NBA Contenders Power Rankings: The Middle + Season Predictions

Today, Part 3 of the 2020-21 NBA Preview covers any teams that have not yet been previewed yet this week.

Lets go!

No. 30 through No. 20 can be found here.

19. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies go as far as Ja Morant takes them.

That doesn’t mean Memphis’ surrounding cast around Morant is bad.  They have an ideal roster around their second year star, with length, shooting and switchability.  But the Grizzlies are banking on Morant being their whole offense, which might be a bit too tall of a task for the former Murray State guard if they want to actually crack the playoffs this year.

Morant was the Grizzlies’ sole offensive creator last year.  His ability to do on as good of a team as Memphis was made him a revelation.  Rookie point guards tend to struggle.  Morant instead won Rookie of the Year, and deservedly so.  But while his unprecedented performance had Memphis overachieving, it still left them short of the playoffs and a shot at the championship.

He’s going to have to go up yet another level this season.  That happening shouldn’t be shocking.  But if it doesn’t, Memphis might find itself sitting further back than anticipated.

18. Atlanta Hawks

For a team that felt truly committed to a rebuild around young, raw players, the Hawks offseason was a little strange.

But there’s no doubt that they’re now a better team.

Anything that will give Trae Young help – AKA take the ball out of his hands – makes Atlanta better.  Continuing on they usually do, the Hawks brought in offensive-minded players who can’t guard anyone in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who give them a baseline of offensive production if Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter don’t work out on that end of the court (Reddish came on pre-shutdown, but he’s going to need the ball more for that to continue.  Bogdanovic doesn’t help with that).  

Despite the upgrades, Atlanta feels like a team that’s just playing for the eighth seed.  The play-in tournament offers them some hope, but the East’s 1-10 is much better this year than in the past.  The Hawks might have veteran help, but need a step forward from either Young or Reddish to make up for the team’s struggles on the defensive end.  Their intriguing rotataion of bigs – John Collins, Clint Capela, rookie Onyeka Okongwu and Bruno Fernando – can’t solidfy the other four positions, unless Capela emerges as a Rudy Gobert-like force and Okongwu is the second-coming of Bam Adebayo immediately.

17. Toronto Raptors

Toronto’s constant grittiness and fight toward the postseason deserves immense respect, but there’s a way for things to go south up North this year quite fast.

There seems to be a bit of a lack of direction with the Raptors.  This is rare for Masai Ujiri, who wasn’t afraid to go all in by trading for Kawhi Leonard in 2018 and seemed to keep options open for the Raptors throughout last season, only to be surprised by his team’s overachievement.

Toronto moved through this offseason as if it isn’t planning to tear things down. It brought in Aron Baynes to replace Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors also re-signed Fred VanVleet, who’s still young enough to be part of a future core.

Pascal Siakam is the key here.  Last season, he was once again a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, but all of his advancement as a No. 1 scorer seemed to go to waste in the playoffs.  Kyle Lowry isn’t that guy, and at his age, might be a piece the Raptors could look to move to a real contender in exchange for a younger, higher upside scorer.  

Toronto figures to be competitive this year, but improvements atop the East could have them battling for a playoff spot.  The Raptors come down to Lowry and Baynes’ roster spots, or Siakam’s improvement.  One has to change if the Raptors want to return to the place Leonard took them.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

Most of the projections for Minnesota on the Internet are a bit surprising.

This should be a pretty good team!

Defensive struggles are aplenty.  The Timberwolves two best players are well below average on that end of the court.  But it’s why Minnesota re-signed Malik Beasley, has Jarrett Culver (who’s certainly raw but has the prototype) and Josh Okogie, drafted Anthony Edwards (same description as Culver) and traded for Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis.  It’s not an ideal situation, but the hope is that the offense from D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns – in addition to everyone else – makes up for it.

This is the best team Towns has had around him.  While Jimmy Butler gave Minnesota the same boost as a great perimeter creator, his (rightfully) toxic at times presence hurt the Wolves ability to win games.  Now, KAT has a friend on the court with him who’s able to give the Wolves what Butler brought – to an extent.

The Timberwolves ability to win in the playoffs needs to be looked at by them having the duo of KAT and Russell, not one or the other.  Towns has guard skills that have never been put to the test thanks to the inefficiency that has typically surrounded him.  Now, with Minnesota’s wings and the passing of Russell and Rubio, unlocking him offensively should come with ease.  If we get that version of Towns, Minnesota is guaranteed to be a playoff team.

15. Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook is the wild card here, and that’s not a compliment.

Let’s first evaluate the Wizards as if he doesn’t exist.  Washington was able to shed John Wall, clearing the way for this to become Bradley Beal’s team.  That’s an important step – Beal was deserving of All-NBA honors last season, and now has a pretty competent squad around him with shooting and spacing.

Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimera (who will be out for the first three weeks of the season), Isaac Bonga and Troy Brown Jr. are all long wings who can at least cut and slash.  Shooting needs to come a ways for all of them, but that can be offset by each’s ability to drive and get to the rim and the presence of Davis Bertans.  Beal can cook at the top, while Thomas Bryant either drops or spaces the court (His shooting is also a question mark).

