By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI — The NBA this season figures to be especially crowded at the top, with a number of teams in the championship mix.
There will be an even bigger crowd at the bottom of the league.
Even in an era where salary caps and luxury taxes are helping small-market teams, the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the NBA seems particularly copious this season.
Few would argue that Miami, Chicago, Brooklyn, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers are all legitimate contenders to finish this season hoisting the trophy named for Larry O’Brien next June.
And cases could also be made that just about every other club might have a chance to draft Andrew Wiggins a few days later.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in the league, 14 years, where if you fast-forwarded to July and said one of nine teams won the championship, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Memphis guard Mike Miller said. “That doesn’t happen very often. That’s what makes the league exciting this year. Obviously, the favorite is Miami. But if you did fast-forward it, barring injuries or anything like that, there’s eight or nine teams that have a chance.”
As for everyone else, the future might not necessarily be now.
Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston, Charlotte, Phoenix, Utah and Sacramento look to be in rebuilding modes, mostly around young cores with plenty of potential. The New York Knicks look like a playoff team, though perhaps a step below the clear top four in the East. So that would figure to leave Milwaukee, Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and Washington as the six most logical candidates for the final three East playoff spots.
“We’re going to win championships here,” Raptors CEO Tim Leiweke said.
Maybe. But when?
That’s the question everybody’s dealing with in this loaded-at-the-top NBA. But it takes the right combination of spending and savvy to get it done.
“To me we have a league where management is what is going to win and going to do well in business,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “And I’m very proud of that situation.”
The West is ridiculously top-heavy. There’s the five teams just about everyone is talking about, plus Golden State — meaning at minimum, two teams that would seem good enough to win the conference won’t even have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That leaves six teams — the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas, New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota and Portland — likely to vie for the final two West playoff slots. And while injured Lakers star Kobe Bryant is scoffing at notions suggesting his team can’t contend, others in the purple and gold don’t seem to mind being off the radar screens right now.
“At this point, it’s really important for us to embrace these low expectations, try to find a real chemistry and build ourselves into a team that has some confidence,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “We have so many new players. We have so many question marks.”
Wiggins, the Kansas freshman, figures to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft if he leaves school, and there have been some comparisons made already between his game and the one LeBron James had at around the same age.
That being said, it might make the second half of the season particularly interesting. Some teams will know by then that they are not just a title contender, but out of the playoff race altogether. And that will inevitably lead to questions whether certain franchises might be better served trying to play for the best possible draft pick.
Make no mistake, that will be a talking point.
Heat guard Dwyane Wade thinks it’s a bad one. His first title came in 2006. Two years later, the Heat were 15-67 and widely accused of playing for the chance to draft Derrick Rose. They got Michael Beasley, who’s now back with Miami, instead.
“We had to hear that in ‘08, when all of us got hurt and we won 15 games and everyone said we were tanking,” said Wade, adding the accusation was insulting. “We weren’t tanking. We were hurt.”
So, like Miller said, fast-forward to June.
Maybe it’s time to just play for it being the Heat or the Bulls or the Pacers or the Nets versus the Spurs or the Thunder or the Rockets or the Grizzlies for the NBA title.
Since 2000, no seed lower than No. 4 in their respective conference playoffs has played for the title, anyway. And it doesn’t look like a year where too many teams look capable of crashing the party.
“There’s always a handful of teams that are building and there’s always a handful of teams that are built to win this year,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “The murky area is that middle ground, with those teams that don’t know. I think because of the cap agency, free agency, the summer of 2014, that has something to do with the cliff. Teams are very aware. That’s just the reality.”