The 2020-21 NBA season is underway, and this season is fascinating if only because there are a whole bunch of teams that have a legitimate case for being championship contenders. For a number of reasons, teams’ floors and ceilings seem to be more all over the place than ever before. In recognition of this, we decided to look at the best and worst-case scenarios for every team in the league, starting with the Eastern Conference.
Best Case: Pushes for a top-4 seed with the league’s most fun offense
Worst Case: Lose in play-in tournament and have some sort of major overhaul
Atlanta’s offseason made clear that there are decision makers who really, really want to make the playoffs. The team had been in the midst of a youth movement, and a pretty fun one at that — Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu, Cam Reddish, and Trae Young were all drafted in the last three years, while John Collins just turned 23 and big trade deadline acquisition Clint Capela is 26. That is a really fun core, albeit one with question marks, and while adding Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic should absolutely make Atlanta more fun, it does beg the question whether they make them better, because neither fix the team’s very real issues on the defensive end of the floor.
The nights where the Hawks are cooking are going to be insane — just take a look at the opener against Chicago. Young is quite possibly the league’s most 2K player, built in a lab to hit threes from two states over and pick passes few other players can match. Gallinari and Bogdanovic give them wonderful secondary playmakers and scorers who will thrive next to him, Collins is a pogo stick, and there are things to like about Huerter (shooting), Hunter (potential three-and-D menace), Reddish (when his shot is falling, he’s a tremendous two-way player), and especially Okongwu (he’s not Bam Adebayo, but he gets compared to him!). But the bad nights are going to involve a lot of matador defense and Capela fouling out early in a desperate attempt to keep them safe. And if there are too many of those, it feels like Atlanta is ripe for some sort of major overhaul on its bench and in its front office.
Best Case: Title contender
Worst Case: Make the playoffs and don’t do anything
The thing with Boston is they’ll always be good to some extent. Brad Stevens gets them ready to play every night, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum (a duo that could use a nickname!) are quite good, and the players around them always figure stuff out. The swing guy here is Kemba Walker, whose knee seems like a potentially big problem if it’s more “thing that impacts his ability to play basketball to the level he’s accustomed” than “just rest it and he’ll be ok,” especially now that Gordon Hayward is gone and the team has one less initiator on offense.
With how many good NBA players the Celtics have around those three — Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, some potentially fun youngsters led by Grant Williams — it’s really hard to see them falling below fifth or sixth in the East. They’re also a team that will play hard during the regular season, an underrated thing that every consistently good team shares. The big question is whether they’ll have the juice to make it back into the conference finals. The good news is the internal development that seems to be implied with the Celtics on a yearly basis isn’t going away, and their non-Kemba/Thompson/Theis players are all young enough that there are ways they can improve.
Best Case: League Pass darlings who make the play-in tournament
Worst Case: High lottery team
I have no idea how good the Hornets will be — well, they won’t be a championship contender or anything — but goodness gracious, this team might be a blessing. The ideal version of this Charlotte Hornets squad is one that plays at the speed of sound and lets LaMelo Ball make a million mistakes, because interspersed in between those will be moments of total brilliance.
The good news is that Ball is not Charlotte’s best player right away, because if he was, that would be a catastrophe. Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham are two solid guards, while Hayward is now here to hopefully be healthy enough to play at a near-All-Star level and the PJ Washington-Miles Bridges duo can continue to develop and give the team two more really promising youngsters. Like Atlanta, the nights where it all clicks — Ball is in the open court, Rozier and Graham keep the ball moving, Bridges and Washington are getting easy buckets, Hayward looks like the Gordon Hayward of old — are games we’ll all want to watch, and perhaps there will be enough that they can make a little noise at the bottom of the East. I do suspect those won’t be nearly frequent enough for a playoff push, though.
Best Case: Makes playoff, even if it requires play-in tournament
Worst Case: Bad enough to miss play-in tournament, good enough to not get a high Draft pick
The Bulls seem like a team that is ripe to make some kind of move, particularly if they can stay healthy. There is a lot to like about their young core, especially if Wendell Carter Jr. can stay healthy and Patrick Williams can live up to the buzz that made him skyrocket up Draft boards earlier this year. They also made a big change when they swapped out Jim Boylen for Billy Donovan, giving them a coach with a little more of a track record of success and less of a track record of being the reason why his plays stage mutinies days into their tenure.
The good news is that Chicago is a team with a floor, but the issue is that’s not “clear-cut playoff team,” but rather, “continue to be stuck in that weird purgatory where they miss out on elite talent in the Draft.” There is enough here to make a run for their first postseason berth since 2016-17. It’s up to them to try and turn that into a reality, especially with there being room for someone to emerge out of the bottom of the conference.
