We score teams, 1-10, in five categories:
ZEITGEIST: Do actual humans care about this team?
STAR/HIGHLIGHT POTENTIAL: Do you stick around games, at the expense of sleep and loved ones, because one player might do something spectacular?
STYLE: Are they tactically interesting?
LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Announcers, jerseys, court designs.
UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Coaches making funny faces, passive-aggressive teammates, frequent bloopers, sneaky irritants.
See teams 30-11 in ESPN's annual NBA League Rankings
10. Phoenix Suns (35)
Phoenix makes the most of the methodical Chris Paul experience. There is beauty in ruthless execution, and Phoenix added layers atop layers to its foundational pick-and-roll attack: flare screens, decoy movement, calculated drift cuts. It was elegant in an almost academic, formalist sense.
It just lacked the "holy crap!" factor. Phoenix is an average transition team, and it ranked 26th in dunks. The algorithm is torn between admiring the brazenness of Paul's foul-baiting and punishing his hubris.
Mikal Bridges added a pogo stick midranger, perhaps a sign that he has more scoring in him. Driving into Bridges is like floating into a black hole:
Cameron Payne jolts Phoenix into chaos gear. Jae Crowder salsa danced the Los Angeles Lakers right out of the playoffs -- embodying the hit-first bravado that drove Phoenix within two wins of the NBA title.
Deandre Ayton bought into everything, and the Suns have yet to extend him. With Suns governor Robert Sarver courtside, do we have potential for an awkward "pay me!" moment in the vein of Shaquille O'Neal screaming at the late Jerry Buss -- or a boozy Chandler Parsons shouting, "Max or nothing, motherf---er!" at Mark Cuban out of a cab?
Devin Booker's bag is bottomless. The array of shots he busted out scoring 82 points over Games 4 and 5 of the Finals was straight-up ridiculous: isolation fadeaways; lefty floaters; catch-and-shoot jumpers launched after flying around picks.
The "Valley" court is back with its gorgeous color gradient and shaded desert landscape:
Kevin Ray and Eddie Johnson are an elite broadcast duo. We all need more miked up Monty Williams in our lives.
9. New Orleans Pelicans(35.5)
This is about one thing: Zion Williamson, an unprecedented melding of size and speed, has played 85 games in two seasons -- leaving everyone wanting more.
(The algorithm is aware Williamson is recovering from foot surgery; it is wired to be optimistic.)
We have seen many Zions -- Point Zion, post-up Zion, screening Zion, fast-break Zion, center Zion. He has only scratched the surface of each archetype.
There is no defense to keep Williamson from the rim. A ridiculous 81% of his shots came at the basket, and he converted 70% of them. Large bodies bounce off of Williamson, even when he is airborne. It is a matter of time until Williamson shatters a blackboard or brings the whole damn stanchion down. He jumps three times for offensive rebounds in the span most humans might complete one jump.
The passing vision is there, but Williamson is frenetic -- prone to close-range fastballs and inaccurate kickouts. Reps will help; Williamson's pick-and-roll partnerships with Brandon Ingram, Jonas ValanciunasandDevonte' Grahameach present dilemmas for defenses.
On defense, you wonder: Does Williamson care? Are his shoes made of cement? Is he tired already? New Orleans will go nowhere until they cobble together a good defense, and that's easier when everyone sees the franchise player giving a damn.
There's still something missing with Ingram -- some combination of playmaking and defense. Ingram finding that balance is as central to the Pels' future as anything but Williamson's health and desire to stay.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes could break out as two-way players. (Hayes is a malevolent dunker hoisting 3s in preseason, Alexander-Walker a long-armed, audacious scorer.)Valanciunas grinding defenders to dust is one of the NBA's unheralded delights.
8. Chicago Bulls (36)
Gimme the hot sauce! (If you're too cool to appreciate Stacey King's catchphrases, we can't be friends.)
Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine should be a perfect match: the league's willingest hit-ahead passer bombing to the best open-court dunker since prime Vince Carter. Benny the Bull won't be able to control himself during his popcorn fiendings.
Melding the Ball/LaVine show with the, umm, more patient stylings of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic will be an ongoing challenge for Team Floor-Raiser. DeRozan has shown -- including in the bubble with the San Antonio Spurs -- that he is adaptable to run-and-gun pace. Chicago needed another closer anyway; the crunch time burden on LaVine was too big -- even if he rose to it. More of LaVine off the ball -- spotting up for 3s and cutting for dunks -- is good for him and the Bulls.
Vucevic can trail for 3s and toggle in the half-court between post-ups and ball screens, depending on matchups. DeRozan likes the midrange too, and it will take time for these four to master their steps and settle a hierarchy. Watching that discovery process will be catnip for X's and O's nerds.
