Basketball’s almost back, baby! I’m ranking the 22 teams set to restart the NBA season, slotting them into tiers based on their chances of making a Finals run. We’re going in reverse order, starting from the bottom and working our way to the top of the league.
Last week, we looked at teams in the middle. The week before that, we looked at the teams on the playoff bubble. This week is about the favorites. For every team, I’m offering up one thought, trend, or X factor to watch out for during the three months of play. Let’s go!
In the Hunt
7. Denver Nuggets (43-22)
The Nuggets are a damn good team, folks. They can play through Nikola Jokic with creative, funky sets, or play more traditionally through their scoring guards like Jamal Murray and Will Barton. As they are, they’ve got a shot to make a run. What also makes them different are their wild cards in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol.
Porter and Bol are raw rookies who might not play a lot because of their defensive struggles. Porter looked lost defensively in Monday’s scrimmage, his first in Orlando, just as he did all season. And despite Bol’s habit of blocking every shot near him inside, he changes direction on the perimeter like he’s walking on stilts. But they are big, quirky scoring weapons whom Nuggets head coach Michael Malone could use to exploit an opponent. Bol, the son of Manute Bol, won the hearts of the internet during the scrimmage games because of his unusual combination of 3-point shooting and shot-blocking, along with his great length (7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8 wingspan) and lean frame (220 pounds). Denver used a long-ball lineup in which Bol was utilized as a shooting guard, running off screens and handoffs to get buckets:
Actions like these aren’t easy to defend. Mo Bamba had trouble running through two screens to contest Bol’s 3, just like most centers would. And JJ Redick, nearly one foot shorter than Bol, was asked to chase him around the handoff then contest his shot—Bol was met by other defenders but scored with the floater anyway. Porter has shown flashes too; during the season, he showed off the rare combination of size (6-foot-10) and on-ball scoring ability that made him a top high school recruit before injuries ended his college season and hurt his draft stock.
Will Malone play these rookies? Probably not much at first. But the jumbo-sized lineups that Malone used throughout the scrimmages should be taken seriously. To open their first game, they started with Jokic, Bol, Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant, and Paul Millsap—Millsap, at 6-foot-7, was Denver’s shortest player. It wouldn’t be a shocker if Malone uses a bigger lineup and plays zone to throw off the opponent’s offensive rhythm while creating matchup advantages for their own offense, perhaps against a small-ball team like the Rockets. Bol or Porter could figure into those lineups. Who knows whether it would work, but these types of lineups are what make Denver different. In the playoffs, the Nuggets can show that long ball is the way of the future.
6. Toronto Raptors (46-18)
The Raptors have the second-best defensive rating and are tied with the Clippers for the third-best net rating. After losing Kawhi Leonard last summer, they’ve proved they’re not a one-hit wonder. If anything, they’ve shown they can be a serious contender for years to come. Their roster is loaded with high-IQ, high-energy players with elite fundamentals. Kyle Lowry remains a brick house; Fred VanVleet has learned from him. It’s hard to ask for more reliable veterans than Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Guys like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Chris Boucher are long and rangy.
These players would excel anywhere, but their games have been enhanced by the philosophical choices of Nick Nurse, my choice for Coach of the Year. Good offenses score by exploiting empty space, whether they’re driving to the basket or passing to an open shooter, but the Raptors are empowered to close those gaps and make the floor feel tiny; they play an aggressive, swarming style that forces the second-most turnovers in the league. Nurse constantly switches up defensive coverages: One night they’ll blitz pick-and-rolls. The next, they’ll switch everything. Next time they face the same team, they’ll have their big drop to the paint. These changes happen game to game, but he’ll also do it possession to possession. And Nurse gets creative with box-and-ones and triangle-and-twos; you don’t really see this type of stuff anywhere else in the league.
One front office executive told me earlier this month that Nurse is the “Bill Belichick of basketball.” Nurse still needs seven more rings to catch up with Belichick’s eight (six as head coach of the Patriots and two with the Giants as a defensive coordinator). But the comparison rings true: Nurse makes coverage adjustments as frequently as an NFL defense and is creatively daring.
We don’t know what’s in store for the Raptors this postseason. But with such a great head coach and a roster full of talented players who can perfectly execute any plan, there’s no limit to how far this team could go.
5. Houston Rockets (40-24)
We know James Harden and Russell Westbrook can score at a high level. We know P.J. Tucker is one of the game’s greatest defenders. We know Robert Covington defends and Eric Gordon scores. Yet we really know nothing about how Daryl Morey’s small-ball experiment will work. The frontcourt of Tucker and Covington is tinier than anyone else’s front line. Can the Rockets survive on the boards against bigger teams like the Lakers or Nuggets? Or do their switchability and versatility reign supreme? Does it even matter if opponents can’t stop Harden and Westbrook from getting to the basket thanks to their five-out lineups? Or, if they get neutralized, can Mike D’Antoni add more offensive wrinkles?
D’Antoni began to answer that last question during the scrimmages, as the Rockets used more motion in their offensive sets than usual. The Rockets reverse passes less frequently than any other team in the NBA this season. Houston usually cycles between pick-and-roll and isolations, much like the cheesers who use the same play over and over in Madden, and it usually works because their offense is so potent. But repetitiveness can become predictable against a great opponent. It’s encouraging to see D’Antoni add some variety, because it gives a team that already had real title aspirations even more of a chance. We know so much about what makes the Rockets a contender. Now it’s time to see their game plans unfold.
