Though it seemed inevitable, the Battle of LA never took place last season.
Now the Los Angeles Clippers are determined to do their part a year later than expected after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. The intercity rival Lakers, meanwhile, went on to defeat the Nuggets in six games in the West finals and the rest, of course, is history.
The fallout was swift as the Clips replaced longtime coach Doc Rivers with former Cleveland Cavaliers championship coach Tyronn Lue. Having spent a lot of capital to land Kawhi Leonard and Paul George prior to last season, anything less than a shot at the Lakers in the highly anticipated battle for LA would be a colossal disappointment.
“The attitude around here is guys are pissed off,” Guard Patrick Beverley told ESPN. “Which is good. We should be pissed off after our exit last year in the playoffs. I think that within itself is extra motivation there.”
Are the Clippers ready to challenge the Lakers? In Part I of our NBA season preview, we posed only a sampling of the many burning questions that surround a 2020-21 season that’s somehow already upon us.
And after dissecting down some of those in our East power rankings, we’re taking a look at where the defending champs rank heading into the new season, how much better the healthier Golden State Warriors will be, and whether the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers can build on their bubble performances.
In order to address these and other questions, we’ve created a model using advanced metrics and other factors on both sides of the ball to calculate how many points per 100 possessions better or worse teams are compared to the league-average club during that season, including the playoffs.
From this model, we’re able to create an Adjusted Offensive Rating (AOR), Adjusted Defensive Rating (ADR) and an overall Adjusted Team Rating (ATR). Note that lower is better for our defensive ratings.
This normalizes a team’s performance from league environmental factors that can either inflate or deflate its numbers. We’ve taken the final 2019-20 ratings and adjusted for roster turnover during this brief offseason to create our power rankings.
1. LA LAKERS (NBA Rank: 2nd)
The Lakers (52-19) certainly weren’t a perfect team last season, but they made a late push in our ratings while winning 16 of their last 20 to capture the franchise’s 17th NBA title.
James averaged 22.0 points and Davis scored 21.6 per game while Los Angeles dropped six of its first nine games in the bubble. But then the superstars took over as Davis averaged 28.9 points and James scored 27.0 per game during the Lakers’ 12-2 run that sent them into the Finals.
The champs sought to freshen things up and stay hungry by bringing in Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Schroder and saying goodbye to Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo. They’re our No. 2-rated team overall behind Milwaukee.
2. LA Clippers (NBA Rank: 4th)
As previously mentioned, there were consequences for a team that had high expectations after acquiring Leonard and George but fell short in dramatic fashion in the West semifinals at Walt Disney World Resort.
The Clips are moving forward without Rivers, who led the club to a 49-23 record last season and never finished below .500 following his arrival in 2013. The roster has a similar look after swapping in Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard for Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet.
But as Beverley stated, it’s a team that should be angry and hungry to bounce back.
3. Dallas (NBA Rank: 5th)
Our model loved Luka Doncic and the Mavericks (43-32) while they led the NBA in Adjusted Offensive Rating last season. If they can improve on the defensive end, watch out.
Offseason additions Josh Richardson and James Johnson and the return of Dwight Powell from a torn Achilles should help, but Kristaps Porzingis will be out to start the season following knee surgery.
4. Utah (NBA Rank: 9th)
The Jazz (44-28) know a little bit about the Clippers’ pain, failing to close out a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the first round. But Donovan Mitchell’s emergence as a big-stage performer gives the club reason for optimism heading into this season. The third-year guard took his game to the next level in the playoffs, averaging 36.3 points on 51.6% shooting from 3-point range, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists versus Denver.
The return of Derrick Favors marked the team’s biggest free-agent pickup, so Utah should look very similar to last season – at least in terms of roster makeup.
5. Denver (NBA Rank: 10th)
It should be interesting to see if Jamal Murray can build on his outstanding playoff performance. After averaging a career-high 18.5 points during the regular season, he put up 26.5 per game – including two 40-point performances and two 50-point efforts – on 45.3% shooting from beyond the arc and 6.6 assists in 19 games during Denver’s run to the Western Conference finals.
Michael Porter Jr. also took a step in the right direction and earned a spot in the playoff rotation. The Nuggets (46-27) are going to need him after starting forward Jerami Grant signed a three-year deal with the Detroit Pistons.
6. Golden State (NBA Rank: 12th)
The return of Stephen Curry makes the Warriors (15-50) significantly better, but don’t underestimate the loss of Klay Thompson. Since Thompson entered the league in 2011-12, the Warriors are just 7-6 including the playoffs when Curry and Draymond Green play but Thompson and Kevin Durant (now with the Brooklyn Nets) do not.
Still, the additions of Kelly Oubre, Kent Bazemore, Brad Wanamaker and second-overall pick James Wiseman should help Golden State get back into the postseason.
7. Houston (NBA Rank: 13th)
Though James Harden remains (for now), the Rockets (44-28) figure to look much different this season after hiring Stephen Silas to replace Mike D’Antoni and adding Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins.
The Russell Westbrook-Harden experiment lasted exactly one season as Westbrook was sent to Washington for John Wall. Robert Covington, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green are also gone. But Harden led the league in scoring for the third straight season and if Wall can stay healthy, Houston should be back in the playoffs.
8. Portland (NBA Rank: 14th)
The Blazers (35-39) and Phoenix Suns (ranked No. 9) were two of the best stories of the bubble. Portland, which won eight of 10 before losing four straight to the Lakers in the first round, and the Suns, who went 8-0 in Orlando, are likely to be fighting for a playoff spot once again.
The Blazers looked to bolster the supporting cast around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and improve defensively by adding Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr. and Enes Kanter.
Here’s the bottom seven in the West:
9. Phoenix (NBA Rank: 15th)
10. New Orleans (NBA Rank: 17th)
11. Memphis (NBA Rank: 18th)
12. Minnesota (NBA Rank: 20th)
13. San Antonio (NBA Rank: 23rd)
14. Sacramento (NBA Rank: 25th)
15. Oklahoma City (NBA RANK: 29th)
Lineup data modeling provided by Matt Scott.
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