Way-Too-Soon 2020-21 NBA Power Rankings: Are Lakers Just Getting Started?
LeBron James is crowned again. Anthony Davis just engineered his debut coronation.
Yawn. Sorry, no disrespect intended, but that's so last season.
All due props to the Lakers, but the modern sports world is less about what have you done for me lately than what will you do for me going forward. L.A. can celebrate (at safe social distances, of course), but the rest of us are already turning the page to next season.
And what better way to start than with a way-too-premature set of power rankings? There's a lot of projecting and educated guessing going on given the unknowns of the draft, free agency and unresolved coaching searches, but I'll combine what I know of and expect from these teams to cobble together a starting point for the new hoops hierarchy.
The stat sheet and stature may not agree, but Kevin Porter Jr. already looks the most critical part of Cleveland's rebuild. While that shows how far away from competing the post-LeBron James Cavs are—much to governor Dan Gilbert's chagrin—at least Porter's athleticism and advanced shot-making hold centerpiece potential the way Collin Sexton and Darius Garland never really have.
Cleveland needs to recognize its place on the hoops hierarchy and embrace the draft-night spoils of being a bottom-feeder. Of course, that's not easy to do when the team holds unrealistic expectations for a Kevin Love trade and is rostering Andre Drummond for another year (but hopefully nothing longer).
29. New York Knicks
It's the offseason, so naturally, the Knicks are busy star-gazing again. With Leon Rose now heading the front office and holding ample cap space, there's a chance New York enters next season with Chris Paul, Fred VanVleet or Christian Wood on the roster.
What would that do to the bottom line? Not nearly enough to bump the 'Bockers up from this spot. Paul and VanVleet have culture-changing potential, which can be a necessary step forward for any rebuilder. But that process entails a lot of lump-taking and a mountain of losses.
The Knicks shouldn't measure their 2020-21 success by the standings. If they can further the developments of Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, plus add another high draft pick to the mix, they'll have engineered a productive campaign.
28. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons have a few possible paths to not being terrible, but which ones are trustworthy? Is it Blake Griffin recovering from an injury-riddled season to prove he isn't actually a shadow of his former self? How about Christian Wood returning from free agency and continuing the torrid stretch he authored late last season? Some might say Derrick Rose turning back the clock is worth a mention, but didn't he already do that?
Detroit's best players aren't young, which is a brutal predicament for a cellar-dweller. The most exciting prospect in Motor City is either Luke Kennard, who battled knee tendinitis and surfaced in trade talks, or Sekou Doumbouya, who has natural gifts but no discernible skills yet (6.2 player efficiency rating, fourth-worst in the league). Not great.
Good news: The Hornets seem to have stolen P.J. Washington as last summer's 12th overall pick. Bad news: He likely maxes out as a do-it-all glue guy, which is helpful but does nothing to address this franchise's dearth of star power.
Charlotte has more average-to-slightly-above-it players than the teams behind it and therefore should have a higher floor. But it might have the Association's lowest ceiling since it lacks a centerpiece to support the overall structure.
The Wizards have Bradley Beal and...hmmm...good question. John Wall deserves the next mention, but he hasn't played since Dec. 2018 and will return as a 30-year-old on the wrong side of an Achilles tear. That's always a scary situation, particularly for a non-shooter as reliant on athleticism as Wall has been.
Beyond the backcourt, which is the primary source of optimism even though it has never delivered a 50-win season, there's a collection of mildly intriguing prospects. Between Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant and Isaac Bonga, Washington has some interesting names, but they aren't needle-movers. The same goes for shooting specialist Davis Bertans, who could leave in free agency or return on a bloated contract.
25. Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox will be an All-Star at some point. If this was an Internet comment, I'd follow that take with something like "Book It!!!!!"
But seriously, Sacramento's turbo-charged floor general appears on the verge of something special. He just became the 12th player ever to average 21 points and six assists on 47 percent shooting within his first three seasons. That list is otherwise comprised of household names and Hall of Famers.
