The NBA season remains in limbo amid the coronavirus suspension, with the prospect of a canceled season firmly on the table as we roll through the spring. Such a decision would be dispiriting on a number of fronts. Giannis Antetokounmpo would be denied his chance at a ring, and a potential battle for Los Angeles would be delayed until 2021. We expected a thrilling playoffs just over a month ago. We now settle for H-O-R-S-E competitions and reruns.
So if the 2019-20 season is canceled, what are our major takeaways? And more importantly, how can each team project its future heading into the next decade? We at The Crossover decided to work through our canceled-season power rankings, assessing one key question for all 30 teams.
30. Warriors – What’s the path with a top-three pick? Golden State would enter the lottery with the best odds for the No. 1 pick if the regular-season was canceled, though no player stands as a clear choice for the top spot. Perhaps Anthony Edwards could be a valuable wing next to the Splash Brothers. Maybe James Wiseman will be a perfect lob threat alongside Curry. It’s financially prudent to take a chance on a rookie in the 2020 class. But with eyes on the 2021 Finals, perhaps Golden State has a blockbuster deal up its sleeve.
29. Cavaliers – What’s the state of the backcourt? There hasn’t been much evidence that Darius Garland and Collin Sexton is some All-Star duo in waiting, though Sexton’s end to the season provides positivity. The Alabama product scored 24.2 points per game in his last 25 contests, shooting 50.3% from the field and 45.2% from three. Cleveland could eye the 2022 playoffs if Garland makes a similar leap next season.
28. Knicks – Can the stars align for 2021? Executive turnover aside, 2019-20 was effectively a wasted year for the Knicks, who saw their dreams of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving vanish into the depressing reality of Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis. R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson showed some promise in flashes, but even their development is secondary. Next year will be about clearing the deck and taking the run at All-NBA talent in free agency in July 2021
27. Timberwolves – Can the Towns and Russell partnership flourish? Year five of the Karl-Anthony Towns era was an unmitigated disaster in Minnesota, and a trade-deadline addition was the lone saving grace. Acquiring D’Angelo Russell placated Towns, but should we really have confidence in the young duo? In a crowded Western Conference, breaking through into the playoffs is no easy task.
26. Pistons – Will the youngsters make a leap? Andre Drummond is in Cleveland, and Blake Griffin’s injury woes are unlikely to subside through the remaining two years of his contract. Detroit’s path back to relevancy will have to come through its young core. It’s not a deep group, but there are potential pieces that could impress in the East. Luke Kennard enjoyed an impressive start to 2019-20 before a knee injury, while Sekou Domboya flashed elite athleticism as a rookie. Add Christian Wood and an upcoming lottery pick, and things may not be as bleak in Detroit as it originally appears.
25. Hawks – Can the Hawks be more than a turnstile? The Hawks were a dreadful defensive unit in 2019-20, serving as a constant source of frustration for second-year head coach Lloyd Pierce. But Atlanta isn’t hopeless. A healthy Clint Capela can be a quality defensive anchor, and De’Andre Hunter was selected by the Hawks to be their defensive ace. Jumping to even 20th in defense would be a major boon for Trae Young and Co.
24. Bulls – Will Arturas Karnisovas shake up the roster? Chicago is not devoid of intriguing youngsters, especially compared to other lottery squads in the East. Karnisovas could kick off his tenure by exploring deals surrounding Zach LaVine, or third-year disappointment Lauri Markkanen. My inclination is he’ll take a more sensible path. Develop the current core, and Chicago could be a playoff team sooner than later.
23. Wizards – Can John Wall return to form? Bradley Beal continues to make strides as an elite guard, and he made a commitment to the franchise with a two-year contract extension. But it’s hard to see Washington snagging more than a No. 8 seed without Beal’s partner-and-crime. Washington will need Wall healthy to begin charting a brighter future for the franchise.
22. Hornets – Which kids will grow? Good on Michael Jordan for giving James Borrego the green light into full player development mode. The Hornets were a frisky lottery team in 2019-20, armed with a collection of talented players under 25. But P.J. Washington, Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham all project to be more complimentary players than franchise anchors. Graham was a minor revelation in 2019-20. Perhaps he’ll be the one to make a leap next season.
