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.
Tier 5: Eighth Seed Challengers
21. Sacramento Kings
Despite being ravaged by injuries – Marvin Bagley, De'Aaron Fox, Richaun Holmes and Bogdan Bogdanovic all missed at least 10 games – the Kings rallied to within 3.5 games of the eighth seed when the season was suspended on Mar. 11. Nonetheless, 2019-20 was somewhat of a disappointment, with the Kings failing to build on an encouraging 2018-19 campaign.
There's a good chance they lose Bogdanovic to free agency this offseason, but with Fox, Hield, Holmes and a (hopefully) healthy Bagley in place, the Kings should feel good about their core. Would they feel better about it had they taken Luka Doncic over Bagley? Most likely, yes, but that's neither here nor there.
In terms of flexibility, there's a chance Sacramento could re-sign Bogdanovic, but in a weak free agency class, he'll command a steep price – one that could prove too costly as a Fox extension looms in the near future. Part of the issue is the Harrison Barnes contract, which pays the most average player in NBA history more than $60 million over the next three years. On top of that, Cory Joseph – a 2019 free agency flop – is on the books for $12.6 million each of the next two seasons.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota has made the playoffs one time in the last 16 years. In that span, the Wolves have finished last in the division nine times – including in 2019-20. That was due at least in part to Karl-Anthony Towns missing nearly half of the season, but Minnesota was just 10-25 with Towns in the lineup.
Swapping out Andrew Wiggins for D'Angelo Russell adds some intrigue, but Russell still carries major question marks after joining his fourth team in five years. The Towns-Russell pairing should jumpstart a sluggish offense, but it'll be a struggle for the Wolves to hack it on the other end of the court. Russell was one of the worst defenders in basketball last season, while Towns' shortcomings in that area are well-documented.
Salary-wise, Minnesota will be in fairly good shape next season. Towns and Russell combine to make nearly $60 million, but the only other burden is James Johnson's $16 million player option, which he'll almost certainly exercise. That's a tough pill to swallow, but Johnson gave the Wolves valuable minutes after coming over from Miami. The same can be said for Malik Beasley, who went on a scoring binge after leaving the Nuggets. Beasley is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, but all indications are that Minnesota intends to keep him around.
23. Washington Wizards
Yes, the Wizards are set to pay $41 million to a point guard coming off of a torn Achilles. But things could be worse. For starters, Washington had no business finishing ninth in the East this season with a roster of Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and 10 borderline-G-Leaguers. Beal and Bertans led the team in minutes. The other four players to top 1,000 minutes? Ish Smith, Troy Brown, Rui Hachimura and Isaac Bonga (Isaac Bonga!). He won't win it, but Scott Brooks deserves some Coach of the Year consideration (I'm serious).
Looking ahead, the Wizards could lose Bertans in free agency, though that's not necessarily a guarantee. On a more positive note, Ian Mahinmi's contract finally comes off the books, while both Thomas Bryant ($8.3 million) and Rui Hachimura ($4.7 million) are on affordable deals. If they do lose Bertans, the Wizards will be in need of another veteran piece, but the pickings will likely be slim, and they may have to settle for mid-level depth pieces.
At the end of the day, though, Washington's future – at least for the next three years – hinges almost entirely on Wall's health. Beal has proven capable of single-handedly keeping the franchise out of the cellar, but the Wizards need Wall to return to playoff contention. Given the severity of the injury and the amount of missed time, most remain skeptical. But Wall has stated several times that he expects to be back at 100 percent whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
If the five-time All-Star is back to even 80 percent of what he was at his peak – an All-Defensive and All-NBA selectee – Washington could be back in the mix for a bottom-three playoff spot in the East in 2021.
24. Orlando Magic
Under normal circumstances, the Magic likely would've made the playoffs for the second straight year. But that was largely due to a horrific bottom-half of the Eastern Conference, which was home to nine teams at least four games under .500 at the time of the shutdown. Nikola Vucevic took a step back after a career year, while Aaron Gordon continued to look like anything but an All-Star-in-waiting.
Orlando should be encouraged by the progress made by Markelle Fultz, who still has limitations but has rounded into a lower-level starting point guard – much more than could be said this time last year. Even more encouraging was Jonathan Isaac's emergence as one of the better all-around defenders in the league before suffering a knee injury in January. Isaac has the look of a foundational piece, but outside of him, the roster is rather uninspiring. Even if they lose Evan Fournier to free agency this summer, the Magic don't project to have significant cap space. That's thanks to money tied up in Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Terrence Ross, in addition to the Vucevic contract, which pays him $26 million in 2020-21.
Chances are, next season will look very similar to the last two for Orlando. They have enough to contend for a seven or eight seed, but there's little reason to believe the ceiling is any higher.
25. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls look the part of an up-and-coming team, but 2019-20 will mark their third straight season with fewer than 28 wins (they were on pace for 27). There's been public tension between the players and coach Jim Boylen, who took over following the firing of Fred Hoiberg. Ownership also opted for a new management structure, hiring a new VP of Basketball Ops and a new GM. Pressure is mounting.
Injuries played a role in the disappointing 2019-20 campaign. Out of 65 games, Markkanen played 50, Wendell Carter played 43 and Otto Porter played only 14. Fourteen different players drew a start for Chicago.
There were positives, like Zach LaVine having a great offensive season, Tomas Satoransky continuing to be a multi-position glue guy, Kris Dunn's defense remaining excellent and Coby White's late-season emergence. But Markkanen took a step back, which is concerning since he's supposed to be one of the two core pieces of the team. Maybe it was the injuries; maybe it was the coaching; maybe he isn't as good as people hope.
