The first week of games in 2020–21 has been quite fitting as we close one of the strangest years on record. The Cavaliers and Magic sit atop the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are under .500 and the Clippers delivered one of the worst halves in recent memory. Will the early-season results hold any weight in the coming weeks? Probably not. But let’s have some fun with the hot starts while they last.
Check out The Crossover’s latest power rankings as we overreact to our first sample of games in 2020–21.
30. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been an abject disaster to start the Billy Donovan era, including a pair of blowouts before a late-game collapse against the Warriors. This team is more talented than its early returns suggest, though it’s hard to see a respectable season ahead without better play from Coby White. The young point guard went just 6–21 from the field in his first two games, tallying seven turnovers. White bounced back to a degree against Golden State, and he has the offensive talent to be a starting point guard. Let’s hope his jump shot stabilizes over the course of 2020–21.
29. Detroit Pistons
Detroit could contend for the league’s worst record this season, adding even greater urgency to the Free Blake Griffin campaign. Griffin remains a valuable offensive force, providing both spacing and impressive playmaking at the four. Will a contender take a swing at the former No. 1 pick this season? There’s no guarantee. Griffin is technically an expiring contract, though he’s more than likely to accept his $39 million player option for 2021–22. His contractual situation creates a likely limited market as Griffin plays out his post-prime in relative obscurity.
28. New York Knicks
Deep breath, Knicks fans. It’s not time to panic about the Obi Toppin selection, though the early results were, well, ugly. Toppin went 3–12 from the field in New York’s season opener, sporting a shaky jumper as the Knicks lost to Indiana by double digits. Toppin is now out for at least a week due to a calf strain, and considering he will turn 23 in March, time is ticking on his developmental clock. Let’s hope Toppin can flash his offensive ceiling sooner rather than later.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander increasingly looks like a franchise headliner as he kicks off his third season. SGA buried a game-winner to beat the Hornets in Oklahoma City’s opener, and the victory featured just exactly why there’s so much optimism regarding the Kentucky product. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the league’s craftiest finishers. He’s a plus defender, and we should see continued growth from beyond the arc in 2020–21. The Thunder’s future will largely be determined by the success of their stash of draft picks. But using Gilgeous-Alexander as the organization’s anchor is quite the nice start.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
We could see Memphis sink toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings soon. The Grizzlies have missed Jaren Jackson Jr.’s versatility in the frontcourt early on, and Ja Morant is now in danger of missing extended time after an ugly ankle injury on Monday night. Memphis’s rotation was already thin to begin with entering 2020–21. The injuries to a pair of franchise pillars haven’t exactly helped early on.
25. Charlotte Hornets
Gordon Hayward’s value to Charlotte has been clear through his first three games. The former Celtics forward provides a healthy dose of scoring on the wing, and more importantly, he’s serving as a valuable secondary playmaker. Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham are score-first guards. LaMelo Ball’s impact has been relatively muted early on. Hayward is a missing link in a flawed Charlotte roster, likely keeping an imperfect offense near league average in 2020–21. Is that worth $120 million? Perhaps not. But Hayward has fit well in Charlotte early on.
24. Washington Wizards
Washington has seen the downside of the Russell Westbrook Experience early and often in 2020–21. Westbrook tallied triple doubles in each of his first two contests, but those efforts have been marred by both dismal shooting and a critical defensive lapse late against Philadelphia to open the season. Westbrook then sat for rest on Sunday, continuing his back-to-back rest plan that began in Houston. Westbrook can still post All-NBA production in stretches at this point in his career. But the warts in his game will be a source of frustration in the DMV throughout the season.
23. Golden State Warriors
A Damion Lee three saved the Warriors’ first week from outright disaster, but Golden State is anything but out of the woods just yet. Andrew Wiggins has been a disaster thus far. Steph Curry is struggling both beyond the arc and near the tin. Steve Kerr is juggling a rotation that feels a few bodies short, and the lack of cohesion on the roster is evident. Outside of James Wiseman’s hot start, it’s hard to find much optimism in Golden State at the moment.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers
Time to pop the champagne in Cleveland? Not exactly. But the early returns from Cleveland’s 3–0 start have been encouraging. And it all starts in the backcourt. Both Darius Garland and Collin Sexton have gotten off to hot offensive starts, with Garland in particular finally showing flashes of a top-five pick. The Cavaliers still have a long way to go in the quest for relevance in the Eastern Conference. Their first week of 2020–21 was a marked step in the right direction.
21. Sacramento Kings
Tyrese Haliburton has posted modest numbers in his first three games, but he already looks like a quality third guard in Sacramento’s rotation. The Iowa State product has the feel of a seasoned veteran in the pick-and-roll, and his size provides defensive value alongside De’Aaron Fox. Snagging Haliburton with the 12th pick will likely look like a steal sooner rather than later.
