1. Los Angeles Clippers
We always said that wherever Kawhi Leonard lands becomes the title favourite, and his heading to the Clippers certainly doesn’t change that. It’s not just the two-way potential of superstar duo Kawhi and Paul George, but L.A. boasts an elite, well-fitting supporting cast that includes a mix of established veterans and up-and-comers. Sixth Man of the Year nominee Montrezl Harrell and back-to-back winner Lou Williams highlight a deep roster that also includes Patrick Beverly, Mo Harkless, breakout candidate Landry Shamet, and Canadian rookie big man Mfiondu Kabengele.
2. Denver Nuggets
Expect improvements all across the roster, including and especially projected MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. The 24 year-old centre was named All-NBA First Team last season and figures to continue to make his mark in the West leading a high-octane team bolstered by the underrated addition of forward Jerami Grant. If Kitchener, Ont.’s Jamal Murray builds off his breakout 2019 playoff performance and takes a step forward into all-star territory — a very real possibility — then Denver should continue to hold their place among the very top of the West.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Like with Denver and Jokic, expect another large-footed step forward for Philadelphia’s young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In the playoffs, Embiid led all players in the NBA in defensive win shares and remains the centrepiece of the new(ish)-look Sixers. The team lost key contributors in Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick but stand to become a defensive juggernaut thanks to the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford — whose presence will also allow the team to exercise a load management protocol with Embiid, to the disappointment of the rest of the league.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have been an elite defensive club in long need of a star-quality point guard and, over the past two seasons, have had to rely too much on 22-year-old guard Donovan Mitchell to carry the scoring load.
The team addressed nearly all of their needs this off-season, bringing in Mike Conley Jr. in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies and that addition alone changes Utah’s outlook entirely. Throw in lauded free-agent signing Bojan Bogdanovich, a high-end secondary scorer whose three-point stroke will flourish in Utah’s system and the Jazz boast as complete a team as there is in the NBA.
It remains to be seen how they’ll carry their success over into the playoffs but they have the talent and now an all-around attack that should keep them at or near the top of the West all season.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
They lost Malcolm Brogdon, which hurts, but retained their contender status by keeping key pieces to last year’s top-ranked team Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton.
2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo alone can lead a team to the top of the East, but surrounded by a familiar roster and proven system there’s no reason for the Bucks to regress much at all.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
There’s no doubting the next-level potential of LeBron James and Anthony Davis but, as last season proved, the success of the Lakers will come down to good health and the supporting cast. Beyond James and Davis, two of the NBA’s top talents, the rest of the Lakers roster save maybe for third-year forward Kyle Kuzma is, like last season, a mostly-uninspiring and oddly-assembled veteran group.
It’s been reported that James will play point guard and it’s a move done out of necessity that could wind up leaving the Lakers vulnerable on the defensive end. They’ll win plenty of games — a healthy LeBron guarantees it — but the questions that remain after losing out on Kawhi Leonard are legitimate.
7. Houston Rockets
After buzz about turmoil in Houston and major roster changes afoot, the Rockets have been impossibly quiet during the off-season thus far. As it stands, they’ll return virtually the same roster, which still stars the game’s most unsolvable offensive problem in James Harden. We may have seen the playoff ceiling for this team already, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not a tough out on any given night.
8. Indiana Pacers
Contingent on if Victor Oladipo makes a full recovery from his season-ending knee injury and returns before the all-star break, the Pacers could be as good as any team in the East. Even without Oladipo last season they remained ultra-competitive and this summer added Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb to a roster that already includes breakout big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
9. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry in MVP mode is on the horizon but the Warriors remain one of the tougher teams to predict. The loss of Kevin Durant is obviously significant, as is Klay Thompson’s injured ACL, which will keep him out until at least February. The addition of D’Angelo Russell was shocking and is as hit-or-miss as it gets. This spot is based on an all-timer of a season from Curry in what will otherwise feel like a transition year in the Bay.
10. Boston Celtics
The Kyrie Irving experiment may have been a wild failure, but the Celts gathered themselves in a hurry, replacing Irving with fellow all-star point guard Kemba Walker, who takes the reins of the most talented roster he’s ever been a part of. The development — or lack thereof — of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with what we see from Gordon Hayward next season will determine whether or not Boston will need to be taken seriously as contenders in the East.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
By the end of the playoffs few teams seemed as poised to take a leap next season like Portland, thanks to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. But the team was quietly gutted of a number of key supporting cast members including Mo Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman and Seth Curry (and, no, trading for Hassan Whiteside doesn’t move the needle for me).