But then there’s Westbrook.

He throws off a lot.  The shooting issues of almost everyone mentioned above are exacerbated by the high-usage, inefficient and ball-hogging guard.  Beal is turned into strictly a shooter with Westbrook creating instead of him.  

The Wizards could use the former Rocket in similar ways that Houston did at times – planting him at the elbow or free throw line and have him attack from there once receiving a pass.  But that means Beal or others takes on lead ball-handling duties, which might be an overtask.

The Wizards need a point guard that isn’t Westbrook, because if he’s the lead ball-handler, it’s never coming out of his hands.  It’s a shame, because Washington is extremely close to being potentially really good.

Washington’s success is predicated on how much Westbrook changes his style of play.  Him being used like the wings mentioned above could be deadly.  But then the Wizards are putting a burden on Beal or relying on Raul Neto or Ish Smith a little too much at point guard.

The Wizards should make the playoffs, and that could be selling them a little short.  But Westbrook requires a buffer, and that’s being accounted for here.

14. Golden State Warriors

13. Philadelphia 76ers

This season must be the calling card for the duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

Under new management that we can trust, Philadelphia deserves the benefit of the doubt this season as to whether its two stars can mesh.  

They’ve put what might be the perfect team around the two, finally.  Simmons and Embiid simply have shooting surrounding them now.  Danny Green and Seth Curry were brought in to replace Al Horford and Josh Richardson, which means half a shooter (Richardson) becomes at least one-and-a-half (Curry is lights out and Green can fluctuate).  That opens up the paint for Embiid to dominate, if he can stay healthy and in shape, while also clearing the lane for Simmons to be aggressive and attack – barring that he shows any willingness to do that.

Perimeter shot creation is still an issue.  Perhaps a massive Embiid season or any sort of jump-shot from Simmons (unlikely) solves that.  The answer could lie on the bench with rookie Tyrese Maxsey, who has star potential with his scoring ability and defensive prowess.  At worst, he could be Philly’s sixth man this year, but him entering into the starting lineup and playing in crunch-time seems unlikely early in the season.

Perhaps Philly’s big solution to their ultimate problem comes in the form of James Harden.  Depending on the cost, it’s a move the 76ers should probably act on.  But that still could be unlikely, given Philly’s public assurance that they want to give this roster a try.  It’s likely they’ll be regretting that statement at some point this year.

12. Phoenix Suns

This is what getting Devin Booker real help looks like.

The Suns found the keys to success in the Bubble and double-downed on it this offseason: play the wings at forward, let Booker score, and have someone good running it all.

At the one spot they needed the upgrade, they went out and got it.

Point Booker was too much for the 24-year-old the past few years.  Now, they have one of the best to ever do it at the position instead.

Chris Paul is backup if Booker’s apparent leap taken in the Bubble isn’t legit.  Not only should Paul help Booker focus solely on scoring more, but the Point God was one of the league’s best players last year in crunch-time.  He’ll also serve as the perfect passer for Deandre Ayton, whose strides defensively will make the offense he brings much more valuable and plentiful with Paul in the fold.

Phoenix also isn’t bound to the performance of young, inexperienced guys either.  Cam Johnson blew away expectations last year, but his defense leaves you wanting more.  Jae Crowder now steps in to bring the defense Johnson can’t at a bargain (Off that playoff performance, it’s surprising Crowder didn’t get more than $10 million a year).

It’d be disappointing if the Suns didn’t make the playoffs.  Their biggest question is how far in to the postseason they can get.  That, ultimately, comes down to Booker, and just how much Paul means to him.

11. Utah Jazz

Utah is running it back, and understandably so.  As close as they came to beating Denver in the first round thanks to a ridiculous performance from Donovan Mitchell, they didn’t give everything they had to offer.

The consistent problem with the Jazz is firepower and a little more of it could have been used against Jamal Murray.  Bojan Bogdanovic was out for the playoffs, and could have brought an immense shooting presence to the series.

The Jazz struggled early to open last season.  Mike Conley wasn’t the guy they traded for, and it reeked of previous Utah teams that couldn’t muster enough around Mitchell.  The hope would be that Conley rounds back into shape this season, and Bogdanovic comes off his injury aflame while Mitchell carries his playoff self into this season and competes for All-NBA honors.

The West is tough this year though, as almost everyone got better.  Utah didn’t.  But Mitchell himself might have, and it’s going to be up to him once again for to translate into wins.

10. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers might be the most underrated team in basketball.

The amount of offensive options they have is stunning.  First, the Pacers can run the classic big man passing offense centered around Domantas Sabonis, where he’s plopped at the elbow, dotting up the court as cutters and slashers move around him.  

Second, they have the occasional TJ Warren night – where the forward can put up 30.  Third, they have last year’s most common weapon – a Malcolm Brogdon “I’ve got this” outing that the Bucks gouge their eyes at.  And fourth, they have Victor Oladipo’s shot creation to get them a bucket when none of the others are going down for them.

