- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
It’s time for our silliest preseason tradition: The 11th (how???) annual League Pass Rankings, a watchability scale to help you avoid wasting time on things like, “Wait, has this team actually ordered its players to tie their shoes together as part of its Lose-A-Rama for Victor Wembanyama campaign?”
These are not power rankings! They are derived from a formula Bill Simmons found scrawled on parchment paper inside a glass bottle that washed up on the shores of Malibu.
Teams are scored 1-10 in five categories:
ZEITGEIST: When you talk about this team at parties, do people slink away?
HIGHLIGHT POTENTIAL: Do you linger on games in case a superstar does something amazing?
STYLE: Where are they on the continuum from “Golden State Warriors beautiful game” to “Julius Randle just took four jab steps and launched an 18-footer”?
LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: All the little things that mean too much to damaged die-hards: announcers, court designs, uniforms.
UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Google the Washington Wizards of the early 2010s.
30. UTAH JAZZ (17.5)
The Jazz aren’t really a basketball team after detonating the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert-Quin Snyder-Making-Amazing-Faces era. They are an airport waiting area for players, only those players have to play together a bit because the NBA mandates the Jazz field a team instead of working together “Ocean’s Eleven”-style to rig the lottery.
They are the NBA Spider-Man Pointing meme of shoot-first combo guards: Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Lauri Markkanen and Malik Beasley aren’t exactly prime John Stockton, either. Poor Mike Conley can bring the ball up, pass it once and head into the stands for a drink. (I am excited to watch Sexton again. He averaged 24 points on 47.5% shooting two seasons ago, and purists dismissed it because the Cleveland Cavaliers stunk and Sexton’s a blah passer. Putting up those numbers is not easy. Sexton plays with classic little guy bravado, flinging himself inside for rebounds and going at larger superstars as if they should be scared of him.)
We are only one year removed from the Utah broadcast team shrieking at Rudy Gay’s debut as if the Jazz were getting prime Karl Malone. I can’t wait to hear how the Jazz are not really tanking, how dare anyone suggest it, the honorable caretakers of this community treasure would never allow that toxin to infect your beloved Jazz Men.
The new uniforms are a crime against NBA art:
The black and yellow ones are high school gym class-level. Why is a team with such a rich color palette going all-in on black? The white ones are passable only because the Jazz note — a perfect piece of sports art — is front and center, but they’ve even sullied that by removing the blue, yellow and green in the note head in favor of (yup) black.
The new court at least has the smoky white-gray shadow of that note along the sidelines.
Jarred Vanderbilt is cool.
29. INDIANA PACERS (19)
The Pacers are one trade from challenging the San Antonio Spurs as frontrunners for the league’s worst record. They fall behind the Spurs here only because of the “zeitgeist” category; winning five titles buys San Antonio gravitas, especially when their last tank job kick-started that dominance.
Tyrese Haliburton is more entertaining than the entire Spurs team. He operates two steps ahead of defenses, and takes joy in passing. He gets off the ball early instead of hunting assists. When Haliburton is on the floor, the ball flies. He celebrates assists more loudly than baskets. You will sometimes catch Haliburton shouting with glee as his big man is about to cram one of his feathery lobs. (Haliburton and Isaiah Jackson are a fun alley-oop connection.) He might lead the league in assists.
Indiana’s young (and raw) bigs seemed to catch Haliburton’s spirit; the Pacers had the ball shifting side-to-side. Terry Taylor is the most ferocious offensive rebounder you don’t know. He will Kool-Aid Man through four guys to snag a second chance.
T.J. McConnell must be furious Jose Alvarado seized his throne as the king of the back-court sneak steal. I expect McConnell to respond by wearing a Hamburglar mask and hiding in the stands.
Chris Duarte bobs and weaves behind screens with liquid veteran guile. Bennedict Mathurin is a blast of athleticism for a team that ranked 27th in dunks. There’s plenty of room on Aaron Nesmith Island!
28. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (21.5)
The Spurs were for so long the League Pass nerd team: Manu Ginobili driving Gregg Popovich mad with thread-the-needle passes; Boris Diaw’s roly-poly, spinning, shoulder-checking drives; Kawhi Leonard snatching the ball from people. They birthed the Spursgasm, and raised the sport to perhaps its stylistic zenith in 2013-14.
Can I interest you in the Low-Risk Point Guard Sibling Olympics between Tre and Tyus Jones? What about Point Josh Primo? Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell should develop into really good support starters, but it’s hard to hone your secondary playmaking on a team this light on first-option types to bend defenses — even if Popovich will have everyone sharing and moving. (Vassell is the biggest draw — a potential 3-and-D monster who has flashed ball-handling chops.)
At least Jakob Poeltl free throws have drama; he has hit below 50% over three seasons, and that will be a big deal if Poeltl — a fine player — ends up on a playoff team again.
Jeremy Sochan is fun, and leads three 2022 first-round picks who should see minutes.
Is this the best non-fiesta jersey in Spurs history — maybe the best, period?
I love that spur jutting out of the “X” in that new “SATX” wordmark. That gorgeous pattern down the sides is rendered in the style of Mexican serapes. The Texas state logo is a nod to the team’s origins as the Dallas Chaparrals in the American Basketball Association.
This 50th anniversary court, though …
The gold doesn’t go, and the center-court logo looks as if someone draped a carpet over the big spur.
27. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (21.5)
They’d be at least three spots higher with Chet Holmgren healthy. Without him, the roster is a morass after the strange-but-cool Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Josh Giddey/Luguentz Dort trio. I mean this in a good way: It is really hard to find a perimeter trio with almost zero overlapping skill among them.
Giddey is the tall genius passer who dares long-range, no-look lasers with zero margin for error. Dort is the brick wall who lofts ceiling-scraping 3s and bulldozes inside. Gilgeous-Alexander is the ungraspable phantom, everywhere and nowhere at once as he slithers into the lane — different limbs seemingly operating at different speeds, and moving in different directions.
Good luck distributing minutes beyond that. If you’re chasing wins, you’d play Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala. Then there are at least seven young guys who merit time — including three of the first 34 picks in the last draft.
Aleksej Pokusevski has shown hints that he’s a basketball player, not just a gangly novelty. He has vision, and a knack for blocking shots. (Does he think you get more points if jumpers go in at higher velocities?) Tre Mann is crafty. If a Darius Bazley corner 3 hits the side of the backboard, does it make a noise? (Don’t sleep on the Thunder hiring Chip Engelland — longtime assistant coach and shooting guru for the Spurs.)
A juicy subplot: midtier playoff teams cannot afford losses to the Wembanyama Brigade. Those can be the difference between No. 6 and the play-in. The Thunder signaled doom for the Los Angeles Lakers last season with two massive early comeback wins.
The broadcast is less propaganda-y than it once was. Progress!
26. Washington Wizards (24)
The cherry blossom uniform is the best thing to happen to this franchise since the Charlotte Bobcats took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist No. 2 in 2012. They should give these uniforms a no-trade clause.
The team with perhaps the most blah art collection of the last 15 years — this is the first season they’ve used multiple courts! — nailed every detail: the soft-pink; the gradual shift to gray on the shorts; the stenciled flowers dripping down the sides.
Gandalf is back!
After years of ignoring their kooky wizarding heritage, the team is tiptoeing into some semi-ironic hipster embrace of it. It took me years before I realized the contrast between the wizard’s white beard and black cloak formed a “W.” (I might have problems.)
Oh, the team! The Wiz could push for a high-end play-in spot, or skid early and Avada Kedavra themselves into the Wembanyama sweepstakes.
For a team that has been under-.500 since 2018, they have few (if any) young prospects you are dying to watch. Deni Avdija is a heady ball-mover who enjoys defense — remember when he started forming an “X” with his forearms after stops? — but needs to do more on offense. Rui Hachimura was empty calories last season; he has a lot to prove in the final year of his rookie contract.
