Yes, These Teams Really Have a Shot at the 2021 NBA Title
Predictability is ingrained into the NBA's competitive landscape. This isn't the NFL, in which a 16-game regular season and single-elimination playoff setup lends itself to high-level surprises every year. The Association's 82-game schedule and best-of-seven postseason series are designed so the top squads are mostly obvious, fairly entrenched and likely to be crowned champion at year's end.
However, the NBA's annual title chase isn't all knowns and inevitabilities. Shorter player contracts and greater superstar agency have incited more turnover and, by extension, finite championship shelf lives. The heaviest hitters are almost always discernible before the season tips off, but this hierarchy is not impenetrable.
Second-tier contenders and the occasional outright surprise have the tendency to work themselves into the title conversation. Just look at the Miami Heat. No one billed them as a Finals participant before this past season. They made it out of the Eastern Conference anyway.
That's the type of team we're on the hunt for ahead of the 2020-21 campaign: talked about and noticed, with desultory consideration given to their Finals path, but underestimated, long-shotted or written off in the end.
Putting together this list before the meat-and-potatoes of the offseason is incredibly subjective. So much can happen in the free-agency and trade markets, the ramifications of which have the potential to tilt entire outlooks. For the time being, the priority is identifying the more problematic contenders. They aren't worlds away from the championship discussion, but their fate hinges on particularly ambiguous health bills and roster situations.
This will not be the space in which we forecast galactic-sized leaps up the league's pecking order. Maybe the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, etc. are on the verge of making monster progress, but the idea that they can win three playoff series next season as currently constructed is shaky at best.
The Obvious Contenders
Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Bucks, Celtics, Heat
This group shouldn't be met with much resistance. The Lakers aren't going anywhere unless Anthony Davis (player option) leaves in free agency. The Clippers are an emotional wreck but still scary enough to talent their way into the Finals. The Bucks are in play to come out of the East as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't request a trade...which he won't do.
Including the Heat after they just made the Finals would be stupid, even if you're worried their interest in bagging superstars during 2021 free agency costs them the chance to re-sign Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic and add others. If the Celtics cannot win the East as presently built, they're a minor piece or two away. Even if it's more than that, they're the team after Milwaukee most recognized as a contender in the lesser conference.
Looping the Nuggets under this umbrella is probably the most controversial decision here. That's objectively wild to consider after they scrapped their way to the Western Conference Finals. It will be harder for them to reach that level again in a deeper, healthier West, but they've earned the benefit of the doubt. Their two best players, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, are on the right side of 26, they have a budding swing piece in Michael Porter Jr., and they have the asset ammo go swing for a blockbuster trade if they please.
The Something-Feels-off Options
Rockets, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz
Jazz fans might push back against Utah's exclusion from the surprise-potential ranks. They should take this as a compliment.
The Jazz have been trendy "They're contenders!" picks for a few years. Donovan Mitchell's stellar postseason showing shouldn't change that; they aren't coming out of nowhere. At the same time, even with a healthy Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, they could be one major piece short of successfully waging battle with the West's bigwigs.
So, to sum up, they're either already contenders or don't feel like they have a clear personnel path to becoming one next season.
Houston at once seems to be a more genuine contender and more combustible. How effective will Russell Westbrook be next season? Will Eric Gordon stay healthy and hit more of his threes? Do they have the means to significantly improve the roster via trade? Does an entire season of microball work in their favor, or will it extract a physical toll on their non-bigs up front?
Billing the Thunder as long-shot contenders, meanwhile, is too much of a stretch. They appear headed for the rebuild they were supposed to enter after trading Westbrook and Paul George last summer. Their candidacy can be relitigated if they hold onto Chris Paul and re-sign Danilo Gallinari.
As for the Blazers, their top three—Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic—doesn't arm them with enough sway to enter the oncoming fracas. They still need to load up the rest of their roster, and it's still unclear how they'll do that.
Should they trust in the futures of Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons? How will Rodney Hood (player option) look after his Achilles injury? Can they nab a difference-maker with the mid-level exception? Is Carmelo Anthony a keeper? Do they have a blockbuster trade in them? Will they roll the dice on one if they do?
