminated by the eventual Western Conference champs (two of which went on to win the title), but the Nuggets went a combined 2-12 in those series.

Maybe this season will be different. The Nuggets have never had problems scoring, and there are encouraging signs their defense is coming around. Over their past 15 games, Denver ranks ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. That is the key marker to watch -- in each of the past three postseasons, Denver has ranked 12th or lower in that category among the league's 16 playoff squads.

Note: The Nuggets reached the ABA Finals in 1976.

Phoenix Suns

Last NBA title: Never
Last Finals appearance: 2021

Kevin Durant's arrival in Phoenix has changed everything. Just a few weeks ago, the fifth-place Suns were struggling through an up-and-down campaign. After shocking the world at the trade deadline, Phoenix now finds itself as the betting favorite to come out of the West.

Although Durant has yet to make his Suns debut, it is safe to say his arrival should improve the league's 18th-ranked offense. At 34, Durant remains one of the best scorers in the world, and when he has been healthy this season, he has been particularly great in the midrange.

Kirk Goldsberry

Devin Booker, who is averaging 26.6 points per game this season, is about to become the Suns' second option, which is scary considering how good Phoenix has looked with him running things. Overall, the Suns have scored just 113.5 points per 100 possessions, but that number has ballooned to 120.0 with Booker on the floor.

Still, it won't be easy. Even if the Suns get healthy fast, they have only 22 games to coalesce into playoff form before the postseason begins. The real concerns here are depth and health. The blockbuster transaction thinned out Monty Williams' rotation, and Durant, Booker and Chris Paul have each missed significant time already this season. If they stay healthy, they could win it all, but with these guys, that's a big "if."

The second tier

Philadelphia 76ers

Last NBA title: 1983
Last Finals appearance: 2001

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Since Christmas Day, the 76ers have won 19 of their 26 games, the same mark as Eastern Conference favorites Boston and Milwaukee. So why aren't they in the top tier? Like Denver, Philadelphia's postseason résumé doesn't scare anyone -- well, except 76ers fans. Philadelphia hasn't even reached the conference finals -- much less the NBA Finals -- since the Allen Iverson-led team of 2001, and the core group of Joel Embiid, James Harden and coach Doc Rivers hasn't exactly done its best work in May.

That is a factor, but there is no question Embiid is one of the most unstoppable players in the world right now, and Harden deserves credit for not only accepting a lesser role but thriving in it. Harden is one of the best shot creators in the game. He leads the association in "assist points created," and his dimes are generating a whopping 28 points per game for Philadelphia. In a normal season, this kind of play would make the 76ers more of a threat, but both Boston and Milwaukee rightfully earn more respect looking toward the postseason.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last NBA title: 2016
Last Finals appearance: 2018

The Cavaliers are ascendant. Perhaps no team in the league has a richer core of young stars than Cleveland does. They might be the favorites to win it all in 2025 or 2027, but this is 2023 and teams like Boston and Milwaukee have already proved they can win the East and win big-time games on big-time stages. Meanwhile, Cleveland hasn't reached the postseason without LeBron James since 1998 and hasn't won a series without him since 1993.

Donovan Mitchell has changed the upside for this team, and has accelerated its timeline, but there are too many unknowns to put the Cavaliers in the same category with the Celtics and Bucks, despite their lofty net rating (plus-5.8, second in the NBA).

Still, this combination of elite defense and incredible young guards is a sustainable formula for success in the postseason, and that is exactly what Cleveland is bringing to this season's playoffs. The Cavaliers won't be an easy out, and they could shock the world this season.

Memphis Grizzlies

Last NBA title: Never
Last Finals appearance: Never

On Jan. 19 the Grizzlies were cruising. They had won 11 straight games. They were 31-13. They owned the league's best defense and its sixth-ranked offense.

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That was over a month ago. Since then, Memphis has gone 5-8, and it has been without Steven Adams (knee) for the past 11 games. The Grizzlies have looked more like a lottery team than a contender. Can Adams really be this important? Yes!

Adams remains one of the league's best rebounders, and his league-leading 5.1 offensive rebounds per game was a huge reason the Grizzlies ranked second in the league in second-chance points until his injury. Since Adams has been out, Memphis has plummeted to 20th in that category. In that same time frame, the Grizzlies' offense has ranked 26th in the league.

The good news is that Adams should be back in the lineup soon -- the team said he'd miss three to five weeks back on Jan. 24. If Memphis can snap back into form when he is back in the fold, it is good enough to compete for a championship this spring.

