Future Power Rankings: How All 30 Teams Are Set Up for the Next 3 Years
Peering into the future of NBA teams is a task fraught with eventual wrongness.
Windows to win have become ephemeral. So many franchises endure shake-ups every two or three years. Some of these overhauls are predictable. Others are relentlessly random and immediate, making it impossible to look more than a season, maybe two, ahead without subjecting yourself to an orgy of errors.
Anyone else now officially pumped to power-rank the next three years of all 30 teams, beginning with the 2020-21 season?
Everything under the sun is up for consideration. Current standing, the age of core pieces, the capacity for internal development, impending free agents, draft-pick equity, trade assets, cap sheets, free-agency appeal, coaching situations, front office track records—everything.
Uncertainty will weigh into each decision, but the factual will take priority over the hypothetical. Having a nice stash of draft picks and trade assets is great. We can't assume they're parlayed into stars. Giannis Antetokounmpo's supermax eligibility and potential 2021 free agency matter. We will not default to the total undoing of the Milwaukee Bucks. And so on and so forth.
Championship proximity is also in play, which means that conference affiliation will have impacts of varying degrees. But the latter won't be treated as a defining factor. The Orlando Magic will not curry favor over the Phoenix Suns solely because the East is the East.
Keep our timeline in mind. Three years is an eternity for championship shelf lives but not for organizations approaching or schlepping through the early stages of a rebuild. Some franchises would finish a lot better against a five-year outlook.
Context will be provided throughout, with a focus on what could happen to drag a team lower or catapult it higher. The final rankings should be viewed through our prevailing question: If you have to take the next three years, in sum, of any franchise, who ya got?
(Note: Special thanks to Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal and Bryan Toporek for serving as sounding boards and voices of reason. Their input played a large role in shaping the final results, and as such, they've asked—begged, even—for any and all complaints to be directed their way.)
30. Charlotte Hornets
Housing a few intriguing players isn't enough to spare the Charlotte Hornets from this spot. They're still searching for The Guy.
Devonte' Graham's off-the-dribble escapades are important to generating offense for not only himself, but everyone around him. Charlotte's offensive rating this season improved by 11.2 points per 100 possessions—the sixth-largest swing among players to log at least 500 minutes. That doesn't make him an adequate lifeline. He is overstretched in that context. His foray into 2021 free agency only complicates both his short- and long-term value to the franchise.
No one else on the roster comes remotely close to arming the Hornets with a central building block. Primary initiators or one-man defensive systems are the best candidates. Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington are neither. Ditto for Malik Monk and Terry Rozier. Cody Zeller is impactful when healthy but more interesting as an expiring-contract trade chip.
This year's draft pick, in all likelihood, won't be the answer. Charlotte has just over a 25 percent chance of sneaking into the top four. Near-max cap space can be used to beef up the roster, but only one franchise-turning talent is slated to hit the market, and he's a cinch to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis).
Many will be inclined to stick the Hornets ahead of the Detroit Pistons. That's not indefensible. But Detroit has the higher ceiling next season if Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard and Derrick Rose remain healthy. That's a big, fat, frigging if.
Charlotte could evade dead last by virtue of a tidier cap sheet. Nicolas Batum (player option) is entering the final year of his contract, and Terry Rozier, though overpaid, provides catch-and-shoot marksmanship and secondary playmaking while earning roughly half of what Griffin takes home. Detonating this roster is inherently easier. Hooray. That matters more to the bigger picture. The Pistons are at once closer to competing in the East and finding their rebuilding point of origin.
29. Detroit Pistons
Splitting hairs allowed the Pistons to stave off a last-place finish. Their situation is comparable to the Hornets' own, in that they have neither a blue-chip cornerstone nor clear, sustainable path out of sub-mediocrity.
Next season has the potential to be a lot better than this one, without committing to a top-down reboot. A base of Bruce Brown, Sekou Doumbouya, Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Derrick Rose, Tony Snell, Christian Wood (Early Bird unrestricted) and this year's draft pick (which will have 40-plus-percent chance of landing in the top four) can make a dent in the Eastern Conference—particularly when Detroit is among the scant few teams slated for meaningful-to-max room in free agency.
And yet, the absolute best version of next year's Pistons is...what? A fringe fifth seed? If that? And that's assuming they enjoy a boatload of good luck.
Griffin missed most of the year with left knee problems. Rose dealt with hip and ankle injuries. Kennard battled tendinitis in his knees. Wood is a free agent. The Pistons can pay him more than mid-level-exception money and still have cash left over to go biggish-game hunting, but which impact player is bolting for Detroit? Would a long-term investment in Evan Fournier (player option) or Fred VanVleet render this squad a postseason constant over the next three years?
Probably not. Sustainability is the Pistons' biggest hurdle after health. Brown, Kennard, Mykhailiuk, Rose and Snell will all be on new deals by 2021-22, and it could cost more than anticipated to retain Wood this offseason if the Hornets, New York Knicks or, wait for it, Miami Heat start sniffing around.
Relatively clean books can help Detroit steer into a redo. The two-year, $75.8 million balance on Griffin's contract should prove immovable without a sweetener now, but he'll be expiring next summer. And even if the Pistons have to ride out his deal, he's their lone cap-sheet gut punch.
That access to beginning anew, while paramount, doesn't say much about the next three years. Detroit is still looking for its face of the future. Maybe it's Doumbouya. Perhaps it's this year's pick. Or next season's first-rounder. The Pistons don't yet know. Nor do they have any extra bites at the apple to accelerate their direction. Their intent itself—to rebuild, or not to rebuild—is a mystery, even after dealing Andre Drummond. And not a feel-good one.
28. Washington Wizards
Mapping out the Washington Wizards' next three years is impossibly impossible without knowing what John Wall looks like coming off his left Achilles injury. A return to full form—or quasi-form—gives the franchise a rosier outlook.
Just how much rosier is debatable. Wall hasn't played in an NBA game since Dec. 26, 2018. He'll be away from a regular-season setting for around two years by the time he returns. The most optimistic projections of his future have to include, at the absolute shortest, a buffer season for him to regain his bearings.
Expecting Wall to be fine—again, a risk itself—doesn't entirely remove the Wizards from limbo. He's owed $132.9 million over the next three years (player option for 2022-23). Bradley Beal is on the books for another three years and $100.5 million (player option for 2022-23). Fleshing out the rest of the roster will be tedious.
Re-signing Davis Bertans would help facilitate a more immediate timeline. But paying something like $80 million to $95 million combined per year for him, Beal and Wall comes with limitations. Washington would need to hit on Rui Hachimura, this year's (projected) mid-lottery pick and additions on the margins, all while operating under the assumption that Beal and Wall amount to a championship-contending duo.
The Wizards are too far away from the league's top-most tier to hope a recalibrated version of the current nucleus takes them special places. That only increases the potential variance in their decision-making process. They're on rebuilding watch through next year's trade deadline, if not until 2021-22. Beal is young enough and under contract long enough to keep, but they could be blown away by an offer over the offseason or come to find he and post-injury Wall fast-track them toward a permanent stay in the middle.
Washington at least has a leg up in these proceedings over Charlotte and Detroit. Teams will be hot for Beal if and when he becomes available. His prospective return should set the Wizards up with the picks and prospects necessary to launch into a resource-heavy restart. The same cannot be said for the best or most expensive players on the Hornets and Pistons.
27. New York Knicks
The Knicks aren't stuck inside this bottom-five hellscape. They just don't deserve the benefit of the doubt needed to climb out of it.
RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson don't currently qualify as guiding lights. Barrett needs to be surrounded by more non-ball-dominant shooters to give his offensive creation a fair shake. Robinson needs to actually start and rack up around 30 minutes per game without fouling like whoa. Both players give the Knicks a shot at finding a springboard for their rebuild. Neither is there yet.
New York's other cornerstone opportunities are a mixed bag. Jumping up into the top four of this year's draft lottery would help—37.2 percent chance—and the team maintains control of all its own future firsts. The Dallas Mavericks 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (top-10 protection) picks are assets, either to keep or trade, but they won't fuel a reversal of fortunes on their own.
Flexible books will give the Knicks more cracks at righting the ship. They're not the "cool thing" in New York, but they can have max-room-and-then-some this offseason or possible dual-max slots, again, in 2021. Someone, or two someones, might eventually roll the dice on playing for a flagship organization, regardless of how prone it is to self-inflicting setbacks or who's at the very top of the operation.
Blockbuster trade possibilities are similarly in play. The Knicks have three additional firsts on top of their own across the next four drafts, a small stock of interesting seconds and a modest collection of prospects in Barrett, Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.
Loyalty to a singular vision is the wild card in all this, like always. The Knicks haven't yet dedicated themselves to a conventional rebuild that prioritizes youth, development and malleability. Their next coaching hire will say a whole lot about what comes next from new team president Leon Rose. Paying Tom Thibodeau would hint at an urgency to reinvent themselves now. Hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant Will Hardy or Philadelphia 76ers assistant Ime Udoka would suggest an uncharacteristic level of patience.
Absent a discernible direction, the Knicks forfeit status to more stable situations. They've avoided locking themselves into any one scenario, but to what end? Leaning into an unhurried renovation would be admirable but consume much of the next three years. Angling for star free agents or trade acquisitions would be rife with peril—there's a difference between dealing for Chris Paul and Bradley Beal—and assures New York of nothing.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers
Like many others before them, the Cleveland Cavaliers are careening in a direction that is equal parts unknown and unremarkable.
Conventional wisdom suggests they're in the early stages of a rebuild. They also employ players with warring timelines.
Kevin Love turns 32 in September, is owed $91.5 million over the next three years and may not be movable unless the Cavs accept a bare-bottom return. The Portland Trail Blazers tried getting him for expiring contracts at the February trade deadline, according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd.
Andre Drummond is less of a long-term contradiction, with only one year left on his deal (player option), but acquiring him remains a mostly puzzling move for a franchise that should be going even younger. Perhaps Cleveland views him as a flier. He came cheap enough to be one. The Cavs still need primary building blocks or sidekicks with a higher ceiling. Having Drummond doesn't guarantee a defensive uptick, and his offensive utility may be too traditional for a center position tracking toward players with more outside gravity and coordinated floor games.
Counting on Cleveland to continue with a more detailed approach doesn't much change its not-too-distant future. Its assortment of youngsters is better than mismash but wants for blue-chip capital.
Can Collin Sexton (his shooting is for real) or Kevin Porter Jr. (his from-scratch creation is for real) be the best or second-best player on a really good team? Where does Darius Garland fit into the pecking order? Will the Cavs end up with another guard in the draft? What's a reasonable outcome for Dylan Windler?
Cleveland isn't stuck. Love's contract isn't back-breaking, and moving him for expiring money would give the team incredibly clean books ahead of 2021 free agency—space it could use to throw out aggressive offers to restricted free agents or take chances on the trade market.
For all the Cavs have, though, they remain in blind talent-acquisition mode. Their state of uncertainty will endure not just until they deal Love, but unless they find a player—or identify one of their own—to head up their ongoing reconstruction.
25. San Antonio Spurs
If it's any consolation to those incensed by the Spurs' placement, they're artificially dragged down by playing in Western Conference.
Other cap sheets are messier. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan (player option), Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will all be off the ledger by the summer of 2021, at which time San Antonio could have max space available while floating Derrick White's cap hold and even if Jakob Poeltl re-ups as a restricted free agent this offseason.
Prospect pools get shallower, too. Dejounte Murray remains All-Defensive caliber and will become a huffing-with-anger-face-emoji problem on offense if he trims down his turnovers in transition and can shoulder more volume from beyond the arc and on his pull-up mid-rangers. White will never take ownership of a team, but he fills in the gaps—he could also stand to up his long-range volume—and plays a brand of defense those watching can feel.
Lonnie Walker IV has the offensive confidence of a higher-level shot creator. Keldon Johnson's practice footage has yours truly hashtag intrigued. They should have a lottery pick in this year's draft.
Really, the Spurs appear to be to approaching an organic reset point. If they don't deconstruct what they have this offseason, it'll be done for them next summer—barring any ginormous investments (read: trades) before then.
Steering into that regeneration beats where they are now: entrenched in the middle, not far enough on the outskirts of the playoff conversation to declare themselves rebuilding and hardly good enough to justify doubling down on what's already in place. But beginning a new(ish) era, either by default or deliberation, comes at the expense of now.
Unless the Spurs trade themselves into an alternative franchise star, they're not set up to leave their usual imprint over the next three years—especially in a conference where nearly every team can talk themselves into chasing a playoff berth each season.
24. Chicago Bulls
Slotting the Chicago Bulls 24th simultaneously feels too high and too low.
On the one hand, they were billed as potential playoff darlings this season, and their utter belly flop—aided in part by injuries—doesn't strip them of that consideration entering next year. A rotation with Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn (restricted), Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. (player option), Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Thaddeus Young, another lottery pick and, say, a wing signed with the mid-level exception has a .500ish-or-better look to it.
On the other hand, flattering projections rest on the Bulls remaining intact. That's far from a given. New executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas will invariably leave his stamp on Chicago's direction. It doesn't sound like that will include replacing head coach Jim Boylen, at least not right away. That leaves the roster itself.
Tinkering can come in many forms. Letting Dunn walk in restricted free agency or shopping the extension-eligible Markkanen aren't quite extremes. (Losing Dunn's defense might be.) Selling high on Carter or LaVine is more drastic. (White should theoretically be untouchable.) Gauging the market for Satoransky and Young falls somewhere in the middle. Neither is irreplaceable. More established veterans are also integral to outperforming expectations.
Forecasting total demolition isn't in the spirit of this exercise. The Bulls have enough questions on their roster that it doesn't need to be.
Has Markkanen peaked, or does he have another level of shot-making somewhere in his bag? Will Carter be more involved, and assertive, on offense? Is White's supernova closing kick a harbinger of his eventual normal? How long until he sustains that pace if so? What in the hell should be expected from Porter?
What happens to the roster after next year, when Markkanen (restricted) and Porter are scheduled for free agency, and Satoransky ($5 million guaranteed) and Young ($6 million) can technically join them? And let's not discount the Boylen factor. Players don't seem to get along with him, and he appears bent on forcing his personnel to play a certain way at both ends rather than tailoring approaches to their strengths. The longer he remains in place with the current roster, the more combustible this entire situation seems.
23. Orlando Magic
Nothing particularly sinister is holding the Orlando Magic back. They don't have an unsightly deal on the books, even if they invested heavily in non-stars, and the East, as currently constructed, won't soon be displacing them from the playoff discussion.
A finite range of outcomes over the next three years does more damage than anything. Orlando has the option of remaining on its postseason treadmill or fireselling itself into a restart but doesn't enjoy a line of sight to contention.
Nikola Vucevic won't ever be the best player in a postseason series. Aaron Gordon has improved his decision-making as a passer but doesn't have the shot-making oomph required of a No. 1. A healthy Jonathan Isaac is a defensive system unto himself—and in the same boat. The Magic didn't really have him initiating pick-and-rolls prior to his left knee injury, and he's posting an effective field-goal percentage of just 41.9 on pull-up jumpers.