Crafting a workable defense will be tougher. Patrick Williams is one of the league's most important players, given how few young guys acquired directly via Chicago's lottery picks and the Jimmy Butler trade remain on this roster -- and the picks Chicago now owes the Spurs and theOrlando Magic. (Coby White's long-term role is uncertain too.)
Williams is built for switchy defense, and his stop-on-a-dime midranger is pure silk -- launched so high, the ball drops through without generating much more than a ripple.
Derrick Jones Jr.is one of LaVine's only true dunking rivals. DeRozan is the king of high-fiving phantom teammates between free throws if no one approaches -- or while attempting technical foul shots. It's a subtle bit, and DeRozan is supercommitted.
Hypothesis: Billy Donovan is the least funny coach in the NBA.
7. Atlanta Hawks(36.5)
Prediction: The crackdown on bogus fouls won't affect Trae Young as much critics hope. He's too good, too smart, and his habit of slowing down in traffic -- the gambit that often draws contact -- is a (mostly) legitimate basketball play designed to survey the defense or coax it into some false step. (Young jumping sideways is another story.)
Young ran more pick-and-rolls than anyone, but the repetitiveness did not detract from Atlanta's entertainment value. The Hawks ranked No. 2 in dunks, with oodles coming via Young's lobs to Clint Capela and John Collins. Capela usurped Collins as Young's primary screen setter, but Collins found ways to stay involved -- and channeled more energy into dirty work.
(Not enough was made of Collins dunking onJoel Embiid's head in Game 6 of the conference semifinals, and then showing up to the news conference after Atlanta's Game 7 win wearing a T-shirt showing that same dunk. That is even colder than Young shushing the New York Knicks crowd. You have to enjoy a team embracing villainy this hard.)
Young can see and make passes, including crosscourt slingshots with both hands, that are off-limits to most guys his size. Late last season, Young started getting off the ball earlier -- making easy reads, and letting his supporting cast cook.
Kevin Huerter is fearless, with cagey playmaking skills.De'Andre Huntershowed a burgeoning all-around game, and should become an all-court wrecker on defense; he went chest to chest with Julius Randle in the playoffs. Cam Reddish is itching to do more.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is a gunslinger coming for your throat. We haven't even mentioned Lou Williamsor Danilo Gallinari (and his hair).
The broadcast is fun, the art pleasing. I wish the Hawks would bring back the stained glass-style court honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
6. Denver Nuggets (37.5)
With Jamal Murray, the Nuggets might have challenged for No. 1 after finishing second last season.
Nikola Jokic is the league's most entertaining player -- to these eyes -- but Murray hasn't gotten enough appreciation for his part in building the NBA's most sophisticated and indefensible two-man game. Each star can score against the league's tentpole pick-and-roll defenses: drop-back schemes and switching. Murray can solve both by heaving 3s or driving.
But it is in those in-between spaces where Murray and Jokic make high art. We know what Jokic is -- the greatest big man passer ever, and one of the most inventive passers of all time for any position -- but Murray brings guile to the dance. Murray freezes defenses with hesitation moves, and he is a master at taking one extra prodding dribble -- the bounce that draws Jokic's defender closer to Murray, unlocking an easy drop-off.
Jokic, though -- Jokic is the freaking show. He leaves you cackling like an idiot at least three times per game. These one-handed. rebound-into-outlet heaves are absurd:
He whips no-look passes where it's unclear when -- or even if -- he spotted his target:
In the post, he is a ground-bound tornado of twisting pivots and upfakes that get defenders leaping at ghosts. If he misses, no matter: Jokic volleyballs rebounds with either hand, from distances outside typical tip-in range.
There are nights when the game looks so casual for Jokic -- when mismatches down low are overwhelming, when the pictures come to him so early and so clearly -- that he seems to try high-wire passes just to entertain himself.
Michael Porter Jr.has one of the league's sweetest unreachable jumpers, and he'll expand his off-the-bounce game. Michael Malone gets a full season to experiment withAaron Gordon's defense. Facundo Campazzo is a threat to nutmeg someone at all times, and he is one of the league's peskiest irritants.
The jerseys and courts are solid; the royal blue "Mile High" uniforms have been a nice addition.
5. Charlotte Hornets (38.5)
The algorithm might be as overenthusiastic about the bouncy bugs as Eric Collins, Charlotte's charmingly bombastic play-by-play man, is in screaming about a LaMelo Ball long 2 as if Ball has discovered the cure for the coronavirus.
