Just in time for the tip-off of the new NBA season, we have a fresh batch of NBA Power Rankings (which will normally come out on Wednesdays during the season). The Lakers are on top, they are the champions, they got better this offseason, and they have answered the questions everyone chasing them is still trying to figure out.
1. Lakers (52-19 last season). The defending champions — already with the best duo in the league in LeBron James and Anthony Davis — got better in the offseason (at least better for the regular season). The duo of Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench is going to win the Lakers some games and give their star duo some fourth quarters off. Look for Anthony Davis to be in the MVP discussion by the end of the season.
2. Bucks (56-17). The Bucks overpaid to get Jrue Holiday out of New Orleans — and it was worth every penny because Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed for a five-year supermax contract. Holiday is a better playoff fit with the Bucks roster but the team gave up a lot of its depth this offseason to get there and that could bite them at points during the regular season.
3. Clippers (49-23). Paul George re-signed and the Clippers made offseason moves (letting Montrezl Harrell walk) which made it clear what direction the franchise wants to go, and what the pecking order is. Los Angeles will miss Harrell in the regular season but Serge Ibaka is a better playoff fit. Los Angeles has the talent and versatility to challenge the Lakers but only if Tyronn Lue and company can stay healthy and build some chemistry (and good habits) during the regular season. The Clippers will have to deal with the ghosts of last season to open this one: The Lakers opening night and Denver on Christmas day.
4. Nuggets (46-27). Continuity should help bring Denver a strong regular season. Well, continuity combined with Jamal Murray taking a step forward, Nikola Jokic playing at a dark horse MVP level, and they hope the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. as their third star. The Nuggets will miss Jerami Grant‘s defense on players such as Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James in a playoff series, but they will be fine in the regular season. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Nuggets finish with the West’s best regular season record if they keep a strong focus on defense.
5. Nets (35-37). The way Kevin Durant played against Boston in the preseason created a lot of buzz around the league — if he is back anywhere close to being his Finals MVP self again the Nets might be the favorites to come out of the East. Kyrie Irving looks sharp as well (he still has the best handles in the game) and Brooklyn is deep, but will they defend well enough to truly contend? Warriors and Celtics to open the season are good early tests.
6. Heat (44-29). Everything went right for Miami in the bubble: Jimmy Butler was ridiculously hot, Goran Dragic was healthy and a force again (until the Finals), and Jae Crowder couldn’t miss (he is in Phoenix now). Can Miami get all the breaks to go their way again? They may not need to if Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson all take another big step forward. Good decision by Miami to get out of the James Harden sweepstakes, that was always an odd cultural fit. Interesting Christmas Day matchup against New Orleans.
7. Celtics (48-24). Boston’s offense was +4.8 points per 100 possessions last season with Kemba Walker on the court (stats via Cleaning the Glass). However, the Celtics struggled last season without his shot making when he sat, and now he will be out to start the season because of his knee issues. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are All-NBA level players, but Boston rolled out four shot creators last season with those two, Walker, and Gordon Hayward (now in Charlotte). Boston may take a step back in the regular season until Walker returns. Tough opening to the season with the Bucks and Nets.
8. Mavericks (43-32). Josh Richardson looked incredibly comfortable in the preseason playing next to Luka Doncic, taking full advantage of the space Luka creates — Richardson shot 11-of-15 from three in the preseason. Dallas is going to need him to knock down threes at a high rate to space the floor with Kristaps Porzingis missing the start of the season. How Dallas weathers the start of the season without KP will determine their playoff seeding.
9. 76ers (43-30). Daryl Morey did an impressive job revamping this roster to better fit around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Seth Curry and Danny Green add much-needed spacing, while Tobias Harris played his best basketball under Doc Rivers and should be back in his comfort zone. On paper the 76ers look like a team that could win the East, which is why management wants to see if that is the case before doing anything radical like trading for Harden.
