On the bright side, the NBA is currently in the midst of a deep playoff race in both conferences, creating plenty of intrigue as teams across the league chase the Lakers. But that won’t matter if the NBA can’t complete a full season. COVID-19 has begun to wreak havoc on the competitive integrity of the league amid a wave of absences, leading to an obvious question: Do we need to pause the 2020–21 season? The answer is becoming increasingly clear.
It’s a difficult situation for the NBA at the moment. There’s optimism for what the sport could look like in the spring and summer, with players fully vaccinated and fans potentially returning to arenas. There’s the urge to push forward, deal with the absences as they come and hope the season can hang on by a thread. But such thinking ignores the current crisis. COVID-19 cases continue to rise nationwide. The spread is increasing across the NBA, and the vaccine rollout isn’t quite ready to reach the playing population. The idea of a season-long bubble is untenable. A cancelation seems unnecessary. But is pausing the season a complete impossibility? The NBA could pause its season for perhaps a month without wrecking its calendar. As teams battle thinning rosters, taking a brief break appears to be the most prudent decision.
We’ll leave smarter minds to figure out the logistics of a potential stoppage in the coming days. For now, let’s turn our eyes back to the hardwood, taking a look at all 30 teams as we roll through a rocky start to 2021.
30. Detroit Pistons
Questioning Detroit’s long-term vision is certainly fair at this point, though it looks like the Pistons made a sensible move when they shelled out $60 million for Jerami Grant. The former Nuggets forward has shown an expanding skill set in his first year with Detroit, evolving from a glorified rim runner to a bankable frontcourt scorer. Grant is averaging a career-high 25.1 points per game in 2020–21, seeing an increase in both his free-throw and three-point rate. Perhaps Grant and Killian Hayes can form an effective offensive duo in the coming years as the Pistons search for any semblance of identity.
29. Washington Wizards
Get well soon, Thomas Bryant. Washington’s young center suffered an ACL tear on Saturday night, ending his fourth season after an impressive start to 2020–21. Bryant has all the makings of a future building block in Washington. He’s a ferocious rim runner and legitimate stretch five, sporting a diversity of skills rarely seen in a player of his age and size. Expect a difficult next few months in Washington. Bradley Beal’s frustration is likely to grow by the week, potentially culminating in a trade request.
28. Memphis Grizzlies
What exactly happened to Brandon Clarke? The second-year forward has seen his efficiency plummet early in 2020–21 compared to his rookie season, and his jump shot appears to need some serious retooling. Memphis has a dynamic young core on paper with Clarke joining Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and Justise Winslow. But the injury bug can be cruel. Memphis may be best served to exercise patience with its youngsters, add another lottery talent and shoot for the postseason with a healthy young roster in 2021–22.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves are struggling as they sit in the Western Conference cellar at 3–7. We can discuss their slow start next week. Instead, let’s turn our attention to D’Angelo Russell, who recently initiated a conversation with reporters regarding the riots at the United States Capitol last week. The relationship between players and the press is often a bit too transactional. There can be an impersonality to it, especially in the Zoom availability era. Russell deserves props for spurring the impromptu discussion. Both the media and the public are better for it.
26. Chicago Bulls
Artūras Karnišovas’s draft record appears to be off to a good start after selecting Patrick Williams with the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Williams sports impressive potential on both ends of the floor, drawing Kawhi Leonard comparisons from none other than LeBron James. We won’t give the Florida State product Finals MVP anytime soon, but the similarities are clear on the defensive end. Williams has oven-mitt hands and a jarring wingspan. He’s averaging a steal per game, and he’s more fluid with the ball than many originally assumed. As Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen find their footing, Williams may be Chicago’s most valuable frontcourt piece.
25. Oklahoma City Thunder
So much for the tanking Thunder. Oklahoma City has won four of its last five following Sunday’s win over the Nets, punctuating the impressive week with a double-digit victory despite 36 points from Kevin Durant. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to grow as a leading man. Hamidou Diallo has 48 points in his last two games. This team isn’t completely devoid of young talent, and a wave of draft picks is on the way. Sam Presti continues to wring the most out of the assets on hand in Oklahoma City.
