It’s time for our 12th annual NBA League Pass Rankings — a tradition that started at a now-defunct website mostly because my old boss enjoyed making fun of the early-2010s Washington Wizards.
These are NOT power rankings! They are watchability ratings derived from a secret algorithm Bill Simmons found scrawled on beer-soaked parchment paper under his seat at the old Boston Garden.
We score teams 1-10 in five categories:
Zeitgeist: Do normal people care about this team?
Highlight potential: Should you linger in case some passing savant or outrageous leaper uncorks something you might never see again?
Strategy/style: Are they fun to watch? This is where coaching factors in.
League Pass minutia: Announcers, uniforms, courts.
Unintentional comedy: Blame Simmons.
Let’s face it: The past 40 years have been leading to this moment, the Wiz — so relentlessly middling their fans quiet quit on them — slinking, unseen and unheard, to the basement.
The John Wall-Bradley Beal Wizards achieved more than their reputation. They were never contenders, but nor were they some going-nowhere #SoWizards mediocrity until Wall began breaking down. They wallopped the Tom Thibodeau Chicago Bulls in the playoffs when Wall was 23 and Beal just 20. They may well have upended the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in the second round in 2015 if not for Wall’s midseries wrist injury, then came within a game of the conference finals in 2017.
They were silly, sure — dousing each other with water after clinching a division title, dressing in all black for a “funeral” before a regular-season game against the Boston Celtics. They tried to manifest a rivalry with LeBron James, insisting James’ Cavaliers feared them.
I’m not sure those Cavaliers could even name the other 14 teams in the East. But they understood Beal and Wall brought enough supernova talent and bravado to pull an upset on the right night. With better roster moves, the Wall-Beal Wiz could have been something.
The final six first-round picks of the Beal-Wall era have amounted to very little, though both Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert should grow into capable role players. Does Johnny Davis exist? We’ll find out!
It will be fun watching Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma battle for the team scoring lead, while Traditional Point Guard Tyus Jones tries to organize plays, Kispert runs around screens without ever getting the ball, and Avdija waits and waits to attack a closeout. Do you think Danilo Gallinari wakes up and wonders where he is? Hell, I could use a random Davis Bertans heat check.
The in-game experience is forgettable. Only the Wizards could strike pay dirt with the best jersey in team history — last year’s cherry-blossom-themed look — and not find a way to keep it in rotation.
Take heart, Detroit fans: This might be the largest-ever gap between Nos. 29 and 30. Cade Cunningham is healthy, and the Pistons — after falling to No. 5 in the lottery — need Cunningham to show he might one day become a franchise centerpiece. Cunningham appeared headed that way late in his rookie season, but that is a small, distant sample.
At his best, Cunningham has the (very) blurry outlines of a Luka Doncic type: the tall, burly guard who burrows into the paint and keeps the defense guessing with fakes and pivots until something opens. He’s not in Doncic’s league as a passer, but Cunningham can see everything. The passing will come. The shooting is a dicier question.
The Cunningham-Jaden Ivey fit will take time. For every highlight, there will be a half-dozen clunky possessions. All four of Detroit’s center types — Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman, Jalen Duren, Marvin Bagley III — have interesting discrete skills, but good luck getting any combination of two to work.
Duren already borders on must-watch television. He is a loud, ferocious rebounder who gets off the ground in a nanosecond, and showed skill and touch late last season. He would feast in open space, if only the Pistons could provide any. (Sign me up for smaller lineups featuring Cunningham, Ivey, Ausar Thompson and Bojan Bogdanovic — or one of Alec Burks/Monte Morris/Marcus Sasser in one guard spot. Spacing would still be shaky, but those groups at least make sense.)
Wiseman recorded 16 assists and 37 turnovers in 24 games as a Piston. That is … something. Every pass is an adventure.
George Blaha is a legend on play-by-play. The art is solid.
Fans will love the team’s City Edition look — to be unveiled Nov. 2. Remember the Bad Boys-era snap-button warmups with the players’ first names on the fronts? Those ruled. It’s time to let teams get funky with warmups again.
What a fall for a team that steps into the unknown with a first-year head coach (Darko Rajakovic) and its steady-hand point guard — Fred VanVleet — gone to the Houston Rockets. It is hard for a franchise that gives Jack Armstrong a live microphone and lets him sing and screech and talk about beer to rank this low.