20. San Antonio Spurs
The Baby Spurs have been downright delightful through their first three games, especially the play of Lonnie Walker IV. The 2018 first-round pick has shown some serious growth early in 2020–21, shining as a destructive transition force and a legitimate spacer in the half-court. Walker is still extremely raw as a prospect. He isn’t a playmaker for others by any stretch. But the athletic gifts are undeniable. Walker should be a valuable piece on the wing for years to come.
19. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota fans should be encouraged by the early play from Anthony Edwards. The top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft averaged 16 points per game in his first three contests, flashing his athletic gifts both in transition and off the bounce in the half-court. Edwards is a shaky shooter at the moment, and lapses in attention will muddle his defensive impact. Those problems are more ancillary than anything at the moment. For now, Minnesota should be enthused about the early production from the No. 1 pick.
18. Toronto Raptors
Toronto has limped out of the gate with a pair of losses to non-playoff teams, though it should be encouraged by its frontcourt production. Aron Baynes is steady as always on both ends, and young big man Chris Boucher looks ready to take a big leap. Boucher tallied 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks against the Spurs on Saturday, flashing his impressive length along with an improving jumper. Replacing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka is a difficult task. Baynes and Boucher seem relatively up to the task early on.
17. Orlando Magic
Markelle Fultz’s jump shot remains quite shaky, but does it really matter at this point? Orlando’s newly extended point guard crossed 20 points in each of the last two games, sporting an impressive offensive arsenal in the process. Fultz is a nightmare to defend in transition. He changes speeds with ease, always keeping defenses on their heels before finishing with either hand. Fultz’s vision continues to improve. He has a soft touch inside the foul line. The former No. 1 pick is finding his footing in a major way after a bumpy start to his career.
16. Houston Rockets
James Harden’s recent antics have been frustrating for Houston, but the idea that they would impact his trade value is pretty ludicrous. Harden strolled out in Houston’s opener and dropped 44 points and 17 assists, dicing up Portland’s defense in a manner you would expect from the three-time scoring champion. Harden remains a top-five player. He commands defensive attention unlike any player this decade. Miami, Brooklyn and even Philadelphia would be wise to take a swing at acquiring The Beard. Doing so may very well result in hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
15. New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram won Most Improved Player in 2019–20, and he’s showing similarly impressive growth early on this season. Ingram has scored at least 24 points in each of his first three games, and he continues to grow both his free-throw and three-point rates compared to previous seasons. Ingram is one of the game’s top isolation scorers. He can light up the scoreboard from any area of the floor. Add in improving vision in the half-court, and we could see Ingram challenge for All-NBA honors in the next couple of seasons.
14. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young made a major leap as a scorer in his second season, and he continues to grow as a prodigious scoring talent in 2020–21. Young tallied 72 points in his first two games, leading a new-look Atlanta roster to easy victories over Chicago and Memphis. Young hasn’t gotten off to a blistering start from three, though his predilection for getting to the foul line should continue to pay dividends throughout his career. Young is far more than a long-range novelty. He’s an offensive phenom, leading the way for a potential Atlanta revival in the next decade.
13. Portland Trail Blazers
There are real defensive concerns in Portland as Damian Lillard & Co. try to mount a Finals run. There’s no true interior force outside of Jusuf Nurkić–Robert Covington and Derrick Jones are more weak-side shot blockers—and employing both Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter isn’t exactly a winning defensive formula. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s offensive brilliance will save Portland on enough nights. But it’s hard to consider this a real Finals contender as currently constructed.
12. Phoenix Suns
I could get used to this version of Mikal Bridges. The Villanova product is attempting nearly seven threes per game thus far, and he’s attacking the rim with abandon both in transition and off the catch in the half-court. Bridges is more of a complementary offensive piece considering Phoenix’s current rotation, but he does provide skill on both ends. Phoenix’s playoff drought is likely to end in 2020–21, and Bridges could be a major reason why.
11. Indiana Pacers
This feels like déjà vu all over again. The Pacers have entered each of the last few seasons with a cloud over the franchise, with angst about their next chapter looming over the season opener. But through three games, this looks like a playoff team once again. Malcolm Brogdon is a quality point guard on both ends, and Domantas Sabonis continues to impress as a franchise anchor. The Pacers aren’t necessarily contending for the East crown, but they could be an increasingly difficult out in the postseason.
