NBA Preseason Rankings & Team Ratings For The 2020-21 Season

2020 NBA Predictions

Giannis Antetokounmpo signed a big contract and is ready for another NBA season (Photo by JB Autissier/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire)

The 2020-21 NBA season is about ready to start, after a shortened offseason following the 2020 Orlando bubble.

That means it’s time for our annual post featuring our preseason predictive ratings and corresponding rankings for all NBA teams.

In addition to the rankings and some related commentary, we also provide an overview on how we rank and project teams. (For all the details there, read our post explaining how we make NBA preseason rankings.)

Our preseason ratings also power our 2020-21 NBA preseason projections, including projected final standings and playoff odds. You can find those in our 2020-21 NBA preseason projections post.

Editors Note: You can subscribe to access our data-driven NBA game picks and predictions (game winner, point spread, over/under, and money line) for the 2020-21 season on our signup page.

The 2020-21 TeamRankings NBA Preseason Rankings

The table below shows our 2020-21 preseason ranking for all 30 NBA teams, along with each team’s associated predictive rating for the regular season. Some quick notes:

  • This year, for the first time, we are making a few adjustments to NBA team ratings for the playoffs, given the capabilities and tendencies of select teams to shorten their rotations and play superstars more in the postseason. The ratings in the table below represent our regular season predictive ratings. These ratings determine win odds for regular season games, and we use them to project outcomes like regular season win totals and division winner odds.
  • Team ratings are expressed as points better (positive rating) or worse (negative rating) than a “perfectly average” NBA team, when playing on a neutral court.
  • Last Year Rating means each team’s final predictive rating from the 2019-20 season, and Change represents the difference between Last Year Rating and this year’s preseason rating.
  • Positive “Change” values mean a team is expected to improve its performance level over last year; negative values mean expected declines.
  • The final two columns show info about the win total projections of the component systems that we blended in order to create our ratings. We’ll explain how that works in more detail below.

RankTeam2020-21 RatingLast Year RatingChangeConsensus Win RangeWeighted Avg Wins
1Milwaukee Bucks6.28.4-2.248.3 - 51.050.4
2Los Angeles Lakers5.86.9-1.148.0 - 49.649.1
3Los Angeles Clippers4.86.7-1.946.0 - 48.247.0
4Brooklyn Nets3.5-0.7+4.242.0 - 45.844.4
5Denver Nuggets3.33.3+0.041.0 - 44.543.6
6Utah Jazz3.23.6-0.441.8 - 47.043.4
7Dallas Mavericks3.14.1-1.042.0 - 45.843.0
8Boston Celtics3.06.2-3.240.1 - 44.643.3
9Miami Heat3.03.9-0.942.5 - 45.043.2
10Philadelphia 76ers2.72.7+0.041.0 - 43.142.7
11Toronto Raptors2.75.8-3.140.0 - 43.142.7
12Portland Trailblazers2.10.2+1.939.0 - 44.040.8
13Indiana Pacers1.11.8-0.737.4 - 39.238.9
14Phoenix Suns1.10.3+0.834.3 - 40.038.2
15Golden State Warriors0.9-4.8+5.729.9 - 43.037.8
16New Orleans Pelicans0.00.3-0.334.3 - 39.035.7
17Atlanta Hawks-0.1-5.6+5.534.6 - 37.236.1
18Houston Rockets-0.24.1-4.333.1 - 41.535.2
19Washington Wizards-1.4-4.2+2.831.9 - 34.033.0
20Memphis Grizzlies-1.6-0.7-0.931.0 - 34.331.9
21Minnesota Timberwolves-2.1-2.5+0.429.1 - 35.130.8
22Sacramento Kings-2.6-0.7-1.927.4 - 32.829.5
23Orlando Magic-2.7-0.2-2.528.0 - 31.729.9
24San Antonio Spurs-2.90.3-3.224.0 - 29.628.8
25Chicago Bulls-3.5-3.0-0.527.0 - 28.228.0
26Charlotte Hornets-4.8-5.3+0.517.0 - 26.825.0
27Detroit Pistons-5.9-3.2-2.720.4 - 26.022.7
28Oklahoma City Thunder-6.02.3-8.320.2 - 23.621.9
29Cleveland Cavaliers-6.2-6.3+0.119.8 - 24.022.0
30New York Knicks-6.7-5.3-1.418.0 - 23.021.0

2020-21 NBA Preseason Rankings Highlights

Bucks Rated Highest in Regular Season, But Lakers the Highest for Playoffs

The Milwaukee Bucks lead our ratings for the NBA regular season, by 0.4 points over the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, the Lakers, who can lean much more heavily on veteran superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the playoffs (and rest them more before the playoffs begin), have our highest playoffs power rating.

(That postseason rating adjustment manifests itself in the NBA champion odds presented in our NBA preseason predictions post.)

