If you have the NBA on your mind, you’re not the only one. Far from it, in fact.
The NBA is nearing the peak of its popularity relative to the sports calendar. The NFL Super Bowl has passed, and the NCAA’s March Madness tournament is fired up. Now is when sports fans and analysts and even advertisers start thinking heavily about the NBA—the playoff races mainly, but this year the trade deadline has also been pushed back.
Most of this interest in the postseason picture lies squarely with crowning the next champion. Sure, people care which teams will actually make the playoffs. But they are predominantly trying to delineate the real title contenders from everyone else. It’s a process that consumes sports debates among friends. It permeates TV shows, sports radio, podcasts and digital and print media. You will see the title odds at top sportsbooks like Westgate shifting positions daily, as they account for every little nook and cranny of change that takes place throughout the league between now and the start of the NBA Finals.
Naturally, then, we’re inclined to take our own stab at the championship pecking order. What follows is a ranking of the five NBA teams we believe are most likely to win the 2021 title.
5. Phoenix Suns
Very few people will have the Suns this high. They’ll be more inclined to go with the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, maybe even the Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers.
We’re okay standing out from the crowd. The Suns are really good. Chris Paul has given them another steadying hand in cunch time to pair with superstar Devin Booker, their defense is elite and they have the shot-making depth to really go nuclear on any given night.
Phoenix’s main quandary: The center rotation. Deandre Ayton looks like a star on some nights, but he’s maddeningly inconsistent—so much so they’ve turned to Dario Saric-at-the-5 lineups to close certain games. And while those arrangements are annihilating opponents now, will they work in a playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers? Or the Nuggets? We’re not sure, but we believe in the Suns overall.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Feel free to put the Clippers higher. They have the look and feel of a deep, well-rounded team.
And yet, the on-court product often resembles something different—something less.
Kawhi Leonard is once again playing at an MVP level, and Paul George isn’t far behind. The Clippers are third in the league in points scored per possession, and no team is hitting their threes at a higher clip.
But the defense has been a disappointment. They’re not great at protecting the rim, and they probably need another defensive-minded guard to match up with opposing floor generals. They’re definitely still title material. They’re just not foregone conclusions.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
We initially had the Sixers in the No. 2 spot on our list. They play a dominant brand of defense and feel like they’re one trade away from really transforming themselves on the offensive end.
Alas, Joel Embiid, who was among the league’s top-three MVP candidates, is set to miss at least the next two to four weeks after suffering a bone bruise in his left knee. Given his murky track record with injuries and how poorly the Sixers have played without him this season, we have to hedge against the possibility that he’s not at full strength when it matters most.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Many would put the Nets at No. 1. It’s tough to blame them.
The thought of having to beat Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving—three of the best offensive players alive—four times in a seven game series is harrowing. It feels impossible sometimes.
But the Nets have real defensive problems they’re unlikely to fix before the playoffs. Teams in the East like the Sixers, Bucks and Heat are built to give them a run for their money.
Beyond that, Durant’s hamstring injury is worth monitoring. He hasn’t played in basically a month, and if the Nets cannot guarantee his health, they’re a lot less scarier.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
It’s difficult for us to go against the reigning champs in this discussion.
Yes, Anthony Davis is currently injured. And yes, the Lakers are neither shooting nor making enough threes. And yes, their half-court offense is iffy, even with LeBron in the game, but especially when he’s off the court.
Still, most of these were concerns last year. We worried about the Lakers’ shooting and their half-court offense, only to see them dominate in the playoffs when LeBron kicked it into high gear. We have to believe the same will happen again. So long as Davis gets healthy, they must be considered the favorite.
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