Ranking NBA's fringe contenders: Celtics, 76ers, Nuggets among second-tier threats to be taken seriously

With the fall of the dynastic Warriors and Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles relocation, the 2019-20 NBA season was billed as the most wide-open championship race in years. The Lakers, Clippers and Bucks, in no particular order, were expected to be at the head of that race, and that's exactly where they are as we come out of the All-Star break and jump right into the stretch run. 

I recently broke down how those three teams stack up against one another as the clear title favorites, but what about the rest of the field? In a typically predictable league with only a handful of legitimate title threats, are there any teams from the second tier of contenders with a chance to springboard into the elite group? 

Let's examine. Below is a ranking of the teams on the chase, the ones that have the best chance to end up winning a surprise conference title.

1. Boston Celtics

Boston has the No. 3 defense, No. 5 offense and the third-best net rating in the league. These are elite marks. In the NBA, the contender conversation is a lot like the preseason college football rankings in that if you're not considered in the top tier of the discussion before the games even starting, it's hard to shake that perception. 

Boston was seen as an underdog from Day 1 because it lost Kyrie Irving, which was strange because Kemba Walker, from a pure basketball standpoint, is about the closest thing to an Irving replica as there is in the league, and within the context of this Celtics team, he's pretty clearly a better fit. 

Losing Al Horford was a much bigger blow, but Daniel Theis is significantly better than most people realize. Enes Kanter, though lazily maligned as some sort of team crater for his overblown defensive deficiencies, is arguably the best rebounder in the league and was probably the third-most important player on the Blazers' conference finals team last season. He's going to get the extra possessions and post-up buckets that swing a few games in the playoffs for Boston, mark my words. If Robert Williams can come back healthy by the postseason, he's a supremely athletic finisher and shot blocker and another option in Boston's big-man-by-committee approach. 

And those are the only "flaws" of this team. Outside of that, the Celtics are stacked with two of the most important components a playoff team can have: multiple play-makers who can create offense for themselves and others, and multiple versatile defenders who can interchangeably guard across the positional spectrum. Walker is a star. Jayson Tatum is a star. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward -- who is again back to looking like himself -- are legitimate All-Star talents as third and fourth options. Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart. 

Boston can space the floor. Shoot. Defend. And the Celtics are hungry. From a mentality standpoint, this group of players, under Brad Stevens, just fits the underdog role more comfortably. Last season, the Celtics sort of wilted under the pressure of legit title expectations. Now, as a championship afterthought, they're in their element, back in the "us against the world" zone that landed them in Game 7 of the 2018 conference finals despite Irving and Hayward missing all of the postseason. 

This Celtics team is better than the playoff version of that 2017-18 Celtics team. That was Tatum and Brown's coming-out party. They're significantly better players now, and Terry Rozier was the starting point guard. He played fantastic in those playoffs, but he's not Kemba Walker. Hayward, again, didn't play in that playoff run. Now he might be Boston's best passer in the half court, and he fills all kinds of scoring gaps as a floor spacer who can also initiate the pick-and-roll offense and attack closeouts off the catch. 

Perhaps most importantly, Boston can match up with the Bucks as one of the few teams with multiple options to collectively guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. None of them are perfect. Tatum isn't strong enough, Smart isn't tall enough, Brown is somewhere in the middle, but together they are a tough, long, athletic and instinctual group who can fight and double like crazy and still recover to shooters. Semi Ojeleye is a human brick and can legitimately play Giannis one-on-one, relatively speaking. 

The bottom line is this: Name a team in the Eastern Conference, outside of the Bucks, that the Celtics cannot beat. You can't do it. What if Philly finds its groove and upsets Milwaukee in a possible second-round matchup? It's not unthinkable, and suddenly the Celtics would become the favorite to come out of the East. There are a lot of scenarios from which Boston could emerge as the conference winner, and if you can get to the NBA Finals and take your chances, you're a serious contender. Do not sleep on the Celtics. 

2. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers are 25-2 at home. They're Knicks-level miserable on the road, but clearly there is an elite team that can beat anyone inside that locker room -- as touch and go as that environment might be. Philly would simply have to summon the best version of itself for three straight series. Not likely. But not impossible. 

The reasons I have Philly so high on this list of fringe contenders are simple: They're huge and enormously talented, and they play in the Eastern Conference, where there is only one behemoth to slay, as opposed to the Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz out West who would have to navigate around two separate Los Angeles monsters to end up in the NBA Finals. Plus, I believe the Bucks are more vulnerable than their historic net rating suggests. 

In a potential matchup with Milwaukee, the Sixers' size is something no other Eastern team can present. Joel Embiid has proven to be a viable Giannis deterrent in the paint. Al Horford, then with the Celtics, gave Giannis actual problems in last year's playoffs. Ben Simmons is as physically equipped to match up with Giannis as anyone in the league, and he's a killer free safety who can muck up a lot of Milwaukee's drive-and-kick action with impromptu switches and closeouts that create half-court havoc. 

