NBA Power Rankings: 2020-21 Season Tipoff Edition!
It feels like it was just a few days ago that the Los Angeles Lakers tied the Boston Celtics for most franchise championships at 17. Yet, here we are and we are all set to play basketball again in just a few days. The circumstances are still far from normal and maybe you even need some catching up on rosters across the league. In what seems to be everybody’s hobby with the 2020-21 season about to begin, we’re going to join the power ranking club and rank all 30 teams’ rosters at the beginning of the regular season.
Old friend Kendrick Perkins was just one of the several interested in a rough ranking of all 30 teams. While it’s virtually impossible to make a perfect list or even agree fully with anybody reading this, I’ll do my best at ranking teams by three factors — starting lineup/star power, depth over the course of a 72-game season, and potential at winning a playoff series. These criteria are atypical in that they also take into account preparedness for the playoffs, which are not always exactly correlated with potential seed in the regular season. I’ll explain these peculiar cases when they are relevant.
While the big combo of Kevin Love and Andre Drummond on paper might seem competitive, the possible rise of guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland is the main concern for the Cavs. This team finished last season dead last in the East is not expected to compete for anybody this season, even after drafting the versatile Isaac Okoro at #5 overall.
#29: New York Knicks
The infamous franchise in New York City may have had big plans recently to make a splash at a superstar in free agency but all they’ve ended up with is a bunch of messy situations. They have just enough young talent to save them the disgrace of the #30 spot but the second-worst offense in the NBA in the 2019-20 season is not expected to see a huge improvement despite the Obi Toppin pick in the 2020 draft.
#28: Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the Cinderella stories of the previous season, the Thunder were counted out as a possible West contender but they closed out the regular season as the #5 seed in the conference and made the Houston Rockets grind out a 7-game series in the first round of the playoffs. They did so with a combination of the veteran leadership of Chris Paul, the rise of the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and some depth centered around Dennis Schröder. However, OKC has continued to prioritize stacking future draft picks and have lost Paul to the Suns, Schröder to the Lakers, and Steven Adams to the Pelicans. They have some young talent on offense and defense but are not expected to be a serious playoff contender.
#27: Detroit Pistons
In the 2019-20 season, the Pistons were bottom 10 in the NBA in several meaningful team metrics on offense and defense. Coming off a season where they were nearly 10 games behind a playoff spot, with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose trending on the wrong side of basketball age, the slight upgrades they made with the signings of Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant give them a decent enough ceiling to possibly go on a hot streak but they still belong in the bottom 10 of the NBA and for now, bottom 5.
#26: Sacramento Kings
"If he’s healthy, to me, he’s along the lines of Giannis...I kid you not, he’s on that level of a Giannis, guys like that. Bam Adebayo, we have seen his development. He can be as good–if not better than guys like that."
The Kings and their ownership are the definition of scattered. Opportunity after opportunity to get starpower on the team and all they have settled for is solid talent around the roster that hasn’t panned out into what they would have hoped. While some people may be extremely—and I mean extremely—high on guys like Marvin Bagley III, the truth is that the trio of the big man taken before Luka Dončić, Buddy Hield, and De'Aaron Fox is an exciting offensive core but that's about where it ends for the Kings. They have suspect depth, questionable defensive prowess, and very little immediate direction.
#25: Minnesota Timberwolves
While Minnesota’s rebuild is nowhere near the intensity of the Thunder’s pick-stacking showcase, they landed the #1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. With the pick of Anthony Edwards, they are hoping to add a versatile athlete that can make them one of the higher-ceiling offenses of the non-playoff teams. While Karl-Anthony Towns (41% from 3 in the 2019-20 season) is still around to lead the core as a hot-shooting big man, the Timberwolves could be a sleeper to upset some teams on the back of their offense. They still lack depth, however, even if Anthony Edwards turns out to play as well defensively as he has been in the preseason.
