Lowe’s annual NBA tiers – Ranking the league’s best and worst teams … and the Nets and Lakers

Lowe’s annual NBA tiers – Ranking the league’s best and worst teams … and the Nets and Lakers post thumbnail image

It’s time for our 13th annual Tiers of the NBA — my alternative to power rankings. With exceptions both happy (the San Antonio Spurs from the mid-1990s through the Kawhi Leonard disaster, perhaps the Golden State Warriors now) and sad (KANGGGZZZZZ!!!), team-building flows on a soft boom-and-bust cycle: stars rise, peak and then fall — taking teams along the same path.

Grouping teams helps clarify who is where on that spectrum — and which teams might be on the verge of moving up or down.

Order within tiers does not matter.

THE INNER CIRCLE

Golden State Warriors

Milwaukee Bucks

LA Clippers

Boston Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers

Denver Nuggets

* The mild surprise here might be the Sixers and Nuggets over the Phoenix Suns and (if you slip on Ted Lasso’s rose-tinted sunglasses) whatever the hell is about to unfold in Brooklyn.

Phoenix fans have a gripe. The Suns diced up the Nuggets in the 2021 conference semifinals and upended the Clippers — without Leonard — one round later. Their idiosyncratic offense, almost entirely dependent on midrange jumpers, performed at league-best levels in last season’s playoffs until the final five games of their debacle against the Dallas Mavericks — a sputtering you might chalk up to some COVID outbreak and dissension surrounding Deandre Ayton that may have since been buried under a pile of cash.

Their defense collapsed in both postseason series, but an optimist might excuse that too; the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix’s first-round opponent, were built to brutalize the Suns’ weak rebounding, and there is no shame in falling victim to Luka Doncic‘s slow-pivoting, always-grinning brand of torture.

They lost only one key player, and even that guy — Jae Crowder — is still on the team. They’ll either get someone for Crowder, or ask him to return as a backup. The Suns are likely replacing a C-level shooter in Crowder with an A-plus one in Cameron Johnson, which should result in more 3s and wider driving lanes — modern kicks-in-the-butt for their old-school offense.

Johnson and Mikal Bridges should shoulder more off-the-bounce creation. (Bridges should jack more 3s.) Ayton is the most obvious pathway to stylistic variety via post-ups, emphatic rim runs and free throws.

Dario Saric is back to fill minutes at both power forward and center, and the deep bench is solid. If they are healthy and cohesive, the Suns should win bundles of regular-season games.

But the West has fortified around them after a two-season interregnum. The Nuggets and Clippers are healthy. The Warriors should be better, provided contract extension dramas — Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson — don’t open fissures. The Green-Poole practice altercation Wednesday — and Green facing potential discipline — brought a discouraging deja vu. I trust Golden State to handle it.

James Wiseman‘s verticality adds a dream dimension to Stephen Curry‘s pick-and-roll game (and Green’s lob passing), but Golden State’s repeat potential goes well beyond Wiseman.

Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga are ready for more. Poole is still improving at 23, and will either be playing for a new contract or with the security of one. Wiggins banked a year learning the fast-twitch nuances of playing alongside Curry, Green and Thompson — the winks and nods and cuts. Thompson should be sturdier in Year 2 after catastrophic injuries.

(PS: Curry shot 43.7% last season — 38% from deep, 52.7% on 2s. For normal people, that’s fine. For Curry, that’s below average. His raw scoring may not jump if Golden State coasts, but I’m expecting a monster per-minute Curry season — almost prime MVP-level.)

Between Robert Sarver, Ayton and Crowder, there is a lot going on in Phoenix, and the top of the West allows for nothing less than complete unified focus. Chris Paul turns 38 in May. The Suns have squeezed every drop from their offense, and may not have enough ingredients without a trade to inject meaningful diversification.

They have the picks and salary to get in on just about any star who comes available.

