NBA players tip off the preseason on Oct. 3 with a matinee between the favorites to wrest the Larry O’Brien Trophy from the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. It seems an appropriate time to tip off NBA Power Rankings to set the stage for the league’s first full 82-game season since 2018–19.
The Brooklyn Nets, holding their training camp in San Diego, will head up the coast for an early peek at the new-look Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. This one will be huge on hype and minuscule in meaning; a large chunk of the minutes will go to the guys who will be wearing Nets and Lakers jerseys in Long Island and South Bay, respectively.
The NBA Power Rankings are data-based once the season starts. These rankings look at teams and rosters and how the season appears most likely to shake out in the absence of data.
NBA Power Rankings Tier 6: The ping-pong ball chasers
30. Oklahoma City Thunder
29. Orlando Magic
28. Houston Rockets
27. Detroit Pistons
26. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Thunder signed young star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to a max extension of his rookie deal. Then they gutted the roster around him in hopes of maximizing the approximately 735 first-round picks general manager Sam Presti has accumulated over the next five years. In Orlando, the Magic pulled the plug on the Nikola Vučević-Evan Fournier-Aaron Gordon core that made it all the way to mediocre.
The Rockets might be the most fun team to watch in the NBA to watch this season. They’ll be awful, but the kids will learn as they take their lumps. First-overall pick Cade Cunningham brings hope to Detroit, but hope is about all it has. The Cavaliers still haven’t decided what to do with Collin Sexton, but they have Kevin Love anchoring the roster (as in sinking it, not leading it).
Tier 5: Looking for lottery luck
25. San Antonio Spurs
24. Minnesota Timberwolves
23. Toronto Raptors
22. Sacramento Kings
21. Washington Wizards
As it turns out, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are walking through that door. But they’re wearing suits, not uniforms. Gregg Popovich will get the 26 wins he needs to pass Don Nelson on top of the all-time coaching wins list, just not much more than that. Minnesota is redecorating the front office again as the fans count the seconds to the end of the Glen Taylor era.
The Raptors return to the North, having won a title the last time they were permitted to play in Toronto. It’s definite proof that things can change a lot in two years. Sacramento appears on track to break a record no franchise wants with a 16th consecutive playoff-free season. Washington has a lot of new faces, including coach Wes Unseld Jr., and an unending supply of Bradley Beal rumors.
NBA Power Rankings Tier 4: Livin’ on a play-in
20. Charlotte Hornets
19. New Orleans Pelicans
18. Memphis Grizzlies
17. Indiana Pacers
16. Chicago Bulls
The Hornets have reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and the surprising winner from the two-way sign-and-trade point guard swap with Boston two years ago in Terry Rozier. They don’t have much else. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram should have New Orleans higher on this list. But they can’t stop anyone, and Devonte’ Graham is not Kyle Lowry. Heck, he’s not even Lonzo Ball.
Ja Morant and the reworked Memphis Grizzlies will go as far as Jaren Jackson’s health will take them. Morant and Jonas Valančiūnas got the Grizz into the eighth seed, but JV is gone, and Steven Adams can’t do the same things. Rick Carlisle is back in Indiana for the first time since 2007. Can he bring back the almost-good old days?
The Bulls have all sorts of new guards in Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso. Zach LaVine is a star, and the paperwork says Vučević is, as well. But it feels like a bad fit.
Tier 3: Bottom of the bracket
15. New York Knicks
14. Portland Trail Blazers
13. Los Angeles Clippers
12. Boston Celtics
11. Atlanta Hawks
The Knicks added Fournier. Julius Randle had an enormous season before vanishing in the playoffs. Another step forward from RJ Barrett could be significant. Portland hasn’t solved its Damian Lillard problem unless Larry Nance Jr. is the superstar that’s been missing.
The Clippers have Paul George. But with no return date targeted for Kawhi Leonard, they’re good enough to get to the playoffs. Just not any further than that. Boston has a new coach in Ime Udoka, a new-old center in Al Horford, and they’re turning the offense over to Marcus Smart. As for Atlanta? Trae Young might not get the calls he’s accustomed to getting. Will they end up with buyer’s remorse over Clint Capela and Nate McMillan?
NBA Power Rankings Tier 2: Sneaky contenders
10. Miami Heat
9. Denver Nuggets
8. Dallas Mavericks
7. Golden State Warriors
6. Philadelphia 76ers
The Heat are going to irritate opponents. Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and P.J. Tucker? This team could lead the NBA in pseudo brawls. Denver has reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokić, but it’s chances would be better if Jamal Murray were there. The Mavericks’ chances would be better if Kristaps Porziņģis and Jason Kidd weren’t.
Golden State hopes to get Klay Thompson back around Christmas, so expect some rust after a 30-month break between games. The Andrew Wiggins drama is the sort of annoyance a good team doesn’t need. The 76ers are in the same drama boat due to the Ben Simmons soap opera. Stay tuned.
And now we get to the cream of the NBA Power Rankings crop.
5. Phoenix Suns
For the first time since 2018, Chris Paul is starting a second season in the same city where he ended the last. The veteran is also coming off his first NBA Finals appearance. Devin Booker is one of the NBA’s bright young stars. But running it back will entail going through a revamped Lakers unit and an angry Utah squad. Adding JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet might not be enough to hold on in the West.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
If the rich get richer, then the Lakers live by the theory that the old get older. LA’s hopes hinge on many players closer to the end of their career than the beginning. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are entering their 19th seasons. Anthony Davis is under fire after yet another injury-plagued season. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook is with his fourth team in four seasons. The pedigree is unquestionable. Whether the talent is still prime quality is.
3. Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell’s ankle bothered him throughout the playoffs, and the team with the NBA’s best overall record couldn’t get past the Leonard-less Clippers in the second round. Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley are back, and the Jazz added depth pieces in Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside. This group feels like it has a “best if used by” date rapidly approaching.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo had an NBA Finals clincher for the ages to add a championship and a Finals MVP to an already impressive career resume. And he’ll still only be 27 on his next birthday, which is terrifying. The Bucks will miss Tucker, though, and will struggle to replace his versatile defensive presence. But winning the championship takes a massive weight off the collective shoulders of this group. Sleep on the Bucks at your peril.
1. Brooklyn Nets
If healthy, the big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving is the most imposing in the game. But that health question is a big “if.” The trip played eight games together last regular season and stayed intact for only six games in the playoffs. Durant still nearly pulled the Nets past Milwaukee in the second round with no Irving, and Harden hobbled. An impressive group of ring-chasing veterans surrounds the stars. Despite getting the top spot in the initial NBA Power Rankings, Irving’s COVID vaccination status threatens to undermine the whole thing as he faces the specter of missing all of Brooklyn’s home games without it.
Come Oct. 19, it all starts for real, with three of the top five teams in action on opening night. The Nets go to Milwaukee, while the Lakers host Golden State. Let the games begin.
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