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Cheap Seats: NBA’s Next Champion?

Which team is next in line to win it all? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor discuss.

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The Miami HEAT and San Antonio Spurs have battled for the Larry O’Brien trophy in consecutive NBA Finals. Looking ahead to the 2014-15 NBA season, which team is next in line to win it all? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor discuss.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers finished last season with a 57-25 record, good for third in the Western Conference behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. The team was a legitimate contender to win the title last season, but it had to get through the tough Golden State Warriors in the first round and the Thunder in the second round, where they eventually lost in Game 6. In addition to stiff competition, the Clippers had to deal with the fallout from Donald Sterling’s racist rant that rattled the NBA.

Despite the disappointing second-round loss, there are many reasons to believe the Clippers could be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next year. First and most importantly, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both top-10 (and arguably top-five) players in the NBA. Both players are still in their athletic primes (though Paul may be on the tail end of his), and form one of the best one-two punches in the league.

Griffin in particular took a major leap forward in his development last season. Paul suffered a shoulder injury against the Dallas Mavericks on January 3, which kept him out for several weeks. In his absence, Griffin asserted himself as the alpha dog for the Clippers, combining his improved skill-set with the relentless aggression he played with in his rookie season. He improved his jump-shot, led fast breaks, became a playmaker to setup teammates for easy shots- especially DeAndre Jordan- and hit a new level altogether. The league took notice, and Griffin is now firmly engrained in the top tier of players in the league, evidenced by his third-place finish in MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

While Paul is 29, he still managed to contribute 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. Injuries have been an issue for Paul throughout his career, but based on his overall skill-set and high basketball IQ, Paul is likely to be a top-five point guard in the league for several more seasons. Griffin, at age 25, still has upside and he should be able to maximize his potential because he is a relentless worker who will spend the offseason trying to build off his impressive season.

Next, Doc Rivers is a championship coach entering just his second year with the team. Rivers, one of only four coaches in the league with a championship ring, implemented his strong-side pressure defense and motion-based offense last season, which took Clipper players the better part of a season to master. However, the long-term payout became clear as the season progressed. Jordan became a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, understanding his role within Rivers’ defensive schemes and receiving unqualified support from his coaches. The offense also improved, featuring more ball movement, backdoor screens and better spacing for Griffin and Jordan down low.

Also, the supporting cast is there. Paul, Griffin and Jordan are joined by J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley and Reggie Bullock are under contract moving forward. Redick struggled with a balky back throughout the season, but when he was on the court, he transformed the Clippers’ offense from strong to elite. Jordan became an elite rim protector, and played heavy minutes in fourth quarters after a season of being placed on the bench late in games by former head coach Vinny Del Negro. Barnes struggled early on, but regained his form later in the season. Crawford was as good as he has ever been and won Sixth Man of the year. Dudley struggled all season, and will need to bounce back, or else the team may look to trade him.

While there are skeptics who believe the Clippers are a fringe contender at best, advanced stats show that this team had as good of a shot to win the title as anyone last season, with the exception of the Spurs. The Clippers’ defense was eighth-best in the league last year, allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. They also were the best offensive team, scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions. This resulted in a 7.3 net rating, second-best in the league behind the Spurs (8.1 net rating).

By being contenders, the Clippers will again attract free agents in the offseason and players who are bought out looking to join a title contender midseason. Last offseason, Darren Collison took a small contract in order to reestablish himself after a disappointing season with the Dallas Mavericks. Collison’s best years were early in his career backing up Chris Paul with the New Orleans Hornets. Collison found his old form and was a major contributor last season, filling in at point guard and shooting guard as needed when Paul, Redick and Crawford were injured.

Then, in the middle of the season, Danny Granger and Glen Davis took minimum contracts to join the Clippers after being bought out by their respective teams. Both players were inconsistent last season, but the ability to sign established veterans for next to nothing midseason is a luxury that only top teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami HEAT and San Antonio Spurs are afforded and is a major advantage over other teams.

Another reason for optimism is that the bad karma of Sterling will soon be replaced with the enthusiasm and deep pockets of Steve Ballmer. For over 30 years, Sterling has been regarded as one of the worst owners in all of sports. His antics were well known, but his racist rant leaked by TMZ, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to his removal.

With Ballmer, the Clippers now have the wealthiest owner in the league and a person who will not shy away from investing heavily into the roster. While Sterling is dragging the process through the mud, the common belief is that sooner or later Ballmer will officially take over the team.