#24: Charlotte Hornets
Ah yes, one of the biggest, maybe weirdest, storylines of the offseason. After the Celtics missed on the opportunity to swap Gordon Hayward for any immediately valuable assets, the former all-star signed a huge deal with Charlotte but yet again, he will start the season with injury concerns. Hayward could be back quickly but he’s not even the center of attention for this team; it’s clearly the 2020 first-rounder LaMelo Ball, one of the most hyped players in recent high school basketball history.
It’s clear that Ball has the offensive upside to take the league by storm immediately and he enters the start of the season as the betting favorite to win Rookie of the Year. However, even if his repertoire is immediately enough to run an efficient Hornets starting lineup on the offensive end, this team will struggle to win a playoff game if they get in due to the lack of their depth and defense.
#23: San Antonio Spurs
Call the Spurs boring if you’d like but under the great mind of Gregg Popovich and his unique coaching staff, they were a top 10 scoring offense in the NBA in the previous season. They will, again, have their core of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to start the season but will definitely be on the trade market. Even if the Spurs attempt to make a sneaky playoff run after keeping most of their roster and adding Devin Vassell and Tre Jones in the draft, their lack of star power on the defensive end will likely still be a huge hindrance and contradictory to their usual identity. It’s just not the same with no Kawhi in San Antonio.
#22: Orlando Magic
It’s right around here that we start landing on teams that should be considered playoff-relevant. After giving the Milwaukee Bucks a very brief scare in the first round of the playoffs, the Magic will bring back most of their core that was the fifth-best defense in the NBA (by points against) in the 2019-20 season. Unfortunately, their high-upside pick of Cole Anthony in the draft and the rise of former #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz will likely not be enough to erase their major offensive concerns and with Jonathan Isaac out for the season, I’ll be surprised if the Magic dig themselves out of the bottom 10 in the power rankings down the stretch.
#21: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls shocked many when they supposedly "reached" in the first round of the NBA draft by taking Patrick Williams but the versatile forward has looked solid in the preseason and is expected to be a big part of their progress as a core. Combine that with a possible bounceback from former All-Rookie First Team Lauri Markkanen and the all-star-caliber talent of Zach LaVine and there's plenty of reason to be excited in Chicago. Right now, however, a playoff push would be fringe-upside for this group—and that’s if they hang onto LaVine.
#20: Memphis Grizzlies
While the Grizzlies will have to contend with beginning the season without Jaren Jackson Jr. due to surgery for a meniscus tear, they still have plenty of young talent in reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and All-Rookie First Team Brandon Clarke that helped them nearly make the playoffs in the prior season. In a slightly shorter season, every streak will mean a little more, so if Morant can take another step forward in his sophomore year, the Grizzlies could ride his talent to permanently leave the bottom 10.
#19: Washington Wizards
A roster of question marks and possible roller coasters. In likely the biggest blockbuster deal of the offseason, the Wizards and Rockets pulled off a swap that sent Russell Westbrook out of town and into what is now one of the most explosive backcourts in the league. The former MVP will, again, be in an environment of shooters around him; the question will be if the system can handle the ball touching the frontcourt very little and make up for a lack of serious defensive prowess across the roster. Westbrook's 34.4% usage rate was fifth in the NBA in the 2019-20 season. Additionally, if things don’t work out at first, don’t be surprised if Bradley Beal is not on the Wizards by the end of the season.
#18: New Orleans Pelicans
Remember when the rise of the Pelicans had Bleacher Report all up in their feelings about how their starting lineup was the best in the NBA? I called them out for it but meanwhile, the roster in NOLA has seen more major changes. With Jrue Holiday out of town and on the Bucks in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, an acquisition of Steven Adams, and former #1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson looking to play a full healthy season for the first time, this is a solid squad on offense and defense. The connection of Lonzo Ball and Williamson will be one to keep an eye on; together with reigning Most Improved Player and all-star Brandon Ingram, they can carry New Orleans to the playoffs and even make an interesting matchup out of their first round.
The question marks will remain their depth and their health. Can Jaxson Hayes emerge into a valuable big man off the bench? Will Josh Hart and JJ Redick provide enough shooting off the bench to make the Pelicans one of the scariest offensive teams in the league? The ceiling is quite high for this squad but for now, they deserve to be humbled with this mid-tier spot.