Kyle Kuzma was awesome across the board, and elevates NBA fashion. Bradley Beal is one of the league’s most artful three-level scorers — a sleek blend of old school and new school. You often hear how Beal can’t be the No. 1 guy on a title team, but who cares (other than Wiz fans who can recite his salary cap hit in 2027)? How many such players exist? Beal is a star, and would look incredible as the second-best player — and maybe No. 1 scorer — on a great team stacked with defenders. (In other news, the Wiz had a three-year window in which they could have traded Beal for a gazillion draft picks.)
Daniel Gafford is a nasty dunker. Kristaps Porzingis is here.
25. ORLANDO MAGIC (24.5)
The funniest random NBA streak is Orlando’s 10-season run ranking 20th or worse in points per possession. That is Dimaggio-level consistency in offensive incompetence. I really hope they are 20th on the last day of the season and go all-out for 19th.
I think we are on rebuild No. 3 post-Dwightmare? This one might take. Paolo Banchero is the offense-first fulcrum the Magic have searched for this entire decade — an all-court hub with the passing and shooting chops to lift his teammates. Franz Wagner is an ideal secondary wing — all heady cuts and snappy passes, with the touch and ball-handling guile to take the reins mid-possession. Wendell Carter Jr. is only 23, and he’s already a decent starting center. They should land another high pick in this draft.
Cole Anthony plays as if he thinks he’s the best player on the floor, and I love it. He’s a solid backup and spot starter.
Everything else is a mystery. Unless Wagner becomes an every-possession point-forward — that seems a stretch — the Magic still need a perimeter orchestrator. What, exactly, is Jalen Suggs?
Jonathan Isaac’s return sometime between now and 2030 would introduce some ultra-modern lineup combinations. Can you go giant, with Wagner and all three of Isaac, Banchero and Carter? What about the center-less front-court of Wagner/Isaac/Banchero? I will never give up on Chuma Okeke!
The broadcast trio of David Steele, Jeff Turner, and Dante Marchitelli is tremendous. They have fun without degenerating into shrill homerism.
24. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (24.5)
This is the floor for a team featuring one of the league’s most inventive passers in LaMelo Ball; Eric Collins’ rapturous play-by-play; Kelly Oubre Jr. talking trash to everyone in earshot; and some of the league’s best and most immediately identifiable art. (Here’s hoping they bring back the mint shade they unveiled two seasons ago; the Hornets can own that.)
This alternate court is another hit:
That all-purple silhouette of a scary-looking Hornet leaps off the screen. The stinger theme echoes along the sideline, and on the outside of the “H” and “S” of the accompanying jersey:
The half-basketball with turquoise lining is the rare instance where dividing the circle by color works.
The Hornets played fast and ranked No. 2 in dunks last season, but almost half those dunks belonged to Miles Bridges and Montrezl Harrell. Steve Clifford teams typically don’t play fast, or experiment with the funky “nothing else is working, let’s try this?” zone defenses James Borrego cooked up.
(Clifford is a really good coach. Even so, we have not spent nearly enough time discussing how hilarious and perfectly Hornets it is that Charlotte hired one coach — Kenny Atkinson — only for him to bail once he got a look inside, and then turned to the coach they fired four years ago.)
Pairing Clifford with a chaos agent like Ball will either result in an untenable tug-of-war or a healthy meeting in the middle. (Clifford has little choice but to play a pile of unproven young guys.) I’m curious how Ball finds his footing in slowed-down, half-court sequences — what moves and passes he leans on, how he incorporates teammates.
Terry Rozier has canned an inexplicable number of clutch jumpers over the last two seasons. There is something mesmerizing about watching Mason Plumlee decide, “Screw it, I’m going to unleash this reeeeeeaaaally slooooooowwwww spin move from the foul line. It’s my time to live, baby!” Did you know Plumlee switched to shooting free throws lefty last season? That happened!
23. NEW YORK KNICKS (26.5)
The Knicks played at the league’s second-slowest pace, and their games featured tons of free throws. Their starting five was unwatchable, unless you enjoy Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson bumping into each other. The rollicking bench shocked them to life, and if the basketball gods are kind, we will see more Barrett alongside Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. (You never know when Toppin might stage his own in-game dunk contest.)
