In an NBA with far more parity than it has had in recent years, numerous teams have a shot at securing the 2021 NBA championship. With all that has transpired over the course of the past five years (i.e, the Golden State Warriors‘ dynasty), this is the most balanced league we’ve seen recently. This has resulted in widespread optimism for the upper-echelon teams potentially vying for a championship.
This season, numerous suitors will try to supplant the vast contending pool in order to encapsulate the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy. With no clear front-runners, in a peculiar year, let’s take a look at the top 10 teams that will contend for the illustrious 2021 NBA championship.
10. Dallas Mavericks
Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks have themselves a squad. Led by my personal pick for MVP — Luka Doncic — and Kristaps Porzingis, this young team is poised for greatness. Last season, the Mavs sported the best offensive rating in NBA history (115.8) behind the 21-year-old’s MVP-caliber season, during which he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Barring further injury, when Porzingis returns from his knee injury, he should continue to ascend and return to his 20-point, 10-rebound, defensive-anchor form.
In the shortened offseason, Dallas addressed its defensive issues by acquiring a two-way player in Josh Richardson, drafting athletic forward Josh Green with the 18th overall pick and trading for physical veteran James Johnson. They did, however, lose Seth Curry, a career 44% 3-point shooter, but were able to draft his replacement, Tyrell Terry, a sharp-shooting guard out of Stanford, and retain playoff hero Trey Burke.
This season, Dallas possesses all the tools necessary to be a contender in this league. They have an MVP candidate and rising superstar, elite offense, defensive versatility and a future Hall-of-Fame coach. However, their youth will play a big piece in their downfall, as they won’t be able to compete with more battle-tested playoff teams. Luckily, this is only the beginning for Luka and company. The Western Conference will be ruled by this team very soon.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Not too long ago, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves competing in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. The Blazers were swept, but their current roster is significantly more talented than that 2019 team. Also, let’s not forget how much more dominant Damian Lillard has become, and that he was crowned Bubble MVP for the phenomenal offensive arsenal he displayed.
Damian Lillard in the Bubble seeding games.
29 pts 9 asts -win
30 pts 16 asts – loss
21 pts 8 asts – win
45 pts 12 asts – win
22 pts 5 asts – loss
51 pts 7 asts – win
61 pts 8 asts – win
42 pts 12 asts – win
31 pts 10 asts – win
36.8 points / 9.8 assists
42.6% from 3 pic.twitter.com/QfDliMPulb
— Stevie Cozens (@StevieCozens) December 14, 2020
The acquisitions of athletic wings Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington exponentially improved the Blazers’ versatility on the defensive side of the ball. And now, after the impressive improvement of Gary Trent Jr. (41% from 3 in the bubble, 45.9% from 3 so far this season), the Trail Blazers possess a litany of forwards, which they had been bereft of for quite some time.
Considering all the above, combined with Jusuf Nurkic returning fully healthy and conditioned, and C.J McCollum, who’s averaging 27.9 points on 47.1% shooting so far this season, this team is as electrifying as any.
Anytime you pair a Hall-of-Fame-level talent like Lillard with two other All-Star-caliber players (McCollum and Nurkic), plus an elite supporting cast, you’ve got yourself a contender.
8. Miami Heat
The reigning Eastern Conference champs headed into the 2020-21 season with big expectations after their brief offseason. In the Bubble, the Miami Heat shocked everyone outside of their locker room. Erik Spoelstra, Jimmy Butler and the Heat have that gritty, underdog mentality that allowed them to sustain a high-octane level of success in an odd situation. Their “next-man-up” culture is truly inspiring to watch.
They came into this season with the same goal and a ton of experience, led by Butler and Bam Adebayo. The 6-foot-9 big is coming off a career year in which he was awarded his first All-Star selection after averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and five assists, along with a steal and block per game.
Upon Butler’s arrival, he instilled a mentality of hard work and effort that resonated throughout the organization. He averaged 19.9 points per game, but his best quality was the leadership that let him galvanize the team.
That deep playoff run will do wonders for this Miami squad going forward. Players such as Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Adebayo will benefit from that title push, and it’ll only further their 2021 NBA championship aspirations.
They have the right formula: 3-point snipers to space the floor, an interior big with playmaking ability, versatile forwards and a two-way superstar.
Duncan Robinson has FIVE threes early on today ?pic.twitter.com/8QatN7z8J0
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) December 25, 2020
They’ve solidified themselves as Eastern Conference elites, but this team is still heavily slept on. The consensus is that the Heat won’t be able to replicate their level of success from the Bubble. I myself may be sleeping on them by ranking them eighth; time will tell.
