Every year we talk about the best teams, and for good reason: those teams are hyped up to win the championship and for a reason. All the favorites are usually good teams with elite rosters. The Lakers are going to be at the forefront of the conversation: after all, they won in 2019-20, and have two superstars in Los Angeles. Same case with the Clippers; two superstars in the same market, albeit no ring. Point is, the powerhouse teams that are likely to win will always be at the forefront of the narrative and garner all the attention: it is only natural.
But there are always going to be some underdogs that surprise. Think back to Dirk Nowitzki's run in 2011. Or the Detroit Pistons run in 2004 to beat Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Upsets are possible in the NBA, and aside from the Lakers, parity is at an all-time high. The Eastern Conference is getting stronger, and every contender is loading up with pieces for an extended run. The NBA is going to be a bloodbath this season in terms of competitiveness, and everyone's here for it. Here are some of the teams that are dark horses to win an NBA championship.
5. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets might actually end up being a fairly spooky team this season. Aside from promising big man Christian Wood, they've got a great cast of veterans who are ready to prove themselves during the season. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are looking good in preseason, and even if they're both at 70% of their All-Star form, they're still in the top tier talent-wise in the league. Both are bound to have revenge seasons after extended layoffs, and with extra time to recover, they are ready to prove themselves.
The key cog is James Harden. If Harden comes back to the Rockets, then that could be a championship team. James Harden supposedly has several contenders among his preferred trade destinations. But if Harden reverses on his trade request and decides that he has a chance to compete with Wall and Cousins then that's a team with a superstar and a good supporting cast. James Harden's trade decision is the tipping point on whether this team is just good, or whether it becomes one that can win a championship.
4. Toronto Raptors
Under Masai Ujiri's watch, the Toronto Raptors have been very consistent. Through the development of late-round draft picks like Pascal Siakam and undrafted talent like Fred VanVleet, the Raptors have become a very competitive team. However, they fell slightly short of their mark last season: Pascal Siakam underperformed, and with Kyle Lowry fouled out in Game 7, no-one stepped up. The Raptors are the definition of team basketball: no one player is bigger than the whole, but their machine can grind to a halt if they're missing a piece.
What will make or break the Raptors is if they find a guy that can be cold-blooded and step up in the fourth quarter beside Lowry. OG Anunoby hit a game-winner during the series against the Boston Celtics in one of the best plays of the postseason. Perhaps he could take a jump. With the Toronto Raptors not making huge moves during the offseason while losing some important veterans, the front office is banking on internal development. If the Raptors' young players all take a leap, then maybe they can recreate the miracle 2018-19 run, even without a superstar.
3. Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards used to be John Wall's team. But now, Bradley Beal has taken over the spotlight. Beal was actually on a tear last season, and he averaged 30.5 PPG, his career-high for a season. Bradley Beal has shown that he can be an elite scorer that can carry an offense. But he needed a running mate to equal his talent, so the Wizards traded for Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is a former MVP and an elite playmaker who can handle the ball when Beal needs a break from scoring points. If Westbrook can take the pressure off of Beal, then the Wizards will thrive.
At the end of the day, any team with two stars of that caliber will most likely be a playoff team. The Wizards can also count on Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura to make some improvements before the upcoming season. If all goes well for the Wizards, they could be contending for the whole thing, and finally, Bradley Beal would get some respect. If all the chemistry on this team works out, and all roles are set, then this team has one of the highest ceilings in the Eastern Conference.
2. Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker is currently sidelined with an injury, but that shouldn't stop the Celtics. Their biggest appeal this season is their wing duo: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both of them offer a lot more potential on the offensive end, and perhaps Kemba Walker's injury will allow the two to grow their offensive talent. They would get more touches and more time on the ball. That way, when Walker comes back he will be able to slot in as a third option behind the two young Celtics stars. As Brown and Tatum grow used to carrying the offense the Celtics team will naturally get better. Combine that with a defensive veteran like Marcus Smart, and things look fairly good for them.
Sometimes subtraction is addition: Gordon Hayward's departure means that there are fewer mouths to feed on the offensive end. Gordon Hayward took up touches in Boston: with him gone it means those touches can go to the younger trio of the Celtics future: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. The young Celtics will likely hit another level after falling short a few times in the playoffs. Tatum in particular could be due for a jump: it has been reported that there are some executives who view him as a two-way player who surpasses the likes of Paul George.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers are a team that underperformed heavily last year. But we must remember that Ben Simmons was injured, and the roster wasn't optimized. Al Horford was an awful fit with two other big men, but with him being traded, there should be more room on the inside. The 76ers have acquired some shooters like Danny Green, and a new coach in Doc Rivers. They're going back to a formula that worked: put shooters around Embiid and Simmons and let them go to work. Having two All-NBA caliber players is a recipe for success: Doc Rivers will unlock their full potential. Simmons and Embiid might not ever be a perfect fit for each other, but losing either player could set the franchise back for years.
The Philadelphia 76ers are underrated at this point. Due to their early exit in 2019-20, nobody is talking about them, even though they've made some low key moves to help their stars. A particular thing to watch internally with the 76ers though is the development of wing player Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle is a defensive genius who shot 35.7% from 3PT range during the 2019-20 season. If Thybulle can improve further then he can slot right into the starting lineup and amplify the 76ers' already stout defense. The 76ers are the most underrated team in the league and are the top dark horse contender to win it all.