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Can NBA’s rising powers challenge basketball elite?

Robbie Purves | March 10, 2016

As Golden State Warriors chase the 1995/96 Chicago Bulls’ win record and stroll their way to another NBA title, the landscape of basketball is about to change forever.

The salary cap will rise to around $100m per team, meaning the way players approach 2016’s impending free agency has totally changed. Now, even the smaller teams have the financial clout to attract the best talent.

Kevin Durant, Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford are among the names that could be on the move come this summer – having transformational effects on whatever team they join.

With this in mind, and Golden State’s usual challengers Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder pushing for supremacy, could one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams cause an upset next term?

Celtics championship contenders

Rebuilding the NBA’s most successful team started three years ago, when fading superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to Brooklyn Nets for their valuable draft picks.

The trade was a masterstroke by Boston Celtics general manager and former player, Danny Ainge. C’s trade saw them collect some of the most valuable assets in basketball.

Coral have Boston as 16/1 shots to win the Eastern Conference.

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens gives instructions during a timeout against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015 in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

This summer the team could land a future superstar, with their 2016 pick having an almost a 50 per cent chance of landing in the top three – Ben Simmons and Brandon Igram look like the hottest prospects.

Not only do Boston have this pick, but they have the financial power to draw a big name in free agency.

Horford has been earmarked as a potential acquisition and would slot perfectly into Brad Stevens’ team. The skilful big man is Mr Efficiency, operating with little flash to his game but produces outstanding numbers.

The Celtics are in such a healthy position and will be major players this off-season. GM Ainge will make a statement this summer, but what that move will be is yet to be seen.

Head coach Stevens is the perfect fit for resurgent Boston and has a calming influence on the youthful side. Expect Celtics to be a real force in the East next year and challenge LeBron James’ Cavaliers.

Bulls banish recent woes

Chicago sit eighth in the Eastern Conference and are a real doubt to make the playoffs.

Fred Hoiberg’s side have had a torrid time of late in terms of injuries. Jimmy Butler has missed some important games this season due to knee problems.

Another devastating blow for the Bulls was former MVP Derrick Rose tearing his ACL in 2012, which had him out of action for over a year.

During his absence, Butler emerged as a superstar and Joakim Noah took the team by the scruff of the neck and dragged Chicago through matches.

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in Philadelphia. The Bulls won 115-111 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Rose is now back, but visibly slower and less mobile – something he relied on heavily. An absence of a reliable jump shot has significantly decreased his threat, yet his combination play with Butler is a real indicator of future success. The former MVP is still young and could adapt his game to suit his decreased athletic ability.

However, big-men Pau Gasol and Noah are free agents this summer and will be shown the door. A lack of leadership within the Bulls is therefore a real worry.

The Windy City’s finest have accumulated role players such as Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. These players cannot propel a team to the NBA title.

Raptors to run rampant

Toronto Raptors are perhaps as good as they have ever been. These sole Canadian representatives in the NBA’s only Canadian team sit second behind Cleveland in the East.

The Dinos have patiently assembled an impressive team with All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the team.

Second place Toronto are a super 7/1 to win the Eastern Conference, and could realistically do it.

Dwane Casey’s side are superb but, will find it hard to progress into championship contenders. DeRozan cannot bury three-pointers, it is a real weakness in his game and a skill a modern shooter needs to have in his arsenal.

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan in action during the NBA Global Games match at the O2 Arena, London.

It can be argued that due to his talent of attacking the basket it isn’t necessary for his game to evolve, but in this day and age, and for Toronto to become challengers, he needs to add distance shooting to his game.

DeRozan will be a free agent this summer and will demand at least $17m a-year to stay – pushing the team up to the limit of the salary cap, making it hard to bring in any decent players.

Luckily for Toronto, they have a draft pick and will look to trade it for a star power forward or gamble, hoping the talent they pick comes good.

Hassan’s white hot Heat

Miami Heat will be a fascinating prospect in the next few years. At 26 years old, Hassan Whiteside has not yet hit his ability ceiling. The seven-footer is a superb shot blocker, yet the center has so much room for improvement – both in terms of attacking and defending, perhaps developing a more potent jump-shot.

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, in Denver. Miami won 98-95. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Teenager Justice Winslow has star potential and could become a 17-point scorer in the near future. The sky is the limit for 19-year-old Winslow and would be integral to a title challenge.

Only one issue remains, does Winslow become a superstar before three-time champion Dwyane Wade becomes too old? At 34 years old, the shooting guard’s window for another championship ring is closing.

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