#17: Utah Jazz
Remember when the Denver Nuggets came back down 3-1? They were, in fact, the first team in NBA history to come back from multiple 3-1 deficits in the same postseason. The first team that they came back on was the Utah Jazz, who were getting historic scoring efforts from their franchise player Donovan Mitchell. Include the hot streak near the end of the season for Mike Conley, the gritty play of Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles off the bench, the return of Bojan Bogdanović to the lineup and you have yourself a playoff team.
My biggest concern, however, will be whether their improvement in offensive depth will cost their main identity. The defense of the Jazz in playoff time was thoroughly exposed by the brilliant coaching and execution of Denver and Utah just heavily overpaid for their primary defender Rudy Gobert, a man who was played off the court due to being inept at guarding up outside the paint. Until they can take the next step and prove that they made any improvement since their playoff collapse, I’m not as high on the Jazz as most other sources, so they aren’t in my upper tier yet.
#16: Indiana Pacers
You probably don’t want to keep hearing about what the Celtics could have gotten in return for Gordon Hayward in terms of playable talent right now, so I’ll keep it brief. The Pacers, who were the third best defense in the 2019-20 season (by points against), may have gotten shellacked by the Miami Heat in the playoffs but they were clearly missing key pieces. The health of Victor Oladipo and the return of Damontas Sabonis will be the primary sources of new-found life in Indiana but perhaps a coaching change this season will also help convince Myles Turner and Oladipo that sticking around instead of moving to Boston was not so bad after all. I’ve likely managed to convince you that the Pacers will hang around as a playoff team for a while and I’ve done so without even mentioning the solid play of Malcolm Brogdon and the recent rise of "Bubble Jordan"T.J. Warren.
Tier: Very Good
#15: Phoenix Suns
The future of Devin Booker, one of the hottest players of the Disney bubble and the third-highest scorer (behind James Harden and Damian Lillard) in the 2019-20 regular season, has been one of the more under-the-radar question marks of the recent years but the Suns have now made it clear what their intentions are. They want to win now, with a big 3 that includes former #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and 10-time all-star Chris Paul. While they did have to give up a good bit for Paul, the acquisition of Jae Crowder should help on both ends of the court and the Suns should be a playoff team and a serious contender to win a playoff series if they face a fair matchup.
#14: Houston Rockets
In the blockbuster that broke up the short-lived duo of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets’ preseason play displayed that they might be onto something with the acquisition of John Wall and the decision to give former all-star DeMarcus Cousins a chance. It’s no secret that Houston’s offensive ceiling, that was already the second-highest scoring roster of the 2019-20 regular season, gives them the chance to beat any team on any given night and with Daryl Morey no longer with the organization, they are officially no longer the poster boys of "small ball." Tack on the acquisition of Christian Wood and the Rockets have the upside of a top 10 team in the NBA if they decide to hold onto their franchise player, Harden, instead of trading him to another contender. The issues they still have to deal with mostly center around defense and since I am taking their playoff chances into account, I can’t rank this unit higher until I see what they can do in a playoff setting.
#13: Atlanta Hawks
In the 2019-20 season, despite the short PED suspension of John Collins, the Hawks were one of the more exciting offensive teams in the NBA. However, they rode the worst defense in the NBA on their way to 14th place in the Eastern Conference. But this offseason, they put in work with the acquisitions of Bogdan Bogdanović and Danilo Gallinari, both upgrades that could make their offense one of the best in the NBA. The Hawks will also hope to get further development from their former first-round pick Trae Young.
In the 2019 season, Young's 205 threes was sixth in the league and his 560 assists was third in the league. He was also the fourth-highest volume player in the league by usage percentage so it should be paradise for the rest of the offense as well. The Hawks’ defense isn’t expected to see enough of an improvement to move them into the top 10 into the NBA.
