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Title Tiers, Part 1: Cases for and against 4 inner-circle contenders

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Dynasties often rule the NBA, but we're in an era of parity that's produced five different champions and eight different finalists over the last five years. This coming season features another deep and diverse field of contenders. We're laying out reasons to believe in them and reasons to doubt them.

First up, the four teams that comprise the inner circle of title hopefuls.

Denver Nuggets

Joe Murphy / NBA / Getty Images

Reasons to believe: We just saw a very similarly constructed Nuggets team win the whole shebang a few months ago with a 16-4 romp through the playoffs, led by the NBA's best offensive player (and arguably best player, full stop).

Nikola Jokic is simultaneously the most ingenious passer, the most unstoppable post scorer, and one of the league's two or three best mid-range shooters. He's capable of taking over games and cracking open opposing defensive schemes with any of those skills at any given time. As long as he's on the court (which he always is because he never gets injured), the Nuggets are a nightmare to defend almost regardless of who plays next to him.

Fortunately for Denver, and unfortunately for the rest of the league, Jokic has an elite creator and off-ball weapon co-starring alongside him in Jamal Murray. Nobody can guard the team's two-man game. That duo also happens to be flanked by an army of spot-up shooters, cutters, and defenders.

The Nuggets' biggest question mark last season was their defense, but they answered that question in the playoffs when they allowed fewer points per possession than all but three teams en route to the title. They had Aaron Gordon for top opposing wings (and sometimes bigs) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for top guards. They showed more schematic flexibility than they had in years past, got plus defense from Jokic when it mattered, and got diligent low-man work behind Jokic from everyone on the roster (including a much-improved Michael Porter Jr.).

With all of the team's core players either squarely in or just entering their primes, youngsters such as Christian Braun and Peyton Watson looking ready to contribute, and a ton of continuity on their side, the Nuggets enter this season as favorites to win the West at least.

Reasons to doubt: Denver's starters can trump just about anyone's. Beyond that, the team has a whole bunch of question marks. The Nuggets lost a couple of key rotation pieces this offseason without finding reliable replacements.

The biggest loss was obviously Bruce Brown. He was functionally the team's sixth starter and frequently closed games ahead of Porter, especially in the playoffs. Brown's point-of-attack defense was a big part of the Nuggets' improvement on that end, especially when it came to protecting Jokic while mixing in more drop coverage. That's to say nothing of how his cutting, driving ability, and transition juice helped keep the offense humming.

Crucially, while Brown could function as a wing when playing with the starters, he also served as the team's point guard when Murray was off the floor. Without him, Denver's backup guard corps is mighty thin. The team is now reliant on either unproven players like Collin Gillespie or over-the-hill players like Reggie Jackson.

Losing Jeff Green might feel like a trifle by comparison, but the Nuggets' frontcourt reserves also don't inspire much confidence. Green was a sturdy backup for Gordon at the four-spot and a sneakily important piece of the small-ball units that kept Denver afloat with Jokic on the bench last postseason. The team will be looking to Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar to fill that role this season, which could work out fine if one or both of them take meaningful steps forward.

However, despite intermittent flashes from both, neither offered the consistent two-way play the team got from Green. This matters more than you might think, given that DeAndre Jordan is once again the only true backup center on the roster.

It still feels like the Nuggets' defense has holes in spite of how successful it was last postseason. The truth is they never played a team that was capable of fully spreading them out or making Jokic uncomfortable with a combination of shooting and driving threats. (The Suns came closest, but an injury to Chris Paul and a no-show from Deandre Ayton left them too thin.) Braun may be ready to handle more responsibility, but whether he can approximate what Brown provided as a perimeter defender is another matter. This team will be very good, but it's far from infallible. - Joe Wolfond

Milwaukee Bucks

Juan Ocampo / NBA / Getty Images

Reasons to believe: In Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, the Bucks possess as formidable, seamless, and balanced a top two as exists in the league. After a lack of consistent shot-creation and shot-making again railroaded the team in the playoffs, Milwaukee added one of the most explosive perimeter scorers in history (Lillard) to support its battering ram of an offensive engine (Antetokounmpo).