Best Case: Internal development all over the place
Worst Case: Stuck in the mud
The Cavaliers are one of those teams for whom their win-loss record probably isn’t all that important. The team is in the midst of a youth movement, with guys like Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, Kevin Porter Jr., Collin Sexton, and Dylan Windler needing to take steps forward (or, in Okoro and Windler’s cases, show a reliable enough floor that he can be a piece they build around). As long as they show promise and the veterans on this team — Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, JaVale McGee, Larry Nance Jr., etc. — shepherd those youngsters more than they get in the way, Cleveland’s in a good spot. The issues, however, would stem from those various older players taking it upon themselves to get numbers at the expense of those youngsters, and the good news is that none of those older players really are the type of guys to put themselves that far ahead of their teammates.
Best Case: Playoff berth via the play-in tournament
Worst Case: Sacrifices developing young guys to push for a play-in tournament spot and falls flat
Detroit feels like a team that should embark on a race to the bottom of the league, but they’re one of the franchises that seems to really value playoff berths over everything else. As such, their best case scenario is that Blake Griffin looks like BLAKE GRIFFIN again, their offseason additions — Delon Wright, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee — all work out, Derrick Rose plays well again, and their rookies (namely Killian Hayes) are all able to contribute.
The worst-case scenario is much easier to see: All of those older guys eat into the minutes younger guys could play, particularly Rose with Hayes and anyone who would take time away from Sekou Doumbouya, in an attempt to make the play-in tournament that ends up being for naught. Detroit is used to being stuck in purgatory, which has been arguably the main reason why they’ve made the postseason twice in the last decade. Are they willing to go all-in on a rebuild, or is this going to be the latest Pistons team that tries to be ok, ends up being bad, and misses out on the kind of young player you can only get when you’re terrible?
Best Case: They do the Pacers thing where they outperform expectations and earn a top-4 seed
Worst Case: They don’t do that and Victor Oladipo ends up leaving
Indiana is really, really good at seeing expectations and finding a way to outperform them. Unless they suffer a rash of major injuries, the Pacers will play hard every night, win a few more games than they need to, and the next thing you know, they’re hosting a Game 1 in the first round of the playoffs. Despite a new head coach, the pieces that usually get Indiana to that point are still here, and if Victor Oladipo is able to get back to his All-Star level, that makes life a whole lot easier for everyone in Nap Town.
The issue: What if this is finally the year they can’t do that? For all the gripes people could have about Nate McMillan, he did get his team ready to play every single night and they responded. Now, a first-time head coach is tasked with getting them to that level, all while trying to figure out if Oladipo (whose future in Indiana is in serious question) can be himself once again and trying to manage a tricky situation with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner in the frontcourt. Keep an eye on TJ Warren, because if he can be the offensive juggernaut he was in the Bubble then the team has insurance on the offensive end of the floor in the event Oladipo isn’t 100 percent.
Best Case: Title contenders again
Worst Case: A playoff team, but last year looks like a fluke
Here’s a fun one! The floor for this team basically confirms what every detractor about their run to the NBA Finals said. This is a team that is good, of course, but they just found a way to mentally out-tough everyone else in a unique environment and they’re not that good. The irony, of course, is that is the exact kind of mindset that the Heat seem to relish. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, obviously, and I fully expect that Miami will carry that crown with pride.
Now, whether or not they can get out of the East again is another story. This is still a good team, and banking on a ton of internal development probably is not the worst idea in the world, because the Heat are a franchise that is as good at doing this as anyone. There is always going to be a concern with running it back, although Maurice Harkless is a nice addition to replace Jae Crowder, and I am keeping an eye on whether they go all-out during the regular season or try to take it slow with an eye on the playoffs.
Best Case: Wins Finals
Worst Case: [gestures at last two years]
Here’s the easiest one of the bunch. Milwaukee’s best-case scenario is one thing: win a title. Milwaukee’s worst-case scenario is another: don’t do that. The good news is that they have Giannis Antetokounmpo around long-term, so they should be able to be title contenders for however long he’s in town. Some question marks exist with their rotation beyond their top three or four guys, whether head coach Mike Budenholzer can get them over the hump, and what they do if they cannot keep Jrue Holiday around, but on the whole, those are questions for when this year ends. All of them, save for Holiday’s future, can be answered by winning a title.
Best Case: Title contenders
Worst Case: Murphy’s Law
Brooklyn’s offense should be outstanding. The number of guys who can create their own shots and hit them is breathtaking — this does, admittedly, assume Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stay healthy all season, and there are no bumps in the road for first-time head coach Steve Nash, but the path to the Nets being a championship contender is pretty easy to see. There is nothing this team cannot do on offense, and they are going to score every single night. It is very possible they end up being the best team on that end of the floor in the league — and they got off to a tremendous start in the opener.
The defense is a concern, though. They’re putting a lot of emphasis on DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen cleaning up messes on the perimeter and a bunch of reserves — Bruce Brown, Taurean Prince, etc. — being able to give them enough on the perimeter. But man, it’s not hard to see how this all falls apart, especially if the injury issues are real and Nash struggles to get a grasp on being an NBA head coach. I’m less concerned about the locker room than most, because I expect Nash to be a very good manager of egos if nothing else, and having his “coordinators” in D’Antoni and Vaughn should lessen the potential for coaching mishaps in terms of X’s and O’s.
