The season has been far from smooth sailing so far, but the NBA has reached the All-Star break and midpoint in the 2020-21 campaign. While certain teams such as the Heat and Grizzlies have been hammered by virus protocols leaving players out of lineups and little room for assessment of their squad, other teams, namely the Lakers and Nets, have emerged as real contenders to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy in July. Here is a look at the top contenders in the league thus far.
Los Angeles Lakers
LA’s finest brought showtime back to the City of Angels as they cruised to their seventeenth title in franchise history. Led by their dynamic duo, Lebron James and Anthony Davis — the first pair of Lakers teammates to each make the All-NBA first team since the great Shaq and Kobe Bryant tandem –, the Lakers showed up and showed out in the “NBA Bubble.” En route to achieving greatness, the team proved to skeptics that the lack of depth on their bench was negligible. Accomplishing a record of sixteen wins and a mere five losses in the NBA postseason, the Lakers practically breezed through the postseason leaving little doubt as to who the kings of the league were. Entering the new season, the Lakers were widely regarded as the favorites to repeat the success of their 2021 Championship, and their offseason activities did little to change the expectation.
The Champs followed up their astounding season with one of the best offseasons they could’ve possibly imagined. Managing to lure Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell away from the team’s crosstown rival LA Clippers, and bringing in the runner-up for the same award, Dennis Schroeder, from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers not only reinforced their bench unit, but improved their squad all around. In addition, they acquired seasoned big man Marc Gasol who will provide an abundance of experience and leadership to the group.
Almost a third of the way into the season, these moves already look to have paid dividends. With enough firepower on the bench to play in most teams’ starting lineup, the Lakers can afford their two stars to coast throughout portions of games. And when it’s time to take over, “The King” and “the Brow” do just that. As of late, the Lakers have found themselves in a bit of turmoil as Anthony Davis, who re-aggravated a minor achilles injury, has been out for almost a month and will look to return to action after the All Star break. During this stretch, LA has been mediocre and has relied on Lebron to do most of the heavy lifting. While his heroics have saved them at times, against the upper echelon teams, his best simply hasn’t been enough. That said, when Davis returns, expect the champs to be back to form and remain at the top of the heap in the Western Conference. As if they weren’t favorites before the start of the season, the defending champs have only heightened their odds. The league better look out, because there’s a good chance that the finals will run through Staples Center once again.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were unable to rid themselves the label of “little brothers” to the Los Angeles Lakers. An uninspiring effort saw them fall in the second round of last year’s playoffs at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, ultimately giving up a 3-1 series lead and failing to meet the expectations of the NBA world. And while their superstar duo looked good on the stat sheet (Kawhi averaging 24.3 points per game and Paul George averaging 21.7), the two came up short when it mattered the most.
The Clips followed up their forgettable playoff run with an interesting offseason. Numerous reports were published highlighting problems in the Clipper locker room that left many in the organization unsatisfied. Among those was owner of the franchise, Steve Balmer, who made it clear to the front office that he desired a culture change and wanted head coach Doc Rivers to be fired. Rivers was let go and lead assistant Tyronn Lue, who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship in franchise history, stepped in. The team followed up their coaching switch with an eventful free agency period, that one could tag as bittersweet. While the Clippers lost their energizer bunny in Montrezl Harrell, they added veteran forward Serge Ibaka to replace him. Furthermore, after losing Jamychal Green who served as the backup power forward last season for the Clippers, they signed Nicholas Batum and Luke Kennard to make up for the loss.
Ibaka, Batum and Marcus Morris have also added much needed depth in the wake of a slump from three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. But perhaps the most important aspect of this hot start from the Clips, has been the chemistry that George and Leornard have developed early on in the season. The pair missed a total of 59 regular season games in the 2019-2020 season, and as elite as the two stars are, it is a lot to ask to develop a relationship on the court in such little time together. Now, both Kawhi and PG seem focused on redeeming themselves and finally reaching the conference finals — a feat that the Clippers have yet to accomplish in their 50 year history.
