The Larry O’Brien Trophy is the ultimate reward for any NBA franchise and signifies a teams position as champions. While most franchises have at least one such trophy, over a third of the league is still searching for their first taste of true NBA glory. With the Denver Nuggets loss in the Western Conference Finals, the league will go at least another year without crowning a new franchise as champion. But the 2021 season brings new opportunities for the NBAs historical have-nots. Here are the NBA’s titleless teams, ranked by their 2021 tile odds.
11. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets actually had a decent 2019-2020 campaign compared to their expectations. Thanks to a Wizards meltdown in Orlando, they managed to finish ninth in the eastern conference.
Young players like Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington looked impressive while free-agent Terry Rozier tried his best to prove he was worth the money, averaging 18 points per game. Overall the team has some promise but still looks miles off of title contention. They have no players with true superstar potential and still have some atrocious contracts on their books like Nic Batum and Cody Zeller. With the no. 2 overall pick, they have a chance to draft a franchise savior, and if they nail the pick they could be much higher up this board next offseason.
10. Orlando Magic
It may be surprising to see a team that actually made the playoffs this low on the rankings but the Orlando Magic sadly seem to be reaching the height of their powers with their current core. Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon are all not likely to get better. They do have some nice young pieces like Markelle Fultz, Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac but two of them are raw and unproven while the other, Jonathan Isaac, just tore his ACL at the end of the season.
So while Orlando has a good shot at making the playoffs next year. Their chances of actually improving enough to win the NBA title are slim to none.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota finished with one of the worst records in basketball last season so it may be a bit shocking for some to have them anywhere but last on this list. But what Minnesota lacks in on-court production, they make up for in raw potential.
Next season will be the first full season of Timberwolves basketball featuring the all-star pairing of D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. Quick progression from their two young stars could launch Minnesota into the playoffs. As an added bonus they also sport the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. So while the Timberwolves struggled big-time last year, their future is filled with enough promise to put them ahead of Charlotte and Orlando.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies performance in 2019-2020 was a pleasant surprise. Coming into Orlando they held the Western Conferences final playoff spot but due to an unfortunate injury to Jaren Jackson Jr. and a white-hot Portland team they missed out on the postseason.
Everything they do revolves around budding superstar and 2020 Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. He’s shown all the signs of being an elite point guard in the modern NBA and if he fully realizes his potential the Grizzlies will be an automatic contender. Paired with other young talents like the aforementioned Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke, Morant will have plenty of backup for the coming season.
While Morant isn’t likely to make the jump to superstar next season, the potential alone puts the Grizzlies at #8 on the list.
7. Phoenix Suns
Phoenix was one of the most talked-about teams in the Orlando bubble and for good reason. They went a perfect 8-0 in the play-in games and just barely missed out on a playoff spot to the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Suns have a number of young weapons at their disposal. Devin Booker made a big leap last season, appearing in his first all-star game while gathering renown for his clutch play. The 2018 first overall pick DeAndre Ayton continued his consistent improvement, averaging a double-double for the second consecutive year.
Surrounding Ayton and Booker are young role players who can turn a good team into a great one. Players like Cam Johnson, Makail Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. will all improve with age. While they aren’t quite to title contention yet, Phoenix seems to be on the verge of breaking out as a western conference contender.
6. New Orleans Pelicans
Few teams have a future brighter than the Pelicans. The NBA’s heir apparent Zion Williamson had an awe-inspiring rookie year, even with the small sample size. Brandon Ingram, the crown jewel of the Anthony Davis trade, made good on his promise and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Other young guys like Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes continued to improve.
The Pelicans may be a few years away but they are loaded with young talent and may add to that pile by trading veteran guard Jrue Holiday. But if Ingram and Zion continue to improve, the team may be in playoff contention by as early as next year.
5. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have had some bad luck over the past few seasons that has stopped them from making a strong playoff run. They’ve made the postseason each of the last five years but failed to make it out of the first round in each of them. Injuries have cost them dearly, especially recently. Last year the team was without Victor Oldipo in their first-round series and this year they were missing all-star big man Domantas Sabonis.
The future doesn’t look great for the Pacers though. Head coach Nate McMillan was fired after they were swept by the Miami Heat and Victor Oladipo looks likely to be traded. But if their core can survive this offseason and they can avoid the injury bug next year, the Pacers have a slight chance of making a run through the eastern conference.
4. Utah Jazz
Utah had a disappointing end to their season after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets but still have plenty to be excited about. They sport one of the most well-rounded starting lineups in the league with multiple guys capable of putting up 20 on any given night, one of the NBA’s brightest young stars Donovan Mitchell, and perennial DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz are one of several teams in the West that is only a piece or two away from contention and good moves this offseason could give them the boost they need to progress deep into the playoffs
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Before last season, it would have been foolish to put any other team besides the Clippers first on this list. But after a second-round collapse in the playoffs and the firing of head coach Doc Rivers things aren’t looking quite the same.
They still have a deadly combination in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George but is it enough to bring them to the promised land? George was a downright liability at times during the playoffs and the team’s decision to trade five first-round picks along with Shai Gilgious Alexander for him is looking more head-scratching by the minute. Even with all the question marks, if the Clippers can put it all together they have the talent on deck to win the finals.
2. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets were the biggest surprise of the 2020 playoffs for all the right reasons. They made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 11 years, beating the two teams behind them on this list in order to do so.
The recipe for their success was a healthy dose of improvement from Jamal Murray, who appears to be making the jump into stardom that Denver was banking on when they gave him a max extension last offseason. They also have possibly the NBA’s best big man in Nikola Jokic and a bevy of quality role players around him and Murray.
Denver is set up for both the short and long term and should be making a finals appearance sooner rather than later.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets are going to be scary next season.
Without their two superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for most of the season, Brooklyn still managed to make the NBA playoffs as the 7th seed. When a team is still making the playoffs without its two best players, it’s hard not to imagine what they are capable of with two of the NBA’s premier talents leading the charge.
The Nets are also rich in trade assets, and bringing a third star to Brooklyn like Bradley Beal is certainly not out of the possibility. But even if they don’t, the Nets will be competing for a title from day one during the 2021 season and have the best chance of any titleless team to bring their city (or borough in this case) its first NBA title.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com
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