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is another defensive menace with good size (not Giannis size, but normal-human-being good size). Tobias Harris can throw his length around. Josh Richardson is a plus defender on the perimeter. Winning with defense is the blueprint for the Sixers to make a deep playoff run, because their inability to create consistent half-court offense, especially in late-game situations, is a big-time road block. 

Richardson would need to have a great playoff run as a half-court initiator to at least make their offense viable. Harris would need to consistently knock down tough, contested shots, because you just can't count on the space being there. And of course, Joel Embiid would have to absolutely dominate, which we know he can do. In last year's playoffs, the Sixers were arguably a better team than the eventual champion Raptors in the games Embiid played and dominated. They were potentially one four-bounce Kawhi Leonard Game 7 winner away from the conference finals last season. 

True, last year's Sixers had Jimmy Butler, who plugged a lot of half-court holes and effectively became their late-game No. 1 option. That's why I say Richardson would have to be the guy to do that this year. Richardson isn't Butler, and thus this Sixers team isn't as prepared for the playoffs as it was last season. But they're still top-five talented and Kawhi is in the West. There's only one elite team to go through if the Sixers can somehow get their stuff together. 

3. Denver Nuggets

We're still sleeping on the Nuggets, who are No. 2 in the West coming out of the All-Star break. They can play with anyone with their versatile defense and unique offense that runs through Nikola Jokic, who is one of the few truly game-changing passers in the league. 

Denver has truly dangerous depth with Monte Morris and Will Barton coming off the bench. Michael Porter Jr. is a wild card who could feasibly swing a playoff game or two if he gets going. Adding Jordan McCrae represents even more wing depth. Working his way back into shape, Paul Millsap is one of the best players absolutely nobody talks about. Jerami Grant has been up and down, but when he's up this team is nasty. Torrey Craig is a primary wing defender and he can make shots. If Gary Harris remembers how to shoot, look out. 

And after all this, we finally get to Jokic and Jamal Murray, the two stars who will ultimately determine Denver's fate as far as it can control. After a slow, out-of-shape start to the season, a noticeably slimmer Jokic has played like an MVP candidate, while Murray can be the best player on the floor at any given time. He can create offense whenever and pretty much however he wants. His two-man game with Jokic is art. His confidence is electric. His shot-making can be elite. If Jokic is aggressive as a scorer and Murray is in one of his grooves, the Nuggets can beat anyone. 

There's also the matter of seeding. Right now, the No. 3 Clippers are tied in the loss the column with the No. 4 Jazz. If Utah were to jump the Clippers, that would potentially set up a Lakers-Clippers second-round series, while Denver would possibly be looking at perhaps Utah or Houston. The Nuggets are 2-0 against the Jazz this season and Jokic would be a major problem for the small-ball Rockets. 

Last year's bracket broke Portland's way and it ended up in the conference finals. The same thing could easily happen to the Nuggets this season. They a really, really good team that could potentially end up on a favorable path. They're not the Lakers or the Clippers, but among the fringe contenders, they're as good as it gets. If they were in the East, they'd be No. 1 on this list. 

4. Toronto Raptors

So much for the Raptors falling apart after Leonard left. To the contrary, they're still actually in the contender conversation. I don't think they're as dangerous as the Rockets or the Jazz, both of whom I have listed below Toronto, but again they're in the Eastern Conference. Only one upset has to happen to Milwaukee and the East would be a free-for-all. 

That upset isn't likely to happen, and ultimately I don't think the Raptors have quite enough firepower to truly contend. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are fantastic; VanVleet in stretches, was nearly as responsible for Toronto's title run last season as Leonard. There's a lot of experience and know-how on this team in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. OG Anunoby is a plus 3-point shooter who can seriously defend. Chris Boucher has emerged. Terrence Davis could be on his way to becoming another home-grown stud. Normal Powell went nuts in the month of January, and hopefully they can get him back from his broken hand in time to make a playoff contribution. 

And then there's Pascal Siakam, an All-Star starter who has fallen out of the MVP race but was in it for a long time. It's tough to be a title contender without an MVP-level player, and indeed, I think the Raptors lack true championship firepower. But again, tell me who they can't beat in a series outside of Milwaukee? If you can make it to the conference finals, you are a threat. You never know how things are going to break. 

5. Utah Jazz

It's almost impossible to separate Utah and Denver in the Western Conference. I give Denver the edge because Jokic is the best player on either team, but Donovan Mitchell isn't far off. Utah backed into a monster starting lineup when Mike Conley went down and Royce O'Neale replaced him -- the five-man unit or Mitchell, O'Neale, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert has played the third-most minutes together of any lineup in the league this year and is outscoring opponents by more than 17 points per 100 possessions. 