Under Nick Nurse, Toronto compensated for a miserable half-court offense by winning the possession game — swarming the offense glass, snaring turnovers, sprinting to fast-break buckets. It was tactically interesting. Will Rajakovic scrap it? With Jakob Poeltl back, the Raptors might play a more conservative defense.
Gary Trent Jr. is an old-school gunner. Jalen McDaniels is always just on the verge of being a reliable 3-and-D guy; is this the year? I’m betting on a bounce-back for the ultra-switchy Precious Achiuwa. Every Chris Boucher dribble and catapult 3 pulses with danger.
The new court is a home run:
The giant claw mark is perfect — the way it looms as a shadow on the floor and then pierces the boundaries in black. It really does look like a dinosaur stomped on the court.
The difference between the Wizards and Blazers is that Portland might have its foundational lottery pick in the snarling locomotive, Scoot Henderson. The trio of Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons will get every chance to show they can play together.
With those three, Portland’s offense will be a show. Henderson should have Portland flying. Sharpe could probably dunk in-game on a 12-foot rim. With ball handlers around him, Sharpe can focus on the edges: cutting, defense, open 3s, keeping the machine moving on catch-and-go drives.
Simons is a buttery scorer with textbook shooting form and a gorgeous arching floater he can launch from almost any angle.
That trio will bleed points on defense. They’re young. The hope is to maybe glimpse a road map for how they might survive together — even if Simons is ultimately a sixth man, or trade bait. Henderson is stout enough for Chauncey Billups to play with matchups (Simons is 24. If he’s to become passable on defense, the time is now.)
Deandre Ayton wants to show the Phoenix Suns they blew it, but his zeal to do more could create a minor tug-of-war with Portland’s guards for control of the offense. Robert Williams III will push Ayton for minutes. Will Billups try them together?
Matisse Thybulle began taking and making 3s in Portland — he and Josh Hart must have traversed some magical shooting portal during their cross-country flights at last season’s trade deadline — and even minimal Thybulle offense means more of Thybulle’s uncanny defense. He seems to apparate from place to place, unnerving offensive players who had thought they were open.
Portland has the league’s best art. Its big swings hit because they flow from the Blazers’ core iconography: red, black and the pinwheel — the best logo in sports. Take this daring new court:
This is a heat check from Portland’s art department, and it swished it from Damian Lillard range. (Too soon?) The Blazers had already split the boundaries between red and black, but they’ve reformatted here — red in the upper left and bottom right, black everywhere else — to mirror the diagonal striping of the center-court pinwheel. The slanted red lines in the black paint — unlike anything in the league — have the same effect.
The Blazers will be bad, and the back half of the roster is anonymous.
I’m bored already. I didn’t realize it was possible to get this bored of a team featuring one of the most majestic dunkers of the past 20 years — Zach LaVine.
Patrick Williams could stagnate for a decade, and I’d still be screaming, “He has all the tools! This could be the year! They could use him more as a screener with Nikola Vucevic spacing the floor!” (Williams just turned 22. This could be the year! I’m serious!)
Chicago’s Three Alphas 2.0 each have artistic individual games: LaVine’s gliding explosion, at once powerful and easy; DeMar DeRozan’s old-school, tilting midrange fakery; Vucevic’s pivoty post dances. The mix adds up to less than the sum of its parts in style and substance. They just kind of swing the ball until someone shrugs and burps up a midrange jumper. Lonzo Ball gave them access to a different identity they could tap into at any moment.
The Bulls are not bad, but they’re not fun. You have to scrunch to half your height to fit between this team’s ceiling and floor.
They scrounged a berth in the play-in slap fight behind a defense that somehow ranked fifth in points allowed per possession. That is hard to explain, perhaps harder to duplicate. Maybe Benny the Bull’s popcorn raves distracted shooters?
Alex Caruso is a steal-swiping stalwart; a backcourt of Caruso and either Ayo Dosunmu or Jevon Carter will envelop ball handlers full court. Coby White made strides. Terry Taylor is one of the best offensive rebounders ever for his height (6-foot-4); he’s like the Kool-Aid Man tossing bodies out of the way.
Utah officials still mock last year’s rankings for slotting them 30th and referring to the Jazz as a random motley of players gathered in an airport waiting area, readying for flights to new teams.