The Blazers' trajectory has too many potential outcomes. Deeming them a playoff formality is fine. Taking it a step further demands at least one substantive addition.
The Too-Soon Crew
Hawks, Pelicans, Suns
Feel free to ticket any of these up-and-coming squads for postseason play. But a trip to the Finals?
Yeah, no. Not yet.
The breadth of unknowns facing them is overwhelming. What will Durant look like following a right Achilles injury that's kept him off the floor since June 2019? How many games will Irving play? How will Brooklyn's two stars fit with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert? Will the Nets trade one or both of them for a third star? Is LeVert that third star? Does Durant actually believe he's that third star? And is that enough to keep LeVert in town?
Where does Jarrett Allen fit into all of this? Is he DeAndre Jordan's backup now? Is he mostly a trade chip? Can Brooklyn get its power forward rotation under control? Can it add someone who can effectively cover bigger wings? How much will Joe Harris' next contract run? Are the Nets prepared to pay whatever it takes to bring him back?
How will rookie head coach Steve Nash fare? Is he even a head coach? What's the vibe in this, er, collaborative locker room? And what's the on-court synergy like between Durant and Irving? They chose to play together, but first-year superstar pairings aren't always breezy. It will take time for them to build functional chemistry, and that's before factoring the uncertainty surrounding Durant post-Achilles recovery.
Thinking about the Nets is an exhaustive exercise. They are combustible. They're also wildly talented.
Too many shot-creators isn't necessarily a bad thing, not when they can all stroke it. LeVert needs to work on his off-ball touch, but he, Durant, Dinwiddie and Irving all have the overall range to work off one another. And even if the offensive food chain gets a little crowded, Brooklyn's odd men out are desirable trade chips.
Left alone, though, this squad's ceiling is the roof. They have some actual depth to them. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (non-guaranteed) showed some offensive panache in the bubble, Garrett Temple (player option) is a low-usage perimeter presence, and Taurean Prince, while not the stoutest wing stopper, should feast on offense beside so many playmakers.
Between them, Allen, Jordan, Harris (if he returns) and the taxpayer mid-level exception, Brooklyn will have an opportunity to field a supporting cast that can buy rest nights for its two best players, even if the roster at large doesn't give off great defensive vibes. Most of all, anything can happen in the Eastern Conference. A fairly healthy Nets team should have an immediate shot at making the NBA Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks look like they're one high-impact player away from entering the Finals fold. They might actually be closer than that. After all, they did push the Clippers to six games in the first round despite getting, like, 2.5 appearances from Kristaps Porzingis. If he doesn't get ejected in Game 1, or suffer a torn right meniscus that ends his series prior to Game 4, who knows what happens.
Granted, Porzingis' health is a red flag. The Mavericks need a No. 2 to consistently tussle with the best in the West. But their No. 1 is so, so, so good. Every team entering a new era pines for a top-five-type player. Luka Doncic is already theirs.
Dallas' potential peak also gets an automatic bump from head coach Rick Carlisle. His knack for cobbling together bench units that register as a net plus is a regular-season boon. The Mavericks outscored opponents by plus-3.7 points per 100 possessions this year with Doncic off the floor and were close to dead even when both he and Porzingis sat.
Generating more stops will be critical to staging yet another climb up the ladder—they were 24th in defensive efficiency after Jan. 1—but their offense affords them a certain margin for error. Adding another shot-creator to play alongside Doncic stands to playoff-proof them even more.
Finding one won't be easy. Dallas can drum up cap space if Tim Hardaway Jr. declines his player option or it plays the salary-dumping game, but any major acquisition would come at the expense of 2021 flexibility. Is landing, say, Danilo Gallinari or Fred VanVleet worth that opportunity cost? Would trading for Jrue Holiday or Victor Oladipo fit the bill? Do the Mavericks have the assets to enter those sweepstakes?
Cap space is relative. Teams will find a way to carve out spending power if a star wants to sign with them. Dallas may not have a problem jumping through hoops now to net a marquee name and then futzing with the books again later. But this presumes it can identify a worthwhile and gettable marquee name over an offseason that wants for quality free agents and, as of now, has an undefined trade market.
