B/R's Final 2020-21 NBA Power Rankings
This was the wildest NBA season. There were questions about whether it came back too soon, and the rash of COVID-related postponements made the start of the season a bit rough. Things began to pick up as the season went on, then the final weeks provided intrigue with seeding in flux and the play-in tournament giving more teams a chance to make the playoffs. Seeding was not set until the final day of the season.
Heading into the season's last day, only one seed in the West was locked up. The first through ninth seeds were all dependent on how the final day played out. In the East, only two seeds were set before the final games. When everything shakes out, there will be some interesting playoff rematches like Bucks vs. Heat and Mavericks vs. Clippers.
The criteria for this week's power rankings are slightly different. It is more of a look ahead at the team's prospects in the playoffs or how a lottery team positioned itself for the lottery.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week's Rankings: 30th
There is no way to look at the Thunder's starting lineup against the Kings last week and think they are not going for a tank job. They did not start a single guard, using 7' Aleksej Pokusevski and 6'7" Kenrich Williams in place of the typical backcourt.
Oklahoma City has lost eight of its last nine games. Picking up the last win of the season actually cost the Thunder a chance at the best lottery odds in this year's draft. Instead of a 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick they have an 11.5 percent chance. It might seem small but for a rebuilding team that is a huge difference.
There have been a few young players who have popped for the Thunder, like Pokusevski, Moses Brown, Theo Maledon and Ty Jerome. They have shown flashes of being pieces Oklahoma City can develop going forward.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week's Rankings: 29th
It is a little weird but the Cavaliers' win against the Celtics came at a heavy draft price. Cleveland had a chance to make it a three-way tie for the last spot in the bottom three. It would have forced a coin-flip to figure out the draft order. Of course, there is still a chance for Cleveland to get the top pick, but the odds have been massively decreased.
Besides the draft, Cleveland will have some questions it needs to answer. The Cavs have a young core with Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Jarrett Allen but need to find a way to get Kevin Love's contract off their books. His trade value is fairly low with so much left on his deal, but a buyout could be possible.
Depending on where the draft pick lands, Cleveland may be in a spot to make a mini-jump next season.
28. Houston Rockets
Last Week's Rankings: 28th
Houston finished with the league's worst record at 17-55. Stephen Silas' first year was a brutal one with Russell Westbrook's trade demand, James Harden forcing his way out and a 20-game losing streak.
Even with everything that went wrong, there were some bright spots. Christian Wood had a strong first year despite only playing 41 games. He showed he is an important piece going forward, averaging 21 points, 9.6 rebounds while shooting 37.4 percent from three. Kevin Porter Jr. was a nice pickup from Cleveland, posting 16.6 points and 6.3 assists.
All eyes will be on the Rockets' pick in the lottery. If it falls out of the top four, it will be heading to the Thunder as a result of the Westbrook-Chris Paul trade.
No. 27 Orlando Magic
Last Week's Rankings: 27th
It was an interesting season for the Magic. It started with playoff hopes with Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz. Then Fultz went down early with an ACL injury, making the year a challenge. Then midway through the season, Orlando jumped off the treadmill of mediocrity and went for the total rebuild.
At the trade deadline, the Magic found new homes for Vucevic, Gordon and Fournier, getting back young prospects plus draft compensation. Their trade with the Bulls means the Magic will have two lottery picks and Wendell Carter Jr. He has looked like a solid piece averaging 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds. R.J. Hampton was another intriguing piece they acquired in the Gordon trade.
The Magic picked a path and now it will be a question if they can make the choices to get the rebuild done quickly.
26. Detroit Pistons
Last Week's Rankings: 26th
Detroit came into the season intending to kick off its own rebuild process. Jerami Grant has shown he can be a No. 1 on a lottery team. Saddiq Bey had a strong rookie year shooting 38.4 percent from three. Killian Hayes showed flashes after he came back from his early-season injury averaging 5.4 assists.
The Pistons' front office has decided that Dwane Casey is the right man to lead the rebuild, agreeing to a contract extension. He will be under contract through the 2023-24 season and will be responsible for continuing the development of the youngsters.
Finishing the season 20-52, the Pistons will be one of three teams with the best odds to land the top pick in the draft.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week's Rankings: 25th
It was a good second half of the season for Minnesota with the coaching change. It went 16-20 post-All-Star Game, but that came at a cost.
With the sixth-worst record in the NBA, the Wolves' draft pick could end up in the hands of the Warriors. The big hope is that the Basketball Gods will save them after winning so many games.
