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The NBA Title Picture Looks As Crowded As Ever

With all due respect to the Lakers, the 2021 championship race appears as close as it was heading into last season, even after last week’s frenzy of transactions

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last week of NBA activity has been so frenzied, with the draft and trades and the floodgates of free agency, that it’s easy to miss the league’s rich forest for its trees. Individual players move, and individual rosters change, but not much has changed from last season. If anything, this season’s title race appears even more wide open.

The obvious place to start when analyzing contenders’ recent improvements is Staples Center, where the Lakers’ offseason business is all done except figuring out the structure of Anthony Davis’s new contract. The champs replaced four veteran role players with four different veteran role players—and might have gotten the better of the swap in all four instances. It’s possible that Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell won’t fit as firmly in Frank Vogel’s defensively minded schemes as the players they’re replacing, but it’s hard to argue they don’t have as much talent. And even if the Lakers performed best last season with Anthony Davis as a lone big, the trio of Davis, LeBron James, and Marc Gasol might form the most indomitable front line in the league.

Lakers’ Offseason Replacements

Departing Arriving
Departing Arriving
Rajon Rondo Dennis Schroder
Danny Green Wesley Matthews
Dwight Howard Montrezl Harrell
JaVale McGee Marc Gasol

The Lakers cruised through the playoffs, going 16-5 and never trailing past the first game of a series. But it’s fair to say they benefitted a bit from the way the bracket broke: The Lakers didn’t face the five other best regular-season teams by net rating (which were, in order, the Bucks, Clippers, Celtics, Raptors, and Mavericks). That doesn’t mean the Lakers’ title deserves an asterisk; they won it fair and square. But it does suggest they needed upgrades the same as any other team, if they wanted to keep up with the competition.

That competition wasn’t resting over the last week, either. The Clippers, for instance, replaced Harrell with Serge Ibaka and chose Luke Kennard over Landry Shamet to fill a shooter’s slot next to their superstars, thereby retaining the status quo that propelled them to the no. 2 seed in the West.

This chart shows the net change in wins above replacement from the old to new rosters for each reigning playoff team, using FiveThirtyEight’s figures, as well as the most important losses and additions. We can see, for example, that the Lakers’ new players were worth four more wins than the departing champions. (Note: For these calculations, we assessed only players worth at least one WAR in 2019-20.)

Reigning Playoff Teams This Offseason

Team WAR Change Key Losses Key Additions
Team WAR Change Key Losses Key Additions
Trail Blazers +4.8 Whiteside, Ariza Covington, Jones, Kanter
76ers +4.0 Horford, Richardson D. Green, Howard, Curry
Lakers +3.9 D. Green, McGee, Howard, Bradley, Rondo Harrell, Schroder, Matthews, Gasol
Jazz +1.9 n/a Favors
Pacers 0.0 n/a n/a
Nets -0.3 Temple Shamet
Magic -1.3 Augustin n/a
Nuggets -1.5 Plumlee, Grant J. Green
Rockets -1.7 Covington Wood
Mavericks -2.3 Wright, Curry Richardson
Clippers -2.7 Harrell, J. Green, Shamet Ibaka, Kennard
Heat -5.3 Jones, Crowder Bradley, Harkless
Raptors -5.4 Gasol, Ibaka Baynes
Celtics -6.1 Hayward, Kanter, Wanamaker Thompson
Bucks -8.7 Bledsoe, Hill, Matthews Holiday, Augustin
Thunder -13.1 Paul, Gallinari, Schroder, Adams Hill, Horford, Ariza
WAR figures from FiveThirtyEight. Only players worth at least one WAR in 2019-20 were included.

Don’t sweat the specific numbers here—they’re based on last season’s production instead of forward-looking projections, so they don’t always match expectations. As an example, the Rockets haven’t traded either of their stars—yet—and might have added another in the form of Christian Wood, who should be a lot more valuable this season than he was in just 21.4 minutes per game with the Pistons in 2019-20.

