Honorable Mentions: Atlanta Hawks (keep an eye on if the Hawks trade John Collins) and Cleveland Cavaliers (future is bright with Evan Mobley and Darius Garland)
While it’s not at all surprising that the NBA Finals matchup pitted the Golden State Warriors against Boston Celtics, going into the season, that would’ve been considered a fairly surprising matchup prediction for pundits to make. Which is due to the fact that last season both teams were in the play-in, and the Warriors were not even able to make the playoffs in 2021.
Despite that, the Warriors, alongside the Celtics and Grizzlies, took significant leaps up the standings this year. So, while next year will certainly have more established contenders at the top than this year (I mean the Lakers and Nets were favored to meet in the finals going into last year), many teams are poised for a similar jump. Here are the top contenders to catapult themselves into title contention for the 2022-2023 NBA season.
The postseason and honestly the last few years have shown that the Denver Nuggets should look to make some offseason moves to their roster to improve their defense. The team’s overall lack of quickness and physicality on the perimeter on this side of the ball is going to continue to make teams like Golden State a hard matchup even with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Two players who aren’t elite defenders by any means. Still, as the Nuggets have struggled with injuries over the past two years, Nikola Jokic has emerged as a top 5 NBA player who clearly has shown the ability to be the best player on a championship team.
Jokic’s ability to carry this team, that played all but nine games without their second and third best players, was a remarkable accomplishment this past season. In addition, the current Denver Nuggets are a team that, when their core was last fully healthy in the postseason, went to the Western Conference Finals. With that in mind, the 2022-2023 team should be a title contender if Porter Jr. and Murray are able to fully recover and get back to the level we’ve seen them play at in the past.
Here’s the only pick where injuries are a valid excuse for why they did not finish higher in their conference. It’s hard to fault a franchise that has only been to the playoffs twice since 2005. However, it was obvious with the number of mental errors the Minnesota Timberwolves made in their first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, that this team has barely scratched the surface of their potential with their young core.
While D’Angelo Russell and Karl Anthony Townes will be two key cogs in the franchise’s success next year, the continued development of Anthony Edwards, Jayden McDaniels, and Jarred Vanderbilt will be essential for the Timberwolves’ evolution into a top contender in the West. Particularly Edwards, who averaged over 25 points per game on 40% shooting from beyond the arc in the postseason. “Ant” has shown the ability to be a potential face of the league, meaning that this franchise should be expected to be on the upswing for the foreseeable future.
New Orleans Pelicans
One of the surprise teams of the NBA postseason, the Pelicans, started the year off 4-16 under first-year head coach Willie Green. Behind a late-season push after the acquisition of C.J. McCollum, New Orleans snuck into the play-in tournament and eliminated a very dangerous team in the Los Angeles Clippers in a win-or-go-home game at Crypto Arena. The Pelicans’ postseason run saw the emergence of Brandon Ingram as a solid first option on a playoff team, as he averaged 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists a game.
New Orleans should be better no matter what, especially if Ingram and McCollum and the rest of their roster from last year’s postseason run remains healthy. However, if the Pelicans get a fully in shape and durable Zion Williamson, this team could be a top contender in the West. Williamson averaged 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists a game off of 61% shooting from the field the last time we saw him play competitive basketball and should be a good fit with the largely perimeter-oriented Ingram and McCollum.
Los Angeles Clippers
This should be one of the safer picks for this list, alongside the Denver Nuggets, as the last time we saw the Clippers at relative full-strength they were in the Western Conference Finals giving the Phoenix Suns a scare, even without Kawhi Leonard in that series. In addition, with Paul George only playing 31 games last year and Leonard out the whole season recovering from a partially torn ACL, the Clippers were still able to post a winning record as the 8 seed going into the play-in.
Despite their two straight losses in the play-in, the roster’s current supporting cast of the likes of Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Marcus Morris Sr., and Terance Mann provides the two all stars with reliable and experienced role players. Should Leonard become the top 5 player he once was, there is no reason why the Clippers should not contend for the Western Conference title once again. The only thing that may hold them back in the regular season is the load management of Leonard, who will certainly have to sit out a few games in order to be fresh for the postseason. But in Ty Lue, LA should trust.
Yeah, this team. While there need to be some significant offseason moves to the supporting cast of the Brooklyn Nets (as well as potentially the core), a Kevin Durant led franchise, at this point in his career, is still a threat to finish at the top of their conference, for a few reasons. First off, before Durant went out with an MCL injury for 1 1/2 half months, the Nets were first in the Eastern Conference. Second, from a defensive standpoint, Ben Simmons is exactly what the Nets need to compete against the other top contenders in this conference.
The lineups that the Brooklyn Nets trotted out against the Boston Celtics over the course of their 4-game series never gave the 7-seed a chance. Of the 9 players that got consistent minutes during their playoff run (Blake Griffin included), Steve Nash played five players under 6’4, three big men, and Kevin Durant. They didn’t give consistent minutes to a single wing not named Kevin Durant against a team whose best players are wings. Baffling. Ben Simmons is exactly the type of player to fill that void defensively and getting Joe Harris back will also help. Still, the Nets will need to add to their depth at those positions. Which, with the drama surrounding Simmons and Kyrie Irving’s availability, could be the least of their concerns.