Utah proved the league’s most adaptable team, turning the thrown-together bounty of two megatrades into a fast-paced, 3-point machine by maximizing each player’s strengths instead of getting hung up on their weaknesses. Lauri Markkanen’s ability to score in a variety of ways from anywhere on the floor made it easy for everyone else to find their comfort zones.
This year’s team looks similarly disjointed, but the League Pass algorithm is a self-teaching neural network and knows better. There is no traditional point guard. Markkanen is starting, again, as a gigantic “small” forward. John Collins, rescued from “stand around and watch Trae Young” prison, will again start next to a rim-rolling center — Walker Kessler — who does the thing Collins does best.
And yet: Utah and its coach, Will Hardy, will Voltron this into a coherent team. Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson attack the paint with the swashbuckling machismo of 10-time All-Stars. Sexton flies at giants, inviting collisions. Clarkson is a slippery, jump-stopping gunner — and bought into more of a distributor role last season. Talen Horton-Tucker‘s arrhythmic diagonal slashing is hard to grasp. Keyonte George and Ochai Agbaji will stake claims. (Agbaji surged late last season.) Collins will rim run and power dunk when Kessler rests.
To hit All-NBA, Markkanen has to improve his playmaking. To reach his next level — borderline All-Star, maybe — Kessler has to expand his offense, and he flashed the touch and guile to do it. Their progress will determine a lot of Utah’s medium-term trajectory.
Kris Dunn at full throttle is the most destructive guard defender on Earth.
Utah needs to scrap the bumblebee look:
Meanwhile, gaze upon this season’s throwbacks:
Stick to that, please. The purple, green and yellow just works. The Jazz note, usually rendered with the notehead as a basketball, is one of the great marks in all of sports. (It even sings in all black.) In these throwbacks, it is filled in white — an homage to the New Orleans Jazz uniforms of the mid-1970s.
The broadcast can get propaganda-y. I’ll never forget the crew’s high-pitched rejoicing as Rudy Gay strode onto the floor for his debut in 2021-22, as if the Jazz were getting prime Manu Ginobili off the bench.
Mikal Bridges adapted as well as anyone could have hoped to a No. 1 option role, and seems excited for more.
Ben Simmons looks much more like his old self; he even hit 2-for-4 at the line in 14 minutes in Brooklyn’s preseason opener. That doesn’t sound notable until you remember Simmons made one free throw in a 16-game stretch from November into January.
It’s great to hear Simmons is healthy; injuries explain a lot of his decline. It’s nice he considers himself a point guard, and to imagine what his ultra-switchy defense could mean for a rangy, wing-heavy Nets team. But the only question that really matters is this: Is Simmons afraid to get fouled? If the answer is yes, or becomes yes again, the other stuff is just noise. The night-to-night mystery — the edge-of-your-seat sensation that Simmons’ career could twist at any moment — is part of the appeal.
The viability of the Simmons-Nic Claxton pairing might be the team’s most pressing question. Can they score enough with two non-shooters clogging the paint? If not, can they hold up on defense with just one — particularly when Claxton rests? Smaller lineups with Simmons at center have folded on defense and the glass. Should Simmons even start when the team is at full health?
The Nets have perhaps the league’s best broadcast crew. They have been wise to keep their black-and-white look and pavement-inspired gray court. They own both. Outlined wordmarks are hit or miss, but this white “Nets” pops against the black background:
I’m less convinced about Brooklyn’s jumbled City Edition jerseys — continuing in the artsy tradition of their snazzy Jean-Michel Basquiat-inspired series — but it makes sense pairing their black-and-whites with something colorful:
I like the puffy letters!
The bench is a Mad Libs of NBA nerd favorites. Cam Thomas believes he can hang 40 on anyone — and did in three straight games in early February, distracting from the whimpering, overlong collapse of the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving non-era. Lonnie Walker IV won a second-round playoff game. Dennis Smith Jr.’s revival was one of last season’s happiest stories. There is a place for Trendon Watford and his floater.
But the Nets were 12-19 after Bridges’ debut — slow, lacking an organized identity on offense. More time together should help.
Every year, one team obliterates its ranking. This year, it might be Orlando. The Magic have two future All-Stars with complementary games in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner; two more incoming lottery picks; two ultimate wild-cards in Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs; an all-time trash-talker in Joe Ingles (who loves clowning big guys with a mean pass fake); and an unassailable black-and-blue color palette.
