How all 30 NBA teams handled pressure last season – and what lies ahead

Dan Feldman
·20 min read

Before last season, I ranked all 30 NBA teams by pressure faced. Let’s review how each did – with an eye toward the future:

1. Los Angeles Lakers

What I said then:

Anthony Davis will be a free agent next summer. LeBron James will be a year older. This is the time for the Lakers to capitalize on their championship promise. Consider the internal combustibility of the coaching staff and a massive fan base with high expectations, and pressure comes from every direction.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

The Lakers looked cohesive all season and cruised to a title. Anthony Davis appeared right at home in Los Angeles. There’s now no consideration to the idea he’d leave. Frank Vogel asserted himself. Rob Pelinka oversaw a steady ship from the front office. There will always be pressure that stems from being the Los Angeles Lakers, and LeBron James’ narrowing championship window adds a time crunch. But it’s time to give them their damn respect.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

What I said then:

The Bucks are good enough to win a title this season, and that always carries pressure. Adding to it: Giannis Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension next offseason. If Milwaukee doesn’t impress him enough to stay, this contender could fall apart quickly. With a successful season, the Bucks can depend on Antetokounmpo for another half decade. The stakes are incredibly high.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Giannis Antetokounmpo reportedly staked his super-max decision, at least somewhat, on the Bucks progressing from conference finals in 2019 to NBA Finals in 2020. Instead, Milwaukee got smoked in the second round. Even if Antetokounmpo doesn’t lock in this offseason, only the Bucks can offer him a super-max contract in 2021 free agency. But if he takes an additional season to evaluate this roster, he might not like what he sees. Antetokounmpo is already talking more openly than ever about switching teams. If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign a super-max extension and Milwaukee doesn’t trade him, the ultimate make-or-break season awaits.

3. Houston Rockets

What I said then:

The Rockets are openly acknowledging their situation: Their championship window is open but will close soon. Houston pushed further in for the present by trading lightly protected distant future first-rounders for Russell Westbrook. The Rockets better quickly optimize the remaining primes of James Harden and Westbrook – two stars who don’t simply mesh. Oh, and Mike D’Antoni’s lame-duck status could add stress on the whole team.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

If the Rockets were a legitimate championship contender, they didn’t look like it while barely beating the Thunder in the first round and getting steamrolled by the Lakers in the second round. Houston will try to win a title again next season, because what’s the alternative? But it’s tough to see this old, expensive roster faring much better. The Rockets already lost Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni. Speculation is now swirling about when a larger teardown will occur.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

What I said then:

The 76ers remade their starting lineup after winning 51 games and pushing the eventual-champion Raptors to seven games in the second round. Philadelphia is not content with merely good accomplishments. The 76ers are going for great. And with young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, why not? Still, plenty of potential pitfalls loom – luxury tax, Embiid’s health, Al Horford‘s aging and Brett Brown’s job security. A strong season could go a long way toward fending off storms.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

The 76ers got swept in the first round, and nearly nobody used Ben Simmons missing the series as an excuse. The rest of the season was already viewed as that much of a disaster. Al Horford fit terribly with Joel Embiid and now has one of the NBA’s worst contracts. Tobias Harris‘ deal looks bad, too. Philadelphia’s chemistry was off, and big questions remain around the Embiid-Simmons fit. Yet, Philadelphia remains committed to building around those two. Just with fewer resources to make it work after blowing so many. Maybe Doc Rivers will be the answer after the 76ers fired Brett Brown. Expectations will be lower, but the underlying reasons for the pressure – top young talent surrounded by an expensive supporting cast – remain.

5. L.A. Clippers

What I said then:

The Clippers opened a two-year window by signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. But pressure always comes with championship expectations, and no teams has better title odds than the Clippers.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

The Clippers are headed to the top of next season’s pressure rankings with a bullet. Last season ended with a spectacular second-round collapse that exacerbated internal dysfunction and prompted a surprising coaching change. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can hit unrestricted free agency in one season. With so many draft picks outgoing, L.A. faces disaster if those two leave. It’s comforting they chose the Clippers in the first place. Surely, at least some of the reasons behind those decisions remain in place. But last season was the type of year that causes reconsideration.

6. Golden State Warriors

What I said then:

The Warriors open a new arena this year, and they’ve bragged about how much revenue it will produce. But will those dollars still come if Golden State falls too far from its dynastic status and fun style? With Kevin Durant gone, Klay Thompson injured and D'Angelo Russell causing fit concerns, expectations have dropped for next season. Still, the Warriors must maintain a certain level of entertainment (of which winning is the most important component) to appease their deep-pocketed fans.

