The NBA season is just under two weeks away from starting. With the majority of the offseason moves behind us, teams are preparing to make their run in the 2020-2021 season. The NBA Draft, free agency, and trades seemed to be a blur as December 22 is staring us down. Due to the pandemic, the season will feature a 72-game schedule.
Many questions are going into the season. Can the Milwaukee Bucks finally get over the hump and make the NBA Finals? If they don't play in the Finals, is this the end for the Giannis Antetokounmpo era in Bucks jersey?
Will the Philadelphia 76ers find a resurgence with Doc Rivers? Who are the surprise teams that are going to leap into the playoffs? Can Miami Heat play in the NBA Finals again or it was just a fluke? Is Jayson Tatum ready to prove that he is one of the best players in the East?
In the first Power Rankings since the end of the 2019-2020 season, take a look at where the teams stand.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-52 Record, Playoffs Chance: 1%)
You never want to give a team a zero chance because there is always the potential for shock. This would be the ultimate Cinderella story. The Cavaliers won 19 games last season and finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. There is no reason to believe that Cleveland will finish anywhere else in the standings. Despite the Cavaliers owning the second-worst record in the NBA, the team was given the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. Next year, that pick could be in the top-3.
The Cavaliers need one more year of being bad. Also, the team will hopefully find a trade partner for Kevin Love. Once the team trades Love, the team will likely let Andre Drummond’s $28 million sit on the bench as he is in the final year of his contract. With those two former All-Stars sitting, the team can let the likes of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., and Isaac Okoro develop. With a top-3 pick in the draft and a ton of cap space, the Cavaliers could be on the rise in 2022.
14. New York Knicks (22-50 Record, Playoffs Chance: 3%)
Make no mistake that new head coach Tom Thibodeau will have the Knicks play hard. However, there just isn’t a lot of talent here. This offseason, the Knicks didn’t act like the Knicks we have seen in the past. The team didn’t overspend for average free agents. Instead, they are going to let their young core develop this season and look towards 2021 free agency.
RJ Barrett and 2020 National College Player of the Year Obi Toppin are very interesting prospects. Center Mitchell Robinson had a solid season last year with 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds and could be a future DeAndre Jordan type of player. Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton are solid players, but they are not going to change the course of a game. The Knicks lack superstars. If the Cavaliers hang on to both Love and Drummond, the Knicks could potentially finish last. Since we are banking on the Cavs to make at least one move, the Knicks will hover around the second-worst record in the East.
13. Detroit Pistons (22-50 Record, Playoffs Chance: 3%)
The Pistons are virtually the same team like the Knicks. How could the Pistons commit $85 million to Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee over the next three years? The free-agent signings of Grant and Plumlee were overpaid due to a limited free agent pool. Grant scored over 20 points twice against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals with the Nuggets, and now he is worth a ton of money. Somebody needs to give that agent an award.
Enough about Grant. The Pistons are an absolute mess and are a contender for the No. 1 overall pick. Blake Griffin has turned out to be a terrible trade. Griffin has played in 75 games just once in the last six seasons. The team would love to get rid of this contract, but for his durability, there are likely not takers. The team is coming off a draft where they selected Killian Hayes. Hayes is going to be a solid guard in the NBA one day, but he is just 19 years old. The Pistons are on pace to be the worst team in the NBA. Pay attention to Derrick Rose, who could play his way out of Detroit and onto a title team.
12. Charlotte Hornets (28-44 Record, Playoffs Chance: 10%)
How many wins is Gordon Hayward worth? If you can answer that question, then you probably have an idea of how many games the Hornets will win this season. Last year, the Hornets won 23 games and the team’s offseason featured giving $120 million to Hayward and drafting LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 overall pick.
