Bulls

NBA Power Rankings 1.0: Bucks, Nets lead pack to start season

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The 2021-22 NBA campaign tips off Tuesday night.

Here is our first edition of power rankings for the season, which will be updated weekly.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

2020-21 record: 46-26

The defending champions begin the 2021-22 season on top, as is their right. And if Giannis Antetokounmpo’s postseason leap was a harbinger of things to come, Milwaukee could very well find itself on that stage again. While the loss of P.J. Tucker hurts, the return of Donte DiVincenzo and the additions of Grayson Allen and George Hill have the potential to compensate in other areas.

2. Brooklyn Nets

2020-21 record: 48-34

Whether Kyrie Irving winds up available or not, the Nets’ blend of snug-fitting depth and top-tier star talent in Kevin Durant and James Harden make them as safe a bet to win the 2022 NBA Finals as anyone. With Durant, a hobbled Harden and no Irving, in fact, Brooklyn nearly still defeated the Bucks last season before Milwaukee went on to win the title.

3. Phoenix Suns

2020-21 record: 51-21

Multiple Western Conference contenders may have endured significant injuries during last season’s playoffs, but the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals was no fluke. Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges are locked in long-term, and while Deandre Ayton isn’t yet, there’s reason to believe their 2020-21 success can be emulated this year.

4. Utah Jazz

2020-21 record: 52-20

Don’t let their injury-riddled, second-round flameout distract from the fact that the Jazz outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions during the 2020-21 regular season, an impressive margin. Their crisp offensive system, led by Donovan Mitchell, and successful defensive structure, led by Rudy Gobert, has them poised for another stellar regular season. How that translates to the playoffs, of course, remains to be seen.

 

5. Los Angeles Lakers

2020-21 record: 42-30

Make all the age or spacing jokes you wish, but a team built around LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook has the chops to dominate the regular season, so long as that trio has better injury fortune than they each did in 2020-21. Losing Talen Horton-Tucker and Trevor Ariza for the start of the campaign is nothing to scoff at, but the Lakers have enough veteranship and star power to be confident in their capabilities.

6. Atlanta Hawks

2020-21 record: 41-31

The Hawks boast one of the deepest young cores in the NBA, and Trae Young, their fearless leader, looks poised for superstardom. Some expect regression after an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference finals. But don’t disregard this team’s 27-11 record after Nate McMillan took over as head coach, which coincided with a spate of players returning from injury.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

2020-21 record: 49-33

Whether Ben Simmons plays, sits, or his trade demand is eventually honored, the 76ers should be able to tread water near the top of the East. After all, they remain reasonably deep, defensively talented and led by a potential perennial MVP candidate in Joel Embiid. His health, especially as the Simmons saga plays out, will be critical to them keeping pace with the East’s elite.

8. Miami Heat

2020-21 record: 40-32

After an improbable NBA Finals run in 2020, the Heat flamed out in the first round of the playoffs in 2021. Will the additions of Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker be enough to push them back into title contention? Can Tyler Herro bounce back after a sophomoric slump? Time will tell, but those players surrounding Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are a good place to start.

9. Dallas Mavericks

2020-21 record: 42-30

Without a splashy offseason move to their name, the already-competitive Mavericks must hope a healthy Kristaps Porziņģis, extended Tim Hardaway Jr. and ever-ascending Luka Dončić can combine to thrust Dallas into the next phase of its rise. Health, and avoiding the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, would help.

10. Denver Nuggets   2020-21 record: 47-25

Jamal Murray likely won’t return until late in the season, but the reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, Most Improved Player frontrunner Michael Porter Jr. and recently-extended Aaron Gordon will look to keep the Nuggets in the thick of the race in the Western Conference until their missing piece returns.

11. Golden State Warriors

2020-21 record: 39-33

With Steph Curry, Draymond Green and a slew of veteran offseason additions, the Warriors are in pole position to claw back toward their past postseason heights. Much rests on the return of Klay Thompson, who hasn’t played since the 2019 Finals because of respective knee and Achilles injuries. Golden State’s star shooting guard is due back some time midseason, and how he looks will go a long way toward determining their ceiling.

 

12. Los Angeles Clippers

2020-21 record: 47-25

With Kawhi Leonard set to miss the majority of the 2021-22 season, the Clippers are Paul George’s team, and fresh off a stellar 2021 postseason, there are worse No. 1 options to have. The question remains how far a supporting cast of Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Terrance Mann, Eric Bledsoe and Luke Kennard can take them.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

2020-21 record: 42-30

The offseason passed, and Damian Lillard stayed put. Now the Trail Blazers will find out if a largely-returned roster, plus Larry Nance Jr. and a new head coach in Chauncey Billups, is enough to make meaningful progress in the Western Conference.

14. New York Knicks

2020-21 record: 41-31

The Knicks blew expectations out of the water with a fourth-seeded finish to 2020-21, spearheaded by hard-nosed defense, the breakout of Julius Randle and 2021 Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau’s leadership. Then, they upgraded their offensive firepower in the backcourt by adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in free agency.