12. Brooklyn Nets
D’Angelo Russell’s breakout 2018-19 season was a big contributor to the Nets’ success but they upgraded in Kyrie Irving and still have a strong roster that includes unheralded players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Levert, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince. Remember: Kevin Durant is still a season away from playing in Brooklyn, and when that happens, they’ll vault higher than any team on this list.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
All eyes will be on first-overall pick Zion Williamson, but the rest of the Pelicans new-look roster — featuring Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball — is strong enough to keep them competitive even if Williamson has some bumps along the way in his rookie year. But if he comes out of the gates swinging like he did in college, then look out.
14. Orlando Magic
Orlando were among the NBA’s best to close out last season and put up a fight against the eventual champs in the playoffs. They have a clear identity and avoided losing their upward trajectory by re-signing Nikola Vucevic and bench scorer Terrence Ross. The Magic still need a point guard, and if they can get production out of that spot they should be able to fight for potential home court advantage — even if they’re a ways away from competing for a title.
15. Toronto Raptors
The Raps would’ve held the top spot had Kawhi returned to Toronto, but for now the Raptors enter next season in familiar territory — with a talented roster that should compete for a top-four spot in the conference but doesn’t quite have the firepower to make a serious playoff run.
Kyle Lowry could still flirt with all-star status but Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will be in tough to repeat their stellar performances last season while the team must now bank on the likes of OG Anunoby and Norman Powell to make noticeable improvements.
Of course, the Raptors biggest difference-maker is Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam, who, if he continues to get better at this rapid rate, could keep Toronto in the hunt in the East.
16. Dallas Mavericks
Hey, there’s bound to be a team or two who takes a big step forward next season, so why can’t it be the one with if not the best then certainly the most promising young duo in the NBA: reigning MVP Luka Doncic — arguably the highest-potential young player in a league that includes Zion Williamson — and basketball science experiment Kristaps Porzingis.
The Mavs retained underrated centre Dwight Powell, added underrated guard Seth Curry and just traded for underrated point guard Delon Wright, adding to a team that is a surprise breakout reserve away from accelerating their road back to the post-season.
17. Sacramento Kings
The De’Aaron Fox-Buddy Hield-Marvin Bagley trio is as promising as they come but this team, heading into their first season under new coach Luke Walton, may still not be ready to consistently compete with the conference’s big dogs quite yet.
18. Miami Heat
The Jimmy Butler-led Heat may not be the most threatening team in the East, but Miami only narrowly missed the post-season last year and by essentially swapping Josh Richardson for Butler they likely punched their ticket for the 2020 playoffs.
19. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs may be stuck in neutral with their LaMarcus Aldridge-DeMar DeRozan core but should at least remain competitive as always. The major X-Factor in San Antonio is point guard Dejounte Murray, who was poised for a breakout season last year before a knee injury kept him out of the season entirely.
20. Detroit Pistons
It took a Herculean season from Blake Griffin to squeeze the Pistons into the eight-seed last season, and the addition of Derrick Rose in the off-season likely isn’t enough to make a big difference in that regard.
21. Atlanta Hawks
Another of the most promising young rosters assembled, the Hawks come at you fast and furious. Behind the tandem of Trae Young and John Collins, plus up-and-coming talent like Kevin Huerter and top-10 picks DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, Atlanta could be a surprise team (in that they finally won’t compete for dead last).
22. Chicago Bulls
Chicago’s core may not be household names, but Lauri Markkanen, Wendel Carter Jr., Zach LaVine and rookie point guard Coby White boast a ton of talent and could surprise teams this season after a 2018-19 campaign to forget.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
You can’t really bank on Andrew Wiggins to get any better at this point, and we’ve seen how a dominant Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t enough to win games in Minny, so the Timberwolves chances of getting out of the basement rests on young players like Josh Okogie and fifth-overall pick Jarrett Culver.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder
Things are about to get ugly in OKC with rumours that Russell Westbrook is likely to be dealt before the season begins. That’ll seal the Thunder’s fate as an NBA bottom-feeder, but even with Westbrook in the lineup the roster still leaves a ton to be desired.
25. New York Knicks
The Knicks likely won’t be the NBA’s worst team again, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be much better. The focus in New York now turns to young players RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox, with free-agent consolation prize Julius Randle potentially emerging as an all-star this season.
26. Memphis Grizzlies
Young guard-big combo Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. represent the Grizzlies’ future hopes to contend, while centre Jonas Valanciunas looks to dominate the post in Memphis once again for a team that just doesn’t yet have the overall talent to compete in either conference.
27. Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ front office have made one questionable move after another this off-season and could be on the verge of wasting big years from their young star duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
28. Washington Wizards
Will Bradley Beal stay or go? Either way there’s not a lot of hope for Washington — this season or beyond.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
After drafting point guards near the top of the draft in back-to-back years, the Cavs are clearly still at the “assembling talent” stage of what should be a long post-LeBron rebuild. Look for Kevin Love to be dealt, if a team will take on his contract.
30. Charlotte Hornets
‘The Terry Rozier Show’ is the alternate title for what is surely the saddest team in the NBA.