The NBA's conference disparity seems to grow by the year, and we may hit a fever pitch with playoff reform discussion as the Western Conference cruises past the East in 2019-20. Our resident junior varsity conference boasts two legitimate Finals contenders entering opening night (Milwaukee and Philly), with the next pack (Boston, Toronto and Brooklyn) facing mass uncertainty after seismic offseasons. The West is markedly deeper.
We can safely pencil in a handful of West teams into the 2020 playoffs. Both Los Angeles teams should qualify given decent health. The Rockets will contend as long as James Harden is on the roster. Trips to the Mountain time zone will be nightmarish with altitude-laden battles at Denver and at Utah. The rest of the spots quickly begin to thin after that.
The top half of our preseason power rankings feature nine Western Conference teams, and the bottom ten spots feature eight East squads. The conference imbalance is as great as ever. With that in mind, let’s dive into our first power rankings of the season, painting the best- and worst-case scenarios for all 30 teams.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Best case: Kawhi Leonard makes a legitimate MVP run and Paul George’s shoulder is healthy by Thanksgiving. Sixty wins is certainly in play; this team could run away from the pack if the Lakers and Rockets don’t deliver.
Worst case: George was seriously hampered down the stretch last season, and we still don’t know exactly when he’ll return. Leonard hasn’t logged 70 games since 2016-17. With both stars potentially free agents in 2021, the clock could quickly start ticking without a Finals appearance.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Best case: All the hand-wringing over the Bucks’ offseason may look foolish in June. Giannis could cruise to another MVP, and only the Sixers stand as current threats to win the East. One ring could secure Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee for the next decade.
Worst case: The Eric Bledose contract could look worse by the month. Ditto for Khris Middleton. Are we destined for a repeat of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland?
3. Houston Rockets
Best case: Russell Westbrook finds a stable jump shot and the Rockets run past the West with a renewed tempo. This may be the league’s most talented starting five. Bold prediction: Clint Capela leads the NBA in dunks.
Worst case: Westbrook’s decline is more than a case of circumstance, and the former MVP’s contract looks more egregious by the month. There’s a chance we enter next season with no Daryl Morey, no Mike D’Antoni, and another year on Westbrook and Harden's tires. This is a pivotal year in Houston.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Best case: Ben Simmons, marksman. Not quite, but even passable production outside of 12 feet could swing the Eastern Conference. An in-shape Joel Embiid could win the MVP, and Al Horford’s arrival may be the steal of the offseason. There are legitimate title hopes in the City of Brotherly Love.
Worst case: Concerns about Philadelphia’s playoff attack are substantiated, and the Sixers miss Jimmy Butler more than they assumed. Perhaps they picked the wrong guy to max out. Simmons can’t spend another postseason on the baseline.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Best case: You’d think there would be more Finals buzz for a team with two of the league’s six best players. Rumors of LeBron James’ decline are likely much exaggerated. Anthony Davis was among the MVP favorites entering 2018-19. There’s a quality closing five with Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Kyle Kuzma surrounding the imposing duo. Figuring out the rest will be the hard part.
Worst case: Another James injury could end the Lakers’ season. We’ve seen Davis with an inferior cast before, and this roster may have more doubts than AD’s final running mates in New Orleans. Even given good health, the Lakers could be doomed by their backcourt. Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook is a shaky rotation, to say the least.
6. Utah Jazz
Best case: Dennis Lindsey is a top Executive of the Year candidate after landing Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason. Conley’s presence should relieve the playmaking load for Donavan Mitchell, who can slide to a more natural role as a scoring guard. Gobert was ultra-efficient offensively last season, showing serious evolution as a rolling finisher. He may add a third Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20.
Worst case: The Mitchell critics are validated amid an inefficient third season. Mitchell posted the ninth-worst effective field goal percentage among the 52 players to take 1,000 shots last season. He’ll need to finish in the top half for Utah to grab a top-two seed.
7. Golden State Warriors
Best case: The formula for title contention isn’t complicated. Lean on Steph Curry and integrate D’Angelo Russell, then pray for Klay Thompson’s healthy return. A full Warriors squad–plus a quality waiver addition or two–is talented enough to keep the Finals streak alive. A third MVP could be in store for Steph.
Worst case: Golden State is bringing a whole new meaning to the term "skeleton crew" this season. We’re gonna see a lot of Alec Burks and Jordan Poole early on. One 10-game absence from Curry could dig a hole the Warriors can't climb out of.