15. Boston Celtics

2020-21 record: 36-36

A down 2020-21 season in Beantown saw head coach Brad Stevens exit stage left… To the president of basketball operations’ office. Ime Udoka sits in the head coaching chair. New additions in Dennis Schröder, Al Horford and Josh Richardson may make an impact, as could the recently-extended Marcus Smart and Robert Williams. But ultimately, a potential Boston bounceback falls on the shoulders of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

16. Chicago Bulls

2020-21 record: 31-41

No team did more to upgrade their roster talent this offseason than the Bulls, who added Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso in free agency to supplement an already-existing All-Star core of Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević. Oh, and 2021 fourth overall pick Patrick Williams is back in action after an ankle sprain sidelined him most of preseason. This group has a lot to prove, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, but there is enough offensive firepower in place to believe their four-season playoff drought may be nearing its end.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

2020-21 record: 38-34

Led by Ja Morant, the Grizzlies continue to stay one step ahead of their perceived schedule. A breakout from Jaren Jackson Jr., who missed most of 2020-21 due to injury, could propel them even farther.

18. Indiana Pacers

2020-21 record: 34-38

Replacing failed first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren with Rick Carlisle figures to help this veteran roster a ton, as do promising first-round picks Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson. But the next step is to get healthy. Malcolm Brogdon was banged up during the preseason, and Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren are both expected to miss the start of the season. Their returns will be crucial.

 

19. Washington Wizards

2020-21 record: 34-38

Out: Russell Westbrook. In: Spencer Dinwiddie and a wealth of depth, headlined by Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Ketavious Caldwell-Pope. With Bradley Beal at the peak of his powers, the Wizards have the potential to turn the play-in race upside down once again.

20. Toronto Raptors

2020-21 record: 27-45

The Raptors endured a hellish 2020-21 season away from home, but could be poised for a bounceback in 2021-22. Though the loss of Kyle Lowry stings, OG Anunoby appears ready to break out, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and head coach Nick Nurse are still around, and 2021 first-round pick Scottie Barnes shows big promise.

21. Charlotte Hornets

2020-21 record: 33-39

The Hornets should once again be a top-tier League Pass team, and could make some noise if LaMelo Ball makes a Year 2 jump, Gordon Hayward can stay healthy and the rest of their exciting host of role players continue to blossom.

22. Sacramento Kings

2020-21 record: 31-41

The Kings hung around the fringes of the play-in race last season, and only improved with the drafting of Davion Mitchell. Backcourt logjam or no, him, De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes form an interesting core.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves

2020-21 record: 23-49

The Timberwolves finished the 2020-21 season 16-25 after Chris Finch was hired, which may not seem revelatory until you consider their 7-24 mark under Ryan Saunders. Under Finch, Karl-Anthony Towns flashed promise as a facilitator and Anthony Edwards exploded as a scorer, giving reason for optimism for 2021-22.

24. San Antonio Spurs

2020-21 record: 33-39

After sign-and-trading DeMar DeRozan to the Bulls in August, the Spurs find themselves at a bit of an impasse. San Antonio ended last season a play-in team, but will need significant growth from their young core to stay in that tier.

25. New Orleans Pelicans

2020-21 record: 31-41

Now coached by Willie Green, the Pelicans may well ride leaps from Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram to play-in contention. But Williamson’s uncertain status to start the campaign because of an offseason foot procedure casts a cloud over their early-season prospects.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

2020-21 record: 22-50

This has the makings of a pivotal year for the Cavaliers’ rebuild. With Collin Sexton on an expiring contract, Darius Garland due an extension next offseason, Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen locked up long-term, and two top-five picks in Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro in tow, the time is now to take a step forward. But the Eastern Conference’s middle class is crowded.

27. Detroit Pistons

2020-21 record: 20-52

 

The Pistons have the potential to be feisty with expected growth from Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, plus the stability of Jerami Grant. But an early-training camp ankle injury kept No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham sidelined all of preseason and has placed his status in doubt with the opener directly around the corner.

28. Orlando Magic

2020-21 record: 21-51

Jalen Suggs is in the house. Jonathan Isaac is on the comeback trail. And Jamahl Mosley enters his first NBA head-coaching gig with a solid reputation as a developer of talent. Something could very well be percolating in Orlando, but they begin this season with a lot to prove.

29. Houston Rockets

2020-21 record: 17-55

The Rockets boast a host of intriguing rookies to develop, from Jalen Green to Alperen Şengün to Josh Christopher, and that’s without mentioning third-year guard Kevin Porter Jr. to boot. Houston is set up well for the future, but probably not for a jump in the standings this season.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder

2020-21 record: 22-50

With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sidelined, the Thunder closed last season with three wins in their final 29 games. Their biggest offseason acquisition was 2021 No. 6 overall pick Josh Giddey — plus a heap of future first-round picks to add to the collection. Needless to say, Oklahoma City figures to embrace the youth movement (and tank train) once again this year.

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