He's ready for center stage, but the rest of the roster probably isn't. Having a healthy Marvin Bagley III should help, even if he's forever remembered as "Not Luka Doncic." Bringing back Bogdan Bogdanovic at a reasonable price seems obvious; the solution to the Buddy Hield situation does not.
The Kings could be decent—they had a positive net rating after the All-Star break—but decent isn't cutting it in next season's fully loaded West.
24. Chicago Bulls
New head coach Billy Donovan has proved capable of solving hoops puzzles, most recently weaponizing the Oklahoma City Thunder's point guard glut as a wildly efficient trio. The hope is he can now correct the disconnect between Chicago's apparent firepower and its 29th-place finish in offensive efficiency.
That won't be easy without a pass-first player to bring this roster together. Maybe the Bulls find it with the No. 4 pick (Tyrese Haliburton?), or maybe he's available on the trade market (Chris Paul?). But until that floor general surfaces, their whole might always be less than the sum of their parts.
23. Orlando Magic
This is a tad bit harsh to the Magic based on recent performances, but sheesh, it's hard to get excited about this roster. Nikola Vucevic is a gifted offensive player. Jonathan Isaac has sky-high potential on defense. Aaron Gordon is always good for a few jaw-droppers. The cupboard isn't barren.
Saying that, Orlando's one path out of mediocrity likely involves an on-the-fly reset and rebuild around Isaac (and, fingers crossed, maybe Markelle Fultz). It's arguably the best ploy for this organization, but the self-destruct button rarely leads to a rapid turnaround. That's doubly true here, since Magic president Jeff Weltman is already on record saying Isaac's torn ACL will shelve him for all of next season.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder
Donovan is gone, Danilo Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent, and Chris Paul sure sounds ready to leave the Sooner State. If this isn't Phase 1 of the rebuild, it can't be too much longer.
No matter how the Thunder handle their roster this offseason, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is clearly their most important player. Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort have an argument for second and third (in no particular order). Gilgeous-Alexander is the senior member of that core at 22 years old. OKC can afford to slow-play this reconstruction and wait for that army of draft picks to arrive.
21. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have the third-fewest wins since 2017-18, so some might argue I'm giving credit where it isn't due. But how many other rebuilders have an offensive superpower like Trae Young? And an absurdly productive sidekick like John Collins? And an interior anchor like Clint Capela? And an intriguing collection of young wings, plus the sixth overall pick in the upcoming draft?
That's a long-winded way of saying I'm buying what Atlanta is selling. The Hawks need to keep rebuffing inquiries for Collins, find a way for him to co-exist with Capela, ace the No. 6 pick and further the development of this young core. That's a decent number of ifs, sure, but there isn't an outlandish goal among them.
The Spurs no longer sit alongside death and taxes on life's list of certainties. San Antonio failed to book a postseason trip for the first time since 1997, and that could be a sign of things to come (at least in the short term). The club could chase a playoff return in the final year DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are under contract, but if an overhaul is inevitable, then why wait?
"I think that they should pivot and rebuild," a scout told ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
The pinnacle of San Antonio's season was when Gregg Popovich gave the keys to the youngsters in the Orlando bubble. Everyone from Derrick White and Dejounte Murray to Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV enjoyed a moment, and Spurs fans should've spotted enough potential in this nucleus to want to see if it would sink or swim with a full season of exposure.
Not everyone outside of the Gopher State will share this optimism in the new-look Wolves, but color me intrigued in the Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell duo. It might have to win nightly races to 125 points, but it could have the firepower to do so.
Towns and Russell have both secured All-Star spots with their point-producing prowess. Restricted free agent Malik Beasley, a priority for the team, flashed a three-point cannon over his final 14 games (49 triples at a 42.6 percent clip). The No. 1 pick will throw another log on the fire whether it's spent on a prospect or flipped for a veteran. This club could make a playoff run; I just don't see it happening yet.
