Twenty-two teams were invited to the NBA’s Orlando restart. Some of those teams have real hopes for a title run, some feel lucky to even be able to field a team, and still, others are just happy to be included. The race for the NBA title this season will be a strange and unpredictable one. Teams are coming off a break longer than a normal offseason and with that much downtime, a lot of things can change.
That said, we attempted to rank the teams in the bubble based on their likelihood to win a title. In tier one, you’ve got the favorites. The second tier is that group of teams nipping at the heels of the favorites ready to spoil their good time. Tier three are the sleeper contenders. Tier four is the first group outside of real contention, they could surprise people if everything went perfectly for them, but otherwise they are just going to be an annoyance for the teams above them. Tier five are the teams that have competitive rosters, but would need a miracle to move beyond a surprising first-round upset. And finally, the last group are the teams just happy to be able to participate. Once the games start this could be proven horribly wrong, but until then this gives us all something to argue about.
Tier One: Favorites
Tier Two: Likely Spoilers
Tier Three: Fringe Contenders
Tier Four: If Everything Goes Right
Tier Five: If Lightning Strikes
Tier Six: Participants
22. Washington Wizards
This was another season without star point guard John Wall. In his absence, the Wizards had to rely on the likes of Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, Ish Smith, and rookie Rui Hachimura. For the NBA restart in Orlando, the team will also be without Beal and Bertans their two best players this season. As such the Wizards fall into the group of teams just looking to use the bubble to get a better look at their young players.
Hachimura is going to get a chance to prove whether or not he can be the focal point of an offense and guys like Isaac Bonga, Mo Wagner, Thomas Bryant, and Troy Brown Jr. will get an opportunity to earn a spot in their future rotation. With slim chances of making the playoffs expect Scott Brooks to experiment with his roster and give the young guys an extended run.
21. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs would likely be higher on this list if there was any indication that they were going to take this restart seriously. From LaMarcus Aldridge opting to have surgery now and miss the restart, to Popovich committing to giving the young guys some run, it’s pretty clear they see this more as a way to fine-tune their roster than as a way to fight for the playoffs.
DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are still available for this team along with the young guards Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, but even at full strength, their chances at a playoff spot are slim. So I suspect the Orlando restart will feature a lot more of White and Murray along with other youngsters Lonnie Walker and Jakob Poeltl. With only one more year on the books for both Aldridge and Derozan, the Spurs will use this restart to determine who they will build around moving forward.
20. Long Island Nets
Sorry, that should read Brooklyn Nets, but for a team that spent all season missing Kevin Durant and most of the season without Kyrie Irving who would have guessed the worst injury news was still to come. With the absence of Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, Deandre Jordan and Taurean Prince along with Kyrie Irving 5 of their top 9 guys in minutes per game will not be with the team in Orlando.
This season was always going to be a gap year for the Nets while Kevin Durant rehabbed his torn achilles, but had they been able to stay healthy, they might have made some noise even without him. Instead the bubble is likely going to function more as a way to improve the value of some of the remaining guys on the roster like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in the event Durant and Kyrie want a third star. This team will make the playoffs seeing as they are 6 games up on the 9th seeded Wizards who are even lower in this power ranking, but this is really just a matter of going through the motions and seeing what they have in some of their young guys.
19. Sacramento Kings
With the recent news that Marvin Bagley will miss the restart with an injury, any hope the Kings had of fighting for the playoffs seems to be fading away. The team still does have a lot of talent, so there is still hope, but I have to imagine they were hoping to get their full roster on the court together in Orlando.
Absent Bagley, the team is going to have to rely more heavily on De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield on the perimeter. They do have talent around those guys with Harrison Barnes, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, and Richaun Holmes, but their path to the playoffs has to start with the guards. It is certainly a talented team, but that talent hasn’t translated to much success this season. Their odds of sneaking into the playoffs are low, but there’s always the chance something clicks with this lineup and they sneak in.
18. Phoenix Suns
The Suns have a good young core of Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Kelly Oubre Jr. They had little to no chance of making the playoffs even if Oubre was healthy, without him the 8 seeding games are going to serve more as a way to play around with the roster and figure out the best ways to use their young talent.