The Brooklyn Nets
The only true big three in the entire NBA resides in Brooklyn. Following a full season without Kevin Durant and practically a full season without Kyrie Irving, the basketball world was on the edge of their seats to finally get to watch the revamped Brooklyn Nets … and they did not disappoint. In a jaw-dropping performance, the squad cruised to a blowout win over the Golden State Warriors in their first game of the 2021 campaign. Kevin Durant chipped in an effort that was reminiscent of an interview when he was a part of the Golden state Warriors, where he simply said, “You know who I am. I’m Kevin Durant.” Fresh off of one of the most horrific and testing injuries one can endure, KD has not lost a step, playing at an MVP level and boasting unthinkable numbers in the process: 30 points per game on 52% shooting from the field and 44% shooting from 3 point range. Oh yeah, not to mention Kyrie Irving is averaging almost 30 points himself.
The black and white jerseys put the league on notice from the jump as they instantly made it clear that they should be among the favorites to come out on top of the battlefield that is the Eastern Conference. Then all of a sudden, on the evening of January 13th, the NBA world came to a standstill, as eight-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion, and former MVP, James Harden was shipped to Brooklyn in a four-team blockbuster deal. In the massive trade, Caris LeVert and a second round pick were sent to Indiana, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince were dealt to the Cavaliers, the Houston Rockets received a haul of eight draft picks including four pick swaps, Dante Exum, and Victor Oladipo, and the Brooklyn Nets landed Harden. While this deal was one that had lived in trade rumors weeks before it actually occurred, when it did ensue, the league was virtually turned on its axis. NBA twitter exploded and players from around the league reacted to the seismic news. But maybe the best part about the entire deal, was that it took only three days to see the Nets new piece in action. While Kyrie Irving did not take the court due to personal reasons, the league got its first glimpse at Harden as the Nets and the Magic fought it out in Brooklyn. Harden and Durant instantly clicked as if they were transported back to Oklahoma City where they spent three seasons together prior to Harden getting shipped off to Houston.
Later on, in Cleveland, the Nets brand new big three took the stage as Kyrie Irving returned from his personal hiatus. As expected, questions circulated in the media regarding the nature of the trio and which player would have to take a back seat and play as the third option. Well the trifecta shut those questions down quick. Harden showcased both his forgotten yet elite playmaking skills, Irving demonstrated his unselfishness, and all three highlighted the obvious; that when the team needs a bucket, they’ve got three guys that can go and get it for them. James Harden put it best in a postgame interview, stating, “When you play with really good players, it’s pretty easy.” This statement could not be echoed loud enough. The league has seen it countless times and whenever a new team full of stars and talent comes together, there are questions that follow. But at the end of the day, when a team is composed of the elite of the elite, who all have one goal in mind of winning, the game simply comes naturally. This Nets team is locked and loaded for a championship run, and while there are glaring issues on the defensive side of the ball, three all-time talents who can drop buckets of points on any given night, is more than enough to get any team to the promised land
The Milwaukee Bucks
When you think of one word to describe the Milwaukee Bucks last two seasons, one word that may come to mind is disappointing. The Milwaukee Bucks put forth its best effort to surround their two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounpo with a team that perfectly suited his playstyle. At 6’11, 240 lbs, Antetokounpo is a lengthy, one-of-a-kind athlete bearing the nickname, “The Greek Freak.” In the open court, the “Freak” is unstoppable; muscling his way to the rim and finishing with ease, often drawing double teams, allowing him to kick the ball out to his shooters for wide open three-point shots. It is, in theory, an unstoppable offense; however, the problem in the past few postseasons with Milwaukee has been that in the half court offense, Giannis has been far less effective. While the All-NBA player is unstoppable in the open court, his shooting is in need of improvement and he lacks the ability to create opportunities for himself to score in the half court.
