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Power Rankings, Part 3: Can Any Team Stop the Lakers?

Our annual preseason tiers list concludes with the teams that have the best shot at taking down LeBron James and the reigning champs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to my annual preseason power rankings, in which I slot all 30 teams into tiers. For each team, we’ll look at a topic, theme, or specific player that stands out to me. Last week, we looked at teams that will likely land in the draft lottery, and on Monday, we detailed the teams fighting for the playoffs. Today, we’re breaking down the teams with the best chances to win the NBA Finals. Here we go.

Contenders With Questions

10. Phoenix Suns

The Bright Future Suns are no more. Phoenix’s contending days have arrived following a run of successful draft picks and acquisitions, headlined by the offseason trade for Chris Paul. Pairing Paul, one of the greatest point guards ever and still one of the best playmakers today, with a player of Devin Booker’s prestige makes Phoenix a bona fide contender.

Booker has become a ferocious scorer capable of severing defenses. He brings much more to the game as a passer and defender, too. In each of the last two seasons, Booker has averaged over 26 points, six assists, and four rebounds with true shooting over 58 percent. This past decade, the only other players to surpass those averages more than once are Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and LeBron James—all future Hall of Famers.

Booker and Paul are both top-15 players, making them the best backcourt duo in the NBA. Having two players this good automatically gives the Suns a chance at making a deep playoff run. But a strong supporting cast is needed to elevate the team to an even higher level. The Suns certainly aren’t lacking depth. They have a bevy of wings, each with a skill that offers something different to the team: Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges bring 3-and-D skills; Dario Saric brings playmaking; Cameron Johnson is a knockdown shooter; and E’Twaun Moore brings a bit of secondary shot creation (and he’s a beloved veteran teammate wherever he plays). They also have other ball handlers (Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter). But what will determine Phoenix’s upside is the production of their bigs: Deandre Ayton, the no. 1 pick in 2018, and Jalen Smith, drafted 10th this November. Smith plays like a big wing offensively, though he’ll need to turn his raw athletic tools into defensive production. More importantly, Ayton needs to bring intensity on a regular basis to anchor Phoenix’s defense; his improvement in two seasons has been remarkable to witness, but for this team to become a champion, he needs to completely iron out the wrinkles in his game.

The Suns are much closer to contention than they’re getting credit for. As their young players gain even more experience over the course of the season, they could become even more formidable threats.

9. Philadelphia 76ers

It only took Daryl Morey a couple of weeks to assemble a roster around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that actually makes sense. The Sixers have more shooters, playmakers, and versatile defenders than they’ve had in recent years. This team will be really, really good—possibly even great. But the Sixers want to win a title, not just make a deep playoff run. To climb to the top of the mountain, they need to answer the lingering question: Outside of Embiid, does this team have any players who will create in the half court in a tough playoff series against an elite defense?

Simmons still doesn’t have a reliable jumper, so he doesn’t qualify for that role. As I’ve said for years, he’ll be at his best when he’s screening and rolling with a playmaking guard who can shoot off the dribble. But none of the candidates on the Sixers have ever proven they can do it in a playoff setting. Tyrese Maxey is a rookie, and he still needs to develop his jumper. Shake Milton, as much as I love his game, lacks experience. Seth Curry has never been a full-time starter, though I’m intrigued by his upside in this context. Maybe one, or several of them, will pop this season, or maybe the Sixers end up trading for James Harden. But until we see one of those things happen, I’m resisting ranking this team any higher despite its obvious promise.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

8. Boston Celtics

The Celtics would rank higher if I knew for a fact that Kemba Walker could stay healthy. But he’s not even ready to start the season because he’s still dealing with a knee that’s been ailing since at least February. Neither the long hiatus before the bubble nor the few months before this season’s opening night were enough time for him to heal. Walker has been undergoing stem cell treatment, and the expectation is he’ll return in late January, though he said he doesn’t want to rush back.

None of this is promising for the Celtics; without Walker at full strength, the team can’t reach its full potential. It’s a shame, really. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have developed to the point that they’re ready to compete for championships; they’ve already been to two East finals, and they will only get better this season. I wonder if the Celtics (like the Raptors, as mentioned in Part 2 of my power rankings) should make a serious bid for James Harden if Houston’s willingness to trade him increases. Why not throw Brown, Walker, Robert Williams, and multiple future firsts at the Rockets for Harden, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon?

The Celtics would be sacrificing at least four seasons of Brown for at least two years of Harden, but they’d immediately become serious contenders. Trading for Harden is not a clear-cut decision for the Celtics, or any other team for that matter. Boston doesn’t need to do anything. Brown is only 24 and has improved every season of his career; is it worth giving up a player of his caliber at that age with no guarantee of a championship or Harden staying long-term?