Toppin is a quick-twitch ball-mover, and Quickley went up two levels as a playmaker last season. Isaiah Hartenstein will have the ball popping, and stitch the bench together. If Robinson isn’t on point, we might see Hartenstein finish games.
Jalen Brunson should restore order and spacing to the starting five. The Knicks boast Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier, Madison Square Garden’s theater lighting and a pristine royal blue court. (I will drop them one spot if they introduce more black-and-orange art. You are the Knicks of New York freaking City. Do not be Team Halloween!)
I would like an in-game feed of Leon Rose and slouching, hangdog James Dolan sitting next to each other in silence, only the Knicks would never risk accidentally broadcasting Dolan shouting back at fans urging him to sell the team. (The camera might also catch them frowning at Tom Thibodeau’s refusal to play Cam Reddish.)
The potential for cranky Randle turning against the fans again adds to the comedy score.
22. HOUSTON ROCKETS (27)
On the one hand: Houston ranked first in dunks and second in pace, and features a bunch of telegenic young players. Jalen Green goes from zero to 100 in a nanosecond, and hunts bodies at the rim. He can also slow down for smooth midrange pull-ups — a nice break from Houston’s dunks-and-3s credo.
How do you even describe Alperen Sengun? He attempts such unusual feats of pivotry that you sometimes wonder if he traveled even though you just watched him shift both feet three times without dribbling. Was that so weird, it was somehow legal? Sengun could carry the ball 20 steps and still be astonished the referees whistled him for traveling.
He sometimes pass fakes to no one — literally to empty space — just to get defenders leaning into that void. Is it genius or madness?
Kenyon Martin Jr. gets eye to eye with the rim, and dunks like he wants to tear the basket down. Daishen Nix has a little John Bagley/Sherman Douglas-style bulk to his game.
On the other hand: Houston fouled the bejesus out of everyone and gagged up one of the highest turnover rates in recent history; its style of play — young guys running and gunning — lends itself to raggedness.
Tari Eason will clean up the defense. He is here to lock victims up. Jabari Smith Jr. brings some preternatural polish.
Do Derrick Favors and Maurice “I’m coming for Ish Smith’s record” Harkless ever wonder, “Wait, what city am I in?” It hurts the comedy score that Eric Gordon is too professional to write “Trade me!” on his shoes a la Chris Morris.
Boban Marjanovic cameos are always welcome. Every move Garrison Mathews makes — kicking his legs out on jumpers, running smack into picks — carries a hint of danger. Every team needs a Jae’Sean Tate.
21. SACRAMENTO KINGS (27.5)
This is too low for Sacramento.
You never know when the #KANGZZ might appear in-game. Example: Remember when NBA Twitter kicked into Conspiracy Theory mode because Vivek Ranadive sat courtside between the general manager he had recently fired (Vlade Divac) and Divac’s replacement (Monte McNair)? Because it was the Kings — with their “Game of Thrones”-style power structure and habit of hiring coaches before GMs — anything was possible.
In describing that bizarre scene, Jason Jones of The Athletic recalled Ranadive tweeting happy birthday to Jimmer Fredette (whose selection at No. 10 in 2011 after a nonsensical trade down is another #KANGZZ moment) “while negotiating a buyout [with Fredette] at the same time.” Even the tweet in question has a hidden #KANGZ treasure:
Ranadive is making the “hang loose” gesture in front of another photo of him flashing the “hang loose” gesture.
Anyway, Team Play-In-Or-Bust should be a fast-paced scoring machine built around the already sophisticated De’Aaron Fox-Domantas Sabonis two-man game. They are a natural match: opposites in build, but tethered in craft and wink-wink IQ. Sabonis might flip the angle of his screen two, three, four times, and Fox shifts in sync with each move. Sabonis can brutalize switches, push in transition and even run the occasional inverted pick-and-roll.
Malik Monk is a show, Kevin “Red Velvet” Huerter adds shooting and underrated playmaking, and Keegan Murray intrigues. I will miss the Haliburton-Richaun Holmes lob connection, but Holmes’ push shot — the best of its kind — carries on.
