Who Will Win a Title Before 2028?
Ranking all 30 NBA teams based on talent, future assets and organizational principles
If the next decade of basketball is anything like the previous seven, 2.71 different teams will hoist a Larry O’Brien trophy.
In 67 years of NBA titles and three of BAA, only 19 franchises have ended the season on top. The same number of NFL teams have shared 51 Super Bowls, while 22 MLB teams have won World Series in the last 39 years alone.
Fewer franchises have a greater share of NBA titles for four reasons:
- Dominance of superstars. Having one of the best players in the league makes it relatively easy to build a title contender; other sports require more surrounding talent.
- Longevity of superstars. When a team gets one of those transcendent players, they are set up to win for a decade. Football careers are shorter, whereas stars matter far less in baseball.
- Difficulty of upsets. The best teams win more often in basketball than any other sport. The high number of possessions and low importance of each possession decreases the randomness of outcomes.
- Importance of franchise stability. Given the value of stars and lack of randomness, the best-run franchises tend to win across eras.
When applying this knowledge to the current NBA, the league’s seemingly wide-open future suddenly becomes more narrow. Moreover, teams that may appear to have future championships within their grasps may actually be greater long shots than franchises that appear farther off, but have better foundational qualities.
When ranking the current NBA in terms of which teams are most likely to win at least one title in the next 10 years, I looked at seven general criteria (in no particular order):
- How good is the current team?
- What is their best young player’s ceiling?
- How many assets do they have (young players, future picks, value contracts)?
- How good is their coach?
- How good is their GM?
- How willing is their owner to maximize spending and minimize meddling?
- How attractive is their market to free agents?
While I was able to arrive at a general order, parsing the difference between certain teams was quite difficult. Therefore, I broke the list down into tiers, and attempted to rank the teams within each one. In other words, if you believe my order is wrong within a tier, you are probably right. If you believe I messed up more than that…one of us has a problem.
First Tier: The End-All, Be-All
1. Golden State Warriors
I know this is a list ranking teams based on how likely they are to win a championship in the next 10 years, and I don’t want to discourage you from reading further. The truth is, though, that the Warriors are the only team that is actually likely to win a championship in the next 10 years. In fact, they are more likely to win multiple championships than our № 2 ranked team is to win one.
If their current omnipresent reign over the league is not enough, the Warriors check all the boxes need for longevity: good young players, a coach that everyone wants to play for, an elite GM, committed ownership and a super-attractive market for free agents. Even if you took Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green off this roster, they’d finish in the upper half of these rankings.
Second Tier: It looks good on paper…
2. Boston Celtics
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Now we’re in the real world, where every team’s case is flawed. The Spurs edge the Sixers because, while Philly has the best duo of young stars in the league, neither is likely to ever be as good as Kawhi Leonard, who is only two years older than Joel Embiid. And then they have Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and Peter Holt, the holy trinity of NBA upper management.
Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge and the Celtics ownership group is close, though. And considering that Golden State does in fact have Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green, Boston’s management may be worth more. There is no guarantee that Pop will be coaching in five years, nor is there one that Kawhi will still be an elite superstar.
Of course, there is no guarantee that any Celtics player will ever be a superstar. But given how many young studs and future picks they possess, how strong of a coach the 41-year-old Stevens is, how good they currently are (without Gordon Hayward), how attractive their market is, and how good Ainge has been at balancing today and tomorrow, they edge San Antonio.
Third Tier: The Premier Non-Premier Franchise
5. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are in a tier by themselves. They check enough boxes to be in Tier 2 (they’re a 55-to-60-win team, they have an MVP-level leader, a good coach, a great GM, a seemingly-committed owner, and above-average free agent appeal), but none of those checks are definitive enough. Morey does not have the vault of assets Boston or Philly does. James Harden might not be good enough to be the best player on a title team. D’Antoni is no Pop. The Rockets are peaking at the height of the Warriors era.
They still crack the top five, because they have the best chance at beating the Warriors over the next couple of years—the “couple” being key, given LeBron James’ potential Cleveland departure.
Fourth Tier: …but we still have that guy!
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Both of these Midwestern franchises are wrought with problems. Coaching, front office, ownership and market are real concerns. The future is murky in Cleveland with James’ impending free agency, as it is in Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ceiling and desire to be a Buck long term both undetermined.
Yet, they still have LeBron and Giannis, who are respectively the best player alive and the guy who seems most likely to assume that throne in two or three years. When it comes to winning titles, nothing beats having someone on your roster that is better than every other guy on every other roster.
The Cavs get the edge here, simply because LeBron is already that guy. Even if they lose him next summer, it is still unlikely that Giannis ever gets Milwaukee to Cleveland’s current height.
Fifth Tier: One of these 10 teams will do it
8. Toronto Raptors
9. Los Angeles Lakers
10. New York Knicks
11. Portland Trail Blazers
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
13. Denver Nuggets
14. Oklahoma City Thunder
15. Utah Jazz
16. Dallas Mavericks
17. Washington Wizards
18. New Orleans Pelicans
This tier is where the fun is. Each of these 11 franchises has a realistic path towards title contention, while each could also be in the lottery eight times in the coming decade. My feeling is that one of these teams will win a title, maybe two, maybe none.
Toronto is Boston-lite, featuring a robust blend of current talent, youth, coaching, decision making and market size. Most importantly, GM Masai Ujiri has built his roster with flexibility. Should the team need to go all-in for a title run or pivot to a powerful rebuild, it has the pieces to keep, pieces to trade and cap space to use.
Los Angeles and New York round out the top 10. Free agency may not seem to be helping either franchise lately, but market size cannot be discounted over a 10-year period. Of the two, while the Knicks have the only young superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, they also have the more disruptive owner in James Dolan. Should both teams become good, the Lakers are always more likely to become great.
The Blazers top out the next mini-tier. They have had three hard resets in the last 10 years, and are still on track to make their eighth postseason appearance during that time. It has taken the Wolves 14 years to recover from trading Kevin Garnett, while the Nuggets’ resiliency is somewhere in between. Should Minnesota and Denver fail to win a title with their current cores (likely), Terry Stotts and Paul Allen are reasons to bet on Portland. The Wolves still edge the Nuggets, due to Towns possessing more upside than Jokic.
Is Sam Presti a great GM working under cheap ownership, or is he to blame for OKC’s biggest personnel losses? It is one of the great NBA questions, but has no relevance here. Both answers are equally detrimental to the Thunder’s long-term title viability, as proven by their lack of prospects and certainty past this season. Despite the questions, they do crack the top half due to current talent.
The final four teams were the toughest cluster to order. Do we prioritize coaching (Dallas), management (Utah), current talent (Washington) or best young player (New Orleans)?
The Jazz ultimately win out, because they have the most in other areas (young talent and coaching) to supplement their terrific drafting and roster building. Dallas is second, because it has Dennis Smith, Jr. in addition to Rick Carlisle. Washington may have the best current team, but they are not good enough to win a title now, nor do they have the cap flexibility, coaching or blue-chip prospects to contend once John Wall declines, which could be soon.
Then there’s the Pelicans. Sure, AD is a 24-year-old superstar with MVP upside, is under contract for two-and-a-half more years, and will almost definitely be Supermax eligible. But what is that really worth without any structure around him?
Consider which of these scenarios is more likely:
- The Pelicans find a great GM, get out of cap jail and build a 50-win team quick enough to re-sign Davis, and then find the right coach to elevate them to real contender status.
- The Jazz—with the roster flexibility, draft record, coach, and depth already in place—hit one home run via the draft or trade to become real contenders.
Once you realize that these teams with young stars are still long shots to ever win a title, you realize how much more important fundamental organizational principles are.
Sixth Tier: One of these teams will contend in the post-LeBron East
19. Detroit Pistons
20. Miami Heat
21. Indiana Pacers
Without any remaining current contenders or elite collections of young talent, the teams best equipped to contend are those that can realistically become one of those two things.
Detroit is good enough, well-coached enough and young enough that, with the right trade, right draft pick and right decision from LeBron next summer, could become a contender over the next year or two. Miami is similar, but with less cap flexibility, less high upside guys, better ownership and a better market. Indiana outdoes both teams on the youth front with Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, but has the shakiest market and management of the group. Those deficiencies matter more than young talent when said young talent is sub-elite.
Seventh Tier: Who has the assets to have any hope?
22. Phoenix Suns
23. Los Angeles Clippers
24. Orlando Magic
25. Brooklyn Nets
26. Atlanta Hawks
27. Charlotte Hornets
28. Sacramento Kings
29. Chicago Bulls
All of these teams are bad. Some know they’re bad (Suns, Hawks), while others are in denial (Clippers, Hornets). It doesn’t really matter though. The Clippers could pivot into a rebuild in the coming months, and still be in a better position than the pickless Nets, the prospectless Hawks and the Reinsdorf-owned Bulls.
Phoenix tops this group because it is currently asset-rich, and Devin Booker is the best young player remaining. Then comes the Ballmer-owned Clippers and their flippable veterans. Orlando at least has Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and all its future picks, which is more than can be said for Brooklyn. The Nets, however, have the draw of New York, placing them ahead of the Hawks and Hornets. The Kings’ pick obligation and incompetent front office drops them below those Travis Schlenk/Rich Cho-led Southeast teams, while De’Aaron Fox and their meddling-but-willing-to-spend owner keeps them above Chicago.
Eighth Tier: The end-all, end-all
30. Memphis Grizzlies
Forget the interim head coach, the puppet front office and the soap opera ownership situation. This team’s best young player is Dillon Brooks. If it wants better prospects, it would have to trade Marc Gasol—you know, the guy it fired its good young coach for. Even tanking is not a great option, considering it owes Boston its 2019 first rounder.
Memphis is where Brooklyn was four years ago. The only problem is, its not actually in Brooklyn.