It’s that time of the year again. NBA teams have their rosters set (including the Lakers as of this minute) and are ready to set out on a quest to the NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Clippers have big aspirations as they are fully healthy and want to finally prove to everyone that they can hoist the organization’s first NBA Championship. The Golden State Warriors showed that their dynasty is far from over and they are showing no signs of slowing down from a talent perspective.
Don’t forget about the Milwaukee Bucks, who likely would have been in the NBA Finals last season had they been fully healthy with Khris Middleton. They are ready to make a big comeback and possibly win their second NBA title in three years. Can the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Cleveland Cavaliers take another leap with their young cores? What about the New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets? Can either of those teams contend for a title? All of that and more are answered in the inaugural Sporting Tribune NBA Power Rankings.
30. San Antonio Spurs
In what appears to be the most lopsided NBA in recent memory because organizations are tanking for Victor Wenbanyama and Scoot Henderson, the Spurs made sure to be the worst of those tanking teams trading away their franchise player, Dejounte Murray, to the Atlanta Hawks for future draft picks. Keldon Johnson should take another leap and become the team’s best player, but this year will be about developing their future young core with Joshua Primo, Blake Wesley, Jermey Sochan, and Malaki Branham, who will all be paired alongside next year’s pick whoever that will be.
Last season, the Spurs ranked in the middle of the league in just about everything, 16th in defensive rating (111.2), 17th in offensive rating (111.9), 21st in eFG% at 52.7, and 23rd in TS% at 55.6. Those numbers allowed Dejounte Murray and the Spurs to assert themselves into the play-in over the Los Angeles Lakers. Without Murray now, the Spurs will struggle to defend the guard positions but also will have a tougher time getting the role players open for shots without a proven lead guard. Obviously, that was the intention as they want to tank, the Spurs should rank at the bottom of the NBA in all offensive categories, but their defensive acumen should still somewhat be intact allowing them to stay in basketball games thanks to Gregg Popovich.
29. Houston Rockets
The Rockets had a “home-run” draft getting projected #1 pick Jabari Smith Jr. at 3rd overall and then selecting an already draft steal Tari Eason at 17th overall. They already had a fantastic 2021 NBA Draft with Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, and Joshua Christopher, but now they can pair those guys with more young talent. Jalen Green averaged over 23 points per game in the last month of the season and should continue to see his scoring prowess develop as this year goes on, Sengun will receive more minutes without Christian Wood, Christopher looks the part of a 3-level scorer as a high-end role player, and Kelvin Porter Jr. should continue to develop as one of the leagues best playmaking point guards.
What will be interesting to see is how TyTy Washington will develop in year one as he should also get big minutes right away as the backup point guard. Nonetheless, the Rockets should remain the worst defensive team in the league (116.4 defensive rating last season, last in NBA) even with the additions of Eason and Smith Jr., who are both versatile defensive players. Offensively, the team should improve immensely (they ranked 26th in the NBA with an offensive rating of 108.1, 17th in eFG% at 53.4, and 18th in TS% at 56.5) with Green’s development as a more efficient scorer. Either way, we all know that this team wants Scoot Henderson or Victor Wenbanyama so they will be tanking as well.
28. Utah Jazz
Danny Ainge yet again dismantled a competitive team to start over. After acquiring more first-round picks and depth than he should have for Rudy Gobert, a couple of months later he turned around and sent franchise player Donovan Mitchell to the Cavaliers for Colin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, Lauri Markkanen, and draft compensation. Could the Jazz have gotten a better offer from the Knicks that included R.J. Barrett? Absolutely, but at the end of the day Ainge successfully acquired enough draft compensation to accelerate a rebuild allowing them to contend eventually.
The Jazz will be one of the worst teams in the league with a brand new head coach, and as a result, will be in the lottery next year trying to come away with the 1st or 2nd overall pick. Bringing up their advanced stats from last season would be foolish considering they have a completely different team and coach, but Colin Sexton should be able to shine and see his development as a young NBA star get back on track.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder
Losing Chet Holmgren for a year really hurts the development of this team. However, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to improve tremendously as one of the best young players in the NBA, Josh Giddey is a triple-double threat every game, and Luguentz Dort is a lockdown defender with a developing offensive game. Add in first-round pick Jalen Williams (who can do it all as a 6-8 point forward that plays lockdown defense) and Tre Mann (numerous 30-point games last season) this team is trending in the right direction and now has a core of Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams, Giddey, and Holmgren that would be a perfect compliment to Victor Wenbanyama.
Hopefully, luck falls their way and we see a frontcourt of Holmgren and Wenbenyama next season, but that may be too good to be true. Either way, the Thunder ranked 17th in defensive rating (111.7), last in the NBA in offensive rating (103.8), 29th in eFG%, and last in TS% at 49.7 and 53 respectively. They should be better offensively, but they’ll be tanking just like the rest of the bottom of the pack.