For now, Ball is not projected to start, but he could make his way into the lineup. Scouts were down on his shooting with the NPL last season, but it was a limited sample size in just 12 games. Devonte’ Graham shined in his sophomore season by averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists. If Ball wants to make the starting lineup, he is going to have to outplay Terry Rozier. In the end, the Hornets are going to do what they always do. That is to hover around the No. 8 seed in the standings and then eventually fall off the charts. Don’t believe us? The Hornets/Bobcats franchise has made the playoffs just three times since the 2001-2002 season and have been out since 2016.
11. Chicago Bulls (30-42 Record, Playoffs Chance: 25%)
In the betting world, the Bulls would be a low-risk, high-reward in the playoff plays. The Bulls are by far the most interesting team in the Eastern Conference based on this one principle: playing time. The combination of Zach Lavine, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. has not played a full season together in two years. Due to injuries, someone has always sat out for an extended period. Throw into the mix Otto Porter Jr. who played just 14 games last season, this is kind of a new team.
New head coach Billy Donovan seems to find a way to take less-talented teams and make them play well. Coby White, 2019 No. 7 overall pick, showed at times that he can score at any given moment. With White starting, we could see the 20-year old go off for more than his 13.2 points per game. Patrick Williams, 2020 No. 4 overall pick, is highly enthusiastic about the prospect and should get time to show off his skills as well. Either way, the Bulls are a conundrum. The talent on paper could be good enough to make a run at the No. 8 seed. However, all signs from the past show that the Bulls need one or two more years of true rebuilding time to turn this around.
10. Orlando Magic (33-39 Record, Playoffs Chance: 35%)
The Magic get the slight nod over the Bulls based on principle. When you win 33 games last year and do nothing in the offseason to get better, there’s not a lot of data to support you will win that many more games. The Magic made the playoffs but had 17 teams finish with higher records if you expand the entire league. There are a few teams that finished below the Magic last season that made upgrades that should pay big dividends this year.
There is no denying that Nikola Vucevic is a great big after he averaged 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds last season. Aaron Gordon regressed last season after finishing with 14.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. Those are pretty shaky numbers for a guy that is averaging around $18 million per season.
The idea of leaning on two big men to an NBA title just doesn't cut it in the modern NBA. Take a look at the Pistons who tried it with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, and then Drummond and Griffin. There is some serious intrigue with Markelle Fultz, 2017 No. 1 overall pick, heading into the season as the team’s starting point guard though.
9. Atlanta Hawks (35-37 Record, Playoffs Chance: 50%)
The Hawks are one of the up and coming teams in the Eastern Conference after finishing last season 20-47 overall. Trae Young is coming off his first All-Star appearance after he averaged 29.6 points, 9.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. His teammate John Collins is on pace to join him as an All-Star this season. Last season, Collins averaged 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and shot 40.1% from three-point range. With the additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danillo Gallinari, Clint Capella, and Rajon Rondo, the Hawks would surprise people.
It all depends on if Young keeps his star power, and if Collins grows into a star. The role players will do their thing, but the league is based on star power. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish will hopefully grow offensively, while defensive specialist Kris Dunn is coming off the bench. The Hawks have the potential to double their win total from a year ago.
8. Indiana Pacers (36-36 Record, Playoffs Chance: 53%)
The Pacers were the third-best defensive team (107.5 points allowed per game) in the NBA last season. The team appeared that it could contend for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals until Victor Oladipo got hurt. While the starting lineup of Oladipo, Damontas Sabonis, T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, and Malcolm Brogdon is solid, the bench is lackluster.
The bench features Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, and Jeremy Lamb as the main pieces. On contending teams, none of these players would be playing significant minutes. The Pacers have enough talent in their starting lineup to carry the Pacers to the No. 8 seed and past teams like the Magic and the Bulls. The Pacers’ experience will push the franchise past the Hawks in a do-or-die stretch towards the end of the season.
7. Washington Wizards (38-34 Record, Playoffs Chance: 55%)
The Wizards battled for the No. 8 seed all of last season before floundering down the stretch. The team won just 25 games with no John Wall and relied on Bradley Beal. Now, with Russell Westbrook in the mix, the team has two All-Star caliber players. While the rest of the lineup is scarce, the Wizards dynamic duo alone is enough to lead Washington to the postseason.
