May 26, 2024

It’s time to reveal the top 10 in our 12th annual League Pass Rankings — the 10 most entertaining teams in the NBA, according to our proprietary algorithm.

Remember: These are not power rankings! We revealed Nos. 11-30 here, along with a reminder of how the scoring works.


I would have ranked a few teams from Part I ahead of Dallas, but the algorithm is seduced by star power — and the Mavericks have it in Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Irving is a blur; he should get the slowpoke Mavs moving in transition — even if Doncic prefers to walk it up.

In the muck of the half court, Doncic is a LeBron James-level chessmaster. He is cruel hunting size mismatches, and can exploit them in either direction — toying with bigs outside (Ivica Zubac just felt a shiver down his spine), and dragging smaller guards into hell on the block. The Doncic-Irving pick-and-roll is a natural mismatch generator — and a means of getting the stars to cooperate, with Irving flaring for 3s or slipping into the paint. The Mavs barely used it last season. That will change.

Even with everyone else standing around, there is a thrill to Doncic burrowing into the paint — eyes darting, the defense reacting to every glance, pivot and dribble. Doncic is baiting them, waiting for the defense to expose itself. He can outthink any help rotation. Doncic is an all-time great setting up 3s, but he knows a sure 2 is still the best shot. He threads lobs, wraparounds and other interior passes that might lead to layups.

There is a mystery about how Jason Kidd might divvy up minutes at center and among a pile of wings. Two rookies, Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, could start. Jaden Hardy has a scorer’s bravado. Josh Green is liable to run dribble handoffs with ghosts.

What is the over/under on games until Doncic and Irving tire of Grant Williams‘ chatter? Williams’ shooting and defensive versatility give Dallas lots of frontcourt options; the Williams-Maxi Kleber pairing is a natural, and Derrick Jones Jr. — Airplane Mode! — could rim-run as a small-ball center alongside Williams or Kleber.

Doncic’s whining at referees is unbearable to the point that even the discussion about it is now unbearable. (The potential for Irving-centric drama hurt Dallas’ score, because those instances usually result in Irving not playing.)

The underlying anxiety: If this team is just OK — 45 wins and a first-round out, say — do the Mavs have a long-term vision to sell Doncic on? If Lively and Prosper look like gems, maybe they do.

The art is still meh, the commentary awesome.


Anthony Edwards is here, and he’s coming to sledgehammer your team to dust. Edwards has averaged 28 points in the playoffs on solid shooting, and the Wolves — depleted by injury and wall-punching — showed mettle in pushing the Denver Nuggets in the first round. (You’d be surprised how many within the Nuggets agreed with Bruce Brown‘s statement that Minnesota was their toughest out.)

The next step is Edwards making more productive passes and staying focused off the ball on defense. He got a little hoggy at times for Team USA.

Did Karl-Anthony Towns exorcise his postseason demons — the disappearing acts, endless fouling, bonkers turnovers — in a strong final three games against Denver? Towns is uber-skilled, with some absurdist comedy in his game. He tries bizarro overhead hook passes that sometimes miss by several feet. He is weirdly theatrical, widening his eyes to call for the ball or faux-telegraph a pass — even busting out exaggerated head and shoulder twitches to fake screens:

It’s on Towns, Rudy Gobert and coach Chris Finch to optimize this oddball double-center combination — on both ends. They barely had time last season. I’m smelling a big Towns campaign — is “redemption year” too strong? — but does any high-profile player have more at stake than he does? There is a lot riding on this season — maybe the future of this core. The Wolves are good. The margins for error in the West are slim. The time for excuses is over.

Naz Reid has a light-on-his-feet all-court game, but he effectively plays the same position as Towns and Gobert; the Reid-Towns and Reid-Gobert pairings struggled.

Kyle Anderson connects everything, and hit 52% on floaters last season — a skill that allowed him to thrive in any lineup combination. He is the human change-up, so slow that slowness becomes his superpower; defenders can’t corral him.

Thumbs up to these photo-realistic alternates, designed to mimic the ripples of Minnesota’s lakes.

This throwback gives me the nostalgia fuzzies, but the wolf is too friendly:

For the love of purple rain and the basketball gods, stop fouling, Wolves, and get a damned defensive rebound!