These throwbacks are beauties:
(I could do without the silver-black armor-themed alternate look the team debuted last season; it comes off as a too-late attempt to capitalize on “Game of Thrones.”)
The algorithm might be scarred by past Magic teams that appeared frisky on paper but played out as snoozers; Orlando has not cracked the top 20 in offensive efficiency since 2012 — a remarkable streak of impotence.
The Magic once envisioned Suggs and Isaac as cornerstones. Suggs rumbles with rugged spirit but hasn’t grasped a steady role; can he shoot well enough to fit around Banchero, Wagner and Markelle Fultz? Internal competition is coming.
Fultz is one of the league’s great comeback stories and attacks open space with a unique slicing angularity. He knifes inside with jagged, sudden accelerations — sometimes hopping directly sideways mid-dribble, and contorting through narrow corridors in odd places. Few wring more from the recesses of the baseline and corners.
Isaac is the archetypal positionless defender. Could we see giant lineups featuring Franz Wagner, Isaac, Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. — now maybe the league’s most underrated player? What about groups with two guards, Franz Wagner, Isaac and Banchero as small-ball center — a role in which he can screen and drive as he did for Team USA?
Some teams make scoring seem effortless. With the Heat, you notice the effort. You get anxiety sweats watching them sprint and cut and screen and pass just to open one alleyway. Miami last season was 26th in offensive efficiency, 29th in pace, 28th in dunks and first among good teams in making you wonder, “Are they ever going to score again?”
Butler is a bruising cutter with genius-level anticipation. He cuts for baskets and free throws, and to draw the defense in ways that unlock open shots for others. Butler is good at so many unglamorous winning things and takes nothing away with turnovers and fouls; a lot of his sometimes unnoticed greatness lies in the absence of negative events.
Adebayo’s handoff game is NBA ballet. Erik Spoelstra livens things up with zone defenses and other tactical curveballs.
The Heat somehow seem like a puzzle. They have made two of the past four NBA Finals — and came within one Butler jumper of making a third — while averaging a 48-win pace over those four seasons. I mean, what?
The turquoise-and-pink “Vice” line of art is sadly mothballed (for now). This year’s City Edition jerseys will inspire world-record levels of eye-rolling everywhere outside South Florida.
Since 2018, the Hornets have spent top-20 picks on Miles Bridges, Kai Jones and James Bouknight. (They actually selected Shai Gilgeous-Alexander one spot ahead of Bridges in 2018, then traded him to the LA Clippers for Bridges and two second-round picks who contributed next to nothing.) All three are embroiled in real-life situations that render basketball irrelevant.
The recent allegations against Bridges — already suspended after pleading no contest to a felony domestic violence charge — are harrowing. If substantiated, Bridges could face severe penalties from the league on top of whatever happens in the justice system.
In franchise-building terms — which do not matter, really — this comes after a mostly disastrous run of first-round picks in the Michael Jordan era.
What’s left is LaMelo Ball in a fascinating sort of prove-it season, two veterans — Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward — who seem like ancient artifacts from some other Charlotte team that might or might not have ever existed, and several young players the Hornets really need to hit, headlined by Brandon Miller, Mark Williams and Nick Smith Jr.
Williams is tantalizing — a perfect lob-catching pick-and-roll partner for Ball whose presence could coax Ball into slowing down, exploring the paint and finding a more reliable half-court gear. Williams is crafty changing speeds while rolling, creating pockets of space for bounce passes. Miller should have studio space to stretch, including as a ball handler.
Fingers crossed Charlotte is bringing back its mint shade — a winner, and something all its own:
(That is last season’s City Edition court.)
This purple alternate court is one of the best in the league:
That dark silhouette of a hornet is sharp and scary — threatening the way a stingy mascot should be. Splitting the foul line circle usually busts, but those half-basketballs — with the light blue seams — are gorgeous.
Eric Collins is a cackling delight on play-by-play. The Hornets should fly with Ball, a one-man fast-break. Steve Clifford teams generally play clean, low-foul hoops — good for game flow.
Are you sitting down? Please sit down. This is huge — though the algorithm is skeptical. Tyronn Lue, the Clippers’ head coach, has said the team in Year 5 of the Kawhi Leonard–Paul George era might care more about the regular season. Has any team ever done this? Are we sure it’s legal?
