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.