#12: Golden State Warriors
Usually, when you lose a legend like Klay Thompson to an injury that might end up being season-ending, panic settles in and hopes at relevance are meant to plummet. However, the Warriors were no slouches this offseason and continued to be a savvy organization. The acquisition of old friend Brad Wanamaker will be the move that hits closest to home but the addition of Kent Bazemore, the trade for Kelly Oubre Jr., and the draft pick of James Wiseman, possibly the best player of the class, can be just what gives the Warriors the chance at not just making it to the playoffs in the West alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green but maybe win a playoff series, given the matchup. With the talent and pedigree in Golden State, the Warriors deserve their respect and would immediately slide up a few spots to the elite tier if they get Thompson back.
#11: Philadelphia 76ers
One of the members of the basketball analytics spamming club and the king of small ball, Daryl Morey, has now joined a Philadelphia 76ers team that was the 6 seed in the previous season and ran into a tough matchup against Boston that they had to get through without Ben Simmons. While health will always be a huge question mark for this unit, the now-improved 76ers are set to go for now and be more of a contender with the acquisitions of Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Terrance Ferguson. Fine, I'll mention Vincent Poirier too, happy? The biggest fix though? It is likely the upgrade at head coach to Doc Rivers.
So if I think so highly of the 76ers’ moves in the offseason, why do I still have them outside of the top 10? Like I stated in my introduction, I am taking into account how prepared a team is for a playoff series. The truth is, there is very little evidence the 76ers have fixed their issues that would get them an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the 2019-20 season, Philadelphia was the sixth-best defense in the NBA by points against, sixth-best offense in the NBA by points, and top 10 in steals and blocks, rebounds, and 3-point shooting percentage. But in a playoff setting, will Doc Rivers magically fix the inefficiency of the overpaid Tobias Harris? How about the pace of the offense? Is Joel Embiid running a slow-paced post-up game? Is Simmons going to magically start finding ways to threaten as a scorer other than running at the rim and dunking? Roster composition is important but coaching and execution wins playoff series. Until the 76ers have proven that they have an identity on offense, the hype train shouldn’t force them into the top 10 quite yet.
#10: Toronto Raptors
The most recent champion to come from the Eastern Conference, the Raptors silenced many haters that thought the team would be completely irrelevant after the departure of Kawhi Leonard. Instead, they improved their regular season performance and solidified their identity as a team. They were the #1 defense in the NBA by points against and entered the playoffs as the 2-seed. Naturally, their playoff chances saw a big hit without the legend of "The Klaw" to lean on in clutch minutes.
However, the infamous game-winning shot by OG Anunoby in Game 3 against the Celtics reminded everybody of how gritty of a team they are and how rapidly their young core is developing. They now look for a bounceback from Pascal Siakam’s mediocre playoff run and will look to ride old friend Aron Baynes to help recover from losing both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Expect them to lose somewhat of a step but give them their respect for what they can do under Nick Nurse’s offensive mind until playoff time when they will likely finally be humbled.
#9: Boston Celtics
Alright, those of you who scrolled here before reading the rest of the article. Go back to the intro to understand how I’m ranking the teams. Okay, good. You’re caught up now.
#NEBHInjuryReport Brad Stevens says the team is hopeful that Tristan Thompson (hamstring) will be available tomorrow, but that's TBD. Kemba Walker (knee), meanwhile, is not close to returning, per Stevens.
While the ceiling for the Celtics (as with the other teams in the East) in the regular season is as high as the 2-seed, it’s critical to evaluate the long-term effects of Boston’s chaotic offseason. While they did let Gordon Hayward walk for close to nothing and now have the news of a possible long-term absence from Kemba Walker, it’s important to stop blindly hating not ignore the other moves they made in. For starters, Boston had an underrated draft. By selecting certified shooter Aaron Nesmith, they addressed a serious scoring issue they had off the bench. But Nesmith’s playing time will be a huge wild card in the Brad Stevens system. The best move they made? Selecting the confident, winning-culture Payton Pritchard later in the first round. While several fans didn’t have a good sense of Pritchard’s game until his solid preseason showing, I praised this pick when it was made. With Walker out for a while, expect Pritchard to be a huge factor on scoring, distributing, and even perimeter defense off the bench. Pritchard is a younger T.J. McConnell and dare I say, with higher upside. He’s fast, he’s aggressive, and he will be loved by his teammates.
