When basketball wraps up, it always leaves you wanting more. The 2020 restart was the most fun I’ve had watching sports in a very long time, and it was sad to see the season wrap up. To fill some of that basketball void that’s been lingering since the finals wrapped up, I’ve decided to look ahead and evaluate what the basketball landscape will look like in 2021. There are some exciting narratives and teams to explore, as well as several key players coming back from prolonged absences. So let’s dig into the 14 teams I think can win a title next year.
The Los Angeles teams
The Lakers are an obvious choice to repeat, given how dominant they looked throughout the regular season and playoffs. They will in all likelihood return Lebron James and Anthony Davis, a duo that we now know can propel just about any roster to the finals. Meanwhile, the Clippers will emerge from the Bubble hungrier and bearing a vicious chip on their shoulder. This roster is still one of the most talented in the league in my opinion, and its success will come down to two things: more consistent locker-room leadership and a creative new coach that can squeeze every last drop of potential from this squad. The LA teams are my two favorite picks to win a title in 2021.
The Eastern Conference powerhouses
The Miami Heat were so close to NBA immortality, but James and Davis were simply too much. I love their roster, and the Butler-Adebayo pairing is only going to get better. This team has room to add another star, and if they do they’ll immediately be my pick to represent the East in 2021. The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo will look to add more firepower to bring Giannis that ring he so righteously deserves. Even if they return more or less the same roster, this is still a team that has claimed back-to-back league-best records the past two years.
Meanwhile, Boston and Toronto both showed out in the playoffs, but fell short in their own ways. They will both look to run it back and count on fringe or internal improvements. Brooklyn will also look to add themselves to this list of powerhouses, and they have every right to land themselves here. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Steve Nash at head coach are just too exciting to count out. This team will score in bunches, and could shake up the Eastern Conference hierarchy in 2021.
The rest of the West
The West is always a dogfight of contending teams. The dreadful 2020 regular season and exclusion from the restart made the basketball world forget this team for a while, but Golden State is still very much a powerhouse. Barring injury, the Warriors should return their dreaded trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, whom everyone knows boast a finals-caliber ceiling. They also have the resources to swing another impact trade or bolster the depth on their roster.
Denver made history in the Bubble, coming back from not one but two 3–1 deficits in the playoffs, only to fall short against the Lakers. They ran a devastating gauntlet of playoff competition, and this roster now boasts some serious experience and chemistry to make noise next year. Dallas and Houston are both interesting and boast arguable top-five players on their roster, so they can never truly be counted out. Luka Dončić was a revelation for Dallas this year, and could push for an MVP season in his third year, while James Harden and Russell Westbrook have all offseason to give Houston a more schematically functioning star duo.
The dark horses
Utah has more questions than answers right now, but Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are bona fide stars that shouldn’t be ignored. This team still has some options to boost its ceiling in the playoffs, but it’ll take serious creativity on the front office and coaching fronts.
Beyond them, I can’t see any team in the West boasting a championship-caliber ceiling, outside of a surprise season from New Orleans. Zion Williamson is a generational talent whose potential impact knows no bounds, even if he looked the part of an inexperienced rookie for most of the Bubble. Brandon Ingram and the rest of the Pelican’s young talent could take leaps and bounds under new coaching leadership, and they’ll be a trendy pick to make the West playoffs.
For the East, I have many doubts for the 76ers being more than a low-seed playoff team. I like the Doc Rivers hire to give this team a respectable floor, but I cannot in any way see them making a run past the second round with the awkwardness of their roster fit.