The Clips are not as stale as they might seem after winning just three playoff series in four George-Leonard seasons. They still play in Leonard’s methodical image, but Leonard’s calculated brand of methodical is hypnotic. When he faces the hoop in a coiled crouch and holds the ball out with one hand — waving it around as if teasing a household pet — the game seems to pause and vibrate with infinite possibilities. Leonard can explode from a standstill with jarring force — sometimes getting all the way to the basket in one step.
If that fails, he might spin back, pump fake, duck down and lope forward into the league’s most elongated up-and-under. And man is it satisfying when that leaning, fading, Jordanesque line-drive jumper rips through the net.
In his San Antonio prime, the mere act of bringing the ball within a 15-foot radius of Leonard was dangerous. He would suddenly appear, reach out one giant hand, and take the basketball as calmly as if you had just given it to him. We don’t see that Sharktopus-level defense as much anymore, but every few games, Leonard likes to remind everyone it’s still within him.
Paul George orbits as one of the best second options in recent league history — slithering around screens, playing hide-and-seek amid thickets of bodies, waiting to pounce. He moves with liquidy smoothness.
Russell Westbrook and Terance Mann play with jetpacks strapped to their backs and drag everyone along with them. Lue might start both, and at the very least seems ready to lean into smaller lineups featuring Westbrook, Mann, George and Leonard. The team is cutting more on offense, chasing turnovers on defense.
Kenyon Martin Jr. and Bones Hyland bring fresh ingredients. Hyland is a central-casting streaky bench gunner. Martin might be the league’s meanest dunker, though it’s unclear how he fits the rotation if his 3-pointer doesn’t come around.
Plopping James Harden’s ball-dominant game next to Leonard’s could vault the Clippers several spots up these rankings. Injuries could send them plummeting back down.
Is this the year Houston’s drafting for upside finally coalesces into something coherent?
The Rockets last season were 27th in offense, 29th in defense and last in turnovers. The occasional outburst of youthful exuberance cannot make up for such ugliness.
VanVleet is here to impose order. Dillon Brooks should provide structural integrity on defense. His “villain” persona is entertaining in moderation, with proper accountability. You’re not a villain if you do dastardly stuff, lose, and duck the media afterward. Brooks already got tossed from a preseason game after striking Daniel Theis in the groin. Ejected from preseason! Honestly! Who does that?
Houston also added Jeff Green, still good for one attempted posterization every three games.
The Rockets have accumulated perhaps the most intriguing group of prospects in the league — and definitely the one with the highest variance. It’s plausible all six of Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Tari Eason and Cam Whitmore make at least one All-Star team someday. Some might also bust out as empty-calories chuckers.
Green is a thunderous dunker vowing to play more of an all-around game. Sengun outwits defenders with precocious cunning — a whir of fakes and footwork that tests the physics of basketball. Even Sengun appears surprised at times by what his feet have done — and by the disbelieving referees whistling him for traveling. Some of his thread-the-needle passes bonk teammates in the head, or skip untouched through empty spaces Sengun assumed his confused teammates might be occupying.
Smith is a winner. Eason wants the ball more than you do. He was one of only three rotation players to snare at least two steals and one block per 36 minutes, and posted one of the league’s best offensive rebounding rates. If he can hit enough 3s, Eason has major potential.
Their court is an understated gem:
Those plumes emanating from the bottom of the “R” — like smoke from space shuttles — are a masterstroke.
Craig Ackerman and Ryan Hollins are turning into a nice announcer duo.
Last year’s Knicks pulled a basketball magic trick. They ranked third in points per possession despite being bad at the most important part of offense — shooting; they finished 20th in effective field-goal percentage.
It was a triumph of strategy and sneering brutality. Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle are battering rams; head coach Tom Thibodeau played to that by doubling down on isolation basketball. It is astonishing watching Brunson, undersized and ground bound, manipulate bigger players with pivot moves, fakes, and the occasional wind-sucking shoulder to the chest.
Fewer passes meant fewer turnovers. New York blew open the possession game by menacing the offensive glass. They drew heaps of fouls. They couldn’t shoot, so they found other ways to bend math.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was kind of mesmerizing. The Knicks reveled in pounding opponents until they wilted. They seemed to sense when a team might break. You could tell they knew they had Cleveland in the bag in the playoffs: They don’t want any more of this pain.
Hart fit right into this ethos, rampaging on the glass and driving the ball down the throats of backpedaling defenders in transition — leaping at full speed, knees up, at anyone who dared contest him.
