Denver Nuggets stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic posing with the Larry O’Brien Trophy and Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy after winning the 2023 NBA Championship.
Per usual, the NBA offseason delivered with blockbuster trades and free agent signings sure to shake up the list of contenders for next season. The question is, who are the NBA’s biggest championship contenders going into next season?
It would be criminal not to start this list with the reigning champion, the Denver Nuggets. They retained their championship squad in the offseason. They did lose valuable role player Bruce Brown, but they would never have been able to compete with the Indiana Pacers’ salary availability. Expect the Nuggets to post once again one of the best offenses of all time spearheaded by the blooming all-time great that is Nikola Jokic.
The Miami Heat have consistently been phenomenal playoff performers since 2020, and I see no reason for that to change next season. While the Heat did not manage a Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard trade that many expected, they retained their finalist roster from last season. If Tyler Herro stays healthy for the playoffs this year, the Heat's biggest hole - three point shooting - would be solved. Their gritty, defensive, and fundamental playstyle may again take them far, and maybe finally to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Phoenix Suns flared out of the second round of the NBA playoffs last season to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets in a competitive six games. After trading for scoring machine Bradley Beal this offseason, the Suns will have arguably the most dangerous trio of wing scorers ever. They upgraded from Deandre Ayton with Jusuf Nurkic; both players are strong offensive players, but Nurkic is superior on defense. Outside of those four players the roster consists of Josh Okogie, Grayson Allen, Yuta Watanabe, and some fringe NBA players. A playoff series against the Suns will no doubt be a mainly offensive contest. If Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal can stay healthy and play tremendous minutes in the playoffs, the Suns are a team to look out for.
The 2021 Champion Milwaukee Bucks had an embarrassing outing the last playoffs, losing to the eighth seeded Heat in the first round. To be fair, Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured for a few games, and Khris Middleton missed the whole series. This offseason, they made their biggest trade acquisition in franchise history when they got Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard is one of the most dangerous shooters of all time from anywhere up to 35 feet from the basket. A pick-and-roll action with Lillard and Giannis projects to be the most dangerous play in the NBA next season and is unguardable in theory. The loss of Jrue Holiday is overstated as he has been on the decline and did not fulfill the Bucks offensive point guard duties to a Championship standard. Perimeter defense is unimportant when you have two First Team All-Defense towers in the paint: Brook Lopez and Giannis.
The Boston Celtics have been the most consistent team in the NBA, and have been in the conference finals five of the last seven seasons. They had a very active offseason in the trade market, and seem to be all in on the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown duo. First, they traded for star Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has the ability to be an all-NBA player in any given season, and the only thing that holds him back is health concerns. They also traded for Jrue Holiday, who will make up for the loss of Marcus Smart nicely. Though he is a marginal downgrade defensively, he makes up for that loss with his shooting ability. Derrick White is the best ball handler on the roster, and the best player to take the keys as the point guard. Starting him would either push Holiday out of the starting lineup or Porzingis to center, both unideal scenarios.
Those five teams are my picks for the most likely champions next season, but I don’t doubt that other teams have boom potential. Lebron and Anthony Davis, surrounded by many boom or bust players, can win under the right conditions. Luke Doncic and Kyrie Irving may click and make it work under Jason Kidd. The elderly Clippers may find a fountain of youth and - if they stay healthy - become top contenders.