Tasking Mo Bamba with that burden is a fool's errand. He, too, lacks that from-scratch pizzazz, and his place in Orlando's hierarchy will be capped so long as Gordon, Isaac and Vooch are around. Markelle Fultz is a nice surprise; he's banging in a solid 45.1 percent of his pull-up twos. But he doesn't take or make many threes or get to the foul line nearly often enough. Evan Fournier (player option) tops out as a No. 2.
Failing the sudden emergence of an in-house superstar, the Magic must figure out how to acquire one. Good luck to them. Free agents aren't descending upon Orlando, and they'll have a tighter cap outlook if they bankroll new deals for Fournier and Fultz (extension-eligible).
Turning to the trade market is a more promising venture, albeit it not airtight. Superstars always become available, but the Magic's asset equity, like their place in the league, is middling. Does any combination of Bamba, Fultz, Gordon, Chuma Okeke and this year's pick anchor a package for Bradley Beal? Would making Isaac available do the trick? How good is Orlando if a similar pursuit costs both him and Gordon, plus other stuff? What's Terrence Ross' value (three years, $37.5 million) in these scenarios?
Orlando's position is not novel. Other teams are in the market for a best-player-on-a-contender backbone. The Magic's spot is just more binding than most. They don't have the incumbent talent to groom a star or the shoddy record to luck into him via the draft and might not possess the assets necessary to trade for one. Without exposing themselves to extremes, they seem stuck.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Higher highs ferry the Minnesota Timberwolves above a handful of counterparts. Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the 10 to 15 best players in the league, and D'Angelo Russell has the bandwidth to carry fringe-star expectations with his proficiency on pull-up three-pointers.
Building a dangerous offense around these two won't be problem. Their pick-and-roll chemistry will be seamless, and they can each float lineups on their own if surrounded by enough shooting. And with both on the right side of 25 (until November), the best basketball has yet to come from either.
All of which makes a bottom-10 finish ring hollow. The Timberwolves are betting that Russell and Towns equate to more. They wouldn't have given the Golden State Warriors their 2021 first-round pick with only top-three protection otherwise.
That is a demonstrative gamble. Russell and Towns make it tough to cobble together a league-average defense—KAT, for the record, isn't a lost cause—and Minnesota won't have much more than the mid-level exception to improve the team in the coming years with max money committed to its stars. A window of opportunity may present itself next summer, when James Johnson comes off the ledger, but that flexibility will dissipate if the Timberwolves re-sign restricted free agents Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez this year.
Someone on the inside must make a leap to maximize the Russell-Towns partnership, and Minnesota isn't teeming with candidates. Beasley has the plug-and-play offense with a dab of off-the-dribble flair but not the size to lock down bigger wings. Josh Okogie has the defensive staying power but not the jump shot.
Hitting on this year's pick, which has a 40.1 percent chance of landing in the top three and 66.9 percent chance of placing in the top five, will be imperative. So, too, is Jarrett Culver's development. His offensive struggles are a concern but not the end of the world. He shored up his efficiency toward the end of his season without having to dominate the ball.
More important is his defensive range. He spent a great deal of time guarding 1s, 2s and 3s, and he held opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to a sub-47 effective field-goal percentage while grading out as a manageable negative in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus. That's not too shabby for a rookie. Can he handle covering the starriest wings? Expand his position range to include 4s? The Timberwolves will struggle to outperform this spot unless he does.
21. Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox gives the Sacramento Kings the basis for something better. Some of the talent around him—Harrison Barnes, Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted), Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes—lends itself to a superior three-year outlook.
Anyone buying into the Kings' midseason about-face will also call for a more favorable position. From Jan. 24 up until the league's March 11 suspension, they went 13-7 with offensive and defensive ratings that ranked inside the top 15. Imagine what they could do with a more available Holmes, or a fully integrated and healthy Marvin Bagley III.
Still, ranking Sacramento any higher demands a certain leap of faith—a belief that what's in place is good enough or promising enough to lug the franchise back to annual playoff contention.
Paint me skeptical, or at least unsettled. This exact version of the Kings is about to get uncomfortably expensive. Barnes and Hield will make a combined $48.6 million next season. Re-signing Bogdanovic should take that total into the 60s. De'Aaron Fox is extension-eligible and will probably command the max. Holmes is a free agent in 2021. Nemanja Bjelica, too.
Sacramento needn't consign itself to the tax for the sake of continuity, but keeping its five best players beyond next season will cost more than $100 million. That doesn't leave a lot of margin for error. The Kings would need to capitalize on mid-first-round picks and cheaper free agents. Trades can tilt perception of the future, but short of dangling Fox, they lack blockbuster magnets unless a team is smitten with paying Hield a boatload of money or Bagley's future.
The latter, for now, represents Sacramento's biggest swing piece. Bagley panning out as a viable No. 2 or No. 3 changes a whole lot, if not everything. Whether he gets there is a matter of availability and sketchy fit.
Can he hit more threes, like he did at the tail end of his rookie season? Turn extra touches into more scoring opportunities for those around him? Guard 4s on defense without getting torched? Or 5s without being bulldozed? Certain questions might've yielded answers if Bagley were available to play in Disney World. He's not. After thumb and left foot issues cost him most of this season, he suffered a right foot sprain that has ruled him out until next year. Sacramento's immediate future is much tougher to reconcile because of it.
20. Oklahoma City Thunder
Everybody who has subjected themselves to the torturous task of semi-regularly reading anything I write knows how much this guts me. The Oklahoma City Thunder are playing through a sweetheart year, posing more of a threat in the Western Conference than they have any right to do even if you never expected them to pull the rip cord at the trade deadline.
These Cinderella vibes aren't built to last. This year seems like a detour en route to the more comprehensive rebuild the departures of Paul George and Russell Westbrook were supposed to signal.
Chris Paul has a second-team All-NBA case. He's also 35 and owed $85.6 million over the next two years. His play this season—proof that views of his decline were not just exaggerated, but achingly premature—may be the reminder Oklahoma City needs to flip him without including a sweetener or settling exclusively for cap relief.
Let the record show I want to be wrong. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a fringe All-Star now. Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are stars among non-stars. Has anyone rechecked how well Dennis Schroder is shooting from literally everywhere?
Sentimentalists (me) and suckers for outsized group performances (also me) will endorse the Thunder going in the opposite direction of a controlled demolition. Keep CP3. Re-sign Gallo. Scrounge up a wing with the mid-level exception. And, yes, dangle some combination of your could-be 15 first-round picks between now and 2026, along with salary filler, in packages for potentially available impact players.
Picture Bradley Beal on this team. Hell, picture Gary Harris or Josh Richardson on this team. Oklahoma City is a heartbeat away from being more than a plucky-veteran irritant. This verdict will look ultra-ultra dumb if general manager Sam Presti enters the offseason as a buyer.
Realism starts to set in right about now. The Thunder are in the tax this season. They can re-sign Gallinari without re-entering it next year, but Adams and Schroder are set to hit free agency in 2021. Sustaining this core will be wildly expensive for the next two years, during which time an actual drop-off from Paul is eminently plausible.
Expand this scope to five years and the Thunder finish waaay higher. They'd have ample time to use and develop some of their zillion first-round picks. They're not as assured of success in the more immediate term. The sensible presumption is that they'll soon go younger and seek to build around Gilgeous-Alexander, and a three-year lookahead isn't nearly long enough to heavily weight their draft-asset stockpile.