Every Kings opponent will score a lot too. Kent Bazemore and Matthew Dellavedova complete your 2010s NBA Mad Libs.
20. MIAMI HEAT (28)
The algorithm is angry Miami discontinued its instantly iconic “Miami Vice”-style jerseys.
The Heat are a sneakily hard sell for casual fans. They were 28th in pace and 26th in dunks, and they foul a lot. Watching Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Bam Adebayo make magic in tight spaces is an acquired taste. You have to really pay attention to notice all the smart cuts, shoulder fakes, give-and-gos, and slick interior passes that make Miami’s half-court offense hum — when it hums.
Lowry gets them moving with overzealous full-court hit-aheads. I’m excited to see what Tyler Herro does as a permanent starter. He became over-infatuated — with the team’s encouragement to some degree — with becoming a high-volume pick-and-roll ball handler at the expense of some catch-and-shoot 3s. He should recalibrate 15% or so in the direction of Klay Thompson.
There is something beautiful and almost contradictory about Jimmy Butler’s bruising game. He doesn’t just plow into people. He’s violent and physical, but never reckless. In a blink, he can transition from a burrowing drive into a stop-on-a-dime jumper that drips with surprising softness. He brings the same balletic ferocity to his off-ball cuts. (Butler might be the league’s most underrated cutter.)
Erik Spoelstra has thorny minutes decisions with Duncan Robinson, the (hopefully?) revitalized Victor Oladipo, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, and Max Strus. Don’t sleep on Big Yurt (Omer Yurtseven)!
The flip side of self-serious #HeatCulture is that there is almost nothing funny — unintentionally or otherwise — about the Heat.
19. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (29)
There is nothing in basketball like an avalanche of Damian Lillard 3s. In Portland, the buzz builds as fans realize: We might see one of those nights. It reaches a euphoric crescendo when one final 30-footer forces a timeout, and Lillard, scowling, stares and nods at the crowd in his house.
On the road, you hear fear — really hear it. It starts with low murmuring: Uh oh. As the streak unfolds, the noise morphs into a sort of collective shriek that begins when Lillard pauses mid-dribble as if he might launch.
For the first time in ages, the Blazers have surrounded their star with some oomph: Josh Hart rampaging end-to-end; Nassir Little testing the limits of his game; Anfernee Simons flicking 3s and hunting tin; Gary Payton II rim-running and committing felonies on defense; the unknown of Shaedon Sharpe.
Simons might have the league’s prettiest floater; he pogo-sticks into the clouds, above reaching defenders, and flips that baby from all angles.
Trendon Watford has a nifty floater too. Drew Eubanks dunks and swats with rage.
Chauncey Billups might have to start from scratch on defense after last year’s blitzing scheme failed.
The Blazers have the best team name, and maybe the best top-to-bottom art. This floor is close to seizing my No. 1 court design spot from the Lakers:
A few teams have experimented with differently colored painted areas. That contrast works better on the boundaries — as the Blazers have done here. The pinwheel might be the best logo in U.S. sports; whoever decided to extend the striping from the center-court pinwheel onto each sideline deserves a big raise.
Lillard planted the pinwheel smack in the center of the new jersey he helped design — and echoed its striping down the sides:
More teams are trying jerseys showing only their primary logo — no wordmark at all — and the pinwheel is well-suited to that. The Blazers were smart to render the numbers in white instead of black.
18. CHICAGO BULLS (30)
This an eight-spot drop from last year, reflecting Lonzo Ball’s importance as Chicago’s fast-break engine and the connective tissue between the disparate styles baked into the roster.
I was gobsmacked watching from courtside last November as the Bulls ran circles around the Lakers at Staples Center. LeBron James didn’t play, but Chicago’s blowout win was so emphatic, his absence seemed almost immaterial. The younger, bouncier, cockier Bulls looked as if they were playing a different sport. They passed and cut and jacked 3s ahead of the Lakers. Ball and Alex Caruso terrorized L.A. on defense. The Lakers quit. The Bulls danced.