Whatever. Crowning new Western Conference contenders is hard. Most of the incumbents are too damn good. The Mavericks are the only West newbies in this thingamajig for a reason. Only one other conference sibling makes an appearance at all, and they're a throwback. Doncic alone should assure Dallas a crack at a top-four seed after what he did this past year, in his age-20 season, as a sophomore. That's enough to envision this team getting to the Finals soon, even if it demands an upset or two along the way.
Golden State Warriors
Including the Golden State Warriors is not a forced warning of their return from an unscheduled gap year. The fallout from their 2019 Finals loss—and Kevin Durant's departure—has left lasting implications.
Health isn't their biggest question mark, but it is an issue. Klay Thompson is working his way back from a torn left ACL. Kevon Looney has looked good during minicamp, but he's still trying to return from core muscle surgery and also battled a laundry list of injuries over the past few years.
Stephen Curry should be fine. The broken left hand he suffered isn't a recurring issue. Draymond Green might be another story. Was his 2019-20 drop-off merely a gap-year side effect, or does Golden State have to worry about a post-30th-birthday decline?
Having the Big Three playing like a Big Three is non-negotiable if the Warriors intend to reenter the championship melee. Talent at the top is everything when teams cannot count on their depth, and this team certainly cannot count on its depth.
After Curry, Green and Thompson, Golden State is working with Looney, Eric Paschall, Andrew Wiggins, Marquese Chriss (non-guaranteed), Damion Lee, Jordan Poole, Ky Bowman (non-guaranteed) and Alen Smailagic. There's a real chance the Warriors' best non-stars aren't even on the roster yet. They might get more out of the No. 2 pick, Andre Iguodala trade exception ($17.2 million) and the taxpayer mid-level exception.
Predicting a quick return to form takes a little imagination. Put another way: It entails assuming Golden State turns at least one of its top assets—the No. 2 pick, the Iggy trade exception or Minnesota's 2021 first-rounder—into a biggish-time acquisition.
That's...not a massive reach. Now is probably the time to have a huge trade exception or just be willing to take on money. Franchises will be feeling the financial squeeze amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Warriors can separate themselves by being less cash-conscious.
Then again, they might not do anything splashy. They can't will a frothy trade market into existence, and forecasting the value of the No. 2 pick is tricky in a draft being criticized for its dearth of star power. Golden State may not have the ready-made basis for a Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday or even Aaron Gordon package without dangling the Minny pick.
Still, standing relatively pat is not a complete turnoff. The Warriors have a top-five player in Curry, and the best versions of Green and Thompson would ensure them at least one, if not two, other top-25 stars. It would take near-infallible availability—something they didn't enjoy this year—but a Big Three model, at full strength, retains championship viability.
The Philadelphia 76ers are at once the quintessential inclusions and seemingly not in the spirit of this fringe-contender party. They have two top-20, maybe top-15, players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. How do they not default to a bona fide contender?
Because their two stars are Embiid and Simmons.
I'm half-kidding. They aren't the cleanest fit; they occupy too many of the same spaces. Simmons is portrayed as the primary problem. Shoot threes already, dammit! It isn't that simple, though. Simmons has reached near-All-NBA level without an operable jumper. It is on the Sixers to maximize his skill set and general fit beside Embiid by surrounding them with the requisite ball-handlers and functional shooters.
They have done the exact opposite. The Al Horford signing was a flop. Sure, the logic tracked. He safeguards their minutes and games without Embiid. But you don't pay someone $109 million over four years ($97 million guaranteed) to take up that responsibility.
Tobias Harris' contract doesn't look much better for them. He's owed $147.3 million over the next four years. It's difficult to determine who's harder to trade between him and Horford. (I lean Horford.)
Harris' money wouldn't have been nearly as much of a strain had the Sixers re-signed him in tandem with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. They provide the mix of ball-handling, rim pressure (Butler) and in-motion shooting (Redick) he cannot float on his own. But, well, yeah. Both Butler and Redick are gone.