Oladipo’s health and overall ceiling, in addition to the team’s defense, might limit them.  But this team should be able to score with ease unless its facing a team with a better player than Oladipo.  In the Eastern Conference, that list of players who are that is small.  

9. Portland Trail Blazers

From a pure roster standpoint, the Trail Blazers have a case for having the best offseason.  Though it cost a lot, the import of Robert Covington and emergence of Gary Trent Jr. might have finally solved Portland’s long-standing problem on the wing.

They also added Derrick Jones Jr. for additional athleticism at forward, and Harry Giles is a nice flyer in the front-court.

While the sudden wing depth is nice, it remains to be seen whether Portland can make up for their back-court’s deficiencies on the defensive end.  There’s a case that the Blazers need elite defenders at every other position that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum don’t occupy to cover the duo on that end.  Trent Jr. and Jursruf Nurkic don’t exactly fit that bill, though both have improved significantly.

McCollum and Lillard both have incredibly high ceilings offensively.  Lillard might be a sneaky MVP bet this year.  If he can play at that level, Portland climbs significantly higher on this list.  Covington is the piece that – with a ridiculous Lillard stretch that we’ve become accustom to in the regular season and playoffs – gives Lillard and Co. a lot more support and doesn’t drag the team down. That would be a nice change from previous years.

8. Boston Celtics

The Celtics moving off of Gordon Hayward for nothing might have ruffled some feathers, but the constant shuffling of their lineup thanks to Hayward’s constant injuries might actually benefit Boston.

A larger role for Marcus Smart might be a little frightening, but he’ll make Boston’s starting lineup even more imposing on the defensive end.  ‘

The bottom line with Boston is the ceiling of Jayson Tatum.  Kemba Walker’s lingering knee issue is a big cause for concern, as it will keep him out for what seems to be a couple weeks to begin the season.  Whether that’s still bothering him throughout the year or not, Walker’s absence offers Tatum the chance to show us what he’s truly made of, and prove whether that pre-shutdown run he went on last year was legit or not.

Boston is going to need that out of Tatum this year.  Walker is a good player, but doesn’t bring to the table what Kyrie Irving did from a talent standpoint.  That’s the gap Tatum has to make up for.

Getting past the likes of Brooklyn and an improved Bucks team will be hard, but if Tatum’s the player some believe him to be, then the Celtics should find themselves challenging both teams for a spot in the Finals.

7. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets miraculous playoff run might have had a bit more to do with the Clippers than Denver themselves, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Jamal Murray’s ascension combined with what should be a much larger role for Michael Porter Jr. gives Denver a much higher ceiling than what we thought was possible with this team.  

The losses of Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant free up the Nuggets’ wing rotation signifcaltly.  The return of Will Barton will likely result in him starting, but MPJ closing games alongside Nikola Jokic and Murray gives Denver a ton of offensive firepower.

Murray played like someone who could go toe-to-toe with anyone against Utah and the Clippers in the playoffs.  MPJ’s ceiling as a shot creator also gives him that potential as well.  If those two can pull everything together, Denver is going to be a force.

If not, the Nuggets are still in good shape.  Murray turning back into his pre-playoff self is still an offensive threat.  Denver has Jokic and everything he brings to the table.  Defense is likely their downfall if Murray and MPJ aren’t the next level shot creators we want them to be, but if they rise and Jokic remains himself, the Nuggets could see themselves in a favorable position against the Clippers again, and this time it’d wouldn’t be due to their opponent laziness.

6. Dallas Mavericks

For a team that goes as high as one player goes, the No. 6 spot on this ranking is quite high.

That’s the potential Luka Doncic has.  For all we know, it could be higher than this.  

Dallas should hang around the top of the West.  Expecting Doncic to top Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James’ teams is unreasonable, but Doncic is probably the third best player in the West if you started counting after the two above (Stephen Curry is still ahead of him, and Damian Lillard could rise or fall behind him this year).

Dallas was incredibly good last year with a limited roster and is now even better.  They added Josh Richardson – who’s the exact type of player you want around Doncic – and rookie Josh Green, who’s stronger than Richardson and provides similar shooting.  They swapped Seth Curry for his cheaper, younger clone in Tyrell Terry.  More athleticism came with the arrivals of rookie Tyler Bey and Wes Iwundu.

Doncic has to prove he’s better than the West’s top stars.  It might be unreasonable, but it shouldn’t be surprising if he is.

5. Miami Heat

The Finals runner-up might be getting some disrespect here, but consider Brooklyn adding someone who could be the best player in the league (Durant looked like it Tuesday night) and Milwaukee’s addressing of perhaps the biggest issue it encountered facing Miami in the playoffs (The Heat’s impressive defensive against Giannis Antetokounmpo), and a fall to five makes more sense.

Miami added some size in rookie Precious Achuiwa, who could help against bigger centers like Anthony Davis.  Avery Bradley replaces Crowder.  Aside from that, it’s really the same team. 