Last year, Beal averaged 30.5 points per game, while Westbrook finished with 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists. At 32 years old, Westbrook is heading towards the end of his prime years, but his athleticism remains. If the Wizards can see Davis Bertans take the next step, the team could fight for more.
6. Philadelphia 76ers (40-32 Record, Playoffs Chance: 75%)
GM Daryl Morey walked into Philly and acted like he owned the place. He found a way to unclog the lane by trading Al Horford. He brought in quality outside shooters in Seth Curry and Danny Green, as well as a serviceable bench player in Dwight Howard. Granger and Howard both bring championship experience to a team that is lacking a true leader.
While the jury is still out on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the team on paper is solid. We know that Simmons can play near the caliber of a Russell Westbrook in his prime. Embiid is coming off another solid season after averaging 23.0 points and 11.6 rebounds. Tobias Harris is a solid power forward. With Doc Rivers taking over, the team should play differently. Until we have clarity on what the Simmons-Embiid outlook is, the 76ers are nothing more than a lower-tier playoff team.
5. Boston Celtics (41-31 Record, Playoffs Chance: 76%)
It seems like every year the Celtics are just one piece away from making the NBA Finals. This past season was the time for the Celtics to get over the hump, but instead, the team was bounced by the Miami Heat. Kemba Walker had a down year compared to what he normally produced in Charlotte. Plus, he was exposed in the playoffs and was not the “go-to” player when it was in crunch time.
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to the Hornets in free agency, which is understandable given how much money he made. That’s a huge bench piece to lose. While Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson were nice pickups, the Celtics took a step back in free agency. The Celtics are going to double down on the combination of Walker, Jayson Taytum, and Jaylen Brown. That should be good enough to qualify as a middle-tier playoff team.
4. Toronto Raptors (44-28 Record, Playoffs Chance: 85%)
The Raptors were somewhat of a surprise winning 53 games last season. With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green leaving, many thought the Raptors would fall towards the bottom of the standings. Heading into this season, the Raptors lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to Los Angeles but re-signed sharpshooter Fred VanVleet.
Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are good enough to get the Raptors to the playoffs. Assuming VanVleet and Norman Powell shoot threes the way they did last season, Toronto should have nothing to worry about. Aaron Baynes is a nice filler at the center, while OG Anunoby is poised to take over at small forward.
The Raptors will rely on their defensive identity to lead them to a strong campaign this season. The Raptors allowed the least amount of points per game (106.5) last season. Just because Gasol and Ibaka are gone doesn’t mean the needle is going to move that far. Look for the Raptors to continue their defensive intensity, which will lead to plenty of wins in the Eastern Conference.
3. Miami Heat (46-26 Record, Playoffs Chance: 90%)
Jimmy Butler proved that he can lead a team. While Butler was just under 20 points per game, he didn’t need to go off for large quantities of points each night. He just had to score the points when it counted. The core of Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro was outstanding in the playoffs. Herro was a rookie sensation after averaging 13.5 points while shooting 38.9% from the three-point range. If Herro takes the next step, he could be the team’s third superstar.
There just seems to be this feeling that Pat Riley is up to something too. While James Harden has been linked to the Nets and 76ers, it feels like the Heat could be one of those teams that sneak into the running. At 75 years old, Riley doesn’t have too much time with this gig. Trading away Herro, Robinson, and three first-round picks for two years of Harden could be done. Even without Harden, the Heat are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
2. Brooklyn Nets (50-22 Record, Playoff Chance: 92%)
We shouldn’t expect the Nets to go out and dominate from the start. It is going to take time for Kevin Durant to get his feet wet. Look at the Clippers last season. The Kawhi Leonard-Paul George experiment took time despite their superstar status. Even with the two, the Clippers were bounced in the second round of the playoffs. The Nets have a huge target on their back with Durant and Kyrie Irving playing together for the first time.
