Before plans for resuming the season were approved last week, I put together a list of championship tiers in which teams were grouped together based on the overall likelihood that they could win the NBA title.
That was done before we knew that 22 teams would be invited to Orlando, Florida and before we knew how the playoffs would be structured. Now that we have more information, it's time to revisit those tiers and rank each of the 22 teams that will play out the end of the 2020 season in order from least likely to most likely to win the NBA title.
That distinction is important.
This isn't necessarily a ranking of who has had the best season to date or who are the best overall teams. Matchups matter and as you'll see later on, easier paths forward with fewer potential bumps in the road could bode well for making an extended run.
There's still over 50 days left until the season resumes, so only time will tell if these rankings hold up in the weeks leading into the return to play.
With that said, here goes nothing...
22. Phoenix Suns
I don't think the Suns are the worst of the 22 teams in Orlando, but they almost assuredly have the most difficult path forward. Right now, they are six games back of eighth in the loss column and must leap frog the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans just to make it to ninth for a possible play-in. Even if the Suns run the table and go a perfect 8-0 in their final regular season slate, there's no guarantee that would be enough. ESPN's Kevin Pelton recently simulated the restart 100 times and the Suns did not make the playoffs a single one.
21. Washington Wizards
Are the Wizards the biggest "winner" of the new format strictly in terms of making the playoffs? When the season was suspended back in March, FiveThirtyEight.com's projections gave the Wizards just a 2% chance of making the playoffs. At 5.5 games back, Washington faced a steep hill. That climb is still daunting but getting to within four games of either the Magic or Nets to force a play-in (so making up two games with eight to play) doesn't feel so completely far-fetched. Those projections won't be updated until schedules are finalized but you'd have to think their odds to make the top eight are better now than they were in March.
20. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs went 0-3 against the Lakers during the regular season so there's not much on the surface to suggest they'd offer up much resistance should they claw back into the playoff picture. Then there's the matter of DeMar DeRozan's personal struggles against LeBron James in the postseason where he's just 2-12 overall with a pair of sweeps in their two most recent playoff run-ins. The loss of LaMarcus Aldridge to season-ending shoulder surgery is most certainly a blow but given their place in the standings, it's hard to drop the Spurs beneath either the Wizards or Suns.
19. Orlando Magic
The Magic are a combined 0-9 this season against the Bucks (0-4), Raptors (0-3) and Celtics (0-2), the three teams they could potentially face in the first round. And while there's some hope that Jonathan Isaac could return when play resumes, Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel reports that neither Isaac (knee) nor Al-Farouq Aminu (meniscus) is likely to return. Any hope for a Magical run beyond the opening round rests on the shoulders of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and even Markelle Fultz.
Magic fans will be quick to point out that they did go 8-4 over their final 12 games much in part due to the outstanding play of Gordon who averaged 17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game.
18. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant confimed over the weekend that he would not be returning this season. The possibility of a Durant return loomed so large that Brooklyn's odds to win the NBA title jumped from 750-1 in mid-March to 60-1 last week when the field of 22 was approved.
Without Durant - and likely without Kyrie Irving as well - it's hard to see a path forward for Brooklyn beyond the first round. Any hopes of a surprise run likely hinges on staying ahead of the Magic in seventh so as to avoid the Bucks in the first round. Brooklyn is a beneficiary of the unbalanced schedule as it sits a half-game up on the Magic having played one fewer game overall.
MORE: How do Nets match up with Raptors in potential playoff series?
17. Sacramento Kings
The Kings were starting to figure some things out just prior to the season's suspension and looked like a dangerous team rounding into form, even if it may have been a little too late.
On January 24, the Kings moved Buddy Hield to a sixth man role and inserted Bogdan Bogdanovic into the starting lineup. Since making that switch the Kings went 13-7, good for seventh in the league with Hield thriving to the tune of 19.4 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent from beyond the arc on over nine attempts per game. That adjustment coincided with De'Aaron Fox continuing his strong play after getting off to a relatively slow and injury-plagued start over the first half of the season.
More help could be on the way in the form of promising second-year forward Marvin Bagley who has been limited to just 13 games this season, yet is reportedly "working his butt off" to return to action. If youth is to be served in Orlando then the Kings could be a prime candidate to parlay fresh legs into an unlikely run - if they're able to make it into the top eight.