26. Indiana Pacers
Tyrese Haliburton is a borderline superstar…yes, I said it. His dominant playmaking skills, 3PT shooting, and on-ball-pest defense make him one of the highest-rated and most versatile players in the NBA. To say the Pacers won the Domantas Sabonis trade is an understatement…Sabonis is a solid NBA All-Star, but Haliburton is the kind of point guard that a team salivates to build around.
He averaged 15.3 points, 8.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game with an eFG% of 56.2, a TS% of 59.5, and a 3PT% of 41.4. It really is a shame that the Pacers couldn’t come away with Deandre Ayton as he would be the perfect pick-and-roll compliment to Haliburton, but Myles Turner is also very good at that (plus he can pick and pop). Drafting Bennedict Mathurin seems to be a positive as he is one of the more NBA-ready players from this year’s draft class with his 3-level scoring ability and good on-ball defense.
However, the steal of all steals happened unexpectedly as the Suns did not extend Jalen Smith and the Pacers snagged him now witnessing Smith become one of the better stretch 5’s in the NBA already. This is why the team is fine with moving on from Myles Turner after this season since Smith averaged 21.7 points and 12.4 rebounds with a TS% of 62.8 on a per-40-minute basis.
Not only that, but Smith also accumulated a PER of 20.29 which is remarkable considering his low usage percentage of 19.2%. Nonetheless, the Pacers ranked 28th in defensive rating last season with a 115.5 mark and also ranked 18th in offensive rating with a 111.9 mark. Their team eFG% of 53.1 and TS% of 56.4 both ranked 20th in the NBA, and they should only continue to improve offensively this season as Tyrese Haliburton is set to take another leap.
25. Orlando Magic
The Magic surprised a lot of people by selecting Paolo Banchero as the #1 pick in this year’s draft as they were linked to Jabari Smith Jr. for the longest time. However, they needed a big who could stretch the floor and they got a young star in Banchero who will immediately make an impact in the NBA with his elite playmaking and scoring ability. What surprised many people including myself was the development of 2021 8th overall pick Franz Wagner who averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game with an eFG% of 51.7 and a TS% of 55.9. Wagner played lights out this summer for Germany’s national team and could take one of the highest leaps in terms of production from last year’s draft class.
Talk about winning a trade, when the Magic acquired Wendell Carter Jr. and what turned out to be the 8th overall pick, Franz Wagner, for Nikola Vucevic, many Bulls fans were unhappy and continue to be to this day. Carter Jr. has turned into one of the better two-way centers in the NBA while Wagner could be on an NBA-star trajectory already. Add in Cole Anthony’s scoring and playmaking leaps to 16.3 points and 5.7 assists per game, and Mo Bamba’s development as an elite rim protector who hit 38.1% of his 3’s, the Magic have a seriously talented young core that could compete in the NBA sooner rather than later.
I haven’t even discussed the return of one of the best defensive players in the NBA, Jonathan Issac, and how last year’s 5th overall pick Jalen Suggs could turn things around and develop into the player many scouts thought he could become. Depth-wise, this is one of the most talent-rich young teams in the NBA, and the Magic should continue to improve their 19th-ranked defensive rating of 112.1, 29th-ranked offensive rating of 103.9, and 28th-ranked eFG% and TS% of 50.3 and 53.3 respectively
24. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons got astronomically better this offseason and should contend for the Eastern Conference’s 10 seed in the play-in tournament. Cade Cunningham averaged 21.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game over the last 20 games of the season and is poised for yet another leap. His superstar abilities on both ends of the floor were even evident last year and now he has Bojan Bogdanovic as another shooter to pass to.
Talk about an underrated trade right? Bogdanovic had his limitations in Utah’s playoff series against the Mavericks but he averaged 18.1 points per game with a TS% of 60. His efficiency and scoring ability will take even more pressure off of Cunningham. Isaiah Livers should take develop into a “Herb Jones or Mikal Bridges” type of player for this team with his lockdown defense, and the additions of 2022 draft picks Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey help this team tremendously right away with Duren’s athleticism and interior defense and Ivey’s explosiveness and playmaking.
I have yet to mention arguably the most important player on this team, Saddiq Bey, whose progression will be the deciding factor of whether or not the Pistons can get into the play-in tournament. Bey had 50 points in an NBA game last year and regularly had 25-30+ points last season, but it’s possible for him to turn into a 23-point scorer on a nightly basis. Isaiah Stewart is also now hitting 3’s and Marvin Bagley should continue to play well alongside him down low (once he is fully healthy). Last season, the Pistons had a defensive rating of 113. 3 (24th in the NBA), an offensive rating of 105.6 (28th in the NBA), an eFG% of 49.4 (last in the NBA), and a TS% of 53 (29th in the NBA). With the depth, they have added the Pistons should be able to at least jump into the middle tier of all of those categories.