Lillard's shooting, self-creation, and playmaking will help minimize some of the damage Antetokounmpo's offensive limitations can inflict on the Bucks' half-court offense, better position Khris Middleton as a tertiary scorer, and help create even cleaner looks for floor-stretching big men like Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. Meanwhile, The Greek Freak's help defense and offensive penetration will make Lillard's job easier than ever, which is saying something for a seven-time All-Star coming off a season in which he averaged 32.2 points and 7.3 assists on 64.5% true shooting.

Antetokounmpo and Lopez also provide as much defensive frontcourt insurance as any team could possibly ask for behind the defensively challenged Lillard.

Reasons to doubt: Swapping Lillard for Jrue Holiday may have plugged one hole while creating another, as the Bucks suddenly have legitimate defensive questions to answer.

It's not just that Milwaukee went from one of the game's best perimeter defenders to one of its worst, the team must also reckon with the fact Middleton has lost a step on that end of the court. Even if Pat Connaughton, Jae Crowder, and MarJon Beauchamp provide plus-defense by committee, the Bucks will be asking a lot of Antetokounmpo and Lopez, the latter of whom was aided greatly by Holiday's presence. If Lillard can find a new defensive gear, as Donovan Mitchell did in Cleveland last season, that would help tremendously.

In any event, the Bucks may be able to overcome their new defensive issues on the perimeter during the regular season. However, when the postseason and its knack for exposing teams' weaknesses rolls around, there may simply be too many fires for Lopez and Antetokounmpo to put out.

In addition, in Lillard, Lopez, and Middleton, Milwaukee's hopes hinge on three players aged 32-35 who've averaged between 43 and 45 games per season over the last two years. - Joseph Casciaro

Boston Celtics

Brian Babineau / NBA / Getty

Reasons to believe: The Celtics already had the foundation of a perennial contender: a glut of shooting and two-way talent orbiting the Eastern Conference's preeminent dual-wing nucleus. That infrastructure lifted them to four East finals and one Finals berth over the last six years. But after failing repeatedly to get over the hump, they made some major changes this offseason that should augment the shape of that structure without eroding its bedrock.

In effectively swapping out Marcus Smart, Robert Williams III, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams for Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, the front office sacrificed some depth for the sake of upgrading its talent at the top of the roster. Between the two new imports, the two Jays, newly minted All-Defensive guard Derrick White, and ageless wonder Al Horford, Boston probably has the best top six in basketball.

Porzingis can be frustrating, both with his inconsistent play and his even spottier availability, but his skill is undeniable. He's coming off a season in which he shot 39% from 3-point range, scored 1.18 points per direct post-up (fourth in the league), and got to the free-throw line more than any Celtic other than Jayson Tatum, all while holding opponents to just 56.1% shooting at the rim (stingier than Williams or Horford).

Porzingis can simultaneously improve Boston's already pristine spacing and provide a new dimension to an offense that's arguably grown too reliant on outside shots, all while playing a vital role for a defense that ranked second last season and first the campaign prior.

Then there's Holiday, a five-time All-Defensive team selection whose arrival effectively turns Smart's departure into a wash on defense. (Holiday is better on the ball, Smart is better in help, both are exceptionally versatile.) Holiday also provides the Celtics more dynamism on offense. With him and White at the point of attack, Boston will have the league's best defensive backcourt, just as it did with Smart and White last season. But now that backcourt will have the benefit of Holiday's vastly superior shooting, driving, and finishing.

Tatum and Brown will continue to stir the drink. The former has become arguably the best two-way wing in basketball, a relentless self-creator who keeps making incremental strides as a playmaker and fills gaps at the defensive end as well as anyone. He and Brown were the highest-scoring full-season duo in the league last season, combining for nearly 57 points a game on nearly 60% true shooting.

