WE made it! Usually we are hanging out for basketball to return by the time the preseason draws to a close, but considering the Lakers won last season’s title only 72 days ago, fans are still adjusting to such an unusual and quick turnaround. The 2020-21 NBA schedule is bound to give us an experience unlike any other and to celebrate a new campaign arriving, I’ve separated the league into 8 tiers based on a team’s championship credentials for the upcoming season.
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Tier 8 – A few years away from being a few years away
New York Knicks
CLEVELAND and New York fans understand why their franchises are sitting 29th and 30th in most NBA power rankings with a lot of work to do before either club sees the playoffs again. Young Cavs guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton instil some confidence, with the Knicks’ promise lying in their frontcourt with R.J. Barrett and recent draftee Obi Toppin. However, both ball clubs are weighed down by players either past their prime, attached to a bloated contract or not skilled enough to make a difference.
DETROIT are no strangers to big deals associated with underperformers having dealt Andre Drummond to Cleveland at the deadline last year to shed one such deal. Drummond wasn’t the only issue with Detroit’s roster and the questionable deals handed to Jerami Grant (3yrs/$60M) and Mason Plumlee (3yrs/$25M) this offseason has most Pistons fans looking to jump ship and sell what little stock they may still own. Until they, the Knicks and the Cavaliers start to shed these type of deals and replace them with more exciting youngsters, all three are destined to stay near the bottom.
Tier 7 – Eyes On The Future
Golden State Warriors
Oklahoma City Thunder
RIGHT up until the eve of the NBA Draft, we expected Golden State to be in the championship conversation. Once we learned that Klay Thompson had a torn Achilles that would rule him out for the entire season NBA fans let out a collective sigh of disappointment, leaving Dub Nation to turn their attention towards a title push in 2021-22. They still have some talent on their roster with Steph Curry healthy and Kelly Oubre Jr, James Wiseman and Kent Bazemore arriving with a purpose, but it would be unfair to expect a serious push for the Larry O.
THE other two teams in this category have their eyes on a pair of very different blueprints with Charlotte’s destiny looking very different to that of the OKC Thunder. Signing Gordon Hayward to a 4yr/$120M contract raised a lot of eyebrows, however, if he ages well and can stay on the floor (no certainty by any means) there are reasons to like what the Hornets are doing. LaMelo Ball and PJ Washington appear to be solid building blocks for their future playoff push and Oklahoma City will be hoping they can find similar pieces thanks to their 17 future first-rounders.
MAKING not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but ELEVEN trades this past offseason has the Thunder better positioned than any other franchise to build a future winner. Some current Oklahoma players will help aid the task of constructing a contender in years to come, but there isn’t enough firepower on the roster for that push to come in this season or the next. Until those 1st round picks are conveyed, 25-30 wins is their likely ceiling.
Tier 6 – No Man’s Land
San Antonio Spurs
FINISHING a season with a .500 record is arguably the worst spot a franchise can find themselves – not crap enough to bottom out and seek a valuable draft pick and not successful enough to make a playoff stay that matters. For various reasons, the Magic, Spurs, Kings and T-Wolves all find themselves in this category, with uncertainty the only guarantee for the upcoming season. Top-8 finishes in back-to-back seasons could have some Orlando fans taking a glass-half-full approach, but those playoffs trips have only translated to consecutive 4-1 series losses at the hands of the Raptors and Bucks respectively.
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STEVE Clifford should once again get this Magic squad playing hard enough to post around 35 wins, a similar mark I expect the Spurs to achieve with Gregg Popovich. A picture of postseason consistency for the last three decades, San Antonio is poised for a stay in the lottery over the coming seasons. Pop likely doesn’t have a lot left in the tank and you could group aging vets in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in the same boat. As the rest of the West strengthens around them, I can’t see them fighting for their 30th playoff berth in the last 32 years.
SPEAKING of playoff berths, the Minnesota Timberwolves have their sights set on capturing one of the valuable eight seeds out West for themselves. Buoyed by young talent, the Wolves’ fan base won’t be happy with another season on the outside looking in and dynamic duo Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell could provide enough of an offensive spark to pull off such a feat. However, defensively there are still a lot of red flags for Minnesota and not even top overall pick Anthony Edwards can vault them into a higher tier. There is a similar cautious optimism around Sacramento with young stars of their own hoping to help the Kings take the leap in 2021. While I’m buying all the De’Aaron Fox stock that’s for sale, I’m not hitching my wagon to this middling Sacto outfit.
Tier 5 – Can they make the leap?
New Orleans Pelicans
NOW things are getting interesting. The lower seeds in both conferences are going to be met with fierce competition in the upcoming season, as the NBA continues to experiment with the play-in tournament for the final two spots on both sides of the bracket. The idea was introduced to give teams like the Pelicans a chance to claim the No. 8 seed last year after their tumultuous first half of the season in 2019-20. There wouldn’t be many fans complaining about more chances to watch Zion Williamson work, especially as NOLA continues to push their case as a legitimate threat in the West.
