Tuesday, September 22, 2020

NBA Power Rankings – Best


After a 4½-month hiatus, the NBA season resumes Thursday in Orlando, Florida.

The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans tip things off, followed by a nightcap between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers. The Clippers’ duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had ample time to recover from nagging injuries during the layoff, but so did LeBron James. The West, however, has plenty of surprise contenders ready to break up an all-L.A. conference finals.

The Toronto Raptors have held on to the No. 2 seed in the East all season, even without the reigning Finals MVP, but they’ll have to get past Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks for a chance to defend their title.

Here are the final NBA Power Rankings before the restart, as our insiders share the best- and worst-case scenarios for all 22 teams.

Notes: These rankings are based on which teams the voters — a group of more than 40 reporters, insiders and editors — think belong higher heading into the remainder of the 2019-20 season. Title odds were provided by Caesars Sportsbook.

MORE: Rosters, schedules and standings projections for every team

1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 53-12 (.815)
Title odds: +275
Previous ranking: 1

Best-case scenario: An NBA championship is the best-case scenario, and the Bucks have a realistic shot. With the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo guiding the ship and a strong supporting cast of defensive-minded players, the Bucks have a chance to win their first NBA title since 1971. The pieces are all in place; now it’s time to execute.

Worst-case scenario: Anything less than reaching the Finals is considered a disappointment after holding the NBA’s best record for nearly the entire season. Injuries and subpar performances from Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast are the only things that could stop the Bucks from reaching the championship. And if they don’t, Antetokounmpo’s future in Milwaukee becomes far less certain. — Eric Woodyard

Remaining schedule: BOS, HOU, BKN, MIA, DAL, TOR, WSH, MEM

MORE: LeBron vs. Giannis and the big awards debates


2. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 49-14 (.778)
Title odds: +180
Previous ranking: 3

Best-case scenario: It’s title or bust for the Lakers. Four months ago, they were the hottest team in the NBA. Now that they’ve relocated to the Walt Disney World Resort, can they find that special sauce again? It will only take LeBron James continuing to thwart Father Time, Anthony Davis going deeper into the postseason than he ever has and L.A.’s role players stepping up. A tall order, but then again, the Lakers have handled every challenge the season has presented so far.

Worst-case scenario: There are plenty of pitfalls the Lakers will have to sidestep, starting with their first-round opponent. Charles Barkley has made plenty of outlandish predictions, but a Blazers upset over L.A. is not as blasphemous as it might sound. Beyond a No. 1 vs. No. 8 trap, there are still the losses of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo to make up for and the additions of JR Smith, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris to account for. But anything but a ring is pretty much unacceptable, and that pressure will mount anytime the Lakers find themselves down in a series. — Dave McMenamin

Remaining schedule: LAC, TOR, UTAH, OKC, HOU, IND, DEN, SAC

MORE: What the restart will mean for LeBron James


3. LA Clippers
Record: 44-20 (.688)
Title odds: +325
Previous ranking: 2

Best-case scenario: The four-month hiatus has given Kawhi Leonard and Paul George time to get over any lingering health issues. The break also helped new additions such as Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah learn Doc Rivers’ system, providing the Clippers with the deepest roster ready to overcome any unforeseen bubble predicaments and contend for the franchise’s first NBA title.

Worst-case scenario: After having Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell leave the bubble to tend to family issues and not having Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet during their first couple of weeks, the Clippers could struggle to find the chemistry needed to win a title. It would be a disaster if the Clippers fail to become a cohesive unit and are upset before the Western Conference finals. — Ohm Youngmisuk

Remaining schedule: LAL, NO, PHX, DAL, POR, BKN, DEN, OKC


4. Toronto Raptors
Record: 46-18 (.719)
Title odds: +1700
Previous ranking: 4

Best-case scenario: When Kawhi Leonard left in free agency, the Raptors were left without the reigning Finals MVP. The defending champions came back with a deep roster full of tough, smart players. Toronto has the chance to not only surprise the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight year, but to shock the world and win a second title.

Worst-case scenario: It took four bounces off the friendly rims inside Scotiabank Arena for the Raptors to escape the second round last season. But without home-court advantage, and with a difficult opponent in either the Celtics or Sixers, Toronto isn’t so lucky this time around. — Tim Bontemps

Remaining schedule: LAL, MIA, ORL, BOS, MEM, MIL, PHI, DEN


5. Denver Nuggets
Record: 43-22 (.662)
Title odds: +1800
Previous ranking: 8

Best-case scenario: At a time when teams need to come together rapidly, the continuity that the Nuggets’ young core has — along with the experience of two seven-game series last postseason — could pay off in this unprecedented restart situation. If the Nuggets take the next step and make the Western Conference finals, they have the potential to upset either the Lakers or Clippers.