That team vanished six weeks later, and has never returned. It got slower, more predictable, over-dependent on DeMar DeRozan’s graceful but somewhat repetitive midrange game. Zach LaVine is the best dunker since Vince Carter, but wings don’t dunk often enough to warp viewing habits; Lavine dunked 62 times in 67 games. (Derrick Jones. Jr. might literally jump over someone at any moment.)
If LaVine cans one or two fading step-back 3s — he’ll do that from the corners too! — definitely stick around. A high-degree-of-difficulty swish-fest may be coming.
Nikola Vucevic is a footwork artist on the block, but playing alongside LaVine and DeRozan marginalized that part of his game and turned him into a run-of-the-mill pick-and-pop shooter; Vucevic averaged eight post touches per 100 possessions, second-lowest of his career, per Second Spectrum.
Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams offer the appeal of the unknown, and how they develop — and how fast — is of immense importance to a team that could be trapped in upper-class mediocrity. Williams’ career could spin in an unusual number of directions; the Bulls might even spot him minutes at center.
Adam Amin and Stacey King keep the broadcast light-hearted, and lose nothing when Jason Benetti fills in. The logo, court, and jerseys (other than anodyne black alternates) are top-notch.
17. TORONTO RAPTORS (30)
Some fans are concerned about strategic homogeneity — every team playing spread pick-and-roll, chasing the same shots. That concern is overblown, but there is an easy antidote: Watch the positionless, avante-garde basketball experiment unfolding in Toronto!
The Raptors’ rotation amounts to Fred VanVleet and several tall people who can do lots of things on offense and guard everyone on defense. They leverage their length in ways you’d expect, and some you might not: switching, playing wacky zones, bombarding the offensive glass, and posting up size mismatches. They do the unthinkable on defense: allow lots of 3s (basically) on purpose, confident their speed and preposterous arms make for frightening closeouts. (Only Matisse Thybulle has blocked more 3s than Chris Boucher over the past three seasons.)
Playing mismatch ball can be laborious; Toronto possessions after made baskets lasted 18.3 seconds — highest in the league, per Inpredictable. But even the grueling nature of its half-court offense runs counter to trends in a way that makes it appealing.
Scottie Barnes — 6-9 point-whatever — is the perfect foundational player for this ethos, and might soon grasp the superstar tools to lift Toronto’s offense from the muck. He seemed to play last season in second gear, digesting the speed and dimensions of the NBA before pushing the throttle. By the playoffs, he appeared to have a better understanding of how good he could be.
Pascal Siakam is a fine all-around No. 1 option, and VanVleet is that greater-than-his-statistics guy you appreciate more the longer you watch him. Every seemingly innocuous move — every cut, dribble, wink, shoulder fake — opens a few inches of space, and those inches eventually add up to an open shot.
You never know where that first Precious Achiuwa dribble might lead — everything from a dunk to a pass into the fifth row is in play — but his transformation into a stretch center changed Toronto’s offense.
The announcers, court, and red-and-white jerseys are all great. The pitch on Jack Armstrong’s “Get that gah-bage outta here!” call somehow gets higher every season. Thumbs down to the alternate black-and-gold look.
16. DETROIT PISTONS (31)
Cade Cunningham has that rare Luka Doncic-style ability to find life in places where possessions often die — in the extended paint with a live dribble that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, against a set defense.
Cunningham is strong enough to keep pushing, tall enough to see everything. Most of all, he’s smart enough to know how every pivot and twist might manipulate the defense. One lunge inside from a help defender, and zip — the ball finds a shooter. Once Cunningham refines his touch around the rim, every possibility will open up.
Jaden Ivey’s lightning-bolt drives might form the perfect duality alongside Cunningham’s patient game. Corralling the Pistons could someday be like facing consecutive pitches from Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson.
Bojan Bogdanovic widens the floor. Saddiq Bey should find the right water level in his game. Don’t mess with Isaiah Stewart. Beef Stew should shoot more 3s, and he’s the keystone to Detroit’s switch-everything defense. Jalen Duren is a high-flying, rim-munching backup center who might even share the floor with Stewart in short stints.
