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. Today’s category is teams that are “one piece away.” 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.
One Piece Away: These are the teams who are just a cut below the true contenders. They will need to have some major improvement in order to get over the hump.
Toronto Raptors — Right now Nick Nurse is the best coach in the NBA. So, as long as he has a competent roster at his disposal, the ultra-pesky Raptors are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Yes, the Raptors currently lack a true superstar, but they are as solid as they come in terms of defensive depth. They are essentially returning the same roster that just took the much more talented Boston Celtics to 7 games in the second round while Pascal Siakam was mired in the worst shooting slump of his career. They did lose Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, but they brought in Aron Baynes to alleviate some of that pain, and Gasol looked a step (or three) slow in the playoffs anyways. Losing Ibaka hurts, but Toronto is a well-oiled machine and should be fine in his absence with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Siakam all healthy and ready to go. If OG Anunoby takes a Siakam-like step with his offensive game, Toronto is going to give the Eastern Conference fits. Otherwise, they’ll likely need to find a way to acquire another star in order to truly contend for a title.
Denver Nuggets — It’s hard to imagine the Nuggets’ season going any better in 2021 than it did in 2020, when they became the first team to ever come back from two separate 3-1 deficits in order to get to the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, the only way to come back from being 3-1 down twice is to fall to 3-1 down twice, and they frankly looked overmatched in the Conference Finals against the Lakers. Luckily though, Jamal Murray appears to finally be the elite scoring threat Denver has been missing in years past. With Murray and Nikola Jokic leading the way, the Nuggets are almost a lock to finish top 3 in the West. The problem is an already defensively thin team lost their best wing-defender in Jerami Grant and their offense isn’t quite prolific enough to compensate over the course of a full postseason run. It’s very possible that Michael Porter Jr. (or maybe Bol Bol) takes a massive step and gives Denver a legit 1-2-3 punch, but for now the Nuggets will need another star to come to Denver before they win a championship.
Miami Heat — That “Heat culture” is real. The Jimmy Butler-led Heat made it all the way to the finals as a 5th seed that didn’t even have a true superstar on the roster. Butler, Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodola brought the defense while Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson shot the lights out. It was an intoxicating mix of intensity, chemistry and clutchness that culminated in a Finals berth against Lebron James and the Lakers. Sadly for Heat fans, Miami came up short in the Finals and one has to wonder if they’ll be able to replicate their brilliant playoff performance again. Sure, the injuries to Dragic and Adebayo in the Finals were a big factor, but the truth is the Heat needed to be perfect to have a chance against LA. You have to love what the Heat have, and they should be very good again this year too with essentially the same roster, but they’ll probably need a little more star power to get the job done. They seem to know this too, as they’ve positioned themselves well to go after the big free agents next offseason.
Golden State Warriors — Let’s call the 2019-20 season a mulligan for the Warriors. They lost Kevin Durant to free agency, Klay Thompson missed the whole season and Steph Curry played only a handful of games. As a result, the team struggled and Draymond Green appeared checked out from beginning to end. But the Warriors knew last year was always going to be a transition year so ending up with a high draft pick was more than welcome. And just when they were on the verge of re-opening their championship window they got the devastating news Thompson had torn his ACL again and would miss the whole 2021 season. So no, the Warriors likely will not be winning a title this year, but I still love how they’ve retooled the roster. A starting lineup of Curry, Green, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kevon Looney is no joke, and having Eric Paschall, Kent Bazemore, Brad Wanamaker and No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman coming off the bench means the Warriors are deep for the first time since before Durant came to town. When this team gets Klay back, look out.
Boston Celtics – The Celtics have one of, if not the best starting lineup in the NBA. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis give Boston a ridiculous amount of two-way play that other teams just can’t match. The problem is, that’s it. They lost Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets, Brad Wanamaker to the Warriors and Enes Kanter to the Portland Trailblazers and probably didn’t do enough make up for it. Tristan Thompson can more than replace Kanter’s production and Jeff Teague might even be an upgrade on Wanamaker, but Hayward, who made spot-starts for Boston, was a big loss from an already thin second unit. The Celtics more than most can’t survive an injury to one of their starters and might need to look for outside help to sure up the bench. Even when fully healthy though, Tatum, Brown and Walker all need to be more consistent offensively than they were in the playoffs if they want to make a run at a title.
Philadelphia 76ers – Suddenly the ‘6ers make sense. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are living proof that not all superstars need to be knock-down three-point shooters. And yes, those two are superstars. Luckily for them, they finally have teammates who might allow them to show it. Now, instead of having Al Horford clogging the lanes for Embiid and Simmons while Seth Curry and Danny Green can do the shooting. And hey, maybe the newly hired Doc Rivers can finally tell Tobias Harris to hang out behind the three-point line and give Embiid and Simmons room to operate inside. They’re not world-beaters just yet, but this team took a massive step in the right direction this offseason.