Durant hasn’t played since the 2019 NBA Finals. If Durant is truly healthy, he is a top-3 player in the league. Irving was limited to just 20 games last season, but when he played he averaged 27.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 6.4 assists. In free agency, the Nets didn’t trade away Caris Lavert or Jarrett Allen, who are two very promising young players. Joe Harris will bring his 42.4% three-point shooting every night. Plus, the bench with DeAndre Jordan, Landry Shamet, and Sixth Man of the Year contender Spencer Spinwiddie is superb. The Nets will be contenders for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference if the team does not get out to a slow start.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (57-15, Playoff Chance: 100%)
Losing Eric Bledsoe hurts to a degree, but gaining Jrue Holiday makes this team better in the long run. Holiday averaged 19.1 points and 6.7 assists while playing as one of the best defenders in the league. He is a two-time All-NBA Defensive Team member.
This is a huge year for Giannis Antetokounmpo. After this season, the two-time MVP could leave Milwaukee. That is why the Bucks went out and shored up their bench by signing DJ Augustine, Bryn Forbes, and Bobby Portis. Throw in Pat Connaughton and Torey Craig, the Bucks might have the deepest team in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks won 56 games last season and improved their team. The sky's the limit for this franchise. The Bucks are going to run away with the No. 1 seed in the regular season. With the depth and experience, the Bucks will not get out to a slow start. They have a sour taste in their mouths after losing to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs. Once the Nets find their footing, the matchups will get a little more interesting, especially in the playoffs.
The Western Conference is shaking up to be the premier conference once again as teams prepare to begin the 2020-2021 NBA season. Out of the total 15 teams, 14 teams could make a case that they could make a run towards qualifying for the postseason. With only eight teams qualifying, it’s going to be a wild ride throughout the season.
Due to the pandemic, the season will feature a 72-game schedule. In the first Power Rankings since the end of the 2019-2020 season, take a look at where the teams in the Western Conference fall.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-54 Record, Playoffs Chance: 1%)
The Thunder are in a clear rebuild. After taking the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, the Thunder felt it was time to tear everything down. Last season, the Thunder shocked the league by qualifying as the No. 5 seed after trading away Russell Westbrook to the Rockets. Moving forward, a rebuild seemed like the right call. In the end, Billy Donovan left the team to coach the Chicago Bulls, while Chris Paul and Steven Adams were both traded to the Suns and Pelicans respectively. Combined with moves involving Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder own 17 first-round draft picks up to the 2026 NBA Draft.
With a 22-year old potential star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the foundation, the Thunder could be on the rise in a couple of years. Right now, the roster includes Hamidou Diallo, Luguentz Dort, and Al Horford. There’s not a lot of star power there. Both Horford and George Hill, who were traded for this offseason, could be flipped for more draft capital this trade deadline. The Thunder have the potential to land a top-5 draft pick based on the lack of talent on the roster, which is exactly what GM Sam Presti wants. The Thunder will likely be the worst team in the NBA this season.
14. Sacramento Kings (30-42 Record, Playoffs Chance: 10%)
How close to superstar status can Marvin Bagley III get? The former No. 2 overall picks showed glimpses of playing like a borderline All-Star in the past. However, Bagley played in just 13 games last season and averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. While at Duke, he was a double-double machine. The Kings will also need De’Aaron Fox to not just play well, but great. After averaging 21.1 points and 6.8 assists, the Kings signed Fox to a max extension.
That’s great and all, but Fox has never made an All-Star game or received any major awards in the NBA. The same goes for Buddy Hield, who is the team’s best shooter after he shot 39.4% from three-point range last season. The Kings had a great offseason by drafting Tyrese Haliburton and signing Hassan Whiteside. In the end, other teams have guaranteed star power on their roster. The Kings are continuously wondering “what if?”
13. Minnesota Timberwolves (31-41 Record, Playoffs Chance: 13%)
Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have been in the league long enough to confirm that both are great players that lead bad teams. After getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2015, Towns has just two All-Star appearances and one playoff berth. With the tragic death of his mother, as well as six other deaths in his family due to coronavirus, it’s hard to imagine that he is in the right mental state, which is understandable.