The year itself was a rough one for Minnesota with injuries to Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell. Anthony Edwards had a great rookie season, especially after the All-Star game. He dropped 23.6 points while shooting 35 percent from three. He probably will not win Rookie of the Year, but should be on an All-Rookie Team.
In other news, there will be a new owner in town next season, as Glen Taylor has agreed to sell the team to Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore for $1.5 billion. With a new ownership group in charge, maybe the Wolves will begin to change their fortunes next season.
24. Toronto Raptors
Last Week's Rankings: 24th
It was a long season for the Raptors, first having to relocate to Tampa Bay because of COVID. They started 2-8 in their first 10 games, and just as they began to dig themselves out of the hole, they lost several players and coaches to COVID protocols. It was pretty much a wrap from there.
The offseason will be interesting, as the Raptors will have a big decision on whether to re-sign Kyle Lowry or start a new chapter with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet as the headliners. It will not be an easy question to answer.
Another free agent to keep an eye on in Toronto is team president Masai Ujiri. Contract talks will supposedly begin after the season and it seems the Raptors are intent on keeping him. The big question is can Ujiri be lured away?
23. Chicago Bulls
Last Week's Rankings: 22nd
Chicago swung for the fences at the trade deadline, acquiring Nikola Vucevic from Orlando. The plans to pair him with Zach LaVine took a hit when LaVine had to go into COVID protocols. The Bulls were only able to get 15 games together with the tandem.
Despite missing games in the second half of the season, LaVine had a great year. He was efficient, shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three for his 27.4 points. He also tapped into the playmaking part of his game, averaging 4.9 assists.
Judging the trade on this season's results should be considered a mistake. It would have been a plus had they made the play-in or playoffs this year. The trade was more about next year and beyond. Next season will determine whether the trade worked out.
22. New Orleans Pelicans
Last Week's Rankings: 21st
The Pelicans had playoff dreams at the start of the season, but once again, they are on the outside looking in.
But in this disappointing season, they stumbled on how best to use Zion Williamson. Zion at point needs to be the way forward.
Williamson was an unstoppable force when he got downhill and very few teams had any ability to slow him down. He averaged 27 points on 61.1 percent shooting from the floor. Including passes the Pelicans had a 0.99 points per possessions in pick-and-rolls with Williamson as the ball handler (according to synergy sports technology). The challenge from here is building a team to maximize his talents as both a ball handler and a roller.
One offseason item to watch for in New Orleans is what happens with restricted free agent Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans were willing to move so the question remains whether they will re-sign him, match any offer sent to him or make a sign-and-trade with him.
21. Sacramento Kings
Last Week's Rankings: 23rd
The Kings made a very quiet late-season run for the final spot in the West play-in tournament. That was with De'Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Harrison Barnes. Going 1-3 last week cemented the Kings' spot outside the tournament.
There are a few things to be excited about in Sacramento. Haliburton had a great rookie year with a 13 points-per-game average, 5.3 assists and 40.9 percent from three. Fox continued to develop into a lead guard with 25.2 points and 7.2 assists.
Ultimately, it was historically bad defense that cost the Kings a chance to compete in the play-in. They finished with a 116.4 defensive rating, the worst in the NBA. Improving there has to be their primary focus in the off-season.
20. Indiana Pacers
Last Week's Rankings: 20th
Got to give the Pacers some credit. Despite all the drama surrounding the team, they went 3-2 in the last week. Indiana will be hosting Charlotte for the first round of the play-in tournament and is going to need to pull off two wins to get into the playoffs after finishing ninth.
Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert are the Pacers' three-headed monster offensively with each averaging over 20 points. They have also gotten significant contributions from Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell to help round everything out.
The loss of Myles Turner may be too much to overcome in a playoff matchup but they could do just fine without him in the play-in tournament, since no one associates Charlotte, Washington, or Boston with being a BIG team.
19. San Antonio Spurs
Last Week's Rankings: 19th
Despite backing into the last play-in spot in the West, the Spurs have done well this season. They had the hardest second half schedule in the NBA. Making the play-in is a small accomplishment San Antonio can hang its hat on for this season.
The Spurs are a very interesting team. They have a good amount of young talent from Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl. They will have to decide on DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay this offseason.
Making the play-in is a small accomplishment, but the Spurs will have to make a big decision on what road they want to take long-term.