Worst-case scenario: The Nuggets had to wait to get Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig and Michael Porter to Orlando. Coach Michael Malone had to resort to an all-big lineup that included Jerami Grant playing shooting guard and Bol Bol at small forward in early practices and the first scrimmage. With a lack of players to restart the season, the inconsistent Nuggets could falter and suffer a first-round exit. — Youngmisuk

Remaining schedule: MIA, OKC, SA, POR, UTAH, LAL, LAC, TOR


6. Miami Heat
Record: 41-24 (.631)
Title odds: +4000
Previous ranking: 9

Best-case scenario: Jimmy Butler leads the young and hungry group all the way out of the East and into the NBA Finals. If Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro get rolling early and Andre Iguodala provides the championship leadership the organization believes he will, the Heat have a chance to be the darlings of the bubble.

Worst-case scenario: They don’t have the playoff experience needed to take the next step and get bounced in the first round. Butler doesn’t have the help he needs around him, and the whispers as to whether he can be the face of a championship team grow louder. At age 36, Iguodala just doesn’t have enough in the tank to provide the defensive jolt he gave the Golden State Warriors. — Nick Friedell

Remaining schedule: DEN, TOR, BOS, MIL, PHX, IND, OKC, IND

play

1:41

Jackie MacMullan revisits where the Celtics left off before the league stoppage and takes a closer look at who they are upon their return.

7. Boston Celtics
Record: 43-21 (.672)
Title odds: +1500
Previous ranking: 6

Best-case scenario: Jayson Tatum continues his ascent to superstardom, Kemba Walker‘s knee isn’t an issue and, Boston’s combination of versatility and length gets the Celtics back to the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.

Worst-case scenario: The Celtics find themselves matched up with the rival 76ers in the first round. And while former Celtic Al Horford’s fit in Philly has been awkward at best, the Sixers’ size will send Boston home from the bubble in the first round. — Bontemps

Remaining schedule: MIL, POR, MIA, BKN, TOR, ORL, MEM, WSH


8. Houston Rockets
Record: 40-24 (.625)
Title odds: +1200
Previous ranking: 5

Best-case scenario: James Harden rediscovers the historically dominant groove he was in early this season, Russell Westbrook keeps rolling like he was before the season was suspended, and the Rockets go on a title run. You can dream big when the roster features two recent MVPs.

Worst-case scenario: Houston’s microball approach blows up in their face, resulting in a first-round exit, perhaps at the hands of Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets or the big, physical Clippers. In that case, the Rockets would head into the offseason with a terrible taste in their mouths and no head coach under contract. — Tim MacMahon

Remaining schedule: DAL, MIL, POR, LAL, SAC, SA, IND, PHI


9. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 40-27 (.597)
Title odds: +3500
Previous ranking: 10

Best-case scenario: The Mavs move up and out of the No. 7 seed with a healthy, refreshed Luka Doncic leading the way and avoid facing the Clippers in the first round. Dallas would like its chances against any West opponent not from L.A., particularly if the promising developments in the Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis tandem continue to build.

Worst-case scenario: The Mavs stay in the No. 7 seed and get spanked by the Clippers in the first round. Dallas’ preseason goal was to get back to the playoffs after a three-year drought, but it’d be disappointing if the Mavs aren’t competitive in the postseason after showing so much promise this season. — MacMahon

Remaining schedule: HOU, PHX, SAC, LAC, MIL, UTAH, POR, PHX

play

0:20

Tobias Harris dishes to Ben Simmons in the corner for the 3-pointer.

10. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 39-26 (.600)
Title odds: +2500
Previous ranking: 7

Best-case scenario: The Sixers have been the best team in the league at home, yet posted a worse road record than the New York Knicks. They won’t play any home games in Orlando, but neither will anyone else. Combine that with shifting Ben Simmons to power forward and Al Horford to the bench, and it allows them to realize the potential they’ve flashed at times this season and gets them back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

Worst-case scenario: The league’s most dysfunctional good team remains exactly that in Orlando, slogging through the seeding games before getting run out of the playoffs in the first round. Another round of speculation about both the future of head coach Brett Brown and whether Simmons and Joel Embiid can play together will follow. — Bontemps

Remaining schedule: IND, SA, WSH, ORL, POR, PHX, TOR, HOU

MORE: What has to go right for the NBA’s most enticing underdogs


11. Utah Jazz
Record: 41-23 (.641)
Title odds: +6000
Previous ranking: 11

Best-case scenario: Mike Conley gets into the comfort zone he has struggled to find in his first season in Utah, helping fill some of the scoring void created by Bojan Bogdanovic‘s season-ending wrist surgery. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert click on the court, easing concerns about their complicated chemistry. The Jazz advance past the first round.