It's a good thing the Grizzlies preemptively spent their cap space—in the Justise Winslow trade and on Dillon Brooks' extension—because this was setting up as a quietly tricky offseason. Memphis' surprisingly successful 2019-20 effort might've increased motivation for win-now maneuvering, but patience should rule all for a team led by two 21-year-olds (Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.) in a crushingly deep conference.
Plus, team development isn't guaranteed to be linear. One season's surprise might be next season's disappointment if expectations aren't properly managed. Organic growth should be the goal, and it could take place without positively impacting the standings.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
This is pick-your-prospect territory in the rankings, and it's hard to find more encouraging duos than Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. (Related: It's impossible to picture a scenario in which Ingram's restricted free agency doesn't end with a full-max commitment from the Pels.) They posted a plus-8.2 net rating across 408 minutes this season, and that number should keep climbing as they get a better feel for one another.
Saying that, it's a lot to ask Williamson to copilot a playoff run at this stage of his career, especially when the West is wildly deep. New Orleans might also need replacements for veteran free agents Derrick Favors and E'Twaun Moore, and there's always a chance the front office flips Jrue Holiday for a future-focused return.
16. Phoenix Suns
How much stock should anyone put into the Suns' unblemished run through the bubble? I'd be lying if I said it didn't help them slightly separate in this thicket of Western Conference clubs.
The bigger draws here, though, are Devin Booker's ongoing ascension, Deandre Ayton's two-way strides and the opportunities for upgrades around them. Phoenix has the cap space to sign a difference-maker, the trade chips to deal for one and the 10th pick to grow the young nucleus.
Head coach Monty Williams makes it easier to trust this team, and his repurposing of Cameron Johnson as a stretch 4 salvaged what was a widely panned pick (by almost everyone, including me).
15. Indiana Pacers
Change is coming to the Circle City. Rather, more change is likely coming even after the dismissal of head coach Nate McMillan. Victor Oladipo might want out (or the Pacers might be hesitant to commit to him given his recent injury woes), and interest in Mike D'Antoni, as reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, may indicate a willingness to break up the twin-towers pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner.
That means the Pacers' floor, which is usually their best selling point, might be lower than expected. They should return to the postseason barring catastrophic injury woes, but their hopes of challenging for a top-four seed might be finished.
This section could be used to deep-dive on the Blazers, but don't we know this squad already? There will be slight changes—more Gary Trent Jr., maybe no Hassan Whiteside—but it still follows the lead of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. That core can be really good, but it usually lands closer to rock-solid.
So, instead, let's use the remaining space to marvel at Lillard's greatness. The 30-year-old entered this season as a four-time All-Star and still found ways to raise the bar. His 30.0 points and 8.0 assists per game were both personal bests. He also cleared 40 percent from three for the first time while launching 10.2 long-range looks per night, which is ridiculous.
13. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs might deem themselves one star away from contention and use that to fuel an offseason blockbuster. Patience seems the more prudent approach, though.
For starters, Dallas might be close to contention already. While it landed seventh in the conference standings, it finished sixth overall in net efficiency. Luka Doncic is already an MVP candidate, and when Kristaps Porzingis is healthy, he shows flashes of being a championship-caliber co-star.
But that's the other thing: Porzingis isn't healthy. He recently had surgery to repair a meniscus injury in his right knee, and he previously lost more than a season to an ACL tear in his left. Dallas should probably see if he can get right before making an all-in push. Luckily, it isn't up against the clock since Porzingis is 25 and Doncic is just 21.
12. Houston Rockets
I don't want to say the Rockets might be done when James Harden just averaged 34.3 points, Russell Westbrook went for 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game and the three-and-D ranks were capably filled by Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.
But Mike D'Antoni is gone, the Westbrook experiment went awry in the postseason, and Houston has limited resources to improve the roster.
So...the Rockets might be done?