24. Sacramento Kings
The Kings rank No. 29 in net rating, have lost four of their last six and currently sit outside even the play-in tournament in a crowded Western Conference. Things are looking, well, a touch bleak. Whatever. There will be plenty of opportunities to bash Sacramento over the course of 2020–21. I’d rather marvel at De’Aaron Fox, one of the league’s more underappreciated leading men.
23. New York Knicks
Austin Rivers is an unsung hero in the Knicks’ relatively hot start to the season. The former Rockets point guard has been a stabilizing force in New York’s rotation in 2020–21, providing necessary playmaking and defensive intelligence in the second unit. Rivers isn’t the most reliable shooter in the world, though he’s proven to have legitimate scoring punch in recent years. Rivers’s role in Houston ebbed and flowed. With more opportunity in New York, Rivers could have a career year.
22. Cleveland Cavaliers
Larry Nance Jr. is evolving into a quality big man in his seventh NBA season. Nance is averaging career highs in points and assists this season, and he’s even sporting some range from beyond the arc. The former Lakers first-round pick is also emerging as a true defensive weapon, leading the league in steals entering Monday night. Nance has gone from a simple rim runner to a truly versatile center. Cleveland’s young core continues to show signs of progress, even if the postseason is far from guaranteed.
21. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have limped out to a 2–8 start, though Pascal Siakam’s recent play should provide some modicum of encouragement. Siakam averaged 24.7 points per game on 52.9% shooting from the field in his last three contests before facing Portland, and he turned in a triple double in Monday’s one-point loss. Siakam at his best is a serious problem for defenses. He can barrel to the rim like few players in the league, unleashing a whirling dervish spin move with relative ease. We didn’t see that version of Siakam in the NBA bubble or at the start of 2020–21. Let’s hope Siakam can return to his All-NBA form before the Raptors sink further in the Eastern Conference.
20. Atlanta Hawks
The wheels have begun to fall off for Trae Young & Co. after an encouraging start. Both Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović are out for significant time following a pair of costly injuries, and John Collins continues to note his discontent as he eyes a major contract this summer. Young’s play has suffered with the supporting pieces on the mend. He tallied 25 turnovers over a four-game span before Monday night, posting a 15.8% mark from three in a quartet of losses. Young is a dynamic talent, yet he remains an imperfect lead playmaker. Landing in the playoff is no guarantee as Atlanta looks to mitigate its key injury losses.
19. Charlotte Hornets
It seems as though the LaMelo Ball hype was anything but overblown. The youngest Ball brother has been downright dynamic after his first three games, tallying two 20-point games and his first career triple double. Ball’s elite vision has been on full display early on. He’s a confident jump shooter, and his 6’ 8” frame makes him an effective rebounding guard. Ball may never grow into a truly efficient three-point threat, though he deserves patience in that regard. After a slew of lottery failures, it seems as though Michael Jordan made the right call with the No. 3 pick in 2020.
18. Orlando Magic
This isn’t necessarily news, but it remains astounding just how paltry Terrence Ross’s assist totals are on a yearly basis. Ross has tallied 15 assists in his first 10 games in 2020–21, sitting under 1.5 assists per game for the 10th straight season. The 2012 lottery pick isn’t a catch-and-shoot specialist. He takes up significant volume in Orlando’s offense, and he is a truly talented scorer. But Ross’s habits are emblematic of the Magic’s offensive issues writ large. With Ross, Nikola Vučević and Aaron Gordon, Orlando has some offensive punch in a vacuum. But this is a group that’s less than the sum of their parts. With Markelle Fultz now out, the problem is only exacerbated. The Magic aren’t climbing anyone’s League Pass rankings anytime soon as their offense remains stuck in the mud.
