It is way, way, way too early to do an NBA Power Rankings for next season — and we’re doing it anyway. These rankings are going up before any player movement this offseason, before the draft, before every team even has a coach. This is just some seat-of-the-pants fun projecting next season based on the bubble playoffs and what we expect next season.
1. Lakers (52-19 last season). LeBron James and Anthony Davis won the Lakers one title, and as long as those two are on the roster L.A. is a contender for another. This summer, Davis will opt-out then re-sign, but the challenge is the roster around Davis and LeBron. Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard are free agents; meanwhile, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo will opt out looking for the bigger payday. Kyle Kuzma is extension eligible. Do the Lakers run it back with last year’s team or make a bold trade (Chris Paul, Victor Oladipo)?
2. Bucks (56-17). One question hangs over Milwaukee this offseason: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign the max contract extension put in front of him? If not, don’t expect a trade, the only way that happens is the Greek Freak tells the Bucks he will not re-sign, and indications are he still wants to win in Milwaukee. If he does wait, it puts other teams in a holding pattern. The Bucks were smart not to overreact to a rough bubble outing, but they need to tweak this roster around Antetokounmpo and get more playmaking, and more shooting would help, too.
3. Clippers (49-23). Doc Rivers paid the price for an underwhelming bubble performance. Tyrone Lue moves up a chair and takes over as head coach, tasked with improving the chemistry in this talented locker room (and just getting guys on the court together more). The biggest off-season question is will the Clippers: re-sign Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell or will they let him go? Do they re-sign Marcus Morris? Also, can the Clippers find a more traditional playmaking point guard to help spur the playoff offense?
4. Nuggets (46-27). Jamal Murray needs to prove that his breakout playoffs — showing he was a true No. 2 option that pairs beautifully with Nikola Jokic — was not just a bubble fluke. We don’t think it was, but we’re cautious with everyone who was way up or way down in that unique environment. Paul Millsap is a free agent and the Nuggets need to re-sign him — at a reasonable price — or bet that Michael Porter Jr., or someone else, is ready to fill that critical defensive and rebounding role Millsap plays for Denver.
5. Warriors (15-50). The best backcourt in the NBA is back with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson healthy — don’t be shocked if Curry is in the MVP conversation next season. The Warriors also have Draymond Green being the glue guy/defensive anchor, plus Andrew Wiggins — for all his flaws — should fit well in a No. 4 option/Harrison Barnes role. The biggest question is at center, where there is a lot of buzz around the league the Warriors will chase Dwight Howard.
6. Heat (44-29). Was their amazing run in the bubble a fluke? No question Miami earned that trip to the Finals with its mental toughness behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but is it something that the team can replicate in a more traditional season? Probably, the Heat play great defense, have a tough-to-defend motion offense, and with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro leading the way, they have the shooting. The big offseason question is, what happens with free agent Goran Dragic? Look for Miami to offer a big one-year contract, preserving cap space for 2021 when the Heat will be a player for top free agents.
7. Celtics (48-24). This ranking feels a little low for Boston — we trust this roster and this front office more than just about any other to take another step forward next season. We trust Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to be the cornerstones. The big question is what happens with Gordon Hayward — he very likely picks up his $34.1 million option, but could he be traded (Danny Ainge will test the market). This team also has three first-round picks to play with as the Celtics look to add depth around a core that has been to the Eastern Conference Finals three out of four years (now just needs to take one more step).
8. Nets (35-37). The season spent waiting is over, now things get serious with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving healthy, surrounded by quality players like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen. Is Steve Nash ready to be a head coach (or, Kyrie, do you even need a coach)? The biggest off-season move has to be re-signing Joe Harris, Brooklyn needs his shooting (he is a free agent and will have options). On paper, the Nets are beasts next season, but how close to his vintage self will Durant be? Do all these pieces fit together?
9. Mavericks (43-32). Another team where this ranking feels it could be low. Luka Doncic for MVP is a real possibility, and he pairs well with Kristaps Porzingis (which is why KP’s offseason knee surgery, while minor, is a concern). Dallas needs to improve its defense and add another playmaker, but don’t expect fireworks this offseason as the Mavericks keep their powder dry for the summer of 2021, when the Mavs believe they will be big players in free agency.
