With the current NBA season still in a holding pattern, it's time to look ahead. We already peered into the future at the next five seasons (in podcast form), but for this exercise we're only focused on next season.
Alex Barutha and Nick Whalen collaboratively ranked each team, 1 through 30, with just one question in mind: Which team has the best chance to win the title?
Roster construction was most heavily considered, and projections were made where necessary. However, with so much uncertainty surrounding the upcoming NBA offseason, we shied away from making any major free agency or trade assumptions. The 2020 free agency class projects to be among the weakest in recent memory, anyway, so it's unlikely we see a flurry of major names on the move again as was the case last summer.
Below are the top 10 teams on our list grouped into tiers:
Tier 1: Championship or Bust
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Expectations can't get much higher for Milwaukee. The Bucks will enter 2020-21 having posted the league's best Simple Rating over each of the past two seasons. All of the Bucks' core players are under contract, though it's possible some shuffling of role players could happen considering Ersan Ilyasova has an early termination option while Kyle Korver, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown and Marvin Williams all have expiring deals.
The elephant in the room is 2020-21 being the final year of Giannis Antetokounmpo's deal, and the fate of the franchise hangs in the balance with the presumptive two-time MVP's decision. The disappointment of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals has led to questions about Antetokoumpo's supporting cast – is Khris Middleton a good enough No. 2 option? – and even whether The Greek Freak's offensive style is suited for high-level postseason play.
What's certain is that Milwaukee has proven it is a flat-out dominant regular-season team, and there's no reason to think that will change in 2020-21. The next step is getting to the NBA Finals.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers mortgaged their future to pry open a championship window, and while they may be robbed of a title opportunity this season, they'll be well-positioned again in 2020-21. Even if he doesn't sign long-term right away, Anthony Davis has a player option to return, while LeBron James remains locked into the four-year deal he inked in 2018. As long as that pair stays healthy, the Lakers are a guarantee to be in the mix.
The question is whether they'll find a way to beef up the talent around James and Davis. Contributions from Dwight Howard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso helped the Lakers to the best record in the West this season, but depending heavily on role players in the playoffs is risky. Assets are scarce in the wake of the Davis trade, but Rob Pelinka should seek a true third option – or at least another capable ball-handler.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George during the summer of 2019 quickly turned the Clippers from a feel-good playoff story into a serious title contender. The pair missed a combined 35 games in 2019-20, but that didn't stop LA from having the league's third-best offensive and fifth-best defense.
Much of that is thanks to the bench duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who were both strong candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. However, Harrell's contract expires this summer, and there should be no shortage of teams looking to add him. His specific talents will be nearly impossible to replace if the Clippers lose him, but his departure wouldn't deter title expectations. Leonard and George are pinnacle of versatile, two-way wing players – what's considered to be the ideal player type in the modern NBA.
No matter the supporting cast, the pair's reputation precedes them. Leonard is the ice-cold, two-time Finals MVP with 111 playoff games under his belt; George is the overqualified No. 2, a five-time All-NBA selection with 76 games of playoff experience, including multiple well-fought battles against LeBron James.
Tier 2: Secondary Title Contenders
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia has some major long-term issues to address, but in terms of pure talent, this roster should again be among the NBA's best next season. Shaky as the pairing may be at times, the Sixers have arguably the best duo in the Eastern Conference. If Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can stay healthy, the Sixers certainly have the personnel to bounce back after sitting in sixth place at the time of the NBA shutdown.
But even if Philly again proves to be an inconsistent regular season team, it will remain an undesirable playoff opponent. The Sixers can go as big as any team in the league, forcing matchups that few opponents welcome.
5. Golden State Warriors
Optimism for the Warriors' 2019-20 season was quickly shut down as Stephen Curry suffered a broken hand during the fourth game of the year, with Golden State finishing 15-50 before play suspended. But the Warriors have an opportunity to bounce right back into shape for 2020-21.
Curry and Klay Thompson will be healthy, which should motivate Draymond Green (though his jumper seems to actually be broken). Andrew Wiggins also gave the team some nice minutes late in the year, and a top draft pick is incoming, albeit in a weak class. Concerns about depth remain, but the talent and experience of the Warriors' three core players could propel them back into contention if things break right. We may have already forgotten just how good this team can be.
