The chase for the top four spots in the Eastern and Western Conference standings tipped off well in advance of the Dec. 22 start of the 2020-21 NBA season.
You can go back as far as the start of trade season to see who was serious about contending. Draft night and then free agency were the next steps. And with the start of training camps around the league just days away, the picture is coming into better focus with each transaction.
There are tiers in this game, teams that separate themselves from the pack based on the work they do in the offseason — even an abbreviated and compressed one like we’re living through right now.
So in advance of the Dec. 1 open of training camps, here’s a list of the true contenders (four from the Eastern Conference teams and four more from the Western Conference):
2019-20 finish: 56-17, 1st Eastern Conference, lost to Miami in conference semifinals
Key offseason acquisitions: Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin
2020-21 outlook: The Bucks hope an upgrade at point guard (Holiday and Augustin in place of Eric Bledsoe and George Hill) is the key to getting past their issues in the playoffs. Portis adds an element of toughness and paint scoring that could also prove beneficial for the second unit. The signature of Giannis Antetokounmpo on that five-year extension any time in the next month is the tonic the organization needs to ease any fears going into this season. That said, the postseason is where all of the moves (including increased flexibility from coach Mike Budenholzer) will ultimately be judged. Being the best regular season team in the league for a third straight season won’t move the needle much in Milwaukee as the bitter taste of coming up short in each of the past two postseasons. The power of Giannis alone is cause for optimism. The reigning, back-to-back Kia MVP has earned the right to inspire that sort of confidence. A quasi-Big 3 of Giannis, Khris Middleton and Holiday is enough to keep the Bucks in the contender mix for the foreseeable future.
2019-20 Finish: 44-29, 5th Eastern Conference, lost to Los Angeles Lakers in The Finals
Key offseason acquisitions: Avery Bradley, Moe Harkless, Precious Achiuwa (rookie)
2020-21 outlook: The quality of Miami’s free-agent additions speak to the culture of an organization that attracts veteran role players. Both Bradley and Harkless, excellent defenders and somewhat underrated offensive performers, are perfect fits targeted by Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg. Achiuwa will add depth to an already deep roster that came into its own in the Orlando bubble. With Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo (fresh off of agreeing to a five-year extension), Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Andre Iguodala, Kendrick Nunn and re-signed veteran point Goran Dragic leading the way, the Heat are poised to leapfrog a few teams in the standings. The temptation to move the Heat ahead of the Bucks in the pecking order is strong heading into training camp. The continuity and confidence built in the past year should give coach Erik Spoelstra much more comfortability with his group than he had going into his first training camp with Butler and the youngsters that played their way to the final game of the season.
2019-20 finish: 35-37, 7th Eastern Conference, lost to Toronto in the first round
Key offseason acquisitions: Landry Shamet, Jeff Green
2020-21 outlook: It’s not the influx of talent that fuels the belief in the Nets, it’s the return of superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coupled with the addition of Steve Nash and his coaching staff (which includes Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire) that has the Nets believing they are in instant contender mode. Nash’s embrace of these supersized expectations is refreshing. The hardest part, however, remains. He’ll have to cultivate the chemistry of this group in short order to put them on a trajectory that matches the optimism. We still don’t know if Durant will be all the way back to his normal self after his Achilles injury. And there will be some uncertainty for guys like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie as long as the trade rumors continue to swirl. But from a talent standpoint, the Nets have assembled a group that holds up against anyone else in the Eastern Conference and actually boasts the best 1-2 punch in Durant and Kyrie Irving. This isn’t the exact same projection the LA Clippers had in training camp last season, but it’s close.
2019-20 finish: 48-24, 3rd Eastern Conference, lost to Miami in conference finals
Key offseason acquisitions: Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, Aaron Nesmith (rookie)
2020-21 outlook: Danny Ainge’s restraint this offseason is as impressive as it is surprising, given his usual preference for tinkering with the roster. But the Celtics stumbled onto something in the bubble playing off the strengths of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. A physical force like Thompson adds an element of defensive toughness and rebounding that Enes Kanter simply did not. Teague is subtle improvement as a backup. And don’t sleep on Grant Williams, who acquitted himself quite well in the bubble. The continued development of Carson Edwards, Robert Williams and Romeo Langford is critical for depth purposes. Adding a shooter with the size and versatility of Nesmith adds even more depth. The Celtics will still have some size and depth concerns to address, but there’s no denying the potency of their core group and what they’ve already accomplished as Tatum and Brown enter the primes of their careers.