Hart and Immanuel Quickley bring zip and wildness to New York’s staid, low-risk offense. There is nothing like Madison Square Garden when the game accelerates and the arena roars to life. Donte DiVincenzo introduces frantic cutting and rebounding in the half court. Quentin Grimes has another leap coming.
The fans’ love-hate relationship with Randle makes for good theater.
It has been a while since Thibodeau’s teams put together back-to-back good seasons. The yo-yo effect has to end. New York is deep, and good, and fierce, and there is room in the East.
(I realize James Dolan oversees a personal surveillance state, but please, NBA, do not let Dolan turn down courtside microphones. Hearing Thibodeau bellow and curse is one of the great League Pass pleasures.)
For a team that ranked sixth in dunks and boasted two dynamic guards, the Hawks were pretty blah to watch. On some nights, their offense was an endless “your turn, my turn” reel of Young and Dejounte Murray lofting floaters in the pick-and-roll. They are graceful shot-makers, but at some point you’ve seen the movie enough times.
Quin Snyder offers the unknown of reinvention. (He’s also sporting glasses with bright red frames, an audacious choice. Snyder already made elite, cartoonishly strained faces; the glasses ratchet it to another level.)
The assumption was Snyder would have the Hawks jacking tons more 3s. Wrong — at least last season. Snyder instead shoved Atlanta’s offense inward to the rim, in part by allowing more players to crash the glass. Atlanta shot from 18th to second in offensive rebounding rate after Snyder took over. Was that a blip, or does Snyder see something?
He will push Young and Murray to move more away from the ball and play off each other. This might be a make-or-break season for Young, Murray, and this entire construction of the Hawks.
Young is a show — liable to erupt from the logo, a wizardly passer with either hand. De’Andre Hunter and Saddiq Bey carry reputations much bigger than their (average) production; is this the year that changes?
Bogdan Bogdanovic can swing games with his shooting; how often will Snyder play him alongside both Young and Murray — or (gulp) even close games with Bogdanovic in place of one of them? Jalen Johnson is a blur of productive activity. If his 3-pointer comes around, watch out. It is car-crash riveting watching Garrison Mathews fling himself into picks hoping to draw illegal screen calls.
The art and sounds — including the screeching hawk noise — are first rate. (Keep an eye out for the Hawks’ City Edition uniforms and court. They’re nice.)
With even 10 missed games because of injury or rest, we would get only half a season from Ja Morant — maybe the single most electric player in the league.
Dunking is not enough for Morant. He wants to inflict pain — humiliation. He is the rare point guard who crams on drives and alley-oops. The soaring height is jaw-dropping; the world seems to freeze and go silent as Morant reaches the peak of his jump, and then, bam — Morant, right arm extended and legs splayed, descends with power. You almost hear and feel the whoosh.
His signature block on Avery Bradley is one of the most outrageous plays of the past decade: Wait, is he still going up? The Grizzlies play fast without Morant, but their volume of shots at the rim falls hard.
In the meantime, we get to watch opposing ball handlers pinball between Marcus Smart, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams. That is like a challenge the producers of “American Gladiators” rejected because it seemed too dangerous. Desmond Bane will continue stretching his game — more ball handling, more acrobatic catch-and-release 3s. A 25-point average is in play.
You have to rewind some of Jackson’s blocks to make sure that, yes, it was Jackson who swatted the ball, and yes, he really did fly from the arc to the rim to do it.
As so many teams use the same plays to chase the same shots, it is refreshing to watch Memphis dust off old tools. They gobble offensive boards; Adams is a one-man rebounding team. The Grizz are Team Floater, though their preeminent artiste — Brandon Clarke — will miss significant time recovering from an Achilles injury.
Memphis needs someone among Ziaire Williams, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy and Kenneth Lofton Jr. to seize a steady role. Santi Aldama is a brash passer and high-wire ball handler; every touch teeters on the verge of chaos.
The in-game experience — jerseys, court, announcers, music, mascot hijinks — is always among the league’s top five.
Input 55 Zion Williamson games, and the algorithm shoots New Orleans way up. Of course, that number would constitute almost exactly half of Williamson’s career games over four seasons. So, yeah.
