December 22, 2020

5 NBA Teams Under The Most Pressure in 2021, Ranked

The pressure is always on in the NBA.

In the Player Empowerment era, franchises are expected to consistently contend for championships while bending the knee to their star players. 

Oh, a player on one team liked a player on another team’s cryptic IG post? Boom! That’s now a segment of ESPN's First Take. That of course leads to the Internet sleuths on Twitter and NBA Reddit tracking followers and even private planes, like they did with Kawhi Leonard's free-agent courting process a year ago.  

With all this access at everyone's fingertips, it's lead to the most pressure-packed generation in NBA history. Teams are forced to trade for players they might not want while surrendering a plethora of first-round selections and pick swaps. And, if the team ends up failing, they could be left without a single superstar and little-to-no assets to rebuild. 

That could happen to any of these five teams who are feeling the heat in the 2020-21 NBA campaign. 

Who has the most pressure this season? Let's find out. 

5. Atlanta Hawks

Why is there so much pressure on a young, ascending team with a star point guard in Trae Young

That's because the Hawks front office reportedly has a playoff mandate, according to ESPN, meaning if Atlanta doesn't make the playoffs for the first time since 2017 then heads will roll. 

So the Hawks put on the full-court press in the offseason. Acquiring Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Onyeka Okongwu and Kris Dunn in one offseason should be commended. But the reason behind that is because general manager Travis Schlenk and head coach Lloyd Pierce feel the heat. 

The East is improved, but there is an opening to snag a playoff spot, and the Hawks are talented enough to capitalize. If they don't, there could be big changes in Magic City. 

4. Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal combine for a lot of star power, scoring and expectations.

The Wizards haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2018, and while everyone is saying the right things in Washington, if they suffer another disappointing season, then Beal could finally demand out of the nation's capital like his former running mate John Wall did. 

The Wizards' acquisition of Westbrook represents a near-desperation move to salvage this team and keep Beal. If their new backcourt doesn't work, the Wizards will be stuck with Westbrook's massive contract and a star who wants out. That's the worst-case scenario for a team that showed signs of life last year. 

In an abbreviated offseason, it'll be even harder for the Wizards to integrate a new lead ball handler in Westbrook. While his familiarity with coach Scott Brooks should help speed up the process, Westbrook will need to build chemistry with Beal immediately or things could break bad in a hurry for the Wiz. 

3. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers seemingly can't avoid drama. From the controversial Sam Hinkie era to the embarrassing Bryan Colangelo fiasco to Markelle Fultz forgetting how to shoot to the misguided 2019 free agency to the controversial Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers hires, this team has been through more controversy than Cersei in Game of Thrones.

The latest story? Should the 76ers trade Ben Simmons for James Harden. While recent reports claim that Morey has made Simmons available, he quickly publicly denied doing so.

Whether or not Simmons is dealt, there will be pressure in the city of Brotherly Love. Simmons and Joel Embiid are still so young, sure, but they’ve had quite a few chances to succeed in the playoffs together, but it hasn’t worked out. This season feels like the last chance for the two stars to work together or else one of them will be gone. 

The roster has been upgraded after the team shipped out the ill-fitting Al Horford for floor-spacers in Seth Curry and Danny Green, but the Harden rumors aren't going away — especially if the team struggles out of the gate. 

2. Brooklyn Nets

No matter what happens, this Nets season will be entertaining. The Nets will combine a new coach in Steve Nash with the full Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving experience.  While that could work out, there's at least a decent chance that it could fail spectacularly.

The Nets are loaded with talent, from their top two stars to Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and DeAndre Jordan. But nobody questions that aspect of the squad. What can’t be bought is chemistry. Under the bright Brooklyn lights, the media is a prominent character in this discussion, especially because Durant and Irving clearly are bothered by negative press.

There are also the rumors Brooklyn could potentially trade for Harden, which has to cause uneasiness in the locker room. None of that will matter if the Nets win like they're supposed to, but those expectations — along with your top two players coming off an injury — should keep the pressure on in Brooklyn all season. 

1. Los Angeles Clippers

This one is obvious. After acquiring Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and entering the season as NBA title favorites, the Clippers melted against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

It wasn't just one or two players, either. The entire team collapsed, and while they made some moves on the margins, the Clippers field a very similar team. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, LA still needs a point guard to help facilitate the same way James Harden craves another trip to the strip club.

But the Clippers had a one-year cushion for this kind of thing. But now the pressure has been turned up even higher. 

If the Clippers disappoint again, Kawhi Leonard could potentially depart in the offseason for greener pastures. And while it might appear that some of the pressure is off the team after re-signing PG13 to a supermax contract extension, he could easily ask for a trade if the Clippers' ship sinks like the Titanic. Heck, he's done it before. 

Following a terrible exit from the playoffs and drama in the locker room, there's no guarantee that the Clips turn it around, no matter how talented they are. 

And with the clock ticking, the Clippers might not recover for a long, long time. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration