It's fairly rare that a season starts where you can't identify the team that will ultimately win the championship given a few teams to pick from. Unlike the NFL where probably 50% of the teams could win the superbowl in any given year, the NBA is more consistent in figuring out in advance who has a shot to win the title.
I've long thought with six picks, you would likely figure out the NBA champion something like 90% of the time. So who my top six this season?
Before the top six, the rest of the field 17%
So as I figured out my percentages, I have the 24-30 field at 17%. The vast majority of that percentage will fall to the Pacers and Spurs whom I think are pretty close to Rockets/Nets as the last teams I picked from the East/West. Teams like the Knicks and Grizzlies have a non negligible but lower chance as well.
In the end, I think the Pacers lack a star as Paul George has become the most overrated player in the NBA by a wide margin and think the Spurs will come back another year older and were extremely lucky to get as close as they did given a similar cast got bounced earlier in the playoffs for a couple seasons.
The Knicks are obviously missing a defensive component and sure don't look any better this season despite the addition of Bargnani while the Grizzlies have a ton of good players but like the Pacers they lack the great player to put them over the hump.
#5b Houston Rockets 7%
I'm not a huge believer in the cast around Harden and Howard, and I also think that Harden went from highly underrated with the Thunder to somewhat overrated with the Rockets. They'll also need to build up chemistry and hope their role players play above their heads. On top of that, Dwight Howard needs to prove he's the old Dwight Howard and is still no good in the clutch even if he does.
It doesn't sound like I like the Rockets much, but for all those negatives, they still potentially have a superstar in Dwight Howard to pair with a legit all-star SG in Harden. I think their window is just opening, give the Rockets a couple seasons to improve their roster more through trade/draft, and their odds are on the upswing.
#5a Brooklyn Nets %7
The Nets are a real wild card to me. They have incredible depth now and a starting five that's uber-talented. However, half the roster is going to be fighting the age-cliff, and I'm not sure how well the pieces will fit together. It wouldn't surprise me if it all fell apart and Brooklyn finished somewhere around 5th in the East, especially with Jason Kidd as a rookie head coach.
However, I think the players the Nets added are all true team guys that are willing to sacrifice, and so if they can fight off father time for a season, they'll have the talent at every position to challenge anyone. The fact that Deron Williams and Brook Lopez can both attack Miami's biggest weaknesses is in their favor as well.
Odds are that they have too many really good players and not enough great ones for a team that will have to build chemistry under a rookie head coach in just one year though.
#4 Oklahoma City Thunder #9%
The Thunder come back with a worse roster than last year which was worse than the year before which wasn't good enough to beat the Miami Heat. I think the Clippers will leap from them in the west, and while Kevin Durant will make them dangerous, I think they match up horribly with the Heat where LeBron is the best player in the league to defend Durant while the reverse is not true at all.
On the other hand if someone other than Miami came out of the East, I think the Thunder would match up very well against anyone else and would have a vastly improved chance of winning. That said, I predict they lose to the Clippers in the WCF.
#2b Chicago Bulls 10%
The Chicago Bulls will need everyone to stay healthy and that's been a big challenge for them. However, if they do, they likely have the best defense in the NBA and more offense then they've ever had in the past. I put a fully healthy Bulls team as just a shade less talented than Miami this year, but their odds of being healthy are considerably less, so there's a large drop off in their odds of winning.
#2a L.A. Clippers 10%
It's sort of strange to see L.A. followed by something other than Lakers when talking championship odds, but the Clippers are legit. They have very strong depth, two superstars, and they just ousted one of the worst coaches in the NBA to bring in one of the best. The upgrade from Del Negro to Doc Rivers will make a huge swing in how well this team will perform in both the regular season and post season.
Blake Griffin is still on the rise and with another year to mature will come back even more deadly. The arrow is pointing up on the majority of the roster that was a playoff disappointment last season. They also match up well with Miami who has the best chance of winning out of the East.
#1 Miami Heat 40% odds
No surprise the Heat top the list of teams who can win the title given that they've won the past two and have no significant subtractions. Some predict the downfall of Miami based on the fact that both Indiana and San Antonio took them to seven games last season while I think both teams were very fortunate the series went that close. I think Miami is actually considerably better than what they showed in the playoffs last season.
LeBron is still the best player in the NBA. I think Dwyane Wade was slowed more due to injury than decline in the playoffs. His regular season numbers were far, far better, and I think people overrate how much he's declined fairly drastically as if he's a shell of his former self. As long as those two are playing at a high level even a pedestrian cast gives them a shot to win, but they have an outstanding cast not a pedestrian one.