23. Washington Wizards
The Wizards had an odd season last year as Bradley Beal was coming off of a 30 PPG campaign and they had traded their best player at the time, Russell Westbrook, for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP), and draft compensation. The roster looked a bit wonky after the Spencer Dinwiddie signing (who they then traded at the deadline for Kristaps Porzingis) but the core pieces are there for a play-in contending team.
When Kristaps Porzingis is healthy he is a 20-point-per-game scorer who can block shots and rebound at a high level, Kyle Kuzma proved to everyone that he could become a borderline star with averages of 17.1 8.5, and 3.5 on the season, and Bradley Beal was hurt a lot of the year but saw a career-high in assists (6.6 per game) despite his scoring totals falling off a cliff (23.2 per game).
Trading KCP for Will Barton and Monte Morris was a win for the Wizards as they got two high-end role players to add to the rotation. Last season, the Wizards ranked 25th in defensive rating (113.6), 21st in offensive rating (110.2), 18th in eFG% at 53.2, and 16th in TS% at 56.8.
They should be able to improve on both ends of the court next season with their added depth. Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Corey Kispert should all improve while 10th overall pick Johnny Davis will be the wild card for this team: If he is able to become more efficient from the field even as a rookie, this Wizards team should be able to snag the 9 or 10 seed, but if he struggles tremendously, the Wizards may not have enough depth to outpace other Eastern Conference teams.
22. Sacramento Kings
Keegan Murray is the truth and we are starting to see a glimpse of why the Kings prioritized the older (22 years old), Murray, over other prospects such as Jaden Ivey, Shaedon Sharpe, and Bennedict Mathurin. His versatility on both ends of the floor as indicated by the ability to shoot lights out from 3PT range, create his own shot, then be able to guard positions 2-5 on the defensive end immediately bolsters the King’s chances to reach the play-in tournament.
Although it could be tough to catch a Lakers team with a possible healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis (that is of course if the Lakers ever figure out how to shoot), the Kings will see strides from their young core including Murray, Davion Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox (who averaged close to 30 PPG after the Domantas Sabonis/Tyrese Haliburton trade), Domantas Sabonis, Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and Harrison Barnes. Last season, the Kings ranked 27th in defensive rating at 114.8, 24th in offensive rating at 109.6, 22nd in eFG% at 52.5, and 21st in TS% at 56.1. They will definitely see their offense continue to improve and flourish but it will be entirely up to Mitchell and Murray to bolster their defense.
21. New York Knicks
The Knicks made the news this offseason for two things: Giving Jalen Brunson an overpay of 4-years- $104 million and botching a trade centered around Donovan Mitchell and R.J. Barrett that they almost completed numerous times. Either way, however, if you want to look at the Knicks’ offseason, they undoubtedly improved. Whether or not Brunson being a lead guy is sustainable or not, he will provide good on-ball defense for his size and elite playmaking, and elusiveness on the offensive end. The signing of Isaiah Hartenstein was huge as opposing players had the lowest field goal percentage in the league at the rim when guarded by Hartenstein.
Mitchell Robinson and Hartenstein will provide elite interior defense, but the perimeter defense is still a problem. R.J. Barrett is starting to blossom as a playmaking 3-level scorer, but his defense is still sloppy, Immanuel Quickley is gifted offensively but could definitely improve on the defensive end of the floor, and Evan Fournier isn’t known for his defense either.
Derrick Rose should be healthy soon to provide on-ball defense at the guard positions with Quentin Grimes, and Obi Toppin needs to take a big leap on both ends of the floor to raise the ceiling of this team. The Knicks ranked 11th in defensive rating at 110.2, 23rd in offensive rating at 109.7, 26th in eFG% at 51.3, and 25th in TS% at 55. At their floor, the Knicks are the 11 seed, but their ceiling is very limited as I don’t think they can be anything more than a first-round exit if they somehow get out of the play-in tournament.
20. Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets lost one of their best players in Miles Bridges, who won’t be back at all this season from what it’s looking like. Bridges was the obvious #2 behind LaMelo Ball and would have raised this team’s ceiling tremendously. Now the Hornets must rely more heavily on Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier as their second and third-best players. A leap from P.J. Washington (since he is without Bridges now) would be helpful to this team, but they simply don’t have the talent and depth to contend in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets ranked 22nd in defensive rating last season (113.1), but were a top 10 offense because of LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges’ connection (they ranked 8th in offensive rating at 113.6). Their team eFG% of 54.4 was 7th in the NBA, while their TS% of 57.2 ranked 13th. This offense should take a huge step back without their second-best offensive player in Bridges, and although their defense could be better with the additions of Mark Williams, Bryce McGowens, and the development of Kai Jones, those same guys will have to flourish on the offensive end to maintain being a top 9 team in the Eastern Conference.
