The teams in the challenger tier have not shown that they have a real chance of winning the NBA championship this year. However, they are close to taking that step and all of them are good enough to knock a contender out of the playoffs with the right circumstances. They also have a chance to jump into the contender tier with a key trade, an unexpected player development or by deepening their team chemistry. First a recap…
Tier 1: True Championship Contenders
1. Miami Heat
2. Indiana Pacers
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Tier 2: The Challengers
5. Houston Rockets
Record: 18-10 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 3rd Defensive Efficiency Rank: 14th
Everything appears to be coming together for the Houston Rockets. They have two star players in James Harden and Dwight Howard and a full complement of capable role players around them at every position. They know their identity and they are well coached. It is hard to say exactly why they are not in the championship picture this year.
Harden is 24 years old and in his fifth NBA season. If he is supposed to be the team’s leader and best player he is still very young to lead his team to a championship. In the last 20 years only Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade would have won finals MVP awards with fewer years of NBA experience than Harden if he accomplished it this year. It took Michael Jordan seven years, LeBron James nine years and Kobe Bryant 13 years before they won their first finals MVP award. This Rockets team is still growing this year and developing chemistry with the newly acquired Howard. Their championship window is just starting to crack open.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 19-9 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 4th Defensive Efficiency Rank: 7th
The Clippers have their mega-star player in Chris Paul and their second all-star in Blake Griffin. They have competent and experienced role players at every other position and they brought in one of the best coaches in the league in Doc Rivers. They certainly looked like championship contenders coming into the year. However, Doc Rivers has not figured out how to import his championship level defense from Boston and the Clippers rank seventh in defensive efficiency—which isn’t bad, but he’ll want it higher.
In the last 11 years only one team that ended up winning the championship ranked lower than seventh in defensive efficiency and 8 out of the 11 have been in the top 5. In order for the Clippers to jump out of this tier they need to master Rivers’ defensive system in time to employ it in the playoffs. Of all of the teams in this tier they have the best chance of doing that without making a trade.
6. Golden State Warriors
Record: 15-13 Offensive Efficiency Rank: 15th Defensive Efficiency Rank: 6th
The Golden State Warriors have come back to earth somewhat after an early season injury to Andre Iguodala but he is expected to return before the essential part of the season comes. The case against Golden State being a championship contender is the two stars rule. Stephen Curry is one, but who is the other? Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut are all above average starters but none of them are quite at that level of being a top 25 player in the league like the other true title contenders have.
Miami has LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Indiana has Paul George and Roy Hibbert. San Antonio is unique but Tony Parker and Tim Duncan (at least last year) are still top 25 players. Finally Oklahoma City has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Can Klay Thompson take that step? Is the perpetually-underrated Iguodala even better than we think? As the most exciting team in the league it is going to be fun watching to find out.
8. The Portland Trailblazers: Look like they belong higher but need to sustain their hot start to prove it.
9. The Minnesota Timberwolves: Have shown flashes but not consistency. They could be a tough match-up for an unlucky higher seed by playoff time.
10. The Memphis Grizzlies: Look terrible but have time for a second half run after Marc Gasol comes back.