16. Utah Jazz
It's been an up and down year for the Jazz who entered the season with high hopes following blockbuster offseason acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. Conley struggled out of the gates and has been largely unable to shake free from what's been a season-long shooting slump. The team's best stretch coincided with an injury to Conley during which they went 15-1 over a 16-game stretch in December and January with the veteran point guard missing all but one game, with starting guard Donovan Mitchell shifting to point guard.
There were also questions about Utah's offensive firepower even before an injury to Bogdanovic who is out for the season and will not be playing in Orlando. Throw in the added complexity of the reportedly frosty relationship between Michell and Rudy Gobert following their positive tests for COVID-19 and it's been a year in which the Jazz just haven't been able to establish any consistency, even while playing to fourth in the Western Conference.
15. New Orleans Pelicans
There's a false narrative about the Pelicans that they're season dramatically shifted after the debut of Zion Williamon on January 22 against the Spurs. The popular story is that Williamson came back and instantly transformed the Pelicans into an entirely different team.
MORE: Zion's one major weakness so far
And while there exists a kernel of truth - the Pelicans are outscoring teams by over 10 points per 100 possessions whenever he's been on the floor - it's also important to point out that the turnaround happened prior to the rookie phenom's debut. Starting on December 18 and leading into that much-anticipated debut, the Pelicans went 11-5, a month-long stretch in which they had a better record than the Lakers, Clippers, Raptors, Rockets and Celtics among others. In other words... they're far more than a 19-year-old human highlight reel.
Add Williamson to a core of Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and Lonzo Ball and New Orleans has the talent to frighten even the best of the best. Case in point? Those five have posted a net rating of +26.3 which ranks first among every five-man lineup in the league that's logged at least 200 minutes.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
When the season was suspended in March, the Grizzlies faced the tall order of holding off the Pelicans, Blazers, Kings, Spurs and Suns while facing what was the NBA's hardest remaining schedule. They would also be doing it without Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr, both of whom sustained injuries that threatened to keep them sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. Not only are both set to return, Memphis will also be adding newly-acquired Justise Winslow to the mix. The versatile forward has yet to make his Grizzlies debut as he's been sidelined since January with a back injury.
Fact of the matter is, the Grizzlies team that will be playing in Orlando is far healthier and far more dangerous than the one that would have suited up over the final 17 games of the regular season. There's perhaps no team being counted out more than the Grizzlies who OHBYTHEWAY still have Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ja Morant.
13. Portland Trail Blazers
In my estimation, this is the most dangerous of the six Western Conference teams jockeying for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Not only is Damian Lillard far and away the best player on any of those teams, the Blazers are also in position to receive massive reinforcements. Literally.
Jusuf Nurkic was set to make his long-awaited return just prior to the suspension while Zach Collins - out since October after injurying his shoulder in just the third game of the season - is also set to return. That gives Portland two high-level bigs to pair with Hassan Whiteside who was quietly having a career year with averages of 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds and a league-leading 3.1 blocks per game.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
Can Chris Paul keep the magic alive in Orlando?
MORE: CP3's case for All-NBA First Team
The NBA's best clutch-time player all season long, Paul has enjoyed a renaissance season in OKC and should make an All-NBA team. In order to win big in the playoffs, you need someone who can close games and the Thunder have that in the future Hall of Famer who leads the NBA in clutch scoring. Paul has had some injury misfortune the last few years in the playoffs so he's on the short list of players who could benefit the most from the extended time off.
Do they have enough size on the wings? That remains a question mark as the Thunder expect big minutes from their three-guard look of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder.
11. Miami Heat
There are two schools of thought with the Heat.
On one hand, this is a team that's won a bunch of close games, are very well coached and have a style of play that should translate to the postseason. They went 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks and have the one player in Bam Adebayo who matches up with Giannis Antetokounmpo better than perhaps anyone in the entire league. They have Jimmy Butler, a certifiable big-game player who will not back down from anyone in a big spot.
On the other hand, this is a team that's essentially played .500 since the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020 with a scoring margin that suggests they aren't as good as their record. Outside of Butler and 33-year-old Goran Dragic, there's not much in the form of dependable scoring as they are heavily reliant on the trio of Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, three promising young players who are each making their playoff debuts.
While I tend to fall in line with the latter, I see the argument for the former. It certainly helps that there is no other obvious threat in the East outside of a Bucks team with questions of their own as it pertains to postseason reliability.