19. Portland Trailblazers
The Trailblazers will enter the season with a healthy Damian Lillard, and some new pieces to compliment him in Jerami Grant (acquired from Detroit), Gary Payton II (signed in FA), and Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker (signed through the draft). The Blazers are also bringing back Josh Hart, Jusuf Nurkic (who they just signed to a long-term extension), Anfernee Simons (who also just signed a rookie-max extension after a phenomenal breakout campaign), Trendon Watford, and Nassir Little to help form the depth of this team. Pure basketball fans are excited to see both Simons and Lillard on the court at the same time and how they can coexist at the 1 and the 2, but what is even more intriguing is how Jerami Grant will be used.
A 6-8 two-way versatile wing with a knack for scoring, Jerami Grant was acquired to bolster the wing depth for a Blazers team that has aspirations to contend this season despite how stacked the Western Conference is. Bringing up advanced stats for a depleted Trailblazers team from last season would be misleading since they will obviously be much better on offense with the additions of a healthy Lillard and Grant. They should be able to make the play-in tournament if all goes well but it’s hard for me to see this team making it out of even the play-in tournament.
18. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are in possibly the worst position of any team in the NBA: They have no shot at competing for a title despite having DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine, and Lonzo Ball (if ever healthy) and are too good to miss the playoffs and secure a top pick to start rebuilding. They are an above-average basketball team that gave away most of their assets for possibly 2-3 playoff appearances that will gain no traction.
The Bulls had a golden opportunity to build around Zach Lavine, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, and Patrick Williams as they would have had the 8th selection in the 2021 NBA draft, but instead, they shipped Wendell Carter Jr., who arguably is almost as impactful as Vucevic already. That 8th overall pick they shipped to Orlando became Franz Wagner, who is on an NBA-star trajectory after a stellar rookie season.
The Bulls thrive when Lonzo Ball is on the court (hence them being the #1 seed with him and falling to the 6th seed without him) and finished with the 23rd-ranked defensive rating of 113.2, the 13th-ranked offensive rating of 112.7, the 10th-ranked team eFG% of 54.1, and the 8th ranked team TS% of 57.9. The Bulls now face a bigger challenge without Lonzo Ball for most of this upcoming season at least: Can they still come out of the play-in tournament and make the playoffs with an improving Eastern Conference?
17. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks’ offseason was a win as they traded for young star Dejounte Murray to pair with superstar Trae Young. They lost some shooting with Kevin Huerter, but De’Andre Hunter should continue to improve his jumper and overall offensive game, while Clint Capela and John Collins should continue to be consistent on both ends of the floor as well. It is hard to believe that just over a year ago this squad was in the Eastern Conference Finals, but in a more stacked Eastern Conference this time around, the Hawks will have a tough time making it past the first round of the playoffs.
I’m not ruling it out, because their talent and depth scream upside and a possible second Eastern Conference Finals berth, but I can name at least six teams in the East more suited to making a run over them this year. Nonetheless, defensively on the wing, the Hawks will still have issues (last season 26th in defensive rating at 113.7, although Murray fixes a little bit of those problems). The Hawks will still be an offensive juggernaut (2nd in offensive rating last season at 115.4, 8th in team eFG% at 54.3, 6th in TS% at 58.1) because of Trae Young leading this offense, but if they can fix some things up defensively they could become very dangerous and a sleeper team to win it all.
16. Los Angeles Lakers
If you want to find a team that has the biggest differentiation from their floor to their upside, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. NBA fans know the most important thing for this team: Anthony Davis’ health. If Davis can even play 60 games and be healthy for the playoffs, the Lakers turn into a legitimate threat since their defense will be much better with the additions of Patrick Beverley, a healthy Kendrick Nunn, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dennis Schroder. Still, the Lakers would love to see a resurgence from Russell Westbrook on both ends of the floor.
Russell Westbrook has looked better (for the most part) so far in the preseason, but it remains to be seen if he has what it takes to put the team first and lock in on defense, and not shoot 3PT jumpers that become detrimental to the team’s success. Austin Reaves should see an increase in both playing time and production as a playmaking guard who can defend at a high level.
The path toward a return to the postseason starts with the defense as Darvin Ham will be tasked with improving the Lakers’ 21st-ranked defense in the NBA (defensive rating of 112.8). As for the offensive side of the ball, the Lakers will undoubtedly struggle again (last season 22nd in offensive rating at 110, 15th in eFG% at 53.7, 17th in TS% at 56.7) as Kendrick Nunn, Patrick Beverley, and possibly Cole Swider or Matt Ryan are the only legitimate 3PT shooting threats.
Another positive is Anthony Davis made 2 out of his 4 threes in the first preseason game and if he can somehow shoot 30% even from 3PT range, it will keep defenses honest and allow him to return to the player he was in the 2019-2020 NBA season. The Lakers could also be one of the worst teams in the NBA if everything goes wrong so their floor is the 11 seed and their ceiling could be as high as the 5 seed if everything goes right.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves added Rudy Gobert this offseason but it came at a steep price as they parted ways with numerous first-round picks and defensive studs Patrick Beverley and Jared Vanderbilt (two core players that made this team successful last season). Jaden McDaniels should see a leap on both ends of the floor, while Anthony Edwards could turn into one of the 10 best players in the NBA by year’s end.