19. Indiana Pacers
Another super difficult decision. The Indiana Pacers have weathered so much over the past two-plus years that it's borderline disingenuous to doubt their standing.
Victor Oladipo's future hangs over their outlook like a thick fog. They're waiting on an extended look at him following last season's ruptured right quad—his offense started to tick up before the NBA shut its doors—and to see whether he stays with the team beyond next season.
Viewing him as the franchise linchpin, and then paying him accordingly, is both necessary and high-risk. His 2017-18 season remains a masterpiece, but he's spent more time playing like a non-superstar. At least part of his long-term value has remained unresolved, and his quad injury only exacerbates the issue. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote:
"Oladipo’s game is built on athleticism. He’s a good but not great shooter (a career 35.0 percent shooter from three and 79.3 percent from the free throw line) without the size of the league’s best wings. The seventh-year guard will have to reinvent himself if he can’t finish through contact like he could before his injury. That was the biggest thing missing in his brief stint this season. He shot 40.5 percent within three feet of the rim and averaged 3.2 free throw attempts per game, below his averages in those categories (60.2 and 3.9) in 2018-19. Durability is also a concern given his size and style of play. Slashing guards usually don’t age well."
Keeping Oladipo has to be the default plan. The Pacers are 32-20 in games he doesn't play and outscoring opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions (67th percentile) without him on the floor, but they're not equipped to truly rattle the East independent of him. Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner don't have best-player-in-a-postseason-series cachet. A fully healthy Oladipo does.
Tough decisions await Indiana even if his return and subsequent performance are non-issues. Brogdon, Oladipo, Sabonis, Turner and T.J. Warren will cost $91.3 million combined next season. That aggregate commitment would swell as part of re-signing Oladipo. (Warren's 2022 free agency is suddenly interesting.)
The Pacers are not plodding forward with four fringe-max salaries on their ledger. Their apex remains in flux even if they do. The Sabonis-Turner front line specifically has found ways to exist but isn't the cleanest fit. Indiana's offensive rating is in the 27th percentile when the two play together. Oladipo's style is mission critical to optimizing that fit but not a cure-all.
Skulking around the trade market may be the Pacers' only avenue for dramatic improvement. They don't profile as a cap-space team anytime soon, and their best shot at in-house leaps lies with Aaron Holiday and Goga Bitadze, plus Jeremy Lamb's eventual return from a torn left ACL.
Indiana is much less likely to blow it up compared to other teams. Starting over wasn't the priority when moving Paul George. The Pacers don't figure to hit reset if they deal inferior players. And hey, maybe this underrates their coaching and knack for coaxing quality defense out of just about anyone. They're still toeing a fine line. Even if Oladipo's future doesn't remain a real concern, their capacity to bolster an increasingly expensive core will be.
18. Portland Trail Blazers
This is not an indictment of the Blazers' 2019-20 campaign. Injuries ravaged their roster. They are a better team, right now, than their record and don't face the bleak outlook an 18th-place finish might infer.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are under contract through at least 2023-24 and, for now, guarantee the Blazers an annual spot inside the postseason discussion. Getting a full year of Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg) may turn them into playoff formalities. They have some intriguing young players in Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.
Portland is also one year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance. That should matter. But the road back is peppered with landmines.
Chief among them: What does Nurkic look like upon his return from injury? He was the Blazers' second-best player for much of last year. His recovery is their immediate outlook's climacteric: that difference between having a trio good enough to navigate the West and working from a severe disadvantage.
Secondary concerns also mean more to Portland than most others. Paying Lillard and McCollum all but guarantees the team won't have more than the mid-level exception and mid-to-late first-rounders to shore up the rotation until at least 2022 or 2023.
Getting more out of Collins (can he space the floor in volume?) and Simons (can they overlook what's been an unimpressive, if genuinely bad, year from him?) is uber important. Finding ways to plug the wing rotation beyond Trent, post-Achilles-injury Rodney Hood and ebbing vets like Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza ($1.8 million guarantee for next season) is up there as well.
Relying on the trade market would have its merits. The Blazers can piece together offers with a mix of Collins, Simons, future picks and salary filler. But the player archetype they need most—a high-ceiling wing—isn't readily available. And they may not have the asset juice when that changes.
Make no mistake: Prime Lillard ensures a purposeful three-year window. Contending for home-court advantage is on the table in almost any given season. Completing that final leap into authentic, undeniable title contention is a different story.
17. Phoenix Suns
Impassioned pleas—or enraged demands—to move the Suns higher will be duly noted. Their bottom-15 position is less about the team's makeup and more about the inbuilt uncertainty attached to any Western Conference organization existing as a non-powerhouse.
Devin Booker is firmly in the top-20-to-25 discussion. Most of the attention will be paid to his scoring and rising efficiency, and appropriately so. But he's turned into a practical primary initiator—someone who doesn't just headline the offense but powers it. That he's made so many strides as a setup man over the past three seasons is beyond impressive given the personnel Phoenix has generally put around him.
Investing in Booker's next three years is a no-brainer. Entering the All-NBA discourse is not out of the question. Placing the Suns lower just because he might still be unhappy they failed to sign D'Angelo Russell overstates his leverage. He's wrapping up the first season of a five-year pact. Phoenix cannot be coerced into moving him before, really, 2022 or 2023.
Trusting the powers that be to do right by Booker is the shakier gambit. The Suns have assembled a not-good-not-awful-could-be-good-next-season roster. How they react to this progress is anyone's guess.
Will they overpay Aron Baynes despite having Deandre Ayton? Fail to add another ball-handling scorer to pilot the offense when Booker catches a breather? Mishandle the opening at power forward? They'll be hard-pressed to operate under the cap this offseason but could be flush in 2021 depending on how they spend their money now. That is at the same time intriguing and terrifying.
On the bright side, Phoenix's odds of outperforming its placement are mostly tied to current players rather than might-be draft, free-agency and trade targets. Ayton tops that list. He has tightened up his defense, both in space and around the rim, and is someone who can put up 20 points within the flow of the offense. The Suns could theoretically have another top-25 player if he introduces a face-up game and a three-point shot.
Mikal Bridges should be evaluated in a similar vein. He's not star material, but he has the chops to be the next best thing. He'll enter All-Defensive discussions once his playing time ramps up. His offense is more of wild card. He needs to maintain his late-season three-point clip on higher volume while remaining a constant presence. His passing out of drives is an X-factor on its own.
To say the Suns are prepared to make a monstrous jump still feels too ambitious. They're outscoring opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions when Ayton, Booker, Bridges and Ricky Rubio play together, but the most glowing interpretations of their roster, which include Kelly Oubre Jr.'s return, continue to have them two players short.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
Cementing their spot in the Western Conference's playoff picture this season would not automatically validate the Memphis Grizzlies' immediate future. Again: The West is the West is the West.
Next year could very well end in a lottery appearance. (Sending the Boston Celtics this year's pick would ease that pain.) The Grizzlies exploited a power vacuum this year. Injuries butchered the fate of the Blazers, Warriors and even New Orleans Pelicans. All of them should be healthier next season. To convolute matters further, not one of the Kings, Suns or Timberwolves projects to fall off.
Putting the Grizzlies here is a hedge against that Western Conference hierarchy. It is also a nod to their authenticity. They could easily tumble lower if this season were a flash in the pan. It's not.
Ja Morant deserves a lion's share of the credit. He isn't just a star on the rise. He has the makings of an MVP candidate. Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other first-year players to put up 20 points and eight assists per game, and Morant's doing so with a true shooting percentage above the league average.