But the list suggests how competitive the top of the standings could look this season. Along with the Lakers, a pair of first-round losers appear to have enjoyed the greatest gains in the last week. Philadelphia filled out a more logical roster around its two stars, trading for Seth Curry, the active leader in career 3-point percentage (44.3 percent), and Danny Green (career 40.0 percent on 3s). And Portland, which should improve by leaps and bounds from greater health alone, also beefed up on the wing with Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr.

Then come a bunch of good teams that haven’t moved much either way, like the aforementioned Clippers, Jazz, and Mavericks, all of whom should continue to press toward the top of the standings. While the numbers suggest the Heat will miss Jones Jr. and Jae Crowder, they’re also counting more on internal improvements from young cornerstones like Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro than anything else.

The laggards are a more diverse group. The Thunder need no more discussion, given their conscious steps back into the lottery. The Bucks’ negative number is more interesting, as it exposes the tradeoff they made with their offseason approach, as they both affixed their gaze on the playoffs and improved the top of the rotation at the bench’s expense. To the former end, they switched in Jrue Holiday for Eric Bledsoe, for the cost of three first-round picks and two pick swaps. Bledsoe’s made consecutive All-Defense teams, but Holiday is even better on that end of the floor, capable of shutting down the league’s premiere scoring options at almost every position. (Remember the havoc Holiday wreaked against the Trail Blazers’ vaunted backcourt in the 2018 first round?) He’s also a clear upgrade over Bledsoe on the offensive end, where the former Bucks guard shot a combined 24 percent from 3 the last two postseasons.

The Bucks also cycled in new bench help by signing D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig, and Bobby Portis—who can all realistically contribute on only one end of the floor. Lineup questions remain for Milwaukee, especially with the Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade falling through: Who grabs the fifth spot in crunch time, next to Holiday, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez? Do they have enough two-way wings to let Giannis play the 5, after losing reliable if unspectacular veterans like George Hill, Wesley Matthews, and Marvin Williams? Can Mike Budenholzer navigate those challenges, and the differences between regular season and playoff basketball? But the Bucks still have the two-time reigning MVP—at least, for this season—and that’s reason enough to place them atop the Eastern hierarchy for now.

Unlike the Bucks, who chose to trade for Holiday while sacrificing a bit of depth, some other teams in the red on this chart would seem to be in worse shape after losing a key player or two from last season’s rotation. But like all the teams mentioned already, this particular trio is still in contention for a Finals berth.

Take the Nuggets, for instance, who lost Jerami Grant to Detroit. It’s possible that Grant’s departure will doom the Nuggets next postseason. But it’s also possible that they’ll have new advantages to compensate. JaMychal Green, signed for two years and $15 million, is a sneakily exciting role player, with a career 37 percent 3-point stroke and capable defensive chops. Advanced stats darling Will Barton will return after missing the entire bubble due to injury. And perhaps most of all, Michael Porter Jr. should see a much-expanded role, providing a third scoring option next to Jamal Murray—who is a candidate for improvement himself, after perennially inconsistent play made way for frequent explosions in the playoffs—and Nikola Jokic.

Or look at the Raptors, who lost their top two bigs from last season, Ibaka and Gasol. They’re both good players, but Nick Nurse might be able to squeeze mostly equivalent production out of Chris Boucher—another advanced stats favorite, re-signed over the weekend—and new addition Aron Baynes, who was better than Deandre Ayton for a stretch with Phoenix last season.

Gordon Hayward, gone from Boston, is probably the best individual player to leave any of the top teams from last season—but even Hayward was, at best, Boston’s fourth-best player, behind Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown in the pecking order. (He might have rated as low as no. 6—FiveThirtyEight pegged both Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis as more valuable last season.) The same is true of Grant in Denver and of Gasol and Ibaka in Toronto, where Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and the newly re-signed Fred VanVleet are all more important to the team’s success.