We know what we’re getting from Karl Anthony-Towns, but what remains to be seen is how good their depth and perimeter defense can be. Losing Malik Beasley, Vanderbilt, and Beverley will undoubtedly limit their perimeter defensive abilities this season and could cost them big time when the playoffs begin. This is a team that has championship aspirations and although Rudy Gobert makes the Timberwolves’ 13th-ranked defense from last season (111 defensive rating) a top-10 defense, their ceiling has limits because Gobert has disappeared in many playoff series in the past for the Jazz. Can Gobert turn things around when it comes to the playoffs? He will need to turn this team into title contenders as for now they are merely a top 8 team in a stacked Western Conference.
14. Phoenix Suns
The Suns have serious depth issues entering this season and that was evident when the Suns became the first NBA team in history to lose to an international team in the preseason. Yes, it’s preseason but there is no excuse to lose to the Adelaide 36ers regardless of who is on the court. Bench players or starters, NBA players were on the court and the depth of the Suns was exposed.
Besides the great starting 5 of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ best bench player is arguably Cam Payne or Bismack Biyombo as Jae Crowder will likely be traded and Javale McGee (who was a godsent for them) signed with the Dallas Mavericks. Their starting 5 is one of the best in the NBA but to win a championship, a team needs some bench stars to step up and produce at a high level, something the Suns will not have this year.
Aside from originally not wanting to re-sign Ayton and leaked information that the Suns didn’t think he was worth 20+ million dollars a year, they matched a max contract for him and Ayton continues to throw shade at the organization in interviews. Jae Crowder wants nothing to do with the team and the Robert Sarver drama has put a dark cloud over the organization.
They made the NBA finals just two years ago and last year’s recipe for success was very similar: Play elite defense and shoot 3-pointers with great consistency. Last season the Suns ranked 3rd in defensive rating at 106.8, 5th in offensive rating at 114.2, 4th in eFG% at 54.9, 9th in 3PT% at 36.4, and 5th in TS% at 58.1. They will undoubtedly be worse offensively this year, but we all know the Suns are a regular-season team that chokes in the playoffs: This year will be no different and the lack of depth certainly doesn’t help them in both the regular season and the playoffs.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans have a legitimate shot to contend for an NBA championship this season with franchise player Zion Williamson back healthy and some of the best depth in the NBA. Brandon Ingram averaged over 25 points per game following the acquisition of C.J. McCollum and McCollum himself did not disappoint either providing elite 3-level scoring and shooting for a team that desperately needed to take pressure off of Brandon Ingram on the offensive end.
Defensively, Herb Jones is rapidly becoming the best perimeter defender in all of basketball, Jose Alvarado got his nickname, “Grand Theft Alvarado”, from pickpocketing players and turning steals into points, and Jonas Valancuinas and Jaxon Hayes provide elite interior defense. Extending Larry Nance Jr. also improves their interior defense, but the expected leap of Trey Murphy III will be crucial to this team’s ceiling.
A 3 and D 6-10 wing, Murphy has the shooting stroke and the length to turn into one of the better two-way young players in basketball, but more consistency is required on both ends of the floor for that to happen. Devonte’ Graham played well last season, but can 8th overall pick Dyson Daniels take over as the starting point guard? Daniels sat out NBA Summer League due to injury but has impressed in the NBA preseason games. Daniels’ NBA comp is Marcus Smart or Lonzo Ball because of his elite playmaking and lockdown defense.
Last season, the Pelicans ranked 17th in defensive rating at 112,19th in offensive rating at 111.2,24th in eFG% at 51.7, and 22nd in TS% at55.7, but those metrics are deceiving as they were one of the worst teams in the NBA before the McCollum trade and toward the end of the season ranked in the top 10-15 of every one of those categories. Adding another tough guard in Daniels and getting their best player back in Williamson makes this Pelicans team a threat to come out of the Western Conference at full strength. They got 2 games on last year’s Suns without Williamson so we can only imagine what this machine is like at full strength.
12. Brooklyn Nets
After the offseason fiasco with Kevin Durant requesting a trade and then rumors about Kyrie Irving being shipped to LA surfacing, it seems like everything is heading in the right direction for this team. Both KD and Irving are back, while Ben Simmons has already been promising this preseason. Trading a first-rounder for one of the better two-way players in the NBA in Royce O’Neal could become a steal, and Joe Harris will be back, joining Seth Curry as the team’s two sharpshooters.
At first glance, this team has the talent to go all the way, especially when you take into account how good their defense can be this season. Last year, the Nets ranked 20th in defensive rating at 112.3, but they should become at least a top 12-15 defense simply with the additions of Simmons and O’Neal, two versatile defenders that can defend multiple positions.
The Nets offense ranked 10th in the NBA at 113.2 without Joe Harris and Kyrie Irving most of the year, and they shot the ball tremendously regardless with a team eFG% and TS% of 54.0 and 57.6, both ranked 11th in the NBA respectively. However, even though the team was depleted with injuries last year, it’s hard to forget how awful they looked against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
They still had their two best players in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and couldn’t get one game on the Celtics. This begs the question: as talented as the Nets are, are they good enough to contend with the Eastern Conference’s elite? Right now the answer is no, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this team goes on a run to the NBA Finals with their much-improved defense and star power.
11. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors ended the 2021-2022 NBA regular season as the hottest team going into the playoffs after a 14-4 record in their last 18 games. After an injury to young star Scottie Barnes in game 1 of the series against the 76ers, the Raptors fell too far behind to forage a comeback against a Joel Embiid, James Harden-led team (although they came awfully close after being down 3-0).
This team will continue to surprise people this year as Scottie Barnes looks to take a huge leap, while Pascal Siakam looks to maintain his dominance on both ends of the floor (22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game with a TS% of 56.5). Fred VanVleet is still one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA and shot 37.7% from 3PT range and had a 55.2 TS% as well.
Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby are two of the best young two-way players in the NBA while Chirs Boucher, newly signed Otto Porter Jr., and Precious Achiwua lead one of the most versatile benches in the NBA. This team is arguably the longest team in the league and they know it by how they disrupt opposing offenses with their versatility and length (9th-ranked defensive rating at 109.9). The Raptors‘ ceiling is reliant on how they can improve their offense which ranked 15th in offensive rating at 112.1, and 27th in eFG% and TS% at 51 and 54.7 respectively). The promising sign is that their core is extremely young and talented, which should keep the Raptors in the playoffs for the next decade or so depending on Barnes’ development.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks filled a hole in their roster by adding Christian Wood, a stretch 5 with a knack for scoring. However, even though it will turn out as a blessing to not overpay for Jalen Brunson, it still hurts losing one of the most pivotal players of your team to free agency. Brunson’s departure puts more pressure on Spencer Dinwiddie to step up even more alongside Luka Doncic in the backcourt. Tim Hardaway Jr., the team’s 3 and D specialist is healthy and ready to make an impact, while the addition of Javale McGee is arguably the most underrated signing of free agency. McGee is an elite rim protector who is athletic and an immediate lob threat, all of which traits Dallas struggled to implement last season.
Jason Kidd took this Mavericks team to places it hasn’t been in years because of the improvement on the defensive end (7th in defensive rating at 109.1) and a lot of that is attributed to Dorrey Finney-Smith, the anchor of this defense. Though the loss of Brunson will affect them on the offensive end this season (last year they finished 14th in offensive rating at 112.5 and they may be even worse) defensively NBA fans should see more of the same dominance. Luka Doncic is like LeBron James, if you give him 3PT shooting and elite defenders, your team has a shot to win the NBA title so no one should count the Mavericks out even in a stacked Western Conference.
9. Miami Heat
The Heat came one shot away from the NBA Finals as Jimmy Butler pulled up for that 3-pointer instead of going to the rim to tie the game. Nonetheless, the Heat are going to be exactly the same team, but that may not be as promising as it was last year. Every other contender in the Eastern Conference is getting better (Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto) while the Heat did relatively nothing to improve.
The Heat ranked 4th in defensive rating at 108.4, 12th in offensive rating at 113, 5th in eFG% at 54.7, and 3rd in TS% at 58.4. They should continue to see their defense flourish led by Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo, but P.J. Tucker’s departure is a huge loss for this team, and Lowry and Butler are only getting older. In fact, Kyle Lowry‘s postseason averages from last season were astronomically worse (7.8 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game) than in the regular season (13.4 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game) which causes concern for this season. Regardless of whether Lowry’s production continues to dip, he is still a great defender and the Heat have one of the best head coaches, Erik Spoelstra, in the NBA to make adjustments.
8. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers made it two games away from the Eastern Conference Finals but fell to the Heat. According to management, there were some defensive holes and depth issues that they tried to address this offseason by signing away P.J. Tucker from the Heat, then trading a first-round pick for De’Anthony Melton. With a core of Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and P.J. Tucker built to win now, the 76ers have the goods to contend for a title, but James Harden needs to step up in big games. We all know what happens to James Harden when he enters elimination games, but there were some promising games for Harden as well in the playoffs.
If Harden can continue to play to his strengths as one of the best playmaking scorers in the NBA, then there is no ceiling for this team. NBA fans know that Joel Embiid will score 30 points per game and that Tobias Harris will average 19 and 5, but James Harden needs to get back to averaging 23-25 points and 9-11 assists per game to turn this team into a 1 seed. Another scenario is where Harden slacks and Tyrese Maxey will have to step up as the #2 to Joel Embiid.