4. Boston Celtics (43-21)
The Celtics are fifth in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating—the only other teams in the top six in both categories are the three teams ahead of them in my rankings. And that’s despite the fact they haven’t been totally healthy all season long. Boston’s five best players—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker—have played only 14 games together this season. Earlier this month, Brad Stevens said that Walker will be slowly worked back in as the knee injury that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season is still bothering him. Walker played only nine minutes in the scrimmages and looked fine, but the Celtics need him to be the dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker they saw early on, not the hampered small guard from late in the season.
Without Walker, the Celtics don’t have a realistic chance to win it all. But at full strength, with a healthy Walker and the Tatum we saw wrecking defenses over his last two months, they’re built for postseason success with a deep, versatile roster. They’re switchable on defense and on offense, with the ability to attack with any player out of any lineup. The Bucks are the favorites in the East, but the Celtics and a couple other teams loom as serious challengers.
3. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)
Anyone who thinks the Bucks have an easy path to the NBA Finals is mistaken. Yeah, I get the hype: They were on pace to win over 60 games before the season was suspended, and Giannis Antetokounmpo should become only the third player to ever win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon (he got my vote for both!). Heck, even without Giannis this team would have made the playoffs because of guys like Khris Middleton, who’s on my All-NBA third team, and Brook Lopez, who’s on my All-Defensive second team.
The Bucks are great, and that’s why they’re in my “favorites” tier. But the other Eastern Conference contenders we’ve mentioned—the Raptors, Celtics, Heat, and Sixers—aren’t slouches. Many of them are built to make life hard on the Bucks, with a number of defenders equipped to contain Giannis. Take the Heat, for example. Miami beat Milwaukee twice this season, with Bam Adebayo using his size, grit, and athleticism to make Giannis’s life difficult. The Celtics and Raptors don’t have a Bam, but they are deep with high-end defenders. I’m picking the Bucks to make the Finals, but it’ll be a battle to get there, which will put an even more impressive cap on Antetokounmpo’s historic season.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)
Watching the Clippers is a lesson in team building in the modern era. You need to be adaptable to win at the highest levels, and the Clippers can dictate the way the game is played with a lineup shift. Doc Rivers can go big with Ivica Zubac at center alongside his choice of big wings—Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris. He can run the offense through Kawhi and PG-13, or he can bring on Lou Williams with Montrezl Harrell and let them spam the pick-and-roll. Want shooting? Plug in Landry Shamet. Want defense? Hello, Patrick Beverley. We haven’t seen the Clippers play small ball for an extended stretch, but they can with Morris or Patrick Patterson at the 5. Rivers has the luxury of options.
The Clippers are an unbelievable team. They should be “1b” and not “2” on this list. But I give the Lakers the edge since LeBron James and Anthony Davis are a slightly better duo than Leonard and George. Plus, despite all the options, the Clippers’ on-court chemistry hasn’t exactly been perfect. They don’t pass the ball with the same crispness that they did last season, and things slow down a lot with the offense being run through Kawhi. Giving the ball to Kawhi usually leads to good things, so maybe none of this matters. But the Lakers love playing with each other, and even though their non-stars aren’t as great on paper as those of the Clippers, all of the pieces fit together perfectly.
The Clippers have also been hit with delayed bubble entries more than any other team. Harrell will miss Thursday’s reopener because of a personal matter. Williams and Beverley left for family emergencies and returned. Shamet and Zubac were late arrivals. It’s tough to measure how important those absences will be in the long run, but it’s noteworthy that a team that had myriad injuries throughout the regular season hasn’t been practicing and playing with their core lineups like the other bubble teams. The Clippers could benefit from other variables though. If we’re destined for a Lakers-Clippers Western Conference finals, then the Clippers wouldn’t have to worry about playing “home games” filled with Lakers fans. That’s gotta be an edge for the Clippers, right? They’ve also had time off to rest and get healthy. Could that not also benefit Mr. Load Management? Kawhi led the Raptors to a championship last season, but he was playing on fumes toward the end. In last year’s Finals, I watched him walk through the locker room with a limp like he was a 64-year-old man recovering from a knee surgery. That limp is gone now. Over the next three months, Kawhi should be as fresh as he’s been in years. Will it be enough?
1. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14)
The Lakers were mocked last summer for filling out their depth chart around their two superstars with a collection of misfits and outcasts. But it turns out their reserves were pretty dang good. Dwight Howard found new life in his role as a scrappy big man, and Avery Bradley and Jared Dudley have both performed well. Concerns about their depth have resurfaced after Bradley chose to stay home to be with his family and Rajon Rondo underwent thumb surgery, which will keep him out until at least the first or second round of the playoffs. But I find the worries to be as overblown now as they were then.
The focus now is on the lack of secondary shot-creation aside outside of LeBron and AD. But the Lakers added Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, both of whom can generate their own shots. Alex Caruso will also get a larger role, which could be a blessing in disguise. Caruso is a better overall defender than Bradley and a better offensive fit than Rondo because of his lower-usage scoring and playmaking style on top of his intangibles as a cutter, rebounder, and screener.
Besides, it’s the postseason: LeBron and AD will be handling the ball more anyway. It doesn’t get discussed much, but the Lakers have the same type of lineup versatility that the Clippers do. They can put Davis next to Howard or JaVale McGee, or they can use Davis at the 5. They can go jumbo by throwing out Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma, or go smaller with Caruso and Kuzma. They have a number of players who can match up against star wing scorers like Kawhi, and the bodies to handle guards like James Harden or Donovan Mitchell. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has options, but most importantly, the players fit.
It’s easy to focus on what the Lakers purportedly don’t have instead of what they do: the best player in the league and the best big man in the league. The Lakers are set up to be even better in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. Assuming good health, they’ll be crowned champions.