Basketball. Is. Back. I’m ranking all 30 teams and slotting them into tiers. In our four-part series, we’ve looked at teams eyeing the future, teams at the crossroads, and teams on the brink of contention. Today, we’re focusing on my top four NBA Finals favorites: Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the East, and both Los Angeles teams in the West. None of them is an overwhelming favorite like Golden State was in recent years, or LeBron’s Heatles were at the start of the decade. This decade is closing quite differently from how it began, with more parity than in any other year.
That’s what makes this season so different. There are only a handful of teams in the West without any chance of making the playoffs, and virtually every team in the East could grab an honorary playoff spot as the 8-seed. It’s the first year in a long time when there’s not an overwhelming Finals favorite, or any clarity about which 16 teams will actually make the playoffs. So what happens in games during the long regular season will matter. We will get a season with twists and turns, more big trades, and lots of drama.
I’ll always have fond memories for this decade of basketball in how the game evolved and the incredible moments along the way, but I’m especially looking forward to this season more than any other because of the parity. I’m offering up what I think will be the major talking point, story line, or theme for each of these final four teams of this series. Let’s get this started.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Can Giannis Antetokounmpo get better? And if he can, what would that look like? He narrowly missed out last year on joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to ever win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. That it wouldn’t be a total shocker if Giannis were to make another run at both awards in 2020 is a testament to his emerging greatness.
Giannis gets knocked for his jumper, but his accuracy has gotten better; he shot 34 percent on 153 dribble-jumper 3s and 31 percent on 42 catch-and-shoot 3s since Christmas last season, including the playoffs and the 2019-20 preseason. It’s a tiny sample but his form looks smoother. His playmaking, on the other hand, has stagnated.
There were times in the playoffs last season when four or five defenders would be in the paint and he’d force a shot rather than kick it out, like here in Game 5 against the Raptors:
If Giannis can get better at reading those situations, the Bucks offense will be even more lethal. Their roster makes total sense: Brook Lopez earned the nickname Splash Mountain, and now his brother Robin will be raining 3s, too. Khris Middleton is the perfect complement to Giannis, and they have a bunch of other shooters. In preseason, Giannis was noticeably aware of his targets when on the break:
Giannis’s development as a passer would add range to Mike Budenholzer’s offense, and render Antetokounmpo that much more of a threat to make positive plays for his teammates no matter where he is on the floor. It would also lessen Milwaukee’s dependency on Eric Bledsoe’s playmaking. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure left the Bucks searching for a secondary playmaker. He was replaced by Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, neither of whom are in the same class as Brogdon as a passer or defender. He was an integral part of Milwaukee’s best lineups last season. At times, he was even their second-best player, ahead of Middleton.
The Bucks should keep their eyes open for a better playmaker than Bledsoe, who was a stink bomb in the playoffs. In July, I suggested Chris Paul if he looks good this season. Bledsoe, Ersan Ilyasova, and George Hill for Paul would work financially; OKC would need to move players to create roster space, and more assets would be exchanged. Paul is old and expensive, but could he be a risk worth taking in pursuit of a title?
A reliable point guard—whether it’s Paul, Kyle Lowry, or someone else—would take pressure off Giannis and allow Budenholzer to be more creative with actions that get Antetokounmpo rolling toward the rim using on-ball screens and dribble handoffs. Or, if he improves his own playmaking, the Bucks front office could use assets to chase another wing defender, which could prove to be valuable in a potential Finals series. Milwaukee is close to being a Finals contender, but it feels like one piece is missing. It may not matter: Giannis himself could prove to be enough.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers will have the NBA’s best defense. We’re talking about 2004 Pistons potential here. Joel Embiid is one of the league’s most impactful rim protectors, and Ben Simmons is a deserving All-Defensive player. Now they have the long and feisty Josh Richardson to contain opposing point guards. They added Al Horford, who fills a gaping hole behind Embiid.
Horford will start next to Embiid, but he’ll also be the NBA’s best backup center. In the preseason, Brett Brown staggered Horford with Embiid after the opening minutes to always keep a quality rim protector on the floor. Embiid should realistically enter the playoffs healthy and load-managed thanks to Horford. Toss in Matisse Thybulle, who already looks like one of the league’s best wing defenders, plus lengthy wings in Tobias Harris and James Ennis, and you have a matchup-proof defense.
