Pressure can be external. Pressure can be internal. Pressure can land on players, coaches, general managers and even owners.
Here’s how every team ranks by pressure faced next season.
Relative to last year, the pressure curve is flatter. There’s less on the top teams – but more on teams near the bottom.
1. L.A. Clippers
The Clippers are expensive. They’re a championship contender. And their franchise player could be one season from unrestricted free agency. That’s the holy trifecta of pressure. At least Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (who signed an extension) aren’t both on de facto expiring contracts. They came to L.A. as a package, and George being locked into their hometown team should make the Clippers still appealing to Leonard. Right? Right??? They could remove all benefit of the doubt by winning it all.
2. Houston Rockets
James Harden‘s trade request instills tension throughout the organization. It’s just darned uncomfortable when everyone knows the superstar wants out. The Rockets can hope Harden will change his mind, but that means a lot is riding on strong a start. Houston is currently over the luxury-tax line. The Rockets’ annual purge to duck the tax could send Harden into a tizzy if he’s still around. On the other hand, Houston owner Tilman Fertitta would sure feel paying the tax for the first time.
3. Golden State Warriors
Is the dynasty over? The Warriors are incurring a massive luxury-tax liability to prove last season was an aberration. Golden State badly wants to re-establish itself as a premier entertainment option in its new arena. But that’ll be a tall task with Klay Thompson out for the year.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers are deep into the luxury tax. They just hired an expensive new president (Daryl Morey) and coach (Doc Rivers). Morey already refitted the roster to better complement the Joel Embiid–Ben Simmons tandem. A successful season is more mandate than hope. Everyone also knows James Harden is available and the apple of Morey’s eye.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo signing his super-max extension stopped the Bucks from topping this list. But this is still a championship contender that traded three first-rounder and two first-round pick swaps for a 30-year-old who can opt out after the season (Jrue Holiday). Milwaukee is also set to pay the luxury tax for the first time in the current tax era. If things go wrong, at least Antetokounmpo is locked in. But there’s still plenty of urgency/desperation in Milwaukee.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks decided they’re tired of losing and successfully used their cap space to get quality veterans. I have long-term concerns about this plan. But if it doesn’t even produce the intended short-term boost, that’d be a disaster. Trae Young was already expressing frustration, and another losing season could intensify problems – especially for coach Lloyd Pierce. Everyone noticed Atlanta hired Nate McMillan as an assistant.
7. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are mercurial. Nets head coach Steve Nash is a first-time coach. Brooklyn has plenty of young players trying to make their mark – including Jarrett Allen, who has been stuck behind Durant’s and Irving’s friend DeAndre Jordan. This a combustible mix – with championship upside.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
Last season’s championship relieves stress. So do LeBron James‘ and Anthony Davis‘ long-term contracts. But this still a big-market team with title aspirations and an aging superstar, one who sparks considerable controversy. The time will be now for the rest of LeBron’s career.
9. Washington Wizards
I’m starting to believe Bradley Beal is actually as loyal to Washington as he says he is. But there will be no shortage of teams trying to pry him loose if the Wizards stumble. Washington got Russell Westbrook to help avoid that outcome, which raises expectations – maybe too high. Despite his major name recognition, Westbrook only lifts the Wizards higher in the play-in range.
10. New York Knicks
Like last year, when they ranked No. 20 on this list, the Knicks are widely expected to struggle. But I learned my lesson. There’s always pressure when a James Dolan-owned team is losing in the New York market.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum already in tow, have been widely praised for their offseason. But it seems too many people are setting Portland’s initial baseline as a 2020 playoff team rather than a team with a losing record. It could be difficult for the Trail Blazers to meet elevated expectations.
12. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers finally look tired of losing in the fist round every year, but they didn’t do much about it in the offseason. If new coach Nate Bjorkgren can’t provide a jolt, Indiana could shake up its roster. Entering a contract year, Victor Oladipo is bringing the franchise toward an inflection point.