10. Jazz (44-28). Utah fans have to be happy with new team owner Ryan Smith, the first thing the man does with the keys to the franchise is okay massive extensions for Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, keeping that core together for years to come. Utah has Bojan Bogdanovic back (he missed the bubble but has looked sharp in the preseason), and Derrick Favors is back to provide improved defense when Gobert is off the floor. Utah has the potential to break into the upper echelon of the West if things go right for them this season.
11. Raptors (53-19). Toronto locked up Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby this offseason, and that duo combimed with Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam means Toronto is still a very dangerous offensive team. The question is how good the defense will be without Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka protecting the rim — Aron Baynes will play smart but he is a step down defensively. Rookie Malachi Flynn has looked like a steal in the preseason, he’s going to get some second unit run and a chance to prove himself.
12. Trail Blazers (35-39). The three-man combination of Derrick Jones Jr., Rodney Hood, and Robert Covington fills in the forward spots and gives Portland its best starting/closing lineups in years. Watch out for Damian Lillard as a dark horse MVP candidate if Portland has a strong season and finishes in the top four in the West. To get there, Portland is going to have to defend well — they will miss Zach Collins until his return next month — and look a lot better than they did in some ugly preseason losses to Denver.
13. Warriors (15-50). He has looked good in the preseason, but Golden State is going to need the return of MVP-level Stephen Curry if they are going to threaten the teams above them in this ranking out West. They have talent on the roster with guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins, but Curry is going to have to provide the gravity on offense to open up driving lanes for them. No Draymond Green on opening night is a bummer, him covering Kevin Durant would have been entertaining.
14. Rockets (44-28). Houston is the most difficult team to project in the NBA right now. Let’s just say when James Harden did show up to training camp he didn’t look like he was at his physical peak (although he could still drop a 30-point triple-double and nobody would be surprised), and how he fits with John Wall remains a question mark. There also is reportedly tension around the team because of Harden’s trade request. Pity Stephen Silas, who finally gets a chance to coach in the NBA and has this thrown at him.
15. Pacers (45-28). New coach Nate Bjorkgren‘s fingerprints were all over this team in the preseason. He has them defending much more like the Raptors (where Bjorkgren was an assistant under Nick Nurse), throwing different looks at opponents and pressuring more on the perimeter. On offense, the Pacers are shooting threes and taking far fewer midrange shots. How well all this works with the Pacers personnel, and just how well Victor Oladipo plays, remains to be seen.
16. Hawks (20-46). The additions of Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic will improve Atlanta’s offense — especially in the minutes that Trae Young sits, a big problem last season — but just how good this team is will come down to how well it defends. Maybe Cam Reddish and De'Andre Hunter will take a step forward and help on that end of the court, but a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of Clint Capela to protect the paint. No contract extension for John Collins means his name will come up in trade rumors a lot between now and the deadline.
17. Suns (44-39). Landing Chris Paul was one of the smartest acquisitions of the offseason by any team, and it has made Phoenix an entertaining team to watch this preseason. The additions of CP3 and Jae Crowder make the Suns a threat not just to make the playoffs but to avoid the play-in game in the West, however, they have no margin for error. Getting Dario Saric back from injury in time for the season opener helps with the depth concerns (especially along the front line).
18. Pelicans (30-42). Zion Williamson looked impressive in his preseason minutes, and there is no doubt the starting lineup and top reserves in New Orleans have talent. But do they fit together? Will Stan Van Gundy’s team defend well enough — and create enough turnovers — to get out and run, getting much needed easy buckets in transition? The Pelicans’ personnel doesn’t fit a slow, grinding, traditional Van Gundy style of play. New Orleans also has a tough schedule the first part of the season.
19. Wizards (25-47). This ranking might be too low for Washington, the Bradley Beal/Russell Westbrook backcourt gives them a chance to win every night. Expect Davis Bertans to get increased minutes with that backcourt to provide much-needed shooting and floor spacing. As discussed in some detail in the PBT Podcast with Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington, this team will go as far as their defense will take them, which puts a lot of pressure on Thomas Bryant in the paint.
