We’re less than 48 hours removed from LeBron James and the Lakers capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but it’s never too early to take a look at the league’s landscape ahead of 2021. And after Los Angeles’ 17th title, next season could mark one of the most fascinating title chases in recent memory.
Both conferences enter next season without a true juggernaut. Both L.A. teams likely lead the field, but we can’t discount a run to the Finals from Denver, Utah, Dallas, Houston and (if healthy) Golden State. A similar slate exists in the East. Miami isn’t going anywhere, nor are Boston or Toronto. There are championship expectations in Brooklyn and Milwaukee. Philadelphia looms as a fringe Finals contender after hitting the reset button with Doc Rivers. There’s little use in picking a 2021 champion at this point. The field is just too deep.
So who is leading the pack as we enter the offseason? Check out The Crossover’s way-too-early power rankings below.
30. New York Knicks
How much development can we expect from the Knicks in 2020–21? It would make sense for New York to keep its cap sheet as clean as possible ahead of the 2021 free-agent class, but with a new coach in Tom Thibodeau and, well, questionable ownership, perhaps we’ll see an offer for Chris Paul or Victor Oladipo materialize before opening night. As currently constructed, it’s hard to put the Knicks anywhere other than the bottom spot as the franchise searches for any modicum of encouragement.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is likely heading to the lottery once again in 2021, but there should be some confidence in the future of the Collin Sexton–Darius Garland backcourt. Sexton in particular made major strides down the stretch last season, averaging 23.6 points per game after Jan. 1. This isn’t a roster completely bereft of talent, especially offensively. It’s hard to quibble with either of Cleveland’s last two lottery selections.
28. Detroit Pistons
Detroit isn’t exactly stacked with talent, but this is a team that could compete for a playoff spot given good health. Let’s hope we get to see the best out of Luke Kennard, who flashed potential as a leading man before knee tendinitis ended his 2019–20. The Duke product’s shooting prowess is well known. His ability as a lead playmaker is not. If Kennard can continue the growth he showed to start last year, a potential All-Star appearance isn’t totally out of the question.
27. Washington Wizards
Washington can’t exactly stop anyone, yet this is far from the least watchable team in the NBA. Bradley Beal has ascended to near-superstar status, and Rui Hachimura’s collection of spins, shakes and shimmies made for a delightful rookie season. If John Wall can be even 80% of what he once was, this will be one of the NBA’s top League Pass teams in 2021.
26. Chicago Bulls
Billy Donovan has shown his fair share of warts as a playoff coach, but there are few people better equipped to get the most out of a young roster. And Donovan’s tutelage should come in especially handy for Lauri Markkanen. The Finnish big man remains an intriguing offensive talent, though his regression in 2019-20 was legitimately concerning. Let’s hope Donovan empowers Markkanen to be the offensive force he can be, rather than the complementary piece he was in 2019–20.
25. Charlotte Hornets
Despite no true star on the roster, there’s reason to remain relatively bullish on the program James Borrego is building. The Hornets began to play their kids down the stretch in 2019-20, and with Nic Batum and Cody Zeller set to see their contracts expire after this season, that trend should continue next year. Charlotte’s ball-dominant guards worked with more cohesion down the stretch last season. P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges bring some athleticism on the wing. Expect more progress in 2021, even if the playoffs remain a relative long shot.
24. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have a fair amount of talent after back-to-back lottery appearances, but this team isn’t going anywhere if they remain an absolute disaster on the defensive end. Perhaps Clint Capela can turn the tide. The former Rockets center isn’t exactly an All-Defense honoree, but he’s a legitimate 7’0” with plenty of shot-blocking prowess. Trae Young should feast in the pick-and-roll alongside Capela, and the defense should trend closer to No. 20 than the league’s worst mark. If Capela is healthy, he could make a major impact in Year 3 of the Lloyd Pierce era.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
There isn’t exactly a flood of rumors surrounding Minnesota’s top pick, so let’s currently ride with the assumption that the Timberwolves will stay in their slot on Nov. 18. Who will Ryan Saunders’s squad add with the top pick? There’s no clear answer at the moment, largely because there’s no slam dunk option. LaMelo Ball isn’t a perfect fit with D’Angelo Russell. It’s hard to imagine Minnesota committing to a twin towers look with James Wiseman alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Anthony Edwards is the likely pick, and while he certainly fits positionally, there remain questions regarding his consistency and shot selection. It’s a tough year for the Timberwolves to have the No. 1 pick. Let’s hope they make the most of it, if only for Towns’s sake.
22. Sacramento Kings
Buddy Hield could be available on the trade market entering the offseason, and there should be a healthy crop of suitors despite a hefty contract. Where could we see Hield land? There are a fair amount of potential suitors. Philadelphia could look to add legitimate spacing around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and the same logic could apply for Houston’s pair of MVPs. Does either contender have the capital to pull off such a deal? Al Horford’s value is hard to parse. Ditto for Eric Gordon. A leader in the clubhouse for Hield has yet to emerge as we approach Halloween.
21. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs have a relatively talented young core, but the optimism will remain limited without marked growth from Dejounte Murray in Year 4. The Washington product is an elite defensive guard and he showed growth with his jumper in 2019-20. Yet it feels as though Murray isn’t quite ready to take the reigns as a leading man. He was far too deferential early in the season, passing up a slate of open jumpers in a clogged San Antonio attack. Murray’s athletic gifts are tantalizing. The more trust he has in his shot the better in 2021.
20. Orlando Magic
Orlando isn’t competing for the championship anytime soon, but the Magic could very well impact the title chase in 2021. Aaron Gordon’s contract is just begging to be dealt, and the same can apply to Evan Fournier if he opts into the final year of his contract. Orlando’s frontcourt is crowded and its ceiling is evident. This year could be primed for a flurry of deals as the Magic look to add young talent around Nikola Vucevic, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.
19. Oklahoma City Thunder
What will be Oklahoma City’s encore following a delightful 2019-20? It will be hard for the Thunder to top last year’s act. Danilo Gallinari is likely to find a new home in free agency, and there will likely be some regression at play regarding the Thunder’s performance in clutch situations. If the right deal for Chris Paul arises, Oklahoma City should pounce. Despite an impressive final year with Billy Donovan, the focus will remain on the future, not the 2021 playoffs.
18. Phoenix Suns
Phoenix has the offensive talent to reach its first playoffs since 2010, and the Suns’ fate could lay in the hands of the 2018 No. 1 pick. Deandre Ayton posted plenty of empty calories as a rookie, but he evolved into a legitimately impactful big man last season. Ayton has deft touch around the foul line, and he embraced his size and physicality as a screener after spending his first season slipping everything in sight. If Ayton can continue his development as a true interior force, the future looks awfully bright in Phoenix.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have perhaps the most intriguing coaching vacancy currently on the market, and there’s one coach in particular I hope to see lead Zion Williamson and Co. into the next decade. Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less Suns revolutionized the game, and the same principles could certainly apply in New Orleans with Lonzo Ball running the show. D’Antoni had to tailor his attack to James Harden’s strengths in Houston. He would have plenty of freedom with the Pelicans, allowing his creativity to shine with a new franchise.
16. Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo’s free agency in 2021 looms over the franchise, but the true question of Indiana’s future resides in the frontcourt. Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis posted a respectable net rating in over 1,000 minutes together last season, and their talents are theoretically varied enough to make the twin towers look work. Though is that really the path to Finals contention in the 2020s? In a league dominated by guards and two-way wings, ditching one of the bigs for a more versatile asset could be worthwhile.
15. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant is clearly the face of the franchise in Memphis, though it would be foolish not to acknowledge the potential All-Star future of Jaren Jackson Jr. Not only did the Michigan State product shoot 39.4% from three last season. He averaged 1.24 points per possession as a roll man. The Morant-JJJ pick-and-roll should flummox Western Conference opponents for years to come.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland fans can convince themselves that they’re in the Finals hunt with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic next season, but there remain reasons for skepticism. This is still a team bereft of wing talent, one that relied heavily on Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza last season. No disrespect to Damian Lillard, who remains one of the top scoring guards of the 21st century. But teams with tiny point guards have a ceiling without a superb supporting cast. It’s a shame Lillard has never gotten support quite like Stephen Curry. Expect another impressive statistical season followed by a likely early exit in the 2021 playoffs.
13. Philadelphia 76ers
The last few years in Philadelphia have been filled with chaos, but the addition of Doc Rivers should bring some much-needed stability to the beleaguered franchise. Rivers’s arrival won’t just help Ben Simmons’s jumper. Rivers should help design better sets for Joel Embiid late in games, a problem that plagued the Sixers throughout the last two postseasons. A new coach is never a magical panacea. But the Rivers addition should have a marked impact in 2020-21.
12. Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse faces a true challenge in keeping Toronto in the top tier of Finals contenders in 2021. Marc Gasol may be on his way to Spain, and both Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka are free agents. There’s a chance Masai Ujiri punts on the 2021 title chase as he clears a runway for Giannis Antetokounmpo, though knowing Toronto’s leading man, that’s not exactly his style. Expect Nurse to dive deep into his bag of tricks as Toronto manages a potential personnel overhaul.
11. Golden State Warriors
To be frank, I have no idea where to slate Golden State entering next season. There’s the instinct to be deferential to the three-time champions, and if Stephen Curry returns to his MVP form, a Finals appearance is certainly in play. Will we see the best of Curry and Klay Thompson next season? It remains a legitimate question, and Golden State’s rotation depth remains a bit shaky. Don’t count the Warriors out by any stretch, but they aren’t anywhere near the conference favorites as the Splash Brothers return to life without Kevin Durant.