18. Charlotte Hornets
Last Week's Rankings: 18th
The Hornets gave away a chance to finish in the top bracket of the play-in tournament with their last game of the season. Charlotte was in control for three quarters against Washington and led by as much as 16 points before falling. This plus the overtime loss to the Knicks will have the Hornets requiring two wins to get into the playoffs with a matchup against the Pacers coming up.
On the bright side, LaMelo Ball is likely to win Rookie of the Year and looks like a bona fide star in the making for the Hornets. Getting him early postseason experience would go a long way in his development. It has not been just him but the growth from Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington has Charlotte in a good position going forward.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week's Rankings: 17th
Memphis' five-game winning streak came to an end with the loss to the Warriors. That loss cost them a chance to get into the top half of the play-in tournament. The road to the playoffs for the Grizzlies will now go through the Spurs and then either the Lakers or Warriors. That is not an easy way to get into the playoffs.
A lot of Memphis' success will come down to Ja Morant's performance. The most important aspect is the number of turnovers he has. In their loss to the Warriors he led the team with four turnovers. If they can take care of the ball they should at the very least get one win in the play-in tournament.
The Grizzlies won the series against the Spurs but the last time they played was February 1.
16. Boston Celtics
Last Week's Rankings: 14th
It has been a tough season for Boston. The Celtics started the season with several injuries, missing Gordon Hayward more than they realized. The regular season started out that way and ended that way with Jaylen Brown having season-ending wrist surgery.
Brown's season coming to an end is a big blow for their playoff hopes assuming they get through the play-in tournament. His development has taken another step forward. He was the Celtics' second-leading scorer, averaging 24.7 points and six rebounds a game while shooting 39.7 percent from three. Losing him strains an already thin bench.
Boston will play Washington in the first round of the play-in tournament. They won the season series against the Wizards but this is not the same Celtics team. Being without Brown really hurts in this game since he averaged 26 points against the Wizards.
Despite all of that, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart should be enough firepower for this game.
15. Washington Wizards
Last Week's Rankings: 15th
On April 5, the Wizards were 17-32 and pretty much left for dead. With a miraculous run, they clinched the eighth seed with their win over the Hornets in the final game of the season. The value of finishing in the top half of the play-in bracket means it will take just one win to get into the playoffs.
Everything Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook have accomplished this year was well documented. The thing to keep an eye for the play-in game will be Beal's health and his hamstring. He started out slow against the Hornets before finding his groove.
Washington will face off with Boston in the play-in game. The Wizards went 1-2 against the Celtics but Beal feasted on them. He averaged 40.7 points with 55.3/45.8/96.4 shooting splits. Westbrook struggled, shooting 35.1 percent from the floor and averaged five turnovers. With all that said, no one should count out this team's ability to rise to the occasion.
14. Golden State Warriors
Last Week's Rankings: 13th
The Warriors clinched the eighth seed with their win over the Grizzlies to end the season. This means there will be an epic Warriors-Lakers play-in game. It does not get more exciting than that.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Warriors finished the season in the top five in defensive rating. It was their offense being 20th in offensive rating that held them back. Behind Stephen Curry's offensive explosion is the solid defensive play that has the Warriors in the eighth seed.
Curry's 46 points in the Warriors' season finale clinched the scoring title in his favor. He finished the season averaging 31.8 points and just fell short of the 50/40/90 club this season.
Golden State's regular season was trying with Klay Thompson going down just before the draft, Kelly Oubre's early struggles and James Wiseman's season-ending injury. Those were just some of the obstacles. The resiliency and leadership from Curry and Draymond Green has the team a win away from the playoffs and a tough out for anyone who faces them in the playoffs.
13. Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week's Rankings: 16th
The Lakers finished the season on a five-game winning streak but could not avoid the dreaded play-in tournament. The good news for the Lakers is that they have everyone back and healthy.
LeBron James played the final two games of the season and looked healthy. He averaged 24.5 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Los Angeles also got Dennis Schroder back from COVID protocols and Alex Caruso back in the lineup. Anthony Davis has rounded into form during the streak. In the four games he played he put up monster numbers: 26 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
It is all coming into form just in time for the play-in.
The Lakers will be playing the Warriors in the first round of the play-in tournament. Los Angeles won the season series (2-1) and James played in all three games. He was the Lakers' leading scorer with 20 points, 7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and shot 51.2 percent from the field.