Expectations fell of a cliff when Stephen Curry suffered a long-term injury in his fourth game. The Warriors got the No. 2 pick and a chance to vault back into the NBA’s top tier. But all that losing certainly didn’t thrill ticket-buying fans. Golden State’s not-young core is now a year older. Coronavirus will likely inhibit revenue next season and maybe even limit the Warriors’ re-rise.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

What I said then:

The Trail Blazers are only on the fringe of the championship discussion, but they’re still in it. After getting swept the previous two first rounds, Portland redeemed itself with a run to the Western Conference finals last season. Damian Lillard (four years, super max) and C.J. McCollum (three years, $100 million) were rewarded with large contract extensions. It’s important to maintain the good feelings.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Portland made a thrilling run in the bubble… just to grab the No. 8 seed. That’s certainly not what the Trail Blazers had in mind after reaching the Western Conference finals. How does Portland upgrade now with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on those expensive long-term deals? Healthier Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would help, but the Trail Blazers can’t pin their flaws on only injuries.

8. Miami Heat

What I said then:

In the five years since LeBron James left, the Heat have made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once. So, they paid substantial costs to get Jimmy Butler. The only way to maintain a winning culture is to win, and Butler can help with that. But for how long? He’s on the wrong side of 30 and has heavy mileage. Still, if he helps enough, Miami could make a splash in 2021 free agency.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

What a fantastic season. The Heat made an enjoyable NBA Finals run. They left a favorable impression on future free agents. Amid all that success, young players like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn showed marked improvement. Miami appears poised for even more success in the future. But if this was the highwater mark for this Heat era, it was pretty good.

9. Orlando Magic

What I said then:

A middling Eastern Conference playoff team doesn’t generate national buzz. But the Magic were so proud of their last season – their best in seven years – they spent big to keep their core intact. That pays off only if the winning continues.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Maybe I’ll rethink this ruling in a few weeks. Orlando lost again in an uncompetitive first-round series – not an ideal outcome considering the contracts handed out last offseason. But the Magic can blame Jonathan Isaac‘s injury for the short-term problems and point to Markelle Fultz‘s growth as reason for long-term optimism. Though I don’t think Isaac was swinging the Milwaukee series and have doubts about Fultz’s long-term ceiling, I sense no panic from Orlando. Perhaps the offseason reveals a team feeling pressed, though.

10. Utah Jazz

What I said then:

By trading for Mike Conley and signing Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz showed they’re serious about winning now. Those veterans could have a limited shelf life. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert offer a longer window, but again, there’s more pressure on good teams.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Donovan Mitchell feuded with Rudy Gobert over coronavirus. Though they appeared to get over it, Bojan Bogdanovic’s injury undercut the Jazz’s playoff hopes. Utah lost in the first round. Call it a lost year under extreme circumstances if you want. But it was a missed opportunity to win while Conley and Bogdanovic – and Gobert, for that matter – are still performing at high levels.

11. Boston Celtics

What I said then:

The Celtics’ championship hopes likely left with Kyrie Irving. But next season is a great opportunity to pin their problems on him. If young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown suddenly get right back on track, that’d reflect poorly on Irving (perhaps somewhat unfairly). With Kemba Walker, Boston could be quite good – just probably with a lower ceiling.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took key steps forward and turned the Celtics into a championship contender. Boston’s future is bright. But Kemba Walker – as good as he was last season – got bottled up in the playoffs the way you’d expect from someone who doesn’t quite match Irving’s size and shot-making. The Celtics must figure out how to make the leap as expectations rightfully rise around Tatum and Brown.

12. Phoenix Suns

What I said then:

Few outsiders expect much from the Suns, but that’s rarely the case inside Phoenix. Owner Robert Sarver is notoriously impatient. The Suns messed around in the draft, but credible point guard Ricky Rubio fills a massive hole, and other veterans are also incoming. Expect Phoenix to improve. Enough to satisfy everyone there? Who knows?

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

This would’ve been a no until the bubble. But Phoenix went an inspiring 8-0 at Disney World, ideally building momentum for next season. The best part of the Suns’ late surge: Young players – Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson – led the way. Expectations are even higher next season. Maybe Phoenix will finally meet them.

13. Washington Wizards

What I said then:

The Wizards kept Bradley Beal despite a ton of outside trade interest. He sounds happy in Washington for now, but his 2021 unrestricted free agency is rapidly approaching. The Wizards appear headed toward a lousy season. Will they do enough to keep Beal happy? This year could define the next era of Washington basketball.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Bradley Beal signed an extension, dealt with frustration and still expressed his commitment to staying in Washington. For now. This might have been only a stay of execution. But the Wizards will take that and enter next season under similar terms as last season – only with John Wall healthy, whatever that means.