Maxey took a big leap in year 2 averaging 17.5 points and 4.3 assists per game with a 3PT% of 42.7, an eFG% 55.2, and a TS% of 59.5. If Maxey can not only continue to be the reliable shooter and scorer that the team needs, but get even better at both, then this 76ers team could turn into by far the best team in basketball, not only the Eastern Conference. Because of the additions of P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton, the 76ers will undoubtedly improve their 12 ranked defensive rating from last season (110.2) but a leap from Maxey and more consistency from Harden will allow the 76ers to improve their 11th-ranked offensive rating from last season (113), their 16th ranked eFG% of 53.4, and their 10th ranked TS% of 57.8.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers were already on a great trajectory, but trading for Donovan Mitchell really accelerated their timeline as they’ll contend as soon as this year. Last season, the Cavaliers witnessed the ascension of Darius Garland (21.7 points, 8.6 assists per game, 57.6 TS%) into a borderline superstar and saw Evan Mobley progress exponentially as a rookie (15 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game, 55 TS%). Jarrett Allen (16.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, 69.8 TS%) became a first-time All-Star, and Kevin Love (39.2% from 3, 59.4 TS%) turned back the clock and became a reliable two-way star for the Cavaliers. Now with the addition of a young superstar in Donovan Mitchell (25.9 points per game, 57.2 TS%), the Cavaliers have the star power to be perennial title contenders.
Although Mitchell comes with some baggage on the defensive end and may affect the team’s 5th-ranked defensive rating of 108.9 last season, he will more than makeup for it by drastically improving the team’s 20th-ranked offensive rating of 111, 14th-ranked eFG% of 53.8, and 15th ranked TS% of 57.1. The Cavaliers also re-signed Ricky Rubio, who when he comes back healthy will be a crucial backup point guard and sparkplug off of the bench. This team has star power and depth, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get to the Eastern Conference Finals as soon as this year.
6. Boston Celtics
The Celtics have already had a whirlwind of an offseason. After turning their season around in the second half that included a magical run to the NBA Finals, hopes were high for the defending Eastern Conference champs. However, Ime Udoka was a huge reason why this team became so dominant defensively, which allowed everything to come into place. Obviously, after the allegations toward Udoka right now, he won’t be coaching in the NBA in the near future so newly minted interim head coach Joe Mazzula will have to find that same magic on the defensive end.
Roster-wise, the Celtics will be better than last season just with the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, who filled their biggest hole…a true point guard. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will continue to develop and once Robert Williams III comes back from injury this will be a juggernaut.
Last season the Celtics finished with the best defensive rating in basketball at 106.2, and even though they have the pieces to accomplish that feat again, the Warriors, Clippers, and Bucks have a good shot to finish as the top defensive team in the league with the long absence of Williams III. The Celtics also had the 9th-best offensive rating at 113.6 and the 9th-best eFG% and TS% at 54.2 and 57.8 respectively. I will never count a team this talented out with now one more year of experience, but I have a feeling not having Udoka as coach will affect this team a lot, especially on the defensive end.
5. Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic is coming off back-to-back MVP seasons and last year he finished with the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of all time at 32.8 despite not having his two best weapons, Jamaal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., to take pressure off of him offensively. Think about that… Jokic had the most efficient season of all time with Aaron Gordon or Monte Morris as his second-best player. Jokic also got the Nuggets to become the best shooting team in the NBA with the top-ranked eFG% and TS% in the NBA of 55.6 and 59 respectively.
The Nuggets also ranked 6th in overall offensive rating at 113.8 and accomplished all of this without their 2nd and 3rd best players. Now one can only imagine how much of an offensive juggernaut the Nuggets will be with their top players back. Nonetheless, the Nuggets have some work to do on the defensive end as they finished 15th in defensive rating at 111.5 last season. The additions of Bruce Brown Jr. and Kentavious-Caldwell Pope will not only fill in on the offensive end for Monte Morris and Will Barton but will be way more impactful on the defensive end as stoppers. As a result, the Nuggets will have one of the most balanced teams in the NBA and could win a title this season.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies won 56 games last year and finished second in the Western Conference Standings. A lot of their success was due to Ja Morant’s leap to superstardom, but Desmond Bane may have been the X factor from last year’s team. Last season, Bane played in 76 out of 82 games, averaging 18.2 points per game on 43.6% from 3PT range with a TS% of 59.2. In comparison, in Bane’s rookie season, he averaged 9.2 points per game on 43.2% from 3PT range but in many fewer attempts per game on average.
Perhaps the talent to become one of the most efficient players in the NBA was there, yet to be unlocked, but either way Bane’s development into an NBA star helped turn the corner for this franchise. His knockdown shooting allowed everyone else to space the floor and get open looks, while Morant’s unstoppable drives to the lane had opposing defenses praying. Both of those two players, who are now the cornerstones of this franchise were most responsible for the increase in 18 wins, but the Grizzlies also sport arguably the deepest roster in the NBA.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (when healthy) is a defensive player of the year candidate, Steven Adams is a tenacious rebounder who has found success as a passer in Memphis, Brandon Clarke, Ziaire Williams, and Dillon Brooks are high flyers that thrive on both ends of the floor, and Tyus Jones is coming off of a season where he had the highest assist-turnover ratio of all time by a player. Not only did last year’s Grizzlies rank top 5 in both offensive and defensive rating (one of only two teams to do so), but they were also the best rebounding team in the NBA with a 52.6% rebound rate (1st in NBA) and a 33.8% offensive rebound rate (1st in the NBA by a lot).