Chicago will have three expiring contracts next season, assuming Porter takes his $28.4 million player option (he will). Cristiano Felicio (finally) and Markkanen will also be expiring. What happens with Markkanen will be interesting, and his performance may decide whether or not the franchise extends him or tries to trade him for 80 cents on the dollar. Trading LaVine would be another way to shake things up, though that seems like a public relations nightmare. Ultimately, unless new management decides to be aggressive, it seems like this roster will simply run it back and hope for the best.
Tier 6: Rebuilding In The Right Direction
26. Atlanta Hawks
Optimists thought the Hawks could sneak into the eighth seed during the 2019-20 season, but things got off to a rough start when John Collins was suspended 25 games for steroid use. That exposed how shallow Atlanta's roster was and, ultimately, the team ended up going 20-47.
Collins and Trae Young both looked great, however. The Hawks have found their one-two punch of the future. At just 22 and 21 years old, respectively, the pair combined for 51.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 10.8 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Kevin Huerter took a light step forward as a capable role player. Rookies De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were fine, with Reddish steadily improving in the weeks leading up to the shutdown.
While making the playoffs in 2019-20 may have been a pipe dream, the organization has clearly turned its gaze to the 2020-21 postseason, as they traded for Clint Capela in early February. Due to injury, Capela played just 39 games for the Rockets and never debuted for the Hawks, but he had another quality season, averaging 13.9 points, 13.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 32.8 minutes. His fit with John Collins is suspect, but from a talent perspective, Atlanta has the pieces to make a leap.
27. Charlotte Hornets
Expectations can't get much lower than what was thought of the Hornets coming into the 2019-20 season, with oddsmakers giving them an over/under of 23.5 wins. Charlotte was bad, make no mistake, but the Hornets hit the 23-win mark by Mar. 11 and surely would have gone over if the regular season continued.
After inking a three-year, $56.7 million contract with the Hornets, Terry Rozier is who fans were focused on. But that story fell by the wayside quickly as Devonte' Graham burst onto the scene as a relatively unknown second-year guard. In terms of NBA ranks, the 24-year-old was fifth in made threes (218) and fourth in assists (471) while leading the Hornets in points per game (18.2). Rookie PJ Washington looks like he'll be a solid role player; Miles Bridges didn't take a leap many hoped he would; Malik Monk got hot late in the year.
Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller are still on the books next year for – graphic content warning – a combined $42.5 million. But Bismack Biyombo will at least come off the books, giving the Hornets flexibility, especially if they can deal Batum and/or Zeller to a contending team. Charlotte will be bad again in 2020-21, but Graham, Rozier, Washington, Bridges and Monk is a passable young core to work with, and more good draft picks should be incoming.
Tier 7: Bottom-Feeders
28. New York Knicks
Last offseason, the Knicks perfectly executed their grand plan to field an entire team of power forwards. While the strategy didn't lead to positive results on the court, the good news is they're not tied to any of those players long-term. But as far as 2020-21 is concerned, New York will have little choice but to remain in a holding pattern. The Knicks have long tried (and failed) to make their power moves in free agency, but there are no lottery tickets in the 2020 class, so Leon Rose and Co. will likely keep their powder dry until 2021.
That's the right thing to do for the future of the franchise, but it won't accomplish much in the short-term to improve a team that ranked 29th in scoring, 28th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating last season.
29. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons were expected to remain in NBA Purgatory in 2019-20, but things fell off the rails as Blake Griffin played just 18 games due to a knee injury (and wasn't good). Sitting at 19-34 at the deadline, the Pistons opted to deal two-time-All-Star Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers (?) for Brandon Knight (?), John Henson (??) and a 2023 second-round pick (???). Drummond has a $28.7 million player option for 2020-21, and it seems like the organization assumed he'd decline the option, and that Knight, Henson and a second-rounder was the best available offer. Even still, that's one of the most uninspiring returns in recent memory.
What followed was a team led by Christian Wood, who averaged 22.8 points on 14.9 shots, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 block after the trade. Langston Galloway and Tony Snell were second and third on the team in total points after the trade. The tank was on. Detroit won just one more game before the season suspended.
The Pistons will head into 2020-21 having the biggest potential in the league for a completely fresh start, though Blake Griffin is still owed over $75 million across the next two seasons. A young core of Wood, Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya is underwhelming, but the team will presumably add a few high draft picks over the next two or three offseasons.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland had the worst record in the Eastern Conference (19-46) when play was suspended, despite getting relatively healthy seasons from most of the roster. Tensions quickly rose between the players and then-new-head-coach John Beilein, with Kevin Love notably losing his cool at a practice. Beilein exited after 54 games, and interim coach JB Bickerstaff managed a 5-6 record before the shutdown. The team also made an odd trade for Andre Drummond, though didn't have to give up more than Brandon Knight, John Henson and a second-round pick to make it happen.
Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson continued to get their numbers, Larry Nance remained a quality role player, and Cedi Osman was technically on the court for 1,910 minutes. Rookie Darius Garland wasn't effective, though his fit next to Collin Sexton is awkward. Sexton himself had a good offensive campaign, scoring 20.8 points per game on 16.7 shots. That said, he needs to improve as a playmaker (3.0 assists to 2.4 turnovers) and defender (1.1 combined steals-plus-blocks). Kevin Porter also had some flashes.
Thompson is off the books next season, and it would be beyond strange if the Cavaliers re-signed him. Drummond has a $28.7 million player option and no one is really sure what will happen there. Love still needs to be shopped, but his contract is dangerous considering he's an injury liability on the wrong side of 30 who doesn't play defense. Love will never garner as big of a return as ownership/management wants.
Ultimately, Cleveland has a young core of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter and Cedi Osman. Unless they procure a savior in the next draft or two, the Cavs are nowhere near playoff contention.