Charlotte was 33-39 last season with the league's seventh-worst point differential. If everything goes right, they probably top out around .500, and you know what, I don't care, because Ball is going to toss alley-oops to Miles Bridges, and Bridges is going to detonate and Michael Jordan will be grinning while wearing some hat that is a little bit funny if you are being honest with yourself.
The Hornets move the ball, and use superfun centerless lineups. Those groups ran really small last season with both Devonte' Graham and Terry Rozier, and Charlotte compensated by playing way more zone than anyone -- a nice strategic changeup.
With Graham out and both Gordon Hayward and Kelly Oubre Jr.available, the Hornets have access to bigger and switchier small-ball groups. How about: Ball, Oubre, Hayward, Bridges, andP.J. Washington? Even Rozier -- a crunch time god last season -- has a 6-foot-8 wingspan.
James Borrego faces a testy decision: Either start games centerless, or use one of Hayward, Bridges, and Washington as sixth man. Bridges drained 40% from deep last season, even dabbling in pull-ups, and made huge strides as a playmaker. I can't wait to see how much more he has, especially on defense, and if Washington shows similar all-around growth.
Oubre is always flexing, doing pushups, and punching up in his trash talk. The honeycombed court and striped uniforms stand out, and strike the right balance between Charlotte's classic 1990s look and modern tastes.
The biggest question: How polished of a scorer can Ball become in the half court?
4. Golden State Warriors (39)
A full season of Klay Thompson might have pushed Golden State to No. 1 -- a perch they held over their dynastic apex. Alas, we don't know when Thompson will return, or how rusty he'll be.
What Stephen Curry and Draymond Green share is why we play and love team sports. It is the kind of unspoken chemistry you dream about finding one season, in one pickup game, for one damned day. It is what happens when two ultra-smart, ultra-skilled players with complementary strengths -- including the greatest shooter ever by a nontrivial margin -- bond for a decade. It is rare, rarer even today than it once was, and we should cherish it.
Curry is the league's premier highlight factory. A Curry hot streak from deep looks, sounds, feels like nothing else in sports history. Curry is always bobbing and weaving, a lurking danger that attracts panicked eyeballs at all times. He is one of most creative little guy paint finishers ever, with touch so gentle, the ball seems to melt into the backboard and drip down.
But Curry and Green working together elevate the two-man game to a higher plane. They outmaneuver defenses with such precision and speed, you barely notice what they have done -- how many decisions they crammed into two seconds, how many alternatives they sifted through, how far ahead they were of everyone else.
This play -- one of my favorite Curry-Green joints -- looks so simple, but it only emerges from years of shared problem-solving:
They call it the "hand-back," and they use it to wrong-foot blitzing defenses. Green has told me they barely discuss reads like this anymore; they just see them and make them.
Golden State last season ranked third in pace, second in passes, and first in dunks. Fun! They looked like themselves once they fell back on the familiar: starting Kevon Looney over James Wiseman, and playing more with Green at center.
They discovered Juan Toscano-Anderson fits their pass-and-cut style. They know Andre Iguodala does, and Iguodala's return scores nostalgia points. Every Iguodala appearance will remind of how it felt in 2015 and 2016 -- murmurs in the crowd, dread spreading across the opposing bench -- when he strode to the scorer's table: Enter the Death Lineup.
Jordan Poole is ready for his moment. New additions young and old bring intrigue.
3. Milwaukee Bucks (40.5)
The champs should play with new freedom after exorcising postseason demons and working toward the right mix of roles on offense for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.
The regular season is a playoff-optimization lab now for Milwaukee. Last season's focus was diversifying the defense. This season is about honing a half-court offense that cratered for most of Milwaukee's second-round bloodbath against the Brooklyn Nets. A major subplot is Antetokounmpo carrying over the improvements he showed from the midrange: steadier footwork, jump hooks, floaters, more refined post moves.
As he becomes equal part fast-break marauder, one-on-one brute, and lob-catching screen setter, Antetokounmpo is chiseling his own player archetype -- transforming into a 6-foot-11 mix of skills we've never seen.
He is the force behind the league's most devastating transition attack, gobbling up huge chunks of space with each dribble -- and either dropping thunder at the rim, or kicking to one of Milwaukee's spot-up shooters. (Brook Lopez ambles into trailing 3s with the ease and familiarity of an old man plopping into a recliner.)
Donte DiVincenzo adds hoppy rebounding and canny pass-and-cut playmaking. Pat Connaughton is a superathlete. Thanasis Antetokounmpois a bumper car playing his own hybrid of rugby and basketball. Whatever it is, you can't take your eyes off of it. Keep an eye on Jordan Nwora.
It is downright frightening when Holiday decides to put someone in jail -- to lock them up full court.
Marques Johnson is as good as it gets as an analyst; Steve Novak is tremendous too. I'm excited to hear Lisa Byington on play-by-play duties.
