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NBA contenders and pretenders: Where Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and other teams stand at this point in the season

The 2020-21 NBA season is about a third of the way through, as each team has played well over 20 games out of their 72-game slate. At this point, the top-tier teams have started to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. These teams have established themselves as legitimate championship contenders, while others are in the contention conversation but still have some issues to iron out and questions to answer. Obviously, with injury issues and trades a lot can change between now and the start of postseason play. But, as things stand currently, here’s a look at three true contenders, and two pretenders, from each conference, starting with the East.  

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Philadelphia 76ers: Contender 

Brett Brown was unable to get the duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons over the top, but perhaps Doc Rivers will have better luck. The early results have been pretty promising, considering that the Sixers are sitting at the top of the East a third of the way through the season. Embiid is playing like an MVP, Simmons is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and in guys like Seth CurryShake Milton, and Danny Green the Sixers finally have some shooters around their star duo. The Sixers also have a top-five defense, and when they’re playing their best they look like a team that could potentially come out of the East and challenge anyone.

It’s fair to be a bit skeptical about the Bucks, as they haven’t been able to get over the hump and out of the East despite having the best record in the league each of the past two seasons. However, this year they’re hoping that the offseason addition of Jrue Holiday will be a big boon when it comes to postseason play. Holiday is an excellent two-way guard with the ability to hound opposing guards and hit clutch shots. In Holiday, Middleton, and Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has a very formidable trio on both ends of the floor. Only time will tell if Holiday’s addition alone will be enough to get them over that hump, but the early results have been promising as Milwaukee has the league’s top-rated offense this season and also a top-10 defense.

The Celtics are a top heavy team. In Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown they have one of the best — and most versatile — perimeter duos in the entire league. However, behind those two young studs, Boston has a lot of questions. Kemba Walker hasn’t looked like himself yet this season after missing the first few weeks with a knee injury, and their bench isn’t as productive as it has been in the past. The Celtics are No. 24 in the NBA in bench scoring this season. Tatum and Brown are both great, but the Celtics just don’t appear to have enough around them as currently constructed. 

Miami is listed here because they’re the defending Eastern Conference champions, but in reality, the Heat haven’t looked much like a contender at all this season. At this stage in the season, they’re under .500 and sit outside of the traditional playoff picture in the East. They certainly aren’t inspiring a whole lot of fear in opponents either, as they’re outside of the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating on the season. Sure, the Heat have been hit hard with injury issues and COVID protocols, but so have a bunch of other teams from across the league’s landscape. Plus, excuses don’t really vibe with the whole “Heat culture” thing. 

The Heat may have been able to take teams by surprise to a certain extent last season as several of their key contributors were young guys, but that isn’t happening this season after their run in Orlando. And while other playoff teams in the East — like the Nets, Bucks, and 76ers — improved since last season, the Heat stayed largely the same. Thus it’s fair to wonder if they have enough to truly contend. There’s still a lot of time left in the season, but so far they’ve done little to silence the skeptics that feel like their run to the Finals in Orlando last year was an aberration. 

Brooklyn Nets: Contender 

The Nets are a contender based on sheer talent alone. In Kevin DurantJames Harden, and Kyrie Irving the Nets have one of the most talented trios in the history of the league. With their combined firepower they could beat any team on any given night. The biggest questions facing Brooklyn moving forward are about defense and depth. If they can fortify their frontcourt and tighten up their defense, which has been pretty porous so far this season, they could quickly become the favorite to come out of the East. 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

The Clippers have been a bonafide contender since they landed both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the summer of 2019. In fact, many pundits picked the Clippers to win it all last season. Things didn’t quite work out that way as the Clippers were bounced by the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the postseason, but they’re right back in the mix this season. They have a new coach with championship experience in Ty Lue, Kawhi is still Kawhi, and George looks to be better — and healthier — this season, compared to last year when he was coming off a pair of shoulder surgeries. Given all the talent on the team, there’s certainly reason to believe that the Clippers could be the final team standing when all is said and done at the end of the season.  

The Jazz have all the makings of a serious contender. They’re dominant defensively (they have the league’s second ranked defense), and explosive offensively (they also have the fourth ranked offense). They also have a legitimate closer and go-to guy in Donovan Mitchell. In addition to averaging 24 points per game this season, Mitchell is also averaging a career high 5.1 assists, while shooting a career high 41 percent from long range. The Jazz have been making it rain 3-pointers while shutting down opposing offenses all season, and if they can continue to do so into postseason play, they could make a real run. 

This one is obvious. The Lakers are the defending champs, and they arguably improved with the additions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol. They’re dominant defensively, and LeBron James is having yet another MVP-caliber season. Plus Anthony Davis is still Anthony Davis. As long as they’re able to stay healthy the Lakers will have a great shot at winning a second straight title. 

Heading into this season, many expected the Mavs to take a step forward after their promising play in the bubble last year. Instead, the opposite occurred. The Mavs have sputtered out of the gate, and they currently sit outside of the playoff picture in the West as a result. Luka Doncic has been great, albeit inefficient from long range, but Dallas’ supporting cast has been underwhelming as a whole. Kristaps Porzingis is still rounding into form following offseason knee surgery, while their biggest offseason acquisition, Josh Richardson, has been inconsistent, as is his tendency. Overall, the Mavs look like a team that is at least a piece away from being a true contender. 

Denver Nuggets: Pretender 

Like the Mavericks, the Nuggets have had an underwhelming start to the season after an extremely impressive run all the way to the conference finals in the bubble. Nikola Jokic has been dominant, but Jamal Murray hasn’t taken the step forward that many expected after his play in Orlando, and the team definitely misses Jerami Grant’s versatility. Denver currently has the No. 20 ranked defense in the league, and unless they improve pretty drastically on that end it will be tough to take them seriously as a contender.  




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