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.