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.

What Each NBA Team Should Do With Their First Round Pick

Below is a culmination of the Sports Hub’s 2020 NBA Draft preparation and scouting.  It features The Big Board 2.0, a breakdown of what each team should do with their first round pick, and an overview of some of the most notable prospects left out of the first round.  

Here is the link to The Big Board 2.0 (the final edition).  It is recommended to keep it open while reading, as it will be referenced multiple times while analyzing picks.

Without further ado, here is a 2020 NBA Mock Draft, predicated on what teams should actually do and not what teams might do Wednesday night.

No.1, Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards, Georgia

Some of the circumstances written about last week have changed, but if Minnesota keeps the pick, Edwards should be their selection.  It’s sounding possible that they could be able to move down and still secure him, though.  Trading out seems to be even less likely now that Jrue Holiday has been officially moved and Bradley Beal’s availability (or lack thereof) has been made clear.  The Magic still could pull off the Aaron Gordon deal, and that might be Minnesota’s best option at the time being.

No.2, Golden State Warriors: Deni Avdija, Israel

Similar to Minnesota, things have changed since the above article was published, but if Golden State remains here, Avdija is the best fit.  Gordon is another good fit for the Warriors, and Wendell Carter Jr. would be as well.  The Warriors moving down just a couple spots makes reaching for a wing like Devin Vassell or Aaron Nesmith less troubling, and picking up someone of Carter Jr.’s potential would be a valuable move.

No.3, Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball, New Zealand 

The Hornets seem to (rightfully) covet a big with this pick, but Ball being here is too hard to pass up, even with Onyeka Okongwu on the board.

The need at guard may not be obvious or exist at all, but consider what Charlotte actually has in its current group.  

Devonte’ Graham’s breakout season was a nice surprise and earned him some serious Most Improved Player buzz, but it’s likely he is best suited as a potent sixth man off the bench in the league.  

Despite a perhaps underrated season in 2019-20, Terry Rozier’s contract is still a disaster, and neither his play or age fits Charlotte’s timeline.  Additionally, his free agent deal signed last summer was for just three years.  The Hornets have to be thinking about what lies ahead after that deal is up.

In Ball, Charlotte would land a player they can truly feel confident in as their franchise point guard.  There are certainly some concerns and dark spots, but Ball’s skill of passing and seeing the court is not just his best attribute, but the best attribute any player in this draft class has.  Ball checks the top box of what you want in a point guard, and it’s the reason he finds himself atop the big board.

Ball is a special passer.  He’s on a completely different level than his brother Lonzo was coming out of UCLA in 2017, and that’s saying a lot.  It’s not just the passes with LaMelo.  It’s the ability to see passes before anyone else.  He scans the court like a quarterback progressing through his reads.  

There’s been few better passers than Ball in recent drafts.  Perhaps the scariest part is that his distribution is potentially just half of his game.

Ball’s unselfishness passing occasionally morphed itself toward the other direction.  The 18-year-old consistently jacked up bad shots during his time in New Zealand, and played like he was trying to make things harder on himself rather than easier.  His persistent dribbling, shot selection and hero-ball mentality doesn’t have to be shuttered in the NBA, but it must be reduced until the efficiency can improve.

If Ball can get threes to fall consistently and become less selfish when scoring, then we have everything people thought Lonzo could be and more on our hands in LaMelo.  Lonzo was never going to be someone who got the ball and cooked with it in the NBA, despite certain performances at UCLA.  Ball’s got the shot creation skills his brother doesn’t possess, but they’re raw.  

The concern is that Charlotte isn’t built up well enough offensively yet to help take some of the load off Ball early.  That could create bad habits, and lead to a worst-case scenario of what Ball could be in the NBA.  That type of player isn’t a liability though.  No one with that good of a passing gene is.

Ball could ultimately be a microcosm for this draft.  If everything works out, he’s going to be a star.  But there’s a lot to work out, and if a good amount of things don’t, then what’s left?  

Ball’s likely the execption to most in this draft.  If the rest doesn’t work out, you’re still getting someone who could be a generational passer and will still have a positive impact in the league.  If Ball tops out at someone like Rajon Rondo, is that a bad thing?  Rondo was a great player, and is still contributing even beyond his prime.  The issues are that if Ball doesn’t pop, someone else in this draft will.  Nobody really knows who that is going to be.

No.4, Chicago Bulls: Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky 

Of guys selected in this mock, Maxey is probably the biggest surprise (Bigger surprises could emerge amongst who is not picked).  Here’s an explanation.

Maxey is ranked third on the board.  He’s an absolute killer on both ends.  He’s an incredible defensive presence given his short stature, using his speed to keep up with practically anyone and his quick arms to get into passing lanes.  Even for towering wings, Maxey is a hassle.  At just 6’3, he’s switchable 1-3.

Offensively, Maxey’s got what you want in a lead guard and potential No.1 offensive option.  He hit big shot after big shot at Kentucky, and has to the poise to keep cool in big moments.  He’s got the type of game that could lead a successful team – the hesitations and herky-jerky dribbling allows him to create his own shot effortlessly.  

His size is an issue – big wings could swallow him.  But his moves are just that good, which enables Maxey to get to the rim instead of pulling-up.  We’ve seen defensive-minded wings still not be able to guard smaller 1s and 2s – just ask Boston how they handled Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the playoffs.

Maxey’s considerably lower on likely every board that exists, and some of those reasons make sense.  He’s small.  He’s not a knockdown shooter, especially from three.  He’s a bit of a ball-hog and takes shots he shouldn’t.  To most, he seems to be a boom or bust type player.  But there’s a chance he’s actually one of the safer bets in this draft, even if he doesn’t emerge as the star the board projects him to be.

How often are you getting the competitiveness and defense Maxey brings to the table?  That’s what Maxey can ultimately fall back on if his size and poor shooting limits his ability as a No. 1 shot-creator.  Additionally, his potential as a sixth man is  limitless.  The energy he brings is undeniable.

The Bulls are in need of a star player.  Coby White is solid.  Zach Lavine is not.  Wendall Carter Jr. needs a serious chance, and he wasn’t ever projected as someone who was going to be a shot-creator at the center position anyways.  Lauri Markkanen has battled injuries, is unhappy and hasn’t totally panned out.  New GM Arturas Karnisovas has so far been operating the Bulls as if they’re a clean slate – Kris Dunn’s declined option proves that.  That means he likely won’t care about Lavine’s starting role, or the fact that the Bulls drafted White last year.  Karnisovas also won’t care about the fact that Avdija would be the perfect replacement for Markkanen if he’s available, and that Avdija would be everything the Bulls hoped Markannen would be.  Karnisovas is going to take the best player available.  Maxey is it.

No.5, Cleveland Cavaliers: Onyeka Okongwu, USC

The Cavaliers should be estatic if Okongwu falls to them here.  Almost guaranteed to take a big after selecting guard after guard in previous drafts, Okongwu’s the best big available in this draft.

Written about briefly in Monday’s breakdown of Golden State’s options (linked above), Okongwu is essentially a team inserting a Bam Adebayo-type into their lineup.  The two are extremely similar players: switchability and rim protection defensively, intuitive passing and feel offensively, and a developing jump-shot that could lead them to step out to the perimeter someday.

Okongwu may not be the all-around defensive player Adebayo is – his switching isn’t quite there yet.  But the athleticism is, and with better instincts he could be an effective 3-5 switcher.

Okongwu has the ability to get to the rim, though he’s not as smooth as Adebayo is creating his own shot. Instead, he could be a dominant and efficient post presence, something that Adebayo doesn’t totally have in his game.

The Cavaliers have washed up veterans in their front-court and need to be looking toward the future.  Okongwu fits the timeline of their young guards, and each can help one another.  Okongwu’s passing allows the guards to develop their off-ball game a bit, and suddenly, Cleveland’s once dim future would seem much brighter.

No.6, Atlanta Hawks: Killian Hayes, France

The Hawks have put themselves in a position hard to get out of.  Their fascination with Trae Young is irreversible at this point, so they must strive to build the best team they can around him, and maximize what he’s good at.

Atlanta has done a good job of this so far.  Their mix of youthful wings compliments Young nicely, and Cam Reddish’s late-season improve providing much needed scoring.

But Young is still going to be need more help if Atlanta views him as their franchise.  The third-year point guard is best at scoring, and he should solely be geared toward that facet of his game.  This means reducing his playmaking and, stoutly put, possibly moving him to shooting guard.

Killian Hayes has perhaps the widest range of outcomes on draft night.  Some boards begin with him, others have him in the late-lottery or out of it all together.  Ranked sixth on this board, Hayes could be the perfect ladder for Young to hang on.  He’s an astute passer in and out of the pick-and-roll, brings length and effort to the defensive side, and plays unselfishly – a vital trait in playing next to Young.

The unselfishness is a little frustrating when he’s without the ball.  The three point shooting numbers are bleak, and pairing him with a high-usage guard could make him quite idle when he’s not running the show.  But Hayes has upside that few others do in this barren draft, and Atlanta doesn’t have crippling needs aside from giving Young help.  Hayes is the player who can do that best at this point in the draft, and his potential is worth the pick.

No.7, Detroit Pistons: Obi Toppin, Dayton

The Pistons should be in best player available mode, especially after moving on from young guard Bruce Brown Sunday morning.  Per the board, Toppin is that player.

Toppin is polarizing, and it’s deserved.  He’s a destructive force offensively, thanks to his leaping ability out of the pick and roll and his three point shooting on pops.  His athleticism allows him to not rely on post-ups to score – he can be effective as a cutter, slasher, and a quick-and-easy bucket guy since his size is just so overpowering.

Defensively is where the questions arise.  For all of his athleticism, the lateral quickness and foot speed is practically non-existent.  The only players he has a chance against are old school bigs and traditional power forwards – those who are slowly being faded out of the game.  Teams are rarely feeding guys in the post anymore, and if they are, it’s because nobody can stop them.  Toppin’s not an exception.

The former National College Player of the Year makes sense for Detroit despite his drawbacks because 1) he can be their whole offense for as long as they need him to be 2) Christian Wood’s a free agent and could leave, giving Detroit a need long-term in the front-court 3) Wood, if he stays, can make up for Toppin’s limitations defensively and take some of the pressure off.