The Sixers can play with jumbo-sized lineups: Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Harris, and Richardson. Or they can be more versatile with Thybulle in the game over Horford or Embiid. Heck, they can even go small with Simmons at center. Brown will be able to dictate matchups with his defense against most teams in the East. In a potential series against the Bucks, Brown has plenty of defenders to throw at Giannis in the half court, and the bodies to build a wall to contain his scary transition attacks.
The elephant in the room is the shooting. Embiid isn’t an outside threat and Simmons shoots with the wrong hand. The reserves have a lot to prove, whether it’s Thybulle and Ennis, or Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton. Harris, Richardson, and Horford will need to shoot the lights out. We’re about to find out how much size actually matters on offense. The Sixers could theoretically bully-ball opponents in the post. Brown could even get creative and run double-big pick-and-rolls close to the rim, which we’ve seen the Bucks do with Giannis. Philadelphia will almost always have a size advantage, which means Simmons will have to beat guys smaller than him, and Embiid will need to make quick reads when double-teams come.
The Sixers also have to come up with a reliable crunch-time plan now that Jimmy Butler is in Miami. Simmons can’t yet be relied on in those situations because of his lack of a jumper, so it’ll likely have to be Harris or Richardson. I made the case last month that Richardson will absorb that role. Brown has been experimenting with using Richardson in a backup point guard role behind Simmons. If Philly can find this go-to scorer, it could mean the difference in a playoff game or a series.
The Sixers get an edge over the Bucks because of their top-end talent and potentially historic defense, even though they have more questions facing their offense. The league is set up for a paradigm shift: Can Philadelphia force teams to start thinking big?
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The first Clippers fan I ever met is my friend and Ringer coworker Isaac Lee. He often wears all black, an appropriate symbol for the sadness he’s long felt for his favorite team. For as long as I’ve known Isaac, he’s never had much hope for the Clippers because, as he told me, there’s a “foreboding premonition in the back of my mind that disappointment is inevitable. You can’t argue against history.” Well, even the most melodramatic Clippers fans like Isaac are starting to feel some hope.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will do that to you. The duo joins a group that features last season’s nastiest pick-and-roll duo—Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—plus a knockdown shooter in Landry Shamet and the world’s most hostile defender, Patrick Beverley. Now Kawhi will get to benefit from this supporting cast:
Sacrifices had to be made for the Clippers to add so much star power (farewell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander!), but Maurice Harkless and JaMychal Green are nice veteran additions, and rookie Terance Mann could eventually carve out a spot in the rotation.
The Clippers have the personnel to match up against anyone. Beverley can hound smaller opposing scoring guards like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, while Kawhi and George can bother LeBron James. Conversely, there aren’t many teams that can stop Kawhi and George. Kawhi will take on alpha responsibilities, while George can abuse the opponent’s second-best wing defender and attack rotating defenses that have their hands full with Kawhi.
The Clippers could use one more ball handler—watch out for Andre Iguodala if he hits the buyout market—and a thick big man better than Ivica Zubac for a potential series against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. But we’re nitpicking. The Clippers have assembled a nearly perfect squad.
All that really matters is that this team is healthy heading into the playoffs, but seeding is also important in a loaded conference, so George’s early-season absence is noteworthy as he recovers from double shoulder surgery. Doc Rivers said George will miss at least the first 10 games. The timeline is unclear, though. I reported this summer that he could miss closer to six weeks, which would mean he’s out for 20-25 games. By the time he’s back, we’ll either be talking about how much he’s missed or how Leonard is mounting a case for his first MVP.
Kawhi said he won’t be under a load management plan anymore now that he’s healthy. He doesn’t go balls to the wall on defense anymore since he paces himself for the playoffs, but he can still turn it up in big moments. There will be many of those early in the season, before George returns, with games against the Lakers, Rockets, and Bucks. And we already know what he can do offensively after he went full MJ last postseason.
The Clippers haven’t just changed their roster, they’re changing the way they play. Their shot selection is shifting: They ranked 27th in 3-point shooting frequency last season, but were closer to league average during preseason games. The Clippers attempted 38.8 percent of their shots from 3, which is the fifth-highest shift from the season to the preseason, trailing behind just two teams that had front office regime changes (Washington and Minnesota) and two teams that hired a new head coach (Cleveland and Chicago). The stylistic shift sticks makes sense: The more space for Leonard and George, the better off they’ll be.
