With Kevin Durant added to a Golden State Warriors core that already had two trips to the Finals and one NBA championship under its belt, the superteam era looks poised to continue for years into the future. LeBron James has led his teams to seven straight NBA Finals appearances, while the Spurs remain potent after a 61-win regular season. But who’s got next? What teams are positioned to elbow their way into that contender conversation?
In this piece we’ll look at teams that are a few moves away from entering that rarified air of contender status. The Warriors look poised to make a series of Finals appearances that could equal or exceed the four straight of James’ previous superteam, the Miami HEAT. The following are teams that could challenge that dominance in the coming seasons with the right personnel decisions.
The team most ready to rise to contender status is the Celtics, thanks to a masterful series of moves by Boston’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. With the first of what will likely be three consecutive high lottery picks that Ainge fleeced from the Nets, he selected Jaylen Brown, among this season’s most productive rookies. As fate would have it, the Celtics gained this year’s top overall pick in a draft heavy with point guards, Boston’s position of least need.
But a look at the Celtics’ cap sheet shows a litany of team-friendly contracts that show what a thorough job Ainge has done of positioning Boston to move into contention. All-Star Isaiah Thomas enters the final year of a deal that will pay a mere $6.3 million. Avery Bradley is likewise entering a final year in which he’ll earn $8.8 million. And Jae Crowder has three years remaining on the most absurdly team-friendly contract in the NBA, which will scale from next season’s $6.8 million to $7.8 in 2019-20. Thanks to Ainge’s stellar work in the draft, free agency and trades, Boston has the flexibility to take multiple paths to contention.
If the Celtics keep this year’s pick rather than package it in a blockbuster trade for a player the caliber of Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George, it seems almost certain Ainge will select Washington point guard Markelle Fultz. This would create a huge logjam at point guard, where Boston already has Thomas, Marcus Smart and the very promising Terry Rozier. With the top end of the draft light on front court prospects, where the Celtics could use the most help, Ainge will surely take the best player available and deal with the consequences later.
Meanwhile, Boston will explore every additional avenue to improve. Crowder did not appreciate Boston fans’ infatuation with Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward. But given the challenges facing the Celtics’ front court, he may need to reconsider. Amir Johnson was a shell of himself in the playoffs, averaging a mere 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds despite nine starts. He may not be back, while Kelly Olynyk duplicates the finesse, floor-stretching front court role of Al Horford. If Boston is able to add Hayward, coach Brad Stevens’ former understudy at Butler, Crowder could see a lot of minutes next season at the power forward position.
Even if Boston fails to execute a major trade or obtain Hayward, the Celtics will still be players in free agency thanks to Ainge’s brilliant work within the salary cap. Regardless of any potential duplication, Boston should look to add as many impact players as it can. If all else fails, the Celtics could still pursue four-time All-Star and current Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin of the Clippers. Boston was impressive this season, winning the East’s top playoff seed. But look for the Celtics to be even tougher next season after adding multiple significant pieces this summer.
For the Jazz, a lot will depend on Boston’s success or failure at prying away Hayward. If Utah fails to get Hayward under contract, Rudy Gobert and the oft-injured Alec Burks are the only players signed to guaranteed contracts beyond next season. It could send the organization spiraling into a years-long rebuild after it impressively and unexpectedly reached 51 wins and the second round of the playoffs this season.
If Hayward stays, the Jazz has Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson under contract for next season as Utah’s mostly young core enters its prime together. The Jazz will of course also need to retain point guard George Hill, who proved to be exactly the sort of steady, veteran presence Utah needed to reach its potential. Retain those key free agents and much will depend on health and the continued development of the younger players. Rodney Hood struggled to score in the playoffs, but he shot a career-high 37 percent from three in the regular season. He appears to be a player who could reach another gear and help the Jazz reach greater heights.
