Did you feel it?
No, that biting wind that just blew past wasn’t merely a late autumn proclivity, it was also courtesy of the NBA, whose 2020 free agency period has whipped by at breakneck speed thanks to the COVID-crunched off-season window.
And now, somehow, training camps, which will begin Dec. 1, are less than a week away.
So, in anticipation of the 2020-21 season, and as a reminder of where each team stands currently now that the majority of the off-season has passed, what follows is a ranking of each conference’s top eight (read: playoff) teams.
Hold on and try not to get blown away.
At the time of this writing, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo still hasn’t made a decision on whether or not he’ll accept the Bucks’ inevitable offer of a supermax extension. But even if he declines, Milwaukee will very likely look to ride out the entire season with him in hopes that the revamped roster will perform well enough — which likely means, at the least, a trip to the NBA Finals — to change his mind.
And despite badly fumbling a sign-and-trade scenario with the Sacramento Kings that would’ve brought aboard sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic (a good friend of Antetokounmpo’s) as well as the deal given to Pat Connaughton, the remainder of the Bucks’ free agency moves (particularly the additionof perennial fringe all-star Jrue Holiday) have ultimately fabricated a superior group to the one that ran rampant through the rest of the league last season.
With Gordon Hayward’s decision to depart the Celtics for the Charlotte Hornets (now reported to be completed via a sign-and-trade) after they offered him a whopping four-year, $120-million deal, Boston has now lost three max contract players over the past two years (Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both left in 2019).
Even so, their young core is still intact, and they’ve got one of the top upstart talents in the league in Jayson Tatum, whom they just extended on a five-year, $195-million deal. Throw in the solid signing of Tristan Thompson to aid in their rebounding woes (they ranked 17th in defensive rebounding percentage last season), and barring anything unforeseen, natural progression should have them as one of the top teams in the East once again.
After shocking the world and reaching the NBA Finals as the fifth seed in the East last season, the Heat shored up a championship-calibre roster by adding the likes of Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless, and managed to successfully retain free agent Goran Dragic, who was a massive part of the team’s post-season run.
They also locked up burgeoning star Bam Adebayo to a five-year, $163-million extension. While that very likely excludes them from the opportunity to chase Antetokounmpo should he become a free agent next summer (extending Adebayo now could also be proof that the Heat believe the MVP will re-sign with the Bucks), it is in itself a move that no one can sniff at.
Combine this with the fact that Miami, who employs several young key pieces, now has the experience and understanding of what it takes to make a deep playoff push, and it would make sense that the 2020-21 version of the team will be notably better.
All-in-all, the Raptors’ off-season can be looked at as a relative success. In short, they were able to retain their main priority in Fred VanVleet (who was one of, if not the biggest name on the unrestricted free-agent market), keep fiscal flexibility for next summer, and field a competitive enough roster that -- despite losing significant pieces in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka -- could make themselves appealing to any potential stars looking for a new home in 2021.
And while this iteration of the Raptors may not be quite as potent as last year’s thanks to their completely restructured front court, the additions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len aren’t empty calories, either, and the former in particular is coming off a career season with the Phoenix Suns.
Like Boston, any improvement Toronto sees will largely stem from natural progression from its core pieces in Pascal Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby. The franchise has put significant stock in the triad’s continued growth, and this coming campaign will be a vital one for all three of them.
While the 76ers didn’t make any eye-popping splashes from a player personnel perspective this off-season, the tweaks to a roster already brimming with potential as well as the additions of head coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey have instantly upgraded a franchise that was teetering toward total dismemberment after another early playoff exit.
With the present plan appearing to be to keep both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the club’s cornerstones, newcomers Danny Green (36.7 per cent from three in 2019-20) and Ryan Broekhoff (39.2 per cent) will provide a much-needed shooting boost that the team simply didn’t have last season (they ranked 19th in three-pointers made), and the inclusions of Dwight Howard and Terrance Ferguson add some solid backup depth.
Perhaps the most fascinating team in the Eastern Conference for the upcoming season due to their equivalent chances to succeed with dominance or fail spectacularly, the Nets will finally be able to put the team on the floor they envisioned over a year ago.
And so, now, questions abound: What will Kevin Durant look like post-Achilles injury? Will Irving be able to play a fully healthy season? Will the two all-stars mesh quickly enough in a shortened season to morph the team into a cohesive unit? What is the club’s defensive ceiling, and will it be enough?
In an ameliorated East, they’ll have their work cut out for them.
There was no shortage of drama around the Pacers this off-season, with star Victor Oladipo (a free agent next summer) involved in rumours that he wanted to be traded and a near-deal with the Celtics centred around Hayward falling through due to Boston’s disinterest in Myles Turner.
Now, less than a week away from training camp, Indiana will enter its season with virtually the same roster as in 2019-20 and hope that Oladipo, still working his way back towards full health after tearing his quadriceps tendon in 2019, will be able to regain his all-star form and consequently raise the team’s ceiling (or, at the least, improve his trade market and/or worthiness of being re-signed to a larger contract).
In a tight-knit race with the Orlando Magic (who will be without Jonathan Isaac after he tore his ACL in the Orlando bubble) and Washington Wizards (who will be reintegrating John Wall for the first time in about two years), the overhauled Atlanta Hawks get the nod for the eighth spot here.
While their defence (27th in the league last season) probably won’t see a meaningful improvement, their offence (26th least season) certainly should. The Hawks have gone from employing a starting unit of Trae Young-De’Andre Hunter-Kevin Huerter-Cam Reddish-John Collins to potentially Young-Bodganovic-Danilo Gallinari-Collins-Clint Capela. That’s significantly more firepower.
