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NBA Power Rankings, summer edition: Everyone is chasing the Nets

Nets stars Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden

Boston - May 30: The Nets Kyrie Irving waves a towel in celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock, his teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden are behind him. The Boston Celtics host the Brooklyn Nets in Game Four of their first round NBA Playoff series at the TD Garden in Boston on May 30, 2021. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Boston Globe via Getty Images

The offseason is settling down, and while there are some unanswered questions — where will Ben Simmons start next season — the rosters are largely set and we know how things will look. Which is why it’s time for our NBA Power Rankings, summer edition.

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1. Nets (48-24 last season). The clear favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, with just one serious question: health. One could argue the Nets had the best offseason of anyone by extending Kevin Durant (who looks like the best player on the planet coming out of Tokyo), with James Harden and Kyrie Irving extensions coming up soon. It’s not just that this team has Durant/Harden/Irving... although it’s a lot of that. It’s also that Brooklyn re-signed a rejuvenated Blake Griffin and added Patty Mills, although the loss of Jeff Green will sting. This team is the bar to clear win the title next season... if they stay healthy.

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2. Bucks (46-26). They are the defending NBA champions, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo and two gold medal winning Olympians (Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday), and they will largely run it back with the roster that won it all, plus a healthy Donte DiVincenzo (although the loss of P.J. Tucker hurts against elite teams in the playoffs). Despite all that, it’s fair to ask if age and health of the role players catches up with the Bucks a little more this season. They could take a step back — not a big step, but a step. The biggest question: Can this team beat a healthy Nets team?

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3. Suns (51-21). They deserve this high ranking after reaching the NBA Finals then having a quality offseason — but count me in the camp that thinks it will be hard for them to repeat last season’s levels of success. The Suns did a lot right this offseason, re-signing Chris Paul (to a deal that looks fair once you see the details) and adding more shooting in Landry Shamet. re-signing Cameron Payne, and they inked gold medalist JaVale McGee to backup Deandre Ayton. Add in the fact the young Suns — Devin Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, both Camerons, and so on — should take steps forward and the Suns likely will be better next season. That doesn’t mean an automatic return to the Finals in a wide-open West, they may ultimately take a step back, but they have the potential to return.

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4. Jazz (52-20). They had a strong offseason, both doing what they had to do — re-signing Mike Conley — and adding a solid veteran rotation player in Rudy Gay (plus trading for Eric Paschall). They are my pick to have the best regular season record in the NBA again, from there the questions are can they stay healthy entering the playoffs (unlike a year ago), and can their depth and ensemble style compete with the Lakers, Suns, Warriors, and whoever else in a seven-game playoff series. The Jazz did the right thing running it back, but this is all about the playoffs now.

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5. Lakers (42-30, LW 12). I have so many questions about this team... and still will likely pick them to come out of the West. All the shuffling of the roster (just four players from the 2020 title team remain) can obscure the fact the equation for the Lakers is pretty simple: If LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy and playing like top-five players in the league again when the playoffs start, they can win it all. Russell Westbrook’s fit in the playoffs is problematic but he is an innings eater during the regular season, putting up numbers and taking on a heavy load that helps keep LeBron/AD fresh. Same with Carmelo Anthony and other veterans on the roster. Love the Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn signings for this roster.

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6. Heat (40-32). My pick for the best offseason of any team... if we’re just looking at the coming season. Miami’s cap wizards in the front office improved the roster while keeping the heart of their strong young core. Father time may make them pay on the back end of the Kyle Lowry contract, same with the three-year Jimmy Butler max extension, but for the next two seasons this team has a chance, especially with P.J. Tucker in the mix. Good price in re-signing Duncan Robinson as a sharpshooter. How well Tyler Herro plays could be a tipping point in key playoff series, they need bubble Herro back.

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7. 76ers (49-23). Ben Simmons is still a 76er and very well could be come the start of training camp, which means some blown-up bridges need to be repaired. For now. He is still being shopped around, and while Daryl Morey’s asking price will need to come down, nobody is close enough to it now to force that conversation. The Sixers retained Danny Green and Morey is right, the starting five of this team is still very good in the regular season. Philly had the best record in the East last season and remains a threat with peak Joel Embiid healthy.

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8. Warriors (39-33). Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson may have wanted management to trade their two lottery picks for veterans (and management tried hard to do just that), but the moves Bob Myers and the front office ultimately made could keep this team in contention beyond the Curry era. In three years, we’re either going to be saying, “how did everyone pass on Jonathan Kuminga” or “he’s so athletic, he just makes too many mistakes.” It was a good gamble for the Warriors, and Moses Moody will be solid. This team is on the fringes of contending but needs a lot of things to go right, starting with James Wiseman making a leap.

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9. Mavericks (42-30). The only thing that ultimately mattered in Dallas came together: They put a max contract extension in front of Luka Doncic and he signed it. As long as Doncic is on the roster, the Mavericks are dangerous. While the Reggie Bullock addition was a good one, Dallas came into the offseason with bold plans to find a better running mate for Doncic and none of them panned out. It wasn’t pretty. They have a new coach in Jason Kidd and a new front office around Mark Cuban (we’ll see how much that change matters), but the search for a No. 2 option continues (hint: it’s not Kristaps Porzingis).