LA Clippers

Last NBA title: Never
Last Finals appearance: Never

We are four years into the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George era, and the Clippers don't have much to show for it. Still, this season's edition of Steve Ballmer's superteam might just be the best yet, even though LA enters the second half only five games over .500. That is a deceptive marker, because in the 706 minutes Leonard and George have played together, the Clippers have a monstrous net rating of plus-11.5.

If both of them remain healthy and continue to play this well, the Clippers will be hard to beat in a seven-game series. When healthy, Leonard is good enough to lead his teams to the promised land -- he has already done it twice. However, he has had only one healthy postseason with the Clippers, in 2020, when they blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the bubble.

The deadline moves to acquire Eric Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland will give this team new vibes and more versatility for coach Tyronn Lue to experiment with in the postseason, but the buyout acquisition of Russell Westbrook will get more attention. That move could prove to be genius or disastrous for an organization desperate to win its first NBA title.

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Dallas Mavericks

Last NBA title: 2011
Last Finals appearance: 2011

Somehow, the blockbuster trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Dallas wasn't even the most impactful deadline deal in the Western Conference. Still, Irving's arrival has reframed the Mavs' outlook, despite Dallas being just two games above .500 at the break.

The combination of Irving and Luka Doncic gives this offense two of the most creative and unstoppable players in the game right now, but the real questions remain on the less glamorous end of the floor, where Dallas hasn't been good enough all season. The Mavericks' defense ranks 24th in the league. That is the worst among all the teams included here and is the biggest reason other teams have a better shot at winning it all this season.

Golden State Warriors

Last NBA title: 2022
Last Finals appearance: 2022

In a vacuum, this season's Warriors team has no business being this high; however, we are not in a vacuum, we are in pro basketball and this team's near-decade-long résumé demands respect. Not only did the Warriors win it all last season but they have come out of the Western Conference in six of the past eight seasons.

While other Western teams -- eight, in fact, based on the current standings -- have been better this season, none has the playoff experience of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. It is going to get real interesting when a team like Memphis, Sacramento or even Denver draws the defending champs in the first round. The playoffs are the Warriors' native habitat, particularly in the West, where they haven't lost a series since 2014 -- the season before Steve Kerr took over as coach.

The long shots

Sacramento Kings

Last NBA title: 1951
Last Finals appearance: 1951

Mike Brown and the first-year coaching staff have done the impossible -- they've beamed one of the least successful professional sports organizations of the 21st century into the playoff picture.

Sacramento's 16-season playoff drought is on the verge of ending thanks to an offensive awakening led by De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. The Kings have the NBA's second-rated offense, which is impressive, but their status as the 3-seed in the West is tenuous. They currently sit atop a 10-team logjam toiling for seeding, and they have the league's third-most difficult remaining schedule, according to ESPN Analytics calculations. No matter how you look at it, this season in Sacramento has been a wild success, but the Kings are long shots come playoff time.

Miami Heat

Last NBA title: 2013
Last Finals appearance: 2020

The East has a clear set of four contenders: Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland. But if there is one team that could throw a monkey wrench into the whole Eastern Conference playoffs, it is Miami. The Heat always seem to be dangerous loomers, and with Erik Spoelstra and Jimmy Butler leading the way, you can never count this team out. Just ask the Celtics, who entered the Eastern finals as big favorites last season, only to barely escape on a final miss by Butler in a back-and-forth seven-game series.

Could Miami do it again? All the regular-season indicators suggest it is unlikely -- the Heat have a negative net rating through 59 games -- but the legacies of Spoelstra and Butler will not be based on nerdy regular-season metrics. This team is at its best in the spring.

The longest shot

Los Angeles Lakers

Last NBA title: 2020
Last Finals appearance: 2020

If it takes a little faith to name Miami a contender, it takes even more to assign that label to this 13th-placed Lakers team. Still, the Lakers have LeBron James, who has made it to the Finals nine times in the past 13 seasons. For that reason -- plus the revamp they underwent at the trade deadline -- they get a blurb here.

The moves the Lakers made at the trade deadline to add D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to the rotation should result in better play, but their dreadful start -- as mentioned, they're in 13th place, two games out of even making the play-in round -- has left them in a desperate spot. At All-Star Weekend in Utah, James called the remaining schedule the most important 23 regular-season games of his career. There is no room for error or for injuries (which makes the hand injury that kept James out of the second half of the All-Star Game concerning). The hole is deep, but if there is one player who could defy the math and make a run for the ages, it is the same player who led the 3-1 comeback in the Finals against a 73-win juggernaut seven years ago.


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