Which Teams Could Take the Next Step to be Contenders for the NBA Finals?

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Joel Embiid (left) and the 76ers and Damian Lillard (right) and the Portland Trail Blazers could become NBA contenders very soon.

The 2019 NBA Finals had no shortage of history on the line. Either the Toronto Raptors would win their first title or the Golden State Warriors would complete one of the few three-peats in NBA history. Toronto’s history won the day, and the franchise ended years of playoff frustration as it took over the NBA landscape, and now we want to know: Which teams could be the next big contenders to get over the hump and play in the NBA Finals?

Don’t expect to see Milwaukee (with potential MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo), Houston (with reigning MVP James Harden) or Golden State (with two-time MVP Steph Curry) on this list, as they are legit contenders right now. We’re looking at teams that are a couple of steps away from greatness but could contend if they make one or two roster moves.

Philadelphia 76ers

If the Sixers resign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in the 2019 offseason, then they will keep their core four and have arguably the toughest starting lineup to defend against in the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons still can’t shoot outside of five feet, but Butler and Harris bring toughness on the perimeter that Simmons can’t.

The 76ers were a Kawhi Leonard-buzzer beater away from making the Eastern Conference Finals, and they should be able to make just a few tweaks to the roster to be major NBA Finals contenders after the tough playoff loss this year.

Portland Trail Blazers

Would the playoff series against Golden State have been different if Jusuf Nurkic didn’t break his leg in March? Nurkic was a double-double waiting to happen, and he could have exposed the Warriors lack of depth at the center position during a long series.

We think he would have been able to put up big numbers against Golden State’s Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. Portland might not have won the series, but it wouldn’t have been swept out of the postseason, either.

Hopefully, he can come back healthy at some point next season and help the Trail Blazers fight for a shot at the championship.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets had their first major dose of playoff experience this season, and it should make them even tougher next year. The No. 2 seed in the West fought hard against Portland in an excellent semifinal series. With Jamal Murray at the point and second-round draft steal Nikola Jokic at center putting up triple-doubles on an almost nightly basis, expect Denver to have a chance to unseat Golden State or Toronto next season.

Brooklyn Nets

Caris LeVert (left) and D'Angelo Russell have the Brooklyn Nets poised to become NBA Finals contenders very soon.
Caris LeVert (left) and D’Angelo Russell have the Brooklyn Nets poised to become NBA Finals contenders very soon. | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

We know this can seem like a stretch since the Nets didn’t get out of the first round, but they will have the cap space and the opportunity to land someone to play alongside All-Star D’Angelo Russell. Our smart money is on Kyrie Irving as Irving and Russell can form a formidable backcourt in the East, perhaps the best 1-2 combo.

The Nets also have a sharpshooter in Joe Harris who shot over 40% from behind the arc this season, so with the three players on the floor who can put up points at any given moment, the Nets could make a deep run in the postseason next year. They might not make the 2020 NBA Finals, but it might be long before they start playing for titles.

San Antonio Spurs

They’re a bit removed from the teams that won five titles and made one other NBA Finals appearance over 16 seasons, but the Spurs aren’t far away from getting back to that level. Consider this:

  • San Antonio took the Denver Nuggets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs this year
  • DeMar DeRozan has fit in seamlessly with the Spurs organization
  • Their young players are developing nicely alongside the veterans

The Spurs always seem to find key contributors in the draft, so they could have even more depth next season. We won’t be surprised if San Antonio jumps up in the standings and pulls off an upset or two next year. Next season could be head coach Gregg Popovich’s final season as he focuses on team USA and the 2020 Olympics, but don’t expect him to slack off when it comes to pursuing his sixth NBA championship.