The Heat were built on players eclipsing levels they’ve never breached before.  Tyler Herro was a revelation as a rookie.  Jimmy Butler emerged from the Finals as a potential top ten player.  Duncan Robinson came out of nowhere.

What improvement is left for the Heat?  Better injury luck deep in the playoffs?

This, additionally, is why the Heat rank so low.  Nothing is that much different with them, and their run last year can be debunked as a tad flukey.  Where’s the improvement?  It will have to come from Butler, who needs to put up a Finals-like performance over the course of this regular season, and Herro – who has the path to becoming a special player with more experience.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Similar to the Clippers, the Bucks didn’t solve everything they need to this offseason.  The difference is that they could have, though.

While Mike Budenholzer’s schemes and principles still seem a tad sketchy in postseason play, Milwaukee did address two big issues: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s presence on the team and making that presence finally translate into titles instead of early playoff exits.

In terms of value, the Jrue Holiday trade is a farce.  But from a basketball standpoint, he’s the type of player the Bucks needed to take the load off Antetokounmpo late in playoffs games

The back-to-back MVP’s drives to the hole are still unstoppable, but they clearly can’t be Milwaukee’s whole offense anymore.  Toronto and Miami in back-to-back playoffs have stopped Antetokounmpo in his tracks.

Holiday forces teams to treat Antetokounmpo like a center.  The Bucks can throw the ball into the post and let him eat.  His stunning frame and athleticism make him unguardable.

Holiday also brings another scoring presence to the court, and will get easier shots for everyone – not just Antetokounmpo.  

The questions Milwaukee still has to answer could be its downfall.  Will their defensive schemes still be as frustrating and as costly?  Does Antetokounmpo’s mix of center play and his typical drives prove to still not be enough?  What if Antetokounmpo has any jump-shot, three or general pull-up?  Is that truly his missing piece?

Milwaukee’s new, impressive bench won’t matter.  It could make them even more dominant in the regular season, but being good that time of the year isn’t what the Bucks are attempting to do.  Milwaukee needs strides from its coach, and strides from its best player.  If neither occur, changes must be made, and serious reconsideration of what Antetokounmpo really is will likely need to take place.

3. Brooklyn Nets

2. Los Angeles Clippers

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Final standings predictions

Eastern Conference:

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Milwaukee Bucks
  3. Miami Heat
  4. Boston Celtics
  5. Indiana Pacers
  6. Philadelphia 76ers
  7. Toronto Raptors
  8. Washington Wizards
  9. Atlanta Hawks
  10. Charlotte Hornets
  11. Detroit Pistons
  12. Orlando Magic
  13. Chicago Bulls
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers
  15. New York Knicks

Western Conference:

  1. Los Angeles Lakers
  2. Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Dallas Mavericks
  4. Denver Nuggets
  5. Portland Trail Blazers
  6. Utah Jazz
  7. Phoenix Suns
  8. Minnesota Timberwolves
  9. Golden State Warriors
  10. Memphis Grizzlies
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Houston Rockets
  13. New Orleans Pelicans
  14. San Antonio Spurs
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Contender Power Rankings: The Season Openers

Today, Part 2 of the 2020-21 NBA Preview covers four teams: those tipping off the season Tuesday night.

Any teams not yet covered will be in Part 3 on Wednesday.

14. Golden State Warriors

This might be a pretty good year for the Stephen Curry detractors.

Of course, those people have been wrong, are still wrong and will continue to be wrong.  But this season could shine light on just how much the Warriors and Curry himself need Klay Thompson.

The two usually work for each other.  Curry’s gravity on the court is a common talking point, but Thompson has his own as well.  The gap between the two shooters is probably tighter than we think.  They’re both equally as dangerous – Curry’s range is just a little bigger.

Taking Curry away from Thompson would affect the Warriors just as deeply if not more than vice-versa.  Without Curry, the Warriors lose his ball-handling and pull-up ability from 30-35 feet.  Thompson’s the off-ball, spot-up, catch-and-shoot guy who’s not necessarily creating on his own.  He needs Curry to set him up, and draw attention.

Thompson doesn’t make Curry, but he’s a crucial part of what he does.  Just as Curry takes attention away from Thompson, Thompson does the same for Curry.  Rather than Thompson being a moon to Curry’s planet, the two are both planets around the sun.  They’re truly their own spheres.

Take one of those away, and the Warriors are worse – significantly.  Golden State didn’t have many options, but it didn’t construct the ideal team around Curry this offseason.  While you’re going to want scoring as opposed to shooting, neither Kelly Oubre Jr. nor Andrew Wiggins do it very efficiently – with the latter not necessarily doing it well at all at times.  Defenses are going to know that every other night, one of those two are going to shoot themselves out of games whether they’re being swarmed or not.  That offensive load then falls back on Curry.

The Warriors would love for Draymond Green to turn back into his prime-self on the offensive end, but his shooting seems like it will be permanently low from now on.  James Wiseman is intriguing, and could give Curry an interesting pick-and-roll partner, but the rookie’s offensive game is still extremely raw outside of lobs.