Milwaukee actually had the highest predictive power rating a year ago toward the end of the regular season, entering Orlando bubble. This year’s regular season preseason ratings are closer, in terms of the difference between Milwaukee and Los Angeles, than the final ratings last season entering the playoffs.

West and East More Balanced in 2020-21

The West has largely dominated the East in terms of depth of quality teams for several years.

However, based on our preseason projections, the two conferences are more even this year than they have been in other recent years, at least in the upper half of each conference.

Here is the average preseason power rating for the projected top 8 teams in each conference for each of the last five seasons:

SeasonWest Top 8East Top 8

The bottom of the East, though, still looks as inferior to the West, as five of the bottom six teams in our preseason NBA predictive power ratings hail from the Eastern Conference.

Player Movement and Injury Returns Lead to Biggest Improvements

The teams with the largest expected improvement in year-over-year power rating are Golden State, Brooklyn, and Atlanta:

  • Golden State suffered major player losses a year ago and bottomed out. The Warriors now welcome superstar Steph Curry back to a re-made roster that includes No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman as an interior presence.
  • Brooklyn finally gets to see the results of the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving union, after both missed last season.
  • Atlanta made several additions, both via the draft and via acquisitions of solid veterans such as Clint Capela, to upgrade its roster around Trae Young and John Collins.

How We Create Our NBA Preseason Rankings

If you’re curious, here’s a brief overview of how we come up with these preseason ratings.

For some of our sport ratings (e.g. NFL or college football), we’ve done extensive historical research to identify and properly value team-level stats that are highly correlated with success in an upcoming season.

We then create models using those stats, and blend our model output with betting market info to create our final preseason ratings.

Once upon a time, we took that same approach with our NBA preseason ratings. However, we found that over the longer term, our projections using that approach were less accurate than the betting market, and also less accurate than some other publicly available advanced NBA ratings systems.

We suspect that the main reasons for this are:

  • Player skill matters most in the NBA. The relative impact of individual player skill compared to team-level data and history (e.g. the coaching system or franchise/program performance in recent years) is much greater in the NBA than it is in NFL or college football. So far, across all sports, we’ve concentrated most of our in-house analytical research on team-level metrics vs. player-level metrics, and that approach seems to work better for some sports than others. (The main exception in football is the quarterback position, which is the one player position that we do explicitly adjust for in our NFL preseason ratings.)
  • NBA analytics have advanced rapidly in recent years. The NBA analytics community has made massive strides in developing meaningful player value metrics, compared to their counterparts studying the NFL or college football. Part of the reason why is simply because much better data is now widely available for all NBA players. (Try to evaluate college football or even NFL offensive linemen based only on box score info.)

So rather than stick with our typical team-level approach, we now create our NBA preseason ratings by blending several player-level models from other sources with team win total projections from the betting market.

If you want to dive deeper into our process, please see our detailed explanation of how we make NBA preseason team ratings.

Final Details About NBA Preseason Rankings & Ratings

Before you call us a bunch of no good bleepety-bleeps for thinking that your favorite NBA team is going to be worse than you think this year, please keep the following things in mind:

  • We’re using a consensus of systematic approaches to rank all 30 teams. The inputs that power our preseason team ratings are generally designed to maximize overall accuracy across all 30 NBA teams, which is our goal as well. This approach is going to get plenty of individual teams wrong, and a few of them very wrong, for all sorts of potential reasons. Our approach of combining several leading NBA systems does help dampen that effect somewhat, since a unique quirk of one system that may adversely affect a team’s rating accuracy may not exist in the other systems. Still, if we wanted to maximize the odds of making the most accurate projection only for one specific team, we’d likely take a different approach.
  • Data, betting markets, and pundits often disagree. With that said, don’t be surprised if your favorite sportscaster or blogger or national poll ranks your favorite team No. 5 while we think they’re No. 10. Different approaches for evaluating teams will yield different results. Just keep in mind that we’ve done a good bit of research to figure out which approaches have actually been the most accurate overall.
  • Look at ratings, not just rankings. For example, this year, the difference between No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers and No. 4 Brooklyn is 2.3 points. That’s about the same as the difference between No. 4 Brooklyn and No. 13 Indiana. In other words, even though Brooklyn is ranked No. 4, they are just about as close to being No. 13 as they are No. 2. So it’s important to not just compare where teams rank, but how they are grouped and how closely the ratings are to each other.
  • The accuracy of preseason ratings needs to be judged relatively. It’s easy to quote a stat like, “Wow, you guys got [insert number here] teams really wrong last year.” But keep in mind that many unexpected things can happen during a season to torpedo the accuracy of preseason rankings, from random bad-luck injuries to multiple key players on a team, to a front office’s decision to tank for the draft or start a rebuilding process mid-season. In theory, you could try to model the possibilities of all this stuff, and our season simulations do factor in potential variance in each team’s rating. Still, every season will feature a different total amount of these relatively unpredictable events, and judging the accuracy of a preseason ratings system needs to take that fact into context.