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10. Hawks (41-31 LW 13). This team made a leap during the playoffs under coach Nate McMillan (who will be back), then re-signed John Collins to a fair deal for both sides. Atlanta is running it back, and they should. Trae Young made a leap last season and into the playoffs, and that confidence is going to carry over into this season and lift the Hawks up. This is a solid roster with very few holes that could be a top four seed in the East this year if things break right.

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11. Celtics (36-36). Celtics fans have to feel good about Jayson Tatum stepping up after the way he played in Tokyo, being the team’s second-leading scorer in the gold medal game. New Celtics coach Ime Udoka was with Tatum in Tokyo, and he wants Tatum and Jaylen Brown to take on larger playmaking roles this season. Josh Richardson is a good fit addition, this team can switch anything 1-4 with him, Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart (who has been offered an extension). They signed Dennis Schroder at a good price, and he adds playmaking as well. Boston should be better than the .500 team of last season. The question is, how much better?

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12. Nuggets (47-25). Denver is essentially running it back behind MVP Nikola Jokic, although bringing in Jeff Green as a backup big is a quality upgrade. We all know the question with this team: Will Jamal Murray return during the regular season from his torn ACL, and if so, how close to 100% will he be in the playoffs? With a healthy Murray, this team is a legitimate contender to come out of the West, but they slide this far down the power rankings because they are not the same level of threat without him.

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13. Clippers (47-25). Kawhi Leonard made the Clippers sweat it out a little (for reasons unknown), but he will be back with the Clippers next season, rehabbing his torn ACL. They re-signed Reggie Jackson and took a reasonable flier on Justise Winslow, but without All-NBA Leonard in the lineup this team is good, not great. If Leonard can return for the playoffs and look like his vintage self, and Paul George stays healthy, this team is a threat, but history would suggest Leonard will be cautious with his return to the court.

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14. Knicks (41-31). New York had one of the better offseasons of any team, and they still probably take a step back from the No. 4 seed they surprisingly earned last season. They re-signed Julius Randle to a very fair number, added shooting and scoring with Evan Fournier, plus the addition of Kemba Walker for $8 million was a flat-out steal. New York is going to be good in what is a deeper and better East, they may not finish as high as fourth, but they are a more dangerous playoff threat. Plus, the added contracts are shorter-term, good but not exorbitant salaries that can be put together in a trade package to chase a superstar if one becomes available for a trade.

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15. Bulls (31-41). They got better... and I still don’t like their offseason. I love the additions of Lonzo Ball at the point and Alex Caruso for defense and hustle off the bench, but they dramatically overpaid for DeMar DeRozan (both in terms of salary and giving up the needed defense of Thaddeus Young, and a first-round pick for the right to overpay DeRozan). There is a lot of talent on the roster with Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Ball, DeRozan, plus the improving Patrick Williams, but it’s a bit of a Chopped basket that chef/coach Billy Donovan is going to have to make something delicious out of. Also, defense is going to be an issue.

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16. Trail Blazers (42-30). Swapping out Enes Kanter for Cody Zeller is not exactly what Damian Lillard had in mind when he said he wanted to see more urgency in building out the Portland roster to be contenders. That is why the rest of the league — particularly some people in Philly — are watching and waiting to see if/when Lillard starts to force his way out. The Blazers did re-sign Norman Powell, which was necessary but not game changing. This is still a team looking at the play-in games in the West. Congratulations to CJ McCollum on becoming union president; he’s got some real work ahead.

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17. Pacers (34-38). This ranking may be a little low for Indiana. They made one big offseason move, bringing in Rick Carlisle as coach, but it’s a move that should make this team better. This is a solid roster without any glaring holes, and if Carlisle can get a little more out of Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert, and mesh Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner a little more smoothly, this will be a tough team to beat every night.

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18. Wizards (34-38). This may be too low for a team that had a very strong offseason, getting off Russell Westbrook’s massive contract and bringing in some depth to go around Bradley Beal. The Spencer Dinwiddie signing is a coup. The Lakers trio of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell will help in the regular season. The Wizards aren’t contenders but they will be competitive every night. Is that enough to keep Beal in town on a new contract? Washington is optimistic, but we shall see.

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19. Grizzlies (38-34). They have a franchise cornerstone in Ja Morant, and we will see if Jaren Jackson Jr. can be the No. 2 they need now that he’s healthy and will have a full season. The Grizzlies played the long game bringing in Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams, and we’ll see if Ziaire Williams will pay off farther down that long road (he has shown an impressive, fluid athleticism at Summer League, but he has a lot of development to do before he is impacting games.)