Worst-case scenario: Utah sputters offensively without Bogdanovic, who averaged an efficient 20 points per game, and struggles defensively with Gobert unable to plug all the holes in an undersized lineup. The Jazz get eliminated in the first round for the second straight season. — MacMahon

Remaining schedule: NO, OKC, LAL, MEM, SA, DEN, DAL, SA

MORE: What Bojan Bogdanovic’s injury means for the Jazz


12. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 40-24 (.625)
Title odds: +6000
Previous ranking: 12

Best-case scenario: The Thunder recapture their chemistry and use the restart to develop their young talent, making a push into the second round of the playoffs and giving the Lakers or Clippers a six- or seven-game scare. The best case is that the Thunder prove that their 34-13 record since Thanksgiving is the real deal and they actually are one of the best teams in the league while pulling off the upset. But that’s a little bit of a stretch.

Worst-case scenario: The long break disrupts what the Thunder had working, and they play choppy and disconnected basketball. They made their way this season winning close, clutch-time games, but if they don’t keep that up, they could slip to No. 7 in the seeding games and take a four- or five-game lesson from the Clippers in the opening round. — Royce Young

Remaining schedule: UTAH, DEN, LAL, MEM, WSH, PHX, MIA, LAC


13. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 29-37 (.439)
Title odds: +7500
Previous ranking: 16

Best-case scenario: The returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins don’t just make the Blazers better in terms of talent and depth, it also reconfigures their entire identity. They are a big team, with coach Terry Stotts willing to go extra big with Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside playing together. The Blazers’ top seven players are pretty good, and they can take the Lakers to seven games as the No. 8 seed, setting the table for a strong 2020-21 season.

Worst-case scenario: The Blazers’ defensive struggles aren’t solved by the big-man boost, and the Blazers slip further away in the seeding games, never even making a legitimate push to force a play-in tournament. — Young

Remaining schedule: MEM, BOS, HOU, DEN, LAC, PHI, DAL, BKN

play

1:26

Now that Zion Williamson has returned to the NBA bubble, Malika Andrews breaks down what’s next for him and the Pelicans before the season restarts Thursday.

14. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 28-36 (.438)
Title odds: +5000
Previous ranking: 15

Best-case scenario: The Pels shock the NBA world by grabbing the No. 8 seed and topple the Lakers in the first round. Zion Williamson 2.0 becomes as good as advertised, while Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball take another step forward to help take down their former squad. The team with maybe the brightest future in the league starts to realize its potential.

Worst-case scenario: The rust Williamson shows after a 12-day hiatus from team activity causes him to stumble out of the gates. As a result, the team stumbles with opening losses to the Jazz and the Clippers. The Pelicans can’t get out of their own way and don’t even get the chance to at a play-in tournament, heading home from Orlando early. — Andrew Lopez

Remaining schedule: UTAH, LAC, MEM, SAC, WSH, SA, SAC, ORL

MORE: What if Zion Williamson misses games?


15. Indiana Pacers
Record: 39-26 (.600)
Title odds: +12500
Previous ranking: 13

Best-case scenario: Victor Oladipo decides to play, and the rest of the Pacers stay healthy, manage to hold off Philly for the fifth spot in the East and beat the Heat in the first round — winning a playoff series for the first time since 2014. The Pacers then push the Bucks to a competitive six games in the second round before being sent home, but Indy proves it has a bright future.

Worst-case scenario: Oladipo decides he isn’t going to play after all and sits out the restart. Domantas Sabonis, currently out of the bubble to treat a foot injury, doesn’t return, and Indiana falls behind the Sixers and finishes sixth in the East, drawing the Celtics — who, like last season, quickly sweep them out of the playoffs. Indiana fans enter the offseason wondering if Oladipo has played his last game in a Pacers uniform. — Bontemps

Remaining schedule: PHI, WAS, ORL, PHX, LAL, MIA, HOU, MIA

MORE: What Domantas Sabonis’ injury means for the Pacers


16. Orlando Magic
Record: 30-35 (.462)
Title odds: +50000
Previous ranking: 14

Best-case scenario: Markelle Fultz takes another step in his development, and Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon get hot and lift the Magic, behind a strong game plan from Steve Clifford, to a shocking first-round upset of the Bucks in an unpredictable bubble environment.

