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Top NBA title contenders: Why Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers are among favorites

Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the NBA All-Star game, the remainder of the 2023-24 regular season will become significant.

It will reveal which teams will make the NBA Playoffs and the Play-In Tournament. It will provide clarity on which teams can live up to their potential. And it will reveal which trade deadline moves are most significant.

Just like it has been for the past five years, the NBA doesn’t have a heavy favorite to win the NBA championship. Perhaps, the remaining regular-season games will at least dwindle the list of contenders. For now, though, plenty of Eastern and Western Conference teams have a realistic shot.  Below is a look at each team’s chances.

Related: Updated NBA Playoff and Finals predictions

Boston Celtics

boston celtics nba title contenders
Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 43-12; 1st in Eastern Conference

Why this team is a contender: Boston has the best starting lineup both in talent and chemistry. While Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to blossom individually and collectively, Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday have fit in immediately.

What could go wrong: After staying mostly durable, Porzingis could experience health issues that plagued him in New York and Washington. Boston also lacks consistency with its defense and effort.

Final verdict: Assuming no major injuries, expect the Celtics to advance to win the 2024 NBA championship.

Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic
Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 36-19, 4th in Western Conference

Why this team is a contender: After winning last year’s NBA title, the Nuggets have most of their roster intact, most notably in their star center (Nikola Jokic), underrated point guard (Jamal Murray) and strong frontcourt (Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon). Denver hasn’t shown much of a championship hangover with its effort and health.

What could go wrong? Denver experienced key off-season departures (Bruce Brown, Ish Smith, Jeff Green). The Nuggets have further leaned on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Jackson and Christian Braun, but Denver doesn’t have as much depth in a competitive Western Conference.  

Final verdict: The Nuggets could defend their NBA title, let alone advance to the Western Conference Finals again. But they are not the heavy favorite.

Related: Updated NBA power rankings

Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers' Paul George
Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 36-17, 3rd in Western Conference

Why this team is a contender: Not only are Kawhi Leonard and Paul George finally consistently healthy. Leonard, George, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have all flourished together to become the league’s most-talented team.

What could go wrong? Injuries, the same thing that plagued the Clippers since Leonard and George first teamed up together in 2019.

Final verdict: Because of their history, the Clippers will always feel leery about their health. They have shown enough encouraging signs, though, to suggest they can stay durable and finally win an NBA title.

Milwaukee Bucks

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies
Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 35-21, 3rd in Eastern Conference

Why this team is a contender Giannis Antetokounmpo has put together arguably his best season. Damian Lillard can raise his scoring and chemistry with Antetokounmpo to an even bigger level. And amid all the turbulence with Jrue Holiday’s departure and coaching changes, the Bucks can improve both their defense and overall chemistry.

What could go wrong? More of the same: subpar defense and learning curves with Doc Rivers joining the team without a formal training camp.

Final verdict: The Bucks will improve substantially and stay in the contending mix, but they don’t have the defensive depth and continuity to beat Boston.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves
Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 39-16, 1st in Western Conference

Why this team is a contender: Unlike last season, the Timberwolves have strong chemistry with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Rudy Gobert), their two stars (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Edwards) and a dependable veteran (Mike Conley). They have collected plenty of quality wins against the league’s best teams.

What could go wrong? The Timberwolves won’t feel overwhelmed with their playoff inexperience, but more veteran playoff teams have more awareness with making adjustments throughout a playoff series.

Final verdict: They have an outside chance to win an NBA title, but the Nuggets and the Clippers have the edge because of their experience.

Related: Anthony Davis says Minnesota Timberwolves are the best NBA team this season

Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Oklahoma City Thunder
Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 37-17, 2nd in Western Conference

Why this team is a contender: The Thunder have one of the league’s best point guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), big man (Chet Holmgren) and young, bright coaches (Mark Daigneault). OKC mirrors a veteran team with their strong chemistry and work habits.

What could go wrong? The Thunder have struggled with rebounding  and aren’t playoff tested. Just like Minnesota, the Thunder can overcome their inexperience with talent, but they don’t have the deepest team just yet.  

Final verdict: Oklahoma City can make the second round, but nothing beyond that. The Thunder will become a contender soon, though.

New York Knicks

NBA all-star reserves
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 33-22, 4th in Eastern Conference

Why this team is a contender: The Knicks have a super-star point guard (Jalen Brunson), a bruising forward (Julius Randle) and strong two-way players (OG Anunoby). Under a demanding coach (Tom Thibodeau), the Knicks back up their talent with hard work.

What could go wrong? Worries persist about injuries to Randle and Anunoby.  

Final verdict: The Knicks can make a deep playoff push, but still not enough against a presumably healthy Celtics team. New York has enough, though, to upset Milwaukee.

Related: Top 2024 NBA MVP candidates

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers' Donovan Mitchell
Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 36-17, 2nd in Eastern Conference

Why this team is a contender: Donovan Mitchell has carried the Cavs amid overlapping injuries to Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarret Allen. Cleveland expects a healthier roster for the last part of the season and beyond.

What could go wrong? The Cavs have lacked continuity this season. Perhaps injuries arise again, too.

Final verdict: The Cavaliers could advance to the second round, but their lack of on-court time together could catch up to them in a seven-game playoff series.

Philadelphia 76ers

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Golden State Warriors
Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 32-22, 5th in Eastern Conference

Why this team is a contender: The Sixers have adjusted just fine without Harden with Joel Embiid’s dominance and Tyrese Maxey’s growth. The Sixers also expect Embiid to be back fully healthy well before the playoffs.

What could go wrong? Embiid could face either delayed timelines, more injuries or both. Though the Sixers acquired Buddy Hield before the trade deadline, the Sixers need more 3-point shooting help.

Final verdict: Even with a healthy Embiid, the Sixers only get to the NBA Finals if the Celtics experience some major injuries.

Phoenix Suns

Jan 29, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant (35) looks on against the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 33-22, 5th in Western Conference

Why this team is a contender: The Suns have one of the most dynamic and talented offenses with Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. They all speak the same language with their work ethic, amenable roles and efficiency.

What could go wrong? Though the Suns have some depth, they are vulnerable if any of their stars have another injury again. Center Jusuf Nurkić also remains a defensive liability.

Final verdict: The Suns have the talent and teamwork needed for a deep playoff push, but they haven’t shown they can stay consistently healthy.  

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.

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