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