10. Raptors (53-19). It is a tough line for Toronto to walk this summer: They have three key free agents — Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol — but want to keep enough money and options to chase Antetokounmpo if he chooses to leave Milwaukee. VanVleet will require a contract in the four-year, $85 million range to keep — and the Raptors would likely pay that — but expect the big men to get one-year offers from Toronto, which may have them looking elsewhere (for Gasol, that might include Barcelona). Pascal Siakam learned in the bubble what needs to be his next steps to become a franchise player.
11. Jazz (44-28). There is one easy offseason decision in Utah: Max out Donovan Mitchell off his rookie deal. Then things get more complex, starting with Rudy Gobert, who is eligible for a supermax extension but the Jazz (and likely everyone else) will want to pay less than that. The Jazz need to get back to being an elite defensive team, and while they need more shooting and shot creation getting Bojan Bogdanovic back from wrist surgery will help a lot with that.
12. Rockets (44-28). Daryl Morey has stepped down, Mike D’Antoni has walked out the door, and it’s fair to question what the Rockets will look like next season and what owner Tilman Fertitta is willing to pay for. Houston does not have a lot of roster flexibility or ways to add talent, which is why the buzz of Houston looking for Russell Westbrook trades is out there. Good luck with that. While some have speculated about a James Harden trade, that’s a discussion more likely next offseason, the Rockets will try to keep winning.
13. 76ers (43-30). Doc Rivers is in charge now and that should lead to more creative uses of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on the court and more accountability for all the players in the film room and off the court. Rivers makes this team the hardest to place in these rankings: They should be better, but Rivers doesn’t solve the core roster issues of spacing and shooting. Elton Brand needs to find another playmaker for this roster, do that and this ranking will seem dramatically low.
14. Trail Blazers (35-39). Portland isn’t poised to make a lot of roster moves this offseason, but they will have a healthy Jusuf Nurkic to add to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, so they don’t need to do much to remain a threat. Carmelo Anthony is a free agent and says he found a home in Portland, but with Zach Collins and Rodney Hood healthy there may be a steep minutes drop for ‘Melo, which may have him looking elsewhere. Hassan Whiteside also is a free agent.
15. Pelicans (30-42). Their ranking could get moved up based on who gets hired as head coach, is it someone who can convert the roster’s potential to reality? (Some around the Pelicans thought Tyronn Lue would be their guy, but he stayed in L.A.) The Pelicans will max out and re-sign Brandon Ingram, just leaving the questions of trading or holding onto Jrue Holiday, and if Zion Williamson can stay healthy and impact games.
16. Pacers (45-28) . It appears Indiana will hire a top assistant coach for the head job, which seems the smart move considering the available field (the Mike D’Antoni rumors started hot but have died off). Victor Oladipo has one year left on his contract and trade rumors are flying around, with him linked to the Knicks, Lakers, and half the teams in between. Oladipo wants to get paid in his next contract; if the Pacers don’t want to back up that Brinks truck, they need to move him this offseason.
17. Grizzlies (34-39). They are counting on the internal growth of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke to take a step forward next season. Memphis’ offseason was essentially trading for Justise Winslow at the deadline and re-signing Dillon Brooks, they don’t have a lot of other moves to make (other than re-signing De’Anthony Melton). Memphis should go try to find some shooting, because that Morant/Jackson/Winslow/Clarke core is not exactly spacing the floor.
18. Suns (44-39). They were the darlings of the bubble at 8-0, but we’re being careful reading too much into any of the outlier bubble results. They need to replicate that in the real world now. Devin Booker is a star, and there are moments Deandre Ayton looks like he could be one as well (his defense took a step forward last season). The Suns should consider bringing back Aron Baynes as a floor-spacing big man (something odd to type), but and there are long-term questions about Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dario Saric, and exactly who fits best around the young Suns’ core. But they seem poised for a step forward.
19. Thunder (44-28). If Oklahoma City runs it back then this ranking is far too low. However, with Billy Donovan moving on as coach, it seems like a rebuild is coming and, after his All-NBA season, Chris Paul’s trade value isn’t going to get any higher. If he goes, then others (Steven Adams, for example) could be on the move as well. Danilo Gallinari is a free agent and likely puts on another jersey next season. This ranking bets on Sam Presti jumping into the rebuild with both feet, which is the smart thing to do.