No.8, New York Knicks: Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State

The Knicks could go a variety of routes here, but ultimately, it’s smart for them to take the safe one.

Haliburton’s not as highly rated on the board as he is others, and it’s due to a lack of an elite skill.  The No. 1 trait assigned to Haliburton is his intelligence on and off the court, but his passing and decision-making doesn’t totally reflect his IQ.  He’s kind of just okay at a bunch of things.

Haliburton projects as a great distributor and a solid defender – particularly off the ball.  His longer frame makes him able to guard opponents 1-3, if he can stay on them after receiving the pass.  Everything else checks out fine.  He’s not a good shooter or shot-creator.  He needs to be a better disruptive and locked-in defender.  His athleticism is meh.

But New York should be okay with these things.  They need to be.  The Knicks are on track to rebuild the right way now, and with R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson in place, all they lack is a true superstar and a solid point guard.  Haliburton takes care of one of those, and New York should be bad enough in 2020-21 to land one of the stars atop next year’s draft class, completing what should be an intriguing lineup nonetheless come 2021-22.

No.9, Washington Wizards: Isaac Okoro, Auburn

Okoro is one of the top players left on the board here and it’s thanks to his destructive defensive presence.  He’s a rare mix of someone who’s a switchable, solid defender and a disruptive defender all in the same package.  His length allows him to be a viable 1-4 defender, while his long arms poke balls from smaller, shiftier guards.  

Okoro’s offense leaves a lot to be desired.  The shot just isn’t there, and doesn’t project well either.  He’s likely just a slasher and cutter on offense, as his dribble penetration game could get swallowed at the next level.  But Okoro’s defense has the chance to be valuable enough to make up for the deficiencies offensively.  There are few players like that in basketball.  If they exist, they’re locking down the opponent’s best player.  That’s likely where we’ll be seeing Okoro for years to come.

Washington could use any defense it can get.  The team was horrific last season on that end, and Okoro serves as someone who can help clean up teammates’ mistakes instantly.  A lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimera, Okoro and Thomas Bryant makes the Wizards seem a lot better than they might be.

No.10, Phoenix Suns: Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt 

This might be high, but the Chris Paul trade and Hayes and Haliburton’s drafting shifts Phoenix’s thinking here.  

If Hayes or Haliburton is available here Wednesday night, the Suns should pull the plug on one of them (Hayes, preferably).  Paul’s trade doesn’t change the need for a long-term point guard, though it shores up the immediate impact that position can bring to the Suns.  Paul’s age is no laughing matter though, and there’d be no better mentor than the Point God himself to a young player.

But here, neither are available.  Phoenix could reach for another lead distributor, but even though reaches are encouraged in this no-trades mock, better players exist for Phoenix.

Enter Nesmith.  The best shooter in this class, Nesmith simply doesn’t miss.  He was over 50 percent at Vanderbilt last season, and that was with a heavy offensive workload on a bad team.

He’s a tad limited defneisvly, but Mikal Bridges’ lockdown tenacity on that end can make up for almost all of Phoenix’s wings.  Taking Nesmith after drafting Cam Johnson last year might seem redundant, but if Golden State taught us anything, it’s that the more shooters you have, the better.

No.11, San Antonio Spurs: RJ Hampton, New Zealand 

The Spurs are similar to the Bulls in that they have some young, intriguing pieces of which none can offer true superstardom in the future.  They’re solid almost everywhere, which means they can afford to take a swing or a risk here.

Hampton has an incredibly low floor but a high ceiling.  He’s a shot maker and creator, but if he can’t be great at those two things, then there’s nothing else to really get out of him.

He’s a star or he’s not.  If he’s not, then the Spurs are fine.  If he is, then watch out.

No.12, Sacramento Kings: James Wiseman, Memphis

One of the consensus top prospects in this draft doesn’t receive the same shine here.  

Wiseman may be underrated on the board, but it seems as though some teams feel the same way the board does as well.  Multiple reports have suggested that certain teams have Okongwu over Wiseman on their boards, and that’s probably the right ranking.

Wiseman’s ranking isn’t suggesting that he’ll be a bust, but it’s more of an overall summary of what he actually is: a rim running and protecting big.  It’s as simple as that.

There isn’t much else to it, even though Wiseman may seem to think so.  All of the speculation about his offensive game morphing into that of a wing’s is silly when Wiseman will have to face NBA defenders.  His rim protection has the chance to be elite, though his skinny frame will need bulk for him to truly contain bigger centers.  For someone who moves as fluidly as Wiseman does at his size, the switchability isn’t really there.

So why does a skillset like that warrant a top three pick, even in a bad draft?  Perhaps it’s his polarizing nature and a team’s business side playing its hand, but in terms of straight talent, Wiseman takes a backseat to a lot of prospects in this draft.

All of that said, he’s a good fit for the Kings here as one of the top prospects left on the board.  Marvin Bagley is a not rim protector, and Sacramento’s backcourt is set.

No.13, New Orleans Pelicans: Devin Vassell, Florida State

New Orleans is ecstatic to land Vassell here, as the sophomore is the classic example of what “solid” looks like in this draft class.

Vassell likely won’t fail in the league.  He’s reminiscent of Trevor Ariza – someone who can play good defense and knock down shots on a good team.

His reason for sliding down the board lies in his lack of an elite skill – similar to Haliburton.  Vassell’s a good shooter and a good defender.  Some feel as though there’s some shot creation skills that could be developed, but it feels like more of a pipe-dream than a reality.

The Pelicans are still looking for a point guard of the future after the Jrue Holiday trade, but drafting a passer here is a bit of a stretch.  Taking Vassell gives New Orleans a solid player to add to their core, and makes a (enter point guard)-Vassell-Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson–Jaxson Hayes lineup extremely scary.

No.14, Boston Celtics: Patrick Williams, Florida State 

Seminole teammates go back-t0-back here, and it’s likely Boston would have ended up with one of them regardless.

The Celtics need to fill out their bench, and they can do so by taking the best player available that’s not a point guard.  The board says that’s Patrick Williams.

Williams probably won’t make it here, as his stock has risen dramatically in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s draft.  Reports Tuesday night indicated he could be Chicago’s pick at No. 4 overall.

If he’s here, he’d be excellent value for the Celtics.  Williams is an imposing defensive presence who’s got a sweet jump-shot for his size.  The Celtics love their big, defensive-minded wings and Williams fits the bill.

There’s a lot of potential with him as well – though projecting him into a star is a tough bet.  He’s got good shot-creation skills for his size – the wingspan makes jumpers of his impossible to guard.  There could also be some untapped potential at center on both ends, though rim protection could be a more likely role as his foot speed won’t match the fastest wings.  Williams is simply massive, and could play anywhere from the 2 to the 5 in a given lineup.

Like Maxey, Williams is a safe bet.  If he hits a high ceiling, we’re looking at one of the most gifted and versatile players in the league.  If not, you’re getting great, strong defense and an unguardable shooter.

No. 15, Orlando Magic: Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Cole Anthony is among the most polarizing players in this draft class.  Nobody has fell harder from the preseason draft rankings, and it’s not totally his fault.  His injury decimated the Tar Heels’ season, and it seemed as though Anthony himself never fully recovered from it.

There isn’t much tape on Anthony, so teams are resorting to a lot of high school film, which is always an immediate concern.

Anthony’s a scoring point guard, but his size and usage could limit him.  He made a lot of bad shots when he played in college, and has the body that could very well get swallowed by wings.  There isn’t elite speed or athleticism to make up for it, either.

Anthony is the boom or bust prospect of this class.  His shot-making could be as good we think at the next level, but if it isn’t, then we’re looking at an inefficient, undersized player who’s out of the league shortly.

The Magic have a lot of pieces in place, and just need the guy who’s going to make it all come together.  Anthony is likely not that, but it’s probably worth the shot at this point in the draft.  It wasn’t long ago that we thought Anthony would be in contention for the first overall pick.

No. 16, Houston Rockets: Saddiq Bey, Villanova

With Robert Covington out of the picture, Houston can use the pick they got in return to find his replacement.

Bey’s another one of the safest, most solid picks in this draft.  Like Vassell and Williams, you’re getting good defense and good shooting.  But Bey’s pedigree at Villanova in addition to his insane frame allows him to truly be a multi-positional defender at the next level.

He’s the perfect Covington hole-filler, and will fit Houston’s system like a glove, assuming it doesn’t change dramatically with James Harden’s trade demand.

No.17, Minnesota Timberwolves: Josh Green, Arizona

The Timberwolves continue to fill out their roster with mostly wings, and they take the best available one here in Arizona’s Josh Green.

A knockdown shooter, Green’s an underrated defender.  His thick frame is rare for someone who moves as well as he does, making him not just switchable but strong as well.

The Wolves stealing Green here devastates Dallas, and Minnesota adds another quality wing to a team that could use defense greatly.

No. 18, Dallas Mavericks: Robert Woodward Jr., Mississippi State 

The Mavericks simply need two-way players on their roster, making Green’s selection a tough swallow.

Better players than Woodward Jr. exist on the board, but none fit Dallas’ select need.

Woodward is another strong and long wing who can really shoot it while doubling as an off-ball threat in multiple sets.  He’s straight firepower and certainly won’t kill Dallas defensively – two traits they desperately need to surround Luka Doncic with.

No.19, Brooklyn Nets: Isaiah Joe, Arkansas 

Isaiah Joe was on track to be the best shooter in this draft class until Aaron Nesmith showed up.

Joe’s so ridiculous from the three point line that in 2018-19, his three point percentage topped his field goal percentage – a stat that doesn’t feel like it should be possible.

Additionally, Joe moves like a pinball around the court.  He’s constantly fighting through and flying around screens and trying to get open.  His effort to shoot it is just as impressive as the shot itself.

Brooklyn is in best player available mode or most tradeable asset mode, depending on how real the smoke around a Harden trade is.  If the Nets keep their current team together, Joe would fit right in.