In terms of basketball, that doesn’t deny that both he and Russell lead bad teams. Russell was a part of the bad Laker teams. He was moved to the Brooklyn Nets, where those teams struggled as well except his All-Star year in 2019. Russell then played well with a bad Golden State Warriors team before being moved for Andrew Wiggins. The Timberwolves’ stars own a combined two playoff appearances, which makes them unreliable. Even though the Timberwolves were able to land the No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards in the draft, the rest of the team is led by lackluster players and an underwhelming bench.
12. San Antonio Spurs (33-39 Record, Playoffs Chance 25%)
The Spurs get grace because Gregg Popovich is one of the best NBA coaches of all-time. In reality, the Spurs could be the second-worst team in the league with the talent on the roster. With Pop leading the way, the veterans on the team could “will” this team to a .500 record. Unless the Spurs trade for a young star, the team is going to hover around mediocrity.
LaMarcus Aldridge is 35 years old and is coming off shoulder surgery. The Spurs’ other top player in 31-year old DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 22.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.6 assists last season. DeRozan is not a “batman.” On any other title team, DeRozan would be the second or third option at this point in his career. As far as other veterans, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay are seasoned veterans that are not going to change the complexity of a game too much. When your team is filled with role players, your team is going to be average.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (34-38 Record, Playoffs Chance 30%)
Ja Morant is in line to make his first All-Star game this season if we assume that he is going to take the next step forward in his development. Morant was the Rookie of the Year after posting 17.8 points and 7.3 assists last season. Morant willed the Grizzlies to the playoff play-in game and nearly helped the team upset the Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies did all of this without their star forward Jaren Jackson Sr.
With Jackson’s return, the Grizzlies will be more competitive. Dillon Brooks erupted on the scene to score north of 16 points as the team’s shooting guard, while Jonas Valanciunas is a solid center in the NBA. However, it all comes down to veteran star power and while the Grizzlies have two stars in Morant and Jackson, they don’t have the experience to make a playoff run. Realistically, if the Warriors weren’t injury-depleted last season, nor the Grizzlies or the Trail Blazers would have even been in the postseason. Memphis is still one year away, but that doesn’t mean that the team won’t be competitive in some games.
10. New Orleans Pelicans (36-36 Record, Playoffs Chance: 50%)
While the Pelicans may finish just above the Grizzlies in the standings, their team would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The additions of Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams are great pickups. Most importantly, the Pelicans are going to get a full season of Zion Williamson. When the 20-year old played, Williamson averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and shot 42.9% from three-point range. The former No. 1 overall pick is not going to have to worry about a minutes restriction. He just has to go out and play basketball.
The Pelicans essentially retooled their team with the additions of Bledsoe, Adams, and Williamson. Resigning Brandon Ingram was a must. Ingram is coming off his first All-Star appearance and is the reigning Most Improved Player. With JJ Reddick and Josh Hart coming off the bench to provide much-needed minutes, the Pelicans will contend for one of the last playoff spots.
9. Portland Trail Blazers (36-36 Record, Playoffs Chance: 50%)
As previously mentioned, the Trail Blazers would not have made the playoffs had the Warriors not lost Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for the season. It took numerous 40-point and 50-point games from Damian Lillard to even get the team into the conversation. The Trail Blazers had a great offseason and appear to be ready to contend, but the team just has too many variables to solidify themselves as a worthy playoff contender today.
For example, can Zach Collins and Rodney Hood stay healthy and provide minutes all season long. The same goes for Jusef Nurkic, who established himself as a premier center in the league averaging 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds last season. The trade for Robert Covington gives the team another shooter and a solid wing defender. The most interesting variable is Carmelo Anthony. Can the 10-time All-Star accept a role off the bench and be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate? We already know what Lillard and CJ McCollum can do, but what about the supporting cast? If the variables all gel into one solid team, the Trail Blazers could go from pretender to contender.