Memphis firms up its three-year outlook with a frontcourt rotation worth setting in stone. Jaren Jackson Jr. is letting 'er rip from three. Brandon Clarke has somehow made more floaters than he's attempted and throws ridiculous passes. Jonas Valanciunas provides both brute force down low and floor spacing beyond the arc.
The defensive ceiling on this trio is a little spotty but not red-alert troubling. The Clarke-Valanciunas pairing has earned more of a look, and Jackson, for all his fouling and rebounding struggles, has the length and lateral gait to be disruptive both at the 4 and 5—though it might turn out he needs to stay at power forward.
Having three spots in the lineup occupied by above replacement-level players is an enormous victory, particularly when one of them is an MVP candidate in training. The Grizzlies might have more than that. Count me among the Dillon Brooks skeptics, but between him, Kyle Anderson and De'Anthony Melton (Early Bird restricted), Memphis' rotation has depth to it. Something's gone right when Gorgui Dieng is your fourth-best big and Tyus Jones your fourth-best guard, and Josh Jackson has played well enough, mostly in the G League, to earn consideration in free agency.
Justise Winslow stands to be this team's tipping point. Morant can play off him without issue. If he, in turn, can down enough of his threes to play off his point guard, the Grizzlies have the exact sort of wing presence they've longed for since the Grint 'n' Grind era.
Also of note: Memphis could have max space in 2021 without breaking up the crux of its current roster. Bigger markets are all the rage in free-agency conversations, and the Grizzlies cannot bank on luring stars. But they should, at bottom, appeal to players in the next tier down. And with so much already in place, they may not need much else.
15. Utah Jazz
Consider this a dose of skepticism about the Utah Jazz's staying power.
Their timeline is awfully fragile for a team that just bought into itself as a true contender last summer. The Bojan Bogdanovic signing and Mike Conley trade doubled as votes of confidence in groundwork already laid, an understandable approach that opened up a credible yet still finite contention window.
Bogdanovic's right wrist injury has bilked the Jazz of at least one year. Getting more out of Conley would preserve their chance to win a series, maybe two, but they no longer come close to measuring up against the tippy top of West.
"There's always next year" optimists have a point. What about the year after that?
Conley and Joe Ingles are heading for their age-33 seasons. The former will be a free agent in 2021, with the latter following suit in 2022. Bogdanovic will be entering his age-31 campaign. Rudy Gobert turns 29 next June, at which time he's scheduled to hit free agency.
Rising costs render Utah's outlook all the more confusing. Mitchell is extension-eligible this offseason and should net max money. Gobert can a sign a supermax extension himself, and whether the Jazz give him one, they have to start thinking about what his next deal looks like. He's a generational defensive player, but shelling out prime-time money for a non-shooting big into his early-to-mid-30s can age into a crippling opportunity cost.
Potential unrest between he and Mitchell is also a factor. Utah isn't worried about their less-than-ideal relationship, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. But this isn't Devin Booker maybe, possibly being unhappy in Phoenix or Karl-Anthony Towns becoming slightly disenchanted in Minnesota (pre-D'Angelo Russell). Pending contract commitments for Gobert and Mitchell change the calculus.
This is still mostly about the ambiguity facing Utah beyond next season. Barren of high-reward prospects aside from Mitchell, the Jazz have to hope their supporting cast ages well, and that they can acquire gems on the margins in free agency. Playing the trade market is always an option, but moving distant first-rounders is a gargantuan risk without knowing what this roster looks like after next season.
14. Houston Rockets
Left alone, the Houston Rockets absolutely have a chance to win the championship next season. A title remains their ceiling. The problem: Their floor gets lower every year.
Russell Westbrook turns 32 in November. James Harden will be 31 in August. Eric Gordon will be 32 next Christmas and has the knees of someone much older. P.J. Tucker is already 35.
Incurring drop-offs from any one of them—Gordon's decline may have started—would put the Rockets in a bind. They're owed a combined $107.5 million. That commitment will be at $106.7 million in 2021-22...without factoring in a potential new contract for Tucker or the chunk of the mid-level exception they'll burn to find his replacement.
Tabling age concerns doesn't allay the team's economics. Deepening this roster will get harder every year. General manager Daryl Morey and his front office are whizzes at pulling off the unthinkable on a whim, but they're strapped for trade assets following the Westbrook blockbuster. They don't have expendable salary-matching fodder aside from Gordon, who has at least three guaranteed years worth $54.7 million left on his pact, and are completely drained of prospects. They've already dealt a first-rounder as far out as 2026.
The Rockets are good enough that moves on the margins can significantly buoy their title hopes, at least through next year. That's the luxury of having a perennial MVP candidate. Small upgrades can amount to big impacts.
But this presumes Houston will have no issue cannonballing into the tax. That might be a stretch. Team chairman Tilman Feritta has said he'll pay the tax when necessary, but the Rockets' dealings these past two seasons imply otherwise. He—and a bunch of other team chairmen, mind you—may sing a different tune as the league sorts through the financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.
Money issues aside, Houston is inherently high-variance. Embracing microball has proved to be a valuable experiment, but will it have the intended effect in the postseason? Does it extend the impact of Westbrook into his mid-30s? Might it take a toll on smaller players, namely Tucker and Robert Covington, who are forced to guard up?
So much can change from year to year. The Rockets know this better, perhaps, than any other squad. And while their range of outcomes over the next three seasons remains vast, they appear locked into this iteration of the roster—not precluded from pivoting, but seemingly only able to do so if they're selling.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Opportunity props up the Atlanta Hawks' place over the teams they've yet to officially outstrip. They don't have the next-year pinnacles of the Rockets or Jazz, and they've shown less, to date, than the upstart Grizzlies.
Playing within the comfy confines of the East helps a great deal. The path from 14th in the conference to postseason irritant is not unimaginably steep, and Atlanta has the ingredients to make the rare insta-leap.
That case begins and ends with Trae Young. Shoddy defense compromises his stardom only so much. The Hawks go from pumping in 111.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to mustering just 99.5 when he sits—the difference between an attack that rates in the 54th percentile and 3rd percentile. He injects more value into Atlanta's offense than he gives back at the other end despite grading out as the league's worst defender, according to ESPN's real plus-minus.
Filling out the rest of the roster around such a vulnerable defender does muddle the team-building process, but the Hawks are off to a good start. Cam Reddish provides cover in the backcourt, and the arrival of Clint Capela helps the back line if he can remain healthy and John Collins (extension-eligible) hangs versus 4s. Atlanta's all-kids lineup of Collins, Reddish, Young, Kevin Huerter and De'Andre Hunter also fared quite well this season on limited reps (442 possessions).
Bulking up the wing rotation and adding another playmaker who lets Young cook as an off-ball shooter are both musts if the Hawks are going to enjoy a meteoric rise. They have the tools to get it done. They have a 48.1 percent chance of landing a top-four pick in this year's draft and should have more cap space than any other team in free agency, with the option of kicking the can to 2021, when Young will still be on his rookie-scale salary.
Call this a calculated gamble. It is. But each conference has that next team up, the squad most likely to make a mega leap in a short span of time. The West has more than its fair share of possibilities. The East has Atlanta.
12. Brooklyn Nets
Checking in at No. 12 could be viewed as a failure for the Brooklyn Nets. They're one year removed from signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and mere months removed from parting ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson for the sake of better pandering to their win-now timeline. Anything less than a top-10 finish doesn't sit right.
That doesn't make it wrong. This is the immediate future for which the Nets signed up. They paid Durant after he ruptured his right Achilles, and Irving's seesawing availability isn't news to anyone. Their blueprint for title contention is clear—ride the coattails of two superstars—but replete with risks.
