Which surprise NBA contender is for real?

The 2023-24 NBA season has reached its halfway point and a few surprise teams are vying for contender status, but which one is for real?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Chicago Bulls
Oklahoma City Thunder v Chicago Bulls / Michael Reaves/GettyImages
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The 2023-24 NBA season has not gone completely to the script. Yes, the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Denver Nuggets are excellent and racking up wins, but no one expected the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors to be fighting for their play-in lives. However, focusing on the disappointments in life is not a winning strategy, and as a few pre-season contenders have wilted, four surprise contenders have taken their place.  

The Thunder, Sixers, Timberwolves, and Clippers are surprise contenders

The Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Los Angeles Clippers have all emerged as serious contenders. The quartet are second through fifth in the league in net rating, the difference in offensive and defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, and boast impressive rosters to back up their metrics. If net rating isn’t your thing, they are all in the top seven in wins. 

While it’s easy to say halfway through the season that these teams were obvious contenders, at the beginning of the season, no one had them in the championship mix. Fanduel Sportsbook pegged the Timberwolves and Thunder’s over/under for wins at 44.5, the Clippers came in at 45.5, and the mighty Sixers at 47.5. 44 to 48 wins is nothing to sneeze at, but it hardly makes a team a contender.  

Since the start of the new millennium, the fewest wins a champion has had in an 82-game season are 53, shared by the 2022-23 Denver Nuggets and 2021-22 Golden State Warriors. With each of the Thunder, Sixers, Timberwolves, and Clippers on pace to reach or exceed that figure, it’s time to take them seriously as championship contenders, but which of these teams are actually for real?

Are the Minnesota Timberwolves championship contenders?

The Minnesota Timberwolves are tied atop the Western Conference at 31-13, have by far the best defensive rating at 109.2, and are fifth in net rating at 5.8. Through 44 games, the Timberwolves have been outstanding and have a chance to secure home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. 

Their preferred starting five of Anthony Edwards, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Mike Conley, and Jaden McDaniels has bludgeoned opponents. In 406 minutes, the five-man lineup has a net rating of plus-7.4, an offensive rating of 121.38, and a defensive rating of 114. While that net rating is mighty impressive, it is a tad below the best five-man units in the league and suggests the Timberwolves’ greatest strength is depth. 

Depth is necessary to traverse the regular season, but it becomes less important in the playoffs when rotations shrink, and starters play 40-plus minutes a night. The Timberwolves will continue to win regular season games at an impressive clip, but against the best teams in the league, their best will be second best. 

While the top of the Timberwolves roster is a notch below most contenders, their offense is a serious cause for concern. Of the top 10 teams in net rating, their offensive rating of 114.8 ranks the lowest at 19th. It’s not unprecedented for defensive juggernauts with middling offenses to make a run to the title. The 2021-22 Warriors had the top-rated defense and the 17th-ranked offense, but it’s exceedingly rare, and those teams had a transcendent offensive player. 

The Timberwolves' championship blueprint is the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons. The Pistons parlayed the second-ranked defense and 17th-ranked offense without a true offensive superstar to a title. Unfortunately, the NBA was a dramatically different place 20 years ago. The league average points per 100 possessions was 102.9, compared to 115.8 in 2023-24. An elite offense is becoming a more important title indicator than it has been historically.  

The Timberwolves are an excellent team and should win a playoff series, maybe even two, but they don’t appear to be real contenders. The wildcard for them is if Anthony Edwards can level up and become an offensive superstar, but that’s a tough ask for a 22-year-old who has only just solidified his All-Star status. In a year or two, Edwards might be the star this type of team needs, but by then, this team will look a lot different. 

Verdict: No