Additionally, the Celtics got themselves some much needed experience in the backcourt with Jeff Teague, a perfectly decent replacement for Brad Wanamaker. Finally, they addressed some serious size issues by acquiring Tristan Thompson, someone who has apparently wanted to wear the green for a while, which should help them have a better shot against bigger teams like Philadelphia.
Finish working out,Gonna rest until I watch my celtics be crowned there 18th NBA Championship
If you’re still worried about Kemba’s absence, think about it this way—in the worst case, it’ll hurt the Celtics’ regular season seed and he will hopefully be back decently healthy for the playoffs. If the best case, Jayson Tatum simply gets more usage on offense and makes his first serious bid for MVP votes in his career. Luckily, a lot of this simply boils down to Brad Stevens, whose +1800 betting odds on winning Coach of the Year should be an attractive prop if you’re looking to cash in on the Celtics surprising many and finishing with an impressive regular season rank in the East.
Finally, the cold-hard truths—while the acquisitions I outlined make the Celtics a better overall roster in my opinion even if they don’t have their starting point guard yet, have they seriously addressed the issues that caused them to be short of the NBA Finals yet again? According to me, the answer is unfortunately no, which is why I have them just below the elite tier of my power rankings as of now.
The Celtics cruised against a depleted 76ers in the playoffs earlier this year but were challenged defensively against the Raptors in a series that should have been 3-0 in favor of Boston. While they survived that series, they got utterly exposed against the Miami Heat en route to an elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals. The inefficiency of Kemba Walker, the inability to out-coach Erik Spoelstra in the fourth quarter, and the legitimate matchup-hunting ability off the bench are all issues that I think will see the Celtics short of a Finals appearance yet again. For now, let’s just hope we are wrong but respect the 8 teams I have higher in this ranking.
#8: Dallas Mavericks
It should be of very little surprise that 21-year-old Luka Dončić opens the season as the betting favorite to finally take the MVP crown from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season, Dončić was second in the NBA in usage percentage and sixth in offensive win shares and helped carry the Mavericks to a playoff appearance and a tough series against the Clippers, even without the services of Kristaps Porzingis in several of those games. With Porzingis set to missing the beginning of the season again due to injury, don’t expect the Mavericks to regress heavily on offense. In the 2019-20 season, they were the third-highest scoring team in the league. Now, with the acquisition of Josh Richardson, their perimeter defense should also see an uptick, making them a serious contender to win a playoff series. It’s quite simple: when you have the often best player on the floor, you’re going to warrant respect. Now, Dallas also has some depth on the bench with the smart pick of Tyrell Terry; they are borderline elite.
#7: Portland Trail Blazers
In the 2019-20 season, Portland had a bottom 5 defense in the NBA but used their top-tier background to #5 in the NBA in offense and carry them into an appearance in the playoffs. Now, losing Hassan Whiteside shouldn’t mean a whole lot to them with the full comeback of Jusuf Nurkić and the emergence of young studs like Gary Trent Jr., who balled out in the bubble. Add in the two-way athleticism of their new acquisitions, Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington, and they are no longer simply a scoring unit. Finally, factor in their acquisition of Boston favorite Enes Kanter and they are a well-rounded group that also border on elite status. Don't sleep on Terry Stotts as a betting steal for Coach of the Year, opening the season at +1800.
#6: Denver Nuggets
The first team in NBA history to overcome multiple 3-1 deficits in the same playoff run, the Nuggets earned their respect and showed the world that in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, they indeed have a true duo of young superstars, justifying Denver's appearance in the elite tier of the power rankings. Unfortunately, their offseason wasn't as active as a Denver fan should have hoped for and they lost the versatile Jerami Grant, which keeps them outside of the top 5 for now. However, if Michael Porter Jr. can finally the stud that Denver had envisioned when drafting him, the Nuggets can find themselves even higher on these rankings after some regular season action.