It's a safe bet general manager Daryl Morey will leave no stone unturned, and maybe he can figure this out. But there are non-outlandish discussions about whether Houston should abandon hope with this core and deal Harden for a ready-made rebuilding kit. Houston's best-case scenario may stretch up near the top five, but its doomsday outlook could fall outside the top 20.
11. Toronto Raptors
Look, no one needs to tell me there's risk in doubting the Raptors. They went from having Kawhi Leonard to not having Kawhi Leonard and somehow improved both their winning percentage (.707 to .736) and net rating (plus-5.8 to plus-6.1). Head coach Nick Nurse is a miracle-worker, and everyone on this roster is better than you think (including six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry).
But two questions are tough to answer ahead of next season.
For starters, how will this roster actually look once Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Chris Boucher all pass through free agency? Secondly, does 2018-19's Most Improved Player, Pascal Siakam, have yet another gear to help fill in the gaps that will inevitably open? I'm pessimistic enough to place them just outside the top 10.
10. Utah Jazz
It's always sunny in Salt Lake City. Or at least it feels that way at the moment with the Jazz potentially turning one significant step in roster continuity into one giant leap for the franchise.
Mike Conley's awkward introduction is behind him. He looked as comfortable as ever inside the bubble and appeared like the difference-maker Utah originally targeted, averaging 19.8 points on 48.4/52.9/86.4 shooting with 5.2 assists against 1.0 turnovers in five playoff games. Equally important, Conley finding his footing did nothing to disrupt Donovan Mitchell's apparent superstar turn (36.3 points on 52.9/51.6/94.8 shooting for the playoffs).
That can be an elite backcourt combo, which makes the rest of the roster all the more enticing. An uncomfortable conversation about Rudy Gobert's next contract is coming at some point, but for now he's still an elite interior anchor and aerial finisher. Throw a healthy Bojan Bogdanovic at one forward spot and Joe Ingles at the other (plus a re-signed Jordan Clarkson off the bench?), and you might have the West's next surprise conference finalist.
There are some unanswered questions about consistent superstardom from Mitchell and perimeter defense, but if those return affirmative answers, then this is ranking is too low.
9. Philadelphia 76ers
It's tempting to just drop a shrug emoji here and let you all make of that what you may. I mean, I love Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons' talent, I like the idea of Doc Rivers running this locker room and I can sort of see what Elton Brand was trying to do with this supersized supporting cast (even if it isn't how I would've handled it).
But we all know Embiid and Simmons are awkward fits for each other. We don't know how this roster will respond to Rivers' hiring. And we can all see that Brand's vision for jumbo-ball never came together.
Embiid and Simmons might each hold a spot in the Association's top 10 players, certainly in the top 15. That matters. Even if Tobias Harris and Al Horford are overpaid, they can still play. That matters, too.
There's a reality in which Rivers connects all the dots, and one where he's trying to assemble parts of five different puzzles that all look really cool, but they just don't fit together. Ranking both extremes together is tricky, so—big shrug—ninth it is?
8. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have at least $96.5 million on next season's books, and that's before factoring in the free agencies of Jerami Grant (player option), Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig (restricted). That probably doesn't leave enough flexibility to keep everyone, let alone go outside the organization for assistance.
The good news is Denver might have the best center in the business in Nikola Jokic and an ascending star in Jamal Murray. Those two enjoyed a positive net rating across 608 playoff minutes (plus-0.8). Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but when a lot of it came against the best lineups of the L.A. teams it's a huge development for a club many have questioned if it has the star power to contend.
If what Murray did proves sustainable—it definitely has a chance—then the Nuggets' upside hinges on their roster wild cards. That's mostly Michael Porter Jr., who's already an effortless scorer but gives back a lot of what he gets at the other end. But to a lesser extent, it's also Bol Bol (can he fill a role?) and Gary Harris (can he ever get his shot back, and if not, will his contract be used to anchor a blockbuster trade?).