No.20, Miami Heat: Paul Reed, DePaul

Likely another reach, Reed is arguably the most switchable player in the draft.  He’s got legitimate chops guarding all positions, which is unbelievable considering his size.

The Heat strictly need Reed to help Bam Adebayo protect the rim.  This could be placing a limit on Reed’s ceiling, but it’s also very possible him guarding 1-5 at the NBA level is unfeasible.

Reed doesn’t have a great offensive game, but the Heat are so deep and loaded with offense that they can afford the reach here.  Reed gives them what they need.

No.21, Philadelphia 76ers: Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech

Pinpointing what the Sixers should do here is tough considering their new management and current roster.  Splitting the bill seems like the right thing to do.

It seems unlikely that the 76ers are going to make any major moves this offseason, so addressing their needs given what they have is the right approach.  Philly could certainly use more shooting and more shot-creators around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.  Ramsey provides both.

He’s an upside pick, but Ramsey has shot creation chops that could let him develop into a crafty offensive player someday.  He’s also a good shooter for how high his usage can run, indicating that Philly could use him and his athleticism off the ball in certain sets.

It’s unlikely, but the Sixers could be looking at their future No. 1 offensive option here, depending on how you value Embiid’s post game.  Ramsey has the dog and skill in him to hit that point.  He’s a bit boom or bust, though the shooting provides a foundation no matter what he turns out to be.

No.22, Denver Nuggets: Precious Achiuwa, Memphis 

Paul Millsap might be a goner in free agency this offseason, and the Nuggets could use more long defenders after watching what the Lakers did to them in the Western Conference Finals.  Achiuwa is raw, but the one trait he does bring is energy and athleticism.  The dude is long as all hell, and can use his arms to make himself a problem for practically anyone.  His offense needs to come a long way, but Denver has not been adverse to risk and swinging for the fences in the draft.  Achiuwa’s a bit of a project, but they Denver can let him play and develop him at the same time.

No.23, New York Knicks: Jordan Nwora, Louisville

The Knicks trade-up Wednesday morning is a bit concerning, considering that it was previously thought that they were going to be patient and rebuild the right way.

If they keep the pick, Nwora would be a good choice.  After taking Haliburton in the lottery, New York can still fill a hole on the wing.  Nwora’s a reach here, but his placement at No. 24 on the board shouldn’t make it a surprise.

Nwora’s got an ideal scoring arsenal.  He’s not just a pure shooter, though he’d excel in that role.  The 22-year-old was Louisville’s No. 1 offensive option last season, and his tall frame allows him to get buckets over anyone.

He’s comparable to Cam Johnson with a more diverse offensive game.  Both have lengthy frames, are older and are a tad stiff defensively, but they shoot the hell out of the ball and likely won’t disappoint.

No. 24, New Orleans Pelicans: Tyrell Terry, Stanford 

Terry’s small size is a cause for concern, and the board reflects that.  But he’s a dynamic shooter and good passer, making him New Orleans’ perfect long-term point guard as Zion Williamson figures to have the ball in his hands more given a healthy year.

Terry’s slide to being the No. 28 overall prospect in this draft class has to do with his value defensively.  He’s going to get relentlessly attacked, and there’s not much he or the Pelicans are going to be able to do about it.  

No.25, Oklahoma City Thunder: Elijah Hughes, Syracuse

Oklahoma City is simply in asset acquisition mode.  That means they can afford to take swings.

Hughes is the last of his kind in the draft.  The 22-year-old was Syracuse’s whole offense last year, and did a pretty job running the show.

Hughes’ workload forced him into a lot of bad situations, but the guy has a knack for getting buckets and beating anyone off-the-dribble.  OKC will likely find their star in upcoming drafts, but Hughes isn’t a bad flyer.

No.26, Boston Celtics: Jalen Smith, Maryland

The Knicks’ trade-up with Utah costs the Jazz Smith here, and Boston should be ecstatic.

Boston’s fallen on hard times trying to replace Al Horford.  Smith doesn’t offer the same type of game, but he’s a big, modern center who can switch decently well and shoot threes.  He’s not the passer Horford was and never will be, but could offer Boston a solution to an immense problem.

No.27, Utah Jazz: Zeke Nnaji, Arizona

Trading back and scooping up a high second round pick gives the Jazz Zeke Nnaji, who isn’t a bad consolation prize to Smith.

Nnaji is arguably more switchable than Smith, as he’s got a more wiry frame and more athleticism.  Rudy Gobert’s contract situation and character seems to be limiting his days in Utah, and the Jazz can easily transition to a more modern brand of ball by letting Nnaji takeover when and if Gobert is out the door.

No. 28, Oklahoma City Thunder: Ty-Shon Alexander, Creighton

Once again, Oklahoma City is in best player available mode.  Alexander is a sizzling shooter who’s an absolute beast against guards defensively.  He’s not super switchable, but is able to lockdown almost anyone playing the 1 and 2 positions  while providing shot-making from anywhere on the court.

No.29, Toronto Raptors: Theo Maledon, France

Fred VanVleet’s free agency and Kyle Lowry’s age make Maledon the perfect pick for the Raptors.  Maledon is among the safer players in this draft – he plays like a professional, sees the court incredibly well and carries poise with the moves he makes  There’s a chance he’s just a backup, but the Raptors need depth at the position in the immediate future.

No.30, Boston Celtics: Cassius Stanley, Duke

Boston finishes filling out their bench by taking another wing.  Stanley has rocket-boosters in his shoes, which should help him become a better defensive player than he currently is.  But his shooting is undeniable, and the Celtics love for athletic wings makes this a good fit.


Now for a breakdown of the most surprising prospects not to go in the first round mock, separated into three tiers.

How did these guys not go in the first round?

  • Leandro Bolmaro: The dude is basically jumbo-size Steve Nash, but he’s likely to be overseas until at least 2022, making his value tough to gauge.  A further developed jump-shot could make him an unstoppable force offensively. (Note: A previous version of this article had Bolmaro going No. 11 to the Spurs, which left RJ Hampton without a spot in the first round.  Apologies for the error).
  • Immanuel Quickley: Better shooters just exist.  He’ll be a threat off screens and cuts in the league.
  • Ashton Hagans: NBA teams just aren’t as high on him.  It’s understandable, as he’ll never, ever shoot.  But his defensive tenacity and knack for running a team should lead to some success at the next level.
  • Peyton Pritchard: An intriguing target for Toronto at No. 29.  Maledon just projects as a better distributor.  Pritchard’s frame might limit his scoring impact, too.
  • Cassius Winston: Here’s another safe pick.  It’s just that there is almost zero ceiling with him.
  • Isaiah Stewart: Moves really well for how much of a throwback big he is.  Is a beast defensively and can guard pick and rolls.  Problem is lack of a modern offensive game.
  • Malachi Flynn: Just another really solid backup point guard.

Want to like, but…

  • Desmond Bane: He doesn’t move his feet well for someone who’s acclaimed defensively.  Should be able to hit shots at the next level, but the NBA might be a wakeup call for him on the other end.
  • Udoka Azubuike: He’s similar to Stewart but can’t move like him.  Injuries really hurt his stock at Kansas.  One of those guys you wish was better.
  • Tyler Bey: What is there besides insane athleticism?  A bit raw.
  • Killian Tillie: Tillie would be a guaranteed top 20 pick if his medicals weren’t horrifying.  There will likely be teams staying completely away, and it’s purely a shame.
  • Yam Madar: Projects as a fourth-guard, where as the Pritchard’s and Maledon’s of the draft can probably be third guards.
  • Devon Dotson: Could be a fun scorer but lacks the athleticism needed to do it.

Tough swallows:

  • Kira Lewis: He doesn’t have De’Aaron Fox’s speed or passing ability, which was the reason Fox was able to make up for his lack of shooting out of college.  Also might be a tough hang defensively due to his small size.  That’s the complete opposite of Fox.
  • Grant Riller: Riller is basically the equivalent of someone 6’7 playing basketball against people who are 5’8.  He was that much better than everyone else at Charleston, making all the highlight reels hard to really believe in.
  • Tre Jones: A great defender but plays way too reckless offensively.  Maybe his brother Tyus can teach him some things about settling down.
  • Jaden McDaniels: Hard pass.  Nobody was more underwhelming in college basketball last year.  The tools are there but the execution and effort is not.
  • Nico Mannion: If Grant Riller is the 6’7 dude, then Mannion is one of the 5’8 people.  He might be able to shoot it and pass at the next level, though his stature is concerning on both ends.
  • Aleksej Pokusevski: Another hard pass.  He’s the exact type of player you don’t want to fall in love with.  He’s not a fluid mover, which is concerning given his ridiculous frame.  He’s robotic shooting and dribbling, and will get banged around endlessly.
  • Daniel Oturu: Oturu has been dominant since his high school days, but his style of play doesn’t totally fit the modern NBA.  He’s been rumored to be shooting it well, but there’s still no switchability or rim protection on the other side.
  • Xavier Tillman: No shooting and no rim protection is a bad combination as a big these days.
  • Vernon Carey Jr.: Nope.  Way too much old-school in his game, and Duke didn’t help modernize him at all this past year.

The Suns And Bucks Are All In

The Suns biggest need this offseason was impact.

It didn’t matter where it came from.  All that was known was that it’d be hard to find. 

This draft doesn’t offer much, especially at the No. 10 overall pick.  The Suns spending big in free agency seemed unlikely considering they recently sold their G-League team, and had brought in Ricky Rubio the offseason before.  Despite the 8-0 run in the Bubble, the team felt kind of stuck as just a competitive group that likely wasn’t going to crack real success, and had to rely on their best player just to hit that low mark.

That changed in a hurry Monday morning.

The Chris Paul trade was a deal that felt like it could have gone bad.  When th news broke, breathing stopped while waiting for the package going back to the Thunder.  It seemed like it would take a lot.

But it really didn’t.  The Suns swapped point guards (Rubio for Paul), traded an inefficient sixth man in Kelly Oubre, gave up two younger guards with some upside (Ty Jerome and Jalen Lecque) and moved off a first round pick that is probably the best asset in the deal all in return for one of the 40 best players of all-time and a top 10-15 player in the league.  Not bad.