Because both star wings are capable of toggling between the three and the four on defense, and because Porzingis and Horford can both function as either fours or fives at either end, Joe Mazzulla can feel equally comfortable playing his two bigs together or splitting them up. When he opts for the latter, White gives Mazzulla a perfect option to fill out those smaller lineups. This team finished in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2022-23 and looks primed to once again dominate at both ends of the court.

Reasons to doubt: Pairing the oft-injured Porzingis with a 37-year-old Horford in the frontcourt feels like a risky gambit, especially considering the Celtics also lost switchable forward/small-ball center/cinder block Grant Williams, and their remaining depth options (Luke Kornet, Sam Hauser, Wenyen Gabriel, Oshae Brissett) inspire minimal confidence.

Even if Porzingis and Horford stay healthy-ish, depth will be a concern. Things get very shaky very fast once you get beyond that vaunted top six, with guys like Payton Pritchard, Lamar Stevens, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Jordan Walsh suddenly looking like they could be in line for prominent roles. The defense also feels likely to take a hit despite the Holiday addition; Porzingis, while solid, is slower and less scheme-versatile than Robert Williams. And Grant Williams was crucial to unlocking Boston's other bigs as rovers thanks to his ability to guard opposing centers.

Finally, going from Smart to Holiday at the point represents a slight passing downgrade. While that may seem negligible, it could still prove problematic given how shaky a passing team Boston already was. Smart's pick-and-roll creation was long an underrated component of the Celtics' offense.

Without Smart, it's easy to see Tatum, Brown, and Holiday struggling under a playmaking load they aren't fully equipped to handle. We've seen it happen to all three of them in the past. That won't necessarily prevent the Celtics from being a top-tier offense in the regular season given how much shooting and pure scoring ability they possess, but it could once again derail them in the playoffs. - Wolfond

Phoenix Suns

Barry Gossage / NBA / Getty

Reasons to believe: Between Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal, this team has an overwhelming amount of top-end and offensive talent. The Suns employ multiple championship-level offensive alphas in Durant and Booker, with Beal serving as the league's most overqualified third option. All three are self-creating stars who are also capable of initiating and facilitating. No other team can say that about its best three players.

Replacing the disgruntled Deandre Ayton with Jusuf Nurkic also gives head coach Frank Vogel more defensive upside to work with while giving Phoenix's big three a better short-roll playmaker and sharper release valve on the offensive end. In addition, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe, Nassir Little, Josh Okogie, Drew Eubanks, Jordan Goodwin, Bol Bol, and others give the Suns much more depth than skeptics are giving them credit for.

Reasons to doubt: Considering how much star talent the Suns possess, there are actually many reasons to doubt their championship pedigree.

For one, defense will be an issue, with a lot now riding on a big man (Nurkic) who hasn't cracked the 60-game mark in five years. At this stage of their careers, the defensive gap between Nurkic and Ayton isn't as wide as Suns fans want to believe it is, especially given the former's durability issues.

It's not all roses on the offensive end, either. While Nurkic is the better playmaker and decision-maker - which will be valuable given how often the Suns' star ball-handlers will encounter extra defenders and traps - his presence could also exacerbate Phoenix's biggest offensive issue. The Suns ranked dead last in rim frequency last season, with only 25.9% of their field-goal attempts coming at the rim, according to Cleaning The Glass. After Durant joined the team March 1, that number plummeted further to 21.9% before finally hitting rock-bottom (19.2%) in the playoffs.

While Suns fans surely grew tired of watching Ayton shy away from contact and turn obvious size advantages into lower-percentage looks, the big man was still an elite finisher. Meanwhile, Nurkic has spent his career hovering between the fourth and 32nd percentile among bigs when it comes to at-rim efficiency. Having three stars who can create their own shot - and make a plethora of tough ones - like Durant, Booker, and Beal is a luxury fellow contenders can only dream of. But you have to be able to get some easy ones, too. Beal will help in that regard, but not enough.

Finally, the Suns should be commended for adding as many solid reserves as they did this summer despite cap-related limitations, but the truth is that the team has a decent amount of regular-season depth but not a ton of postseason-caliber rotation pieces. - Casciaro

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