It's tempting to say the Nuggets are trending up, but after a third-place finish in the West and a trip to the conference finals, there really isn't much room left for upward mobility.
7. Miami Heat
If you're susceptible to recency bias, this may come off as insulting after Miami made a run to the Finals. If you care more about season-long trends, though, it may actually be generous. Before transforming into the juggernaut forever remembered as the Bubble Heat, Miami was just seventh in net rating and 11th in winning percentage.
Jimmy Butler's brilliance in the championship round suggests he can be the centerpiece of a full-fledged contender. Bam Adebayo is already on a short list of the league's best bigs. Tyler Herro will lead his team in scoring at some point—maybe next season. Duncan Robinson has a blow torch from three-point land.
The Heat's nucleus is strong, but it will be fascinating to see whether the front office senses a need for any upgrades. Obviously, it has grandiose dreams for the 2021 offseason, but would it rock the boat before then? If someone like Bradley Beal hits the trade market, do the Heat divert their plans and make a push? Could they afford not to with Butler's 31st birthday behind him?
Miami might effectively run it back by using its cap room to give bloated one-year deals to Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder. But given its unique position as a win-now buyer in this market, the Heat owe it to themselves to at least explore the alternate routes to know what might be out there.
6. Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn bet large on talent when it linked Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (and, sure, DeAndre Jordan) during 2019 free agency, and that's usually the right way to handle it in this league. That's how the Nets grab the sixth overall spot on these rankings, even though Durant hasn't played since tearing his Achilles in the 2019 Finals and Irving just saw the Boston Celtics get better without him.
But this is a massive chemistry risk for myriad reasons. The supporting cast has already popped up in trade rumors. First-time head coach Steve Nash was a shocking hire, and it sounds like the Nets' stars plan on having a...let's say unique setup with the new skipper.
Look, maybe this collaborative coaching model becomes the new gold standard in what's already a players' league. Maybe it's less extreme than it sounds and something similar to what a lot of non-authoritarian coaches already do. Maybe Durant and Irving will be so special together it really won't matter who's calling the shots.
But, for better or worse, the Nets should be fascinating.
5. Boston Celtics
Something happened during the Celtics' third Eastern Conference Finals loss in four years. They kept losing control of second-half (and often fourth-quarter) leads. If you're a doubter, you might say the club choked and has some sort of fatal late-game flaw. But if you're a believer, you could see it as part of the growing process for a team that often followed the lead of a 22-year-old (Jayson Tatum) and 23-year-old (Jaylen Brown).
"Just have to learn how to grow," Kemba Walker said, per Mark Medina of USA Today. "We're going to have to figure out how to do those things down the stretch. We got time. At some point, we're all going to look back at this and just learn."
Walker's glass is clearly half-full, but this core does figure to have more time together. Assuming Gordon Hayward ($34.2 million) and Enes Kanter ($5 million) both pick up their player options, this roster will return virtually every rotation member, barring any trades. That should be a good thing, again if you think the late-game stumbles are correctable.
That seems a safe bet given how much better Tatum and Brown can get. While Tatum made his All-Star leap this season and Brown's could be coming the next, neither could be anywhere near his ultimate ceiling. That's a frightening thought.
4. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are the hardest team to rank for next season, and it's not particularly close. Maybe that means I'm overvaluing them by placing them this high, but they will bring back three central figures from a dynasty that's just one year removed from making five consecutive Finals appearances.
Then again, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all on the wrong side of 30. Curry just had a season disrupted by injury, and Thompson's was completely erased by a June 2019 ACL tear. Green played 43 games, but they were some of the worst witnessed since his rookie season (.044 win shares per 48 minutes, miles removed from his career average of .132).
The supporting cast around them was worsened considerably, especially in experience and basketball IQ. The Warriors are relying on the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole and, if he's healthy, Kevon Looney. They have some intriguing trade chips (the No. 2 pick, a lightly protected 2021 first-rounder from Minnesota) and a massive trade exception, but those are only helpful if the market has something to bear.