Worst-case scenario: The Magic are going to the playoffs — the Nets and Wizards are too depleted to jump a young Orlando group — but the Magic still don’t have enough star power to carry them past the first round. The Magic make the short drive home and try to find the superstar who has eluded them since Dwight Howard‘s departure. — Friedell

Remaining schedule: BKN, SAC, IND, TOR, PHI, BOS, BKN, NO


17. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 32-33 (.492)
Title odds: +50000
Previous ranking: 17

Best-case scenario: Led by likely Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., a pair of franchise cornerstones who are still too young to order a beer with their room service in the NBA bubble, the young Grizzlies hang on to the West’s No. 8 seed and put up a fight against the Lakers in the first round.

Worst-case scenario: The Grizzlies’ inexperience shows as they lose their grip on the West’s last playoff spot, losing a pair of games in the play-in scenario, perhaps to a veteran Portland team that advanced to the conference finals last season. — MacMahon

Remaining schedule: POR, SA, NO, UTAH, OKC, TOR, BOS, MIL


18. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 27-36 (.429)
Title odds: +100000
Previous ranking: 20

Best-case scenario: The Spurs’ new small-ball approach — with LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles out and DeMar DeRozan as the starting power forward — catches teams by surprise and vaults San Antonio into the No. 8 seed as head coach Gregg Popovich works his magic once again.

Worst-case scenario: San Antonio misses its big men sorely, and things don’t go smoothly on the court. The Spurs lose ground quickly to Memphis, Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento, and the final seeding games turn into a glorified summer league as the team shuts down DeRozan, Rudy Gay and other veterans. — Lopez

Remaining schedule: SAC, MEM, PHI, DEN, UTAH, NO, HOU, UTAH

MORE: NBA bubble asterisk? The champion ’99 Spurs say it shouldn’t exist


19. Sacramento Kings
Record: 28-36 (.438)
Title odds: +200000
Previous ranking: 18

Best-case scenario: Simply making the postseason would be a massive accomplishment for a Sacramento franchise that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2006. To do it in Luke Walton’s first year as Kings head coach, with the team losing Marvin Bagley for the rest of the year to a foot injury and coming back from 3½ games behind the No. 8 seed, would be massive.

Worst-case scenario: Just about everything that could go wrong for the Kings already has. Four players tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the beginning of the bubble. Richaun Holmes inadvertently violated the perimeter of the NBA’s campus in Orlando, earning him an extra 10-day quarantine. De’Aaron Fox sprained his ankle, sidelining him a week, and Bagley suffered a season-ending foot injury. It would be downright unfair for things to get worse. — McMenamin

Remaining schedule: SA, ORL, DAL, NO, BKN, HOU, NO, LAL


20. Phoenix Suns
Record: 26-39 (.400)
Title odds: +50000
Previous ranking: 21

Best-case scenario: The Suns started the season as a sneaky Western Conference playoff pick, and they return to that form and exceed expectations in the seeding games with their team whole again in Orlando. They go 7-1, force the play-in series and make the postseason with momentum on their side.

Worst-case scenario: Phoenix enters the bubble with the worst record of the 13 West teams and second-worst of all 22 teams. And the eight games are just a continuation of that with few positive signs of development going forward. — Young

Remaining schedule: WSH, DAL, LAC, IND, MIA, OKC, PHI, DAL

play

1:00

Jamal Crawford is unguardable beyond the 3-point line as he torches Nets teammate Rodions Kurucs in practice.

21. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 30-34 (.469)
Title odds: +15000
Previous ranking: 19

Best-case scenario: The depleted Nets hold on to their playoff spot as Caris LeVert shows he can carry the offense. Jarrett Allen provides defensive stability as Jamal Crawford turns back the clock with a few vintage shooting performances.

Worst-case scenario: They lose all eight of their seeding games and fall out of the playoff picture after the Wizards string together a few wins. Look, the Nets are playing for next year — they just need to make sure they stay healthy and get Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie back on the floor. — Friedell

Remaining schedule: ORL, WAS, MIL, BOS, SAC, LAC, ORL, POR


22. Washington Wizards
Record: 24-40 (.375)
Title odds: +100000
Previous ranking: 22

Best-case scenario: Sure, the best possible case for the Wizards is to get hot and win the title. But realistically, maybe they miss out on the play-in but find future building blocks in the process. After all the injuries they’ve suffered this year, that’ll be a success.

Worst-case scenario: Honestly, the Wizards are playing with house money. Without leading scorers Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans participating, there are very low expectations for their restart. The fact that they’re even in the bubble at 24-40 is an accomplishment. The only worst-case scenario is that guys continue to get hurt, impacting next season. — Woodyard

Remaining schedule: PHX, BKN, IND, PHI, NO, OKC, MIL, BOS

MORE: Predicting the 50 best players in Orlando





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