10. Indiana Pacers
The extended time off could be just what Victor Oladipo needed in order to work himself into better shape. Oladipo, who returned in late January after being sidelined for a year with a torn ACL, was slowly working off the rust and had just dropped a season-high 27 points in Indiana's last game prior to the suspension.
Will the Oladipo we see in Orlando look closer to the All-NBA player we saw go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the 2018 postseason?
If the answer is yes, than Indiana looks the part of a deep contender that coud play spoiler in the East.
Domantas Sabonis is a legitmate star inside, Malcolm Brogdon is a dependable, level-headed two-way closer, T.J. Warren is a reliable scorer and Myles Turner remains a game-changing defensive force inside.
9. Dallas Mavericks
If there's a deep sleeper to come out on top, this would be my choice.
Not only do the Mavericks have what is currently the most efficient offence in NBA history, they are the rare playoff team that's actually been better on the road than at home, which given the unique circumstances could work in their favor. In fact, at one point in early March the Mavericks had the single largest road-home disparity in NBA history. They're essentially the inverse of the Heat and 76ers, two teams far better at home than on the road. Dallas sits on the short list of teams primed to take advantage of the neutral site component.
The elephant in the room is a potential first-round matchup with the LA Clippers, for my money the best team in the league. Asking Luka Doncic to carry the Mavericks past a team with two premier wing stoppers in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George may be too tall of an order. Doncic, of course, would have some major help in the form of Kristaps Porzingis who looks every bit like the player he once was with the Knicks before tearing his ACL. The 7'3" Latvian big man averaged 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game over his last 15 games prior to the season's suspension.
8. Toronto Raptors
This feels disrespectful.
How could a team with the NBA's third-best overall record be all the way down here? Especially considering they're about to be fully healthy for the first time in what feels like forever?
The Raptors strike me as a high floor, lower ceiling team. In fact, I'd place the odds of Toronto advancing out of the first round greater than the Nuggets, Celtics, 76ers and Rockets, all of whom are higher here in the overall rankings. If this were merely a power rankings about who has had the best season so far, the Raptors would be higher.
MORE: How the 22-team format impacts the Raptors
They are well coached. They are balanced. They play with moxy. They execute on both ends. Simply put, they won't roll over and they almost certainly won't beat themselves.
And yet I can't shake the feeling that they just don't have enough horsepower to keep up with the truly stacked teams. Is Pascal Siakam going to trade buckets down the stretch of a tight game? Is Kyle Lowry going to clear out and deliver timely daggers with their backs against a wall? Is Norman Powell really Toronto's best answer to go one-on-one in the half court?
For the Raptors to win the title - and there's certainly a world in which that happens - they'll need experience to outweigh raw talent and they'll likely need to steer clear of those moments when 5-on-5 turns into 1-on-1.
7. Denver Nuggets
Entering the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals, the Nuggets held a one-point lead over the Portland Trail Blazers. CJ McCollum took over, the Nuggets went ice cold and the Blazers walked away with a four-point win.
Had that 12 minutes gone better, how might we view Denver differently?
Would we view the Nuggets as a true championship contender ready to take that next step and reach the NBA Finals? Or would we collectively view the Nuggets much in the way that many do now, which is a good yet flawed team built for the regular season but one that lacks the extra gear required for postseason play?
Would we look at wins over the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Celtics, Raptors and 76ers and declare the Nuggets ready for primetime? Or would we look at the pairing of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as one incapable of hanging in with the other great duos from across the league?
Just know this.
The Nuggets are the only one of the 22 teams left to have wins over each of the other teams descending upon Orlando.
6. Boston Celtics
In a span of two weeks, Jayson Tatum was the best player on the floor in games against LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. Among every star player in either conference, nobody was trending upwards quite like Boston's 22-year-old forward who blossomed into an All-Star in his third season.
Tatum's emergence gives Boston the alpha it so desperately needs to reach that upper crust of championship contenders. Unlike either Isaiah Thomas or Kyrie Irving - the two most recent No. 1 options in Boston - Tatum's strong play extends to both ends of the floor which means Brad Stevens won't be forced to match wits with one hand tied behind his back.
With the league trending small, Boston's fearsome fivesome of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker gives the Celtics a small ball look that can hang with any other outfit in the league. Ironically, perhaps the one team Boston doesn't want to play at all - the Philadelphia Joel Embiids - is the one it's currently matched up with in the first round. If the Celtics can avoid the 76ers and their size, even if it means matching up earlier with Milwaukee, that could play a factor in determining just how far they make it.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers and Rockets are the two biggest wild cards. Both could win the NBA title. Both could get humiliated in the first round.