It is noteworthy to say that oftentimes teams do not realize the areas where they need to improve, yet the Bucks deserve all the credit in the world because on November 24th, right at the start of free agency, Milwaukee struck a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans to send Eric Bledoe, George Hill, three future first round picks, and two pick swaps to New Orleans, in exchange for All-Star, All Defensive, veteran guard, Jrue Holiday. A hefty price to pay to acquire the former Pelican, but Holiday has already proven his worth to the team so far this season. Though in some people’s eyes the Bucks aren’t using him in the most effective way possible, it is working. Holiday is doing everything that the team asks of him: locking up his assignment on defense and providing high caliber playmaking on the offensive end. Come playoff time, Holiday will serve as an X-Factor for a Bucks team that looks to secure it’s first title in 50 years.
The Philadelphia 76ers
“It’s off to Leonard… defended by Simmons, is this the dagger? OHHHHH!!!”
These were the words uttered by Kevin Harlan on the call of one of the wildest and most historic game-winners of all time, as Kawhi Leonard hit an unthinkable three-point shot to break the hearts of Philly fans around the world. That shot marked the end of a wacky 2018-19 campaign for the 76ers, a span that was jam packed with drama; from the acquisition of Jimmy Butler, to constant questions about leadership in the locker room, the Philadelphia 76ers dealt with a lot two years ago. Despite the seemingly endless nonsense on and off the court, Philly was four unlucky bounces away from a conference finals berth — an extremely bitter ending for a process that fell short of completion.
That offseason was an eventful one for the 76ers as GM Elton Brand, though failing to persuade star forward Jimmy Butler and sharpshooter JJ Redick to re-sign, managed to hold on to Tobias Harris (albeit at an extremely high price), and bring in veteran power forward Al Horford. Brand also picked up Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade deal with the Miami Heat. The Sixers formed a new identity and defense was the new calling card. On paper, the Sixers were a nightmare matchup with an average height of 6’8 among their starters and an all-star duo in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; however, about three quarters into the season, it became crystal clear that the Sixers did not have what it took to be a contender. Joel Embiid, though no stranger to the sidelines, dealt with multiple injuries, Al Hordford proved to be a poor fit next to Simmons and Embiid, and the group lacked depth, spacing, shooting and most of all, leadership. This all culminated in a first round exit from the ‘19-’20 Bubble playoffs at the hands of the Boston Celtics, and the end of the drama riddled Brett Brown era. It became apparent that major moves needed to take place.
Fast forward to the start of the ‘20-’21 NBA season where the 76ers did just that. The Sixers hired 20-year head coach Doc Rivers to replace Brown, and brought in Darryl Morey to take over as president of basketball operations. Morey made his impact felt immediately: within his first few days on the job, he managed to get rid of Al Horford’s ugly contract to clear up cap space, and acquired some much needed shooting in Seth Curry and Danny Green. These moves, though they seemed fairly insignificant at the time, have proven to be game changers for a 76ers team that currently sits at the top of the Eastern Conference. Thanks to vastly improved spacing and shooting around him, big man Joel Embiid has been nothing short of dominant, posting obscene numbers of almost 30.0 PPG and around 11 rebounds. Coupled with Embiid’s elite defensive impact you’ve got yourself an MVP candidate.
Although star Ben Simmons got off to a rocky start to the season, he has picked up steam and is once again playing at a high level. Tobias Harris, who was not shy when voicing his own disappointment in his play last season, has played well. Sprinkle in Seth Curry shooting almost 50% from 3-pt range with a team ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, and you have a real championship contender.
These five teams have flourished thus far in a year especially hard to do so. Though there are other teams who can be considered honorable mentions including the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, based on roster construction and future moves likely to be made, there is a high probability that the NBA final stage is set with two of the five teams listed taking part in the dance. While it is reasonable to forecast more drama during the back half of this season due to the ongoing pandemic, the teams above possess both the starpower and depth to remain afloat in their respective conferences and make a deep playoff run. Nonetheless, it has been a fascinating season and with fans beginning to roll back into arenas, it will make for an exciting rest of the way.