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20. Pelicans (31-41). What is the plan? They have an unbelievable talent in Zion Williamson, who is frustrated with the organization and how the roster is being built out, and it’s hard to blame him. Jonas Valanciunas is a slight upgrade in fit over Adams but far from an answer. I like Devonte’ Graham, but how well will he play off the ball (Zion and Brandon Ingram remain the first two options)? New coach Willie Green walks into a tough spot, this organization has playoff aspirations and a roster not really built to get there in a very deep West.

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21. Hornets (33-39). Charlotte might be my early pick for League Pass favorites — they are going to be very entertaining to watch. LaMelo Ball has the keys to the offense and has scorers and athletes all around him: Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre, P.J. Washington, plus rookies James Bouknight, Kai Jones, and JT Thor. This team is poised to take steps forward on both ends of the floor, do that and they will be in the mix for a play-in spot again in the East (and a higher seed where making the playoffs is possible).

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22. Raptors (27-45). This team could be better than this ranking — especially back home playing in Toronto — but what will the roster look like when the season starts? What about after the trade deadline? Kyle Lowry is out, but a solid point guard in Goran Dragic is in (along with promising young big Precious Achiuwa). Pascal Siakam is on the trade block, and there is buzz that for the right deal even OG Anunoby could be available (for him it would take a blockbuster). This is a team in transition and a difficult one to project; if the roster stays stable and Siakam has a bounce-back year, they are a play-in level team.

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23. Timberwolves (23-49). It was not a big and bold offseason in Minnesota, they are betting on what they already have: Karl-Anthony Towns is an elite offensive center, and Minnesota will have a full season of him paired with De’Angelo Russell and an improving Anthony Edwards on the wing. That should make them mildly better, but there remain serious defensive questions about the roster. The bigger long-term question is how much new co-owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez (Glen Taylor is still around) will change the franchise’s direction (and, maybe, eventually get a new arena).

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24. Spurs (33-39). The rebuilding is officially underway with DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills gone. It’s going to be a process despite a nice backcourt with Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and Derrick White. Second-year player Devin Vassell has looked good at Summer League, and we’ll see if youngster Joshua Primo can develop over the next few years. They rolled the dice on the Zach Collins finding a way to get healthy, but did it at a price that seemed high. Congratulations to Keldon Johnson, who now has a gold medal (and got praise for his energy from Draymond Green).

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25. Magic (21-48, LW 26). The best news for Orlando is that defensive force Jonathan Isaac should return from injury this season. They may have caught a break with tough-minded guard Jalen Suggs falling to them at No. 5, and the rest of their backcourt — Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, RJ Hampton — is interesting. They brought in Robin Lopez to be near Disney World, and to back up Wendell Carter Jr., New coach Jamahl Mosley has his work cut out for him developing the players on this roster, but there is some real potential here. Orlando is not going to be good this season, but they will be interesting.

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26. Rockets (16-53, LW 29). I loved their offseason and they will not be this low in a couple of years (so long as Jalen Green and their other picks develop), but it’s going to be a process. Green is a walking bucket already, and if his game rounds out he will be a force, and Alperen Sengun already has Rockets faithful overly excited (but he has skills and could make a nice backup big man right away behind the returning Christian Wood). Put Green on the court with Josh Christopher, Kevin Porter Jr., and KJ Martin and this is one very athletic team.

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27. Pistons (20-52). It’s just Summer League, but Cade Cunningham looks like the real deal (and his game isn’t suited for the glorified pickup of SL, he’ll be better in real games). He’s a fluid athlete, sees the floor, and can finish through contact. Kelly Olynyk will provide some floor spacing and shooting around Cunningham, but what is more important to watch is the development of Siddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and the rest of the young Pistons under Dwane Casey.

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28. Cavaliers (22-50). Evan Mobley has shown flashes at Summer League, but big men take longer to develop and Mobley needs time (and to get stronger). They re-signed Jarrett Allen to help the team now while Mobley develops, but the $100 million extension turned some heads around the league, that was too much (but could be tradable in a couple of years). The Cleveland rebuild is still a work in progress, they have shopped Collin Sexton around for trades (no takers yet, nobody wants to pay him big money in a year) and brought in Ricky Rubio to help stabilize the backcourt. It will be another tough season in Cleveland, but there is reason for hope with Mobley and Darius Garland.

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29. Kings (31-41). Owner Vivek Ranadive is pressuring the front office to make a move that could vault this team up into playoff contention in the West (they have missed the playoffs for 15 straight years), but that kind of pressure often leads to bad trades. They have Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes as trade bate. This roster is better than this ranking, but it feels like more upheaval is coming and maybe not for the better. The best chance at the postseason is more likely to come from leaps by De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Halliburton in the back court. No. 9 draft pick Davion Mitchell looks like he can help on defense now, but his offense needs work.

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30. Thunder (22-50). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is special and this team has other talent such as Lou Dort and Derrick Favors, but this is a rebuilding team that will lose a lot. Tre Mann has looked great at Summer League, and Josh Giddey has potential but is going to take time to develop. It’s going to take years to turn this roster around, but they have the picks to get a lot of shots in the lottery, and as some of those pan out things will look very different.

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