21. Spurs – Will the first-round picks flourish? It’s not that the Spurs have drafted poorly by any stretch in recent seasons. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker are all talented players taken outside the lottery, but none of them have shown true star material in their opening years with San Antonio. Murray is the most likely candidate as the recent recipient of a contract extension. But don’t sleep on Walker as the next Spurs All-Star after the Aldridge-DeRozan era.
20. Suns – Can Deandre Ayton make a leap? The former No. 1 pick’s talent is salivating, and it was on full display in his final 20 games of 2019-20. Ayton averaged 20.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game to close the season, shooting an impressive 55.2% from the field. A sustained season of success from Ayton would create a true dynamic duo with the young center and Devin Booker.
19. Kings – How to manage the cap? The Kings haven’t exactly been the most shrewd team in building their roster, with significant contracts for Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield on the books for the next few seasons. Such deals have already led to the likely departure of Bogdan Bogdanovic this summer. With big contracts for De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley arriving in future seasons, perhaps Sacramento’s brass will look to unload a hefty contract sooner than later.
18. Magic – Can Orlando find its point guard of the future? It seems as though the Magic’s search for a point guard is never-ending, with the ageless D.J. Augustin holding down the fort in recent years. Is Orlando’s answer already on the roster? Markelle Fultz showed considerable growth in 2019-20, though he remains anything but a sure bet. The Washington product will be one of the league’s most fascinating players in 2020-21.
17. Nets – Do we see All-NBA Durant return? Let’s not get complicated. If Durant is back near his pre-Achilles-injury form, the Nets immediately rise to contender status in the East. If he struggles, the Durant-Kyrie Irving experiment could quickly prove to be a disappointment. No team's future hinges more on terrifying injury luck.
16. Pelicans – Will the Pelicans get a full season of Zion? We saw how electric Williamson was in his abbreviated stint with New Orleans in 2019-20, and the Pelicans were a dominant plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor this season. If Zion plays even 60-plus games, the Pelicans should be in playoff contention. But from what we've seen thus far, expecting close to a full season from Williamson is by no means a sure thing.
15. Trail Blazers – Will the frontcourt hold its own? Damian Lillard remains an elite point guard, and C.J. McCollum is an overqualified No. 2. Portland’s struggles in 2019-20 stemmed from its frontcourt issues. The Blazers were dominated on the offensive glass, and Hassan Whiteside’s defensive impact was largely a diet of empty calories. Portland will need Jusuf Nurkic back near 100% to bring Portland back to the playoffs.
14. Grizzlies – What’s next for Morant? Ja Morant was all Grizzlies’ fans could ask for in his rookie season, lighting up defenses as perhaps the fastest point guard in the NBA. Can the thrilling highlights translate into a winning season in 2020-21? Morant’s development will provide the answer. Teams will likely sag on Morant with abandon, and he’s likely to see all sorts of traps and gimmick defenses in year two. Bet on Morant to keep solving the NBA puzzle.
13. Pacers – Has Indiana settled on its frontcourt on the future? There were plenty of skeptics surrounding the Sabonis-Turner combo entering 2019-20, though Turner’s stretch at the five has helped quell the questions. But don’t assume the Pacers will pay both major money long term. If the right deal arises, Indiana may look for a more dynamic piece alongside Victor Oladipo.
12. 76ers – Is the Simmons-Embiid combo salvageable? An abbreviated 2019-20 season will likely halt judgement on Philadelphia’s troublesome duo, but such grace won’t be extended if there’s another early playoff exit in the spring of 2021. Perhaps Simmons and Embiid figure it out and sprint to the Finals. The talent for such a run is in place. But as currently constructed, it’s hard to imagine Philadelphia coalescing into a championship squad.
11. Thunder – Will the Thunder hold onto Chris Paul? What was once assumed to be a sure thing has become a truly puzzling question in OKC. The Thunder could ride out the remaining two years on Paul’s contract, holding steady with a roster projected for the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket. But don’t expect Sam Presti to run out the clock on Paul’s deal. If the right trade appears, Presti will add to his war chest of future assets.