The rest of the bench is a bit of a mystery.
There’s also this:
Was anyone yearning for the return of the 1990s teal and flaming horse? Do fans like these now? Is the affection ironic or genuine? Do teal and red mesh? The flaming exhaust pipes and “DP” corner logos are kinda cool.
The new black jerseys — with fat striping as a Bad Boys call-out — are a bust. Black has been every team’s “whatever” alternate for a decade, and the blocky, outlined black lettering looks generic.
I do like Detroit’s two main courts, with the edges of a basketball along each sideline echoing the central logo:
15. LA CLIPPERS (31.5)
The Clips are about as entertaining as it gets for a slowish team that lives on jumpers and rarely flies above the rim. Paul George glides in a way that makes everything (except dribbling through traffic) look effortless.
There is majesty — power, strength, rigid up-and-down precision — to Kawhi Leonard’s pull-up game. Leonard showed two seasons ago that he can still dial up peak Spurs-era sharktopus mode on defense, and there is no wing player alive who instills the same level of panic as Sharktopus Kawhi. He is the rare weakside help defender who dictates terms — vibrating on his toes, arms spread fingertip to fingertip — in that netherworld between a corner shooter and the big man rumbling down the lane. Even the best ball handlers freeze at the sight of that menace: Is Kawhi’s guy open? Oh, wait, Kawhi is gonna apparate into that passing lane. What about the lob inside? Could he snatch that too? Overthink, and Leonard has already won.
If that Leonard is back when it counts, the Clip are in the inner circle of contenders.
John Wall, Norman Powell and Terance Mann are the jolt of head-down, north-south speed this team needs. (The Clips are so deep, a lot of preseason analysis has skirted past Powell. He is a critical variable, and should finish lots of games.) The Clips will play five-out, centerless lineups, and every game will teach us something about which perimeter trios work best around Leonard and George.
You know your art is dull when no one notices the difference between your primary court and the “special” alternate:
These are supposed to be clipper ship sails:
Scrap it all and start over.
Jim Jackson is a broadcasting star.
14. PHOENIX SUNS (32)
This is shockingly low for a 64-win team with a layered pick-and-roll attack, potential for drama with Deandre Ayton, and the return of the classic purple sunburst jerseys.
Phoenix even amped up the pace last season, unusual for a Chris Paul team. Devin Booker is a vintage scorer, with his velvety leaning midranger and a sneaky-nasty post game. He and Paul rain old-school fire. Paul’s maximize-every-edge perfectionism can be irritating — the rip-through is coming the second Phoenix enters the bonus — but it’s what makes him who he is.
(It also results in on-court disagreements, one of which gave us the iconic fake-laughing meme. That thing transcends basketball. Try it out in your life. It’s a great way to end those exchanges of small talk with long-lost high school classmates you don’t really like.)
It is so satisfying when Paul kicks that fastidiousness and decides to preen — showing off fancy yo-yo dribbles, or nutmegging someone just because he feels like embarrassing them.
The young guys will stretch themselves; Cameron Johnson piled up 20-plus-point games last season, and Mikal Bridges has dabbled with quick-hitting duck-ins. (Bridges’ defense is a show. He envelopes people — the rare wing defender so long, he can block his own guy’s shot before the ball really escapes the shooter’s hand.)
But we’ve seen and enjoyed this movie enough for now: Paul and Booker snaking their way to midrangers from the right elbow, the Suns’ steadfast defense forcing those same shots on the other end. They are Team Bizarro Shot Selection.
Monty Williams has to suss out roles for Landry Shamet and Dario Saric. Josh Okogie is an in-your-jersey defender. Kevin Ray and Eddie Johnson have great chemistry on the call.
13. ATLANTA HAWKS (32.5)
The algorithm underestimates how interesting it will be watching Trae Young and Dejounte Murray figure out how to amplify each other. There could be hiccups over the first 20-plus games. Will Murray make enough catch-and-shoot 3s? Will Young play off the ball, like, at all?