What will Durant look like after such a devastating injury? Is Irving and everyone else Brooklyn has enough to offset a marked decline from what was, as of last season, a top-three player? How much of that relies on Caris LeVert developing into a fringe star, if not the team's actual third star?
Should the Nets even wait to find out? Or should they use LeVert, Jarrett Allen (extension-eligible), Spencer Dinwiddie and future first-rounders to enter the running for Bradley Beal? Victor Oladipo? Or another star that becomes available?
Depth versus star power isn't a new debate. Teams tilt toward the latter when given the opportunity. The Nets are in a different situation. They don't know what one of their stars—and would-be best player—will look like. Adding another marquee name will alleviate any potential offensive losses he encounters, but it opens them up to decimation by injuries even more.
Envisioning the best-case scenario doesn't offer much respite. Durant should need at least a year to recapture his top form or reach his new normal. Brooklyn isn't winning a title before he's the best version of his current self. That ostensibly wipes another year off the franchise's title window. The Nets, in theory, will be best positioned to chase a championship in 2021-22...when both Durant and Irving can enter free agency the following summer (player options).
Hyper urgency is hardly the safest investment. And even if, against all odds, Durant is Durant immediately, Brooklyn has small-yet-important issues to address: What does it cost to retain Joe Harris in free agency? And then Dinwiddie, if he's still around, in 2021 (player option)? Rinse, lather, repeat for Allen (restricted). Can the Nets effectively fill their combo-forward void using late first-rounders and the mini mid-level exception? Who will their next head coach be?
Polishing off a contender is never easy. It's supposed to include fewer questions and pitfalls than this.
11. Philadelphia 76ers
Championship banners are within reach so long as the Sixers have two All-NBA types around which to build. They are also, potentially, locked into a state of awkwardness.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are best suited beside extra ball-handling and functional shooting. Philly went in the complete opposite direction by bidding farewell to Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick and signing Al Horford. Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson offer some of what Embiid and Simmons need, but neither is a true facilitator, puts a ton of pressure on the rim or dazzles with shooting.
Bringing Horford off the bench will decongest some of the Sixers' clunkiness. It demands Shake Milton be good right away, but the improved floor balance alone will be a boon. Philly is scoring 116.6 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when Embiid and Simmons play sans Horford, compared to just 99.5 during their time alongside him (3rd percentile).
Whether this change on its own renders the Sixers a concrete title threat remains to be seen. They better hope so. They don't have many other cards to play. Embiid, Harris, Horford and Simmons will cost $120.2 million between them next season. That number spikes in 2021-22, when they have to think about re-signing Richardson. It'll be, approximately, impossible to duck the tax before 2023.
Committing that much money to a core always comes with risk. The Sixers' case is flat-out unsettling. Milton and Matisse Thybulle give them cost-controlled swing pieces, but are they and a string of late first-rounders and mini-mid-level additions enough to subsidize gradual improvement and year-to-year depth?
Hot-take extraordinaires will claim this forces Philly to choose between Embiid and Simmons. Maybe they're right. Eventually. The Sixers are obligated to exhaust alternatives first. That responsibility doesn't top out at demoting Horford. Depending on how this postseason pans out, it may include mortgaging more of the future next to his or Harris' contracts in search of a better-fitting supporting cast.
10. Miami Heat
Leaving Miami outside the top five will probably result in team president Pat Riley finagling a way to land two superstars during 2021 free agency. That's the Heat way.
Showing more faith than this in their three-year trajectory is perfectly fine. They are already a nuisance in the East and, as of now, have the cap flexibility to go star hunting next summer. And Bam Adebayo allows them to straddle two sides of the fence. He is their 23-year-old bridge to the future but also a current All-Star, inoculating them against skimpy free-agency returns both now and down the line. (Miami can carve out more than $25 million in space this offseason depending on where the cap lands.)
Ranking the Heat much higher, though, risks overestimating their position. Cap space isn't guaranteed to turn into high-end players, and the 2021 free-agency class deteriorates real quickly if Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George (player option), Jrue Holiday (player option), LeBron James (player option), Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Victor Oladipo all stay put.
Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, isn't the steadiest superstar investment. Miami's well-being is tightly tethered to his remaining in top-10-player contention. But he turns 31 in September, and his efficiency on jump shots has cratered. The Heat need another initiator-type even with him in the fold.
Tyler Herro could get there if he becomes more comfortable navigating pick-and-rolls. Either way, he's part of Miami's three-year charm, right along with Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, both of whom will be restricted free agents in 2021.
Something about the Heat's immediate timeline just seems tenuous. It isn't a gut feeling, but a burden of optionality. Do they bring back Jae Crowder and sign another impact name this summer? Punt on long-term spending and stick to their 2021 aims? Where does an age-37-season Andre Iguodala fit into this short-term vision? Will Herro, Nunn and Robinson turn in palatable encores to this year?
Next season's approach is at least somewhat linked to Antetokounmpo's supermax decision. Miami isn't the only team that goes for, but the stakes are higher because it has money to burn now and Butler is over 30. What happens if Antetokounmpo signs an extension? Will he make the choice early enough for the Heat to regroup at the start of free agency? Do they look at Chris Paul trade scenarios?
The Heat aren't going anywhere. That works both ways. Just as they won't soon fade from the East's upper echelon, leveling up requires hitting on factors outside their immediate control—unless Herro goes kaboom and Adebayo has yet another leap in him.
9. Los Angeles Lakers
Don't interpret this as trolling. Take it instead as genuine concern.
Looking at next year specifically reveals no underlying distress. Anthony Davis is coming back (bold, I know), and LeBron James should finish no lower than third on the MVP ballot. The Lakers collectively could be working off a title.
Their position isn't going to devolve overnight. Avery Bradley's player option could pose some problems if he forces them to eat into their mid-level exception to re-sign him. There's also a scenario in which the Lakers run it back while spending the non-taxpayer's MLE on an outside player. Their championship ceiling should remain intact through at least next season.
Predicting what happens after that gets dicey. LeBron could enter free agency ahead of his age-37 campaign (player option). Even if he sticks around, I repeat: He'll be entering his age-37 season. Father Time may not outright win his war, but the aggregate battles will eventually extract their toll on LeBron. (Right?)
Davis ensures the Lakers won't be without a tentpole star when that happens. He's not even close to the back half of his prime. His presence should allow LeBron to age more gracefully.
Then again, what does a reduced version of King James even look like? And can Davis be the best player on a Western Conference contender? His top-seven status speaks for itself. He seldom had the requisite talent around him as the alpha in New Orleans to lug his team that high. The Lakers are already different by having LeBron.
But who else will they have after next season? If we include Davis' next deal, he's the only player under guaranteed contract for 2021-22—and that's assuming he doesn't sign a one-plus-one. That could grant the Lakers a narrow window of opportunity to snag a third star, but it'll take meticulous planning and, most likely, cooperation from LeBron. Will he (or Davis) take less in the name of bagging a third heavyweight?
Removing themselves from the superstar pursuits would let the Lakers operate more deliberately and plot around the current supporting cast. That's not exactly a comfort. Is getting into Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (player option) for long-term money the right move? What should they do about Kyle Kuzma's extension eligibility? Wait until next summer, when he's a restricted free agent and they're juggling a bunch of other cases, including that of Alex Caruso and Danny Green?
Ticketing the Lakers for sustained contention—which is basically what's happening here anyway—would be a lot easier if they had another safety net behind LeBron and Davis. They don't. That ship has sailed for Kuzma, and trading for that player will be painfully difficult after sending two first-rounders to New Orleans, the last of which won't convey until 2024 or 2025.