14. Denver Nuggets

What I said then:

The Nuggets are the best team this low on the list. But they’re so young, and their core is locked in. It’s always important for good teams to win, but next season is far from make-or-break for Denver.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Denver continues to remain one step ahead of expectations. Now, a run to the Western Conference finals lifts expectations even higher. The Nuggets project to be a darned good team for several years. But another team that fit that description, the Grit & Grind Grizzlies, peaked with a single trip to the conference finals. It’s tough in the West. With Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murry and Michael Porter Jr., Denver could definitely continue to outpace expectations.

15. Brooklyn Nets

What I said then:

The Nets’ window opens next year, when Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. In the meantime, Brooklyn would like to celebrate its coup in free agency with improvement next season. That especially shines the spotlight on Kyrie Irving, who gets another crack at leading a young supporting cast. If he fails again, that could expose the Nets to real cultural concerns before they even get rolling.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Questions about Kyrie Irving’s leadership emerged early. Kenny Atkinson lost his job late. Along the way, the Nets lost some of their identity. Enter a new head coach with no prior coaching experience, a weird dynamic and championship expectations. What could go wrong?

16. Indiana Pacers

What I said then:

The Pacers got younger and probably slightly worse this summer. That’s an acceptable tradeoff, one that comes with reduced expectations for next season. However, if Indiana falls further than expected, that could create real problems for the people responsible for the disapointment.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

As usual, the Pacers lost in the first round. Finally, they seemed to tire of that outcome and fired Nate McMillan. It’s easy to pin Indiana’s merely slightly above-average season on Victor Oladipo‘s injury. But that still applies pressure heading into his contract year with an uncertain ability to produce like a star. His situation puts the Pacers at a crossroads.

17. Detroit Pistons

What I said then:

Ho hum. They’ll likely be mediocre – maybe good enough to make the playoffs, maybe not. Same as always. A looming potential shakeup adds some pressure.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

The Pistons lost plenty, accepted their place and dumped Andre Drummond. Unfortunately for Detroit, the coronavirus pandemic ended an opportunity to tank down the stretch and gain better draft position. Now what? The Pistons still have Blake Griffin and the cap space to add immediate contributors. But as the Drummond trade showed, Detroit won’t chase the smallest on-court victories. This is a team with just enough perspective to show it’s handling the pressure.

18. Sacramento Kings

What I said then:

The Kings’ breakthrough season prompted them to fill holes with savvy veterans. The hope is everyone coalesces into a winner. But even if Sacramento regresses, most of those new contracts look reasonable. More importantly, the young core still provides long-term hope.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

De'Aaron Fox stagnated. Buddy Hield regressed. Marvin Bagley III got hurt. Luka Doncic still plays for the Mavericks. Vivek Ranadive got fed up. Vlade Divac resigned. The feel good of 2018-19 has vanished. It’ll take some major overachieving from the young core – possible – to get Sacramento competitive anytime soon.

19. Dallas Mavericks

What I said then:

Dallas has its top tandem in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. But both are young, and Porzingis is just coming off injury. There will be patience. The deep Mavericks could play well enough for pressure to build throughout the season.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Luka Doncic took a major leap into superstardom. Kristaps Porzingis returned to the star track (until his late setback). Dallas challenged the Clippers in the first round. Now, the Mavericks must determine how much to push in chips now or wait until 2021 free agency. It’s a fun dilemma.

20. New York Knicks

What I said then:

After striking out in free agency this summer, the Knicks left themselves the ability to open major cap space in 2020 or 2021. For now, the roster is full of spare parts unlikely to win much. The large New York fan base won’t quietly accept yet another losing season. Knicks owner James Dolan, who has frequently shifted between plans, is the big wildcard in the franchise’s overall patience level.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Never underestimate the misery of losing in New York with James Dolan as an owner. The wheels came off when Dolan ordered his top executives to address the media after a game before the coach spoke. David Fizdale soon got fired. Steve Mills got fired not long after. Now, Leon Rose is in charge. Will he rush to add an old star? Will he show patience in rebuilding? It’s a mystery. But Dolan still casts a large shadow over any plan.

21. Charlotte Hornets

What I said then:

They stink. Their future looks dim. Everyone knows this. Still, losing stresses everyone involved.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Devonte' Graham provided a huge spark. The Hornets weren’t good. But at least they were entertaining for a while. Amid such a grim situation, that counts as success. Of course, continued losing – no matter the context – wears thin.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

What I said then:

After Anthony Davis’ trade request, the Pelicans got a new lease on life with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. New lead executive David Griffin adds credibility, and he has already added significant talent around Williamson. If this year goes well, great. If not, that’d be disappointing, but New Orleans still has time to establish a winning identity.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Williamson mixed elite production in limited minutes with frightening long-term health concerns. The Pelicans appeared to be in prime position to snag a playoff spot, but they flopped in the bubble. Alvin Gentry got fired. New Orleans still has Williamson, and Brandon Ingram was a breakout star. But the Pelicans missed an opportunity last season and can’t feel absolutely certain about Williamson’s future. Maybe Stan Van Gundy will right the ship.