• This is the most important season in Clippers history. It is somehow already Year 4 of the Paul George-Leonard era. They fell apart in the bubble in Year 1, and injuries short-circuited Years 2 and 3 — though not before the Clips ended the conference finals curse (and the Donovan MitchellRudy Gobert era in Utah) in 2021.

George and Leonard are healthy. In cascading series of transactions, the Clips used front-office smarts and Steve Ballmer’s money to build the league’s deepest roster. I’m not sure any team in history has had this many wings, including a half-dozen legit two-way guys. Ivica Zubac is the only center guaranteed to make the roster, though the Clips will add a backup — either Moses Brown (on a non-guaranteed deal) or some veteran ring-chaser.

That lack of size might hurt against Nikola Jokic, but I’m not sure the Clippers do (or should) fear any other big enough to care. They’ll go five-out, and dare bigs to chase them. John Wall with even 85% of his peak speed is a great fit in that alignment and should run a nifty pick-and-roll with the sticky-handed Zubac.

• I get the Denver skepticism. In back-to-back postseasons, its defense wilted against Phoenix and Golden State.

The quality and scheme of the Nuggets’ defense has fluctuated wildly over the Jokic era, and they have to prove they can guard consistently with all three of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the floor. They took an important step in humiliating the Clippers in the 2020 bubble conference semifinals, but no one knows quite how to project based off Orlando.

Denver was injury-riddled and bereft of perimeter defense in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons, and Jokic was fatigued from carrying the offense alongside (mostly) career backups. Murray is a gritty, underrated defender. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown are hand-in-glove fits, and give Denver the ability to sit Porter — shifting Aaron Gordon to power forward — to cinch up the defense.

Denver is betting tighter perimeter defense — slithering around picks — will make Jokic’s job easier, and that the return of Murray to run the offense will have the two-time MVP fresher in the postseason. The Warriors and Curry were a nightmare matchup, hunting Jokic over and over, but Jokic has done enough for Denver to upend other powerful offenses in the playoffs.

Golden State still looms, of course, but the healthy version of this Denver team is better equipped to face the West titans. Offense matters as much as defense, and Denver has all the answers there.

Jeff Green and Davon Reed are dependable two-way reserves. Bones Hyland is the best kind of brazen. Christian Braun is ready. Zeke Nnaji — perhaps Denver’s most switchable defender outside Gordon — has shined in camp, perhaps (hopefully?) supplanting DeAndre Jordan as backup center and opening up a possible spot-minutes pairing with Jokic.

We only saw 117 minutes of the Murray-Gordon-Porter-Jokic quartet after the Nuggets acquired Gordon in 2021, but Denver’s utter dominance in that stretch stuck with me.

All is contingent on Porter’s back holding up.

• Boston has the talent, depth and shared toughness to withstand the Ime Udoka crisis and a medium-term injury to Robert Williams III — interior pillar of what became the league’s best defense (and among the best ever) once Udoka shifted Williams III into an off-ball rover role.

The last three rounds of Boston’s postseason run were uneven, its offense aimless and turnover prone. But fatigue sapped them, and Boston’s demolition of the league over the last 50 games of the regular season should carry just as much weight in projecting them. Malcolm Brogdon is the supplementary ball-handler they needed. Joe Mazzulla, Udoka’s replacement, is the real deal — a tactician. The Sam Hauser hype appears to have been justified.

• The Bucks took Boston to Game 7 without Khris Middleton — perhaps their second-best player, and inarguably their most important ballhandler. Can anyone beat them four times in seven tries when Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday are healthy? Middleton shouldn’t miss much time recovering from wrist surgery, sources say.

Critics see ricketiness on the outskirts: broken-down Wesley Matthews, George Hill, Brook Lopez, Serge Ibaka and Joe Ingles — coming off a torn ACL. Boston torching Grayson Allen is fresh in their memories. The Bucks have never found their P.J. Tucker replacement — the tweener forward to beef up Giannis-at-center lineups.