The Warriors this year are reminiscent of the Cavaliers teams LeBron James tugged to Finals through the mid 2010s, only to be beaten down by Golden State.  If there’s any proof that time is a flat circle, then Curry now being in James’ shoes is it.  The question will be if Curry can truly carry the Warriors in the same way.  It shouldn’t be surprising if he does, but the task feels a bit insurmountable. 

      3. Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn has a pretty good case to top the upcoming Lakers and Clippers on this ranking.

The last time Kevin Durant played in a NBA game, he was the best player in the league.  He had came off outplaying LeBron James in back-to-back Finals, was dominating the playoffs and about to potentially cement himself as a top ten player ever.

Then his Achilles popped and Kawhi Leonard briefly took the throne.

If Durant is that player we saw from 2017-2019, the Nets would be at least second on this list.

But we can’t bet on that.  Nobody has been as good as Durant was, had that injury and returned to the same level.  The only person who ever became themself again was Dominique Wilkins.

A lesser Durant is still a great player.  But can that guy still be the best player on a championship team, which Brooklyn expects to be?   While Kyrie Irving has the talent to be that, it’s clear he doesn’t have everything else that comes with it.  The rest of the Nets roster is built to surround Durant and Irving, not be a part of them. Brooklyn needs KD to be the old KD this year.  If they get that player, the Nets all the sudden have the best player in any playoff series.

If they don’t get that player, massive leaps will be needed from Irving – who’s shown he’s capable of it in the past – and from Caris LeVert, who has all the makings of turning into a top 35-40ish player in the league but has had health and shooting struggles plague him.

The Nets are beautifully built.  They have a deep bench and players that make sense around their superstar duo.  Their new coaching staff is exciting and innovative.  This should be the best team in the league.  It’s not really anyone’s fault though if they aren’t.  It’s nature’s.

          2. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers would likely find themselves atop this ranking if the Lakers kept their team from 2019-20.

They fixed what they could control.  Doc Rivers was almost solely responsible for the team’s collapse against Denver in the second round of the playoffs with his lack of defensive adjustments and overall lack of care in the team’s defensive effort.  Ty Lue is a new voice who will get a supremely talented defensive team to, well, actually play defense.  

The Clippers can only do so much about Paul George’s postseason struggles.  It’s not the reason they lost the series against Denver, but certainly raises questions about what type of player he really is.  Bottom line, it’s not an issue if the Clippers actually defended.

Their offseason was fine.  They added some depth to an already loaded roster.  Serge Ibaka isn’t Montrezl Harrell in the pick-and-roll with Lou Williams, but he’s probably better on the defensive end (which will certainly helps against the likes of Nikola Jokic).  Nicholas Batum provides sneakily-needed wing depth.  The Luke Kennard trade was a steal – his new contract was not, especially given that minutes for him seem a bit limited on the surface of this season.

The Clippers simply needed a culture change.  Lue did that in 2016 with the Cavaliers.  He should be able to get what we expected last year out of this team.  We’ll see if it’s enough.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

While it’s not uncommon to see the defending champions be the favorites coming into the following season, it is uncommon to see them improve so much.

The Lakers owned the offseason.  They replaced Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard with Dennis Schroder, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton Tucker (Rotationally – Horton Tucker was on the roster last year) and Harrell and spent very little capital and money to do so.  They also brought in Marc Gasol, who at a different stage of his career, will be excellent as the third big behind Anthony Davis and Harrell.

Schroder, despite the signing of Harrell to a bargain deal, is probably the most important addition.  The days of LeBron James at point guard are over with his arrival, an unfortunate but probably necessary shift.  James finished second in MVP voting playing point guard last season, but at his age and with the wear he’s accumulated, it’s smarter to take that burden off of him now that better talent than Rondo exists on the roster.

Schroder not only gives the Lakers more scoring, but allows LeBron to play a devastating off-ball role.  It also puts at least two passers on the floor to get Davis the ball down low.  Schroder’s going to have to prove that last year’s shooting uptick wasn’t a fluke, but it’s not like he’s going to get away with wrestling the ball away from James on this team.

With Davis’ infamous unwillingness to play center, Harrell’s exact role should be interesting.  Him, Davis and James is huge, but works thanks to Davis’ shooting and athleticism.  At the same time, spacing is still tight, and Harrell’s not making enough money (A cheap $8 million the next two years) that the Lakers have to play him late in games.

Regardless, the Lakers have options, which wasn’t totally the case last season.  Los Angeles’s success was solely reliant on how Davis and James played and that’s it. In this ready-set-go year, those guys can take more of a backseat, and they deserve to.

NBA Contender Power Rankings: The Bottom 10

To preview the suddenly-here 2020-21 NBA season, we’re going to rank the teams most likely to win the 2021 Finals.  These rankings do not correlate exactly with the standings listed below, as certain circumstances (Like James Harden’s in Houston) can lead to an inflated record with a low chance of playoff success, but should maintain a pretty close relationship.

