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The Next Denver: Examining the Potential Champions Among NBA's Title-less Teams

After the Nuggets championship win, 10 NBA teams remain without a title. Which team will be the next to end their drought?

The Denver Nuggets just capped off a tremendous season and playoff run with their first ever NBA championship. It was a long road for Denver, who after 47 years as an NBA franchise have finally tasted their first title. What this also means is that the NBA now has one fewer team on the list of teams that have never won the whole thing. There are now 10 teams that have never lifted the Larry O’Brian trophy and they are:

  • Brooklyn Nets

  • Charlotte Hornets

  • Indiana Pacers

  • Los Angeles Clippers

  • Memphis Grizzlies

  • Minnesota Timberwolves

  • New Orleans Pelicans

  • Orlando Magic

  • Phoenix Suns

  • Utah Jazz

Five of these teams (Brooklyn, Indiana, Orlando, Phoenix, and Utah) have been to the Finals before but have never won it. The NBA as a league is one that is defined by star power and derided for a lack of parity, a point that is reinforced when you consider the number of titles the Celtics and Lakers have amassed in their history. But yet, the league has fewer titleless teams than both the NFL and NHL (two leagues often praised for their parity). The question becomes in this wide-open NBA devoid of any true superpowers, which of these 10 teams has the chance to become the next Denver. Let’s look at three times in three different timelines that could add their names to the wall of champions: Orlando, Memphis, and Phoenix.

The Upside of the Orlando Magic

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth could the Orlando Magic possibly be thinking about a title at this moment? After all, the team has missed the playoffs 10 times in the last 12 years. But what the Magic presents now is a trip to the wonderful land of upside. The team is very young, with all but three players being under 27 years old. And it is those young players that are shaping up the core of a team that could be perennial playoff contenders within the next five seasons.

It all starts with this season's Rookie of the Year winner Paolo Banchero. Banchero was the number one pick in the draft (a slot for the Magic that has served them well in the past with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard). In many ways, Banchero is the new prototype for an NBA player. He is 6 '10 " with guard skills and a shooting touch while not having a high efficiency is good enough to become a threat. He is someone that can score from all three levels, and is only getting better.

Paired with him are two young players that formulate the core of the Orlando Magic: Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. Franz is an excellent complimentary player to Banchero showcasing much of the same range and ability to score. Carter Jr. is a double-double waiting to happen, an excellent rebounder and interior scorer that has shown flashes of an elite defensive play as well. Together they form a trio that feels like they are a veteran point guard away from being a playoff team.

To win in the NBA, there needs to be a balance of youth and experience and it seems that the Magic have their centerpiece in Banchero and excellent complementary pieces in Carter and Wagner. But all that is missing is more experience for them and a couple of veteran players to fill in around the fringes to make this team a viable contender. If Banchero continues on his trajectory toward superstardom we may well see the Orlando Magic win their first title within the next decade.

The Intrigue and Frustration of the Memphis Grizzlies

This year was supposed to be the year that the Memphis Grizzlies made a breakthrough. They had a superstar point guard in Ja Morant in his prime, a defensive monster in Jaren Jackson Jr, and a budding swingman in Desmond Bane. But then it all unraveled. Morant missed games due to his off the court antics with firearms, both Brandon Clarke and Steven Adams went down with season-ending injuries, and the Grizzlies bowed out of the first round at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. And yet despite that, they should be a favorite coming out of the Western Conference for years to come.

Morant had a second gun-related incident on social media which resulted in a 25 game suspension for next season. While this is a substantial blow, it is not one that this Grizzlies team and management group cannot overcome. The team still employs one of the best reserve point guards in the league in Tyus Jones and has enough depth to tread water until their star gets back. And when he does, the Grizzlies have a supporting cast that can help this team dominate the West. The timing for the rise of Memphis is a suitable one when one considers that for the first time in years, there is no dominant team in the conference.

The West currently has a couple of aging teams the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, and Suns that are seeing their windows of opportunity closing. There is of course the Denver Nuggets that just won a title, but questions will abound about how sustainable their title contention window will be, and the Dallas Mavericks appear to be in disarray despite employing one of the best scorers we’ve ever seen in Luka Doncic. The future of the West seems to be in favor of the Grizzlies as a result. Morant, Jackson Jr, and Bane are all young and in their prime. And young role players like Xavier Tillman, Ziaire Williams, and Santi Aldama will help to round out the rotation for years to come.

The future in Memphis ultimately hinges on the actions of Ja Morant. This season should have been a wake up call for him to take his stature as a superstar in the NBA more seriously. If he is able to clean up his off-the-court issues and avoid further suspensions, the Grizzlies could very well be lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy within the next 5 seasons. If he does not, we will have another cautionary tale of a team that just couldn’t mature enough to take it to the next level.

The Phoenix Suns and the Need to Win Now

There is an interesting phenomenon that happens when an NBA team has a new owner. That owner wants to make a splash, to show that they are serious about winning. We saw it in Los Angeles when former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer purchased the Clippers and promptly went on to trade for Paul George and signed Kawhi Leonard in free agency. The Suns have a new owner in Matt Ishbia, a former college basketball player at Michigan State that made millions in the mortgage industry. He has now mortgaged his team's future in the hopes of championships in the present.

Ishbia parted ways with two very good players in Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges to acquire one of the best players we’ve ever seen in Kevin Durant. The Suns also parted ways with an aging Chris Paul this offseason and seem primed to target any role player that wants their best chance at winning a title. With Durant and Devin Booker in his prime, the Suns are firmly entrenched in win-now mode. The only objective for them is to win the whole thing, and as long as Durant stays healthy the chances of them succeeding in that goal feels high.

The only issue with that is that Durant has not been very healthy since he left Golden State. In the last three seasons, Durant has missed nearly half of his team's games. And yet he is still producing at a level that solidifies his greatness. This is the great Kevin Durant conundrum. When he is playing you will see one of the best offensive players to ever touch a basketball still in full command of his ability. But you will also see him miss a lot of games, which requires needing an elite second option that can burden the scoring load when that happens.

Devin Booker is the player tasked with that monumental request, and he seems to be more than up for the task. In the last couple of seasons, Booker has shown that he is a player that can score in bunches and contribute to winning basketball as an occasional secondary playmaker. With him and Durant, the Suns should be in the mix as a title contender for the next couple of seasons. I would look for them to be in the market for a veteran point guard to fill the void that Chris Paul has left. Ultimately, I would look at them as the betting favorites of all the teams without a title. I think they’re ready to finally break through, lift the Larry O’Brien trophy, and end decades of close calls and what-ifs in the desert.

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