I’m optimistic Lopez and Matthews have another year of 3-and-D in them. Bobby Portis is squarely in his prime, and works in lineups of all sizes. Pat Connaughton is really good, and has a case to start over Matthews. (I’d expect the Bucks to keep Matthews there for now.)

Allen can’t guard Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but he’s a nice player. Ingles was never dependent on athleticism, and adds a ballhandling, lob-lofting dimension. Keep an eye on Jevon Carter and Jordan Nwora; Antetokounmpo will make Carter look good.

The Bucks have internal interest in Crowder as that Tucker replacement after getting into the recent Jerami Grant and Bojan Bogdanovic discussions, sources say. They will search all season for one more piece.

I came away from that Boston series feeling Antetokounmpo — having nearly beaten a great team almost alone — was coming to lay waste to the league this season.

• There are two reasons to mock the Sixers’ ascendance here. The first is structural: Their core lineups feature two defensive minuses at guard in Tyrese Maxey and James Harden — prey for apex wings. Removing one in favor of an upgrade on defense — De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., Matisse Thybulle — risks defanging the offense, though the Harden-Joel Embiid two-man game is so potent Philly would likely be fine as long as the Maxey substitute is not the gun-shy Thybulle who wobbled through last year’s playoffs. (The Sixers revamped their team to render Thybulle’s defense inessential if he pratfalls on offense. Melton’s brand of chaos and fearless rebounding is a welcome jolt for a stodgy group. Tucker helps on the offensive glass.)

Swapping in one of those guys for Tobias Harris leaves both Maxey and Harden still out there.

No team is perfect. Basketball at the highest level is about managing weaknesses, and Embiid can appear to be in two or three places at once. Harden is not the typical guard liability in that he has the strength to switch onto larger players. Maxey is fast, tries hard and has a long wingspan. This is a solvable problem, provided the offense hums.

About that: The other gray cloud is Harden’s shrinking in elimination games, including his disintegration into a pile of nothing as Philly slunk out of Game 6 against Miami in last season’s second round — an on-court vanishing Harden followed with an even more embarrassing shrug off about the ball not finding its way back to him.

If this is intractable, Philly will never win a title with Harden. The good news is the Sixers are so talented, they don’t need Houston Harden — who likely no longer exists. They just need Harden to be good, or decent, or at the very least least to make some positive imprint instead of melting. Harden did that in some postseason performances last season, including a few in which he appeared to have some burst.

If his hamstring is healthy and he’s in shape, Harden should remain an All-Star and in the conversation for third-team All-NBA. If that guy shows up when it matters, Philly has everything it needs.

STRONGEST CLAIM TO SPOTS 3-6, EAST

Brooklyn Nets

Toronto Raptors

Miami Heat

STRONGEST CLAIM TO SPOTS 3-6, WEST

Phoenix Suns

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Dallas Mavericks

New Orleans Pelicans

• As with Phoenix, New Orleans, Toronto and Memphis have assets to tilt this race with win-now trades. (Miami has comparatively fewer, and it’s hard for the Heat to trade Tyler Herro in-season after signing him to a mega-extension.)

Two teams not listed here — the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers — traded most of their good stuff for star guards in Dejounte Murray and Donovan Mitchell. It would have been easy to lump both in, creating a 10-team super tier. If there’s a line between Cleveland/Atlanta and Toronto/Miami/Brooklyn, it’s thin and blurry.

But my gut says there is one. The Hawks and Cavs have new puzzles to solve. Both could have depth issues, though staggering key starters would soften those — as would the midseason return of Ricky Rubio in Cleveland. Bogdan Bogdanovic is recovering from knee surgery.

The Hawks have to repair a busted defense; the Cavs must sustain the stingy one that carried them last season. Murray will swipe steals for a team that otherwise generates none, and allow Trae Young and De’Andre Hunter — an under-the-radar X factor — to guard more comfortable assignments.