Today, we look at the ten teams least likely to win the title come season’s end, starting with the league’s basement occupiers and ending with its borderline playoff teams.

30. New York Knicks

The Knicks are the Obi Toppin show.

That’s not totally a bad thing.  Toppin was one of the most NBA-ready players in the 2020 draft class, and arguably has the highest floor out of anyone who went in the top ten.  He could be the Knicks best player immediately – not bad for a player picked at No. 8 overall.

But on the larger landscape of the league itself, a season in which Toppin is everything for the Knicks probably makes them the worst team in the league.  There’s just not a lot else here.  Kevin Knox is likely just a wing defender rather than the scoring forward some projected him to be.  Mitchell Robinson would make up for Toppin’s inability to protect the rim (or play defense at all, really), but his minutes have been limited to a frustrating extent over the past few years.  RJ Barrett provides offense alongside Toppin, but there seems to be a ceiling to how efficient and impactful he can be.  A lack of a point guard for the Knicks won’t help, though if they fulfill this projection as the worst team in the league, the lottery odds will fall in their favor for that position not to be an issue in 2021-22.

29. Oklahoma City Thunder

The trio of George Hill, Trevor Ariza and Al Horford next to Shai Gilegous-Alexander has the makings of a pretty solid team.

The problem is that three-quarters of those players seem unlikely to be on the roster by season’s end.

Horford is the biggest fish out of the veteran trio, and probably has the most impact.  A good Horford season gives OKC a switchable rim protector, a gifted passing big man and a three point shooter at the center position.  That’s the makings of a coveted player – and someone who shouldn’t be on OKC’s roster for too long.

The longer Horford remains on the roster, the better the Thunder are.  Horford’s game is complex and plentiful – he shouldn’t be a deadline move for a team looking to simply add a big.  The good stuff he offers will likely take time to install and marinate into schemes on both ends of the court.  That doesn’t exactly fit the definition of a plug-and-play move in March.  

Horford and others being moved early causes the Thunder to fall down the standings rather than climb up them due to paltry talent elsewhere.  A lack of wings was the Thunder’s biggest setback last year.  That hasn’t changed much, as Aleksej Pokusevski is their only real offensive option there.  Pokusevski has a serious acclimation period ahead of him if he is to contribute in a significant way to OKC this season.  Otherwise, it’s SGA’s show with not much help.

28. Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland owns one of the most confusing rosters in the league entering this season.

While the fit is questionable, the Cavaliers at least have some direction in their back-court.  It was a tough rookie season for Darius Garland, who was pigeoned-holed next to a much-improved Collin Sexton.  Rookie Isaac Okoro gives those two some cover defensively, though doesn’t provide efficient offense Cleveland could use.  The talent may not be great, but at least the Cavaliers have a direction and players to develop there.

The front-court is a completely different offering.  Kevin Love’s contract is unmovable, and has to be in the Cavaliers’ planning until it’s up, but Cleveland’s decision to pair Love with Andre Drummond – who was acquired by actually giving up assets – is no less mind-boggling a whole pandemic later.  

There was no reason to bring in Drummond.  A young big like Onekya Okongwu or Toppin was available at the No. 5 spot in the draft.  Cleveland could have punted on the position, tanked and guaranteed itself a high pick next year (which it will likely have anyway).

Cleveland’s roster indicates it is trying to delay a true rebuild by a year or more.  Assuming Garland can’t emerge as a primary offensive option in the shadow of Sexton, it is likely they will fail at trying to contend, and be stuck in worst team-building position possible.

27.  Chicago Bulls

Under new management and a new coach, it was a quiet offseason in the Windy City.  It’s clear new GM Arutras Karnisovas and coach Billy Donovan want to evaluate the roster for themselves up close.

Not much should change.  Coby White is a winning player, but isn’t necessarily a future star.  The book on Zach Lavine is out.  Lauri Markkanen simply can’t stay healthy.  Wendell Carter Jr. additionally needs health on his side, but at this point presents a much higher ceiling than Markkanen does long-term.

To be competitive and improve this year, Chicago needs a spark.  That might have been the thinking behind drafting Patrick Williams at No. 4 overall, who was an intriguing lottery pick whose size, frame and athleticism was responsible for him shooting up boards draft week.  It seems a tad unrealistic Williams emerges as anything more than a super versatile defender with a jump-shot, but it’s the type of swing Chicago needed to take with that pick.

A Williams breakout could make the rest of the roster safe from future moves.  That’s unlikely though, and Chicago could be looking at the reset button come the trade deadline or offseason.

26. Orlando Magic

Ranking Orlando as the fifth-worst team in the league on the backs of an eighth seed berth (and a Game 1 victory against Milwaukee in round one) might seem harsh and surprising.  But a lot of teams got significantly better over the offseason while Orlando stood mostly still.

The lack of true direction with the Magic is frustrating.  It seems as though they’re just going for that eighth seed every year.  

A bit of a shift occurred this offseason.  They selected Cole Anthony with the No. 15 pick in November’s draft.  If the Magic are set with this current core of players, Anthony is the type of guy who could develop into their best player and No. 1 offensive option.