The Oubre label might seem harsh, but with the emergence of the Mikal Bridges-Cam Johnson at the 3-4 lineup in the bubble, a starting role was not going to exist for Oubre, even with the energy and scoring he brings.  Additionally, Oubre’s contract has been a hot topic since last offseason, and the flamboyant wing was likely going to want more security as he’s scheduled to hit the market again next summer.  

Oubre would have been a nice pop off the bench in a sixth man role, but he’s not exactly the ball-handler you want in that spot.  Plus, his poor outside shooting can lead to some inefficient and poor shot selection at times, making him an occasional tough fit.  Plus, it’s not wild to wonder whether Oubre would have been happy not starting – a suspicion says that’d be a tough sell for him.

Lecque was a project, and didn’t have a home thanks to the sale of the Northern Arizona Suns.  Jerome had a tough rookie season thanks to a lack of playing time and injuries – his impact at backup point guard was also not enough, leading to the signing of Cam Payne pre-bubble.  

It’s legitimately possible the 2022 first round pick the Suns gave up in the deal is the No. 1 asset in it, and that’s even after reports trickled out Monday morning that the infamous “double draft” – the year where high schoolers will be able to enter the league after graduation on top of the college freshmen class – might come in 2023 instead of the year before.  That would make 2022 picks way less valuable than previously thought, and make the price on 2023 selections sky-rocket.  The Suns seemed to do a nice job holding firm on ’22, as 2021 figures to be a loaded draft class as well.

Phoenix was able to flip that package into an All-NBA player last season in Paul. Paul’s the exact type of help Booker and Co. needed.  Rubio provided it, sure, but lacked the secondary scoring punch and offensive impact that Paul now brings.

CP3’s age and contract is subject to some critics, and in a way rightfully so.  But Paul is coming off a second-team All-NBA season (He was third-team on this ballot), led the league’s best clutch offense and surprised everyone by dragging OKC to a fifth seed in the playoffs and taking Houston to seven games in the first round.  He’s also the Point God, too.

Paul’s contract doesn’t matter because he’s likely never going to play down to the level we expected him to on it.  Sure, a second-team All-NBA appearance may not be very likely again, but playing at a slightly worse level or even a whole step lower  than that doesn’t make the contract a waste.  

Why?  First, this is Phoenix’s big move.  There’s nothing coming that is bigger than this.  This is the team they’re moving forward with.  Paul’s contract isn’t blocking anyone else.  Second, the Suns didn’t give up anything significant, so it’s not like they gave up truly meaningful assets for someone on a brutal contract.  Paul’s shown so far that he’s likely to outplay the negative value of his deal.  

It feels like there had to be better deals for Oklahoma City, unless teams were still deathly scared of trading for Paul’s contract.  Perhaps these could be teams trying to maintain cap flexibility, and didn’t want the large salary figure Paul brings on their salary sheet.  But after seeing what the Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday Monday night, it seems hard to believe Paul could be had for so much less.  Where was Milwaukee on Paul if they were willing to give up what they did for Holiday?  What about Philadelphia?  The Mavericks?  Denver?  Bueller?

This trade feels like selling low for the Thunder.  It’s possible they didn’t have a choice, but why not hold firm for one of Johnson or Bridges?  Or potentially a straight up deal for DeAndre Ayton?  Oubre is a sneaky young piece (still 24 years old – will be 25 by the season’s tip) for them, but his deficiencies were noted above.  His defense will be a nice addition to a Thunder team that could use it, though.

Rubio makes zero sense for OKC’s timeline, and point guards are found more commonly than any other position through the league, which limits his potential flip value in February.  Plus – who’s taking on that deal for a non-needle mover?  Rubio was in the deal to make the money work, but why didn’t the Thunder demand more draft compensation from Phoenix to make up for the taking on of Rubio’s deal?  Lecque and Jerome are fine flyers – with Lecque being the ultimate project and fitting what OKC is doing well.  And then there’s the first round pick, which the Thunder should have bargained to be a 2021 or 2023 pick instead of 2022.

The Thunder have more moves to make, and perhaps they will be a bit better than this one.  But Paul was supposed to be the asset anchor of the Thunder’s rebuild, and this deal didn’t get it done.


On the Jrue Holiday trade to Milwaukee…

If Giannis Antetokounmpo is Shaq – well, Jrue Holiday isn’t exactly Kobe.

But he fits the mold, and clearly, that’s all that matters to Milwaukee.

Holiday’s shipment to the Bucks was stunning because of what the deal consisted of.  The Bucks were able to swap Eric Bledsoe and his contract for the Pelicans star point guard, but had to give up potentially five first round picks (Three first rounders and two first round pick swaps) to do it in addition to a reliable role player in George Hill.

Holiday is perfect for Milwaukee.  The Bucks upgrade at point guard, as Bledsoe’s a good defender but doesn’t quite hit Holiday’s level due to poor shooting, high usage and lesser passing ability.  Holiday’s the guy they need if Antetokounmpo is going to turn the corner in the playoffs, and play as more of a true big rather than a driving guard.  Additionally, Holiday brings better shooting and more efficiency to the Bucks offense, while making their defense somehow even better than it was prior.

It cost them a lot though, and perhaps too much.  Bledsoe’s a wash, but Hill was one of the league’s best shooters in 2019-20 and was able to double as a three-point threat off-the-ball and a nice backup point guard.  The amount of picks is asinine, especially considering who they’re going to (New Orleans – who owns the Lakers future thanks to the Anthony Davis trade).  It’s the type of deal you practically guarantee a title with, though the Clippers have yet to do that and Golden State and Brooklyn are rising as legitimate contenders.  The picks are likely to be late in the first round, but what happens if an injury occurs, or if the team is flipped on its head in the summer of 2021?  Then what?

You would hope Milwaukee made this deal not to convince Antetokounmpo to stay but as a gift for him committing to stay.  It’s an unprecedented, dangerous deal to make without knowing whether you’re losing the back-to-back MVP in a year or not.  A future without Antetokounmpo is a bleak one.  One without him and your draft picks is devastating.

The deal for New Orleans is more than they likely could have asked for.  The sheer volume of picks just adds to their war-chest, and there was likely no higher bidder – topping that offer means another star would have to be involved.  The Pelicans got the Bucks to seriously overpay, and for that they have to take on Bledsoe.  But they get Hill, who can be a competent role player in multiple facets and mentor whoever they need him to.  

On Bogdan Bogdanovic’s sign and trade to Milwaukee…

It’s possible to look at the Holiday trade as a combination of it and Milwaukee’s next deal, which featured the Bucks sending Donte DiVencenzo, DJ Wilson and Ersan Ilyasova to the Kings for Bogdan Bogdanovic in what will be a sign-and-trade deal on Sunday morning.

Let’s evaluate it that way instead: The Bucks traded Bledsoe, Hill, Donte DiVencenzo, DJ Wilson, Ersan Ilyasova, three first round picks and two first round picks swaps for Holiday and Bogdanovic – who they will be paying a large contract to.

On the aggregate, it’s not as bad.  But moving five first round picks on top of your only two young assets for a non-guaranteed championship is still a risky deal.  Stars who will deliver a ring earn that type of package, not necessarily two really good players.

If the Bucks overpaid for Holiday, then they certainly underpaid for Bogdanovic.  DiVencenzo is the star of the deal for the Kings, but aside from that Sacramento is looking at a defense-only wing in Wilson and a veteran big who doesn’t fit their timeline (Ilyasova has flip potential, though).  Sure, Milwaukee has to pay Bogdanovic, but the sneakily-veteran Serbian combo-forward brings a lot of what Malcolm Brogdon did to the table for Milwaukee, and that’s in addition to a real point guard in Holiday.

At the end of the day,  Milwaukee can still be called a loser in these deals because of Brogdon.  They refused to pay him, and instead they’re making panicky, win-now deals to make up for it.  Paying him would have alleviated the need for all of this.

But, Holiday-Bogdanovic-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Brook Lopez is a ridiculous team, full of defense and ball-handling that can help support Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.  Here’s to hoping they get more than one run at it.

The deal for the Kings is a bit underwhelming, but Sacramento was likely operating with low leverage as the necessity for a sign-and-trade manifested after they learned what offers Bogdanovic would get on the open market.  Sacramento smartly salvaged what they could, and it landed them a young wing moving forward in DiVencenzo.

This move would presumably clear the way for Buddy Hield to remain a King – Hield on his contract is a better than deal than Bogdanovic on his.  Sacramento now needs to get back to their speedy ways, and turn the fun core they once had loose again.

On Dennis Schroder’s trade to the Lakers…

It seems as though the LeBron James at point guard experiment is over after one season, and it’s not because it failed.

There’s just no need to make James work that hard anymore, even if he did finish third in the assists per game leaderboard last season.  With Rajon Rondo likely moving on, finding someone who qualifies as even more of a flier than Rondo was last offseason is a tough bet – and getting Rondo’s production we saw in the bubble from someone other than him is even more unlikely.  So, to counter the loss, the Lakers went after once of the best point guards available on the trade or free agent market, and it cost them hardly anything.

The inclusion of Danny Green along with the No. 28 pick for Schroder was a bit surprising, just because even after a tough playoffs, Green represented basic competency on the Lakers roster (Making the money match was likely why Green was shipped).  But perhaps LAL will find another wing to take over his role, and are okay with getting lesser production there with what Schroder brings to the table.

Schroder likely becomes the Lakers starter alongside James and Anthony Davis, with the rest to be determined.  Regardless, Schroder is the best point guard on the Lakers roster now that James is seemingly moved out of the position.  His scoring acumen will be received well by the Lakers, who could use a consistent punch next to their superstar duo.

This trade should have been a precursor to our disappointment in Oklahoma City.  Schroder and Paul should have netted real value, and both came up a tad short.  The No. 28 pick is a rough one in this draft, depending on how the board falls.  The positive is that Green is likely someone who can be flipped, unlike Rubio.  Green could easily net the Thunder a first round pick before the trade deadline – as Green’s sound defense and (occasionally) competent shooting is a massive plus to a potential contender.