The message you’ll hear from the team will be one of optimism about their chances, but being 6 games out of the 8 seed with 4 teams ahead of them for the play in spot they don’t have a shot. Instead, they can try to figure out how to maximize the strengths of Booker and Ayton against the best teams in the league. So while postseason success is virtually impossible getting invited to the bubble gives them a great chance to test their young core and develop it for the future when that success is within reach. Maybe we should have dropped then in the rankings because of the opportunity the bubble presents Booker to find guys to team up with.
17. Orlando Magic
The Orlando Magic have been a very well balanced team all season, with 7 players averaging double-figure points. Their star is Nikola Vucevic who didn’t quite live up to the season he had last year, but was still very good for them. While they have a lot to think about regarding their future, the restart is more about actually putting a competitive team on the floor.
They are five games up on the Wizards so dropping out of the playoffs isn’t much of a concern, however, they are also only a game back of the 7th seeded Brooklyn Nets. I think the Magic’s priority for the seeding games will be to push for the 7th seed and avoid a dreaded first-round matchup with Giannis and the Bucks. The Magic aren’t much more likely to beat the 2nd-seeded Raptors in a series, but it certainly gives them more hope.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis is a fun story. They were picked by most to be one of the worst teams in the league and instead find themselves in the driver seat for the 8th seed. If not for the strange play in rules the league implemented they would be a near-lock to make the playoffs. Instead, they are likely going to have to fight it out in the play-in tournament.
Ja Morant is the rookie of the year and the young frontcourt duo of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke could be great for years to come. Like the Pelicans, the Grizzlies have sprinkled in some quality vets to surround their young guys in Jonas Valnciunas. This team is built for the future but even if they survive the play in, they likely don’t have much of a chance in the playoffs this year.
15. Portland Trailblazers
This team low-key scares me. While it’s a toss-up if they even make the Playoffs, the Blazers are going to be healthy for the first time in over a year. Jusuf Nurkic went down with an injury during the 2019 Playoffs, and Zach Collins is finally healthy as well. A lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Ariza, Collins, and Nurkic is a really good group. Lillard is as good of a playoff performer as we’ve seen in some time (though he wasn’t great vs the Nuggets last season) and the scoring ability is there.
If the Blazers sneak into the Playoffs as an 8-seed, a matchup of LeBron vs. Lillard in the first round would be extremely entertaining. Would I pick the Blazers to upset L.A.? No. But could the Blazers upset the Lakers? Yeah, maybe. We haven’t seen a healthy version of this team all season. The Blazers are a veteran team that has been to the Playoffs. You have to take them seriously if they do get into the tournament, and they do have a chance to make some noise.
14. Utah Jazz
This might seem very low for a team currently sitting at the 4 seed in the Western Conference, but this is a team down its second-leading scorer with serious questions surrounding the chemistry of their two best players. There has been a not so quiet feud between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert since the later was so careless about hygiene prior to being diagnosed with the Covid-19, something Mitchell was also diagnosed with. Further reports suggest that the feud goes deeper than that with Gobert discussing frustrations with Mitchell’s ball dominance.
Beyond the chemistry issues, however, there are still some serious concerns with this team. Bojan Bogdanovich is not playing in the restart due to injury. He was not only their second-leading scorer but also their best off-ball threat. A healthy and revitalized Mike Conley might help make up for his scoring, but he, like Mitchell, prefers the ball in his hands on offense. It’s possible Joe Ingles, thrusts back into the starting lineup could return to form and fill in some of the holes left by Bojan. But for a team that sacrificed some defense in order to add Bojan’s offense his absence in the postseason will be difficult to overcome.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are a fun team and the roster have collective chips on their shoulders. The roster is made up mostly of Lakers cast-offs, and the guys Anthony Davis didn’t want to play with anymore. To pair with these guys they also brought in Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors, and JJ Redick. Zion is one of the most talked-about prospects since Lebron, but missed much of the season due to injury.