Every few years, we introduce a one-time corollary so that the comedy category does not artificially boost one team. On paper, the James Harden fiasco has off-the-charts unintentional comedy potential: lazy play, lollipop passes, honey-bun-infused late-night video streams — an all-out mutiny. But that has a shelf life. At some point — maybe by Game 1– Harden will either: play hard-ish; loaf and be banished; or get traded.

Philly aces the comedy category anyway! Patrick Beverley will foul opponents 90 feet from the rim; put his team in the penalty and boast about it; hit victims with the “too small!” taunt; and perform prop comedy in protesting calls (remember the camera incident?). Kelly Oubre Jr. might talk trash down 20 and do push-ups after an and-1. Nick Nurse is No. 2, behind only Quin Snyder, in cartoonish coach face-making; this was his Mona Lisa:

Nurse is unafraid to go way against the grain tactically. He made the box-and-one cool again and helped transform the Toronto Raptors into a frenzied, swarming, turnover-forcing machine. (Joel Embiid hated it.) De’Anthony Melton is a chaos engine. Paul Reed is shooting 3s!

Embiid alone almost guarantees a top-10 ranking. The combination of destructive power and gentle touch is unparalleled. He soft-shoes down low — all pivots, spinning fakes and gorgeous leaning fadeaways. (The only downside is all the game-interrupting fouls.)

Embiid’s little 13-foot pick-and-pop is almost automatic — so silky. He is majestic lording over the game from the center of the foul line, and basketball gods help anyone who gets in his path when Embiid decides to rev it up and hunt the tin. The size, speed and ferocity — it’s like nothing the NBA has seen since prime Shaquille O’Neal. You almost hear the rumbling through your television.

Tyrese Maxey shows zero fear of failure in big moments. With or without Harden, he is ready.

Perhaps the broadcast will tone down the homerism now that Embiid has won MVP.


The Kings hear the skepticism: They won’t be so healthy again. The West is ready for them. OK, maybe. But Domantas Sabonis played most of the season with a broken thumb and served as the hub of the league’s No. 1 offense — a breakneck whir of handoffs, backdoor cuts and brazen in-your-grill 3s. When those shots didn’t materialize, Sabonis just beat the hell out of suckers down low — or found De’Aaron Fox for some jitterbug midrange magic.

Fox’s default gear is turbo. Malik Monk, an audacious scorer prone to prolonged incandescence, runs alongside him. If Fox doesn’t break his finger, do the Kings win that epic first-round series against Golden State? If so, how different is the preseason analysis of them?

Fox is a certified dude. He found the right mix of calm and havoc — an ungraspable stop-and-start. He can get his whenever he wants and hit 51% on midrangers. Keep the percentage there, and that shot stays a legitimate late-game threat.

Keegan Murray was the rare rookie who fit on a good team. He dug himself out of a slump in a feverish postseason environment — gutsy stuff. Murray rounds the Kings out. If he takes a Year 2 leap, they will be fine.

If Sasha Vezenkov can stay on the floor with his shooting, how do you guard this team? Will Mike Brown use smaller lineups with Vezenkov and Trey Lyles — a sneering glue guy — at power forward and center? Kessler Edwards and Chris Duarte will battle for bench minutes. Edwards has major defensive potential. Duarte knows the dance steps with Sabonis.

The Kings’ decibel-busting crowd pops for Davion Mitchell‘s suffocating all-court defense.

The art is fantastic. This new purple-and-black gradient court is a winner:

The fade from black to purple is gradual, easy on the eyes. It doesn’t work as well on the matching jerseys; the contrast seems starker, and the jerseys derivative of the Miami Heat‘s two-toned “Vice” look:

The Kings also have the assets to make a win-now trade.

Light the beam!


Every LeBron James game is a gift now; the guy is almost 39 and tossed up a 28-8-7 line on 50% shooting last season — including 58% on 2s. (Kindly ignore the 3-point percentage.) That is beyond unprecedented for someone James’ age, on pace to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 in all-time minutes (playoffs and regular-season combined) early this season. It is something from an alternate universe.

James is still the game’s master manipulator. Zoom in on him with the ball as the game hovers in the half court — high up in the pick-and-roll or down on the block — and you appreciate how alive his eyes are, how fast his brain is firing, plotting the possession from four steps ahead.

In his twilight, James has improbably hit the gas; the Lakers flew at the league’s fourth-fastest pace, and James still inflicts violence in transition — with 70-foot hit-aheads or that patented spin into a righty sideswiping thunderbolt.