It will be close, but the Hawks are prepared to take the next step forward.
Pulling off one of the better overall off-seasons, the defending champion Lakers managed to shore up a position of need by trading for Dennis Schroder (who will provide some necessary playmaking, whether as a primary or secondary creator) and replaced the absence of Green by signing Wesley Matthews (a still-potent defender and three-point marksman). On top of that, they swapped out two of their big men (Howard, JaVale McGee) for, if not substantial, at least marginal upgrades in Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Los Angeles now just awaits the re-signing of Anthony Davis (a fait accompli), who is still pondering precisely what type of contract he wants to commit to.
Having put themselves in about as sound a position to repeat as was possible in such a constrained off-season, betting against the Lakers at this point would be foolish.
After a disappointing finish to their season, which saw them blow a 3–1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals, the Clippers look to enter the 2020-21 campaign perhaps slightly better than they were only a few months ago.
Their major acquisition, Ibaka, is a defensive improvement over Harrell, and can stretch the floor in a way the latter cannot. He also brings an extra layer of championship experience to the club, something that no one else save Kawhi Leonard (who, of course, won a title with Ibaka in Toronto in 2019) has.
Losing JaMychal Green hurts, and paying Marcus Morris $64 million over four years to return isn’t necessarily ideal, but Luke Kennard is a solid pick up and the rest of the roster remains intact. They continue to be one of the most talented teams on paper, and if new head coach Tyronn Lue can bring out their best, they should be right back in the title picture in a more serious manner.
Every season since head coach Michael Malone took over in Denver, the Nuggets have continued to improve. Last season culminated in this core's deepest playoff run yet (featuring multiple 3–1 comebacks), ending in a Western Conference Finals loss to the eventual champion Lakers in five games.
It makes sense, then, since success has come with the Nuggets being patient and continuing to build around their star duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (possibly the breakout performer of the bubble) that the franchise feels comfortable entering the season with largely the same roster as the year prior.
Paul Millsap was retained on a one-year deal, and JaMychal Green was brought in. Torrey Craig was unceremoniously thrust into free agency after the Nuggets rescinded his qualifying offer, and Bol Bol was converted to a standard NBA contract to shore up the big man rotation following the departure of Mason Plumlee. Jerami Grant was perhaps the only surprise, as he took a deal from the Detroit Pistons because he was reportedly looking for a more significant role.
But these are all fairly minor details, and the Nuggets look to be in as good a shape as any team, with a core that’s got its best years ahead.
Quietly, the Blazers have done a great job reshaping their roster, adding the springy Derrick Jones Jr., Harry Giles and Enes Kanter for front court depth, and retaining both Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood. They also made one of the more understated trades of the off-season, sending Trevor Ariza and a couple first-round picks to the Houston Rockets for Robert Covington, a prototypical three-and-D wing who figures to fit nicely.
This version of the Blazers is, at least in theory, more than comparable to the one that forged a path to the Western Conference Finals in 2018, and having Jusuf Nurkic back healthy, in particular, has them relatively high on this list.
Dallas’ off-season was nothing to write home about, but it did manage to acquire Josh Richardson from Philadelphia, who should add some defensive grit to a team that ranked only 18th in defensive rating last year.
The Mavericks will be without star big man Kristaps Porzingis to start the season as he continues to rehabilitate a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, a reality that will surely hurt them, but Luka Doncic has ascended so rapidly into superstar status (the engine of a historically great offence last season) that projecting them as a middling team feels justified regardless.
Right now, the Rockets still employ James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and as long as they do so, it’s tough to believe they won’t at least be a middling threat in the Western Conference. The question, of course, is whether or not those two will be on the team come the trade deadline, and just how hard they’ll opt to play while enduring a situation that makes them actively unhappy.
Buried beneath all of that (and the signals that the franchise is preparing for the potential of moving on from one or both of its stars) is the fact that Houston did manage to land one of the more underrated free agents of the 2020 class in Christian Wood, a big man who broke out with the Pistons last season.
It’s impossible to prognosticate just where the Rockets will be in a few weeks let alone a few months, but as things stand, they’re set to enter the season as a viable playoff team.
Another team that kept its off-season moves to a minimum, the Jazz understandably were focused on extending Donovan Mitchell (who waged one of the most epic first-round battles in NBA history against Murray and the Nuggets last post-season) and making room for the eventual extension that will be offered to two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. They did manage to re-sign Jordan Clarkson, a certified bucket-getter off the pine, and added big man Derrick Favors.
The Jazz go into the season in an interesting place: On the one hand, the improvement Mitchell showcased in Orlando was thrilling and very well could push the team to a higher gear. On the other, the rest of the West remains just as formidable if not more so than last season. The team will hope that a healthy campaign from key cog Bojan Bogdanovic, along with a better season from Mike Conley, who looked out of sorts all year long, will keep them, at least, in contention for a higher seed come season’s end.
Initially, the Golden State Warriors made this list as a playoff team, but following the season-ending Achilles injury to Klay Thompson and the fact that the Rockets can’t be counted out just yet, it’s the Suns who snag this spot.
Making one of the loudest and swiftest deals following the lifting of the trade moratorium, the Suns acquired Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder, immediately shifting their timeline to becoming a playoff team to the present.
Evidently, Phoenix believes in the outing its team accomplished in the Orlando bubble, where they went an impressive 8–0 and the young duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton flashed what they are capable of. They’ll be betting they can build on that this season, and with a savvy (and still capable) veteran like Paul now aboard, such a goal certainly seems attainable.