Basketball is a “strong-link” sport, meaning the best players have the most extreme effects on a team’s success. (That’s opposed to a “weak-link” sport like soccer, in which one terrible player can hurt a team more than a star can help it.) So it’s difficult to imagine a team falling from contention while retaining its three best players; Boston, in other words, should be just fine as long as Tatum, Walker, and Brown are still in town. After all, the Celtics just beat Toronto in the playoffs without an injured Hayward.

Under this framework, it’s difficult to see any competitive teams other than Oklahoma City taking notable steps backward this season. According to FiveThirtyEight’s WAR metric, only one of 16 playoff teams lost its most valuable player from last season: the Thunder, who traded Paul as part of Sam Presti’s quest to collect every first-round pick of the 2025 draft.

Moreover, only two of 16 playoff teams lost their second-most-valuable player. The Thunder fit this group, too, as Danilo Gallinari joined the Hawks in free agency. (The Thunder also traded their no. 4 player, Schroder, and no. 5, Steven Adams; only Shai-Gilgeous Alexander remains from the best five-man unit in the league.) The second team is a bit of an exception: Hassan Whiteside had the second-most WAR for the Blazers last season, as a valuable rim protector on a team otherwise devoid of positive defenders, but they won’t sweat his departure with Jusuf Nurkic back from injury.

Finally, only three of 16 playoff teams lost their third-most valuable player by this measure. The Lakers (Danny Green) and Bucks (Bledsoe) are fine with this arrangement, after trading their nominal no. 3 players for upgrades at the same position. Only the Rockets look weaker in the present in this regard, because they traded Covington—whom they’d acquired midseason in a trade that cost them Clint Capela—for two first-rounders and the flexibility to sign Wood.

As a result of the lack of movement of the top teams’ top players, every feasible contender from the 2019-20 season will remain a contender in 2020-21—barring injury or, say, a Harden trade—while a handful of new contenders join them in the ring. That latter list includes first-round losers that have improved their rosters, like Philadelphia and Portland, as well as the Suns, who built on their undefeated-in-the-bubble momentum by adding Crowder and Paul. Like with the Bledsoe-for-Holiday swap in Milwaukee, the Suns traded a good point guard for a better one, and here it’s worth noting that Paul hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2009-10, when he missed half the season with a knee injury. After he helped the Thunder rise from offseason afterthought to no. 5 seed last season, it’s not unreasonable to think the Suns could compete for a high playoff seed.

So could Brooklyn, which has the greatest potential to jump in the standings versus last season because they have the best new player of anyone and a legitimate superstar: Kevin Durant. The former MVP missed all of last season, but he’ll have quite a roster to join in 2020-21. The Nets re-signed Joe Harris, traded for Shamet, and—at least so far—held onto Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Toss in Kyrie Irving, who missed all but 20 games last season, and the Nets could lead the league in offensive efficiency if Durant returns to form after his Achilles tear.

One simple way to define a contender is to say it’s any team with title odds above 1-in-30 because if the league had true parity, that would be each team’s baseline entering the season. Right now, according to the implied probabilities from FanDuel’s championship odds, 11 teams meet that criterion. That would be the largest group of preseason contenders since 2013-14, according to Basketball Reference’s archival odds.

Notably, Boston, Toronto, and Denver are still in the current contender class by this definition, despite their personnel losses. It appears that the oddsmakers aren’t convinced those departures will ruin their former teams, either.

The only prospective contender to take a crushing blow in the last week is the Warriors, via Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear. Although the Warriors filled out their rotation around the edges by trading for Kelly Oubre Jr., signing Kent Bazemore and Brad Wanamaker, and drafting James Wiseman, they could be hard-pressed to even return to the playoffs, let alone challenge the Lakers. Remember, they looked dreadful in a small sample in 2019-20 even before Steph Curry broke his hand and the season spiraled out of control.

But aside from Golden State, which didn’t compete last season anyway, all the teams with an eye on the Finals retain that vision. Analysts can quibble with whether their rosters grew better or worse in the last week, but they’re at least in the championship conversation. It’s a crowded conversation, with lots of participants vying for the last word.