10. Brooklyn Nets
We’ll save the prognostication on Brooklyn’s upcoming season for another time. This could be the East’s Finals representative, and it could alternatively be, well, a bit of a tire fire. What’s undisputed is the fact that the Nets are the league’s most interesting story entering next season. Kevin Durant is coming off an Achilles tear, and he’s teaming up with one of the game’s best and most mercurial point guards in Kyrie Irving. Add in first-year coach Steve Nash and true championship expectations, and the Barclays Center will be home to the NBA’s most interesting experiment in 2021.
9. Utah Jazz
We shouldn’t dismiss the Jazz as Finals contenders in 2021. Donovan Mitchell continued to flash his superstar potential in Orlando, and given good health, Utah sports a potent crop of scorers. Mike Conley improved as the season went on after a dismal start. Bojan Bogdanović is a truly impactful scorer, and his size allows Utah to play four playmakers alongside Rudy Gobert. In a wide-open West, there’s a legitimate window for the Jazz to reach their first Finals of the century.
8. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas’s dynamic duo could potentially wreak havoc on the Western Conference in the 2020s, and a Finals appearance at some point is more than likely given good health for Luka Doncic. Just how far can the Mavericks rise in 2021? Their supporting cast could dictate the season. Dallas remains on the market for a third All-Star, and there are plenty of assets on the roster for a marquee deal. Mark Cuban regrets never surrounding Dirk Nowitzki with the requisite talent after the 2011 Finals. Expect him to be aggressive in the coming seasons with a generational talent in tow.
7. Houston Rockets
Houston’s coaching search is fascinating given the franchise’s success over the last four seasons. The Rockets didn’t want to see Mike D’Antoni depart by all accounts, and it’s hard to imagine a better head coach both schematically and personally for James Harden. Perhaps Tyronn Lue helps Houston get over the hump in 2021. Otherwise, Tilman Fertitta may regret nickel-and-diming D’Antoni in previous contract negotiations.
6. Boston Celtics
Danny Ainge has built a formidable roster in Boston, one that’s filled with quality playmakers and versatile offensive talents. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a bit of a ceiling on this squad, at least as currently constructed. Gordon Hayward is more of a complementary piece than a $30 million player, and Kemba Walker still faces questions regarding his postseason viability as a diminutive point guard. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should keep Boston near Finals contention throughout the next decade. Just don’t consider this the Eastern Conference favorite in 2021.
5. Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray blossomed into a legitimate All-NBA talent in the 2020 playoffs, launching threes reminiscent of a young Steph Curry as Denver sprinted to a surprise run to the Western Conference finals. Don’t expect Murray to slow down in 2021. He has the confidence of a true superstar, often appearing downright offended that the public didn’t consider Denver to be a Finals contender. The Nuggets are no longer a nice story. They’re a legitimate championship threat. The growth of their Canadian point guard is the central reason why.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
We’ve seen the same story from Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in back-to-back seasons after a second-round loss to the Heat in Orlando. Antetokounmpo is the game’s top physical force, and Milwaukee has been a regular-season juggernaut. Yet this is anything but a perfect roster, and the same goes for Milwaukee’s superstar. Mike Budenholzer is a terrific program builder. He’s yet to prove himself as a playoff coach. For a team with 116 wins over the last two years, there’s plenty of anxiety entering 2020-21.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers risked mortgaging their future in their pursuit of two All-NBA talents last summer, and frankly, it’s hard to argue with their gamble. Landing superstars is easier said than done regardless of the market, and few teams truly thrive through organic team building. The decision may have been sound, though entering 2020-21, Los Angeles’ decision runs the risk of imploding the franchise. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can bolt after next season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a boatload of draft picks currently reside in Oklahoma City. We shouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. But another secound round exit could make the Clippers’ gamble one of the worst in NBA history.
2. Miami Heat
Perhaps Miami isn’t the true favorite in the East entering next season, but the Heat deserve our respect after a thrilling playoff run. Jimmy Butler is a superstar. Bam Adebayo could join him within the next 12 months. The future of the franchise couldn’t be brighter, with a young roster paired with hoards of cap space entering 2021. From a purely basketball standpoint, it’s hard to find a better landing spot for Antetokounmpo if he hits free agency.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron and the Lakers relatively cruised to the franchise’s 17th championship, dropping just three games in the Western Conference portion of the playoffs. And there’s little evidence to suggest Los Angeles will slow down in 2021. Anthony Davis is a near-lock to return, and despite numerous other players entering free agency, it’s likely the next iteration of the Lakers is even better tailored to James’s strengths. Role players flocked to Miami as James continued his tenure with the Heat. The same could apply with the Lakers, especially as most teams enter the offseason with little cap flexibility. Los Angeles should feast on the mid-level market as it looks to repeat in James’s 18th season.