Their team eFG% and TS% ranked in the bottom half of the league despite having a top 5 offensive rating (because they had the most field goal attempts per game by a mile) so having more consistency shooting the ball other than Bane and Morant, and slowing the tempo down for higher percentage shots is crucial for Memphis to continue to be one of the NBA’s best teams.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks likely would have been in the NBA Finals last season had Khris Middleton been healthy. In fact, the Bucks have yet to lose a playoff series with their big 3 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all healthy. Obviously, that is within a short sample size of one postseason (you could say the same thing about the Lakers) and health does dictate each NBA season. Nonetheless, this is by far the most balanced team in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from Antetokounmpo’s pure dominance (29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists per game with a 63.3 TS% and a PER of 32.1, 2nd in the NBA behind Jokic) as arguably the league’s best player, Jrue Holiday is still the best on-ball defender at the guard position in the NBA, Middleton is a two-way star that can get a bucket whenever he wants, while the ascension of Bobby Portis into one the NBA’s best 3PT shooters (39.3% from 3, 57.1 TS% in general) and the reliability of the rest of the bench make this team very hard to beat as the Bucks rarely have any flaws on their roster.
Last season the Bucks ranked 14th in defensive rating in the regular season at 111.1, but in the playoffs, they were by far the most dominant team defensively with the #1 rating of 102.7. If they can even revert to the mean of those two numbers, they’ll have a top 5 defense and destroy the league on both ends of the floor. The Bucks ranked 3rd in offensive rating at 114.3, 6th in eFG% at 54.6, and 7th in TS% at 58 last season and should be able to at least replicate that team performance. At the end of the day, a ring is what only matters for this organization, and they’ll have a good shot at having it.
2. Golden State Warriors
Surprised to see Golden State at #2 and not #1? The Warriors enter their championship defense with another team that could bring home the title. They are the favorite in Vegas for a reason, and it’s because no team has been able to figure out how to stop this kind of dominance on both sides of the ball. The Warriors ranked 2nd in defensive rating last season at 106.6, and would have had the top defense in the league over Boston had Draymond Green not missed months with an injury. Say what you want about Draymond Green, but he is the anchor of this defense and critical to the Warriors’ chances at another title.
Sure he is a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but that is why Steve Kerr has offensive stars, Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, and Klay Thompson out there with him. The development of Jordan Poole was another reason why this team won a championship as he performed just as well as Stephen Curry on some days and maybe even better.
Obviously, Curry is still the franchise player and the team’s best player, but the Warriors can sleep well at night knowing they when Steph Curry retires, they have a 2.0 version already on the roster. In the regular season, the Warriors surprisingly struggled on offense a lot of the time with an offensive rating of 112.1 (ranked 12th in the NBA) despite having the 3rd ranked eFG% of 55.2 and the 4th ranked TS% of 58.2. Nonetheless, the drama between Jordan Poole and Draymond Green will not deter this team from contending for another championship.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Not only are the Clippers the best team in the NBA going into the season, but they are my pick to win the whole thing assuming they stay healthy. Now obviously that’s a big assumption considering what the team has endured injury-wise over the past couple of years, but please name me a better roster in the NBA.
The Clippers are 14 deep with two-way wings all over the place in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (two of the best two-way players in the NBA), Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Terance Mann, Norman Powell, and Marcus Morris. They signed John Wall, who can still be one of the better playmakers in the NBA, they have 3PT shooting in Luke Kennard and Batum, and they have one of the best coaches in basketball (who has title experience by the way) in Ty Lue.
The Clippers ranked 8th in defensive rating last year at 109.5 despite Kawhi Leonard and Paul George missing most of the season. Once those two superstars step on the court, the Clippers immediately become a top 5 defense and probably the best defense in the league for that matter. The Clippers really struggled to shoot the ball last season without their two best players as they ranked 25th in offensive rating (109.5), and 19th in eFG% and TS% at 53.1, and 56.4 respectively. The only concern that I have with this team is the backup center position.
What happens if the Clippers are playing Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, or even Karl Anthony-Towns and Anthony Davis and Zubac isn’t playing well or fouls out? Who is their backup center? Rookie Moussa Diabate? Or newly signed Moses Brown, who doesn’t have big-minutes experience? The Clippers could use 6-7 Robert Covington at the 5 and play small ball, but no one actually knows if that will work against teams with dominant centers. Time will tell, but I expect the Clippers to figure it out and win their 1st NBA Championship if healthy.
Note: Advanced Statistics used in this article are gathered from NBA.com and Statmuse.com