Nonetheless, the temperament, cohesion and maturity of the Heat will pay dividends this season as they look to reach the Finals once again.
7. Boston Celtics
The tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are averaging a combined 53.2 points per game through 10 games of this season, forms one of the best duos in the NBA. Their prolific shot-making ability and prowess in isolation is what makes this Boston squad so deadly.
When defenses lock in and the playbook is compromised, you need bucket-getters like Tatum and Brown to make deep playoff runs and, ultimately, contend for the 2021 NBA championship.
A season ago, Boston ranked fourth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.5, led by defensive deterrent Marcus Smart. Although Daniel Theis played admirably last year, General Manager Danny Ainge addressed the team’s biggest issue: a defensive big. Moreover, an already stout defense added a more natural fit and better defender to an already superior roster. Tristian Thompson signed a 2-year, $19 contract. So far this season, Thompson has split duties with Theis and Robert Williams III, averaging only 23.1 minutes per game despite being the starting center. Thompson is averaging 8.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.
The Celtics’ success will be predicated on the continued MVP-like ascension of Jayson Tatum, who has given us no reason to think he’ll plateau anytime soon. At just 22 years of age, Tatum has already immersed himself into the upper echelon of players. The front office’s belief in internal improvement is what this franchise is banking on — as it should.
Four-time All-Star Kemba Walker, Brown, Smart, Thompson and Tatum form one of the league’s most dynamic starting lineups. Furthermore, to reach new heights, it’s going to take a high level of their continued camaraderie, coupled with the brimming, elite talent of Tatum for the Celtics’ 2021 NBA championship goals to come to fruition.
6. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets enter the 2020-21 season after a phenomenal playoff run in which they overcame two 3-1 deficits and defeated the championship favorite Los Angeles Clippers. We all know what Nikola Jokic brings to the table: a nearly flawless, multi-faceted offensive game and, perhaps, the best passing we’ve seen from a big in NBA history.
Having said that, Jamal Murray was the surprise star in the playoffs (26.5 points, 6.6 assists) and the reason that this Nuggets team is a rising favorite as a championship contender. Jokic, Murray and budding superstar Michael Porter Jr. form the NBA’s next big three and the future of the league.
Porter Jr. is the final piece needed to bolster Denver into heavy contention. In just his second season, per 36 minutes, the University of Missouri product averaged 20.4 points and 10.3 rebounds on 50% shooting from the field and 42% from 3.
Nuggets GM Calvin Booth got a steal with the 14th pick in 2018 and a legitimate cornerstone franchise player.
You may ask: Why are they so low on the list?
Well, the answer is simple. The reason is solely due to their position in the Western Conference and the rigorous task that’ll be placed upon this young squad to reach the Finals. If this team was placed in the East, it would be placed significantly higher on this list, but that’s not the case.
However, between a big three of under-25 talents, high-quality players who succeed within their roles and head coach Mike Malone, Denver’s time will come, and they’ll run the Western Conference in the near future — but their youth and difficult path to the Finals will likely be their downfall this season.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
This might be the first time in either Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s career that they have a roster that fully maximizes their talents. This can be credited to newly hired President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey.
Coming over from Houston, Morey understands analytics and the need for floor spacing in the modern NBA. For how skilled Simmons and Embiid are, they still require adequate assets to support the only flaw in their games: the ability to consistently hit jumpers.
The additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green — a career 39% shooter from 3 — and the subtraction of the unnatural signing from a year ago, Al Horford, help make this roster deadly.
Joel Embiid + 3 shooters and Ben Simmons as a screener. The offense looks dominant right now. pic.twitter.com/vSRCDWffWj
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 31, 2020
In totality, they possess a complete starting lineup.
Although Simmons and Embiid are still relatively young at 24 and 26, it’s time to put the “trust the process” motto away, and for the two’s innate, superstar prowess to come to fruition consistently. There’s no question about their talent — they’re elite.
— NBA (@NBA) January 5, 2021
No more excuses for the 76ers. They have a complete roster and, now, battle-tested Head Coach Doc Rivers. This season, it’s imperative that Philly makes the jump that’ll display its array of potential dominance.
It’s time for the Philadelphia 76ers to put up or shut up.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
Fresh off of back-to-back MVPs and a Defensive Player of The Year Award, Giannis Antetokounmpo, General Manager John Horst and the Bucks pulled off a game-changing trade in the offseason and acquired the quintessential last piece to their roster in Jrue Holiday.