Their starting five is really good, and Onyeka Okongwu is primed to challenge Clint Capela. Atlanta also suffered bad luck on opponent’s jump shooting last season; perhaps that regresses.

The Cavs are asking a lot of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Together, they’re up to it — an impenetrable snarling wall. But what happens when only one is on the floor? Is Robin Lopez still a real fail-safe? How soon does the lack of a reliable wing defender — barring a shooting uptick from Isaac Okoro — become an issue?

The Garland-Mitchell fit on offense should be fine right away. The Young-Murray pairing will get there, but needs time in the oven.

Both Atlanta and Cleveland could win 50 games and host a first-round playoff series. The reality is two East teams who conceive of themselves as playoff locks will have to gut through the play-in muck. The Hawks and Cavs just feel a little less certain than Brooklyn, Miami and Toronto.

• Yes, I realize how ridiculous it is to deem the Nets more “certain” than my daughter’s 8-and-under soccer team, let alone actual professional sports clubs. Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving have done nothing helpful in a year. The Nets have one playable big — Nic Claxton — and it’s unclear if they can play Simmons and Claxton together much against good defenses.

Super-small lineups with Simmons at center and shooting galore around him sound amazing — and they’ll score like gangbusters — but the experience isn’t so fun if opposing offenses march to the rim and play volleyball on the glass.

Placing Brooklyn here is a talent bet on precisely one transcendent talent: Kevin freaking Durant. Amid all last season’s nonsense, Brooklyn went 36-19 with Durant — a 54-win pace. Give Durant 65-70 healthy games and what passes in Brooklyn for a functional ecosystem, and the Nets floor is high enough.

Some reasonable voices have Brooklyn on par with Boston, Milwaukee and Philly. Yeah, no thanks. I’ve seen Twitter and Instagram. The image of Simmons hot-potatoing to Thybulle involuntarily invades my brain space once a day. You can’t just “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” trade demands and requests to have people fired. Do you really believe Durant flip-flopped from wanting out now to committing to four more seasons? What happens if the Nets are 15-15?

The Nets stay here until they prove otherwise.

• Miami has earned the benefit of the doubt. It will have a stout, switchable defense even with Tucker gone. (The Heat have interest in Crowder too, sources say, but finding matching salary is tough until Dewayne Dedmon, Caleb Martin and Victor Oladipo become trade-eligible in the winter. Martin might start, and the Heat are optimistic Oladipo can play a huge role.)

They unearth some hidden gem every season. Just bake in Haywood Highsmith being good, I guess. Erik Spoelstra will wrench everything from this group.

Don’t bury Kyle Lowry. He dealt with personal issues last season, and lost his conditioning. He’ll bounce back. Tyler Herro should thrive as a starter, assuming the Heat promote him; Miami’s other starters can cover for him on defense, and Herro will find the right balance between on-ball and off-ball actions on offense playing more alongside Miami’s core stars.

Jimmy Butler is just this damned good. If Butler’s knee allows him to play 65-ish games, Miami will be fine.

• Toronto … umm … I’m kind of scared of Toronto? The Raptors retained everyone from a 48-win team, added Otto Porter Jr. — a central-casting Raptor, only with more shooting — and carry a year’s worth of understanding of how Nick Nurse wants to leverage their collective length: switching, enveloping passing lanes, bombarding the offensive glass without getting roasted in transition.

I am buying Precious Achiuwa as a 3-point shooting, pump-and-go playmaking center — or whatever position he plays within this avant-garde basketball experiment.

I am buying Pascal Siakam, having rediscovered his verve, strutting into a long and fruitful All-NBA-level prime. I am buying everything about Scottie Barnes. Those two hybrid forward-whatevers could solve Toronto’s only major issue: Who keeps the ho-hum half-court offense afloat when Fred VanVleet rests?