The unicorn trope lost all meaning long ago, but Williamson is a true one-of-one. The trampoline leaping and stanchion-wobbling thunderbolts draw the hype, but it’s really about Williamson’s speed. He doesn’t have a first step so much as a first burst that covers an implausible distance in a literal blink. Big defenders might absorb bumps from Williamson if they could gird themselves — if they had a sense for when Williamson’s first move might strike, or any hope of sliding with him.
They have neither. Once Williamson gets any angle, you’re toast. He’s at the rim, and you’re falling out of bounds. If he misses, no matter; he’s off the ground again before the ball begins its descent. It’s as if Williamson needs only a single toe to hit the hardwood to blast himself back up.
He is a hunched blur in transition, skilled enough to thrive in any role: posting up, facing up, handling in inverted pick-and-rolls with McCollum or Ingram, screening for either. Playing alongside those co-stars, with their silky midrange games, should amplify Point Zion, Screening Zion and Passing Zion.
Trey Murphy III is a vicious dunker with All-Star potential. Larry Nance Jr. is all flare screens and bounce passes — an aesthete’s player. Jonas Valanciunas wants to knock you backward until he hears the fight go out of you and the air escape your chest. Jose Alvarado elevated the backcourt sneak steal to heights unimagined, even hiding out of bounds before skulking from behind.
New Orleans has ditched the giant shaded pelicans in favor of six fleur de lis:
That’s … OK? At some point, we should discuss whether enlarged shadings — skylines along the sidelines, oversized logos inside the arcs — have been a positive. The Milwaukee Bucks brought it to the NBA with menacing deer:
Ten years later, I think I prefer subtler shadings — with the silhouette of Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legger in Dallas taking the cake. We have another winner coming in the Southeast Division this season.
The rebuilding Spurs rise here because of the 7-4 generational prospect with a limitless skill set and more territorial flexibility than should be possible for a human so tall.
If preseason is any indication — you never know — Wembanyama is as advertised on defense and maybe ahead of schedule on offense. The Spurs are starting Wembanyama at power forward, which means having him guard stretchy fours and wings, while Zach Collins — reclaiming his healthy Portland form — patrols the middle. That would seem a favor to opposing offenses: Wembanyama off to the side, his rim protection neutered.
Turns out, there is no containing Wembanyama’s defense. He is everywhere at once. Even guarding around the arc, he is so fast and long — with such preternatural instincts — he can insert himself into the action whenever he wants. Just by spreading his arms, Wembanyama obliterates passing windows across half the floor. Opposing ball handlers eye him, wondering what pass is safe. Such distracted hesitation kills possessions.
Wembanyama leaps at shooters with everything he has, extending both arms above his head. You already see shooters freaking out midjump: Holy crap, what is this?
The Spurs face the inverse dilemma on offense: How do they keep Wembanyama involved if Collins is the main screen-setter?
The answers are awesome. Wembanyama is posting wings, backing them down instead of settling. The height advantage is comical. He can rocket off pindowns and handoffs for 3s, run pick-and-rolls with Collins, cut for lobs and facilitate from the elbows. Holy hell.
At points, we will see Wembanyama wreak havoc at center. Meanwhile, heavy minutes for groups with Tre Jones, Wembanyama and one center leaves several core players battling (in stretches) for two remaining lineup spots: Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham. Everything now is viewed through one lens: How do you fit around Wembanyama?
Vassell is easy. Johnson is a voracious, head-down driver. Sochan’s switchable defense and selfless offense — all quick screens and passes — would seem a natural fit, except he hit just 24.6% from deep. Branham is a slashing ball handler with a nifty floater.
Every night, we will learn more about San Antonio’s future — and see Wembanyama do something unprecedented.
We are entering elite watchability territory. Seldom do you encounter a team this young and busting with upside that could also push 50 wins.
Gilgeous-Alexander has long been one of the league’s most telegenic players — slithery, with unusual movement patterns that flummox defenders. He is a dribbling jump cut — a cinematic basketball illusion. Sometimes, the change in pace is sudden and aimed in one direction — one languid dribble morphs into a lightning strike crossover. At other times, different parts of Gilgeous-Alexander’s body appear to be moving in different directions and speeds — as if changing pace is not a change at all for Gilgeous-Alexander, but rather something strange baked into his being. Can someone change pace constantly, or is that an oxymoron?
What’s new is the puffed-chest bravado of someone who knows he’s a superstar — knows he can beat anyone, anytime, with whatever move he feels like using. Gilgeous-Alexander toyed with his NBA peers at the FIBA World Cup. Set them up, roasted them, rained fire as they stumbled.