10. Dallas Mavericks
It’s a touch unfair to judge the Mavericks without a healthy Kristaps Porzingis, but Dallas needs a boost to its interior defense in order to keep pace in the Western Conference. Dwight Powell brings more value as a rim runner than rim protector, while neither Maxi Kleber nor Willie Cauley-Stein is a plus defender in the paint. Luka Dončić will smooth out plenty of problems. Josh Richardson is an upgrade on the wing. But there’s a firm ceiling in place considering Dallas’s serious defensive issues.
9. Denver Nuggets
Is there a greater joy in basketball than watching Nikola Jokić? Denver’s brilliant big man absolutely shredded the Rockets on Monday night, tallying 18 assists as the Nuggets cruised to their first win of the season. Jokić finished the night with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 18 assists and three steals—a stat line matched only by Russell Westbrook and Magic Johnson in NBA history. Is that a bit of a cherry-picked stat? Of course. But it’s also illustrative. Jokić breaks all conceptions of a traditional center, just as Magic and Westbrook did at the point guard position. The Nuggets’ center is a generational talent in every sense of the word.
8. Utah Jazz
I don’t quite understand the criticism of Rudy Gobert’s contract extension. Perhaps Utah will regret shelling out $46 million in 2025–26 as Gobert finishes his contract, but what exactly is the alternative for Utah? Let Gobert enter free agency and risk losing an All-NBA center. Try to trade Gobert, and you’re likely getting back 50 cents on the dollar. Utah is a fringe Finals contender, and an increasingly frisky one at that. Betting on the current core is the best path forward, even if it means some economic pain down the road.
7. Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown continues to improve by the season, and he’s now emerging as a legitimate partner-in-crime alongside Jayson Tatum. Brown is far more than your standard 3-and-D wing. He’s sporting an increasingly sophisticated feel in the pick-and-roll, and his vision is expanding beyond simply making the correct read. Brown scored 33 in Boston’s season opener. He went 8–13 from the field on Sunday. Danny Ainge’s decision to hold onto the Cal product increasingly looks like the right decision.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia has better spacing than it did last year to a sizable degree, though its half-court attack still seems a touch clogged. Tobias Harris is more of a stationary shooter than a reliable playmaker. Danny Green and Seth Curry fit a similar mold. The Sixers should be far less dysfunctional than they were in 2019–20. Joel Embiid remains a dominant offensive force. But this team still appears to be one playmaker short. Perhaps a deadline addition can vault Embiid & Co. over the top in the East.
5. Miami Heat
Is Duncan Robinson going to earn $100 million next summer? Miami’s sharpshooting forward carried the offense with six first-half threes in a Christmas Day win over the Pelicans, and he’s emerged over the last year as an indispensable cog in the Heat’s attack. Robinson darts around screens like Richard Hamilton. His release may be the quickest in the league. As the free-agency class of 2021 dries up, paying Robinson may be the most prudent option.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Sunday’s strange loss to the Knicks notwithstanding, we should see the Bucks cruise through the regular season once again with any potential Giannis drama now out of the way. Antetokounmpo is as dominant as ever—despite a truly painful missed free throw on opening night—and Khris Middleton continues to be an underrated second banana. Perhaps Milwaukee will fade once again come playoff time, but expect the good times to continue through at least early April. Consider the Bucks co-favorites for the top spot in the East after a blistering start from Brooklyn.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
If you burn the game film from Los Angeles’s blowout loss to the Mavericks on Sunday, things look pretty darn optimistic for Tyronn Lue & Co. The Clippers defeated the Lakers on opening night behind a blistering effort from Paul George, and they dispatched the Nuggets with relative ease on Christmas. The Serge Ibaka addition has paid early dividends from a spacing standpoint. Nic Batum could be in line for a slight career revival. After their bubble collapse, the Clippers won’t get any respect until the playoffs. But this remains a top-tier title contender, and a serious threat to the Lakers.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Amid the media drama and ex-teammate bickering, many seemed to forget a simple truth about Kyrie Irving entering 2020–21. The Nets’ point guard is one of the most talented scorers of his generation, matched by few in league history in his creativity and shot making. Irving tallied 17 first-quarter points on opening night, then dropped 37 points against the Celtics on Christmas. If Irving and Kevin Durant stay healthy, they could enter the spring as Finals favorites in a crowded Eastern Conference.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Early returns suggest Montrezl Harrell will be a valuable addition to the Lakers after an ugly end to his Clippers’ tenure. Harrell tallied 51 points in his first three games, flashing immediate chemistry as a pick-and-roll partner with both Dennis Schroder and LeBron James. Los Angeles had plenty of lob threats last season, but Harrell adds another element. He can put the ball on the floor, and he’s a smart interior passer. The Lakers’ playoff rotation looks downright potent as they seek back-to-back championships.