12. Atlanta Hawks
Last Week's Rankings: 12th
Regardless of how the playoffs go, the Atlanta Hawks had a successful season. It was not without drama but they made a coaching change and got healthy at the right time. Nate McMillan won the locker room over while going 27-11. That should be enough for management to remove the interim tag from his title and make him the coach for the next few seasons.
Clint Capela has largely flown under the radar this season but he was Atlanta's most consistent player. He finished the year averaging a double-double (15.2 points, 14.3 rebounds) and won the rebounding title for the first time in his career.
Making the playoffs is a big step forward for the Hawks and giving Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins and Kevin Huerter a taste of the playoffs will go a long way as they continue to grow in the league.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Last Week's Rankings: 10th
The Mavericks have come a LONG way from the start of the season. Dallas started the season 8-13, Luka Doncic looked sluggish and Kristaps Porzingis was still working his way back from a meniscus tear. They also lost several players to COVID protocols throughout the season.
But after that point, the Mavericks got back on track going 35-16 and Doncic entered the MVP discussions. He averaged 28.2 points, 8.3 assists, 7.6 rebounds and shot 37.2 percent from three. Dallas also got big seasons from Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith.
The big question heading into the playoffs is what can the Mavericks expect out of Porzingis. He came back last week after missing the last seven games. Porzinigs has looked good in the three games back but can he maintain that level of play in the playoffs?
The Mavericks will face the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. This is a rematch of their first-round matchup last season. Dallas played L.A. tough, pushing them to six games. There were not going to be any easy matchups in the West but this one might be a very difficult one for the Mavs.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week's Rankings: 11th
It just seems every season Portland's playoff hopes have to come down to the last game of the year. This year their win versus Denver on the final day of the season put them in the playoffs. Avoiding the play-in tournament was huge for the Blazers as they will be able to give their guys some rest before the playoffs begin against the same Denver Nuggets they just played.
Damian Lillard had another spectacular season carrying the Blazers to a 42-30 record. Even more impressive was that the Blazers were able to accomplish that feat despite injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum for large junks of the season.
That was only possible with several unsung heroes like Enes Kanter who averaged a double-double all year. Carmelo Anthony had some vintage Melo moments off the bench, paired with Lillard's excellence.
How far the Blazers can go will be a question considering they have one of the worst defenses in the NBA.
9. Miami Heat
Last Week's Rankings: 8th
Miami is peaking at just the right time despite all the early season struggles with COVID, injuries and finding consistency throughout the year. The Heat's big win over the Sixers showed they still have the ability to be the team that went to the finals last year. They successfully avoided the play-in tournament and finished 40-32 for the season.
Jimmy Butler has had an impressive 2020-21 campaign for the Heat. He scored 21.5 points a night, handed out 7.1 assists and grabbed 6.9 rebounds. This does not include his impact on the defensive end or as the team leader.
The Heat's loss to the Bucks last week put them in the sixth seed and set up a rematch of last season's second-round playoff series. Right off the bat, there will be some fireworks in the playoffs.
8. New York Knicks
Last Week's Rankings: 6th
The Knicks are back! Well, back in the playoffs, that is. Their small three-game win streak to end the season gave them home court for the first round of the playoffs. It is no surprise that the backbone of this team has been the defense. They finished the season fourth in defensive rating and proved they are a Tom Thibodeau team.
A few Knicks could be in the running for several postseason awards. Julius Randle is in the running to make an All-NBA team at the end of the season. Thibodeau's name should be on the shortlist for coach of the year. Derrick Rose is a dark horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 14.9 points, 4.2 assists and shooting 41.1 percent from three.
New York will face Atlanta in the first round. They swept the season series against the Hawks. Randle dominated those games, scoring 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. It is one thing to do in the regular season and another in a playoff series when teams scout against him.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week's Rankings: 9th
L.A. had a strong season, finishing second in net rating and third in offensive rating. The Clippers were the best three-point shooting team, knocking down 41.4 percent by far. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have led the way for the Clippers but the truth is no one will believe in this team until they perform in the playoffs.
The Clippers were not exempt from some standings shenanigans. LA decided to rest both George and Leonard the last two games of the season. The goal was to finish in the fourth seed to stay in a different bracket from the Lakers and it worked! The Clippers finished fourth and will square off with Luka Doncic and Dallas in the first round once again.
The Clippers did struggle against the Mavericks, losing the season series 2-1. The big issue was the 27.8 percent they shot from three against Dallas. That and getting the line an average of just 14 times are areas L.A. will have to address to move on.
