by Nathaniel Kelliehan / @nkelliehan

Though the NBA is in the middle of a lockout, weʼre still going to move forward as if there will be an upcoming season.

Last season was full of surprises that entertained us from the beginning of the year to the end. As for next year I see five teams that if improve, can make strong cases to winning the NBA Championship.

Chicago Bulls

Letʼs start off with the best team last year (record wise), the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls went 62-20 last year due to their tenacious defense, rebounding and, of course, Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose. They were ranked second in points allowed (91.3) and rebounds per game (44.2).

Most of the year they faced injuries between two of their key guys Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who missed a combined 57 games. Luckily they had Rose (who elevated his status to an elite player) as well as a consistent, productive bench.

But their biggest weakness last year was the lack of a consistent second scorer. Every team knew Rose was going to get his 25 and 8, but they also knew that if they shut him down, their chances of winning were good. Boozer was the high-priced free agent brought in to be that second option behind Rose, but his play became more inconsistent during the season and in the Playoffs.

What the Bulls need is an upgrade at the shooting guard position. They need someone who can create their own shot, play the up-tempo style, and who is a quality defender. Their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Miami Heat showed how desperately they needed that other scorer. They became stagnant on offense and it was just Derrick Rose against the Heat by himself. An upgrade at SG could put the Bulls back in a position to contend for the NBA Championship. They will need Boozer and Noah to play more consistent, and to hope injuries donʼt play a big factor.

Memphis Grizzlies

Probably the biggest surprise of last year, more so in the Playoffs. The Grizzlies finished as the 8th seed in the Western Conference but took on that underdog role and ran with it. Zach Randolphemerged as a true star in the dominating series win against No. 1 seeded San Antonio Spurs. Randolph and his fellow big man Marc Gasol became an unstoppable duo too much for the Spurs to match.

Though they lost in a thrilling seven-game second round series against the Thunder, they still proved that they are a team to be reckoned with for years to come. Their biggest challenge going into next year will be coming into their own skin and learning how to win on a consistent basis.

Theyʼre a very young team (second youngest last year) and they can only get better. They have to capitalize on their strength which is feeding the ball inside to Gasol and Randolph, but they also need to improve on their weakness of not having a perimeter scorer.

Tony Allen played a huge role in their post-season success; however, he is known more for his defensive abilities than offensive skills. I donʼt see him contributing even close to what he did last year. But they should get that perimeter scorer when Rudy Gay returns from injury, who was sidelined for most of the year, including the Playoffs. Gay is an athletic forward who can space the floor and create more scoring opportunities for his big men as well as others. If they can bring that same success from last year’s postseason to next year that can become a stronger team in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

Besides Miami the Lakers were the most talked about team last year and will be this off- season. No other contending team is making drastic changes, as well as involved in so many trade rumors. The Lakers welcome Mike Brown as their new head coach, while they watch Hall of Famer Phil Jackson retire. If not enough they have to deal with the numerous trade rumors for Dwight Howard, and if you watched their second round series against the Mavericks then youʼll understand why there are so many rumors.

The Lakers were dismantled by the Mavericks in a four-game series sweep which ended any chance of them three-peating. But an explosive trade like that wouldnʼt be the smartest thing at this point in time. The Lakers have a great core with Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and even Andrew Bynum, who has started to come into his own. If they trade for Howard they likely give up Bynum and Odom which could hurt them more ways than help. Odom is key factor for L.A.ʼs bench and how productive they are so trading him will make the bench a bigger weakness than it already is.

The Lakers have two things that are stopping them from getting back to the Finals and capturing another title. One is rest, and thatʼs the biggest. The Lakers have played the most games of any team over the past four years due to their post-season success. When you make it to the Fnals three straight years, and trying to make it a fourth it takes a lot out of you. Furthermore, not having your best player practice with the team for most of the year takes the chemistry away also.

The second thing the Lakers need to do is improve their bench. Besides Odom, the Lakers bench is very unreliable. Steve Bake, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes contributed close to nothing during the regular season as well as in the postseason. The Lakers should look into acquiring a up-tempo point guard, and a shooter who can spread the floor. That would improve the bench, and not put so much pressure on the starters.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Now letʼs move on to Oklahoma City, who were just a few key plays away from making the NBA Finals last year. The Thunder are also one of the youngest teams in the League (third youngest last year) and now with their Playoff experience can make an even bigger leap next year. They also have the right pieces to make consistent runs at the title within the next five years.

The Thunder were fan favorites because of their up-tempo pace and combination of all-star duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That duo also led to many problems in the postseason, due to their lack of communication.

One of the Thunderʼs biggest weaknesses heading into next year is their lack of leadership. You would think with an all-star forward and reigning scoring champ in Durant, as well a championship winner in Kendrick Perkins, that the Thunder would have enough leadership to take them to the next level. But thatʼs not the case.

In most instances during the Playoffs, Westbrook decided to take games over in his own hands, which didnʼt work out in the Thunderʼs favor. He would throw up wild three-pointers, drive into congested lanes, and force turnovers in crucial possessions.

Westbrook has to learn that even though heʼs an All-Star, he isnʼt their No. 1 option, Durant is. And as for Durant he has to take control of the team, making his leadership known both on and off the court. He has to become somewhat of a Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, or even Dwight Howard for example. If Durant can become a leader and Westbrook is able to not overdue it at times, the Thunder will have a great chance at making the Finals next year.

Miami Heat

Last but certainly not least, letʼs talk about the Miami Heat. The Heat have the tough challenge of going into next year as the losers in last year’s Finals. But losing in the Finals has to be somewhat of a successful first season for the reinvented Heat.

No other team was more hated or scrutinized last season, from the time the Big Three came to together to when they lost in Game 6 of the Finals. And if for some strange reason you werenʼt near a television the past year, the Big Three consists of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All the hatred came mostly from fans but even other teams who disliked the idea of three all-stars playing together on the same team.

Their biggest weakness going into next season is gaining confidence and chemistry in each other, as well as in crucial moments of the game. While the Heat had those three elite players, itʼs also what led to most of their losses in the regular season and in the Playoffs. The Heatʼs most talked about games were the ones in which they couldnʼt score in the fourth quarter. They had a streak of five consecutive games during the regular season where they missed game winning shots, or just couldnʼt score consistently as the final minutes expired.

To overcome that weakness they need a constant guy who will create opportunities for himself as well as others. Last year they relied too heavily on letting either Wade or James bring up the ball while everyone else just watched them make a play. Those plays ultimately led to the Heat losing and being viewed for their poor decision making. If they can improve on their late game play calling and play making they should be in the same position as last year, in the NBA Finals.

All five of these teams could be sitting here next year as the defending NBA Champion, but only if they improve in the areas listed above. Letʼs hope that next year provides us with as much if not more entertainment and excitement as last year.

Other Notables: Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets.