The Lakers remain the championship favorite after restocking their roster in the offseason, but we still have a healthy crop of legitimate title contenders entering 2020–21. The Clippers represent the most direct challenge to LeBron & Co. out west, though playoff stalwarts in Denver, Portland and Utah could seize the conference crown with a couple of breaks.
As for the East, there’s little telling who will represent the conference in the Finals. Miami is anything but a true favorite despite an impressive run in the NBA bubble, and the remaining contenders each sport a potential fatal flaw. Can Brooklyn avoid a bottom-10 defense? Does Boston have enough firepower? Will Philadelphia and Milwaukee avoid their consistent late-game woes. After a half-decade of Warriors dominance, the title chase is relatively wide open.
Let’s dive into The Crossover’s preseason power rankings as we look to sort the top contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s been a rough decade in Cleveland, and it’s unclear whether Collin Sexton or Darius Garland are anything other than solid pieces in the backcourt. Perhaps Isaac Okoro can turn the franchise’s fortunes. The Auburn product is likely to make an immediate defensive impact as a rookie, and his offensive ceiling may be higher than many gave him credit for ahead of the 2020 draft. Okoro is growing as a three-point shooter. He’s an impact piece in transition. Perhaps Cleveland’s latest lottery pick can set the tone for a Cavaliers revival in the next decade.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
This isn’t exactly a thrilling on-court product after Sam Presti’s summer of pick accumulation, though Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be worth the occasional League Pass pop-in. The third-year guard appears ready to take the reins after a year of Chris Paul’s tutelage, and Gilgeous-Alexander has stolen a few tricks from the Point God. Few guards in the league are as shifty at the rim as Gilgeous-Alexander. He can contort his body to finish at every conceivable angle, and his jarring length prevents harassment from even the most adept shot blocker. As Oklahoma City dives into an extended rebuild, SGA is a worthy franchise anchor.
28. New York Knicks
It may have been inadvertent, but the Knicks now sit firmly in the middle of a fairly conventional rebuild after missing out on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency last year. The 2021 free-agent class has been decimated by a string of extensions, and another high lottery appearance is likely for New York. It’s not the most glamorous route, but perhaps it’s a prudent one after two decades of mismanagement. The Knicks will use 2020–21 to evaluate their young pieces, add another lottery asset next summer (perhaps Cade Cunningham) and then finally dive back into the pool of big-name free agents in 2022. Now let’s just hope the Knicks don’t make an ill-advised course reversal in the coming months.
27. Detroit Pistons
How exactly does Detroit view itself in the Eastern Conference hierarchy? The Pistons appeared to do the prudent thing in the 2020 draft as they selected point guard Killian Hayes with the No. 7 pick, signaling a pivot to a new era with a trio of first-round draft picks. Free agency featured a course reversal. Detroit shelled out a combined $112 million for Delon Wright, Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, letting 25-year-old Christian Wood walk in the process. Pivoting to a younger roster was likely the right play, even with major money owed to Blake Griffin. Detroit’s latest offseason is only delaying the inevitable rebuild.
26. Charlotte Hornets
Parsing the long-term expectations for LaMelo Ball is an impossible task after a smattering of preseason games, but the rookie point guard is already a delight to watch. Ball takes his older brother’s passing brilliance to another level, adding a flair displayed by few, if any, players across the league. Ball’s shooting stroke is—to put it charitably—shaky. He’s going to rack up turnovers at a frustrating rate. Focus on the shortcomings if you wish. You’ll miss some of the year’s greatest highlights if you do.
25. Sacramento Kings
There’s sufficient talent on hand for Sacramento to sniff the play-in round, though the Kings need to see a reversal of their stylistic tendencies in 2020–21. Sacramento strangely finished with the No. 21 pace last season, a plodding mark that was even more puzzling considering the pieces in the backcourt. De’Aaron Fox is an absolute blur in transition. Buddy Hield’s three-point prowess has the most value when he can sprint to the wing or corner in the open floor. What should have been a relatively electric offense was downright pedestrian in 2019–20. Let’s hope Luke Walton learns to let the kids run this season.
24. Orlando Magic
Is there an organization in greater stasis than Orlando? The Magic haven’t won a playoff series in the last 10 years, and they’ve treaded water with a .471 winning percentage across the last two seasons. Expect a similar trajectory in 2020–21. Franchise headliner Jonathan Isaac is out for the year, and the rest of the roster features a collection of pieces that don’t quite fit. Aaron Gordon isn’t a capable lead playmaker. Nikola Vučević provides some scoring punch and little else. Markelle Fultz does provide some intrigue, though it remains in question how much of an impact he can make with a broken jump shot. Don’t be shocked if we see Orlando take a dip in the Eastern Conference standings in 2020–21.
23. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ preseason lineups suggest a full commitment to the team’s youth movement, which frankly is a long time coming after a series of franchise restarts. And recent lottery appearances have produced intriguing talent. Coby White continues to show flashes of quality point guard play, and forward Patrick Williams could contend for Rookie of the Year in 2020–21. The Bulls are in good hands with Arturas Karnišovas leading the organization. Don’t be shocked if Chicago sneaks into the play-in tournament as its young pieces begin to show progress.
22. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs turned to their youngsters in a major way down the stretch in 2019–20, and we should see a similar pattern emerge this season. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are the franchise anchors entering the next decade, with the latter’s length and physical gifts potentially leading to another All-Defense honor in 2020–21. Then there’s the cavalry of young wings. Both Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV provide the occasional flash of impressive play, and rookie Devin Vassell should make an instant impact on the defensive end. Gregg Popovich should exercise plenty of patience with his young pieces, even if it costs San Antonio a playoff spot. Charting the future of the franchise is more important than squeezing a few more wins out of the DeRozan-Aldridge era.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves
There’s hope for a spot in the play-in tournament after significant retooling in the offseason. Anthony Edwards may not sport the highest ceiling of any player in the draft, but his physical profile suggests an immediate impact both on the defensive end and in transition. Ricky Rubio will provide greater stability to Minnesota’s shaky second units, and in the minutes he plays alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves could feast. Towns isn’t a perfect player by any stretch but is a truly prodigious offensive force. He could turn in his best season yet as the Timberwolves look to reach the playoffs for the second time in the last 17 seasons.
20. Washington Wizards
There’s reason for optimism in the DMV entering 2020–21. Russell Westbrook is far from flawless, though he brings a high regular-season floor as a scorer and distributor. And Westbrook is surrounded by a strong collection of offensive talent. Bradley Beal continues to grow as a leading man, perennially sitting on the fringe of All-NBA discussion. As for the rest of Washington’s roster, this is a unit that should light up the scoreboard. Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant bring significant stretch in the frontcourt, while Rui Hachimura is impressively skilled for a young big. Keep an eye on Deni Avdija. The Israeli rookie sports a mature game on the wing, providing both spacing and a mature feel in the pick-and-roll. We could see a dark horse Rookie of the Year campaign emerge down the stretch.
19. Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta signaled its desire to reach the postseason with an offseason spending spree, and the Hawks are likely to be rewarded for their gamble. Bogdan Bogdanović will provide necessary playmaking to take the load off Trae Young, though perhaps it’s an interior addition that will make the most notable impact. Clint Capela is solid enough as a rim protector and perimeter defender, and he should feast in the paint on a steady diet of pick-and-roll alongside Young. Capela was an integral part of Houston’s rise in the Western Conference in recent years. He should play a similar role with the ascending Hawks in 2020–21.
18. Memphis Grizzlies
We should remain optimistic regarding the Grizzlies’ young core long-term, but we may not see their talent come to fruition in 2020–21. Jaren Jackson Jr. will miss the start of the season as he recovers from a torn meniscus, and the back half of Memphis’s rotation provides reason for concern. Ja Morant is already a dynamic offensive force. He projects to be a future All-NBA talent. Perhaps he carries Memphis to the play-in round, though it’s more likely his brilliance is lost amid a middling season.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
Which Zion Williamson will show up for New Orleans in 2020–21? The rookie phenom torched teams to the tune of plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions in his 20 games before the bubble, but Williamson’s production fell off a cliff after the season’s hiatus. Williamson’s early-season tear is unsustainable, though he should trend closer to the pre-bubble version of himself in his second season. Williamson is a dynamic asset on either end of the pick-and-roll with Brandon Ingram, and he’s a force both on the offensive glass and in transition. New Orleans may face some spacing issues as Steven Adams clogs the paint, though even his presence provides real value. Williamson should see his first dose of postseason action in the spring.
16. Indiana Pacers
There’s a concerning amount of uncertainty here for a team that has a pretty hard ceiling in the Eastern Conference. Indiana will have to juggle Victor Oladipo’s contract push with a growth in T.J. Warren’s usage, and there are continuing questions regarding the long-term stability of the Pacers’ twin towers lineup. Domantas Sabonis is a franchise anchor, and there’s enough scoring on hand to extend a five-year playoff streak. But don’t be surprised if we see a notable shakeup in Indiana at the deadline. A certain stasis has set in. Finding a path to the next era could prove difficult.
15. Golden State Warriors
The post-dynasty Warriors are perhaps the NBA’s most confusing team entering 2020–21. Steph Curry appears near his MVP form as the season approaches, and the gravity of his offense should create plenty of space and open looks for young wings Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Warriors are a couple bodies short. There’s a dearth of frontcourt spacing on the roster, and Draymond Green’s offensive value dips by the season. This doesn’t have the outline of an elite offense. Unless Oubre leaps toward All-Defense status, this could be a bottom-10 defense. Consider Golden State a likely play-in team for now.
14. Phoenix Suns
Perhaps this is a bit optimistic for Phoenix after a decade-long playoff drought, but there’s real talent on hand in the desert. Chris Paul and Devin Booker create a complementary guard duo that should post an impressive net rating, and Jae Crowder should help stabilize a young rotation that has serious upside. Just how high can Phoenix rise in the West? That may depend on Deandre Ayton. The 2018 No. 1 pick has posted two impressive offensive seasons since entering the league, and he became a more refined center on both ends in 2019–20. Further growth from Ayton should help the Suns return to the postseason, albeit likely in a play-in scenario.
13. Houston Rockets
I’m not so convinced this team is sinking in the Western Conference despite the James Harden melodrama. If Harden logs a full season, we could see the Rockets sniff a top-four seed in the West. John Wall appears plenty explosive after a multiyear layoff, and Christian Wood should be an explosive offensive weapon at the five. Head coach Stephen Silas engineered Dallas’s record-breaking offense is 2019–20. If Harden is still on the roster, we could see similar results. Parsing Houston’s future without The Beard is difficult. For now, consider the Rockets a playoff contender despite their significant uncertainty.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
It’s still hard to consider Portland anywhere near either Los Angeles squad, but this is another contender for the third spot in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard is a serious MVP candidate, and a healthy and improved supporting cast could lead to an impressive regular season. Jusuf Nurkić is a force in the middle when healthy, and Robert Covington will bring a defensive versatility that was missing in recent years. It’s fair to question Portland’s playoff ceiling considering its diminutive leading men. Yet this remains a bankable playoff team, one that should finish outside the play-in round in the Western Conference.
11. Toronto Raptors
Toronto is a playoff mainstay at this point, and squaring off against Nick Nurse in a series will make any opposing coach sweat. But is there enough firepower on hand to carry Toronto (er, Tampa) to the Finals? Both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are more sturdy than spectacular, and defenses sagged off Pascal Siakam with little retribution in the postseason. We could see a big leap from OG Anunoby on the wing, though even improvement from the Indiana product may not be enough to overcome the losses of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in the offseason. A playoff appearance remains likely, though a first-round exit is also on the table.
10. Utah Jazz
Utah has a case as the most underrated team in the league entering 2020-21. The Jazz sport two players who could mount All-NBA campaigns this season, and the secondary pieces are additionally impressive. Bojan Bogdanović is a 20-points-per-game scorer, and the duo of Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson should take a healthy dose of playmaking duties off Donovan Mitchell. Any potential tension between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert appears to be in the rearview mirror. With a happy Gobert in tow, we could see a fairly dominant regular season in Salt Lake City.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas feels a piece away from true title contention, though it continues to build effectively on the margins around Luka Dončić. Josh Richardson should make an immediate impact on both ends at the wing, and there’s been a dose of early optimism surrounding rookies Josh Green and Tyrell Terry. Dončić’s brilliance alone should land the Mavericks in the postseason. If Kristaps Porzingis logs at least half a season, we could see Dončić snag MVP as Dallas finishes higher than expected in the West.
8. Boston Celtics
There’s a dose of skepticism regarding Boston’s Finals chances after a quiet offseason. The Celtics let Gordon Hayward walk without receiving any assets back in a sign-and-trade, and their most notable offseason additions were post-prime players in Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague. Does this really have the look of a Finals contender?
Let’s tap the breaks on the concern. Boston has made a prudent decision in banking on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and the latter could emerge as a frisky MVP candidate as he continues to grow (literally). Thompson is a reliable option at the five. This should be a top-10 defense, and perhaps an extended rest could bring Kemba Walker back at 100% before the postseason. The last note is likely the most important for Boston. If Walker can’t log a healthy playoffs, it’s hard to consider the Celtics anywhere near the top tier of teams in the Eastern Conference.
7. Philadelphia 76ers
It wasn’t so long ago that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ran roughshod over the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia’s dynamic duo blitzed opponents to a plus-15.5 mark per 100 possessions in 2017–18, thriving in a lineup uniquely tailored to their strengths. We should see a similar pattern emerge once again with Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey at the helm. Seth Curry and Danny Green should provide significant spacing—as should the departure of Al Horford—and young guards Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle should bring a spark in the second unit. Perhaps Morey will ultimately pull the trigger on a James Harden trade, but he’s right to let his vision play out for at least a couple months. Philadelphia could emerge as a true Finals contender sooner rather than later, maybe even in the first year of Rivers’s tenure.
6. Denver Nuggets
Is there any real separation between Denver and the other non–Los Angeles teams in the Western Conference? The Nuggets needed to overcome a pair of 3–1 deficits to reach the conference finals, and they did suffer significant losses in the offseason. Utah, Portland and Dallas could all challenge Denver for the third spot in the West.
The Nuggets still deserve the nod above the aforementioned trio. Jamal Murray could challenge for All-NBA status in a crowded field of guards, and the league’s best (and most delightful) center resides at Ball Arena. With a talented duo in tow, Michael Porter Jr. could swing Denver’s season. The 6’10” forward is a gifted scorer, and his silky shooting stroke elicits comparisons to Kevin Durant. Will Michael Malone be able to tolerate Porter’s defensive shortcomings enough to let him loose? Striking the right balance between empowering and improving the young forward is a delicate dance as Denver seeks the first Finals appearance in franchise history.
5. Miami Heat
I don’t quite buy the argument that the Heat were a flash in the pan in 2019–20. Miami sports two likely top-15 players in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and Erik Spoelstra will wring everything possible out of his rotational pieces. Tyler Herro’s bubble breakout is anything but a mirage, and Duncan Robinson’s offensive gravity creates important space for an occasionally clogged attack. We shouldn’t peg the Heat as the Eastern Conference favorite barring a trade for James Harden, though this is a team nobody wants to face in the postseason.
4. Brooklyn Nets
There are obvious injury concerns here, and perhaps importantly, Brooklyn could be a bottom-10 defense in 2020–21. There’s little size or physicality in the backcourt, and DeAndre Jordan’s minutes could exacerbate the Nets’ defensive problems. But those issues can in part be mitigated by rotational and schematic decisions. What can’t be coached is the sheer scoring power at the Barclays Center. Kevin Durant was in All-NBA form throughout his brief preseason stint, and Kyrie Irving remains one of the most creative scorers in league history. Brooklyn’s roster is deeper than many realize. Its second unit should score at a healthy clip. Given the right midseason additions and good health, we could very well see Durant back in the Finals sooner rather than later.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers’ offseason drama is likely to fade from conversation if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy for much of 2020–21. Winning cures all, and as currently constituted, this is a roster that should largely cruise through the regular season. Serge Ibaka is a more natural fit at the four than Montrezl Harrell, and Ivica Zubac continues to improve as a starting center. You can quibble with a lack of point-guard depth if you want, but a healthy Leonard and George should lead to a dominant season regardless of the supporting cast. Write off the Clippers at your peril. We’re likely to see a real Battle for Los Angeles in 2021.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
We won’t see a season filled with anxiety in Milwaukee after Giannis Antetokounmpo’s supermax commitment on Dec. 15. With Antetokounmpo now secured for the next half-decade, expect another dominant regular season, with the No. 1 seed and a third MVP for Antetokounmpo firmly in play. Does any of that really matter at this point? Not really. Milwaukee’s season will be defined by its playoff success, and there is reason to expect a Finals appearance after back-to-back bitter exits. Jrue Holiday should bring late-game structure and playmaking, and there are still assets left in the Bucks’ war chest for another upgrade before the trade deadline. Consider the Bucks the slight favorites in a crowded Eastern Conference.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The defending champions remain the favorite entering 2020–21, and this should be a better Lakers squad than last year’s version. Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell add a pair of reliable secondary scoring options alongside Los Angeles’s dynamic duo, and Marc Gasol should be more impactful than his final year in Toronto suggests. The Lakers will sleepwalk through some nights in the regular season, and it’s unlikely we see any MVP campaigning from James. But this remains the likely No. 1 seed as well as the likely West representative in the Finals. Perhaps the Clippers will mount a legitimate challenge. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing so.