The “OG Anunoby puts it all together” year will happen someday, and when it does, the Raptors should finally have enough shooting. They are going to be so annoying to play against.

The clock is ticking on expensive contract decisions with Siakam, VanVleet, and Gary Trent Jr., but the Raptors have zero reason to rush. Their books are pristine beyond 2024, they hold Bird Rights, and the team is good enough that they don’t have to reach for some consolidation mega-trade.

• In the West, it’s impossible to slide Memphis, Minnesota, Phoenix, or Dallas any lower. All four could be offended at falling here. The only dilemma was whether New Orleans belonged, and if the Los Angeles Lakers should come with them.

If LeBron and Anthony Davis log between 120 and 130 combined games, it’s hard to see the Lakers being worse than .500. I expect a big Davis vengeance season, but the Lakers already held him out of Wednesday’s preseason game due to back tightness. Gulp. There is just nothing else to trust outside Darvin Ham’s accountability culture and Patrick Beverley‘s fit, and way too much combustibility.

The Lakers have cobbled supporting casts since inexplicably taking a sledgehammer to the one that helped them win the championship, and did about as well as they could with minimal resources. It’s still mostly career backups who don’t provide enough shooting and defense.

In this stacked conference, that isn’t enough. A trade could vault them up one tier.

• The Mavs have no second star in Davis’s universe, but shooting and defense around one superstar — Luka Doncic — adds up to more than ill-fitting pieces around two superstars.

Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr. (back from injury), and Christian Wood should bring enough scoring and secondary ballhandling to make up for the mismanaged departure of Jalen Brunson.

The larger question is how Wood — a minus defender to date at both power forward and center — impacts a Dallas defense that punched above its weight, and how much Jason Kidd will dare lineups featuring Wood as the only big man.

• The Pelicans soared on offense when CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram shared the floor. They hit half their midrange shots in those minutes, and it’s tough to maintain that Nowitzkian efficiency. But that’s where McCollum and Ingram live; they won’t fall back much. Zion Williamson will compensate for any drop-off by single-handedly transforming a team that struggled to finish at the basket into a dunks-and-layups machine. He is like some super-human combination of Shaq and Bo Jackson.

McCollum, Ingram, and Williamson have to divide ballhandling duties, but that shouldn’t be hard. Pushing pace is a cure-all. In the half court, Williamson’s ability to do everything — run inverted pick-and-rolls, screen for either guy, post mismatches — will unlock read-and-react freedom.

The looming question is Williamson’s durability. Give him 60 games and New Orleans should be a top-10 offense — and that’s probably selling the Pelicans short. If they can approach league average on defense, 48-50 wins is attainable. The pathway there is minimizing (at least some) the time McCollum, Williamson, and Jonas Valanciunas share the floor, and the Pelicans have enough good defenders to do it: Herb Jones, Larry Nance Jr. (a critical player), Jose Alvarado (a cat burglar playing basketball), perhaps Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels.

• Memphis and Minnesota are the best bets to usurp a top-four spot. The Grizz won 56 games with a point differential suggesting that was no fluke. They lost two key reserves (Melton and Kyle Anderson), and their best defensive player — Jaren Jackson Jr. — will be out early. Those minutes will go to untested players and rookies.

John Konchar and Ziaire Williams are on the upswing, and Memphis rookies fit a certain template of size, versatility, and shooting. Desmond Bane has another mini-leap (at least) in him. The Grizz just come for your soul every night — a never-tired, always-wired bravado that has huge value amid the regular-season doldrums.

Jackson was the common denominator in their best lineups; the Jackson-Brandon Clarke pairing rampages. They have no one who can replicate his defense. If he’s out 25 or 30 games, the play-in becomes a real possibility. If it’s more like 10 games, the Grizz are safe.

• Minnesota ranked 6th in points per possession despite mediocre shooting from every range. The Wolves take tons of 3s and shots at the rim, so a bounce in accuracy bodes well for a top-5 offense. Rudy Gobert is a massively better finisher than Jarred Vanderbilt; the real variable in their starting five is Jaden McDaniels providing enough shooting.