The Clippers are the safest bet to win the NBA Finals. I’m ranking them just a sliver behind the Lakers because I feel the purple and gold have slightly higher upside. Besides, should we really set expectations so high for Clippers Nation? They’re underdogs at heart.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
There’s been so much focus on how depth, durability, and drama could derail the Lakers’ season, but their best-case scenario is overwhelming. News flash: LeBron James and Anthony Davis—two top-five stars with synergistic skills—play on the same team now. These two have never played with anyone like each other. It isn’t an exaggeration to say they could compose the greatest pick-and-roll duo the NBA has ever seen.
LeBron can score from anywhere and pass in any direction. Now his favored target is Davis—a guy who can pop for 3s, attack off the dribble, or throw down dunks. And we don’t talk enough about just how great Davis himself is as a passer.
He can handle like a wing; his passing chops began to manifest last season, when he averaged 3.9 assists per game. Keep your eye on Draymond Green in the clip above. He claps his hands and shakes his head in frustration even before Davis lobs the ball to JaVale McGee. The play is over as soon as LeBron makes the entry pass. With the help defense rotating over to stop Davis’s drive, Avery Bradley is wide open for 3 and McGee is open for the lob. If the defense doesn’t help, then Davis is scoring.
Davis’s playmaking minimizes the need for head coach Frank Vogel to lean on Rajon Rondo to generate offense when LeBron is off the floor. AD can be a creator. But the Lakers will rely heavily on LeBron and Davis to run the offense because of that dearth of options. Increased media attention means that LeBron’s and AD’s durability will get more coverage than other players with similar concerns, such as the Clippers’ stars. But the Clippers have more players who can effectively run an offense in the event of an injury. The Lakers don’t. Look for them to target Iguodala, who should eventually be available in the buyout market.
This isn’t to say the Lakers have a bad supporting cast. Danny Green is established as one of the league’s best 3-and-D players; he will be LeBron’s best friend as a cutter and spot-up shooter. Bradley has hit 37.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in the past six seasons and can be a pest defending smaller guards. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is flawed but solid. Then you have competent shooters like Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, and Alex Caruso; a reliable veteran in Jared Dudley; and a spark-plug scorer in Kyle Kuzma. I’m not the biggest Kuzma fan, but he gets buckets and tries hard on defense, even if he makes some goofy mistakes. If you just read the critiques of the Lakers’ bench, you’d think LeBron was still surrounded by Boobie Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic.
The Lakers are easy to poke fun at because their centers are McGee and Dwight Howard. But McGee is better than his reputation, and Howard needs only to play a limited role. These bigs give the Lakers lineup versatility. They can put Davis at the 5, with Kuzma and LeBron at forward to play more modern lineups. Or McGee or Howard can get plugged in at center if they want to go jumbo, like in a Finals series against a team like the Sixers. By the way, have you seen Dwight? He looks lean. He’s lost his plastic-action-figure shoulders, and he’s moving with a youthful fluidity. I’m not about to overreact to his preseason, but he looked capable of helping this team. All the Lakers really need from Dwight is to give them good minutes against opposing bigs like Nikola Jokic and Embiid, and to finish around the rim on cuts and rolls. The tough part for Howard will be to resist hijacking offensive possessions by demanding post-ups.
This team will go as far as LeBron’s and Davis’s health takes them. AD always seems to be dealing with some injury, and LeBron is almost 35 and has played 56,284 minutes in his career, which is more than any player ever through their first 16 years, including the playoffs. Whatever doubts there are about James’s durability are also the ones that make this season so interesting, and potentially historic for LeBron. Doubt once fueled Michael Jordan to a three-peat after he returned to basketball, and now LeBron is facing similar questions about his future. LeBron is ready for revenge, but his body will need to handle the burden as rising stars leading new contending teams come for his crown.
NBA Finals: Lakers over Sixers in 7
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
Most Improved Player of the Year: Caris LeVert, Nets
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, Lakers
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Clippers
Coach of the Year: Michael Malone, Nuggets
Predictions are hard. A few missed games can drastically alter a player’s odds at earning votes—that’s why Morant gets the nod over Zion Williamson here. But as discussed in Part 3 of this series, award voters historically love a good story. I bet on the Warriors being good, so I’d give Curry the edge over Giannis as MVP. LeVert, after his heartbreaking injury last season, looks geared for a big season next to Kyrie Irving. And while the Sixers should have the best defense in the league, Embiid probably won’t appear in enough games to earn the votes over another nominee like Davis.
I can’t remember a time with more parity. It’s a reflection of the talent across the league. There are so many stars both young and old, and so much depth on each roster. It feels like anything is possible. Enjoy the ride.