17. San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan’s trade value could become an increasingly interesting question in the coming months. San Antonio (wisely) continues to lean on its youth movement in 2020–21, yet amid the transition, DeRozan is quietly turning in an impressive offensive campaign. He’s averaging 21.2 points per game along with a career-high seven assists, adding a 39.1% mark from three on a non-trivial number of attempts. DeRozan can be a leading playmaker off the bench. He’s big enough to guard larger forwards and even the occasional small-ball five. Perhaps a contender will entice San Antonio with legitimate draft capital as the trade deadline approaches.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
Steven Adams is one of the NBA’s most delightful players for a myriad of reasons, including his sneaky passing prowess. Adam’s assist rate doubled from 2018–19 to last season, and he’s sustained the mark in his first year with the Pelicans. Adams is a smart interior passer in the half-court. He tosses transition dimes like an oversized starting pitcher, and he’s even added some flair in recent years. As the NBA continues to evolve in the pace-and-space era, Adams remains a unique treasure.
15. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are going to have a tough time keeping pace in the Western Conference if they can’t solve their defensive woes. Houston enters Tuesday night’s matchup with the Lakers ranked No. 28 in defensive rating, sitting in the bottom five in both opponent fast-break points and opponent second-chance points. Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins aren’t an imposing duo. Houston’s effort and energy ebb and flow depending on its offensive output. It’s too early to hit the panic button, especially when you consider the wave of absences early in the season. But if this troubling trend continues, the James Harden era could end sooner rather than later.
14. Portland Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum led the Blazers to a one-point win over the Raptors on Monday night, continuing his dominant start to the season in a role reversal with Damian Lillard. As Lillard battles inconsistency with his jumper, McCollum has been an absolute marksman, refining his shot diet in the process. McCollum is shooting 44.4% from three on 11 (!) attempts per game. He trails only Steph Curry in above-the-break threes, showing increased range compared to previous seasons. This isn’t just an isolated heater from McCollum. It’s a continued evolution, one that makes Portland increasingly dangerous in the Western Conference.
13. Golden State Warriors
The panic surrounding Golden State’s early-season struggles failed to note one key detail: Draymond Green’s absence. The Warriors were largely nonfunctional without Green on the floor in their first four games, but they sport the No. 8 net rating since Green’s season debut on Jan. 1. Green is a basketball genius in every sense of the word. He remains a dynamic playmaker in 4-on-3 situations, and he’s also perhaps the game’s smartest defender. This is still a team trotting out two Hall of Famers, even as Klay Thompson sits out 2020–21. Golden State’s championship pedigree should keep a respectable floor in place as it eyes a return to the playoffs.
12. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn’s dynamic offense currently feels a piece short with both Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving out of the lineup. Caris LeVert is more of an isolation scorer than a true leading guard, and despite Kevin Durant’s brilliance, there isn’t enough playmaking currently on the floor. We’ll likely see the Nets offense return to some semblance of normalcy once Irving returns, but the night-to-night uncertainty is already taking its toll. Brooklyn could very well enter the playoffs seeking a title run from the No. 5 or No. 6 seed this spring.
11. Denver Nuggets
It wasn’t so long ago that Gary Harris was among Denver’s most valuable assets. Harris averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game in 2017–18, showing impressive potential as a two-way force. His career year proved to be an aberration. Harris’s scoring totals and shooting numbers have dipped in each of the last three seasons, and he’s plummeted to 26.8% from three in 2020–21. Harris was once an intriguing trade asset. He’d now be little more than salary filler if Denver looked to make an upgrade.
10. Miami Heat
Miami’s offense wasn’t exactly blistering last season, but this year’s group is struggling to a far greater degree. The Heat rank No. 23 in offensive rating, posting the league’s worst turnover rate and the No. 22 assist-to-turnover ratio. Erik Spoelstra hasn’t quite settled on his starting lineup. Tyler Herro is off to an ugly shooting start. The Heat have limped out of the gate to a degree, though this may be a product of small sample size. Expect Miami to find its groove sooner than later, ticking closer to league average on offense.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Kristaps Porzingis will make his season debut whenever the Mavericks return to the floor, raising expectations for Luka Doncic & Co. in the partnership’s second season. What can we expect to see from the duo in 2020–21? A steady diet of pick-and-pop will likely be on display. Porzingis nearly doubled his three-point rate last year compared to 2017–18, and he isn’t earning significant post touches anytime soon. Quibble with Porzingis’s role if you wish, but Carlisle and the Mavericks appear determined to deploy the unicorn primarily as a stretch five. Porzingis would have feasted in the paint even a decade ago. His utilization in Dallas is further evidence of the league’s stylistic shift in recent years
8. Utah Jazz
Utah is allowing far too many points at the rim for a team anchored by Rudy Gobert. The Jazz entered Monday night ranked No. 21 in the league in opponent paint points, ranking No. 25 in opponent field goal attempts within five feet. Gobert is anything but the problem. Utah is allowing far too much dribble penetration from the perimeter, with Jordan Clarkson standing as a relative turnstile at point guard. Clarkson has been a valuable scorer this year, and increased offensive punch was likely Utah’s top priority this offseason. But to truly compete for the Western Conference crown, the Jazz will have to stop hemorrhaging paint points at such a high rate.