The good news for the Clippers is they got Serge Ibaka for the last two games of the season. In limited minutes he averaged 13.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. Getting him back gives Tyronn Lue more lineup flexibility as they head into the playoffs.
6. Denver Nuggets
Last Week's Rankings: 5th
Denver finished the season third in the West and will play Portland in the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets went 3-1 last week and might have done some scoreboard watching at halftime of their last game as they pulled most of their starters.
It is expected that Nikola Jokic is going to be this year's MVP, the first-ever Nugget to win the award. He simply has been amazing with a 26.4 point, 10.8 rebound and 8.3 assist effort this season. Jokic also shot 39.3 percent from three and 56.7 percent from the field.
Hopefully the Nuggets did some location scouting while they were in Portland for this last game because that is exactly who they will be playing in the first round. They won the season series but those games were by a combined six points. Jokic went to work in those wins over Portland but without Jamal Murry, Michael Porter Jr. will have to step up in a big way.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Last Week's Rankings: 7th
The Nets got their big three back just in time for the playoffs. Finishing second in the East, the Nets will be watching the play-in tournament to see who they get in the first round. Their potential first-round opponents could be either Wizards or Celtics.
All eyes will be on the big three, after playing only eight games together. In those games, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden played 202 minutes together and have a net rating 7.2. Durant played just 35 games this season but when he was on the court he was highly effective, scoring 26.9 points to go with his 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists. Irving joined the coveted 50/40/90 club over the 54 games he played last season. James Harden, who clocked in just 36 games, led the team in assists (10.9).
The Nets are heading into the playoffs as heavy favorites to win the title as long as their big three stays healthy, but their road to the finals will not be easy with either the Bucks or Heat in the second round and potentially the Sixers in the conference finals.
4. Phoenix Suns
Last Week's Rankings: 4th
It has been a great season so far for the Suns. Not only will they be making their first playoff appearance since the 2009-10 season, Phoenix will be doing it as the second seed in the West.
The Suns have been a great example of a team that knows exactly who they are and what they want to do. Devin Booker has been great all year working off Chris Paul. The only downside to his season is that he shot the second-worst percentage for his career. Paul has continued his two-year renaissance, leading Phoenix all year. He led them in assists at 8.9 and did a good job orchestrating the offense.
The Suns' reward for the second season will be an opening matchup against the Lakers or Warriors. Getting tested in the first round will prove right away whether the Suns are more than just paper tigers.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week's Rankings: 1st
Philadelphia will head to the playoffs as the top seed. Joel Embiid had an MVP-level season putting up 28.5 points a night, 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks with 51.3/37.3/85.9 shooting splits for the season. It has clearly been Embiid's best season in the NBA.
Besides Embiid's play, it was defense that carried the Sixers this season. They finished the season with the best defensive rating in the NBA. Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle have been terrorizing wings on the perimeter all season long.
It took three tries for the Sixers to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East. Even more worrying was their blowout loss to the Miami Heat. It was not the best way to enter the playoffs for a contending team but it highlighted one issue: Can Philadelphia score enough once the playoffs begin?
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week's Rankings: 2nd
Milwaukee locked up the No. 3 seed in the East long ago but have not rested its guys in the closing week of the season to continue to keep everyone in a rhythm.
By doing so, Milwaukee actually made their first-round series even tougher. The Bucks win over the Heat solidified this being their first-round opponent. Milwaukee will have an opportunity to exercise past playoff demons to start the playoffs.
This season was not the dominant Bucks of seasons' past, which let them fly under the radar a bit. They experimented more on both sides of the court by switching defensively and using someone other than Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker. As a result, Khris Middleton has developed into a more reliable pick-and-roll ball-handler for the Bucks.
Even though Milwaukee struggled at times this season, it would be a mistake to sleep on this squad. They have the talent, defense and offense that will make them a true threat to win it all.
1. Utah Jazz
Last Week's Rankings: 3rd
The Jazz not only locked up the top seed in the West, but also the best record in the NBA after finishing the season 52-20. Rudy Gobert has been his dominant defensive self all season and will likely win his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
Utah is the only team to finish the season in both the top five in offensive and defensive rating while leading the league in net rating (9.0) by a large margin. The Jazz have been one of the best three-point shooting teams this year. That is why they finished first in the final Power Rankings.
The one concern, Donovan Mitchell has not played a game since April 16. The Jazz's playoff ceiling gets much lower if they are going into the playoffs without a healthy Mitchell to close games for them.