20. Wizards (25-47). Re-signing sharpshooting big man Davis Bertans is the Wizards’ highest priority, but they will have competition for him. The Wizards finally have John Wall and Bradley Beal healthy and together again, is that enough (with Bertans) to propel them up to one of the lower playoff spots in the East? Maybe. But only if their defense improves and isn’t 29th-in-the-league dreadful.
21. Magic (33-40). Losing Jonathan Isaac to a knee injury for all of next season is a punch to the gut of this franchise. The Magic are solid with Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Markelle Fultz, but this is a team spending a lot of money to be average. There is buzz around the league of a Gordon trade, and he has a favorable declining contract, but we’ll see if Orlando can find a taker, and if so what direction do they move as a franchise?
22. Kings (31-41, 3-5, LW 20). New Kings GM Monte McNair wants to play faster, and hired Alvin Gentry as Luke Walton’s lead assistant as a warning shot that Walton needs to play by the new rules. The Kings have missed the playoffs 14 straight years and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately doesn’t want his franchise to tie the Donald Sterling Clippers in the futility department next season, but for that to happen Marvin Bagley III needs to stay healthy, on the court, and have somewhere near the kind of impact Vlade Divac thought he would.
23. Spurs (32-39). The Spurs most likely just run it back with a roster that missed the playoffs last season. DeMar DeRozan has a $27.7 option he almost certainly picks up. San Antonio has some good young players — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV — and were interesting playing small with DeRozan at the four, hopefully we get more of that even with LaMarcus Aldridge healthy and back in the lineup.
24. Timberwolves (19-45). Timberwolves fans are going to see this ranking as too low — they have Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, a potential devastating pick-and-roll combo. They have the No. 1 pick in the draft (assuming they don’t trade it). They have some developing role players such as Malik Beasley (who was a fantastic fit) and Jarrett Culver. All true, but until we see this actually work well together on the court — and see this team play some defense — the skeptic in us wins out.
25. Bulls (22-43). Another “prove it to me” team. Billy Donovan is in as head coach, there is scoring with Zach LaVine and real potential in Lauri Markkanen and Coby White, but we have yet to see it all come together. This feels like an evaluation year for new head man Arturas Karnisovas, with aggressive moves coming in a year when he figures out what he’s got and what direction to go.
26. Hawks (20-46). Trae Young is a potential superstar (at least on offense) and he is finally paired with a strong pick-and-roll big in Clint Capela. Does John Collins fit with that combo, or is it time to look for a trade? Can the Hawks find more shooting and wing talent — and defense — in the draft and free agency? Whatever direction they go, Atlanta has a nice young core but one with serious defensive questions.
27. Hornets (23-42). This team simply needs an alpha, a true star player. They have the surprisingly good Devonte’ Graham, plus quality young players such as PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, but there is no north star. Charlotte needs to get lucky at No. 3 in the NBA draft (few scouts see a true star in this class) or find another way to add talent — ideally elite talent — to this roster.
28. Knicks (20-45). Leon Rose is in charge and he has his coach in Tom Thibodeau, but there is not much on this roster outside of Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett. Before the Knicks can dream of landing an elite free agent, they need to build the kind of culture and solid roster that would draw that level of star (as the Nets and Lakers did, adding a lot of young talent that showed promise). There is talk of the Knicks making an impatient move and trading picks/players for Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, but that’s the same old Knicks looking for a quick fix. Patience and player development is required.
29. Pistons (20-45). New GM Troy Weaver has Christian Wood, Sekou Doumbouya, the No. 7 pick, and a lot of cap space as he starts to try to stockpile young talent on this roster. He has veterans Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, who could try to trade them for picks/young players (there is a real market for Rose), but this is going to be a multi-year project that will probably not be much fun for Pistons fans.
30. Cavaliers (19-46). There are a lot of questions to answer in Cleveland: Can Collin Sexton and Darius Garland fit together in the backcourt? Is Andre Drummond a long-term answer at the five? Can they find a taker in a Kevin Love trade? Just how good can Kevin Porter Jr. be? JB Bickerstaff has a lot of player development to do as a coach, while Kobe Altman desperately needs to add more talent to this roster (and the No. 5 pick in this draft is only going to help so much).