Ranking all 30 NBA teams by pressure entering this season
This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.
Pressure can be external. Pressure can be internal. Pressure can land on players, coaches, general managers and even owners.
Here’s how every team ranks by pressure faced next season:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis will be a free agent next summer. LeBron James will be a year older. This is the time for the Lakers to capitalize on their championship promise. Consider the internal combustibility of the coaching staff and a massive fan base with high expectations, and pressure comes from every direction.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are good enough to win a title this season, and that always carries pressure. Adding to it: Giannis Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension next offseason. If Milwaukee doesn’t impress him enough to stay, this contender could fall apart quickly. With a successful season, the Bucks can depend on Antetokounmpo for another half decade. The stakes are incredibly high.
3. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are openly acknowledging their situation: Their championship window is open but will close soon. Houston pushed further in for the present by trading lightly protected distant future first-rounders for Russell Westbrook. The Rockets better quickly optimize the remaining primes of James Harden and Westbrook – two stars who don’t simply mesh. Oh, and Mike D’Antoni’s lame-duck status could add stress on the whole team.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers remade their starting lineup after winning 51 games and pushing the eventual-champion Raptors to seven games in the second round. Philadelphia is not content with merely good accomplishments. The 76ers are going for great. And with young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, why not? Still, plenty of potential pitfalls loom – luxury tax, Embiid’s health, Al Horford’s aging and Brett Brown’s job security. A strong season could go a long way toward fending off storms.
5. L.A. Clippers
The Clippers opened a two-year window by signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. But pressure always comes with championship expectations, and no teams has better title odds than the Clippers.
6. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors open a new arena this year, and they’ve bragged about how much revenue it will produce. But will those dollars still come if Golden State falls too far from its dynastic status and fun style? With Kevin Durant gone, Klay Thompson injured and D’Angelo Russell causing fit concerns, expectations have dropped for next season. Still, the Warriors must maintain a certain level of entertainment (of which winning is the most important component) to appease their deep-pocketed fans.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers are only on the fringe of the championship discussion, but they’re still in it. After getting swept the previous two first rounds, Portland redeemed itself with a run to the Western Conference finals last season. Damian Lillard (four years, super max) and C.J. McCollum (three years, $100 million) were rewarded with large contract extensions. It’s important to maintain the good feelings.
8. Miami Heat
In the five years since LeBron James left, the Heat have made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once. So, they paid substantial costs to get Jimmy Butler. The only way to maintain a winning culture is to win, and Butler can help with that. But for how long? He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has heavy mileage. Still, if he helps enough, Miami could make a splash in 2021 free agency.
9. Orlando Magic
A middling Eastern Conference playoff team doesn’t generate national buzz. But the Magic were so proud of their last season – their best in seven years – they spent big to keep their core intact. That pays off only if the winning continues.
10. Utah Jazz
By trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz showed they’re serious about winning now. Those veterans could have a limited shelf life. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert offer a longer window, but again, there’s more pressure on good teams.
11. Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ championship hopes likely left with Kyrie Irving. But next season is a great opportunity to pin their problems on him. If young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown suddenly get right back on track, that’d reflect poorly on Irving (perhaps somewhat unfairly). With Kemba Walker, Boston could be quite good – just probably with a lower ceiling.
12. Phoenix Suns
Few outsiders expect much from the Suns, but that’s rarely the case inside Phoenix. Owner Robert Sarver is notoriously impatient. The Suns messed around in the draft, but credible point guard Ricky Rubio fills a massive hole, and other veterans are also incoming. Expect Phoenix to improve. Enough to satisfy everyone there? Who knows?
13. Washington Wizards
The Wizards kept Bradley Beal despite a ton of outside trade interest. He sounds happy in Washington for now, but his 2021 unrestricted free agency is rapidly approaching. The Wizards appear headed toward a lousy season. Will they do enough to keep Beal happy? This year could define the next era of Washington basketball.
14. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are the best team this low on the list. But they’re so young, and their core is locked in. It’s always important for good teams to win, but next season is far from make-or-break for Denver.
15. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets’ window opens next year, when Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. In the meantime, Brooklyn would like to celebrate its coup in free agency with improvement next season. That especially shines the spotlight on Kyrie Irving, who gets another crack at leading a young supporting cast. If he fails again, that could expose the Nets to real cultural concerns before they even get rolling.
16. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers got younger and probably slightly worse this summer. That’s an acceptable tradeoff, one that comes with reduced expectations for next season. However, if Indiana falls further than expected, that could create real problems for the people responsible for the disapointment.
17. Detroit Pistons
Ho hum. They’ll likely be mediocre – maybe good enough to make the playoffs, maybe not. Same as always. A looming potential shakeup adds some pressure.
18. Sacramento Kings
The Kings’ breakthrough season prompted them to fill holes with savvy veterans. The hope is everyone coalesces into a winner. But even if Sacramento regresses, most of those new contracts look reasonable. More importantly, the young core still provides long-term hope.
19. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas has its top tandem in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. But both are young, and Porzingis is just coming off injury. There will be patience. The deep Mavericks could play well enough for pressure to build throughout the season.
20. New York Knicks
After striking out in free agency this summer, the Knicks left themselves the ability to open major cap space in 2020 or 2021. For now, the roster is full of spare parts unlikely to win much. The large New York fan base won’t quietly accept yet another losing season. Knicks owner James Dolan, who has frequently shifted between plans, is the big wildcard in the franchise’s overall patience level.
21. Charlotte Hornets
They stink. Their future looks dim. Everyone knows this. Still, losing stresses everyone involved.
22. New Orleans Pelicans
After Anthony Davis’ trade request, the Pelicans got a new lease on life with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. New lead executive David Griffin adds credibility, and he has already added significant talent around Williamson. If this year goes well, great. If not, that’d be disappointing, but New Orleans still has time to establish a winning identity.
23. Chicago Bulls
Maybe the Bulls are good now. Maybe they’ll be better later. Maybe neither. But there enough avenues for Chicago to show progress that this season doesn’t present much stress. The Bulls could make the playoffs, have their young players show progress and/or tank to add another blue-chipper. It’s unlikely they miss on all three.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers
Near rock bottom, the Cavaliers just want to boost the value of a few key players. Cleveland’s top two young prospects – Collin Sexton and Darius Garland – are both point guards, and that could create complications. Kevin Love is on an expensive contract, and more injuries/aging could sink him as a trade chip. As far as winning, that’s barely a consideration.
25. San Antonio Spurs
The Tim Duncan era was so long and the handover to Kawhi Leonard so seamless, the Spurs still feel like they’re in the honeymoon of their five championships in 16 years (1999-2014). It’d be nice to break the consecutive-playoff-season record. But it’s just hard to get too worked up about this late-stage Gregg Popovich season that holds only modest expectations.
26. Minnesota Timberwolves
New team president Gersson Rosas inherited an inflexible, losing – but talented – team and did little with it. That means little expectation of a quick breakthrough, but a path toward overachieving exists. Well-liked Ryan Saunders getting his interim tag removed is just another reason to view this as a reset year.
27. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are in the thick of rebuilding. It’s too soon to expect much from Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
28. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have such a deep young base – Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cameron Reddish plus a couple extra future first-round picks. Atlanta can patiently let this group grow together without even moderate expectations yet.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City willingly entered rebuilding by trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a whole bunch of other teams’ picks. Though tanking themselves could help their long-term outlook, the Thunder can do whatever they want and let those picks roll in from the Clippers (including potentially lucrative ones originally belonging to the Heat) and Rockets. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams even give Oklahoma City a chance to overachieve.
30. Toronto Raptors
Toronto can happily enjoy its championship – no matter what happens this season. Kawhi Leonard’s exit ended any expectations of a repeat. The Raptors should still be solid, but even if they’re not, that banner will hang forever.