I have questions about this team, in other words, but I've also grown accustomed to expecting greatness from Curry, Thompson, Green and Steve Kerr. This franchise has shown a willingness to spend big, and maybe that's a real difference-maker in this financial climate, too. I can't put Golden State back on top, but it has to be within arm's reach of it.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
An offseason of soul-searching could be good for the Clippers after they failed to hold a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals. But what might not be so great are the impending free agencies of Marcus Morris Sr. and Montrezl Harrell, which could force the club to choose one and shave off some of its depth.
Morris is almost certainly a keeper, which seems strange to say about a 31-year-old with a career 13.4 player efficiency rating. However, the Clippers traded a first-round pick to get him—after losing control of almost every other future first in last summer's Paul George deal—so one would assume the plan was for him to be more than a rental.
There shouldn't be a big debate of Morris vs. Harrell, assuming L.A. even feels a need to choose. Big wings are more valuable in the postseason than interior bigs, especially when the latter comes with defensive deficiencies.
That's the easy call for the Clippers. What's not is finding Doc Rivers' replacement, adding a playmaker with limited means of improvement and figuring out how many moves are enough to best position this roster for success.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can both enter free agency in 2021. As new as this partnership is, it's already on a ticking clock.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee has three priorities for this offseason: getting Giannis Antetokounmpo's signature on a supermax, finding ways to strengthen his supporting cast and avoiding the Heat at all costs next season.
OK, the first might be out of the Bucks' control, and the third is mostly tongue-in-cheek (though it is a brutal matchup for them). But No. 2 is the big one, and it all depends on how much Milwaukee is willing to do (and spend).
Standing pat won't seem like the worst idea, and on some level, it isn't. The Bucks arguably have the Association's highest floor. Let's not forget, before their second-round ouster they paired a .767 winning percentage (63-win pace) with history's 12th-best per-game point differential (plus-10.08 points). They have a capable co-star in Khris Middleton and solid supporting pieces.
But is solid good enough? The Bucks could use more shooting, shot-creating and half-court scoring. Frankly, they could use Chris Paul, who should be readily available given his timeline and the Thunder's. But Milwaukee may not have interest in the Point God, which makes it tough to tell where it might seek out an upgrade. The Bucks aren't exactly overloaded with trade chips, and their only rotation player with any real upside is Donte DiVincenzo.
This is nitpicky for a club responsible for the league's best record this season and last, but there are just enough questions with its championship blueprint to deny it the No. 1 spot.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
This could be a busy offseason for the Lakers, as a slew of their regulars, including Anthony Davis ($28.8 million), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8.5 million) and Rajon Rondo ($2.7 million), hold player options. L.A. needs to find more shooting, and if it keeps the No. 28 pick, it might value floor over ceiling if it doesn't have the most trust in its role players.
The front office has some work to do, but barring the wildly unexpected, Davis and James should remain side by side. That's reason enough to lock in the champions at No. 1. When they shared the floor, the Lakers became cheat-code dominant. In case it wasn't enough to outscore opponents by 8.0 points across 1,455 regular-season minutes, the powerful pair pumped that number to 14.8 in 566 playoff minutes.
"We know who we are," James said, per NBA.com's Michael C. Wright. "We know what we're about. We want the best, seriously, every single day both on and off the floor for one another. We're just not jealous of one another. I think that you align that with respect, I think the sky's the limit."
In Davis' first Finals, he averaged 25.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.0 blocks while compiling a brilliant 57.1/42.1/93.8 shooting slash and navigating around a heel injury. He didn't receive a single Finals MVP vote, since James earned a unanimous honor with 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists.
The supporting cast sometimes sputtered around them and the half-court offense had some clunky moments, but none of it mattered. James and Davis powered the Lakers to their 17th title and cemented this squad as the team to beat until proven otherwise.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.