Players like him are hit or miss though.  It’s extremely unlikely Anthony comes in, gets significant minutes and becomes the best player on a playoff team as a rookie.  

Aside from Anthony’s X-factor potential, the Magic are the same team from last year, if not worse.  The loss of Jonathan Isaac for the season hurts – his defensive presence is not one that’s easily replaced, even with 2019 first round pick Chuma Okeke now in the picture.

Teams out East have either retooled to become more talented or simply have been more talented than Orlando.  As a result, the Magic slide down the totem pole a little bit.

25. Detroit Pistons

Detroit is one of those teams that leapfrog the Magic thanks to major upgrades in overall talent this offseason.  While the Pistons moves don’t make a ton of sense in the long term or short-term, it will likely put them in contention for a playoff spot in the East.

No team had a bigger influx of talent than Detroit did this offseason.  The Pistons had one of the worst situations in basketball last year, and now have solid experienced players in addition to a young core.

Detroit will need health and performance from Blake Griffin, as its offense feels a bit too reliable on rookie Killian Hayes, Derrick Rose and Jerami Grant.  Hayes has the chance to be a real offensive threat with Griffin in the pick-and-roll, but expecting him to emerge as someone who carries a good team on a night-to-night basis is unreasonable.  Grant and Mason Plumlee’s contracts were a bit on the high side for the roles each will play – Grant’s a ridiculous athlete who can do practically everything defensively, but leaves a lot to be had offensively at $16 million.  Plumlee never played better than he did in Denver, and that’s likely because he wasn’t relied on heavily thanks to backing up Nikola Jokic.

The Pistons currently feel like an empty calories team with Griffin still in the picture.  Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Delon Wright and Sekou Doumbouya could turn the Pistons into more than that, but money seems like it will be playing over youth for Detroit this year.

24. Houston Rockets

The Rockets are practically impossible to project.  What if James Harden miraculously plays the entire season in Houston?  What if he’s traded for young players and draft picks?  What if he’s traded straight up for someone like Ben Simmons?  What if it’s for only win-now players?

Despite an exodus of brainpower in the offseason, Houston is smart.  Assuming its owner isn’t involved, the Rockets aren’t going to ship Harden out for a package similar to what the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard for.  That means Houston’s win total plummets significantly without Harden on the roster.

A player like Ben Simmons coming into the picture is perhaps Houston’s most complicated path this season.  Is Houston, with John Wall, Christian Wood and a young, immediately impactful player – and only that player – a playoff team?  Who knows.

It’d have to be the right player.  Simmons probably isn’t it – there’s still too many questions about his ceiling offensively thanks to a complete lack of a jumpshot and overall aggressiveness.  None of the teams known to be on Harden’s list have someone like Simmons that would make sense value-wise and timeline-wise.  Other teams would have to enter the picture, and speculating on them seems reckless.

The most likely Harden deal is one centered around young players and picks.  That is what Houston wants, reportedly, and it’s the type of deal that the Rockets should make.  It would also be the deal that puts them at 24th in these rankings.

No piece in a young player/picks package for Harden elevates Houston significantly when it comes to potential playoff success this season.  A deal like that leaves a team with Wall, Wood and the leftover wings (PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon).  That team doesn’t sniff the playoffs out West, unless Wall is somehow better than his prime self post Achilles tear.

That’s Houston’s basement.  It’ ceiling involves keeping Harden and probably ending up somewhere in the 5-10 range of the West.  Harden’s hypothetically fit with Wall is better than his with Westbrook, as it’s easy to forget that Wall’s a special passer and could unlock a previously untapped, off-ball role for Harden.  Houston’s defense should be a tad better with Wood in the fold as a legitimate center, and some of the bad threes encouraged by previous coaches and management should decrease.  Even with all of that, it’s hard to bet this will be a happy, successful team, which drags it down to the back half of the Western Conference playoff teams in a best case scenario.

23. San Antonio Spurs

Detroit might have overtaken the Spurs for having the league’s most confusing roster this offseason.

The remnants of the Leonard trade mentioned above is hurting San Antonio’s ability to reset and rebuild the right way.  That’s a bummer, because they’re close to doing it right.

The presence of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge is clogging the Spurs’ rotation.  San Antonio had to say goodbye to Bryn Forbes in free agency as a result and has a decision on Derrick White’s future soon – DeRozan’s presence could complicate that. The Spurs need to find minutes not only for 2019 first round pick Keldon Johnson this season, but for 2020 first round pick Devin Vassell.  Lonnie Walker Jr. is also up for an increased role, and deserves it the most as he’s the Spurs best shot at having a future best player on the roster thanks to his shot creation skills.  Vassell also fits that description, but he’s likely to get the treatment Johnson got last season.

If the Spurs can clear their veterans and secure minutes for their younger guys, a push for the playoffs is viable.  For now, they’re stuck closer to the back of the league than the middle, and that’s a bad place to be when you’re actually trying.