8. Denver Nuggets
Best case: Since 1980, there have been two players who average 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a postseason (min. 10 games): LeBron James and Nikola Jokic. Small sample size be damned, Jokic is perhaps the most versatile big this century. Denver could ride his brilliance to the Finals a la Bill Walton and the Blazers in 1977.
Worst case: Sometimes I watch Jamal Murray and see one of the next decade’s top scoring guards. Other days feature a maddening stretch of clanked jumpers and ugly turnovers. The inconsistency may never dissipate, trapping Denver in the league’s shakiest $170 million bet. Denver should be considered outside the top tier of Finals contenders in the West.
9. Boston Celtics
Best case: The Celtics round out our list of Finals-eligible team. Year Two after Gordon Hayward’s catastrophic injury could restore his verve off the bounce, while Kemba Walker will keep the locker room outlook rosy. Jayson Tatum is being de-Mambafied. A boost in efficiency should earn Tatum his first All-Star appearance.
Worst case: The Irving-to-Walker drop-off is more drastic than anticipated. Losing Al Horford could sink the Celtics’ season. Boston’s Mr. Reliable anchored Brad Stevens’ defense with the smarts and versatility of few big men in the league. Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams are a shaky center unit, especially in lieu of Horford. Boston could finish closer to .500 than 50 wins.
10. Toronto Raptors
Best case: It’s difficult to imagine any team outside of our top nine making the Finals, though that doesn’t mean Toronto’s 2019-20 will be a disappointment. Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry will outfox half the East, and Pascal Siakam’s repertoire can be expanded outside of his lethal spin move. A top-three seed is very much in play.
Worst case: Last year’s 17–5 mark without Leonard is a mirage and Kyle Lowry’s extension is a mistake. Toronto may be smart to wait on a pay day for Siakam. Life as the top option is far more difficult than feasting as a contributor next to Leonard.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Best case: Damian Lillard rips off a Curry-esque campaign en route to a top three MVP finish while Hassan Whiteside is both content and effective. Back-to-back conference finals appearances is certainly possible.
Worst case: The moves on the fringes fall flat and Lillard is surrounded by a scuffling group of cast-offs and has-beens. The Al-Farouq Aminu departure may hurt more than assumed. No Jusuf Nurkic could knock Portland out of the postseason.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Best case: The Knicks’ worst fears are realized and Kristaps Porzingis logs a full season next to Luka Doncic. The offseason additions shore up the bench rotation and Dallas returns to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
Worst case: Porzingis injury fears aside, Doncic’s development may be stunted in Year Two similar to Donovan Mitchell before last year’s All-Star break. A sophomore slump could send Dallas closer the the 15th seed in the West than No. 8.
13. Brooklyn Nets
Best case: Kyrie Irving thrives in Kenny Atkinson’s run-and-gun system as the Nets chase 50 wins. Kevin Durant returns to the court on April 1 and the Eastern Conference has a surprirse Finals contender.
Worst case: Brooklyn’s good vibes from 2018-19 morph into a moody mess led by Irving. Durant’s injury recovery overshadows the season, and his and buddy DeAndre Jordan’s declines faster than expected.
14. Miami Heat
Best case: Excising Hassan Whiteside unleashes Bam Adebayo as Jimmy Butler brings some star power back to South Beach. Miami’s defense will make for a difficult playoff out; this team has conference finals upside.
Worst case: A panicked Chris Paul trade doesn’t vault Miami toward 50 wins as the franchise gets older and more cash strapped. The Pat Riley era may end in the lottery rather than with another ring.
15. San Antonio Spurs
Best case: The development of San Antonio’s backcourt may take precedent over the franchise’s 22-year playoff streak. A healthy year from Dejounte Murray and growth from Derrick White will set the franchise on the right path into the next decade.
Worst case: San Antonio’s offensive inefficiency sinks Gregg Popovich and Co. under .500 for the first time since 1996-97. Popovich says farewell after Tokyo 2020, and the Spurs are left with no successor and little direction.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
Best case: The Zion hype is real while Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram both log healthy seasons. The J.J Reddick playoff streak lives on.
Worst case: The Pelicans’ spacing issues rear their ugly head and Williamson’s development is stunted. Perhaps David Griffin’s offseason haul isn’t so great after all.
17. Oklahoma City Thunder
Best case: The asset accumulation continues as Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari are shipped to contenders. This team could scrap for the eight seed if its core stays intact. Is that really a step in the right direction?
Worst case: Paul’s presence turns sour and the ex-Clippers’ assets underperform. Questions about the franchise’s viability in Oklahoma City begin to resurface.