20. Grizzlies (34-39). No Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) or Justise Winslow (hip) to start the season, which puts even more on Ja Morant‘s shoulders. As good a point guard as he is — and expect Morant to take a step forward this season — he can only carry this team so far. This feels like a consolidation year in Memphis, where a young team learns some hard lessons about winning in the NBA as it matures, lessons that will pay off in future seasons.
21. Timberwolves (19-45). On paper, a team with Karl-Anthony Towns — a potential All-NBA center who is as good as anyone at that position on offense — with D'Angelo Russell, No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards, Ricky Rubio, and Josh Okogie, should not be this far down the rankings, but is this team going to get enough stops or hit enough threes to be any higher? Towns must to set the tone on defense; he should be better than he is on that end, and if not Minnesota’s strong offense will not be enough.
22. Magic (33-40). Orlando will be solid, play good defense for Steve Clifford, and get enough offense from Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and the just-resigned Markelle Fultz to make the play-in game in the East. It’s just hard to picture Orlando as more than that without Jonathan Isaac, who just got paid but is out for the season with the torn ACL. Cole Anthony showed promise this preseason, which is a sign of hope. How long does Orlando ride with this roster before deciding to break it up and move on from its veterans?
23. Kings (31-41, 3-5, LW 20). Sacramento has turned DeAaron Fox loose and is running again (as they did in the bubble), and Tyrese Haliburton has looked like he may be the steal of this draft. However, the real questions for the Kings are just how good is Marvin Bagley and will he stay healthy? No coach may be on a hotter seat to start the season than Luke Walton.
24. Spurs (32-39). Gregg Popovich said he wants to carry over key parts of the small-ball style San Antonio played in the bubble to this season, and that was evident in the preseason: LaMarcus Aldridge took 19 threes in those warmup games. Floor spacing was a priority, although we will see if that carries over to the games that matter starting this week. With Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and a solid group of young players such as Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Lonnie Walker IV, the Spurs will be respectable this season; that’s just not enough in the deep West.
25. Bulls (22-43). This ranking may be too low considering the potential on this roster. Coby White is starting at point guard and he showed more playmaking skills in the preseason than we saw last season (when he was creating for just himself). This feels like an evaluation year for the new Chicago front office and coaching staff, they want to see what they really have with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., White, and No. 4 pick Patrick Williams. Chicago has a rough schedule with a lot of travel to start the season.
26. Hornets (23-42). LaMelo Ball‘s passing is must-watch — he had the best assists of the preseason. Ball has that “it” factor where you can’t look away, at least until he shoots, then everyone should aver their eyes — he shot 26.2% in the preseason overall, 27.3% from deep. Gordon Hayward is expected to go in the opener despite a fractured hand, which is good the Hornets need him to be another shot creator and a stabilizing influence on the offense.
27. Knicks (20-45). There was genuine reason for optimism out of the preseason in New York. Immanuel Quickley should be given every chance to show he can carry his preseason magic at the point over to games that matter. Obi Toppin is polished and will get plenty of touches. RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox looked improved. Also, this is a Tom Thibodeau team, you know they will play hard every night. All that may not mean many wins, but it is all a step forward for New York as the franchise seems to be on the right track.
28. Pistons (20-45). Detroit bet big this offseason that Jerami Grant was ready (or could grow) into a bigger role, but he shot just 29% in the preseason. It will be interesting to watch Killian Hayes develop over the course of the season, but rookie point guards learn some painful lessons in the NBA and Hayes will get his share of those. How long before the trade speculation about Derrick Rose ramps up?
29. Cavaliers (19-46). The questions about Isaac Okoro coming into the draft were about his offense, but in the preseason he averaged 11.2 points a game on 53.8% shooting overall, 45.5% from three. Those numbers will come back to earth a little, but if Collin Sexton can set Okoro up in spots he can succeed then the Cavaliers will have a guy in the hunt for Rookie of the Year. We know Okoro will bring defense and energy from Day 1.
30. Thunder (44-28). After a season learning next to Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could have a breakout season and be in the running for Most Improved Player. Theo Maledon and Luguentz Dort also will be worth watching this season as Oklahoma City starts on what will be a multi-year rebuild, but they may already have a few key pieces in place.