Three more to keep an eye on: Toronto, Philadelphia, Atlanta
Los Angeles Lakers
2019-20 finish: 52-19, 1st Western Conference, defeated Miami in The Finals
Key offseason acquisitions: Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews
2020-21 outlook: Rob Pelinka’s quest for the respect LeBron James talked about the night the Lakers clinched championship No. 17 in the Orlando bubble continued into the offseason. Pelinka didn’t rest on what was accomplished. He added key pieces in Schroder, Harrell, Gasol and Matthews. He knows LeBron will figure out a way to integrate each of those veterans into the mix that flows through he and Anthony Davis (whose contract situation is nothing to worry about). Running it back with Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who were both superb in their roles in the Lakers’ bubble title run, makes plenty of sense. The kicker will be figuring out exactly what works with so many different rotation options. With no Rajon Rondo around to aid that cause, this is what will occupy the majority of coach Frank Vogel and his staff’s time in the first weeks of this truncated regular season. Beyond that, the Lakers enter this season head and shoulders above the competition.
2019-20 finish: 46-27, 3rd Western Conference, lost to the Lakers in conference finals
Key offseason acquisitions: JaMychal Green, Facundo Campazzo, R.J. Hampton (rookie)
2020-21 outlook: The Nuggets’ deft touch in the Draft allowed them to move on from the Jerami Grant free-agent sweepstakes in favor of leaning into the Michael Porter Jr./Bol Bol experiment. Re-signing Paul Millsap on a reported one-year deal also provides some insurance for a team that needs to sort out its minutes priorities after a surprising run to the conference finals in the Orlando bubble. Coach Mike Malone has his dynamic duo in All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic and rising star Jamal Murray. Filling in the blanks properly around those two is where the real work kicks in during training camp. The competition for minutes at every other position should be fierce, which is exactly the way Nuggets’ brass should want it, if the Nuggets are all in on what they started in Orlando. Porter Jr. and Bol are undeniably next-level talents. Whether they are truly ready for the prime time grind of a full season remains to be seen (the bubbles was a useful but limited sample).
2019-20 finish: 49-23, 2nd Western Conference, lost to Denver in conference semifinals
Key offseason acquisitions: Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard
2020-21 outlook: Ibaka is a great get and fit for a Clippers team clearly looking shake things up (fitting Ibaka for the role Kia Sixth Man Award winner Harrell played for them last season). Re-signing Marcus Morris to a four-year, $64 million deal speaks to the Clippers belief that his quality work in the bubble (on both ends of the floor) translates long-term. Trading for Luke Kennard and sliding him into the role Landry Shamet played last season makes sense, especially if the knee issues that limited Kennard to just 28 games last season are a thing of the past. But barring a trade that dramatically shakes things up, these Clippers under new coach Tyronn Lue will resemble the same team Doc Rivers couldn’t get past the Nuggets in the bubble. The Clippers are betting on the fresh perspective and impact Lue and his staff will have helps transform the team’s DNA. The argument that the transformation responsibility should be on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is a stronger one, and quite frankly, matters as much or more than anything the new staff brings to the party.
Portland Trail Blazers
2019-20 finish: 35-39, 8th Western Conference, lost to the Lakers in first round
Key offseason acquisitions: Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Ennis Kanter, Harry Giles
2020-21 outlook: The Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks could stake their own claim to a top-four spot this season. But both have significant injury issues (Klay Thompson for the Warriors and Kristaps Porzingis for the Mavericks) to deal with. And the Phoenix Suns made their splash with Chris Paul, but sooner or later Neil Olshey and his front office crew in Portland will get credit for building the foundation they have around Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers have filled out their roster with type of talent and depth that pushes them over the top right now. The forward rotation of Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., Carmelo Anthony (re-signed), Rodney Hood (re-signed) and sleeper pick up Giles stabilizes the only spot on the roster that was vulnerable heading into the offseason. Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons have shown tremendous growth and fortify a second unit that would include Anthony, Hood and Kanter. That’s depth the other contenders for this spot simply don’t have as training camp nears.
Three more to keep an eye on: Dallas, Golden State, Phoenix
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