Like the Paul trade, the Thunder should have likely gotten more, and the Lakers, for once, didn’t overpay and made a savvy move.

On Robert Covington’s trade to Portland…

This deal was similar to the Holiday move by Milwaukee in that Portland gave up a lot for someone who is 1) really good and 2) fills a major need and will make an immediate impact because of it.

The Trail Blazers had to pay up, sending two first round picks (including their No. 16 overall selection Wednesday night) and Trevor Ariza (back!) to Houston in exchange for Covington, who next to Gary Trent Jr. gives Portland the length they need to make up for their defensively-limited backcourt.

Covington improves Portland dramatically on both ends.  After the years of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless on the wings, the Trail Blazers finally have a powerful two-way duo in Gary Trent Jr. and Covington.  

There’s likely a ceiling on what Portland can be defensively thanks to their two guards, but Covington was an important glue guy during his short time in Houston, and can do a little bit of everything on the defensive end.  There might be some rim protection skills hidden in his game.  

The price was not cheap, but reports indicated that Portland was not in love with anyone at No. 16 overall Wednesday night (The Athletic’s John Hollinger reported that Jay Scrubb was a target for the Blazers with the pick – a player who will not be ranked on the big board released Wednesday).  The extra first may be overkill, but Covington is an upgrade over Ariza, who pre-pandemic played well for Portland but is 35 years old and had shown serious decline the past two years.  

This has the potential to be a needle-mover deal for Portland, though they’re probably still on the outside of the West’s upper echelon.

One would think Houston was not too keen on making this deal initially.  Even with James Harden and Russell Westbrook wanting out, the Rockets seem firm on trying to compete in 2020-21, and keeping Covington would have certainly helped them do that.

It’s likely that the offer was just too good to pass up on.  Houston needs all the picks it can get, and they’re getting a decent replacement in Ariza (who’s never been the same since leaving Houston to sign with Phoenix in 2018).  Covington was a critical part of Houston’s small-ball philosophy, but with former GM Daryl Morey now in Philadelphia, the Rockets could be shifting away from such insistence on that style of play, making Covington expendable at the right price.

Perhaps Houston is still wanting to play that way and sees Ariza as a similar fit, with the picks making up for the loss in talent.  Regardless, it was an interesting deal for the Rockets, and is likely a precursor to something bigger, whenever that may come.

On the Bruce Brown trade to the Nets…

The first deal after the trade moratorium opened was perhaps the strangest one made.  The Pistons moved one of their few young assets to a contender for a lesser young(er) asset in Dzanan Musa and a second round pick.

Brown had been a pleasant surprise last year, really emerging as a ball-handler and defender on a bleak Pistons roster.  He, Sekou Doumbouya and Luke Kennard were really all Detroit had to look forward too.

Now the Pistons get Musa, who’s a young, deadly shooter but has spent most of his time in the G-League.  Musa and Deividas Sirvydis – Detroit’s second round pick in 2019 who’s still overseas – gives the Pistons some serious shooting depth for the long term, but ball handling and defense comes at a premium in this league, and Brown did both quite well.  A second round pick in return was not enough.

The Nets didn’t really need Musa either, nor did they need the pick.  The same could be said about Brown for them, but why would Detroit sell so low on someone who gave them solid, unexpected contributions?

What a weird deal.

The Warriors Might Be Forced To Reach In The 2020 NBA Draft

The Golden State Warriors are tasked with the ultimate restoration process during this blitz of a NBA offseason.  The league’s latest dynasty is coming off a season full of injuries and young, inexperienced players running the show.  But they enter the delayed 2020-21 season with a secret genius-like presence.  The Warriors are there, but nobody really knows what they’re up to or what to expect from them, and because of that, they quietly fade away until they re-emerge.

If the Warriors are to manifest with their past force, moves must be made over the next week.  Their struggles last season resulted in the No. 2 overall pick – a blessing in any draft but this one – and an extra 2021 first rounder from Minnesota due to the D’Angelo Russell trade.  They still have most of their cornerstones from the past five years in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, all of whom should be healthy and ready to go for December’s tip-off, but the fringes are rough.  Andrew Wiggins still doesn’t feel like a quality player nor a tradeable asset, and the only other mildly intriguing pieces are Kevon Looney and Eric Paschall, who was massively underrated in the 2019 Draft, had a great rookie and has some Green-like elements to him.

It’s tough for Golden State to bank on having 2014-2016-like success this season.  While that team lacked Kevin Durant next to its three stars, they had quality veterans around Curry, Thompson and Green and took the league by storm.  No one was qualified to defend or catch up with them yet.  Green was a much more potent offensive player.  Everyone was younger and just entering their primes.

Now, Thompson hasn’t played basketball in a year and a half, Curry is coming off an injury-ravaged year and Green has regressed on at least one end of the court.  The Warriors are still scary, but they may not pack the same punch that they used to.

The No. 2 overall pick doesn’t do a great job of improving the Warriors roster this year.  It’s no secret or surprise that Golden State has been linked to trade downs or outs.  To get someone who can really help, they’ll likely have to reach or make a monumental move.

Options for the latter exist.  LaMelo Ball – if Minnesota is smart – should be here for other teams Wednesday night.  The Hornets could move up a spot and guarantee themselves Ball, even though they have two other point guards on the roster (Neither really have the ceiling of Ball, though).  The Knicks or Pistons could as well, as those are two teams who should be coveting the brother of Lonzo.  But just like they did with Minnesota, neither team really offers Golden State players that make up for the lost value of dropping from the No. 2 pick.  The Pistons would need to convince Golden State that Blake Griffin (and his contract, and his medical history, and his poor defense) is worth it for them.  Detroit has zero other veteran assets on their team worth the pick swap.  The Knicks truly have nothing that should intrigue Golden State in a trade down.  Charlotte’s options are limited too, and it wouldn’t make much sense for the Warriors to move down just a single spot.  

Moving farther down the lottery and draft, New Orleans has Jrue Holiday – who’s been reported to be a trade candidate this offseason.  Golden State has been linked to him, though the fit between him and Curry seems a little awkward in the backcourt.  Holiday’s a good defender and good shooter, but it leaves the Warriors a bit stubby defensively, and Curry off-the-ball could limit his impact.  Golden State has to consider whether the redundancy in a Curry-Holiday backcourt is more valuable than whoever they take at No. 2 overall.  Holiday would add guaranteed competency, unlike a draft pick, but the fit feels a bit too wonky.  Additionally, this would mean the Pelicans have their eyes on someone high in the draft.  It could be Ball, as they could use a true point guard of the future (Lonzo is likely not it).  The players New Orleans could use are similar to Golden State (wings, minus point guard), making this type of deal tough to sell to the Pelicans.  What wing would be reasonable to take at No. 2 overall?

The Magic represent some intriguing possibilities.  Markelle Fultz has come along nicely after flaming out in Philadelphia, but he’ll never be the best player in his 2017 draft class as expected and shouldn’t be counted on as Orlando’s franchise player.  Ball could be a target of their’s.  Aaron Gordon would be beautiful to watch on Golden State while switching everything and knocking down three-pointers.  There might be some overlap with him and Green, though the two can protect the rim by committee.  Orlando giving up just Gordon and their own pick (No. 15) for No. 2 overall might be pretty enticing.  Golden State could still add an extra wing at No. 15 too.

Aside from that, the Warriors outlook for a trade down is bleak.  Milwaukee could use a point guard, though they’re still trying to compete with Giannis Antentokounmpo, so moving critical pieces of their title pursuit in 2020-21 (like Khris Middleton or Brook Lopez) wouldn’t be an option.  Donte DiVencenzo is the Bucks only moveable asset that would work for Golden State (Eric Bledsoe is a stay-away) – a deal with him and Ersan Ilyasova (who feels like the perfect Warrior) would give Golden State two quality players but still feel underwhelming.

Golden State could pivot away from trade downs and look to move out of their pick all together.  The stars who remain available on the trade market include just Holiday and Bradley Beal, though Beal doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere unless the offer for the Wizards is ridiculous.  Russell Westbrook and James Harden are wanting out of Houston, but Westbrook is the hardest no ever for the Dubs and a Harden deal seems counter-intuitive.  For kicks though: The Warriors could send Green, No. 2 overall and the 2021 Minnesota first rounder as the base of what would be a ridiculous array of picks on top of likely Eric Paschall and Kevon Looney in exchange for Harden.  It seems crazy that Golden State would move one of Thompson, Curry or Green, but the first two aren’t going anywhere regardless of what the fit is.  

That simply isn’t happening, but it likely needed to be addressed given Harden’s apparent availability.  Beal would be intriguing, though the Warriors would need to pay up in addition to No. 2 overall and the future Minnesota pick – would Washington do those two assets on top of Paschall and Looney?

The problem is that Washington has no reason to rebuild with John Wall’s contract purely unmovable, hence their insistency on keeping Beal.  Golden State would have to really sweeten a deal, which could be worth it considering their slot in this draft.

Boston has been rumored to be wanting to move up higher into the lottery.  It’s unclear who their target is, or if he would make sense at No. 2 overall.  Golden State could take back Gordon Hayward and an assortment of Boston’s three first rounders, which they’re looking to move due to a roster crunch.  That would be a king’s ransom for Golden State, as they’d get a solid veteran in Hayward in addition to other picks to help fill out the roster.  This isn’t a great draft, but the players most likely not to bust lie in the exact spots where Boston is picking, giving the Warriors a good prospectus in this potential yet unlikely move.

It’s likely none of these deals come to fruition though.  A team wanting to trade down means another has to come up, and in this draft, that’s risky given the lack of sure-fire bets and potential stars at the top.  The Warriors are going to be force to settle here, but their decision may be a bit tougher than reaching for whoever they think might be the best available.

No. 2, Golden State Warriors: Deni Avdija, Israel

USC’s Onyeka Okongwu has a good case for being the pick here.  Even with the Warriors depth of Kevon Looney and Eric Paschall at center, Okongwu would bring a nifty new style of basketball to the Warriors.

Golden State’s signing of DeMarcus Cousins in the summer of 2018 let it be known that they coveted a true big man.  It was the final iteration of their ridiculous offense. 