6. Boston Celtics
Comfortably the third-best team in the East when the season was suspended, Boston should only improve around its young core. Jayson Tatum is 21, Jaylen Brown is 23, Marcus Smart is 25, and even Kemba Walker is yet to turn 30. Assuming Gordon Hayward opts into the final year of his deal, as is widely speculated, Boston won't have much flexibility. But there's reason to believe this roster could make another leap next season, particularly if Walker, who's battled knee injuries for much of 2019-20, stays healthy.
Ultimately, though, Boston's ceiling will be determined by its pair of wings. Brown had a legitimate All-Star case this season, while Tatum was as hot as any player in the league at the time of the shutdown. If Tatum makes the leap into true superstardom next season, the Celtics could emerge as Milwaukee's chief obstacle in the East.
7. Denver Nuggets
Before the 2019-20 season was suspended, the Nuggets sat third in the Western Conference behind only the Lakers and Clippers. Despite concerns about Nikola Jokic's defense and conditioning, he has already established himself as a franchise building block and one of the league's premier big men at age 25.
It's obvious Denver can succeed in the regular season, but something needs to be done to shake off the disappointment of the 2019 Playoffs – one that saw the Nuggets struggle against the Spurs in the first round and lose to the Trail Blazers in the second round. Both Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee will come off the books this summer, allowing Denver to explore other options. That could include giving Michael Porter Jr. a much bigger role, as he looked the part of an NBA starter in his 670 minutes.
Will Barton is who he is, and Gary Harris is becoming an injury liability. Given that Jamal Murray signed a five-year, $169 million extension in the summer of 2019, it's obvious that the franchise is expecting a major leap from him in the very near future. If both he and Porter pop, Denver might be able to take a necessary step forward.
8. Brooklyn Nets
For a number of reasons, the Nets are among the most difficult teams to project next season. Yes, Kevin Durant will be back from injury, but what version of the two-time Finals MVP will Brooklyn get? Durant turns 32 in September and is coming off of torn Achilles. Even so, Durant at 80 or 90 percent is still a superstar talent. The bigger concern may lie with Kyrie Irving, who played just 20 games in 2019-20 and has missed at least 15 games in four of the last five seasons. When healthy, Irving is elite, but the injury concerns continue to mount.
Outside of Irving and Durant, the Nets have some intriguing pieces – Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert – but how they'll fit together in an iso-heavy offense remains to be seen. The Nets could also lose sharpshooter Joe Harris to free agency this summer.
Roster aside, Brooklyn remains without a coach after parting ways with Kenny Atkinson shortly before the shutdown. The Nets appear to be leaning heavily toward hiring a coach with a proven track record, which makes sense as a title window potentially opens up.
9. Houston Rockets
Houston will enter the 2020-21 season with one of the most ambitious team builds in NBA history. Defining it as anything less than extreme is a mischaracterization. Who puts two of the highest-usage guards ever together on the same team? Who starts a 6-foot-5 center? Who shoots over 10 threes per quarter?
Over the years, the Rockets have become synonymous with experimentation, and 2020-21 has the feeling of a capstone. We only saw 14 games of the true small-ball Rockets (since Robert Covington's first start) before the season was suspended. It wasn't exactly convincing, as Houston went 8-6 with a 1.5 net rating. The Rockets may be able to tighten things up during training camp, but expectations will always remain high as long as James Harden and Russell Westbrook are around. If this fails, major changes may be in store for the entire organization.
10. Utah Jazz
While the addition of Mike Conley didn't necessarily go as planned, the Jazz still maintained their status as a mid-level contender in the West. That doesn't project to change next season – unless, of course, they chart the radical course of moving Rudy Gobert as he enters the final year of his deal.
Assuming the core remains intact, Utah should again be in the mix for a top-four seed, but unless Donovan Mitchell makes a Tatum-like leap, it's hard to imagine the Jazz truly pushing the Los Angeles teams. The wild card is Conley, who was supposed to be the piece to push Utah from pseudo-contender to actual contender. If things finally click next season – Conley holds a player option for 2020-21, which he'll almost certainly exercise – he could be what finally pushes the Jazz up a level.
Next up: Teams 11-20