The second half of the NBA's slightly shortened 2020-2021 season starts on Wednesday. There is a lot of time for teams to shuffle around near the top, middle and bottom of both conferences, but at this point, some things have become clear. We know who will have the best shot at the top pick and if we're honest with ourselves, we know who can win the title. The second list is much smaller.
There are a lot of fun, feel-good or interesting storylines for teams in the middle of the pack. Stephen Curry's Warriors, Damian Lillard's Blazers, Luka Doncic's Mavericks and Nikola Jokic's Nuggets are all fun and could give any team some trouble, but they are not contenders.
Then there are the "contenders," quotation marks intended. For instance, the team with the second best record in the Western Conference at the All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns. They were the best story in the Disney Bubble, but are we really expecting them to just add Chris Paul to a team that hasn't been anywhere near .500 in the Devin Booker Era and immediately win a championship?
Are the Bucks really going to get over the hump? Can the Clippers really not fall apart? Would you honestly bet on the team with the best record in the NBA if their All-Stars get picked last because previous great Jazz teams failed to win too?
No. The truth is, there are three teams that have a legitimate chance to win the NBA Championship in 2021.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
If you have LeBron James, you can win the NBA Finals. That has been the only incontrovertible truth in the NBA of the last decade. Only once in the last decade did LeBron James failed to make the NBA Finals. He's only won four, with three different franchises, but he's been there. With a healthy Anthony Davis, the Lakers are the favorites. With a hobbled AD, they are simply the team most likely to escape the Western Conference where they will fall to one of these next two teams.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers won playoff series in 2018 and 2019 and then went out in the first round in the bubble. Now they've got Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid is healthy and in contention for an MVP. Ben Simmons doesn't shoot, but he does everything else. He's like a left-handed Rajon Rondo in Dennis Rodman's body. Tobias Harris gives them a closer to make up for Simmons' offensive issues and Seth Curry is the kind of deadeye shooter you need for a Finals run. If a new team is going to break through, it seems likely to be the Sixers.
1. Brooklyn Nets
With the addition of James Harden, many people thought the Nets could become the favorites if the team's three stars could play together. Nearly two months into the experiment and Harden looks like he could be the best player on the team, if not the league. Harden has been amazing. Kyrie Irving has been playing some of the best basketball of his career. Kevin Durant and Irving have been in and out of the lineup, but Harden is as close to an ironman as you will see in the modern NBA.
If Harden truly can't carry a team to on his own, he's with two guys who can finish big, BIG games. Joe Harris is shooting 50.6% from three on 6.7 attempts per game. The team has won 10 of its last 11 games. Things are falling into place. Blake Griffin will probably turn out to be nothing more than a nice story of a veteran finally getting a ring. How you feel about the rest of the team is up to you.