Okongwu wouldn’t necessarily be like Boogie, though.  He’d be a switchy, rim protecting big who has a soft touch, would be a deadly lob threat and offer sets Golden State never dreamed possible thanks to his intuitive passing.  

But drafting Okongwu would limit minutes for Looney, who showed he’s able to play big playoff minutes in 2019.  It would also hinder Paschall’s development and reduce potential crunch-time play for him.

At the end of the day, the Warriors can afford to whiff on this pick.  They’re going to be fine with the talent they currently have, and are going to be spending in free agency to fill out the rest of the roster regardless.  This pick is a luxury, and Golden State should take a swing.

That swing is Deni Avdija, who brings an interesting array of skills to the table.  He’s somewhere along the lines of Nicholas Batum, Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović.  Not to make solely international comparison, but he’s got a little sprinkle of each in his game, and a couple of concerning issues.

First, the good.  Avdija is a dynamic player offensively.  He’s able to ball-handle and pass, which allows him to get to the rim with a variety of spins and moves.  He’s not fast, but moves fluidly enough to get by defenders driving.  His passing is where the comparisons to Batum and Bogdanovic come in, as both players suffice as secondary play-makers in the NBA today.  

Avdija could do a lot for Golden State in terms of diversifying their offense.  As a secondary play-maker, Avdija could turn Curry and Thompson into lethal off-the-ball, catch-and-shoot weapons.  Golden State would also have someone they could plant at the elbow and run the offense through, similar to how Denver does with Nikola Jokic.  Avdija’s ability to move offensively makes him a weapon as a cutter, and his finishing is excellent.  

The bad, unfortunately, makes him a questionable fit in the league today.  The bounciness offensively doesn’t translate defensively – Avdija’s feet are slow, making him a tough switch onto anyone but bigger fours.  It’s a shame considering his weight and wingspan would allow him to really be a two-way force, but foot speed is not something that’s generally worked on and improved.  Avdija’s shooting is extremely questionable, as he’s used to having the ball in his hands and not shooting jumpers.  His free throw percentages are also horrible, ridding of any hope that a jump-shot could be developed down the line.  

The combination of bad, non-switchable defense and poor shooting does not seem like a mix of skills Golden State would want on their roster, considering they were the group that made them a mainstay in the league.  Golden State did just trade for Andrew Wiggins though, and he does neither of those things particularly well.  Additionally, if any team is going to figure out how a player can overcome those issues and still be productive, it would be the Warriors.  

Exploring Minnesota’s Options At The Top Of The 2020 NBA Draft

With the 2020 NBA Draft just nine days away and a wealth of uncertainty regarding  its overall talent, top prospects and the teams making the first two picks, it’s time to start diving in.

This draft has had the reputation of being a bad one, and it’s partially true.  There are no sure-fire stars in this draft.  There’s a wealth of players who could become reliable role-players but no one wants to take them high over a player who out of nowhere becomes a star.  None of the consensus top prospects can actually shoot.  It has the bad label for a reason.

Picking high is not where teams want to be.  As it would be for most teams toward the top of this draft, trading down or out is likely Minnesota’s best option at No. 1 overall.  But trading down means someone else has to trade up, and if picking high isn’t a hot commodity, than trading up to do so is even worse.

There could be some candidates, though.  This mock, which will be revealed in parts leading up to Nov. 18,  has Charlotte getting him anyways (Hint hint), but if the Hornets wanted to secure themselves LaMelo Ball, moving up to No. 1 would ensure them of that.  What would a deal look like though?  Minnesota probably isn’t looking for future picks with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster – they should be a playoff team next year.  That means win-now pieces would be the asking price in return for Minnesota.  Charlotte doesn’t exactly possess that, with Nicholas Batum being the closest thing they have; his contract is an abomination and doesn’t really provide fair return though.  The Knicks and Pistons could also be interested in moving up.  Veteran help is a little easier to find in these spots, but Blake Griffin and Towns are problematic defensively, never mind Griffin’s own troublesome contract, injury history and the overall the lack of value for Minnesota in the deal.  New York would have to stack a couple players for it to be worth it for Minnesota, and even then a deal is underwhelming.

Moving way down the draft, Phoenix at No. 10 overall could want Ball to pair with Devin Booker in the backcourt, but veterans logical for Minnesota don’t totally exist on the Suns’ roster.  Orlando is another team that could present options at No. 15 overall – Aaron Gordon has been a long rumored trade candidate and would give the Wolves a nice defensive-minded player who can play next to Towns on the other end.  Is he worth the No. 1 overall pick in this draft?  Possibly.  Markelle Fultz had a nice year, but any hope for him to be their point guard of the future still seems slim. Picking Ball and pairing him with Nikola Vucevic’s passing would be impossible to guard, and Ball would give the Magic legitimate talent on the perimeter.  Gordon getting moved reduces the big man logjam in Orlando’s front-court, and gives Minnesota legitimate shooting and defense.

The value is the biggest question with the deal.  This draft isn’t great, which makes a player on Gordon’s level expendable for the first pick.  The Wolves need contribution right away – any rookie in any draft class is a question mark when it comes to that.  With Gordon, you know what you’re getting, you’re plugging a hole and increasing the talent on your team significantly.

Gordon opens up the discussion of Minnesota using the pick in exchange a star rather than a simple trade-down.  Stars that seem to be available this offseason could include Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo.  Beal is the best fit and the best player of the three, but Washington seems keen on keeping him and John Wall together for one last go-around since Wall’s contract prevents the Wizards from fully rebuilding.  What can Minnesota send that wouldn’t trigger a true teardown?  No. 1 overall and Jarrett Culver doesn’t do much.  If Washington is trying to compete as best it can, they aren’t going to want future picks loaded into a Beal deal.

Jrue Holiday could fit well in Minnesota and takeover as more true of a true point guard, moving Russell to the 2-spot where he can score. Holiday provides  good defense to a team that needs it, and him for No.1 overall straight up has momentum for being fair, depending on how New Orleans views this draft.  Both Ball brothers on the same team might be a scenario the Pelicans wish to avoid for publicity reasons, but replacing Holiday with the younger Ball brother isn’t a bad succession plan.

There’s nothing concise about Oladipo’s availability on the market.  He’s also the worst fit of the three next to Russell.  Neither are super high percentage shooters and both are most effective with the ball.  Plus, trading No. 1 overall for someone with Oladipo’s health record is risky.  An acquisition of the first pick for Indiana also doesn’t jive with the age and trajectory of their roster, which is one that just added Malcolm Brogdon last summer and isn’t too far away from being a contender.

Those are the most obvious moves for Minnesota that require trading out or down.  Stunners can happen (AKA, Oklahoma City), and the Timberwolves could gladly take an extra pick to makeup for the one they shipped out for Russell in February.  But the Wolves window is now, and if Holiday and Gordon are both off the table, Minnesota’s going to have to play the cards they’ve been dealt.

No.1, Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards, Georgia

The first pick of the 2020 NBA Mock Draft is Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. Ranked second on the big board (The second edition is coming soon, click here for the first), Edwards was the pole-sitter for most of the college basketball season until time allowed for a review of Ball.  Edwards is dynamic on both ends.  He just needs to put a lot of things together.

Edwards’ best skill right now is getting to the rim.  He’s a long 6’5 and possess hyper-athleticism, which can get the best of him at times but results in unstoppable drives to the hoop.  He’s not a player teams are going to be able to just throw a wing at and call it a day.  Defenders need quick foot speed, immense size and even some rim protection ability to stop him.

Edwards’ efficiency isn’t quite there yet.  He had too large of workload assigned to him at Georgia, thanks to poor point guard play.  Head coach Tom Crean tended to overcast him at times due to the unreliable backcourt.  That burden has created worries about his shot creation and shooting ability – which are both valid.  The jumpers needs to fall at the next level, and the concerning part is that his shot form isn’t exactly a mess.  

Still, 77.2 percent from the free throw line is an encouraging sign, and perhaps playing off someone like Russell won’t tire him out as much, leading to more jump-shots actually falling.

The fit between him and Russell might seem suspect, but Edwards is a good player off the ball thanks to his athleticism and knack for finding holes in a defense.  He can cut, catch, take a quick dribble and lay it right in.  He’s a menace in transition.

The Wolves desperately need a defensive presence.  Edwards has serious potential on that end thanks to his size and ability to move fluidly and quickly, but the results have been sub-par given expectations.  A lot of it could be chalked up as a simple lack of effort, with defense taking a backseat to his offensive load in college, but there does seem to be some awareness issues when not locked onto an opponent. 

Fine tuning is needed.  Edwards has every tool necessary to be a high-end defender in the NBA.  The Wolves should be able to get him there, especially since they’re going to need everything they can get on the defensive end of the court.

Edwards may not be the best player in this draft, but that doesn’t totally matter because this draft is anyone’s guess.  Minnesota is in the worst possible spot here.  Trading down or out would be a saving grace.

A Power Ranking Of NFL Contenders

The NFL season is approaching its halfway point, and the sample size we need to truly evaluate teams is large enough to where we can draw early conclusions about who is real and who is not.

This year, the league is not wide-open.  Instead, a bunch of good teams crowd the top.  Legitimate cases can be made for seven teams to win the Super Bowl.  Below is the argument for each.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are mostly here out of respect.  It would be cute and perhaps professional to give this spot to Seattle – whom the narrative has followed all year thanks to Russell Wilson’s undisputed MVP candidacy.  But it would also be unwise to not give Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City their due.  Mahomes is the most talented quarterback this game has seen, and the Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions.  They’re still ranked first in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, despite seeming not nearly as dominant this season.  They’re taking care of bad teams and winning against good ones.  Their defense is still costing them at times, as evident in their 40-32 loss against the Raiders in Week 5.  The Chiefs may not feel like they deserve to be here, but they do.  Plus, Le’Veon Bell is still coming, which could make the best offense in football even better.  Seattle’s reinvention is scary, but their defensive issues could plague them.  Kansas City’s aren’t much better, but we’ve at least seen them be overcome in the past.