If anyone can defy the march of time, it's LeBron. He's done it. He's doing it. But the Lakers' ninth-place finish isn't so much about his age as their ability to field a contender beyond next season that doesn't require him to play at an MVP level.
8. Toronto Raptors
Benefit of the doubt fuels the Toronto Raptors' standing. Without it, they could plunge down this ladder in the face of potentially seismic turnover.
Chris Boucher (Early Bird restricted), Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all free agents this offseason. Toronto can pay them all, but will it want to if they're demanding multiyear deals?
Giannis Antetokounmpo's potential 2021 free agency will—surprise, surprise—play a part in how the team spends its money. Beyond that, Gasol is 35, Ibaka turns 31 in September, and it might take near-max money to keep Fred VanVleet out of a Knicks uniform.
Will the Raptors pony up to keep the band together if Antetokounmpo takes himself out of the 2021 bonanza? Should they? When Kyle Lowry is 34 and headed for free agency next summer? Toronto may be speeding toward a day of reckoning, an inflection point in which it's left to build back up rather than augment, with OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam as the basis for the future.
Just so we're clear: The most nuclear scenario for the Raptors includes reformatting their roster around a 26-year-old star, with all their own first-round draft picks and no Antetokounmpo but access to mountains of cap space?
Sign me up.
This oversimplifies the situation, but not by much. Toronto has the most effective antidote to rolling uncertainty: an established star in his prime. Anunoby has an outside chance at sniffing fringe stardom himself, and Norman Powell has been Monstar-ing on offense this season.
Middle-of-the-road first-rounders and cap space guarantee nothing, but the Raptors are experts at mining talent from anywhere. Their most recent hot streak includes Anunoby, Boucher, Siakam, VanVleet, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas. They might also pair the best front office in basketball, led by team president Masai Ujiri, with the best head coach in Nick Nurse. With a star already in place and options abounding, the bet should be that whatever the Raptors do next will be special.
7. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets enjoy an air of stability not shared by most other teams. Their best player is a top-10 star who won't turn 26 until February, and he's surrounded by actual depth that isn't facing the prospect of massive turnover.
Any urge the Nuggets have to shift course over the next three years will be on their own terms. Staleness is the closest they'll get to a crisis of identity. Will Gary Harris' offense come all the way back? (He was shooting better when the league shut down.) Has the Paul Millsap partnership run its course? Do they need to stop viewing Jamal Murray as their No. 2 and try to acquire another one?
Those are real questions. And this roster is about to get expensive. Murray's max extension kicks in next season. Re-signing both Millsap and Jerami Grant (player option) could carry the Nuggets close enough to the tax that they're reticent to use the mid-level exception. Torrey Craig (restricted) and Mason Plumlee are free agents as well.
That isn't the coziest place to be. Denver needs to fortify its wing rotation, and a spending crunch would significantly hamstring its ability to make meaningful changes. Landing impact wings for MLE money is hard enough as it stands.
But the Nuggets have alternate avenues of improvement at their disposal. Michael Porter Jr. and a healthy Bol Bol arm them with two swing prospects, and they're asset-rich enough to make tectonic changes on the trade market.
Offering some combination of Bol, Harris, Porter, Will Barton, Monte Morris and distant first-round picks isn't unbeatable, but it makes for an operable starting point should the right star become available (Bradley Beal). They can also dangle Jamal Murray if the return is up to snuff.
Basically, Denver strikes a nice balance. The skeleton of a top-three Western Conference seed isn't in imminent danger of dissolution, and the roster, though far from perfect, allows for both in-house growth and attempts at change.
6. Golden State Warriors
This is where I remind you, emphatically, that we're talking about a three-year ranking. The Warriors have enough left in the tank to weather such a short-term window.
Rushing to delete them from the title discussion following their gap year takes concern too far. When did Stephen Curry stop being a top-five player? And Klay Thompson an All-Star? Draymond Green didn't validate his place among the league's elite independent of Curry and Thompson, but guess what? Next year he'll have Curry and Thompson, not to mention a reason to play at full bore.
Injuries and age are fair caveats. They're not death knells. Curry missed most of this year with a left hand injury, not an ankle issue. Thompson's torn left ACL is serious, but not uncommon. Curry is the eldest of the Big Three, and he's 32, not 38.
Depth is more of a problem than star power, even if it takes Thompson a while to get going next year. Andrew Wiggins might be the most reliable supporting cast member following Kevon Looney's rash of injuries and relative to who else the Warriors have: Ky Bowman (non-guaranteed), Marquese Chriss (partially guaranteed), Damion Lee (partially guaranteed), Mychal Mulder (non-guaranteed), Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole, etc. That's not great.
A change of scenery and more stable coaching might do Wiggins some good. Feasting as the fourth wheel who churns through more catch-and-shoot looks should be easier compared to his split first-, second- and third-option responsibilities in Minnesota. His team now needs him to defend more than score. That might mean something.
But Wiggins' career is six years old. Reinvention cannot be the expectation. The Warriors have to create their own depth, a task for which they're actually equipped—so long as they're willing to spend.
Words are just words until they become action, but team president Rick Welts has said the organization isn't worried about cash in the aftermath of the shutdown. Does that translate to definitively using the mini mid-level exception and $17.2 million Andre Iguodala trade exception that expires Oct. 24? Not necessarily. It also might.
Now seems like the perfect time to have the latter. Other squads should be looking to cut costs following the NBA's unprecedented closure. With so few teams set to have cap space, the Warriors could become a haven for sellers. They also have this year's first-rounder, projected to land no lower than fifth, and the Timberwolves' 2021 pick (top-three protection). A blockbuster acquisition is not outside the realm of possibility over the next three years—nor is another title.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic doesn't make the Mavericks' case by himself, but he is the essence of it. He exists in rarefied air, a top-five-to-seven player with a claim to Most Improved Player honors and peripheral MVP consideration who hasn't yet entered his age-21 season.
Put another way: Dallas has one of the youngest, most impactful young superstars in recent history, and he's yet to even sniff his prime. Like, what?!?
Entry into title contention can be founded around one player. Actual championship pushes cannot. Fortunately for the Mavs, they are set up to be more than Doncic.
Kristaps Porzingis is a reasonable No. 2 even if he's not a shot-creation wizard, and the rest of the supporting cast is furnished with players of intrigue, most notably Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. (player option), Maxi Kleber and Delon Wright. And, sure, Boban Marjanovic. Dwight Powell can also be thrown in here, though potentially not before 2021-22 after suffering a ruptured right Achilles tendon in January.
Dallas' primary objective from hereon is subtending the gap that separates it from conventional title hopefuls. Slightly more seasoned versions of Doncic and Porzingis might be enough, but the Mavericks still feel one player away. Their crunch-time offense—and Doncic's efficiency during those stretches—supports as much.
Finding that final touch is a fairly large undertaking. He isn't on the roster unless Porzingis transforms into a top-15 player who can generate his own looks efficiently. Hardaway is best served in his current role: binging on threes off passes thrown and space created by Doncic.
Lurking on the trade market shouldn't do much, either. The Mavericks don't have a blue-chip prospect to dangle, and their first-rounders, two of which already belong to the Knicks, hold minimal value when they're tracking toward contention.
Free agency offers them the best opportunity, and it isn't extended one. They'll have a one-year window, in 2021, during which they can dredge up maxish-to-max room while Doncic is still on his rookie scale. It turns out that might be the summer to have cap space. Dallas has never poached the biggest names, but luck can change when pitching prospective targets on the chance to play beside a top-five player and generational talent who hasn't yet hit his peak.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
Maybe this is a rush to coronate. It will certainly seem that way if you view New Orleans' placement through a Zion Williamson-sized lens. This could oversell the immediate future of a 20-year-old with 19 regular-season games on his resume.
