Dark Horse 2021 NBA Title Contenders to Keep an Eye On

Championship contention in the NBA is typically a closed-door affair. There may be five to 10 teams who can win the title in any given year, but they tend to be the same suspects. The Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers. The Boston Celtics. The Milwaukee Bucks. The Philadelphia 76ers. The Miami Heat The Brooklyn Nets. You get the point.

Indeed, this list changes every season. But the point is, every year’s list of genuine title contenders is consensus. Analysts will usually end up picking the same three to five squads to win it all. All the best sports betting sites will typically have the same five to 10 franchises at the top of their championship hierarchy. The national television schedule throughout the regular season will be built around all this information, aiming to highlight the most likely title contenders.

This model is unavoidable. More so than most sports leagues, the NBA is predictable. The best teams are easier to identify on paper, and the postseason structure—four total rounds in best-of-seven format—are built to make sure those are the squads that hang a banner.

Every once in a while, though, one or two teams throw us for a loop. They don’t necessarily come out of nowhere, but they drastically outperform consensus protections and wedge their way into a title discussion that didn’t initially include them.

Sometimes, these surprises don’t make it far. In some years, they do. The 2015 Golden State Warriors were hardly anyone’s title picks, and yet they took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Last year’s Miami Heat were in the same boat, but they made it all the way to the NBA Finals.

Our mission here is to identify the next crop of teams who have the best chance of falling under this umbrella. Believe it or not, despite the NBA’s relatively wide championship picture, there are a couple of squads outside that clique who may soon enter it. Here are our three best guesses.

Phoenix Suns

Make no mistake, the Suns are on the national radar. They just traded for Chris Paul, one of the 20 best players alive, to pair with Devin Booker, a young star who may be ready to enter the top-20 conversation himself. They are deeper and can play many different styles. Most expect them to contend for a playoff spot.

In the grand scheme of projections, though, they’re being undersold. People are more likely to give the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz championship consideration. And while that’s a justifiable stance to take, it’s also an arguable one.

Between Paul, Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Jevon Carter, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson, the Suns stretch eight really good players deep. So long as CP3 remains healthy, this team should be respectable at both ends of the floor, and a legitimate title push is not out of the question as a result.

“Phoenix Suns Courtside” by Al_HikesAZ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have done a great job keeping the Blazers on a yearly basis. But they’ve always seemed to lack a certain oomph as a team. There weren’t enough wings. Or there weren’t enough shooters. Or they didn’t have enough defenders. Or the roster wasn’t deep enough.

None of these things are issues entering the 2021 season. The Blazers now have plenty of wings after adding Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., re-signing Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood and bringing back Gary Trent Jr. They can play small or big, and it won’t matter. There will be enough shooting and defense around Dame and CJ at all times.

Somehow, however, the Blazers are not considered a consensus contender. Most projections have them finishing between sixth and 10th in the West. That’s too low. In reality, this is a team that might be better than every other squad except the Lakers.

“Amir Johnson | Toronto Raptors” by Basketball Schedule is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors were written off after winning the 2019 championship because they lost Kawhi Leonard. They responded by coming within one victory of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Now, following the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency, they’re expected to drop off again.

You know where this is going.

Yes, the Raptors have some risk to their stock. Kyle Lowry is older, they’ll need Pascal Siakam to take another step forward as a ball-handler, and their center rotation will need a career from Chris Boucher or Aron Baynes.

Nothing above is a deal-breaker. The Raptors are still built to play their butts off on defense, and their rotation continues to stretch between and 10 players deep. If they can get more half-court creation from OG Anunoby or Matt Thomas (or Siakam), they’re going to contend for another top-two spot in the East—and the championship cachet that comes with it.