New York Knicks
Best Case: Get Cade Cunningham and R.J. Barrett takes a gigantic step forward
Worst Case: Bad enough to miss play-in tournament, good enough to not get a high Draft pick
Oh, the Knicks. There are some guys to like here, and optimism probably isn’t too unwarranted because Tom Thibodeau will get the whole “play defense” thing drilled into them, but they do still lack the kind of headline-grabbing star that they covet. Perhaps one will pop up in free agency or via a trade at some point, but the best move for now is to bank on what they have — particularly R.J. Barrett — being part of a really, really good core. What that means in terms of winning games is up in the air, but if they can position themselves so they’re optimistic about what they have and they can land someone like Cunningham, who is almost certainly going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, then this year is a home run. But like other teams here, being just good enough to not make the playoffs while simultaneously hurting their odds of adding a home run talent in the Draft would be a tough pill for the New York faithful to swallow.
Best Case: 6-seed
Worst Case: Miss play-in tournament
The lack of Jonathan Isaac is going to hurt them. Orlando is one of those teams that always finds a way to just make something happen — another one of those franchises that consistently plays hard and commits to grinding during the doldrums of the NBA season — so them doing just enough to avoid the play-in tournament is on the table. It’s not like they’re totally devoid of talent, either. Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star, Aaron Gordon will do Aaron Gordon stuff until time ends, and I still have a bunch of Markelle Fultz stock filed away somewhere that I hope I will be able to cash in. They also have a pair of youngsters in Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke who are extremely interesting.
Still, no Isaac has the potential to be a major issue. Orlando is not a team filled with offensive creators, and while Isaac isn’t that, his defending is so much fun that losing him makes them a little worse on that end of the floor. For a team that can’t afford a major slip on defense, not having Isaac could cause a chain reaction that, compounded with their lack of really dangerous shot creators outside of Terrence Ross, would lead to them missing the playoffs. An under the radar issue: D.J. Augustin is no longer here, and his steady hand running the offense was huge at times over the years.
Best Case: Title contenders
Worst Case: Oh god, not again
Trying to suss out what the Philadelphia 76ers are will, once again, be the most difficult thing in all of the NBA this season. They finally realized that putting shooting around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is smart, and it is not hard to foresee them unlocking the skills that make the two of them so good — basically that both are gigantic and smart and can do a ton of good stuff on both ends of the floor — and becoming a juggernaut. Maybe Tobias Harris also benefits from this and can be a really solid secondary/tertiary option! Maybe Tyrese Maxey is the rare good rookie guard! Maybe guys like Shake Milton and Seth Curry and Danny Green let it fly from deep and need to make teams choose between stoping them or stopping Embiid/Simmons! Again, Philly competing for a title is not an outrageous scenario by any stretch.
Of course, I did this last year, too. So did a whole lot of folks, and the Sixers could not get out of their own way. It’s possible the Embiid and Simmons pairing just does not work, and that gets hammered home this season. They’re a bit light on the perimeter on defense, and that’s putting a ton of pressure on those two to be All-Defense players. The whole “James Harden is going to be linked with them until someone, regardless of whether it’s the Sixers, trades for him” thing is going to loom large. Philly should be as weird as ever. I can’t wait.
Best Case: Pascal takes another leap and they’re title contenders again
Worst Case: 5/6-seed and an early playoff exit
The elephant in the room with the Raptors is the fact that they are not in Toronto and got put in Tampa for an unknown period of time. This is a group of veterans and people who carry themselves with the upmost sense of professionals, so if any team can handle that, it’s Toronto. But man, that is such a tough hand to be dealt, and hopefully it doesn’t impact their day-to-day abilities to play basketball at a high level too much.
There are some roster questions here, namely losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Replacing them with Aron Baynes is nice, but he alone cannot shoulder the load both of those dudes carried. If there is any team that can reliably bank on internal development, it is Toronto, and guys like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have room where they can grow. Siakam, in particular, is intriguing, because he has gotten better every year of his career and has room to grow as a shooter and a one-on-one player. Another leap for him and he’s a potential MVP candidate, while Toronto would compete for an Eastern Conference crown again.
Best Case: They make the playoffs and do enough to convince Bradley Beal to never want to leave
Worst Case: Not that
Beal is the franchise in Washington, and despite acquiring Russell Westbrook this offseason, the goal is to make sure the stuff around Beal specifically works. Making the playoffs, having their various young dudes contribute positively, and showing that the Wizards are on the right track after being stuck in the mud for a few years is going to be huge. The Beal-Westbrook pairing could potentially by quite fun, too: Westbrook will attack and attack and attack, freeing up room for Beal to operate as an on or off-ball threat, both of which he can do quite well.
The same question from last year also exists. Washington is going to score and could be among the league’s best on that end of the floor, but the defense has the potential to be quite leaky. If they figure things out on that end of the floor, they very well could make the postseason, even if it involves going through the play-in tournament. If not, this has the potential to be quite the offseason in the nation’s capital.