The variety is welcome. Young can do almost whatever he wants against any pick-and-roll scheme. We know about the 3s ands floaters (and foul-baiting flails), but Young still doesn’t get enough credit for his next-level anticipatory passing. He sees everything early, and can make almost any pass — including long lefty slingshots and other across-the-floor reads off-limits to most 6-1 guards.
Still: Too much of anything gets redundant, and Murray offers a reprieve — plus the ability to float across huge chunks of space on defense.
Young’s lob passing makes Atlanta a perennial top-10 dunk team. John Collins gets way above the rim and finishes with panache and power. Onyeka Okongwu is a two-handed thunder dunker. Okongwu will be a starter sooner than later; he and De’Andre Hunter are the biggest X factors for the Hawks now.
Young leaning into WWE-level villainy is great television. Bogdan Bogdanovic punctuates hot streaks with sumptuous snarling trash talk. Aaron Holiday is a little cinder block who attacks the rim with the aggression of someone a foot taller.
12. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (32.5)
We’re in the range where every team feels too low, and this will indeed end up low for the Cavaliers. Between their four stars, Cleveland has something for every fan. Donovan Mitchell supplies the highlights; he is a hunched blur, attacking along sharp diagonals and seeking to inflict pain at the rim. Jarrett Allen fears no dunker at the summit. Darius Garland is all staccato craft and demoralizing ultra-long 3s. Evan Mobley is getting ready to show the breadth of his game. They all complement each other.
I have never liked the Cavs wine-and-gold scheme, but their creative team has produced a clean new jersey set:
Both shades are muted in a pleasing way. The Cavs found a spot — on the left side of the shorts — where their gigantic “C” stands out without dominating. Turning the “V” in “Cavs” into a basket is a nice homage to the Mark Price/Brad Daugherty era.
They’ve cleaned up the court too, refilling the painted areas and erasing the shaded city skyline:
We need another Ricky Rubio-Kevin Love reunion tour. Remember how unhappy Love seemed as the lone championship holdover on a rebuilding team? That story almost never ends with said veteran sticking around to enjoy the fruits of that rebuild, and it’s remarkable Love is here and happy.
J.B. Bickerstaff proved last season that he is willing to buck convention: ultra-big lineups, Mobley lording over the top of zone defenses, copious amounts of Dean Wade.
For reasons I can’t explain, I enjoy how Robin Lopez sits on the floor in the corner instead of on the bench.
John Michael and Austin Carr are a nice mix — the serious one and the silly cackler. Keep an eye on Michael at the broadcast table, standing and leaning and crouching to keep eyes on the action. He does not want to watch through a monitor.
11. PHILADELPHIA 76ers (33.5)
Joel Embiid guarantees a top-12 finish here. Few athletes have ever combined so much grace, power and high-IQ feel. On three straight possessions, Embiid might: rain in a soft midranger; then obliterate someone on the block and dunk them through the floor; and finally pump-and-go from the arc, Eurostep around one sucker, and kiss in a falling layup.
The James Harden-Embiid two-man game was so potent, Embiid so effective scoring off Harden’s pocket passes, defenses resorted to desperate and dangerous counters: Should we, umm, not even leave Embiid and just let Harden drive almost to the rim — and then swarm from one of Philly’s shooters? We get to see a whole season of that cat-and-mouse-and-beard game. (They lose points for how many free throws they generate. It’s a slog.)
Tyrese Maxey takes over when Harden rests, but he’s almost more fun playing off Philly’s two stars. He waits along the arc, like a sprinter in the starting block, primed to catch a kickout and fly through the diagonal crease Harden has unlocked.
Matisse Thybulle teleports on defense. He is way over there, and then suddenly and implausibly, he is blocking your shot. There is a feast-or-famine element to almost every Philly reserve. You can’t look away.
Philly a top-four art team. Kate Scott and Alaa Abdelnaby are talented enough that they don’t have to resort to homerish propaganda. It hurts the credibility of the overall product.
I appreciate referees for allowing Montrezl Harrell to do pull-ups on the rim after dunks. I’d watch a broadcast that just zooms in on P.J. Tucker making life miserable for opponents.
Stay tuned for the top-10 on Thursday!
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