It may have taken nearly five months and a giant Disney World quarantine, but we're just two days away from regular-season games returning amid the COVID-19 crisis. And there is no shortage of storylines ahead as the sprint for the Larry O'Brien Trophy begins.
A pair of Finals MVPs are expected to duke it out in the Western Conference, while the game's leading phenom seeks his first Eastern Conference crown with Milwaukee. Look past the top title contenders, and there are still plenty of superstars on display. James Harden and Russell Westbrook hope to reach their first Finals with Houston, while Jayson Tatum attempts to continue his rapid ascent up the league's hierarchy. With the league's talent level arguably at an all-time high, the next three months should be downright fascinating.
So who should be favored as we approach the season's resumption on Thursday? Check out The Crossover's latest set of power rankings below.
22. Washington Wizards
Missing both Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans in Orlando makes the Wizards a rough watch, but keep an eye on Rui Hachimura. The Gonzaga product has shown off an impressive offensive arsenal as a rookie, including greater playmaking ability than initially projected. Expect Hachimura to soak up plenty of possessions with Washington’s two leading scorers out of the lineup.
21. Brooklyn Nets
With Brooklyn all-but-guaranteed a first-round exit, let’s briefly spotlight Kyrie Irving’s decision to supplement the income of WNBA players who sit out the 2020 season. Irving has formed a reputation as a mercurial sort, and he’s received no shortage of criticism in recent years. But this is a legitimately cool gesture from Irving. Solidarity between the NBA and WNBA is great to see, especially in such trying times.
20. San Antonio Spurs
Can the Spurs stage a late rally and continue their 23-year playoff streak? There’s reason for skepticism. Standings aside, San Antonio hasn’t been impressive on either end of the floor this season, ranking a troubling No. 25 in defensive rating. With no LaMarcus Aldridge in the lineup, it’s hard to see San Antonio going on any sort of run in Orlando.
19. Phoenix Suns
Even eight games in Orlando could provide major dividends for Deandre Ayton. The Suns’ center missed the first 32 games in 2019-20, but he showed some serious offensive skill once the calendar turned to 2020. Ayton is averaging 20.6 points and 12.5 rebounds in his last 20 games. He’s shooting 55.2% from the field in that span. The more reps the better for Ayton and the young Suns heading into 2020-21.
18. Orlando Magic
The Magic don’t exactly scream excitement, but there is a surprising collection of interesting talents on Orlando’s roster. Early lottery picks Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba are trying to find their footing after shaky starts to their careers, and Jonathan Issac is back on the floor after a scary knee injury. The Magic lack a true top-end talent, but they’re deeper than nearly any other team in the Eastern Conference.
17. Indiana Pacers
A healthy Victor Oladipo would have made Indiana a feisty underdog in round one, but those hopes are likely gone if Domantas Sabonis is out for the season. The Pacers’ forward registered his first All-Star appearance in 2019-20, proving to be one of the NBA’s most efficient interior options. Indiana is unlikely to get past the first round without both of their twin towers in the lineup.
16. Sacramento Kings
Losing Marvin Bagley III is a blow to Sacramento’s frontcourt, but the Kings’ playoff chances always hinged on the performance of their guards. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic looked sharp in Monday’s scrimmage against the Clippers, providing optimism ahead of the NBA’s restart. The Kings aren’t completely out of the playoff chase, though they do face an uphill climb. Hield, Bogdanovic and De’Aaron Fox will need to shine for Sacramento to end its 13-year playoff drought.
15. New Orleans Pelicans
The NBA’s decision to include 22 teams in the bubble was certainly in-part due to Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, but including New Orleans may not reap significant benefits. Zion’s conditioning will certainly be in question after a brief exit from the bubble, and the overall lack of cohesion could hinder the Pelicans’ chance at a playoff run. Pelicans vs. Lakers in round one is more of a longshot than originally assumed.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Serge Ibaka is certainly no slouch, but there are few players worse to challenge after the whistle than Jusuf Nurkic. And Portland’s interior force isn’t just engaging in extracurricular activities in Orlando. Nurkic looks spry and healthy after missing all of 2019-20 due to a traumatic leg injury, posting a double-double against Toronto on Sunday. If Nurkic is near his peak, Portland could make the Lakers sweat in the first round.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant (rightly) commands the attention in Memphis, but the electric point guard is far from a one-man show. In fact, the Grizzlies could have one of the league’s top young trios in the 2020s. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke have emerged as franchise cornerstones in 2019-20, and Clarke should earn All-Rookie honors this season. Zach Kleiman has done a tremendous job in buidling Memphis’ new young core. With impressive young coach Taylor Jenkins leading the way, there’s the potential for a Finals appearance in the next decade.
12. Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert shined in Utah’s scrimmage on July 25, providing a reminder of just how dominant the French center can be. Gobert remains a true frontcourt star, and a player who could swing a series in the right matchup. The conversation surrounding Gobert’s fissure with Donovan Mitchell has obscured the big man’s talents. He remains a vital part of Utah’s Finals hopes both in 2020 and beyond.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder
Welcome back, Andre Roberson! The Oklahoma City guard went over 900 days without playing in a live game due to a slate of leg injuries, but the 28-year-old hit the ground running on July 26 with a pair of late-game threes. The Thunder aren’t quite Finals contenders, though they’re perhaps the feel-good story of 2019-20. Roberson’s return only adds to Oklahoma City’s magical year.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The eight seeding games may matter more to the Mavericks than any team in Orlando. Dallas currently sits No. 7 in the Western Conference, slated to face the Clippers in round one. Facing either Los Angeles juggernaut is asking for a quick exit. But rise to the No. 6 seed, and Dallas has a solid chance of knocking off anyone in the Western Conference’s second tier. Circle July 31 on your calendar as the Mavericks face Houston. A win will bring Luka Doncic and Co. within one game of the No. 6 seed.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
It’s hard to ignore the growing crowd of whispers surrounding Philadelphia’s Finals chances. Ben Simmons’ move to the four appears to be a smooth transition thus far, and Joel Embiid looks in-shape and ready to go toe-to-toe with the East’s top talents. The Sixers are the drug the NBA media just can’t quit, and for good reason. There’s just too much talent to give up on as we approach the NBA restart.
8. Denver Nuggets
Perhaps we’re discounting the Nuggets’ Finals chances, especially considering their bonafide superstar leading the way. Nikola Jokic doesn’t draw the same headlines as Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid, but Denver’s leading man is a true top-10 talent. Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game in 14 playoff contests last year, a stat-line matched only by Oscar Robertson across NBA history. The Nuggets are still in danger of a first-round exit given the ultra-competitive Western Conference. But expect Jokic to deliver another impressive postseason.
7. Miami Heat
Duncan Robninson’s ascent is the best story of the Heat’s season, and the second-year forward is far more than a nice narrative. Robinson is blitzing the league from beyond the arc in 2019-20, canning 44.8% of threes in over 500 attempts. And it’s not just Robinson’s efficiency that stands out. He has perhaps the quickest trigger in the league, and his range provides critical spacing to an often-crowded Heat attack. Robinson’s proficiency from beyond the arc will likely swing at least one game in Orlando.
6. Houston Rockets
No Finals contender sports a greater variance in potential performance, but it’s hard not to be intrigued by the Rockets’ upside. James Harden appears to be in midseason form through two scrimmages, and Houston has no shortage of dangerous options from beyond the arc. Can the Rockets’ small-ball defense hold up in Orlando? The answer may define their season.
5. Boston Celtics
Perhaps we’re placing too much faith in Jayson Tatum, but the 22-year-old’s offensive upside is undeniable. We saw Tatum go toe-to-toe with LeBron in the 2018 playoffs, and he’s shown serious growth in 2019-20 after a sophomore slump. Boston isn’t lacking in scoring options, though its Finals chances truly hinge on the former No. 3 pick. Tatum’s superstar ascent could go into turbo drive in Orlando.
4. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors deserve the top spot in our rankings outside of the clear top three, and not just because of their championship pedigree. Toronto sports the No. 2 defensive rating in basketball, pairing versatile personnel with truly imaginative schemes. If Pascal Siakam is ready to take the reins as a leading man, the Bucks are in no way a lock to reach the Finals.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
It’s certainly fair to consider the Clippers the title favorite entering the season’s resumption. Los Angeles sports perhaps the deepest rotation in the West, and Doc Rivers’ squad has a certain Finals MVP looking 100 percent. Paul George’s performance may swing the Clippers’ season. A repeat of his pre-injury performance in 2018-19 would be downright terrifying for the rest of the league.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Just how much will the Lakers suffer due to their rotation losses in Orlando? The question is hard to parse. Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo were valuable members of Los Angeles’ rotation this season, and there isn’t exactly a deep crop of reliable options in the backcourt. But when push comes to shove, the Lakers’ depth issues are more likely conversation fodder than a legitimate problem. Los Angeles has the best duo in the sport. LeBron James is near the peak of his powers. The Clippers could very well win the Battle for LA in September, but for now, we’ll give King James and Co. the upper hand.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
It’s hard to justify putting either Los Angeles team over Milwaukee as we approach the NBA restart. The Bucks lead the league in net rating and defensive rating by a significant margin, and they appear to be firing on all cylinders through the opening week of scrimmages in Orlando. Pairing the league’s best record with the likely back-to-back MVP is a pretty compelling argument as we sift through the title contenders.