Only, this isn't about Zion. Well, not just about Zion. The Pelicans started hitting their stride before he made his season debut, right about when Derrick Favors returned from his back injury. From Dec. 13 until Zion's first game, they went 11-8 with a top-eight net rating.
Playing slightly above .500 basketball doesn't warrant confetti, but it is proof of New Orleans' staying power. Lonzo Ball turned a corner before Zion. Brandon Ingram's ascent into stardom happened before Zion. Favors helped save their defense before Zion. Jrue Holiday was Jrue Holiday looong before Zion.
And, well, now the Pelicans actually have Zion. And he's looked dominant playing beside the rest of the core. He's gorging on helpless defenders within the flow of the offense and making lightning-fast decisions when he's playing in the half-court. The latter has enabled him to not just coexist, but thrive alongside so many other ball-dominant-first running mates. New Orleans is outscoring opponents by an obscene 26.3 points per 100 possessions when he plays with Ball, Favors, Holiday and Ingram.
Fast-tracking the Pelicans for title contention as currently constructed isn't the point—although, they might be. I haven't even mentioned Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes and JJ Redick. (Nickeil Alexander-Walker for life.) New Orleans is no longer a candidate to tear it down and start anew. That's the point.
To what extent the Pelicans will read into this year is unknown. Ingram will get his max money in restricted free agency, but Ball and Josh Hart are extension-eligible while Favors will enter free agency. Holiday will hit the open market in 2021 (player option).
The middle ground would be re-signing Favors and using the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception on a wing or combo big while kicking the can on Ball and Hart. The dare-to-be great route would include opening up an effusively deep war chest, which includes two extra firsts from the Lakers as well as all of their own picks, and seeing whether they can pry Bradley Beal out of Washington.
Standing pat is also in play. That's the beauty of the Pelicans' situation. They don't have to go all-in just yet. They're also good enough that they can. And they might be so good they don't need to. Their immediate future is open-ended, in the best possible way.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Reservations about the Los Angeles Clippers keeping their core together for the next few years are not altogether unfounded. Expensive decisions are coming.
Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. will be free agents this fall. JaMychal Green (player option) will follow them or reach the open market next summer. Both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have player options for 2021-22. Lou Williams' deal comes off the books after next season as well. And for good measure, Landry Shamet will be extension-eligible at that time, too.
Los Angeles has little to worry about if George and Leonard stay in town. If they're not the league's best one-two punch, they're the ideal building-block archetypes: wings who can initiate the offense, play off one another and guard four positions.
Things change quickly in the NBA. The arrivals of George and Leonard are proof. But they both chose to play for the Clippers. Their returns are much, much closer to given than in doubt.
Upkeeping the rest of the roster will be harder. The Clippers can retain everyone, but will they? Default to yes. They didn't fork over Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, five first-round picks and a pair of swap rights to open up a two-year title window. They're obligated to break open their piggy bank for the long haul.
Certain changes are still inevitable. Morris looks most comfortable with the ball in his hands. The playoffs will be a test of his fit. Harrell could technically price himself above what Los Angeles wants to pay, but the market's absence of cap space and obvious fits makes that unlikely. Williams will be on the verge of turning 35 when he's a free agent, but he's in love with L.A., and the Clippers are equipped to navigate his departure if George and Leonard are both healthy.
Tacking on to the current foundation will be a chore. The Clippers don't have to worry if they keep running it back. We're at the point in this exercise where continuity is more likely and beneficial. But they project as recurring taxpayers and don't have the pick-and-prospect equity to broker a blockbuster trade without absorbing questionable salary.
Big whoop. Losing sleep over roster flexibility is for non-powerhouses. The Clippers are in line to be among the top-four title favorites over the next three years. Impact veterans will find their way to them in free agency, accepting below-market contracts in exchange for championship proximity. For all we know, this year's mini MLE could get the Clippers a Marc Gasol or Paul Millsap. That's the type of clout they hold—both now and for the foreseeable future.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo's future must factor into the Bucks' standing, but not to a doomsday degree. His signing the supermax or re-upping in 2021 is the overwhelmingly likely scenario unless he says or hints at anything that remotely suggests otherwise. Milwaukee's immediate outlook should be considered secure until, quite frankly, it isn't.
Losing Antetokounmpo would clearly change everything. Guaranteeing his return probably doesn't change a thing. Finishing second is the Bucks' best-case scenario, if only because they want for the wiggle room necessary to upgrade their foundation.
Locking themselves into an Antetokounmpo-Khris Middleton one-two punch will yield exactly zero regrets. Eric Bledsoe's contract, on the other hand, might come back to bite them. His balance—three years and $54.4 million, with two years and $38.9 million guaranteed—is an OK price point for a fringe All-Star. But he needs to maintain that designation in the playoffs, something he's failed to do over the past two postseasons.
The Bucks don't have any other high-stakes contracts on their ledger. (It'll be fascinating to see how Brook Lopez's deal ages.) The overall bottom line is of greater concern than any one individual. They might be able to use the full mid-level exception without entering the tax, but that'll get harder to do once Antetokounmpo is on his next deal.
Paying the tax should be a non-issue if the NBA's best player sticks around. It doesn't always work like that. Every team has its breaking point, and Milwaukee could have yet another sneaky-expensive decision to make when Donte DiVincenzo is up for an extension in 2021.
This is all mostly immaterial—provided Antetokounmpo stays put. The Bucks are the toast of the East. They'll have to worry about one or two teams per season. They're decidedly winning the minutes Antetokounmpo doesn't play. They can tread water without doing anything. And if they commit to paying the tax, they open more tantalizing possibilities with the MLE.
Milwaukee might even have a blockbustery trade in it should this year's title push fall short. Attaching DiVincenzo and future picks (like a 2024 first) to salary filler won't win a hypothetical Bradley Beal sweepstakes but is a modest attention-grabber.
1. Boston Celtics
For once, the Celtics' outlook lords over the rest not because of who they might acquire, but because of who they already have.
Kyrie Irving's arrival should've mostly ended that obsession with acquiring stars. It didn't. Anthony Davis predictably became available, insofar as creating a trade market of one team constitutes "available." Less predictable was Irving's transition from enthusiastic member of the Celtics to certified goner.
Boston is now married to its own roster following the departures of him and Al Horford. Kemba Walker is signed through 2022-23 (player option), Jaylen Brown inked an extension and Jayson Tatum should follow suit this fall. Cap space is now a thing of the past, and after this year's draft, the Celtics' stash of other teams' first-rounders will be, too.
Diving into luxury-tax territory does not always portend unceasing relevance. (See: Brooklyn.) It does for Boston. Tatum is only 22 and already in the All-NBA conversation. Brown turns 24 in October. Marcus Smart will be entering his age-26 season (and is shooting above 40 percent on pull-up threes!).
Walker's health is the Celtics' biggest potential curveball. He's just 30, but his left knee is already a problem. Boston's future is more implosive if his availability becomes a tug-of-war.
Even then, it'll take a lot more to wreck this team's outlook. Gordon Hayward (player option) could end up being a value on his next contract depending on how much he costs, and the Celtics have at least one high-end prospect in Grant Williams and potentially more in Robert Williams III, Romeo Langford and this year's three first-rounders.
Swinging another blockbuster trade is also still on the table. Coming up with salary-matching fodder will be tough, but the Celtics can consolidate picks and prospects into a higher-end role player. Not that they need to do anything at all. They have a top-five offense and defense with a star base that is much closer to burgeoning than paling.