8. Phoenix Suns (40-32 Record, Playoffs Chance: 55%)
The Suns saw what Chris Paul did for the Thunder last season. That was leading the team to a 44-28 record, No. 5 seed in the playoffs, and a seven-game series with the Rockets. That was why the Suns were willing to bring Paul over to the team. Combined with Devin Booker, who can be a contender for the MVP if he takes the next step in his game, and former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, this team could be a sneaky dangerous team.
Booker is coming off a season where he averaged 26.5 points and 6.5 assists. Ayton is entering a third year that suggests that this will be his breakout season. His rookie season produced 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Last year, Ayton took a small step forward by averaging 18.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. The acquisition of Jae Crowder shores up the defense alongside potential fellow star Mikal Bridges. The bench saw Cam Payne resurrect his career (10.9 ppg), while Dario Saric is a solid piece, and first-round pick Jalen Smith should provide good minutes. The ceiling for the Suns could be last year’s Thunder.
7. Utah Jazz (41-31 Record, Playoffs Chance: 60%)
The Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Suns, and Jazz are going to battle for the bottom tier of the playoffs all season long. In this case, the Jazz will reign supreme over the three other teams. For starters, the Jazz has the best player out of the group. Donovan Mitchell showed in the playoffs that he is a superstar. He averaged 36.3 points per game in the seven-game series. Out of Zion, Booker, and even “Dame Dollar,” Mitchell is the best player to have on a franchise right now.
People forget that the Jazz was flirting with the No. 3 seed last season before Bojan Bogdanovic was out for the season. The return of Derrick Favors and Jordan Clarkson, plus healthy Mike Conley, and this Jazz team could surprise people once again. Rudy Gobert will be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate once again and the Jazz will beat out the contending pack.
6. Dallas Mavericks (44-28 Record, Playoffs Chance: 75%)
Here is where it gets interesting. Luka Doncic could win the MVP next year. That is how good he is. Last season, Doncic averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 points, and 8.8 assists per game. We could see him produce a triple-double on average. When Kristaps Porzingis went down with an injury, Doncic nearly led the Mavericks to an upset win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. Porzingis is set to return on January 1st from knee surgery, which gives Dallas their star duo back.
The trade for Josh Richardson will fortify the defense, while second-round pick Tyrell Terry out of Stanford could be this year’s biggest draft surprise. Terry shot 40.8% from three-point range and averaged just 2.1 turnovers per game. His guard play will fit in perfectly for a Mavericks team that led the league in fewest turnovers per game (12.1). Combined with the sharpshooting of Tim Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks are a very solid team.
5. Golden State Warriors (45-27 Record, Playoffs Chance: 80%)
Even without Klay Thompson, the Warriors are good enough to make the playoffs. With Thompson out for a second straight year with an injury, the Warriors’ title hopes took a hit. The trio of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins are a “Big 3” that other teams wished they had. No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman is going to make an impact for this team right away as well. Along with Kelly Oubre Jr., this starting five has real potential.
The bench is suspect though, but we should give head coach Steve Kerr credit. He made players like Ian Clark, Quinn Cook, and Patrick McCaw contribute during the team’s title runs. He will likely do the same with Kent Bazemore, Damion Lee, and Brad Wanamaker. While the Warriors are not title contenders right now, the team will make noise all season long.
4. Houston Rockets (45-27 Record, Playoffs Chance: 80%)
While some people are hating the trade of Russell Westbrook for John Wall, there is some real value to this trade in favor of the Rockets. During the 2014-2015 season, the combination of Wall and Bradley Beal led the Wizards to a 46-36 record and a second-round playoff berth against the Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards nearly took down the Hawks and made the Conference Finals, but lost in six games. This Rockets game this year has a very similar makeup to that Wizards team.