Chris Finch will introduce side-to-side action to maximize the Gobert-Karl-Anthony Towns pairing; Towns excels anywhere on offense. Anthony Edwards will be a two-way superstar, and the Wolves have the rare luxury of staggering (in twos) four complementary offensive threats in Edwards, Towns, Gobert, and D’Angelo Russell.

Gobert handles the defense, and allows the Wolves to shift away from the smoke-and-mirrors blitzing scheme they used last season (and which the best teams figured out.) Finch will toggle schemes and matchups depending on the opposition. Edwards will make an All-Defense team within the next three seasons.

The real test of the Gobert trade comes in the playoffs, but the Wolves should be a cinch to get there — with a real chance at home court in Round 1.

AGGRIEVED TEAMS WITH AMBITIONS ABOVE THE PLAY-IN

Los Angeles Lakers

Cleveland Cavaliers

Atlanta Hawks

Covered above!

GRASPING AT PLAY-IN HOME-COURT DISADVANTAGE

Chicago Bulls

New York Knicks

Portland Trail Blazers

Sacramento Kings

• Bulls pessimism is already passe in the wake of the sad Lonzo Ball news. Opponents outscored Chicago when all three of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic shared the floor. The Bulls need maximum defense around those three, and until Ball returns, it’s hard for them to supply that without knee-capping their offense.

Their best hope is a full Alex Caruso season, plus immediate development from both Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams — one of the league’s great curiosities. Williams has been tentative with the ball, and the Bulls aren’t quite sure how to use him: Corner shooter? Secondary creator? Unorthodox screen-setter — with Vucevic spotting up?

The depth is not super-inspiring. LaVine is coming off knee issues. DeRozan will have trouble replicating his magical All-NBA season — and bonkers late-game shooting — and Vucevic is a stretch center who has shot 34% or worse from deep in four of his past six seasons.

It’s really hard to argue they are better than any of the eight East teams above them here.

• I’m betting on New York’s depth — the Knicks are at least 10-deep in productive players, including several young guys on the come — and Tom Thibodeau’s bellowing defensive pedigree to push them (slightly) above expectations. Don’t be surprised if they finish ahead of Chicago.

New York’s go-go bench may not maul opponents to the same degree again, but the RJ Barrett/Julius Randle/Mitchell Robinson frontcourt can’t possibly be so jumbled and punchless with Brunson running things.

There is a top-down urgency to win after last year’s morass and the whiff on Donovan Mitchell. Thibodeau should have them back to the frenzied defense of two seasons ago.

• Portland might be the toughest team to project. Damian Lillard is a top-6 offense by himself, and the Blazers surrounded him with one monster catch-and-shoot threat (Anfernee Simons, 50% on catch-and-shoot 3s over the past two seasons) and multiple forwards who can (mostly) shoot and attack off the dribble. These guys — Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant, maybe Justise Winslow and Shaedon Sharpe — are not Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless.

Simons will man bench units that should include two of Hart/Little/Winslow and Gary Payton II — an All-Defense-level menace. (I’d sub Payton in early each half for Simons so he can prop up the defense around Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic — and then leave him in with reserve-heavy units when Simons returns.)

Portland won at a 48-win pace two seasons ago with a team that on paper is not much different. But the top half of the West is better now, and it will take coaching magic and luck to glue together an average defense with Lillard, Simons, and a (mildly) declining Nurkic — plus zero reliable backup centers.

Lillard loves proving people wrong, and the Blazers have an upside of 45-plus wins. We’ll see.

• With the Seattle Mariners in the playoffs, the Kings officially own the longest postseason drought in major U.S. sports — 16 years and counting, one of the truly humiliating and remarkable achievements in modern sports history in a league in which 53% of participants make the playoffs every year.