The Lakers have as many proven ball handlers around James — Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Gabe Vincent — than any of his prior teams. What does that translate into in 2023?

We saw less of the James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll last season. Some of that was James playing through foot pain. Some was Jarred Vanderbilt clogging the paint. Will we see more with Davis at center and shooting around the Lakers’ tentpole stars — including Rui Hachimura starting at power forward? It might be the easiest vehicle to decent shots for a team that struggled in the half court all last season.

How sustainable was Hachimura’s postseason surge? He found a new intensity — grinding on defense, cutting with urgency, mashing smaller guys in the post. That seemed real. What about the shooting?

Reaves is real — if not HIM!, at least HIM!-adjacent. Davis controlled entire playoff games with his defense. Ball handlers kept half an eye on him at all times. Opponents redesigned game plans — even playing certain guys more than they wanted — to try to remove Davis from the paint. He met almost every challenge.

There is a lot of fun unknown among Max Christie, Cam Reddish, Christian Wood and Jaxson Hayes. Who earns Darvin Ham’s trust? Do the Davis-Wood and Davis-Hayes pairings work? Will James hide his disgust when Wood, Reddish and sometimes Russell decide the offense belongs to them?

The uniforms are great, and the Lakers have the league’s best court. Never change it.

We all love this guy, right?

Lakers! LAKERS!


On one hand, it feels like we’ve seen this movie before and it didn’t meet the hype as an entertainment product: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown atop a five-out offense that’s low on passing and rim pressure — a hair predictable, even when the ball pings around. Robert Williams III, Lord of Time, added jolts of surprise: skyscraping alley-oops and blocked shots so emphatic you half expected the ball to end up impaled in the backboard.

The way Joe Mazzulla shifted Williams on defense was a meaty game within the game.

But introducing Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday brings intrigue. Every game is a learning experience geared toward playoff optimization.

The modern Celtics have never had a stretch big like Porzingis — this tall, with a release so lightning fast, he can catch and jack almost whenever he wants. He’s rolling to the rim more in preseason, an element Boston needs.

Holiday is a better shooter than Marcus Smart, a bit more decisive with the ball. The architecture might look the same, but Boston’s spread offense should be snappier.

What a joy to watch Tatum and Brown, two apex wings, grow together — Tatum the buttery scorer and No. 1 option in bloom, Brown the secondary attacker who explodes through creases and dunks with jarring force.

Boston’s green jersey is the best in the league, maybe in all of sports. The classic parquet floor is No. 2, behind only the Lakers.

More Luke Kornet minutes means more of the ridiculous — but effective! — Kornet Eclipse leaping closeout, which looks more like a calisthenics exercise from a 1970s gym class than a basketball play.

The legendary, gravelly voiced Mike Gorman is retiring from play-by-play duty after this season. Cherish every game.

Is Mazzulla still chewing a year’s supply of gum each half? Is Al Horford still doing that bit where he fake-flinches at rebounds?

Is it a joke? Is it a taunt — mocking opponent misses?


The Suns have Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal — the collective smoothness is ridiculous — and a governor, Mat Ishbia, who has a blood feud with another governor (Dan Gilbert) and inflamed a fracas with Nikola Jokic. (Ishbia also flopped!)

This is the perfect landing spot for Beal, who even as a No. 1 option spent lots of time rocketing off pindowns and bobbing and weaving for dribble handoffs — things he’ll do more as the third option. Beal blew away his career high in setting ball screens last season — a useful tool here, because opponents will often have their smallest defenders on Beal; any switch in a Durant-Beal or Booker-Beal action could generate mismatches.

Beal is a more rugged driver than you might think if you (justifiably) tuned out of D.C. basketball; he wins collisions around the rim.

Preseason scoring binges have quieted fretting about the lack of a traditional point guard and how Durant, Booker and Beal would (gasp!) share one ball. As long as those three are healthy, the Suns will score like gangbusters. The question on offense is whether they will get up enough 3s. That’s where passing matters — nailing those kickout reads. It’s really hard to win four playoff series subsisting on midrange jumpers.

The Suns will spend the season sussing out supplementary wing minutes and that fifth starter spot. Keita Bates-Diop is (on paper) the easiest 3-and-D fit. Eric Gordon will finish games; can the Gordon/Beal/Booker/Durant foursome hold up on defense?