23. Chicago Bulls

What I said then:

Maybe the Bulls are good now. Maybe they’ll be better later. Maybe neither. But there enough avenues for Chicago to show progress that this season doesn’t present much stress. The Bulls could make the playoffs, have their young players show progress and/or tank to add another blue-chipper. It’s unlikely they miss on all three.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

Chicago might have missed on all three. The Bulls didn’t make the playoffs. Too many of their young players stagnated/regressed. At least Chicago moved up to the No. 4 pick in the lottery, but in this draft, that hardly assures a great prospect.

24. Cleveland Cavaliers

What I said then:

Near rock bottom, the Cavaliers just want to boost the value of a few key players. Cleveland’s top two young prospects – Collin Sexton and Darius Garland – are both point guards, and that could create complications. Kevin Love is on an expensive contract, and more injuries/aging could sink him as a trade chip. As far as winning, that’s barely a consideration.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? No.

John Beilein created tension that led to a pretty miserable season. Neither Collin Sexton nor Darius Garland proved himself as a cornerstone. Kevin Love’s trade value appears minimal. Already, Cleveland is reportedly agitating to accelerate its rebuild. That’s not because this team is on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s because Cavs owner Dan Gilbert lacks patience.

25. San Antonio Spurs

What I said then:

The Tim Duncan era was so long and the handover to Kawhi Leonard so seamless, the Spurs still feel like they’re in the honeymoon of their five championships in 16 years (1999-2014). It’d be nice to break the consecutive-playoff-season record. But it’s just hard to get too worked up about this late-stage Gregg Popovich season that holds only modest expectations.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

The Spurs finally missed the playoffs. But youngsters Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker showed such promise in the bubble. That’s a start toward escaping this stale period in San Antonio.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

What I said then:

New team president Gersson Rosas inherited an inflexible, losing – but talented – team and did little with it. That means little expectation of a quick breakthrough, but a path toward overachieving exists. Well-liked Ryan Saunders getting his interim tag removed is just another reason to view this as a reset year.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Karl-Anthony Towns shined at times, and Minnesota added a potential co-star in D’Angelo Russell. Will the Timberwolves’ plan work? Not necessarily, but they at least feel great about it right now. The No. 1 pick only helps – either through adding a top prospect or trading it. Pressure will mount, especially on Ryan Saunders.

27. Memphis Grizzlies

What I said then:

The Grizzlies are in the thick of rebuilding. It’s too soon to expect much from Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Ja Morant was way ahead of schedule, and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke lead a group of impressive of young complementary players. Memphis even finished the regular season in playoff position (though lost its lead in seeding games then lost the play-in).

28. Atlanta Hawks

What I said then:

The Hawks have such a deep young base – Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cameron Reddish plus a couple extra future first-round picks. Atlanta can patiently let this group grow together without even moderate expectations yet.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

Trae Young took the leap into stardom. Though his supporting cast is questionable, the Hawks at least have a diversified collection of secondary prospects. Atlanta also has the financial flexibility to add help in free agency. There are many paths toward a bright future.

29. Oklahoma City Thunder

What I said then:

Oklahoma City willingly entered rebuilding by trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a whole bunch of other teams’ picks. Though tanking themselves could help their long-term outlook, the Thunder can do whatever they want and let those picks roll in from the Clippers (including potentially lucrative ones originally belonging to the Heat) and Rockets. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams even give Oklahoma City a chance to overachieve.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

The Thunder – who went 44-28 and pushed the Rockets to crunch time of Game 7 in the first round – were even better than the prior season. With Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed nice growth. And those future draft picks are still incoming. Oklahoma City might pivot into rebuilding, improving its own draft picks. But one last winning season should be appreciated.

30. Toronto Raptors

What I said then:

Toronto can happily enjoy its championship – no matter what happens this season. Kawhi Leonard’s exit ended any expectations of a repeat. The Raptors should still be solid, but even if they’re not, that banner will hang forever.

Did they successfully handle the pressure? Yes.

The Raptors mounted a vigorous title defense. Pascal Siakam took another leap, and veterans like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka continued to play their smart, proud brand of basketball. Toronto became a legitimate second-tier championship contender, only succumbing after fighting the Celtics to Game 7 in a well-played second-round series. The Raptors were so impressive, they made Kawhi Leonard look suspect for leaving. But even if none of those positive developments occurred, that banner still hangs in Toronto.

How all 30 NBA teams handled pressure last season – and what lies ahead originally appeared on NBCSports.com