Jalen Williams is a two-way All-Star in the making. Josh Giddey is one of the league’s cleverest players — he’ll whiz a pass right by a defender’s ear if the sucker has his head turned — and among the most important X factors of the next half-decade. Chet Holmgren has swagger along with an ultra-modern game. Luguentz Dort is a human cinder block who exists to make you hate having the ball.
The Thunder play as a young team should — fast on offense, all frenzy and forced turnovers on defense. They quietly built one of the league’s most creative offenses, running cascades of unconventional guard-guard pick-and-rolls.
Tre Mann might clear more space with his step-back jumper than anyone in the league. Kenrich Williams is the perfect jack-of-all-trades veteran. Aleksej Pokusevski potentially falling from the rotation hurts Oklahoma City’s score across every category; you never know what might happen when Poku gets the ball, only that fans in the first three rows should be on high alert.
The art improves every season. Chris Fisher on play-by-play has revived the broadcast.
Indiana’s presumed starting five meshes for both basketball and entertainment purposes.
It starts with Tyrese Haliburton, a gleeful high-wattage passer (and no-look artist) who will have this team blazing in transition. Obi Toppin will fly for more lobs in one month than he did in his entire Knicks career. Myles Turner volleyball spikes shots on defense, and unclutters the lane for teammates on offense. Bruce Brown cuts into the voids; Haliburton will make sure the ball meets him early. Bennedict Mathurin stands ready to bulldoze through diagonal alleys.
Some ball handlers retreat when they see a larger person in their way. Mathurin grins and revs up. There are not many rookie wings brave and strong enough to earn 7.4 free throws per 36 minutes. To build a contender from within, the Pacers need one of their young guys to pop into a second All-Star-level player alongside Haliburton. Mathurin looks the part but has a long way to go in decision-making, 3-point accuracy and defense. This is a big Year 2.
Rick Carlisle’s half-court offenses are always heavy on passing, movement and shooting.
Andrew Nembhard does everything right. He’ll play crunch time and push Mathurin for a starting spot. The backup big rotation is a boom-or-bust jumble. Here’s hoping Jarace Walker earns a real role. Jordan Nwora is a jitterbug, throwback scorer who will get chances at backup power forward. T.J. McConnell pioneered the backcourt sneak steal and attempts more full-throated 10-foot jumpers than anyone.
Hypothesis: Indiana has the most underrated art in the league.
You know what that is? A proper basketball court. The main logo hasn’t changed much since the ABA days, and those mini maps in the corners are a nice touch.
The Donovan Mitchell–Darius Garland backcourt offers the perfect stylistic dialectic. Mitchell operates north-south, alternating slide-back 3s with emphatic one-handed dunks. (The Cavs were No. 1 in dunks last season.)
Garland is the meanderer, drifting sideways, then darting under the rim with the Steve Nash dribble — a threat to hoist soft floaters or midrangers the second the defense drops its guard.
There is always built-in tension to a guard partnership like this: Who gets the lion’s share of pick-and-roll reps and crunch-time orchestrating duties? Mitchell’s extension eligibility looms over an unusually pressurized season for a team this young. If healthy, the Cavs have to win a playoff series and put up a representative effort in Round 2.
The actualized version of Evan Mobley is an all-court playmaker on both ends. The Cavs need him to hit enough jumpers — including corner 3s — and proceed in the short roll with more confidence when defenses blitz Mitchell and Garland, leaving Mobley with 4-on-3s.
Adding shooters — Max Strus and George Niang — should make those decisions easier for Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Passing and driving lanes will be wider, and stay open longer. The Cavs — dead last in pace last season — are playing fast in the preseason, with Mitchell and Garland trusting the new shooters to launch.
How often will head coach J.B. Bickerstaff flip-flop matchups on defense to have Mobley guard the East’s apex wings?
Remember when Allen — who to his credit, risks embarrassment in trying to block every damned dunk — went bananas celebrating Cleveland committing defensive three-second violations, only no one else seemed in on the joke?
That was weird. Allen gets points for asking Cavs arena staff to play a Legend of Zelda sound effect when he scores.
Tristan Thompson has a chance to be the league’s most entertaining bench cheerleader. The Cavs’ City Edition art is the best such thing the franchise has ever done, and maybe by a lot.
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