In the minutes he did see the court, he fully lived up to the hype. In his absence, Brandon Ingram posted the best season of his career, and Lonzo Ball seemed to find a rhythm on his shot and managed to run the offense effectively. The veteran trio of Jrue Holiday, Favors, and Redick has anchored the young squad and kept them in the playoff picture.
The team currently sits outside of the playoffs, but with a relatively soft schedule and a unique play-in scenario seemingly designed to get them into the postseason, don’t be surprised if they find themselves in a first-round matchup with the Lakers. And if they make the playoffs don’t expect them just to roll over and die for Lebron’s team. They have talent at every position and match up well with LA. If Zion can translate his limited regular-season success to the playoffs you can expect a tough fight and a potentially long series with the Lakers.
12. Indiana Pacers
So, is Oladipo playing or not? That’s the question on the mind of many NBA fans, as Oladipo has recently backtracked on his statement saying he’s going to sit out playing during the bubble.
Here’s the honest truth: Oladipo was not good this season. Yet, the Pacers have been really good. Malcolm Brogdon has been a stud this season. The Pacers are also very deep, and they have a bunch of different scoring options. They’re a really solid team from top to bottom, but in my opinion, are missing that one killer who can put a series on their back. In other words, they’re missing 2018-2019 Victor Oladipo.
I really like this team, and I would liken them a lot to the Thunder. The team is really solid, but you have to question just how far this team can go in the bubble. Can it win a series? Most certainly. But I don’t see the Pacers beating the likes of the Bucks, Raptors, or Celtics.
11. OKC Thunder
How amazing has this Thunder team been? The three-headed monster of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul, and Dennis Schroder has been a joy to watch. The Thunder have outperformed what we thought they would be during the beginning of the season. Chris Paul has been a legitimate MVP candidate at 35 years old.
All those things being said, you do have to wonder about this team’s depth. Besides veterans like Paul and Adams, this is an extremely young team. There isn’t a great amount of shooting either. What the Thunder so have is a really solid defense. They’re 10th in opponents points per game, and Chris Paul has been a really great defensive leader for this team.
While the Thunder’s ceiling may not be as high as teams like the Mavericks, you at least know they’re going to be a tough out for any team. I really like this Thunder team this year. SGA is one of my favorite players in the whole league, and guys like Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder have been surprisingly great for this team. It’s actually quite refreshing to see Gallinari have a healthy season where people are able to see just how good he actually is. The advanced stats on that guy are nuts when it comes to offense. This is going to be a fun team to watch in the bubble.
10. Philidelphia 76ers
The Sixers are a tough team to evaluate with the recent news that Ben Simmons appears to be making the move from Point Guard to Power Forward. The fit between stars, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, has been awkward from the start. Both are at their best in the paint and neither is a capable enough shooter to space the floor well enough for the other. The addition of Al Horford this offseason only further confused the fit since he’s best utilized as a center at this point in his career.
Horford had a down year this year, whether that is because he played so much at power forward next to Embiid or he’s started to decline is unclear, but with Simmons moving to power forward his role with the team is in question. In all likelihood moving Simmons to power forward is the right decision, but how the team adapts to the change is in question. Also in question is just how good a team can be when all of their best players want to occupy the same spots on the court. The Sixers have the talent to win a title, but the fit is awkward and it may not be possible to maximize all of that talent with the current roster.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic is a gift to humanity. The dude was legitimately leading the MVP race for a month or two to start the season and he’s twenty-one years old. The Mavs started to really play well before the season stopped. In their last game, the Mavs abused the Nuggets 112-97 in a brutal game to watch as a Denver fan.
Kristaps Porzingis’ integration to the Mavs’ offense really started to take shape in the last month of the season. He and Luka Doncic could be one of the best duos in the NBA for the next decade. The Mavs also have a pretty deep roster, but injuries to Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson will definitely hurt that. Willie Cauley-Stein and Seth Curry should be solid replacements for those two players, though.
The Mavs also have one of the best coaches in NBA history. Rick Carlisle has done a great job this season and the Mavs are a team you have to take seriously. While they aren’t contenders, you certainly don’t want to face a hot Mavs team in the Playoffs. It’ll be exciting to see how Luka and Porzingis play in their first Playoff series.
8. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets might just be the strangest team to evaluate in the NBA restart. Their season was a tale of two seasons. In the first half, James Harden’s isolation skill and his familiarity with Clint Capela in the pick and roll won this team games despite the shooting struggles of the second star Russell Westbrook.
Then they traded Clint Capela and committed to small ball in a way no team has by starting Robert Covington at center. The only real center they have on the roster is Tyson Chandler who has played all of 219 minutes all season. This commitment to small-ball gave Russell Westbrook plenty of space to drive inside and his number improved dramatically as they gave him additional control of the offense.
With Westbrook’s increased role and the lack of his favorite pick and roll partner, James Harden saw his production drop to more human levels. It remains to be seen if these two star guards can both be at their best at the same time. It’s also likely that their lack of size inside will be fatal against the likes of Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic. It seems likely the success or failure of this team will come down to whether or not they are hitting their 3s. If they are they have a chance against anybody, if they aren’t they’ll have trouble getting any wins.
7. Miami Heat
Going into the season, I thought the Heat would be a borderline playoff team. I really liked Tyler Herro going into the draft, but I didn’t expect him to basically be J.J. Reddick with more swag. There’s really something to be said about Heat Culture. That organization takes guys who may not have fit on other teams and finds a way to make it work.
The addition of Jimmy Butler was huge for the Miami Heat. Miami already had a strong organization and coach, but there was certainly a need for veteran leadership. The Heat got that with Jimmy Butler.
We have to talk about Bam Adebayo too. I think Bam has become one of my favorite players in the NBA after watching him for the past two seasons. As a Nuggets fan, I’m used to seeing my team’s center make great plays via passing and running an offense. The way the Heat use Adebayo is a bit similar to how the Nuggets use Nikola Jokic. Bam is an athletic, big, and most importantly, skilled player who you can trust at all times. He’s a monster defensively and the Heat run their offense through him.
Miami is going to be a tough out for any team. While I don’t know if they have the firepower to get to the Conference Finals, the Heat (much like the Thunder) are going to be an extremely hard out for any team playing them.
6. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have one of the best young duos in the league in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They are both 20 point scorers and already have a lot of playoff experience. In addition, they get good veteran leadership from the likes of Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker and have an excellent coach in Brad Stevens. They were the 5th best offense and the 4th best defense this season making them a serious threat on both sides of the ball.
Their biggest weakness comes on the inside. Daniel Theiss has stepped up defensively but lacks the size to slow down the bigger stars of the league. Kemba Walker, when healthy can be one of the best point guards in the league, but that health is in question with news that he’s dealing with a lingering knee issue (this could be a real issue for the Celtics). The Celtics are going to need that much more from Tatum and Brown if Walker isn’t 100% percent. If they can play to their strengths and offset their lack of size they have a real shot at winning the East, but the health and youth of their best players could be their downfall.
5. Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13 rebounds, and 8.4 assists while shooting 50.6% from the field and 39.3% from 3. His 11.6 Box Plus-Minus put him 9th on the list of all-time great postseason runs with at least 300 minutes.
The Nuggets entered the last postseason as one of the youngest teams in playoff history and with only 3 of their rotation players ever having played in the playoffs and it showed. Outside of Jokic and at times Jamal Murray, the Nuggets looked like they were exhausted and in over their head. Normally reliable shooters couldn’t hit anything and even some of their vets were making rookie mistakes. Despite these struggles, the duo of Jokic and Murray got them a series win and pushed the much more experienced Portland Trailblazers to the brink.
This season they struggled with consistency, but also have more experience and are better built for the playoffs then they were a season ago. On top of that Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray appear to be in the best shape of their respective careers. Murray has turned himself into less of a liability defensively and a more effective ball handler and passer. Jokic has lost a ton of weight for seemingly the first time in his career, and he’s done so because he wants to and not because the trainers are making him. The Jokic and Murray’s two-man game is one of the toughest covers in the league and if they can play at their best consistently they will be a tough matchup for any team. Tier 3 is a group on the fringes of contention, they have the talent, but it seems unlikely they can put it together in a way to compete with the teams above them.