#5: Los Angeles Clippers
I think we can all agree that the Clippers underachieved after being arguably the most hyped team in the league the prior offseason. Playoff Paul Geroge is still not that dude and the Nuggets’ historic performance caused former Boston champion Doc Rivers to be sent out of town just one year into the Kawhi Leonard/PG era in LA. While Tyronn Lue is not necessarily The Answer (see what I did there, AI fans?), the acquisition of Serge Ibaka should help make up for the loss of reigning 6th Man of the YearMontrezl Harrell. I expect the Clippers to be a tad more prepared for a playoff run this year and they start off the season in the top 5.
#4: Milwaukee Bucks
After missing out on a possible acquisition of Bogdan Bogdanović due to breaking league protocol, the Bucks are now without a pick in the 2021 NBA draft. After successfully acquiring Jrue Holiday as a huge upgrade to their backcourt, they are also without multiple future picks. But the future is no priority for Milwaukee and their repeat MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s clearly creating a championship product right now. Yet again, the Bucks are serious contenders but the issue will be avoiding a matchup that could play out dangerously for them. Last season, it proved to be the Miami Heat, in the regular season and in their playoff series. While I have pencilled in Milwaukee as the #1 seed in the East again, my power rankings value their shot at a title and I could see both the East teams higher in my ranking having the advantage against Giannis’ limited playoff pedigree.
#3: Miami Heat
The ultimate underdog story of the NBA last season, the Miami Heat rode their coaching, depth, and starpower to an Eastern conference championship. Their new superstar Jimmy Butler proved that he deserves the respect of a top 10 player in the NBA and their recent draft picks proved that Pat Riley is a mastermind—Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson were just some of the name that made the Heat a threat to beat anybody in the playoff series. In fact, they were the only team to win multiple games in a playoff series against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers and they did so with massive injuries in the finals.
The message is clear; even though the Heat were the #5 seed and were only the #15 offense and the #10 defense in the regular season, it was their team play and season-long development that made them a group perfectly built for the playoffs. Meanwhile in the offseason, they did not lose a step. While they lost the versatile Jae Crowder, they added another former Celtic in a low-risk/high-reward move for Avery Bradley. While they lost the athleticism of Derrick Jones Jr., they added the veteran experience of Moe Harkless and added another defensive monster in the draft in Precious Achiuwa. While the Heat may run into a tough matchup in the playoffs making it quite the challenge to appear in the finals again, there’s no evidence that they cannot. For now, they deserve respect as one of the biggest threats in the sport.
#2: Brooklyn Nets
Steve Kerr watched the Nets huge preseason win over the Celtics, said it should be "scary for the league" how Brooklyn looks. Said Kevin Durant looks "exactly the same."
The one team that I think has an excellent chance of taking down the Heat? The star-studded Brooklyn Nets. You may not want to hear it but the duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is one of the best in the NBA. Both have had elite careers in both the regular season and playoffs and in the preseason, they showcased that they will likely not have major issues playing with each other. Their head coach Steve Nash, who has no experience coaching in the NBA, will be put to the test with an interesting mix of bench talent so their floor is modest enough to acknowledge. However, with the championship pedigree in their starting lineup and the offensive prowess of their secondary options, their ceiling is the NBA Finals—and dare I say, even a chance at taking down the clear best team in the NBA.
#1: Los Angeles Lakers
Speaking of the clear best team in the NBA, it’s still the Lakers. If you think LeBron James and Anthony Davis is not the best duo in the NBA right now, you’re probably lying to yourself out of irrational hatred. It’s true and that’s not debatable. Add in the incredible offseason they just had and it’s not a hot take to say that they got better since their championship. Lost Danny Green, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo? Big whoop, let’s just add two 6th Man of the Year candidates in Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell. Need some more insurance so we can load-manage in the regular season? Give us some veterans in Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol as well. This team just got much easier to coach.
Barring major injuries, I expect the Lakers to be the favorite but the Nets or Heat could have something to say about it in what should be an incredible appearance in the NBA Finals. The #1 spot in this ranking was a layup though.