With Holiday, Milwaukee has another ball-handling playmaker (19.1 points, 6.7 assists per game a season ago) who they can go to down the stretch in games; he’s also a lockdown defender who can guard positions 1-3. This acquisition gave the Bucks a player besides Khris Middleton who can alleviate the duties of closing game situations off of Giannis’ compromised half-court game.
After the past couple of years of being considered the favorites in the East and bona fide Finals contenders, Milwaukee completed the Thanos gauntlet, making them as dangerous as any contender.
Over the past two seasons, the Bucks have sported a top-five offense and defense. Couple that with the proficient play of Middleton — a near 50-40-90 guy in 2020 — a litany of shooters, an All-Star in Holiday, and let’s not forget, the most dominant player in the NBA, Antetokounmpo, you see a flawless team poised to win the Finals for the first time since 1971.
3. Brooklyn Nets
Basketball is finally back in New York.
Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant. What more do I need to say? This tandem forms one of, if not the best scoring duo in NBA history. Two deadly assassins of their caliber on the same team is extremely taxing for the rest of the league to try and contain.
KYRIE HAD 18 PTS ON 7-7 FG IN THE 1Q ? pic.twitter.com/zNrgxL5QFF
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 6, 2021
Guarding these two individually is a daunting task that can demoralize a defense, and now they’re together and ready to put Brooklyn on the map.
General Manager Sean Marks orchestrated one of the best offseasons in league history when he acquired the two perennial superstars. He signed the six-year All-Star point guard to a four-year, $142 million contract and KD to a four-year, $164 deal. The two both suffered from injury-plagued seasons, however, both have looked tremendous to start the 2021 season.
Outside of that pairing, Brooklyn is led by one of the best basketball minds in the world in Steve Nash. His basketball acumen is superb from all of his years as a Hall-of-Fame point guard. His new-age style of basketball will do wonders for the core of the Nets.
Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan round out this incredibly deep roster. This team will be set for the foreseeable future, but KD and Kyrie are hungry now.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Even after a failed, disappointing season, the Clippers still remain the biggest threat to the favorites for the title. In the 2020 season, on paper, it appeared that they had the best roster, as they were deemed the favorites for the title.
Fast forward a year later, and now they’re underdogs. After blowing a 3-1 lead and being ousted from the playoffs, the front office decided to go in a different direction — letting go of Rivers.
After their defeat to the Nuggets, it became clear to General Manager Michael Winger that this roster was more suited for their assistant coach, Tyronn Lue, whom they promoted to replace Rivers. In 2016, Lue led LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers to victory in the NBA Finals over the Warriors.
That championship experience and pedigree in this era of basketball might be the change this club needed.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George remain two of the best two-way players in the NBA. Their lackluster performances in the playoffs — especially George’s — shouldn’t make us forget their remarkable talent. Coming off an MVP-caliber season, Leonard will look to reclaim the dominance he encapsulated after his 2019 NBA championship.
So far this season, Leonard is averaging 23.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and a career-high 5.9 assists per game, while George has gotten off to a terrific start, averaging 24.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and five assists per game on a spectacular .500/.514/.949 shooting line.
The acquisitions of Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. They added shot-blocking, rim protection, outside shooting, playmaking and versatility with those three acquisitions; they lost Montrezl Harrell but added pieces more pivotal to their success.
This roster has the experience, and the bitter taste of falling short of expectations should unify and bolster this unit back to the top.
Now, Leonard and the Clippers look to forget last season and transition from the “biggest threat” to NBA champions.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
It’s extremely rare, and equally impressive, to see a reigning NBA championship team drastically improve the following season.
The pickups of Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder further improved the best team in the league a season ago. Rob Pelinka and the Lakers arguably had the best throughout the league.
After capturing his fourth Finals MVP, James, with Anthony Davis by his side, is looking to win back-to-back en route to another Lakers’ dynasty.
The Lakers have two top-five talents in the world. Those two transcendent talents alone put an immense amount of pressure on every opponent any given night.
Their playoff record proved that. In the Bubble, they breezed through the playoffs with a 16-5 record, never being pushed to a Game 7.
LeBron James drains it from the LOGO. pic.twitter.com/dxjpEDRAUe
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) January 4, 2021
In year 18, at the age of 36, following an MVP-caliber season, James is still the best player in the league and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. On the other hand, for how great AD is, he’s just scratching the surface of his true potential. The 27-year-old is just now entering his prime after a season where he averaged 26.1 points and 9.1 rebounds on 52.9% shooting.
Nonetheless, until proven otherwise, the Lakers are heavy favorites to repeat this season after accumulating a multitude of talent in the offseason.