This is one of the best courts in the NBA:
2. Los Angeles Lakers (41.5)
This might be a case of anticipation outstripping reality: Thinking about how Russell Westbrook fits might be more interesting than watching the Lakers figure it out.
Regardless, the Westbrook fit is perhaps the biggest on-court question in the league -- the variable that will determine whether the Lakers can gut through the West and upend the East juggernauts. Every possession will offer clues: What is Westbrook doing when LeBron James has the ball? Is he cutting? Is he setting picks for James? Can he weaponize his rebounding without compromising L.A.'s transition defense? Will we ever catch James forgetting cameras are always on him, and rolling his eyes as Westbrook misses his 13th consecutive jumper?
We'll see how muchAnthony Davisplays center, and how the Lakers manufacture points with Westbrook, James, Davis, and one of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan on the floor. (Those lineups will inhale offensive rebounds.)
Westbrook will push the pace for a team that blitzed everyone in transition two seasons ago.
Freight train James still appears every game. Sometimes an opponent -- someone James considers beneath him -- draws it out by getting too physical or chirpy; James sighs and takes that victim to the weight room down low. Backpedaling defenders still have no shot when James accelerates into that bowling ball left-to-right spin; they bounce away, and he extends that right arm sideways for a hammer dunk.
The passing will always be there -- the crosscourt lasers, always released with defenders leaning the wrong way, always landing in the shooting pocket.
Twenty years later, James and Carmelo Anthony are finally teammates. The entire roster is like a reunion of your favorite TV cast from 10 years ago. Oh, hey, that's what Rajon Rondo looks like now?
Howard elbows people in the face and feigns astonishment at the resulting technical foul. Heat check Malik Monk is fun.Talen Horton-Tucker's surgery is a bummer; he looms as an important potential two-way wing.
The Lakers have the league's best court, and sleek jerseys. One quibble: I don't like the wide, black stripe running down their purple uniforms:
1. Brooklyn Nets (43)
Kyrie Irving broke the algorithm. The supercomputer housed in my garage to compile these rankings exploded the moment on Tuesday when the Nets announced they were banishing Irving until he gets vaccinated.
The algorithm is divided. Does it punish the Nets for this fiasco, and deduct entertainment points for the absence of one of the NBA's great showmen -- coming off a 50/40/90 scorcher that was probably the best season of his career?
Or should it assume Irving will return, and that the NBA's grating franchise soap opera foists another unbearable yet irresistible melodrama onto the world?
The safest assumption is that we are living in a simulation. The second safest is Irving relents. The Nets topped these rankings before Tuesday's announcement, and we decided to leave them here.
If you can train your mind to ignore the noise -- and it's getting harder given the moral and public health issues underlying this latest round of Nets theater -- there is no denying the jaw-dropping spectacle of watching them play.
Alongside two co-stars, James Harden ditched the thudding isolations and became more of a point guard -- searching out passes earlier in the shot clock. Kevin Durant has long been happy to start possessions off the ball, working as connector or finisher.
Playing next to two stars conjured the best version of Irving: off-ball scoring menace who seizes the offense as secondary ball handler, or whenever it is convenient. Irving hit an absolutely outrageous 54% on pull-up 2s, and he revved Brooklyn's pace when he played as solo star.
Irving even began flashing into open spaces, triggering beautiful sequences of quick-hitting touch passes -- the kind of selfless, semi-egalitarian basketball you would not expect from a top-heavy team. (Having great shooters everywhere helps push the Nets to that style, since they have so much space within which to flit about.)
Of course, they can win ugly too. Harden might be the most efficient off-the-bounce isolation player ever. Durant reminded everyone during a majestic playoff run that he is maybe the greatest player today -- and one of the dozen greatest ever.Even without Irving, they are a scoring bonanza.
The supporting cast is loaded with characters. Blake Griffin can still dunk! Who knew? After last season's health scare, you have to be excited to watch LaMarcus Aldridge burrow into his office on the left block. Bruce Brown created a whole new position -- rover -- and James Johnson plays a similar screen-and-dive style. Jevon Carter defends every millimeter of the court as if his career rides on each possession. Patty Mills never stops moving; he will sprint his way into more open 3s than he imagined possible.
The minimalist, black-and-white jerseys and one-of-a-kind (in the NBA) gray court work -- both in pure style terms, and to set the Nets apart visually. The broadcast is the best in the league.
Look: I'm not happy, either, but the Nets repeat as League Pass champions.
The real games begin in five days.
Can the Nets win a title without Kyrie?
Jay Williams would still view the Nets as the favorite in the East even if Kyrie Irving sat out the season.