Josh Okogie goes from zero to 60 to zero rotating on defense as well as anyone and posted one of the all-time great guard offensive rebounding campaigns last season. He pinballs around with no concern for his physical safety.

Yuta Watanabe has shot approximately 247% on corner 3s from Durant; what an improbable NBA bromance. Twenty-nine other teams will unite in their disdain for Grayson Allen.

Every game will be a mini-referendum on whether Phoenix was right to wager on Jusuf Nurkic — and Allen and Nassir Little, sure, but really Nurkic — over Deandre Ayton as the right center for this win-now-now-now team. Will we ever see Durant at center? What is Durant’s peak gear on defense and on the glass as he crosses age 35? At go time, the Suns will need something close to prime Durant rim protection and rebounding — at least in stretches.

Nice work with these new duds, Suns!

Something about the white lettering and ball really works.

We’re all happy the sunburst is back where it belongs, but the Suns need to ditch this Halloween motif:


In a razor-thin three-team race, the defending champions — with the single most watchable player alive — lose out, likely cheated by the algorithm’s obsession with shiny new objects.

There is quite a bit new in Denver! Christian Braun steps into a sixth-man role with Brown and Jeff Green gone. Behind him comes the ballyhooed youth movement, chosen because of their polish and fit around Jokic: Peyton Watson, preseason breakout Julian Strawther and the switchable Zeke Nnaji — finally set to get a chance at both backup center and power forward. (Rookies Hunter Tyson and Jalen Pickett are behind this crew.)

The Nuggets have the best starting five in basketball — a masterpiece of team construction. In their second year together, they have a chance to reach that hallowed state of five-man nirvana only a handful of teammates ever experience — that transcendental dimension in which each player knows where he should be at this moment and the next, where they move in concert without always really understanding how or why. The ball zips ahead of the defense, always arriving exactly where and when it should.

The ethos flows from Jokic, an unrivaled creative genius who has more or less solved NBA offense. He is elite at literally every part of it, big and strong enough to leverage whatever advantage he might have against any defender in any location. When you think you’ve seen everything — every preposterous pass, every series of fakes and pivots in the post, that counter to your counter of his counter on the pick-and-roll — Jokic tosses in some new wrinkle:

Jokic started doing that last season — leaping for lobs that were never coming, all to get his defender to jump second and fall behind.

And there’s his partner in pick-and-roll devastation, the cagey and brilliant Jamal Murray. He’s making his first All-Star team. Book it. Almost like Manu Ginobili, Murray makes moves between dribbles — head bobs, shoulder shifts, standing up or crouching. It all has a purpose: nudging defenders an extra half-step the wrong way, opening the space he and Jokic need to make magic.

Can Michael Porter Jr. give more ballhandling and defense? He just turned 25 and missed almost two full seasons.

You want popcorn dunks? Aaron Gordon has you covered.

All hail the champs.


The Warriors first topped these rankings 10 years ago, in the wake of Stephen Curry‘s epic 54-point eruption in Madison Square Garden and a playoff run — upending the No. 3 Nuggets and pushing the San Antonio Spurs — that opened their own eyes as to what might be possible and served as a warning shot to the league: What this Curry guy does is real.

Klay Thompson was by then an 82-game ironman and certified Splash Brother. A rookie Draymond Green was calling out veterans in practice and barging his way into coach Mark Jackson’s rotation, fast becoming the league’s archetypal modern defender.

They have landed at or near the top every year since. What Curry, Thompson and Green have built over 11 seasons — the vibrating excitement they must feel every time they roar up the court, backpedaling defenders shouting in panic — is basically the whole reason this sport exists. It is what every set of teammates aspires to.

To say they know one another’s tendencies is wildly understating it. They operate as one entity, the Warriors’ buzzing offense changing shape, stretching from sideline to sideline, moving faster than the defense across intricate patterns — zig-zags, swirling figure 8s — only the Warriors understand. To hear Green describe all the variations he and Curry have for handoffs — and how they choose which to use, without a word, always on the same page — is borderline mystical.

They’re still here, still to be feared, still in at least the second sanctum of contenders. Any season now could be their last dance.

Kevon Looney has mastered their read-and-react system. Andrew Wiggins can exist inside and outside of it, and fill all the gaps.