18. Orlando Magic
Best case: Orlando’s stack of wings swarms opposing offenses and Aaron Gordon becomes the league’s premier Swiss Army Knife. D.J. Augustin posts another career year in his 12th season.
Worst case: Augustin regresses to the mean while Markelle Fultz’s shot remains broken. Mo Bamba is a bust and the franchise takes a step back to the lottery.
19. Sacramento Kings
Best case: Sacramento’s backcourt is among the league’s most-electric for the second consecutive year as the franchise embraces small-ball lineups. Marvin Bagley thrives at the five and vindicates his No. 2 selection in 2018.
Worst case: The influx of veterans fails to produce extra wins as Bagley and Harry Giles fade into the background. There’s no sense paying Trevor Ariza $12 million to finish with 30 wins.
20. Indiana Pacers
Best case: The Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis pairing finally works and Malcolm Brogdon boosts one of the conference’s best backcourts. There’s some case for this squad to sniff the conference finals if Victor Oladipo returns by February.
Worst case: Oladipo doesn’t return and the Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young departures cripple the wing rotation. Indiana could approach a bottom-five offense.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves
Best case: Karl-Anthony Towns goes 50-40-90 in a top-five MVP campaign while carrying the Wolves to the first playoff appearance of his career.
Worst case: Andrew Wiggins’ usage spikes and his efficiency somehow declines. This feels possible; the Minnesota winter could be bleak.
22. Detroit Pistons
Best case: Reggie Jackson takes a seat and Point Blake is fully unleashed. Only seven players made more pull-up threes than Griffin in 2018-19. His career evolution remains underappreciated.
Worst case: Reggie Jackson paired with Derrick Rose. Free Blake Griffin.
23. Atlanta Hawks
Best case: Trae Young surpasses Doncic in the 2018 draft debate, paired with an All-Star appearance and playoff spot. Shooting even 35% from three could unleash a top-15 offense.
Worst case: A bottom-five defense in 2018-19 plummets to the league’s worst mark. Young compiles empty calories as the season is over by January 2020.
24. Chicago Bulls
Best case: Lauri Markkanen looks more like Porzingis by the day and Otto Porter is a sizable (albeit overpaid) upgrade on the wing. Is a Bulls playoff run on the way?
Worst case: Too much Zach LaVine and the Jim Boylen train runs off the tracks. Dysfunction is always a moment away in Chicago.
25. Phoenix Suns
Best case: A sneaky deep roster sneaks up on teams and crosses 30 wins. Ricky Rubio can be a major help for Devin Booker.
Worst case: Booker celebrates meaningless 50-point games amid a 60-loss season and Deandre Ayton is hunted on every defensive possession. This young core has plenty of question marks.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
Best case: The NBA’s most exciting young duo emerges and Ja Morant shows some serious promise despite a hefty amount of turnovers. The Jaren Jackson Jr. bandwagon could be overflowing by Christmas.
Worst case: The Andre Iguodala saga becomes the central storyline in a stagnant season. Then again, the No. 1 pick isn’t a bad consolation.
27. New York Knicks
Best case: Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett are surprisingly potent and the eight seed is within reach come April. A fast start could give David Fizdale a smattering of security amid the revolving door at Madison Square Garden.
Worst case: New York’s cadre of power forwards halts Barrett’s development and all-but-ends the Kevin Knox era. If the Knicks don’t land free agents, they need to hit on their top top picks. Another whiff will only add to the franchise’s embarrassment.
28. Washington Wizards
Best case: Wins could not be less valuable to Washington in 2019-20. Deal Bradley Beal for a haul, land a pick in the top three and reset. The John Wall decision will come next.
Worst case: Owner Ted Leonsis continues to waffle on a potential Beal trade and sits out the trade deadline. Maybe Washington hits 30 wins, which would frankly be counterproductive. Avoiding the tankathon is foolish.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Best case: Collin Sexton quietly averaged 21 PPG on a respectable 46.4% shooting in the season’s final two months. Closing the gap on Trae Young as the top true point guard in the 2018 draft would be considered a victory.
Worst case: The positional overlap with Sexton and Darius Garland stunt both player’s growth, and the Cavs’ rebuild remains sluggish. Perhaps dealing Kevin Love is the best move for both parties.
30. Charlotte Hornets
Best case: Terry Rozier as an All-Star alternate? Things are bleak; he’ll have plenty of opportunity.
Worst case: Michael Jordan’s Bobcats went 7–59 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. This crew won’t be as terrible, but less than 20 wins is very much in play.