The definition used for these rankings is which team has the best chance of winning the championship. These rankings don’t necessarily change when a team has one good game or week. Before the season started we have a good sense of which teams have a chance but these perceptions change gradually as the season goes forward.
There were more teams on this list when the season started. Specifically, the Los Angeles Clippers regressed on defense instead of taking a step forward and Derick Rose’s promising preseason turned into another season lost to injury for the Chicago Bulls. Unexpected events reliably turn the course of the season every year. There are only four teams that look ready to win it all as of right now. However, trades, unexpected player development and injuries will continue to shape this list and the Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have a good chance of joining it before the end of the season.
Tier 1: True Championship Contenders
1. Miami Heat
Record: 18-6 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 2nd Defensive Efficiency Rank: 6th
The case for the having the Heat here is not hard to make. They have won the last two championships and the best player in the world plays for their team along with a top-15 player and a top-30 player. Their key role players are also skilled, experienced and fully bought into the program. LeBron plus shooters has been the best offense in basketball since last year. There is a saying in the NBA that superstars win championships. In today’s NBA, ball movement is the new superstar.
However, they have a real threat brewing from the Pacers who have led them in playoff series for the last two years. Last year the Heat got outscored by the Pacers’ starters by 46 points and won the series by clobbering their bench. This year they might not have that advantage.
2. Indiana Pacers
Record: 20-4 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 15th Defensive Efficiency Rank: 1st
The case for the Indiana Pacers starts with their defense. They are only yielding an average of .93 points per possession, which is even better than last year’s league-leading .96 points per possession mark. The rim-protecting machine, Roy Hibbert has developed into the favorite to win defensive player of the year and the rapidly developing, do-it-all forward, Paul George is now a consensus top ten player and is starting to generate a little MVP chatter. Even the Pacers’ hyperactive, erratic shooting guard Lance Stephenson has added new elements to his game and is looking more consistent. Finally, the Indiana’s bench, which routinely lost leads last year, has been traded in for more useful players and they are doing a better job holding on to lead the leads that the starters are inflicting on the rest of the league. They have been the most dominant team in the league so far this year and they look like Miami’s biggest threat.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 19-5 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 7th Defensive Efficiency Rank: 2nd
This team defies all of the normal NBA logic. You need a superstar to win. Who is the superstar on the Spurs? One night it is Tony Parker and the next it’s Danny Green. NBA teams go in cycles and have championship windows. How long is San Antonio’s window? It was supposed to be closed about five years ago until they came within one rebound, one shot of beating the Heat last year. There really is no predicting anything in particular about the Spurs except they are just good—really good—at basketball. Everyone on the team seems to be in the right place at the right time on both sides of the floor and the ball always finds the open man. Who says they couldn’t win it all again this year?
There is a saying in the NBA that superstars win championships. In today’s NBA ball movement is the new superstar.
And the Spurs keep moving the ball until they find the shot they want.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
At the bottom of the true contender list sits the Thunder. They still have the second best player in the world, a top-ten player in Russell Westbrook plus a really good defensive rim-protector in Serge Ibaka. It’s the rest of the roster that has them sitting below Miami, Indiana, and San Antonio and teetering on the edge of falling down a tier.
The Thunder have too many unproven starters and rotation players that they rely on. Rookie Steve Adams and second-year player Jeremy Lamb are not experienced enough and Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher are not good enough anymore to be key parts of a contending NBA team. The team’s management has really let down their star players and fans by not bringing in enough competent NBA talent to give them a better chance to win it all. The Thunder need one of their young players takes a big step forward by playoff time or bring in some experienced talent in a trade. Then they will be as dangerous as any team in the west. Otherwise, Westbrook and Durant might start looking elsewhere to fulfill their championship aspirations when their contracts end.