Oh, hey, Chris Paul! Enemies becoming friends! Can Paul and Steve Kerr please find some context to recreate Paul’s classic fake-laughing meme? Have you ever used that in real life? Be honest.

Paul is blending into the Warriors’ go-go mayhem while also picking spots to impose his methodical efficiency — a care factor the reckless Warriors needed. In the flow, he’s adapting — whipping hit-aheads, running the wings, setting random pindowns and flares, touch-passing to Curry in stride on those classic relocation daggers. (Curry is in midseason form, pointing to Paul in thanks while his shot is still in midair. Is there a more exciting moment of earned hubris?)

I am fighting my exuberance over Jonathan Kuminga‘s preseason. He brings a bounce these guys don’t have — that ability to manufacture something from nothing when the beautiful game stalls. Playing Kuminga, Green and Looney together is probably a bridge too far, but what about the Kuminga-Green small-ball frontcourt? Or Kuminga-Looney when Green rests? Dario Saric is an X factor — a stretchy playmaking center who could unlock more lineup combinations.

The blue-and-yellow palette never fails. I like that the Warriors have stuck with bright yellow as their dominant floor color:

It stands out in the NBA court landscape.


For the first time, Milwaukee sits atop the League Pass Rankings. Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are on the same team. It’s still shocking to write. We have a two-time MVP and top-two overall player alongside one of the half-dozen or so best offensive players of the past decade — a walking top-five offense who demands your attention the second he crosses half court.

They should mesh perfectly. They are mutual force multipliers, hopefully triggering a catalytic effect far more powerful than the “adding to more than sum of their parts” trope.

The Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll with three shooters around it could instantly become the most dangerous go-to play in the league. Dropping back against Lillard risks a barrage of 3s. It will be mostly unswitchable; you can probably count the number of wings capable of semi-credibly guarding both players on one hand, and the Bucks might never encounter a postseason opponent with two of them.

Boston might have the best shot, but toggling the Antetokounmpo-Lillard assignments among Brown, Tatum and Holiday takes a toll. Antetokounmpo has a major size and strength edge on all three, though Holiday knows Antetokounmpo’s quirks. Horford is Boston’s best defender on Antetokounmpo, but does he stand a chance chasing Lillard?

The default will often be trapping Lillard, unleashing Antetokounmpo into Draymond Green-style 4-on-3s in open space. I’m not sure we’ve seen anyone in that role who can dunk from the foul line, through traffic, without one dribble. Dear god. Some defenses will surround Antetokounmpo before he even catches Lillard’s pass and force him to kick to one of Milwaukee’s spot-up guys — forcing Brook Lopez, Malik Beasley, Pat Connaughton and Jae Crowder to beat them. (The Lopez Brothers tag team is back! Beware, mascot friends!)

That in itself is great theater: Do those guys keep shooting after one or two misses? Do Lillard and Antetokounmpo grow impatient with cold streaks?

This is where Khris Middleton looms as the league’s most dangerous and most important third option; ignoring Lopez is a dicier proposition if he can turn and hand the ball to Middleton, catapulting Middleton into open space. Milwaukee already has Lillard and Antetokounmpo interacting in off-ball screening actions — back screens, split actions. Good luck!

Then there is the broader tension that simmers beneath the surface with some superstar duos: Is Antetokounmpo prepared to set 40 ball screens per game? How will he feel the first few times Lillard takes ownership of Milwaukee’s crunch-time offense? How often will Antetokounmpo indulge in one-on-one play and midrange jumpers?

The most likely scenario: everything is fine; Antetokounmpo pounds his way to 30 points every game and gets plenty of chances to rampage in transition and bulldoze one-on-one.

Bobby Portis has become such an essential bench scorer. His searing glare is a League Pass institution. Ditto for non-Milwaukee announcers trying (in vain) to explain why they find Connaughton’s leaping ability so surprising.

After a half-decade of conservative defense under Mike Budenholzer, adapting to Adrian Griffin’s more aggressive scheme will be a test for the holdover Bucks.

Marques Johnson is a treasure on commentary — prepared, funny, dissecting Xs-and-Os in real time.

The Bucks over the past 15 years have become a top-tier art team. Black jerseys are usually meh, but the cream coloring and threatening antlers — you’ll poke your eye out! — make these sing.

Onto the season!


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