7. Indiana Pacers
First-year head coach Nate Bjorkgen has done a masterful job at balancing the scoring load in Indiana this season. The Pacers entered 2020–21 with plenty of mouths to feed on the offensive end, with a contract drive from Victor Oladipo paired with high expectations for Domantas Sabonis, T.J. Warren and Myles Turner. But instead of a tug-of-war, Indiana’s offense has been relatively egalitarian. The Pacers rank No. 5 in assists. They sport the league’s No. 6 net rating. Nick Nurse’s pupil deserves some serious praise amid Indiana’s hot start.
6. Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ efficiency is truly a sight to behold in the first year of the Chris Paul era. Phoenix turned the ball over just three times in a win over the Pacers on Saturday, entering Tuesday’s loss to Washington with the NBA’s fourth-lowest turnover rate. Seven Suns are averaging double figures. Six rotation players are shooting over 48% from the field. Paul is in the maestro behind it all, bringing the Suns back to relevance after a painful decade.
5. Boston Celtics
It’s never a good time for a COVID-19 absence, but Jayson Tatum’s time away from the floor is especially inopportune. Tatum was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, earning the honor after averaging 33 points per game in a 3–0 stretch for the Celtics. Tatum finished with a career-high 12 assists against the Pistons on Jan. 3, then poured in 40 points against Toronto one night later. Tatum remains one of the NBA’s top young assets. He’s as polished as any 22-year-old scorer in recent memory. Let’s hope to see Tatum back healthy soon as Boston looks for its first Finals appearance in a decade.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey certainly made the most of his expanded opportunity in a loss to the Nuggets on Jan. 9. The rookie out of Kentucky tallied 39 points, seven rebounds and six assists with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out of the lineup, attacking the basket with an aggression and decisiveness rarely seen by rookie guards. Considering Philadelphia’s unconventional rotation–and Simmons’ shortcomings—don’t be surprised if Maxey is increasingly relied on as the postseason approaches.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles remains one of the NBA’s most talented teams, but there still seems to be a shortage of effort and focus from Kawhi Leonard & Co. The Clippers blew a 22-point lead to the Warriors on Jan. 8. They gave up 127 points to the Bulls two nights later. Don’t be shocked if we see a roster shakeup in the coming months, with Lou Williams potentially on the move in the final year of his deal.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee continues to blitz defenses with the NBA’s No. 1 offensive rating, though its defense continues to hover near league average. And it doesn’t seem as though the Bucks’ personnel is the real problem here. Both Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo are All-Defense talents. Khris Middleton is an effective wing defender. Mike Budenholzer’s reliance on drop coverage remains frustrating, especially considering the athletic wings on his roster. An increased diet of switching could pay major dividends over the course of 2020–21.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are taking a smart approach toward their championship defense as they continue to lead the Western Conference. LeBron James is easing into the season with a dip in usage and scoring, leaving increased opportunity for Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell to find their rhythm in a new location. The most encouraging signs have come from Los Angeles’s other superstar. Anthony Davis continues to be a dominant two-way force, and he’s asserting himself as a true vocal leader. Allowing Davis to set the tone is a prudent strategy both long-term and in 2020–21. James’s empowerment of his co-star continues to be one of the best subplots of his Los Angeles tenure.