             2. Seattle Seahawks

Seattle might be the easiest Super Bowl shoe-in out of any team on this list right now because of the odd Kansas City resistance.  They’re most of the NFL media’s darling thanks to Wilson’s MVP-caliber season and the emergence of wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.  Defense be damned, Seattle is dotting up secondaries by actually treating Wilson like the quarterback he is.  Their lack of aggression over the years was justifiable until the arrival and ascension of Metcalf, who finally gave Wilson someone else to throw to aside from Tyler Lockett.  The duo has made Wilson an unstoppable force, as the Seahawks have shied away from their run-heavy tendencies to completely unlock their quarterback and offense.

Their defense is concerning though.  The newly-acquired Carlos Dunlap will look to help the Seahawks fill the void at pass-rusher, though one non-superstar’s impact could be limited.  Their ranking of 28th in defensive DVOA is the reason they fall behind Kansas City in this power poll – the closest team on the DVOA list that is as good as the Seahawks are is the Packers, who rank 22nd.  The teams that fall in between: Carolina, Cleveland, New England, Cincinnati and Atlanta – none of whom can seriously be called contenders right now.  Seattle is getting by, but it’s reasonable to wonder how sustainable that is, whether the offense keeps up its torment or not.

            3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Giving Tom Brady the best defense in the league by DVOA standards was a great idea for the Buccaneers and a bad idea for everyone else.

The reason Tampa Bay finds itself third behind Seattle and Kansas City lies in their sudden stutters in offensive production.  A good New Orleans defense shut them down in Week 1, and the Bears rejuvenated group did so in Week 5.  Those are both top 10 groups, but for an offense that probably should be the best in football given its overall talent, those games are a little concerning.  Seattle and Kansas City haven’t had teams shut them truly down yet through Week 7.

Still, the Bucs have to be taken seriously.  It’s extremely hard to bet against Brady for any reason, let alone when his roster (and most importantly, his weapons) are loaded.  Antonio Brown should only add to it, unless he doesn’t for non-football reasons.  Doubting Brady last year was reasonable – his ability to overcome a bad situation dissipated.  But Tampa Bay has put him in the best possible situation in 2020, and it could wind up with Brady playing for an unprecedented seventh ring.

            4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers and Brady were similar last season.  People claimed they were washed or weren’t as good as previously thought.  Neither had a good supporting cast of receivers.  Even though record indicated otherwise, they and their team’s performance was underwhelming.

Both have overcome it.  For different reasons, Rodgers and Brady have put last season’s narrative to bed, and while Brady’s bunch is ranked ahead of Rodgers’, the Packers quarterback’s season might be more impressive.

That’s because there’s no real reason for Rodgers’ supposed improvement this year. It’s practically the same Green Bay team aside from it being Matt LeFluer and his offense’s second year, which allows everyone to be more comfortable in it.  Aside from that, the Packers are running out the same weapons we complained about last year.  Green Bay’s rookies in the backfield haven’t been game-changers.  The defense still isn’t great, ranking 22nd in defensive DVOA thus far after finishing 15th last season.  

There’s only two real answers: Rodgers and the rest of the receiving core becoming more comfortable in LeFluer’s system (Most notably Robert Tonyan, who’s becoming the latest Green Bay tight end to be a favorite target of Rodgers) or the drafting of Jordan Love lighting a fire under Rodgers’ rear.  Both explanations are quite cliche and boring, but the shift of Rodgers looking washed to becoming a MVP candidate again lies in within one of them.

            5. Baltimore Ravens

Is Baltimore being treated on this list how Kansas City is amongst most?  Possibly. The Ravens, like the Chiefs, aren’t much different this year compared to last.  It’s just because their newness and shock value has wore off.  We know what to expect with Baltimore now.

And yet, we’re still sometimes let down.

The big game lack of success is real with the Ravens.  It starts with Jackson’s rookie season and the playoff game against the Chargers – where Baltimore managed just seven points and couldn’t top San Diego’s 10.  Jackson was reduced to a shell of himself and wasn’t able to affect the game in ways he typically does.  The same issue occurred in last year’s playoffs against Tennessee, where the offense failed to kick into gear despite torching teams all season. And just this year, Kansas City asserted their dominance in Week 3 on Monday Night Football in a game where Jackson didn’t stand a chance matching the Chiefs’ offensive firepower.

Sunday stands as a big test for the Ravens.  They face the 6-0 Steelers, who are forthcoming on this list.  It’s almost a make or break game for the purposes of this list for each team.  If Baltimore falls to the two toughest opponents on their schedule (KC and Pittsburgh), how can we take them seriously as contenders?  

             6. Tennessee Titans 

Arguably the most unexpected team on this list, the Titans recently had a two-game stretch where they looked like serious Super Bowl contenders.  They obliterated the Bills on that weird Tuesday night game in Week 5 and won in OT against the Texans – who had their best performance of the year – in back-to-back weeks before Pittsburgh’s defense shut them down in Week 7.  

It’s possible we’re overrating Tennessee due to the shock value they’ve provided us since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback.  Never before has Tannehill played as well as he has since being traded to the Titans, and the former Dolphins QB being anything better than average still feels a little off.  There’s a case it shouldn’t be – the Titans have given Tannehill better weapons (and better coaching, too) than he ever had in Miami.  Maybe this is just what QBs of Tannehill’s caliber need to succeed.  An awesome running back (Derrick Henry) and at least two awesome pass-catchers (AJ Brown and Jonnu Smith) certainly helps.

Even after last week’s contest, Tennessee gets the nod over Pittsburgh because of a slightly harder schedule (in terms of opponents and because of COVID-19’s effect) and a more dynamic offense.  The Steelers defense is the second-best in football per DVOA and that’s no statistical fluke.  But Tennessee subsequently ranks third in offensive DVOA, and riding with an offense that is getting above-average QB play rather than just average is a bet worth making – even if it is Tannehill at the helm.

             7. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh’s deficiencies were covered above, but they absolutely need to be included in the short list of contenders thanks to a ferocious defense that was consistently let down by the other side of the ball last year.  

Now, that’s not the case anymore, even though the Steelers rank 17th in offensive DVOA.  But for Pittsburgh’s chances overall, the offense still remains a viable question mark.

Despite the emergence of rookie Chase Claypool as the latest dominant Steeler wide-out, Ben Roethlisberger is averaging just 6.8 yards per pass attempt this year, ranking 26th out of 32 eligible quarterbacks per ESPN.com.  That’s not exactly ideal, considering that Claypool is just one of three legitimate receivers Roethlisberger has to throw to, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington also on the roster.  He’s got everything he needs to make up for any age regression, and it still doesn’t seem to be enough.

That said, the Steelers are 6-0 and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  The defense has proved it’s good enough to not just get the team to the average mark but well past it.  Defenses like that don’t come around often, and that exact formula has worked many times before.

The Unfortunate Realities of Dak Prescott’s Injury

The comments from Alex Smith say a lot about the injury Dak Prescott suffered Sunday.  Smith hadn’t established contact because he didn’t want to freak Prescott out.  He didn’t want him to think that he was heading down Smith’s terrifying and simultaneously unforgettable road.

Prescott isn’t in Smith’s situations – according to articles that have featured real doctors as sources – but he’s not exactly in a great one either.  This is not a hamstring, core muscle, collarbone or even an ACL – which is an injury that used to be a death sentence and thanks to technology has turned into just a one year deal.  Prescott’s ankle was turned the wrong way – his sock saving his and our eyes from his bone protruding from his leg.  This might be something Prescott can move on and recover from, but he’ll move on before teams – Dallas or not – do.

This unequivocally sucks for Prescott, but it does for the Cowboys too, no matter how you feel about their handling of Prescott’s contract.  Sure, this could be chalked up as karma to Jerry Jones and the rest of the Cowboys “front office.”  But Prescott’s injury robs them of the chance to truly and finally evaluate whether Prescott is their guy or not.  Some of their balking the past couple offseasons has been justified.  Even pre-injury, $40 million per year for Prescott seemed a little steep.  Jones is a businessman, and he’s looking at Prescott’s ask to be second-highest paid QB in football as preposterous when the player probably slides in somewhere between eighth and thirteenth-best in the league, depending on how you factor in rookies.

Yet, Prescott isn’t average.  He may not be an elite quarterback, but he’s above-average, and ridiculous pay-days are the going rate for guys that rank in that tier.  Dallas could be paying Kirk Cousins that money instead.

The Cowboys are about to find out what paying for average looks and feels like.  While Andy Dalton is only making $8 million this season, even the talented offense around him – and the good group on defense when healthy – isn’t enough to prop him up to a level where he can lead Dallas to their initial expectations for this season.  Dalton, especially in front of a Cowboys offensive line that has been a shell of itself, is what a potential and likely Prescott replacement looks like.  That should make the Joneses woozy.

The resistance the Cowboys likely had to paying Prescott was that they possibly wouldn’t get over the hump with him under center and with talent around him on both sides.  Now, Dallas doesn’t have that proof (or lack thereof it) heading into negotiations with Prescott after this season.  If Prescott and the Cowboys performed up to expectations this season, the franchise wouldn’t have a choice.  They’d have to pay up. If they fell short, perhaps it would have been smart for Dallas to part ways.  Now, the two are in a no-mans land neither saw coming.

Dallas certainly has more leverage now, as awful as that is to write.  Frankly, so does every other team in the league.  Prescott’s done for the season and won’t play again.  How good does a team feel handing over a massive, $100 million-plus contract to someone who – the last time he was in pads – had his ankle turned the wrong way with a bone piercing his skin?

That’s where this hits hard for Prescott – that’s what those tears represented Sunday as he was getting carted off.  Not only was it the burden of his brother’s suicide and the mental struggles he had after the tragedy.  Not only was it the grief he took for being vulnerable about it.  Not only was it that the relationship between him and the Cowboys seemed to be getting ugly.  It was that instead of one team feeling a certain way about him, 29 more had now likely joined.

Perhaps the offers will be there come spring.  It seems unlikely that teams will be ready to hand Prescott a multi-year, lucrative contract despite past performance, though.  It’s an injury that could make him never the same guy again.  Gordon Hayward has yet to return to his normal self after his devastating dislocated ankle and broken leg in 2017.  Though Prescott and Hayward have different injuries and play different sports, the trauma from it has seemed to be Hayward’s barrier since his return, along with other unlucky breaks.