Despite the reasons for optimism about next season, there are obstacles. The Spurs are ageless, and look better than they ever have. They dominated the HEAT in the Finals and look as though they could play at a similar level for several more seasons. In addition, the Thunder are as dangerous of a team as there is in the league. Russell Westbrook should be healthier than he was last season, Kevin Durant still has room to improve and younger players like Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams will likely take on bigger roles moving forward. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are rock solid teams, and are both reportedly looking to acquire an additional star this offseason.

The Clippers also need to add new assistant coaches as Alvin Gentry is joining Steve Kerr’s Warriors staff next season and Kevin Eastman is taking over as vice president of basketball operations. Also, Collison, Granger and Davis will all opt out of their contracts in order to secure bigger deals. Each player reportedly wants to return to the Clippers, which may be difficult due to salary cap restraints. However, the fact that players want to return to the team, even if it means taking a pay cut, is a huge step forward for a team that has struggled to keep its free agents in the past.

With championship-level coaching, a deep roster, two superstars and a desirable location for free agents, the Clippers will have as good of a shot as anyone to win it all next season.

– Jesse Blancarte

Oklahoma City Thunder

Led by MVP Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to finish the 2013-14 season with more wins than any team outside of the San Antonio Spurs. Despite Russell Westbrook missing extended time (36 games) the Thunder were dominant throughout the regular season. During Westbrook’s absence Durant shouldered the load and went on a historic scoring binge. Entering the playoffs, with Durant having the best year of his career, Serge Ibaka playing elite defense and Westbrook back at full strength, the Thunder appeared to be as much of a threat as any team in the West.

The Thunder ran into a gritty Memphis Grizzlies team in the first round, and the Grizzlies were able to push the Thunder to the brink before bowing out in Game 7. This was somewhat of a surprise as many expected the Thunder to have too much firepower for Memphis, but the Grizzlies played tenacious defense, Tony Allen was magnificent on that end, and they used their size down low to make it a highly contested series.

The team advanced to the second round and faced the Los Angeles Clippers in one of the more entertaining matchups of this past postseason. The Thunder were able to take care of the Clippers in six games and went on to face the soon-to-be-NBA champion Spurs. The Thunder was considered long shots in that series following an injury to Serge Ibaka in Game 6 against the Clippers. Ibaka suffered a grade two calf strain and was expected to be sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs. However he was able to return by Game 3 of the Spurs series. Ibaka’s return gave the team a huge lift, but in the end the Spurs were just too much to handle, dispatching the Thunder in six games.

Looking forward to next season, the Thunder should again be a legitimate title contender. The stars Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook will all be back and should continue to produce at an all-star level. You can pretty much pencil Durant in for 25-30 PPG, Westbrook around 23 PPG as well as seven or eight assists a night and Ibaka scoring 14-15 PPG and grabbing around seven or eight rebounds per game with elite shot blocking. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all still relatively young and it’s certainly possible that they may even improve on their production from a year ago, which is a frightening thought for the rest of the league. The steady production from those three should allow the Thunder to cruise through the regular season and presumably finish in the top four in the West securing at least one home playoff series.

What will push the Thunder over the top will be the improved play from guys not name Westbrook, Durant or Ibaka. Kendrick Perkins will be on the final year of his contract and Steven Adams clearly looks like the future at the center position. Adams played some very strong minutes during the playoffs and will be a key factor to the team’s championship aspirations. He is a tough, physical player that has shown the ability to block some shots. He also showed this postseason he is not afraid to mix it up down low with opposing bigs or give that hard foul to prevent a lay-up; he brings a certain toughness and energy to the team, something that can be very valuable in the postseason. He grew tremendously throughout the year and in his first off-season as a pro should continue to make strides.

Another player who will be counted on to help take the Thunder to the next level will be guard Reggie Jackson. Outside of the big three, Jackson was the team’s most potent scoring option. He averaged just over 11 points per game during the playoffs and was the team’s most efficient shooter from beyond the arc. His ability to provide offense, whether in a starting role or as a sixth man, is something the Thunder will be counting on going forward. He did a nice job filling in for Westbrook when he missed time and scored the ball consistently. His ability to give the Thunder another scoring option will be crucial, especially in the playoffs when buckets come at a premium.