13. Phoenix Suns
14. Utah Jazz
The Jazz are getting a little old around Donovan Mitchell with Mike Conley (33), Bogdan Bogdanovic (31), Joe Ingles (33) and even Rudy Gobert (28). Utah spent big, maybe even into the luxury tax, on Jordan Clarkson and Derrick Favors to ensure this team maximizes its opportunity. But, ultimately, I’m just not convinced the Jazz falling short would have major ripple effects. If Gobert doesn’t sign an extension, that could be another source of tension throughout the season.
15. Cleveland Cavaliers
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert badly wants to win without LeBron James. Cleveland will likely fall short once again. That’d yield another high draft pick, necessary in this rebuild. But does Gilbert realize that’d be a good thing?
16. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets didn’t give Gordon Hayward $120 million over four years just to stink. The Hornets might stink, though. If No. 3 pick LaMelo Ball shows enough promise, Charlotte could probably pivot into a long-term view.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans signaled their desire to win now by hiring Stan Van Gundy as coach. But is Zion Williamson ready to meet those higher expectations (i.e., defend)? There could be an awkward disconnect between New Orleans’ immediate ambition and ability.
18. Denver Nuggets
Expectations are rising for the Nuggets, who’ve steadily improved over the last six years, culminating in last season’s run to the Western Conference finals. But few outside Denver view the Nuggets as a legitimate championship contender. The Nuggets are also young enough to fall back into the deep mix of quality Western Conference teams and still have time to re-emerge down the road.
19. Boston Celtics
What if the Celtics, say, lose in the first round? They’d still have young stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’d still have an entrenched president (Danny Ainge) and coach (Brad Stevens). Boston must determine how to get from this point to more firmly in championship contention. But it doesn’t have to happen this season.
20. Dallas Mavericks
21. Detroit Pistons
What is new general manager Troy Weaver’s plan? It’s tough to see. But signing Jerami Grant for $60 million over three years and Mason Plumlee for $25 million over three years suggests Weaver doesn’t expect the Pistons to be as bad as they’ll likely be.
22. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento showed plenty of patience this offseason with new general manager Monte McNair now in charge. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive could demand more at any moment. But it truly does seem he’s allowing McNair to take his time, even if means another losing season. That said, Sacramento coach Luke Walton – working for an executive who didn’t hire him – might have more urgency to win now.
23. Miami Heat
Last season’s magical run to the NBA Finals buys Miami benefit of the doubt. The Heat would obviously prefer not to burn all their goodwill this season, but they also willingly accepted a step back in order to preserve 2021 cap space (at least until signing Bam Adebayo to his contract extension).
24. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have a lot of pieces – franchise players Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell, No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards, $60 million man Malik Beasley, even-higher-salaried fan favorite Ricky Rubio. How will everyone come together? Who knows?
25. Toronto Raptors
Toronto is still living in the afterglow of the 2019 championship. Still, the Raptors are good enough to have expectations. It’d be nice to build positive momentum entering 2021 free agency. Masai Ujiri’s expiring contract also serves as a pressure point.
26. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls just hope to get a better understanding of where they stand without Jim Boylen. If Billy Donovan gets Chicago winning and/or its young players improving, that’d be welcome. If the problems were far bigger than Boylen… well, at least the Bulls would know that and could proceed accordingly. New general manager Arturas Karnisovas should have runway to build back up if necessary.
27. San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich guided San Antonio to 22 straight playoff appearances, including five championships. Nobody should get too upset now that the streak is over. Popovich can be forgiven for a down year or two. That said, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are on expiring contracts. They might want to see more urgency for getting put into good situations.
28. Orlando Magic
The Magic appear content to take a step back with Jonathan Isaac out for the season. That doesn’t mean they want to. But this doesn’t look like a make-or-break year for anyone in Orlando. That said, losing is miserable and can lead to change.
29. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies definitely want to build on last year’s surprising success. But that won’t be easy with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow sidelined to begin this shortened season. Memphis has proven it has the young core to build around. Another season in the lottery shouldn’t be devastating.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have fully embraced rebuilding, loading up on other teams’ draft picks. Last season was probably the Thunder’s last hurrah for a while as a competitive team. Everyone understands it’s now time for Oklahoma City to tank and push its own pick near the top of a strong-looking 2021 draft.