22. Charlotte Hornets 

Another contender for most improved roster, Charlotte also gets thrown into the Detroit group of those not totally understanding their timeline.  But the Hornets are at least fun, and have some really solid aspects to their team.

In a sneaky way, Charlotte is following the Toronto model of having as many players as possible who can create their own shot.  Terry Rozier and his contract can be maddening, but he’s someone who can get buckets if given permission. Devonte’ Graham looks like a future perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate.  LaMelo Ball should ignite the offense first with his shot creation for others, and secondly with his own.  Gordon Hayward, if healthy, is still a really good player who’s underrated as a creator.

The Hornets have dudes.  Miles Bridges and PJ Washington are hard-nosed defenders who can make up for defeicnies on that end in the back-court.  Both’s athleticism makes them dynamic PNR partners for Ball or Hayward.  

Center on both ends is troublesome.  Washington at the five is a fun lineup no matter who Charlotte surrounds him with, though he may not be up to the task of being a reliable rim protector.  That leaves the Hornets with the scary sight of Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo down low, with rookie Vernon Carey Jr. possibly getting some run as well.  

The Hornets have a good coach in James Borrego and a lot of craft.  Their issues are surmountable to an extent.  They don’t have the guy yet, but Ball might have something to say about that.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have a Houston-level amount of variability to them in 2021-22.

While we don’t have to go into this season questioning Zion Williamson’s health, we can question, or perhaps dream, about what his role could be.

Last year’s version of Williamson was dominant, but not in the way we expected.  It seemed as though New Orleans was being careful with the rookie off of his knee injury, and weren’t allowing him to show off his well-rounded game.  Williamson was a monster in the post – his athleticism on tip-ins and on the boards made any missed shot a make.  But the Pelicans limited Zion solely to a post-up role, and at times it was disappointing.

Those days seem over.  It’s time for the Williamson that unleashed hell at Duke – the player that was creating his own shot off the dribble, driving to the rim, passing like a guard, etc.

But New Orleans’ roster is just not well constructed enough to support Williamson in a role like that.  While we can dream about him being a crunch-time five, it’s not incredibly likely he’ll be able to maintain the defensive discipline it takes to play there while carrying a heavy offensive load.  

That doesn’t mean Steven Adams is the right center to play next him, though.  Adams isn’t the most mobile defensively, and won’t provide the spacing New Orleans needs if Williamson is to take over the offense.  

Shooters don’t exactly surround Williamson either.  While the Jrue Holiday trade was fantastic from a draft capital standpoint, the Pelicans didn’t receive anything that will help this year’s roster.  Taking a first round pick or two less from the Bucks to not receive Eric Bledsoe in the deal might have been a better route to go, as his contract and on-court semantics are at times tough to deal with.  He brings defense New Orleans could use, but has too high of a usage percentage for someone of his level and is a poor shooter.  Behind him is Lonzo Ball, who’s simply fine, and Kira Lewis Jr., New Orleans’ 2020 first round pick who’s practically a Bledsoe clone.

New Orleans needs a lot from Williamson and Brandon Ingram.  On his new deal, a performance as a top 40 player in the league shouldn’t be out of the question for Ingram.  The Pelicans ceiling in 2020 will be determined by if, and how much, Williamson can go above that.

20. Sacramento Kings

The Kings may not have the ceiling New Orleans does, but they certainly have the higher floor.

There should be a change from whatever last year was in Sacramento.  The Kings did the exact opposite of what they were good at in 2018-2019 last season.  They slowed the pace down and made offense harder for themselves.

Smart people like Monte McNair are finally in charge in Sacramento.  The new GM’s analytical approach should speed the Kings back up, which is what we thought head coach Luke Walton would instill.  

Sacramento doesn’t have that pure offensive creator yet.  De’Aaron Fox’s speed can be an offense in itself, which is why the Kings should play as fast as possible all the time.  They have decently good pieces around him, although the front-court with Marvin Bagley’s lack of position is concerning.  Will he be the five or a four in this offense?

The most fun lineup Sacramento could run out would be Fox, Buddy Hield, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes and Bagley.  It’s quite small, but defensively competent with Fox’s tenacity, Haliburton’s overall awareness and Barnes’ length.  A defensive stride from Bagley this year would be nice – he’s got the prototype to be great on that end with more development and effort.  

But what’s the true ceiling of that unit?  Factor in a still potentially unhappy Hield, a potentially lame-duck coach (Walton wasn’t hired by this front office and could be out with limited success) and a stagnant Bagley, and the Kings just don’t crack the top ten in the West quite yet.

Standings finish for the teams ranked above:

Eastern Conference teams:

15. New York Knicks

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

13. Chicago Bulls

12. Orlando Magic

11. Detroit Pistons

10. Charlotte Hornets

Western Conference teams:

15. Oklahoma City Thunder 

14. San Antonio Spurs

13. New Orleans Pelicans

12. Houston Rockets

11. Sacramento Kings

The top nine seeds in the Eastern Conference and the top ten in the Western Conference will be revealed Tuesday and Wednesday in the second and third parts of the 2020-21 NBA preview.