10. Mavericks – Can Dallas acquire a third star? Perhaps Luka Doncic alone is enough to power a playoff team, and Kristaps Porzingis’ 2019-20 provided further confidence for a winning future. But Mark Cuban isn’t expecting just a strong 2020-21. He believes Dallas can compete for the West title for the next decade. For that to happen, another impact player will have to come aboard. The candidate isn’t evidently clear, but when one appears, don’t expect Cuban to hesitate on pulling the trigger for a blockbuster deal.
9. Heat – Is another free-agent home run on the horizon? All due respect to Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s roster as currently constructed isn’t suited for a Finals run. But with a huge 2021 free-agent class on the horizon, perhaps the next Heat star is right around the corner. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the biggest fish. But Miami should have a deep slate of options if it clears its cap properly.
8. Jazz – What is the Gobert-Mitchell ceiling? Personal conflicts aside, sheer playoff frustration could spell the end of the latest Jazz era. Utah has been quickly eliminated by the Rockets in each of the last two playoffs, and it currently sits a significant step below the two Los Angeles teams in the Western Conference hierarchy. If the Jazz continue to stall out, perhaps Gobert could enter the trade market.
7. Rockets – Which Russell Westbrook arrives in the playoffs? 2019-20 saw a tale of two Westbrook’s, with the former MVP returning to All-NBA form once the calendar turned to 2020. If Westbrook sustains his dominance, the Rockets will remain in Finals contention. But a step back could force Tilman Fertitta to make some tough decisions.
6. Nuggets – Is Jamal Murray an All-Star? Nikola Jokic has already proved his chops as a franchise anchor. But it’s hard to see Denver reaching the first Finals in franchise history without a qualified Robin by his side. Jamal Murray is the best candidate, though he was shaky in his first playoff appearance in 2019. If the Canadian point guard lives up to his $170 million contract, Denver should enter into the brightest period in franchise history.
5. Raptors – Can the franchise sustain playoff success? Masai Ujiri’s swindle from San Antonio gave the Raptors the 2019 title, but it was his terrific team-building that paved the way for a bright future post-Kawhi. Can the Raptors keep the good times rolling into the next decade? Ujiri’s work isn’t done. Kyle Lowry is an expiring contract again in 2020-21. Marc Gasol may not return next season. Toronto has appealing pieces in the pipeline, who will be increasingly tested in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
4. Celtics – Can Tatum play at an MVP level? Jayson Tatum was charging toward stardom before the NBA’s coronavirus suspension, bringing the Celtics back into Finals contention after a disappointing 2018-19. There’s no reason to expect Tatum’s development to slow. His shot profile is deeply improved. His physicality at the rim continues to grow. If we see the February and March version of Tatum through all of 2020-21, Boston is a clear threat to Milwaukee for the East crown.
3. Clippers – Can the Clippers seize a make-or-break year? A canceled season may hurt no team more than the Clippers, who could have just one more year to keep Kawhi Leonard and Paul George around if they choose to exercise their opt-outs. With the pressure now clearly on, don’t expect Steve Balmer and Co. to wait around. The Clippers may continue to sacrifice the future to win a ring in 2021.
2. Lakers – Did Los Angeles miss its best chance at a championship? On a purely basketball level, canceling the 2019-20 season would be relatively tragic for LeBron James. The three-time champion was in the midst of a true revenge season, and Los Angeles was cruising to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference before the league’s indefinite suspension. The Lakers should be elite again next season, but LeBron isn’t getting any younger. There aren’t exactly miles on his tires to waste.
1. Bucks – Will Giannis sign an extension? On-court success in 2020-21 be damned, Milwaukee’s future will be decided by the stroke of a pen. If Giannis Antetokounmpo signs a long-term contract with the Bucks this summer, Milwaukee is set to compete for the East crown for at least the next half-decade. If Antetokounmpo holds off on an extension, 2020-21 could mirror LeBron’s last season in his first stint with the Cavs. Let’s hope we don’t see Antetokounmpo split from Milwaukee in a similar fashion.