It’s honestly impressive. Household pets could point to random names on draft and free agency boards every summer, and come up with one playoff team over 16 tries. If the Kings get to 20 years, they should be relegated for one season — and replaced with the G League Ignite.

Start stitching the “we made the play-in, that counts right?” banner, because the Kings have a decent chance of bumping up to 10th or even (gasp!) 9th in the West. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have gorgeous two-man chemistry, and there is plenty of shooting and catch-and-go playmaking around them. A top-10 offense is in play.

To sniff .500, the Kings need merely be not terrible on defense. They hired the right coach in Mike Brown. He’ll start from the ground up: Here is one simple set of rules. Follow it every time, or hit the bench.

Alas, the roster is … rough from a defensive standpoint. Teams will peck at the Fox-Sabonis pairing in the pick-and-roll over and over. The Kings don’t have a ton of size behind and around those two. Opponents shot 74% at the rim with Fox and Sabonis on the floor, and while that’s unsustainably high, the general trend probably wasn’t a fluke.

The Kings did get unlucky with scorching opponent jump shooting, and some of their fundamentals — a low foul rate, average-ish opponent shot distribution — were pretty sound.

I’m telling you, there’s a chance!

HOVERING IN PURGATORY — YAY!

Detroit Pistons

Orlando Magic

HOVERING IN PURGATORY — GULP

Charlotte Hornets

Washington Wizards

• Lukewarm take: At least one of Orlando and Detroit finishes ahead of one or both of the Wizards and Hornets.

Washington has the outlines of a .500-plus team: decent depth, a bundle of young guys who should all improve, and an offensive fulcrum in Bradley Beal. Kristaps Porzingis was pretty good in D.C.; he held opponents to 53% shooting at the rim last season as the closest defender — one of the stingiest marks in the league. The dude can still do the shot-blocking part of unicorn-ness. Can he hit enough 3s?

Porzingis is sluggish defending outside the paint, and the Wiz don’t have many plus defenders around him. It’s just hard to see this roster translating into anything more than average on either end, and the downside scenarios are ugly. These guys badly need one of Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert, or Johnny Davis to flash a ceiling higher than “nice fifth starter” — a ceiling only Avdija has really touched in fits and starts. That is the non-tanking escape hatch from mediocrity — the young “core” either lifts the team, or gives Washington ammo for a trade to add a second star.

• Charlotte is scarily thin in proven NBA players. One is Gordon Hayward, a lock to miss time. I love Cody Martin as a jack-of-all trades and I’m optimistic about Jalen McDaniels, but both could be overburdened. The Hornets are counting on rookies and second-year guys with almost zero NBA playing experience.

They are one injury from disaster.

The flip side: One nominally “OK” team (and likely more) will stumble early and say, “Screw it, let’s give ourselves a 20% chance at one of Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson.” Hell, there might even be teams within three-ish games of the play-in who punt their last 25 games to shift their Wembanyama/Henderson chances from 4% to 10% or 12%. I would bet on this happening.

• Detroit and Orlando could intrude into the play-in race, and have telegraphed their intentions to try. The Pistons have the easiest method of parachuting back into the tank brigade: flipping Bojan Bogdanovic — probably their second-best player — the moment they sense slippage.

For now, Bogdanovic provides knockdown shooting around Cade Cunningham pick-and-rolls; the Cunningham/Jaden Ivey/Saddiq Bey/Bogdanovic/Isaiah Stewart starting five makes conceptual sense. Bogdanovic and Bey (38% on catch-and-shoot 3s) space the floor, and Ivey turbos through the diagonal alleys Cunningham pries open on his drives.

(Without further lottery luck, Ivey may be the most important player on the team. Cunningham will be an All-Star. Bey and Stewart are good supporting players. Ivey is Detroit’s best shot at a second star, but keep on an eye on Jalen Duren — and don’t be surprised if the Pistons experiment with a Duren-Stewart frontcourt.)