There seems to be less situations like Hayward’s and more that trend toward positive outcomes, though.  Though they also play different sports, Jursurf Nurkic and Caris LeVert both had horrifying leg injuries and returned back to their peak, albeit one much faster than the other.  Then Cowboys receiver Allen Hurns had a similar injury in 2019 and returned to his peak the season after.  And then there’s obviously Smith, who had a different injury, different complications and ultimately a different situation completely than the others but rallied.

Still, signing someone after an injury similar to Hayward’s and Prescott’s is a risk.  In the Celtics case with Hayward, they signed him and then the injury occurred.  They were tied to his rehab and ultimately his lack of return to form.  With Prescott, teams can choose not to bind themselves to that.

That could put him in a situation similar to the one Cam Newton was in this offseason.  Teams won’t bite big until they see it – until they confirm injuries haven’t derailed the players career to the point where its irreversible.  A one year deal for Prescott – no matter who it’s from – is low risk for teams no matter what the cost is.  No one gets locked in at big money.  If a team signs Prescott, it probably won’t be to bench him.  That way, they money doesn’t go to waste whether it produces results or not.

Prescott’s injury unfortunately brings his future contract down to the Cowboys level, and potentially well below it.  In the worst way possible, this broke right for Dallas.  They wanted Prescott at a much lower price, and they’re probably going to get it.  The question is whether teams around the league challenge them on it.  The reality is that every team – Dallas or not – is taking a leap of faith in doing so.

How The Lakers Won The 2020 NBA Finals

For all the excuses being made about the Los Angeles Lakers run to the 2020 NBA title, the event itself is still quite stunning.  Sure, the Lakers missed out on playing the crosstown Clippers, who were widely seen as the title favorites entering the year and held that distinction throughout.  Sure, they didn’t have to face Giannis Antentokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who would have presented serious problems for LeBron James’ team and arguably would have matched up better with LA than Miami did, even though the Bucks fell to the Heat in the second round.  Sure, James and the Lakers got practically a whole offseason’s worth of time off before beginning the playoffs and winning the title.  And sure, the Heat had one member of their crunch-time five practically miss the entire NBA Finals and another miss two games of it.

But the Lakers also had these things going against them: Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee playing legitimately big minutes en route to the title.  The bubble’s eventually toxic atmosphere and the mental toll it exhibited on those left in it for the season’s final days.  The loss of the franchise’s icon of Kobe Bryant back in January, and the weight that fell on everyone in the organization.  

This title counts – unequivocally.  Below are the reasons the Lakers won these Finals.  They also help explain why the 2020 championship matters.

Anthony Davis took matters into his own hands

One of the biggest keys for the Lakers and Davis in this series was to put Bam Adebayo in situations on the court he wasn’t comfortable in.  Adebayo’s height disadvantage against Davis was paramount.  Davis made sure he towered over the Heat’s young, bouncy center in any way possible throughout the series.  Davis could pull-ups and jump-shots from practically anywhere on the court against Miami and Adebayo.  No one could contest it.

Davis also used his size to get the rim, a part of his game that’s unprecedented among almost anyone in league history.  What seven-foot center is doing stuff like this?

Even though Davis didn’t have Miami’s best option on him above, would things really have been different with Adebayo on him?  Sure, Adebayo’s switching is the best part of his game, but once again, the size advantage Davis has likely would have mattered more.

Davis had a serious case for Finals MVP.  There was no wrong answer – though the unanimous ballot in favor of James was surprising.  Not only was Davis a monster on offense, but his presence defensively halted Miami’s offense in the close-out Game 6 Sunday night.  Throwing Davis right in the middle forced Miami’s drive and kick to rely solely on threes, which resulted in Goran Dragic going 0-4 and Jae Crowder going 1-5 from beyond the arc.

Given that there was little room between Davis and James, the real MVP of the Finals might have been Lakers head coach Frank Vogel instead.

The Lakers got hot shooting the ball, and every night, a third-best player emerged

No matter what the circumstances were, it’s quite incredible the Lakers third option throughout these Finals was never Danny Green.  That’s was exactly what Los Angeles paid him to do last summer, and he ended up turning in a six game average of 28.9 percent from three.  The Lakers still won.

That’s because playoff Rondo emerged.  That’s because Caldwell-Pope turned into the guy we always hoped he’d be in Detroit.  That’s because Frank Vogel got those two to buy-in, and play for the team and not themselves.

Rondo’s three-point shooting was the biggest x-factor.  While it was still a mere 33.3 percent, that’s competent instead of below-average or detrimental.  This allowed Rondo to be effective without the ball in his hands – a revolutionary change from the regular season.

Rondo owning the ball wasn’t a bad thing, either, representing another change from the regular season.  He put up 5.5 assists per game as the secondary playmaker to James.  He got the ball to those who needed it.  He was, in essence, a perfect backup point guard.

If one was going to pick the Heat in this series, they’d point to LA’s reliance on guys like Rondo or Caldwell-Pope – both of whom would likely be the seventh or eighth-best player on Miami’s roster.  

Caldwell-Pope instead turned into a three-and-D monster.  Well over half of his shots were threes in the Finals (63.3 percent), and he turned in three 15+ point outings in six games, all while keeping his usage percentage at an impressively low 18.3 percent.

None of these performances were the reason the Lakers won.  But it certainly gave James and Davis some breathing room.

The super-stardom of the Davis and James duo overpowered 

Davis possibly deserving the Finals MVP shouldn’t discredit James’ performance.  Game 5’s war with Jimmy Butler was one of the best games he’s ever had in the playoffs.  His threes in the third quarter kept the Lakers in it, and Butler just won the battle.

After being passive late in Game 3, James adjusted and dominated.  His constant drives to the rim in Game 6 were unstoppable.  Game 1 had more to do with Miami’s injuries, but James at times made it seem like the Heat didn’t have a chance regardless. 

Davis was a two way menace in the series.  His Game 2 made the series feel like it was over, given Miami’s injuries and overall lack of answers.  With Adebayo out, Davis used his athleticism to hang around the rim more – an area where Adebayo would’ve stood more of a chance.  The former Hornet/Pelican missed five shots, and tipped in every ball that fell off the rim.  It was a completely dominant performance – one that you’d wish to see from somebody like Joel Embiid more.

The no-show in Miami’s Game 3 win likely hurt his Finals MVP case.  After Game 2, the performance could be understandable, but James never took a game off against the Heat.  Davis did, and it likely cost him a single vote.  

Game 6 won’t make any headlines, considering that the Lakers won the title by blowing Miami out, but Davis neutralized the Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll that initially hurt the Lakers early in Game 1 by hunkering down just below the free throw line and denying any lanes with his long arms.  Miami ran the set once Sunday night and it failed .  That was the end of the Heat’s use of it.

These Finals proved – as they usually do – that stars matter.  Davis and James proved that if you have them two, nothing else you have matters.  They’re good enough to make up for whatever else the roster has.  Could it have been easier?  Sure.  That might be something the Lakers address this offseason after swinging big and missing on Kawhi Leonard last summer.  But James and Davis proved this year that they don’t need it.  They’re that good.

Injuries

Like last season, injuries had an unfortunate and profound effect on the Finals.  The losses Miami suffered in Game 1 gave the series a bit of an inevitability.  Reports that trickled out during the game indicated Dragic was likely not returning (making his Game 6 appearance a miracle).  Adebayo was guaranteed to miss at least Game 2.  After the drubbing early in the series, it felt like Miami really had no chance, making Butler’s Game 5 performance that more special.

Essentially, it’s hard to say that the injuries might have mattered.  After watching the destruction that Davis and James reeked, it really seemed like Miami wouldn’t have had a chance regardless.  It’s possible they could have forced a Game 7, in which anything could happen, but that’s hard to imagine after the no show from them in Game 6.

To those that will look for ways to discredit this title for James, you can’t bring up the injuries or the “easy” path the Lakers had.  Butler legitimately out-dueled James in Game 5.  Miami beat Milwaukee not totally out of luck but out of work and effort on the defensive end.  The Clippers – sure, the Lakers might have gotten lucky there.  But with the way Paul George was playing, and the lack of answers Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac had for Nikola Jokic, would that series really have been won by the Clippers?  It’s fair to say Adebayo did a good job against Davis in the Finals compared to what the Clippers bigs would have looked like.

The case to dismiss James’ fourth ring needs to have these arguments propping it up: 1) James had five months between the regular season and playoffs – the length of a normal offseason.  2) Anthony Davis was a top-three MVP candidate and arguably outplayed him in the Finals.

You can’t use injuries.  Recent Finals that have been heavily affected by injuries don’t have the same reputation.  We don’t undervalue Golden State’s first title in 2015 because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love got hurt.  We consistently talked about Kawhi Leonard’s quest to be one of the few players ever to be the best player on three different title teams this season, which means counting his 2019 Finals win and performance last year against a banged up Warriors group.  Nobody batted an eye at that.

Even the five-month layoff case has its flaws.  We don’t hold James’ first Miami title in a state of flux because the season was only 66 games instead of 82.  Nobody says that Tim Duncan has only four rings instead of five because of the 50-game 1998-99 season.

It’s hard to say whether 16 games less or 32 games less (in the case of 98-99) equals five months of rest.  There’s no science to drill that down.  Plus, everything else going on throughout the 2020 season and its playoffs could make the mental task of this title more grueling, completely negating the positive effect of the five month layoff.

In the end, we should evaluate the injury what-if from Miami’s point of view, not the Lakers.  We – and Heat fans – will always fall back on “If they were healthy in the 2020 Finals”, which is in the same regard that Cavaliers fans hold 2015 in and Warriors fans hold 2019.  Instead of saying that the Lakers got lucky, say the Heat got unlucky.  No matter what, arguing about it doesn’t matter.  James still isn’t the GOAT quite yet.  But he’s much closer than anyone on the Michael Jordan bandwagon would ever hope he’d be, and soon, it’s going to become undeniable.