1. Los Angeles Clippers
We always said that wherever Kawhi Leonard lands becomes the title favourite, and his heading to the Clippers certainly doesn’t change that. It’s not just the two-way potential of superstar duo Kawhi and Paul George, but L.A. boasts an elite, well-fitting supporting cast that includes a mix of established veterans and up-and-comers. Sixth Man of the Year nominee Montrezl Harrell and back-to-back winner Lou Williams highlight a deep roster that also includes Patrick Beverly, Mo Harkless, breakout candidate Landry Shamet, and Canadian rookie big man Mfiondu Kabengele.
2. Denver Nuggets
Expect improvements all across the roster, including and especially projected MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. The 24 year-old centre was named All-NBA First Team last season and figures to continue to make his mark in the West leading a high-octane team bolstered by the underrated addition of forward Jerami Grant. If Kitchener, Ont.’s Jamal Murray builds off his breakout 2019 playoff performance and takes a step forward into all-star territory — a very real possibility — then Denver should continue to hold their place among the very top of the West.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Like with Denver and Jokic, expect another large-footed step forward for Philadelphia’s young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In the playoffs, Embiid led all players in the NBA in defensive win shares and remains the centrepiece of the new(ish)-look Sixers. The team lost key contributors in Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick but stand to become a defensive juggernaut thanks to the additions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford — whose presence will also allow the team to exercise a load management protocol with Embiid, to the disappointment of the rest of the league.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have been an elite defensive club in long need of a star-quality point guard and, over the past two seasons, have had to rely too much on 22-year-old guard Donovan Mitchell to carry the scoring load.
The team addressed nearly all of their needs this off-season, bringing in Mike Conley Jr. in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies and that addition alone changes Utah’s outlook entirely. Throw in lauded free-agent signing Bojan Bogdanovich, a high-end secondary scorer whose three-point stroke will flourish in Utah’s system and the Jazz boast as complete a team as there is in the NBA.
It remains to be seen how they’ll carry their success over into the playoffs but they have the talent and now an all-around attack that should keep them at or near the top of the West all season.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
They lost Malcolm Brogdon, which hurts, but retained their contender status by keeping key pieces to last year’s top-ranked team Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton.
2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo alone can lead a team to the top of the East, but surrounded by a familiar roster and proven system there’s no reason for the Bucks to regress much at all.
6. Los Angeles Lakers
There’s no doubting the next-level potential of LeBron James and Anthony Davis but, as last season proved, the success of the Lakers will come down to good health and the supporting cast. Beyond James and Davis, two of the NBA’s top talents, the rest of the Lakers roster save maybe for third-year forward Kyle Kuzma is, like last season, a mostly-uninspiring and oddly-assembled veteran group.
It’s been reported that James will play point guard and it’s a move done out of necessity that could wind up leaving the Lakers vulnerable on the defensive end. They’ll win plenty of games — a healthy LeBron guarantees it — but the questions that remain after losing out on Kawhi Leonard are legitimate.
7. Houston Rockets
After buzz about turmoil in Houston and major roster changes afoot, the Rockets have been impossibly quiet during the off-season thus far. As it stands, they’ll return virtually the same roster, which still stars the game’s most unsolvable offensive problem in James Harden. We may have seen the playoff ceiling for this team already, but that doesn’t mean they’re still not a tough out on any given night.
8. Indiana Pacers
Contingent on if Victor Oladipo makes a full recovery from his season-ending knee injury and returns before the all-star break, the Pacers could be as good as any team in the East. Even without Oladipo last season they remained ultra-competitive and this summer added Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb to a roster that already includes breakout big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
9. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry in MVP mode is on the horizon but the Warriors remain one of the tougher teams to predict. The loss of Kevin Durant is obviously significant, as is Klay Thompson’