TRADING for Steven Adams certainly helps move the needle in their favour, but there are still a lot of question marks surrounding the Pels entering their first year with new head coach Stan Van Gundy. Another relatively new coach in Monty Williams is hoping his own offseason acquisitions will help his team break an 11-year absence from postseason action. Most notably Phoenix went out and added Chris Paul to help them take the leap, with the Suns looking the part of a playoff team. Seven teams from their conference can be found higher than them in the tier rankings and I’d be betting my hard-earned cash that this Phoenix squad can take up residence in the 8th spot.
MEMPHIS might have something to say about that after their recent encouraging campaign. The arrival of rookie revelation Ja Morant saw the Grizz catch a lot of people and unsuspecting teams by surprise, eventually falling to Portland in the first instalment of the postseason play-in game in August. With another healthy influx of young talent, Memphis will believe they can go one step further especially if Morant makes another jump towards superstardom in year two.
OUT East the Atlanta Hawks are hoping their own gifted guard can drive their playoff push and forking out over $150 million in contracts this past offseason, the time to climb is now. Trae Young won’t likely increase his scoring by another 10 points, but his diverse offensive skillset will help ignite Atlanta’s new-look offense, making them a force to be reckoned with on that side of the ball. The question is, can they get enough stops to string some wins together? Only two teams owned a worse defensive rating than ATL last year and one of them just traded for a former MVP with their intention similar to that of the Hawks this season. Washington leaned on Brad Beal to mount their case for a playoff spot a year ago and now that he has Russell Westbrook as a sidekick, the Wizards would like their chances of revisiting the postseason.
THE growth from their young pieces around Beal and Westbrook will probably determine just how far the Wash Wiz can go in 2021, with a lot of curious eyes following Troy Brown Jr, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Jerome Robinson. There is similar promise around the Chicago franchise right now, however, they don’t have the benefit of relying on All-NBA calibre guards to aid their playoff quest. Given how much the teams around them have improved it’s tough to see the Bulls leapfrogging their rivals and climbing into the top-8, but they do boast a deep rotation of quality NBA players. For Chicago’s postseason dreams to be realised though, someone in their litter of B+ talent needs to emerge as a true A-grader.
Tier 4 – Postseason Staples
*Harden hasn’t been traded (yet) so I’m treating the Rockets as a postseason squad
LET’S address the offensively-blessed elephant in the room. Houston’s fortunes are the hardest to peg at present, as James Harden continues to voice his displeasure at the idea of wearing a Rockets jersey for 2020-21. His trade request has been well documented, but there are 14 other Houston players that will determine how far their ball club can go this season. With lottery teams from a season ago snapping at their heels, I can see them falling out of the conversation if Harden departs and Houston receives a motherload of picks instead of capable players. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are already well acquainted and Stephen Silas will be hoping his two healthy stars can refind their powers and steer the first-year coach to success the same way they once helped boost the Calipari led Kentucky Wildcats.
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ANOTHER first-year coach in Nate Bjorkgen will be hoping he can drive his new squad to greatness as well, with the Indiana Pacers opting for a change of voice. There are a lot of teams that strive for the same level of consistency Indiana has shown in the last decade, reaching the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons – although they haven’t made it out of the first round since 2014. A promising group of players headlined by Victor Oladipo, Domontas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon should see Indiana achieve another postseason trip, but once again they’re destined to merely make up the numbers.
MAKING the jump from playoff staple to champion outfit is arguably the toughest leap to make and a Toronto team that struck gold two seasons ago has certainly fallen a few rungs since. The Raptors have won 72% of their games over the three regular seasons – a better winning clip than any other organisation in the NBA, but recreating their now memorable run to a title in a post-Kawhi world is a task too tall. Nick Nurse continues to mount his case as the best coach in the league, Fred VanVleet keeps reminding us all why we have to “bet on ourselves” and of the three squads in this bracket I have the most faith in Toronto proving me wrong. It’s still not enough to move them into the championship conversation.
Tier 3 – The Pseudo Contenders
NOW we’re getting serious. While it wouldn’t be unfathomable to see Utah, Boston, Miami or Portland rise above the trials and tribulations of a COVID affected season and win it all, I just can’t get behind any of these four squads. Starting with Utah, they received a MASSIVE boost on the eve of the season with Rudy Gobert re-committing to the franchise for five years and becoming the richest center in league history in the process. While Gobert is a crucial piece to success, it may take another historic Donovan Mitchell scoring spree for the Jazz to prove their legitimacy to the rest of the basketball world. Twice in a seven-game battle with Denver, Mitchell scored 50+ points, but even that couldn’t get Utah over the line.