Most of the focus - and rightfully so - will be on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who have opportunities to prove the skeptics wrong on many fronts.
MORE: The star-stopping supernova potential of Ben Simmons
Likewise in the spotlight is 76ers coach Brett Brown who is in his seventh season in Philadelphia and has guided the 76ers from the depths of the "Trust The Process" abyss to the fringes of championship contention. If the 76ers come up short, the knee jerk reaction from some could be that Embiid and Simmons simply don't fit. The far more measured approach would be a change on the sidelines, and the question remains for many about whether Brown is the right man for the job of getting the 76ers to the promised land.
One interesting data point to keep an eye on? 0.94.
That's the 76ers' points per play out of timeouts this season, a figure that ranks dead last. For a team already facing some concerns about how it will execute in the half court down the stretch of tight games without Jimmy Butler, it's one more to keep buried in the back of your mind come playoff time.
4. Houston Rockets
What if it works?
What if actually playing no bigs ends with the Rockets hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy? What if James Harden's polarizing style of play ends with a Finals MVP? What if Russell Westbrook wins more championships playing power forward than Charles Barkley or Karl Malone? What if the 6'5" P.J. Tucker stands taller than Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and every other traditonal big man? What if Mike D'Antoni sheds the offensive innovator label for that of a winner? What if Daryl Morey scores a massive win for the analytics age?
More than any other team at any other point in the history of the sport, the Rockets have the opportunity to challenge core beliefs held for generations. A Houston title - moreso than what happened with Golden State - could set off a league-wide tsunami resulting in fundamental shifts about what does and doesn't work at the sport's highest level.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
You could put the final three in any order and I'd be OK with it. Not only will the Lakers enter as the betting favourites, they enter with a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis. At the start of the season, my single biggest fear regarding the Lakers would be how a 17th-year LeBron would hold up over the course of a long season and whether or not the notoriously brittle Davis would be able to make it from start to finish in one piece.
MORE: What's at stake for LeBron in 2020?
In the week leading up to the suspension the Lakers looked like the class of the league with emphatic back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Clippers. With a 5.5-game cushion atop the West they can also afford the luxury of slowly ramping up into form over their eight-game end of the regular season without the need to exhibit polish from the opening tip.
When all is said and done, placing the Lakers anywhere but in the top spot could look foolish. Should they win it all, I'll be the first to raise my hand and play mea culpa.
2. LA Clippers
In my estimation, this is the best team in the NBA. The only reason they aren't first overall is because the road out West is simply harder. If chalk holds true to form, the Clippers and Lakers have to play each other while the Bucks get the Raptors. Getting to the Finals for either will have been a harder chore.
After trading for Marcus Morris and finaly getting everyone healthy, the Clippers suddenly looked like the juggernaut we all expected back at the start of the season. They went 7-1 sporting their new starting lineup with the only loss coming in the aforementioned game with the Lakers. That was a "home" game with the quotations needed because no Clippers game in Los Angeles against the Lakers is ever anything but an away game. Should the Clippers and Lakers meet up in the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers would benefit more from the neutral site as opposed to facing a heavy pro-Lakers crowd in every game.
If you asked me right now to pick a champion, I'm taking the Clippers. I just don't think the odds of it actually happening are better than they are for the Bucks.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
There are reasons to doubt the Bucks.
- How will the league's fastest-paced team adjust when the game slows down?
- Will Giannis Antetokounmpo's lack of a reliable jumper once again spell doom?
- Can Khris Middleton be the second-best player on a championship team?
- Has Eric Bledsoe put his playoff struggles behind him for good?
- Does the bench have enough shot creation?
- Do they allow far too many 3s?
- What mid-series adjustments will Mike Budenholzer make to counter the opposition?
And yet there are reasons to fancy their chances more than anyone. They have the MVP. They have the best defence. They have a top-five offence. They rebound better than anyone. They have lost five games against teams from the Eastern Conference the entire season.
MORE: Giannis is better than any player over the last 30 years against good teams
All of the reasons to doubt the Bucks have nothing to do what they have been this season which is the best team in the NBA from start to finish.
If you're a believer in the axiom that "defence wins championships", then no team other than the Bucks should be sitting right here atop the perch of title contenders even in spite of some less than stellar recent history. Whether or not they finish there remains to be seen.
fThe views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.