Conley has started to rediscover his game of late and will have to be a major contributor for Utah to make a run. With O'Neale back on the bench and Jordan Clarkson looking like a Lou Williams-light second-unit scorer, the Jazz can beat you with depth. Back in the starting lineup, Ingles has been fantastic as one of the most underrated pick-and-roll play-makers in the league and a lights-out shooter. Asking him to make one-on-one plays for a second unit was too much. Giving him space and less attention alongside the starters has unlocked his best game. 

Bogdanovic gives Utah another guy who can create offense outside Mitchell, which was desperately needed. With Conley on his game, the spacing in Utah is better than it's been in recent years, and you know the defense is strong -- though not as elite this season as it's been in year's past. 

I believe the Jazz are better than the Raptors, but again, the Western Conference is just a tougher track at the top. It comes down to Denver and Utah for the top fringe contender in the West, and I just like the Nuggets slightly more. Murray can create the same kind of offense that Mitchell can, but Gobert cannot match Jokic in any way offensively. That's the difference at the top end of the rosters. 

6. Houston Rockets

I so badly want to make the leap and buy stock in a team I would've run from like a plague six weeks ago. Houston's official shift to small ball, desperate as it might've been, has completely rewritten the script on defending this team. Whereas once you could double-team the life out James Harden without being mortally wounded yourself, Houston can now punish those maneuvers in multiple ways. 

First, it's not Clint Capela spacing -- or not spacing -- the floor anymore. It's Robert Covington. And Houston just added Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll as even deeper wing reinforcements. The new center in the starting lineup is P.J. Tucker, another shooter. Throw in Eric Gordon, Danuel House Jr., Austin Rivers, and doubling Harden is basically conceding either an open 3-point look to a capable shooter or an open driving lane for Russell Westbrook, who is on an MVP-level tear the last six weeks and becomes virtually indefensible without a traditional center clogging up the paint. 

Still, I just don't think this team can sustain itself operating on full tilt. Playing defense with that small a lineup is exhausting, and we've already seen James Harden wear down deep in the playoffs for his offensive burden alone. Westbrook alleviates some of that, but he'll have to make at least a few timely 3-pointers. I'm not saying he can't do that, or won't do that, but I'm not betting on it. 

And a matchup with the gigantic Lakers, specifically seems to impossible to navigate over a seven-game series. Heck, the Rockets could very well end up with Denver or Utah in the first round. That's Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert at center. Gobert perhaps they could handle collectively as he's mostly a roller, but Jokic would destroy them. 

I hate not backing this Rockets team, which has, in the blink of an eye, gone from impossibly boring to watch to borderline electric with a fully unleashed Westbrook. I just can't fully believe in their size or Westbrook, or for that matter Harden, in a deep playoff setting. But there's no doubt that in any one series, this Houston team is exceedingly dangerous. 

7. Miami Heat

You know what you call the person who finishes last in their medical school class? Doctor. Miami being last on this list isn't a slap in the face. It means the Heat are a contender when pretty much nobody expected that coming into the season. To me, they're right there with every other Eastern Conference contender, other than Boston, below the Bucks. If you think the Heat are better than the Raptors, or a bigger threat than the Sixers, I won't argue with you. It's splitting hairs. 

I repeat: They're not better than Boston. 

Jimmy Butler has been fantastic and gives Miami the star player you have to be able to lean on in the playoffs. Bam Adebayo is on the short list of the best players you don't know much about, though with his All-Star selection and winning the Skills Challenge people are starting to learn. Adding Andre Iguodala is significant, but to me he's a guy that puts an already championship-caliber team over the top rather than a guy who can take a non-contender and turn them into one. Had Miami gotten Danilo Gallinari, I would have them No. 1 on this list. 

As it is, the Heat have a plethora of shooters and play-makers who all fit inside a flowing, drive-and-kick system that doesn't ask too much of any one of them. They can run late-game offense through a number of options, including rookie Tyler Herro -- who is built for the playoffs with his mentality -- and Goran Dragic in addition to Butler. Adebayo is a tough matchup for anyone with his ability to play as an offensive hub in the half-court and push the ball off rebounds. 

Heck, the Heat will sometimes have Adebayo bring the ball up the court in a traditional point guard role. They are truly position-less and very creative on both ends of the court. They play almost twice as much zone defense as any team in the league and they have a lot of length at the top of that zone to contest shots and jam up passing lanes. The Heat can be a problem. Absolutely nobody would want to play them in a playoff series. In the end, I just don't think they have quite enough firepower to take down the big boys in seven-game series, especially as Butler has all but evaporated as a 3-point threat, and their defense has quietly become very average. 

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