If all the pieces live up to their potential, not only are the Rockets going to make the playoffs but should advance too. All indications point to Wall being 100% healthy. If that is true, the Rockets get a player that has a career average of 19.0 points and 9.2 assists per game. James Harden is a better version of Beal, so we can expect this dynamic duo to produce at a high level. The Rockets were the No. 4 seed last year and only lost Westbook. Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker are still on the team. The wild card will be DeMarcus Cousins, the former four-time All-Star that has faced a torn Achilles, torn quadriceps, and torn ACL over the last three seasons. If Cousins plays like his former self, the Rockets are more than a four seed. Of course, Harden has to stay and not be traded for all of this to work.
3. Denver Nuggets, (46-26 Record, Playoffs Chance: 90%)
Can Jamal Murray be an MVP candidate? When Murray torched the Jazz for two 50-point games in the first round, the nation saw a growing superstar. In the regular season, Murray averaged 18.5 points and 4.8 assists, but that number grew to 26.5 points and 6.6 assists in 19 postseason games. If those postseason numbers stay the same and are combined with what Nikola Jokic produces daily, look out for opposing teams.
Having a healthy Gary Harris and Will Barton is going to be a nice addition, but the intriguing prospect is Michael Porter Jr. In 55 games, Porter Jr. averaged 9.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. Those numbers grew to 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in the playoffs. Once deemed a potential No. 1 overall pick before he sustained a back injury, Porter Jr. showed flashes of being a superstar. He shot a clip of 42.2% from three-point range, which is exceptional from a 6-foot-10 stretch forward. A “Big 3” of Murray, Jokic, and Porter Jr. could be lethal. The role players in Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green, Monte Morris, Harris, and Barton make this a complete team. Look for the Nuggets to contend for a top-3 seed in the west.
2. Los Angeles Clippers, (48-24 Record, Playoffs Chance: 95%)
What separates the Clippers from the Nuggets is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played a season together. Leonard and George and potentially two of the top-10 players in the NBA. Now that the two have had time to build their chemistry, we should expect the Clippers to be even better. For a team that didn’t play up to their potential, the Clippers won 49 games last season. Losing Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell hurts and could cost the Clippers a win or two from last year’s total, but this team is still very well-rounded.
Patrick Beverley remains one of the best 1-on-1 defenders in the league. Beverley, Leonard, and George should combine to lead one of the best defenses in the league this year despite finishing 13th in points allowed last year. The role players in Marcus Morris Sr, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard should help boost the offense. Acquiring Serge Ibaka was huge for helping Ivica Zubac and the defense. The Clippers took a low-risk, high-reward chance on Nicolas Batum, who washed out with the Hornets. Don’t forget that Lou Williams is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year. If he wins it a fourth time, that means the Clippers are going to be a title contender.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (51-21 Record, Playoffs Chance: 100%)
The Lakers are a guaranteed playoff team. We all know about how great LeBron James and Anthony Davis are. Take a look at these other stats that you don’t hear about. As a defensive unit, the Lakers allowed the fourth-fewest points (107.6) per game, allowed the seventh-best three-point shot percentage (34.9%) and held opposing teams to the second-fewest rebounds per game (42.2). Frank Vogel, in his first year, convinced LeBron, Davis, and the rest of the team that the identity of the team should be a defense. In a league where the offense is praised like one of the Gods, the Lakers showed that defense truly does win games.
What makes the situation better is that the Lakers improved. While losing “Playoff Rondo” will hurt in the long run, the Lakers managed to get the No. 1 and No. 2 vote-getters in the Sixth Man of the Year category. Montrezl Harrell comes to the Lakers as the reigning Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds. The Lakers traded Danny Green in exchange for Dennis Schroder, who averaged 18.9 points and shot 38.5% from the three-point range. The Lakers also brought in Marc Gasol, who is a former Defensive Player of the Year and can still provide a role off the bench.
The bench is fortified with Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, who can start or come off the bench. Alex Caruso went from starting point guard in the NBA Finals to potential third-stringer on the depth chart. That’s not a knock on Caruso either. That’s just how deep the Lakers are. The Lakers have the potential to repeat as NBA Champions and give LeBron his fifth NBA title.