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Which Team Tops Our NBA Power Rankings? Hint: It’s Not the Defending Champs


In the second of our three-part NBA season preview, we use Stats Perform’s data-driven model to assess the outlook for each Eastern Conference club.  

By: Taylor Bechtold

If it feels like only yesterday when the Los Angeles Lakers were hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in a partly filled arena in Orlando, that’s because it’s close – relatively speaking.

This is the shortest offseason in the history of the four major sports at 71 days between the final day of one postseason and the first day of the next regular season:

NBA: 71 (2019-20 to 2020-21)

NHL: 98 (2012-13 to 2013-14)

MLB: 142 (2013 to 2014 & 2018 to 2019)

NFL: 212 (2011 to 2012)

At the same time, other teams haven’t taken the court for a regular-season game since early March. Some clubs haven’t had a ton of roster turnover over the past couple of months, while others have been completely transformed by the draft, additions, subtractions, or a return to health.

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. With a new supporting cast and Giannis locked up long term, how do the Bucks measure up to LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champs? And now that they’re healthier, how much better will Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets be?

In order to address these and other questions, we’ve created a model using Stats Perform’s 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.

We’ll start with the Eastern Conference before revealing the West tomorrow.

Newly signed Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to finally push Milwaukee over the top this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

1. MILWAUKEE (NBA Rank: 1st)

The Bucks (56-17) were easily the league’s best club by our metrics before losing some ground during their postseason fade. They became the first team in NBA history to have more losses (4-9) in its final 13 regular-season games than it did in the entire campaign prior to that (52-8).

But they’re expected to be dominant again as one of the NBA’s top defensive clubs after allowing a league-low 41.4 field-goal percentage during the 2019-20 regular season. And swapping Eric Bledsoe and George Hill for Holiday and Augustin should be an upgrade.

As a result, Milwaukee is our No. 1-rated team overall – ahead of even the Lakers.

2. Boston (NBA Rank: 3rd)

After falling short against the upstart Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics (48-24) replaced free-agent departures Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter with Tristan Thompson and rookie Aaron Nesmith.

Jayson Tatum has arrived as one of the league’s stars, averaging 23.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in 2019-20 – way up on his 2018-19 averages of 15.7 points and 6.0 boards. And in their first season together, Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown became only the second group of three teammates in league history to each finish with at least 20 points and two 3-pointers made per game in a season (minimum 50 games).

But depth remains an issue after Boston had fewer than 25 bench points in each of its last 15 playoff games, one of the longest streaks in a single postseason in the past 35 years.

Can Pascal Siakam help Toronto get back to the Finals? (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

3. Toronto (NBA Rank: 6th)

The Raptors (53-19) defied expectations after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency but fell short of repeating with a seven-game loss to Boston in the East semifinals. They had a huge offseason win by re-signing Fred VanVleet while also adding Aron Baynes to help make up for the loss of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

The Raptors could be one of the teams to beat in the East if VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby take another step in their development. They still have Kyle Lowry, who enjoyed a rebirth as a scorer, averaging 19.4 points last season after scoring only 14.2 per game two years ago and 16.2 in 2017-18.

4. Brooklyn (NBA Rank: 7th)

The Nets (35-37) are one of those teams that figure to look much different – and better – this season. But just how much better remains to be seen. Of course, the return of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from injury should provide an immediate boost for new coach Steve Nash and assistant Mike D’Antoni.

The Nets are hoping Caris LeVert can continue to develop into a potential third star after he averaged 23.7 points, 6.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds over his last 26 games, including the playoffs.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler solidified his superstar status last season. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

5. Miami (NBA Rank: 8th)

It will be interesting to see what the Heat (44-29) can do for an encore after their surprising playoff run in 2019-20. They were only the fourth team in history seeded fifth or worse to reach the Finals, following the Houston Rockets (No. 6 seeds in 1995 and 1981) and New York Knicks (No. 8 seed in 1999).

Jimmy Butler solidified his star status by leading the club in the NBA Finals, while Tyler Herro emerged as one of the most exciting players in the bubble. Can Bam Adebayo take another step in his development?

Miami should be in the hunt once again after replacing Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. with Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless this offseason.

6. Philadelphia (NBA Rank: 11th)

With Daryl Morey now running the show and Doc Rivers taking over as coach, there’s reason for optimism in Philadelphia (43-30) despite a disappointing finish in 2019-20. The 76ers did part ways with Al Horford and Josh Richardson, but additions Seth Curry and Danny Green should help the team improve its 3-point shooting.

For now, Philly seems committed to the Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid pairing. And ultimately, the health of their stars and how they play together will decide how far the Sixers go this season. Since Simmons was drafted first in 2016, Philadelphia has compiled a 119-65 record when they both play. But without one or both, that mark plummets to 67-94.

Indiana’s T.J. Warren shined in the Orlando bubble. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

7. Indiana (NBA Rank: 16th)

After getting swept by Miami in the first round of the playoffs, the Pacers (45-28) fired Nate McMillan even though he had guided the team to four straight winning seasons. Nate Bjorkgren has taken over and Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner remain with the club despite an offseason full of trade rumors.

T.J. Warren was one of Indiana’s biggest bright spots in the bubble, pouring in 53 points with nine 3-pointers in the opener and averaging 26.6 points while shooting 47.5% from beyond the arc in his 10 games.

8. Orlando (NBA Rank: 19th)

The Magic (33-40) appear to be stuck hovering around the eighth seed in the East. Making matters worse, promising forward Jonathan Isaac won’t be able to play this season following knee surgery.

Former starting point guard D.J. Augustin has signed with the Bucks, but the loss of Isaac and Augustin figures to allow the team to eventually take a good look at 2020 15th overall pick Cole Anthony and 2019 16th selection Chuma Okeke, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.

Here are our bottom seven in the East:

Washington’s Bradley Beal has a new backcourt mate in Russell Westbrook. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

9. Washington (NBA Rank: 21st)

10. Atlanta (NBA Rank: 22nd)

11. Chicago (NBA Rank: 24th)

Charlotte made LaMelo Ball the third overall pick in the 2020 draft. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

12. Charlotte (NBA Rank: 26th)

13. Detroit (NBA Rank: 27th)

14. Cleveland (NBA Rank: 28th)

15. New York (NBA Rank: 30th)


Lineup data modeling provided by Matt Scott.

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