That starting group is built to switch everything on defense.

The bench is murkier, though Alec Burks is a classic stabilizer once his foot heals. Is Killian Hayes anything? Has Hamidou Diallo turned the corner from unhinged chaos to functional chaos? Is Marvin Bagley III playing power forward to make room for Duren or Nerlens Noel?

Big picture, Detroit has the most important ingredient: a point-forward in Cunningham who can create good shots for himself and his teammates. It is the ingredient Orlando has lacked over a decade of offensive incompetence. Markelle Fultz isn’t it, and I don’t really care that he shot 40% on wide-open 13-footers last season. That mark isn’t actually good, and those shots only materialize because Fultz and the Magic can’t generate anything better with his defenders loitering in the paint.

Can the all-court playmaking of Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero combine with Fultz to mimic the effect of such a singular player? Maybe. Wagner is legit, and Banchero is the kind of offense-first hub Orlando has been starving for — only he’s a big, not a traditional ballhandler.

Orlando was plus-7 per 100 possessions last season when Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. played without another center, and they have more options for those kinds of lineups.

They have incentive to chase wins given their prolonged irrelevance, and their possession of Chicago’s top-four protected first-rounder.

HAPPY TO LOSE

Oklahoma City Thunder

San Antonio Spurs

Utah Jazz

Indiana Pacers

Houston Rockets

It’s a tribute to the league’s depth of talent — and the continued efficacy of multiyear tanking — that two of these five (the Rockets and Thunder) already have at least one player (and maybe two) with some reasonable chance at being a top-two guy on a 55-win team in five years. Two others — the Spurs and Jazz — are only now embarking on the deep tank.

The fifth — Indiana — would argue Tyrese Haliburton is such a player, and maybe he is. He’s an elite 3-point shooter off both the catch and the dribble, with a rare combination of anticipatory vision and genuine delight in getting off the ball early. People love playing with him. He can dissect any pick-and-roll defense that puts two on the ball. Does he have the oomph to beat switches?

Chris Duarte bobs and weaves with liquidy veteran guile. Bennedict Mathurin will be a blast. They have a bunch of raw big men who are interesting but not close to good now. If the Pacers move Buddy Hield and Myles Turner, they’ll be the worst team in the league.

• For now, that honor goes to San Antonio — even though the trio of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl form an NBA-level frontcourt. The Spurs just have zero proven on-ball creation, and it’s hard to win much in the NBA without that. The Spurs offense cratered when Murray sat last season. Are you ready for 30 minutes of over-cautious Game Manager Tre Jones? What about Point Primo?

How many trades and “injuries” will all these teams concoct in jockeying for one of the three worst records?

• I love what Houston has long-term with Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Alperen Sengun, and several other intriguing prospects — plus real big-market free agency appeal. Jae’Sean Tate is the perfect selfless glue guy; his extension is a bargain. But they are super-young, and they’re going to be really ragged on both sides.

• Man, was I excited to watch the Thunder before Holmgren’s injury. The Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Josh Giddey/Luguentz Dort trio provides an interesting mix of skills, though it’s a little short on shooting. Tre Mann is a canny combo guard, and Kenrich Williams is the connector who nudges everyone in the right directions — Nick Collison 2.0. It’s cute NBA nerd knowledge that the Williams-Mike Muscala frontcourt walloped opponents last season in what amounts to meaningless sample size, but should a rebuilding team really want those two playing heavy minutes?

The rest of the team is a black box mystery, and that’s the fun of it. They have a gazillion interesting and weird young guys, including four of the first 34 picks in the last draft. One or two will pop this season.

• The Jazz have some guys. They will trade some for worse guys, or draft picks that will one day become guys. The No. 1-seeded 2020-21 Jazz not even pushing the Clippers — with Leonard injured — to a Game 7 in the second round is an all-time failure that corroded Utah’s self-belief. Last season was all anticlimactic codas. At least they pivoted fast.



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