Outside of Adams and Jackson, Jeremy Lamb is another player with a lot of room for growth and his development could be an additional boost for the team. In spotty minutes during the postseason he had some nice moments, but overall was inconsistent. His offensive game should continue to get better with more time on the court. Defensively is where he must work hardest to improve. If the Thunder plan on increasing Lamb’s role he has to be able to do it on both ends of the floor. Thabo Sefolosha is a free-agent this off-season and his return seems somewhat unlikely. Lamb is the most logical guy to fill that void if he can prove he is ready. The talent is there for Lamb and his growth could help push the team over the top.

The Thunder have three of the most talented players in the league and those players will have the team in a position to compete for a title again; if guys like Jackson, Adams and Lamb can continue to develop the Thunder will become a very tough team to beat next year and there will be no reason why they can’t win their first title.

– John Zitzler

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls had a season that not many would have predicted given the circumstances. The Bulls suffered an injury to Derrick Rose and traded away Luol Deng, yet still managed to win 48 games and lock in the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed, where they fell in five games to the Washington Wizards.

Pregame.com listed the Bulls as having the third-highest odds in the Eastern Conference of winning the NBA Championship behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT. With the status of the HEAT in question, and the way the Pacers have played in big-time games, the Bulls could find themselves in a great position to come out of the East in next year’s playoffs.

Reports have surfaced this week stating that if the Bulls’ season started now, Rose would be able to play. Rose has reportedly been playing five-on-five and looking like himself again. Obviously, this is great news for the Bulls and the road to recovery for Rose, who is aiming to participate in minicamp with Team USA at the end of July in Las Vegas. Many Bulls fans have been said to be upset with Rose playing now and possibly risk getting injured again. The news that Rose is playing again and willing to train with Team USA is perhaps the best news possible for the Bulls as it shows he is ready to begin the road back to playing at game speed, and this should allow Rose to be ready by next season.

The landscape of the Eastern Conference could see a major change during this upcoming summer. With the uncertainty of where players like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will end up, the Bulls could find themselves in a position to make a serious run. With Rose rejoining Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls will have their core of players returning and ready to go deeper into the playoffs. In addition to that core of players, the Bulls could add a superstar player in Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony through a trade or free agency.

Heading into the summer, the Bulls have been linked to Love or Anthony. Assuming they either use their amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer or they trade him to another team, the Bulls could have around $11 million in cap space to work with if they are able to cut the $16.8 million owed to him next season. The Bulls have found themselves in the conversation to acquire Love since reports first started surfacing that the big man isn’t interested in returning to Minnesota. The idea of Love joining Rose and Noah would give the Bulls the fire power needed to make a run, but it’s an idea that appears to be fading away. The Golden State Warriors appear to have softened their stance on including Klay Thompson in a deal for Love and could now find themselves as frontrunners to acquire him from the Timberwolves.

The Bulls are also thought to be one of the frontrunners to acquire Anthony and would need to cut a little bit more salary from the books to make that happen. A possible scenario would be a sign-and-trade with the New York Knicks, especially if the Knicks believe Anthony won’t stay. Players that could be in a potential deal are Gibson and the $8 million owed to him or Mike Dunleavy Jr. and his $3.3 million salary for next season. The Bulls would likely be open to the idea of adding a draft pick to clear that cap space owed to that draft pick, allowing more money to offer to Anthony. This scenario is contingent upon Anthony opting out of New York, which still hasn’t happened yet.

Should the Bulls prove unsuccessful in acquiring either Love or Anthony, they could then turn their attention to Orlando Magic swingman Arron Afflalo, who the Bulls have expressed interest in as of late. It’s unclear what the Bulls would be willing to part ways with in a deal with Orlando, but it would likely require at least one of their first-round drafts (No. 16 or No. 19).  As a last option after missing out on Love and Anthony, Afflalo would provide another scoring option for them after averaging a career-high 18.2 points per game last season with the Magic. Afflalo is also an above-average defender on the wing, but the Bulls would largely be seeking Afflalo’s scoring ability to put next to Rose.

If the Bulls are able to make a couple of moves and acquire either Love, Anthony or Afflalo then they would immediately enter the top-tier of the Eastern Conference and become favorites to win the conference and perhaps the NBA championship. While they appear set on making a huge deal to acquire a top player, the Bulls could also just look to add a couple of young pieces with their two first-round draft picks if they are unable to bring in a top player. One thing is very clear for the Bulls this summer: they have plenty of options.

– Cody Taylor

Who do you think will win the NBA championship next season? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

 

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