As with any team, the limiting factor will be health. As impressive as Utah’s season was, think what the team could have achieved if not decimated by so many injuries to key players. With the right moves in free agency and better luck with injuries next season, the Jazz could top 55 wins and be even more formidable in the playoffs.
As impressive as Utah was, no team over-achieved more this season than the Rockets. Projected by many observers to be a fringe playoff team, Houston amassed 55 wins in the brutal Western Conference, a win total higher than every team except Golden State and San Antonio. James Harden cemented his MVP candidacy by crushing Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City in the first round before running out of gas in the Conference Semifinals against the Spurs.
Houston GM Daryl Morey made a huge gamble by signing Ryan Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract and making a total commitment to the three-pointer. This approach and coach Mike D’Antoni’s daring gambit in moving Harden to full-time point guard brought Houston within two wins of the Conference Finals. Harden, Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon — who experienced a renaissance season — are all under contract for at least two more seasons. Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams each have one year left.
Among the team’s significant contributors, only Nene will be a free agent this summer. However, Houston’s roster stability cuts both ways. With so many players under contract, Houston lacks the kind of roster flexibility enjoyed by the Celtics. For the Rockets to take that next step to true contention, the only available path will be through internal improvement. D’Antoni will have to find a way to extend the minutes of his bench to avoid a repeat of this season when Houston looked gassed in the second round. The Rockets’ best opportunity to take the next step will be for one of its young frontcourt pieces — Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker — to make a significant leap next season.
Like the Jazz, the Raptors failed to reach their full potential in the playoffs due to bad luck with injuries. As with the Rockets, the Raptors have multiple core pieces wrapped up on multi-year deals. Raptors president Masai Uriji will have to break the bank if he hopes to retain both Kyle Lowry and trade acquisition Serge Ibaka. If Lowry returns and Toronto reaches the playoffs relatively healthy, this is a team that proved in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals that it can challenge the Cavaliers.
Fail to retain Lowry, however, and the Raptors will have almost no chance of replacing him with an equally-talented point guard. Like the Jazz, Toronto must either pay up to retain the team’s starting point guard or possibly see all the work that brought the team to the brink of contention go to waste.
The Clippers get an honorable mention here because, despite rumblings of chemistry issues and Doc Rivers’ inability to assemble a competent bench, it’s hard to imagine Chris Paul and Griffin departing the NBA’s best market and leaving stacks of cash on the table. The Clippers disappointed by flaming out in the first round against the surprising Jazz. But if L.A.’s Big Three can all be healthy for the playoffs, this is a collection of talent that can make noise. The limiting factor will be Rivers’ ability to pull off a miracle by somehow conjuring a competent bench out of thin air.
Also a few steps behind the teams higher on this list are the Washington Wizards. The backcourt combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal outplayed their opposing starters in both playoff rounds. Markieff Morris was surprisingly effective on both sides of the ball. And Otto Porter followed up his breakout regular season with an impressive playoff run. The Wizards will have to fend off multiple suitors who will seek to convince Porter to sign an offer sheet in restricted free agency. But if he’s retained, Washington will again have one of the NBA’s best starting units regardless of what happens with center Marcin Gortat.
As with the Clippers, Washington’s only real chance to ascend to contender status will be a massive overhaul of the bench. Kelly Oubre Jr., despite Wall’s campaigning for him to receive more minutes, was largely ineffective in the playoffs. So too was mid-season trade acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic. The Wizards would do well to make retaining Porter the priority, but general manager Ernie Grunfeld will have his work cut out in addressing the lack of depth.
Among the teams mentioned, the Celtics are clearly the closest to challenging an incumbent conference champion for a spot in next year’s NBA Finals. But the Jazz, Rockets and Raptors could also enter that conversation if everything breaks right this summer. For the Clippers and Wizards, it’s going to take a massive bench overhaul that will be very difficult to execute to break through to the next level. Cleveland and Golden State may continue to monopolize the NBA Finals in future seasons, but these are the teams standing on the sidelines calling next if either team stumbles.
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