Though the experience of the NBA bubble may be fresh in our minds, the 2020-21 NBA season is right around the corner. Yes, this Tuesday, Dec. 22, NBA action will return and all 30 NBA teams will play an abbreviated 72-game season in a battle for a spot in the playoffs. So, now it’s time to see where each team falls after a busy offseason of free agent signings, trades and coaching changes. This week I will be sorting all 30 teams into five different categories based on their talent-level, their depth, their coaching, their ceilings and their floors. The first category is “title contenders.” Let’s break it down:
Note: The NBA is adding a “Play-In Tournament” that has the 7-10 seeds in each conference playing for the final two spots in the playoffs. That being said, when I say “playoffs,” I am referring to the final eight teams from each conference that will play in the official postseason.
Title contenders: These are the teams that are currently built to win championships. Anything but a title is a failure for these squads.
Los Angeles Lakers — I know they just won a championship, but this genuinely feels like the first time in the LeBron James era that the Lakers will have a legitimately “good” roster outside of the King. Sure, a lot of defense went out the door with the departures of Dwight Howard, Javale McGee, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green. However, the additions of reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and that award’s runner-up in Dennis Schroder gives LA some much-needed scoring depth behind LeBron and Anthony Davis. Add in the signing of Marc Gasol and the emergence of 2019 second round pick Talen Horton-Tucker in this year’s preseason and the Lakers look even better than last year. They are the heavy favorites to repeat as champions.
Los Angeles Clippers — Someone could (and probably will) write a book someday about what went wrong behind the scenes for last year’s Clippers team. The chemistry issues were obvious, the leadership was poor and the defense never quite became the juggernaut it could have given their personnel. All that drama ultimately led to LA allowing a 3-1 comeback to the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs and firing the long-time head coach Doc Rivers. There’s a lot of baggage with the Clippers that should scare away bettors … but they still have Kawhi Leonard. It goes (rightfully) unnoticed because of the Game 7 collapse against Denver, but prior to that, Kawhi had played 12 games of near-perfect playoff basketball for the Clippers and is only a year removed from a title and a Finals MVP with Toronto in 2019. With Paul George, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac returning and Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard being added to the fold under a new head coach in Ty Lue, the Clippers have a real chance to do damage in the West. Losing Montrezl Harrell to the cross-town Lakers certainly hurts though.
Milwaukee Bucks — I would like to dispute any narrative that Giannis Antetokounmpo “struggled” in the playoffs while averaging 26.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists per-game in 9 games of injury-riddled action. It’s even more impressive when considering the fact that head coach Mike Budenholzer never played the back-to-back MVP more than 37 minutes once throughout the postseason. Khris Middleton also gets a lot of heat in his role as Milwaukee’s No. 2 option, but he is an efficient scorer and solid defender who’s probably just been asked to do too much, so I’ll cut him some slack. I think that by sending Eric Bledsoe and (way too many) draft picks to New Orleans in exchange for Jrue Holiday, the Bucks may have finally solved their “playoff problem.” While Bledsoe was always stellar in the regular season, he was nowhere to be found when his team needed him most. His replacement in Holiday, however, once outperformed his then-teammate Anthony Davis en route to a four-game sweep of the Portland Trailblazers in the 2018 playoffs. It’s a small sample size for sure and a bit outdated as well, but Holiday is a better player than Bledsoe and should finally be able to give Milwaukee a reliable third scorer and secondary ball handler to take some of the burden off the Greek Freak’s shoulders. It’s championship-or-bust for the Bucks now.
Brooklyn Nets — Of the four teams in this category, I have by FAR the least faith in the Brooklyn Nets. Their best player in Kevin Durant hasn’t played competitive basketball in over 18 months, and Kyrie Irving has been a part of more than his fair share of locker room combustions. It’s all a lot for first-time head coach Steve Nash to handle. With all that said, they are on paper the most talented team in the East. They have sharpshooter Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Jarret Allen to go along with Landry Shamet coming over from the Clippers all locked and loaded behind Durant and Irving. Do I trust the leadership core in Brooklyn to make this roster flow like a river? No. But do I believe that this team absolutely has the talent to make a run at a championship? I’d be a fool not to.
The next category, which is teams that are “one piece away,” will be released tomorrow.