Letting off a two-syllable "yikes" is perfectly acceptable. The Sixers enter the offseason guaranteed to pay the luxury tax, with few glitzy trade assets beyond Embiid and Simmons and an over-reliance on the taxpayer mid-level and No. 21 pick to balance out their roster. (Another questionable move from last year: Giving the room exception to Mike Scott after paying Horford.)
But there's this tendency to portray the Sixers as hopelessly trapped. They aren't. Minor tweaks still render them a championship wild card—hardly ideal, but championship-contention adjacent all the same. For all of the concern about the Embiid-Simmons dynamic, Philly is a net plus with both on the floor in each of the past three years. This latest season was their worst together statistically, and the Sixers were still a plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions in their shared minutes.
It isn't like this team lacks any options, either. New head coach Doc Rivers won't be a miracle-worker, but slight adjustments should go a long way. Moving Horford to the bench indefinitely is a good place to start. Philly's offense went boom when Embiid and Simmons played without him. More Shake Milton could be a great thing, and Josh Richardson should have a better season.
This says nothing of any potential home run swings. The Sixers have some sweeteners they can attach to Horford or Harris if they want to bust up the core. Some combination of Milton, Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, No. 21 and future firsts could get them into the discussion for Buddy Hield or Victor Oladipo.
Failing something seismic, the Sixers can simply load up on more shooting. The mini mid-level isn't much, but they, unlike many others in the same boat, can offer a chance to start or at least log starter's minutes. And look, let's be real: They play in the East. A rotation built around Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Horford, Richardson, Milton, Thybulle and another two shooters—incumbent non-Bird free agent Alec Burks could be one—has NBA Finals mettle if it stays healthy and avoids any closed-door shenanigans.
Implying the Toronto Raptors need to defend their status as NBA Finals hopefuls might not fly with everyone—specifically fans north of the border. Prospective disagreement is not misplaced. The Raptors were one win away from another Eastern Conference Finals bid, and anything might've happened had they faced off with the Heat.
And yet, keeping Toronto within a stone's throw of the Finals discussion amounts to a leap of faith.
The roster is facing what could be a mass exodus. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher (restricted) are all free agents. Running it back should be on the table—pushing the Celtics to a Game 7 is no joke—but is also complicated. Gasol may already be gone, and VanVleet figures to solicit near-max overtures from at least two teams. Shelling out the money necessary to keep the latter will be difficult if team president Masai Ujiri is trying to keep the Raptors' 2021 cap sheet squeaky clean.
Losing two of Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet would be a huge blow, but it isn't insurmountable. The Raptors would still be left with two top-25 players in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam along with OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, the No. 29 pick and whoever they sign with the mid-level exception.
That gets you into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, with the bandwidth to do much more. Toronto will have cap space to spare if all three of Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet head elsewhere, and Siakam might have another jump in him.
He fared well as a primary scorer following Kawhi Leonard's departure and will be far more lethal next season if he's comfortable dribbling through and making decisions in traffic. Anunoby's handle suggests his pinnacle is that of an all-world defender who can swish threes and attack closeouts in a straight line, but anything else he gives inches him closer to potential-All-Star territory.
Approximating the possible value lost in some combination of Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet isn't a mindless venture—particularly, again, if the Raptors are attempting to do so without adding any long-term money. But even floor-spacing bigs are more imitable on a cheaper budget, and they may be comfortable saddling Davis and Powell with more ball-handling responsibility, in addition to asking more of Lowry and Siakam.
Leaning on the Raptors' penchant for mining and development is undoubtedly too incalculable for some, but they've earned that trust by virtue of their many in-house success stories, including Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet, Davis, Thomas and Boucher. And besides, they were a plus-6.3 points per 100 possessions this season when playing without Gasol, Ibaka and FVV. That isn't a perfect snapshot of how they'd fare minus all of them, but when accounting for whatever talent they invariably add if everyone flies the coop, it does suggest they'll preserve their make-it-out-of-the-East peak should they resist any temptation to shop Lowry.
And if this group remains intact while bringing in a first-round prospect and mid-level-exception signing, forget about it. Championship contention will be the standard, just like it became this season.