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ASIDE from bringing Derrick Favors back to Salt Lake City, the Jazz hardly tweaked their roster over the offseason which gives me scepticism around their ability to make a worthwhile playoff stay. That’s not to say continuity can’t lead to success with Portland managing to advance all the way to the West Finals in 2019 thanks to their two-headed backcourt stars in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Throwing a fully fit Jusuf Nurkic into the mix with the Blazers’ offseason additions, Robert Covington and Derick Jones Jr, has a lot of pundits predicting big things out of Oregon over the next 7-8 months.
I can understand the growing support for Portland to break through to the top-4 out West, with the Blazers surviving the first-ever play-in game to keep their postseason streak alive. However, the growing challengers who finished in the lottery and the improvements from teams in a similar category as Portland has me anticipating another fight for one of the final seeds all the way until the end of the season. Last year’s Eastern Conference finalists probably won’t have to worry about sliding that far, but at the same time, neither Boston nor Miami improved their chances of taking out the Larry O’Brien trophy.
KEMBA Walker’s knee issues worry me from a Boston perspective and falling one series W short of a Finals berth three times in the last four years makes me think they’ve missed their window. That may be a tad harsh following Jayson Tatum’s leap into superstardom and another impressive campaign from Jaylen Brown, but again, I think the Celts may have missed their opportunity to break through to the big dance. The Heat were the team that halted them in the most recent East Finals, storming to a surprise matchup against the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers only to succumb in six games. If history is anything to go by, Miami should be absent from playoff action again this year after seven straight seasons alternating between missing and making the postseason. I’d love to see Jimmy and Bam prove me wrong and steer the Heat to another unlikely Finals run, but after capturing lightning in a bottle once, I can’t see it striking twice.
Tier 2 – Capable Challengers
IF any of these six teams were hoisting a championship trophy in July I would not be shocked. Seeing Brooklyn achieving instant success shouldn’t surprise anyone with Kyrie Irving and a hopefully fresh Kevin Durant leading the charge and a dual MVP winner in Steve Nash stepping in to manage the locker room. There may be growing pains between the two opinionated All-NBA staples, but the rest of the roster makes me believe they can make some noise this year. Contrary to what some believe, the Nets’ core is full of players equipped to support their two stars, similar to what the Philadelphia 76ers are building under Doc Rivers.
A change at the top of the helm could be just what the doctor ordered for the Sixers, with the franchise keen to see how their new pieces fit together. Oddsmakers still have Philly as James Harden’s most likely destination and it’s tough to gauge what a Harden for Ben Simmons swap would do for the city’s title chances. Either way, they don’t have a lot to show for three straight playoffs visits and another slow/sluggish start could force Daryl Morey to pull his itchy trigger finger on a blockbuster deal.
ONE team linked to a lot of big names in the trade rumour mill is the Denver Nuggets, however, their budding nucleus of talent has patiently grown into a team worth watching. The franchise seems ready to reap the rewards of their investment in recent drafts, led by tenured Nuggets Jamal Murray and the passing maestro known as Nikola Jokic. The dynamic one-two punch could be something opponents fear for years to come and regardless of if they take out the ultimate prize Josh Kroenke deserves a cap tip for building a bonafide contender in a short amount of time. Their conference rivals in Dallas are also quickly establishing another threat to the Lakers’ crown, with Luka Doncic poised to take the competition by storm. Voter fatigue could see Giannis fail in his quest to take out three straight MVP trophies, with Doncic best positioned to claim the league’s highest individual honour.
BOTH of them would happily trade that accolade in for a championship ring, but the Mavericks may have to follow in Denver’s footsteps and deploy more patience before the rest of their roster is ready to launch a title assault. Milwaukee, on the other hand, has dominated two straight regular seasons only to see their playoff stay amount to nothing. Now that Antetokounmpo has sworn his allegiance to the Bucks, the time is now for Giannis to lead them to the promised land. The inferior East is there’s for the taking after making some tweaks to an already impressive unit with the large majority of people in Wisconsin praying Jrue Holiday is the missing piece in a championship puzzle.
WHILE they’ve fallen short of their goals in recent times, they can take some solace in knowing they haven’t yet self-combusted in the playoffs the same way the L.A. Clippers did in their most recent crusade. Los Angeles ‘little brother’ team has been trying to emerge from the shadows for decades now and Kawhi Leonard + Paul George gives them their best chance yet of proving they belong. Anything short of a West Finals appearance would be deemed as a failure in the eyes of many, and should they make their way that far, there’s every chance their ‘big brother’ will be the opponent.
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Tier 1 – The Creme of the Crop
Los Angeles Lakers
THERE can only be one team at the top of the food chain. After a strong free agency period, most hoop heads have the reigning champs in the box seat to repeat, with the NBA Championship tracker at Sports Betting Dime confirming the Lakers’ label as title favourites. When you dissect their moves since late November you can understand why. Since moratorium lifted Los Angeles has: added Dennis Schroder, Wes Matthews, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell; re-signed Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, extended LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma and of course, watched Talen Horton–Tucker break out during the preseason. The Lakers have all the ingredients to construct a dynasty in the coming seasons and it all starts with defending their title in 2020-21.
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