After all, Tatum and Brown are one of the best young combos in the NBA, and they love to play with each other. Tatum is already an All-NBA player and he’s only 22—the same age Paul Pierce was during his second season, before he was an All-Star or even made the playoffs. The Celtics are only one big move away from being one of the favorites to win it all, but they could also be just a few years away if their young players—including the likes of Aaron Nesmith and Grant Williams—get better. That’s a good place to be.

7. Denver Nuggets

Jerami Grant walking away from the Nuggets for a bigger offensive role with the Pistons is probably the biggest mistake he could have made in his career. He’s not a creator. He’s a finisher off rolls, cuts, and spot-up opportunities, yet he left the team with perhaps the most passers in all of basketball. He’s also a limited rebounder, a flaw that was covered up by Nikola Jokic’s vacuum hands.

But Grant’s absence is an even bigger loss for the Nuggets. Grant isn’t a household name, but he’s one of the primary reasons the Nuggets were able to come back from being down 3-1 against the Clippers. He was the primary defender against Kawhi Leonard, and did an excellent job using his agility and length to make life hard on him. In the first round, he was also the top defender against Donovan Mitchell (who couldn’t miss in that series) and in the conference finals against LeBron James (who is LeBron).

Not having Grant really won’t matter too much during the regular season, but it could hurt come playoff time, when there are no defensive options anywhere near Grant’s level. Torrey Craig is gone. Paul Millsap is back, but he isn’t the same defender he once was. JaMychal Green isn’t good enough. PJ Dozier isn’t big enough. That leaves Michael Porter Jr., who was one of the worst defenders in basketball for stretches of last season. Porter was better in the bubble but still didn’t look the part of a lockdown defender, and he certainly doesn’t project as one either.

To win in the West, the Nuggets will need to find someone who can contain high-powered scoring wings and guards. But maybe it’s too much too soon for Denver. The team is still super young: Jokic is 25; Jamal Murray is 23. Together, they’re one of the game’s best duos. The Nuggets are already a formidable playoff team, but it could take three or four years until the Nuggets have the ideal pieces around their two stars.

6. Dallas Mavericks

Can Kristaps Porzingis stay healthy? It’s that simple, really. Since he’s entered the league, Porzingis has suffered a long and scary list of leg injuries. Most recently, he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, which will cause him to miss the start of the season. Dallas won’t reach its potential without its 7-foot-3 big man, and until he proves he can stay healthy, or until the Mavericks find a reliable second star, they won’t break through to the next tier.

With all that said, the Mavericks are close. Luka Doncic is the favorite to win MVP, and even without Porzingis they still have one of the deepest teams in the entire league. Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson are back after missing action in the bubble. Josh Richardson was acquired on draft night and will add some much-needed defense at the wing position; he’ll be in his natural offensive role as a secondary scorer playing next to Luka. Maxi Kleber is one of the most underrated players in the league. The Mavs can be great. But they need Porzingis in order to be elite.

Serious Contenders

5. Miami Heat

An injured Heat team took two games from the Lakers in the Finals only two months ago, but it seems like people are forgetting how great Miami is. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are stars who make others better, and they lead a deep roster that can play a variety of styles. Miami can run with one or two bigs, use switchable defenses or traditional tactics, and shoot the lights out or attack the basket. And they still have young talent that can improve.

Could Tyler Herro make a leap? Can Adebayo get even better? Will Duncan Robinson improve defensively? And could the Heat make a trade to bolster their team? In some ways, Miami reminds me of the 2002-03 Pistons, who lost in the East finals one year before beating the Lakers in 2003-04. There were two major differences between those two Pistons seasons: Tayshaun Prince evolved from a rookie rotation player to a key cog in the rotation, and Rasheed Wallace was acquired at the deadline and added some much-needed skill to the frontcourt. Miami has options to get better, both internally and externally, to go from a Finals threat to champions, just as Detroit did more than 15 years ago.

4. Brooklyn Nets

Watching Kevin Durant look like Kevin Durant this preseason is reason enough to plop the Nets in the top five. Durant will need to prove he can stay healthy following his return from a ruptured Achilles, but so far, he looks like he’ll rejoin the MVP race. And though Kyrie Irving may rub people the wrong way, he’s undeniably one of the game’s most talented guards. KD and Kyrie should lead one of the game’s top offenses. The question is how good this team can be defensively.

