Preseason NBA Power Rankings and Predictions

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets shoots the ball during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 24, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The NBA’s mid-March season postponement ultimately cost the Denver Nuggets a chance at their second straight 50-win season. When the season resumed nearly five months later, the Nuggets were no longer chasing another 50-win regular season; their rising superstar Jamal Murray was taking the franchise’s methodical rebuild to a new level as they sat four wins away from their first-ever NBA Finals appearance.

Murray and the Nuggets entered the NBA Bubble with a 43-22 record and were buried in NBA Finals odds entering the playoffs after losing their final three games. They dispatched the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in six and seven games, respectively, to earn just their second Western Conference Finals bid in the last 35 years. And the Nuggets were four wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance since joining the NBA in 1977.

The Nuggets fell short but return seven of their top scorers from a year ago and, as a top-five preseason team, are primed for another deep playoff run.

NBA Power Rankings

  1. Los Angeles Lakers

Anthony Davis is back, Montrezl Harrell flipped locker rooms, and LeBron James is still LeBron James entering his age-36 season. Another banner is in sight for the 17-time champs.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks’ playoff struggles can’t be overstated—they’ve lost four times in a five-game stretch only twice in the last two seasons, both of which came in the playoffs—but with Giannis Antetokounmpo back on a long-term deal and Jrue Holiday acquired from New Orleans, the Bucks remain the class of the Eastern Conference.

  1. Miami Heat

It’s easy to overreact to playoff runs from overachieving teams. That’s not the case with this year’s Miami Heat, who, despite a shortened season, will aim for their first 50-win season since 2013-14.

  1. Los Angeles Clippers

It’s also easy to overreact to early playoff departures from championship contenders. While it’s fair to wonder if the Clippers have a prayer against the Lakers in a best-of-seven series (and how big their championship window is), they bolstered the frontcourt with Serge Ibaka, re-signed Marcus Morris, acquired Luke Kennard, and still have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

  1. Denver Nuggets

Let’s take a leap in saying the Denver Nuggets take a leap to legitimate championship contender as Jamal Murray enters the MVP race.

  1. Boston Celtics

Gordon Hayward would’ve made the Celtics marginally better this year, but ultimately his sign-and-trade departure to the Charlotte Hornets won’t impair this team’s shot at an NBA Finals run and was the smart move for the future. 

  1. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz controls the ball during a game against the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 14, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Donovan Mitchell is a superstar, Mike Conley improved after a self-admitted rocky start, Rudy Gobert is a reliable big, and Bojan Bogdanović is a versatile forward, all of which make the Jazz one of the most complete teams in the NBA. No. 7 is their floor; they could be a top-three team by season’s end.

  1. Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic’s rapid ascension has accelerated what was believed to be a long rebuild for the Mavericks. 

  1. Brooklyn Nets

The potential is undeniable in Brooklyn, but with a first-year, first-time head coach, Kevin Durant’s injury history, and lack of depth, proceeding with caution is the right approach.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

Doc Rivers should improve a vanilla offense, and Dwight Howard is an adequate addition for frontcourt depth, but until anyone learns to shoot, this 76ers’ ceiling is low.

  1. Toronto Raptors

Fred VanVleet’s return was huge, and Nick Nurse remains an elite coach, but the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol have decimated their frontcourt.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

It’s time for the next step Blazers’ fans have awaited for years. And it won’t happen this year unless Jusuf Nurkic remains healthy and Damian Lillard’s supporting cast steps up.

  1. Indiana Pacers

The good news: Indiana’s frontcourt will be a matchup problem for some teams who can’t handle Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The bad news: Those teams aren’t good anyway, and beating a lot of bad teams won’t mean much for a team that needs versatile wings to reach top-10 status.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts after a dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers during the fourth quarter in the Western Conference play-in game one at The Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 15, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Mavericks are barreling toward ownership of the Southwest Division, but there’s an opening behind them. And with Ja Morant already approaching superstar status and Jaren Jackson Jr. developing into one of the better end-to-end players in the league, the Grizzlies’ rebuild is moving quickly.

  1. Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns gave up too much for Chris Paul, but the 35-year-old 10-time All-Star makes their Devin Booker-led attack better in the immediate future. 

  1. New Orleans Pelicans

In only 24 games last season, Zion Williamson proved he’s a matchup problem for most teams and should flourish in Stan Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll-heavy system.

  1. Washington Wizards

Without Russell Westbrook, the Wizards would’ve, frankly, sucked again this season. With Russell Westbrook, the Wizards won’t suck and could challenge for a coveted top-six seed. But without defensive improvement, the ceiling is limited.

  1. Atlanta Hawks

A depth-building offseason will push the Hawks toward playoff contention, but defensive ineptitude and offensive confusion with Trae Young on the bench remain glaring issues.

  1. Golden State Warriors

Without Klay Thompson, the Warriors have no chance to re-enter the championship discussion. Another lost year in the Bay.

  1. Sacramento Kings
De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings dribbles with the ball in the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers during their preseason game at Moda Center on December 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Another year, another roster of who’s who of former college stars for the Sacramento Kings. And those stars might finally mesh for a relevancy-starved team.

  1. Charlotte Hornets

The star-less Hornets have built a talented and young backcourt that could challenge for 35 wins if P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges each take another step forward.

  1. Houston Rockets

Until James Harden’s short- and long-term future is decided, the Houston Rockets are in limbo. If he’s around, they still have top-10 potential. If he’s not, cover your eyes.

  1. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs finished below .500 one time from 1989-2019. If Dejounte Murray’s development isn’t kicked into overdrive and they’re not more efficient from inside the arc, the Spurs could have back-to-back sub-.500 seasons.

  1. Orlando Magic

Until Aaron Gordon’s contract is off the books and Orlando becomes more aggressive in adding young talent, they’ll continue to live in the bottom third of the league.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves don’t do anything well. They’re not horrendous in every area, but they don’t do anything well. There’s no reason to suggest 2020-21 will be a step forward for the downtrodden franchise.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Bravo to the Thunder for aggressively committing to a rebuild by securing enough draft capital to start an expansion team. That commitment, however, will make this season an ugly one.

  1. Chicago Bulls
Head coach Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder gives instructions to his team against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Thunder defeated the Bulls 109-94. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Billy Donovan was an outstanding hire for a team in need of competent player development. This is nothing more than a rebuilding and developmental year as Donovan implements his long-term plan.

  1. Detroit Pistons

It’s hard to win basketball games without talent. 

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland will take another step forward on the offensive end, but they’re years and more lottery picks away from playoff relevancy.

  1. New York Knicks 

Hire a coach, lose a lot of games, fire a coach. Rinse and repeat.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.

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