4. Toronto Raptors
Oh man, what a team. Isn’t it crazy how the Raptors lost their best player and are still a legitimate title contender again? Nick Nurse is a wizard. He has these Raptors playing some of the best basketball in the NBA. While it starts with Nurse, you have to strongly look at Pascal Siakam.
Siakam took another leap this year, becoming a top 15 player in the NBA. He went from averaging 16.9ppg last season to 23.6 this year. His efficiency and defense took a step back this season, but that’s to be expected from a player who made another huge offensive leap. Siakam is also someone who *could* guard Giannis if necessary. He’s asked to carry the load on offense for this Raptors team, so using his energy on that end is probably more important than putting him on Giannis. However, if need be, Siakam could provide length and speed and make Giannis have to earn his buckets just a little more.
The Raptors have one of the best defenses in the NBA as well, led by Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. I don’t think the Raptors are as good as they were last year. You can’t lose someone as great as Kawhi Leonard and not take somewhat of a step back. However, this team is for real. I think the Raptors are probably most “team-like” team in the NBA. They were the first team to arrive in Orlando. They’re basically the same team as last year minus two players. I really like this Raptors team and think they can go 7 games with the Bucks. Don’t sleep on them.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Any team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis has to be taken seriously. The Lakers have two of the best players in the NBA and have been coached really well this season. Seriously, we need to talk more about Frank Vogel and his staff. What a job they’ve done.
The Lakers have both and top 10 offense and defense. They have the look of a contender. I think the thing we have to question with the Lakers is the team’s depth. Avery Bradley will not be heading to Orlando and participating in the bubble, as he has opted out. It might not sound like a huge loss, but it will be noticeable. Bradley is probably the best perimeter guard the Lakers have and often guards the opposing team’s best guard. The team will also be without Rajon Rondo for a period of time, after suffering a hand injury during practice in Orlando.
We’ll have to see how the newly signed J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters fare with the team. Regardless, the Lakers have what it takes to win a title this year. LeBron is still the King, and the battle of LA will be a fun thing to see in the Playoffs. I selfishly hope we get to see the Clippers vs Lakers at some point because what a series that could be.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard put together one of the greatest postseason runs in NBA history last season. He had the 6th most win shares and the 24th highest box plus-minus in last season’s title run. He’s a player built for the playoffs and it’s possible this Clippers team is better than the Raptors team he had last season. This team has talent up and down and is at least 10 deep with playoff-caliber talent. Paul George is an upgrade on what Pascal Siakim did as the Robin to Kawhi’s Batman last year, and Patrick Beverly is one of the best guys in the league at filling in gaps around stars. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell anchor the bench unit and are more than capable of closing out games with the other three guys.
Where this team could be exposed in the playoffs is in a lack of interior defense and their heavy reliance on their stars. Joakim Noah should help bolster their defense (if he gets any playing time) against the skilled bigs of the league and the combination of Leonard, George, and Williams should be enough to keep the offense afloat. If teams can figure out how to make life difficult for even just 2 of those 3 they could struggle to find offense elsewhere. This team is built for the playoffs and will be favorites or near favorites in every possible playoff series.
1. Milwaukee Bucks:
It’s easy to look past the Bucks, but we’re not going to. Giannis is the MVP and DPOY. The Bucks have the best defense in the NBA (101.9 Def rtg) and one of the best offenses. They have to be the clear favorite in the east. They’re deep and have the best player in the league. Don’t sleep on Kris Middleton, either.
Let me just give you some Giannis Antetokounmpo stats for this season. He’s averaging:
29.6ppg, 13.7reb, 5.6ast, while shooting 54.7% from the field. Giannis’ PER is a whopping 31.71, which is just insane and substantially higher than anyone else in the League (Harden is second with a 28.39 PER).
I do think that the Bucks are going to have to put up a fight to get to the Finals. The Celtics and Raptors can give the Bucks a real fight. That said, the Bucks are the best team in the NBA right now and deserve some respeck on its name.