I’ve questioned Brooklyn’s defensive ceiling in recent episodes of The Mismatch, but upon doing additional research, I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s not like the Nets are adding Durant and Irving to a crappy foundation. Brooklyn was tied for the 10th-best defensive rating last season. Durant may not be Peak Durant on defense, but he’s still long and smart enough to be effective. They’ve also added Landry Shamet, Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green, all of whom give Brooklyn something different on defense: Shamet was an excellent guard stopper before injuries hurt him last season, Brown is a versatile wing, and Green can serve as a small-ball big.

The Nets seem geared to play a switchable defensive style come playoff time, which is the type of defense that works best in the modern league. They could also get even better via trades during the season. Forget about trading for James Harden at the moment. Instead think about how the Lakers added Markieff Morris, or the Heat added Andre Iguodala midseason. Can the Nets find their own buyout candidate this season? Or could Spencer Dinwiddie be flipped for a more defensive-oriented player to a team that needs a guard? The Nets aren’t a finished product, but as is, they’re a threat to make a Finals run.

Dallas Mavericks v Milwaukee Bucks

3. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks should once again be the East favorites entering the season given their new formidable trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. But the gap between Milwaukee and the rest of the conference has closed since opening night in 2019. Other teams in the East have gotten significantly better, and Miami exposed Milwaukee’s flaws just a few months ago. The Bucks need head coach Mike Budenholzer to be a more adaptable coach, Giannis to show more half-court scoring goodies (forget a jumper, let’s see a post game), and for Holiday to live up to the hype.

There’s more skepticism around the NBA about the Holiday acquisition than there seems to be among fans and media. It’s warranted. Eric Bledsoe was an offensive zero in the postseason, but he was still spectacular defensively with Milwaukee. Holiday can defend larger players than Bledsoe did, but he’s not a major upgrade on that end. More importantly, the Bucks needed another shot creator so they could slide Giannis into the screener role on more pick-and-rolls. Holiday will be better in that role than Bledsoe and George Hill, but he’s only a serviceable playmaker and he’s not a knockdown shooter who gives opponents nightmares. In the past three years, Holiday has hit only 31 percent of his 3s when dribbling more than once during a possession, per NBA Advanced Stats. Defenses will dare him to shoot in the postseason.

Bucks fans should hope that Budenholzer makes Middleton more of an offensive focal point. Middleton is a lethal shooter off the dribble and a solid passer. Last season, he attempted only 15.3 shots per game, which doesn’t seem like enough for a player who drained 41.5 percent of his 3s. Get him more touches. Sometimes the answer to a problem can be found within.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

Despite an ugly finish to last season, this is still an excellent team on paper. Kawhi Leonard remains one of the game’s five best players and Paul George remains one of the 20 best. Los Angeles made positive additions, too. Serge Ibaka’s shooting ability will stretch out defenses in ways Montrezl Harrell couldn’t (though Harrell’s energy will be missed), and Luke Kennard will inject secondary playmaking that was sorely lacking. (By the way, the Clippers were right to extend Kennard now, because he’s going to surprise people who didn’t get a chance to watch him in Detroit.)

Questions linger, though. Leonard’s health is still concerning—at times last season, he looked a step more sluggish than was in his prime years. One wonders if George’s near-MVP 2018-19 season with Oklahoma City was an outlier or if he can find that version of himself again. The Clippers replaced Doc Rivers with Ty Lue, who says he’s running some triangle offense; maybe that’ll boost his stars even more. But the coaching change feels like a wash. And players like Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, who were reportedly at the center of some of the team’s chemistry issues, are still there. Can the Clippers put any qualms aside this season?

If they can, this season could be much different. The Clippers were a great regular-season team despite all of the load management, clashing personalities, and a lack of continuity. They have one year under their belt together, and they’ve experienced failure. The Clippers are the team best equipped to take down the Lakers, but they need to show improvements—on the court and in intangible areas—to be the team to win it all.

The Favorite

1. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers upgraded across their roster this offseason and then second-year wing Talen-Horton Tucker looked “flat-out special” during the preseason. They are without a doubt the best and deepest team in the league. Only health can realistically prevent them from winning their second consecutive championship.

Frank Vogel is living a coach’s dream with his number of options. Want to play big? Anthony Davis can share the frontcourt with Marc Gasol, a playmaking wizard, or Montrezl Harrell, an energetic rim runner. Gasol and Harrell may not be suited to play heavy minutes against quicker opponents that space the floor, but that’s fine. Just slide AD to the 5 and plug in Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris at the 4.

The Lakers also have better depth at guard than they had last season thanks to the additions of Dennis Schröder and Wesley Matthews, plus the development of Horton-Tucker.

If LeBron James needs to rest, the Lakers can give him time and still be able to compete. That’s important considering the shortened offseason. The Lakers can pace themselves and then go full throttle in the postseason. Right now, there’s no one on their level.