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NBA Power Rankings: The season opens with the Bucks, Nets on top

After sending a clearly disengaged Ben Simmons home from their final preseason practice and suspending him for their regular season opener, Rich Eisen argues that the Sixers have no choice but to trade their star.

The NBA season tips off tonight and we are back with our weekly NBA Power Rankings (which will typically run on Wednesdays, but because today is the start of the season it seemed appropriate). The defending champion Bucks get the No. 1 spot in week one, but this feels like a season where more than a few teams will move through the top spot during the next 26 weeks.

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1. Bucks (46-26 last season). The defending champions have flown under the radar this preseason compared to the drama from Boston and Philadelphia (and even Los Angeles), but Milwaukee looks poised for a “you think last season was a fluke, watch us” regular season. Donte DiVincenzo remains out to start the season, recovering from the ankle surgery that kept him out of the playoffs, but he will return at some point. Giannis Antetokounmpo made a leap in the playoffs last year, and we will be talking MVP again if he carries plays like this over to this season...

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2. Nets (48-24). When Steve Nash was traded to the Lakers in the summer of 2012, pundits were ready to hand the stacked Lakers the title, but that superteam collapsed in spectacular fashion. That background makes Nash the perfect coach for this stacked and frontrunner Brooklyn team because he understands the personalities, balance, and how to fight through the distractions (such as one Kyrie Irving). Rookie Cameron Thomas is not just a Summer League sensation (co-MVP), this preseason he earned some regular season run on this deep team.

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3. Suns (51-21). While we should generally ignore all things preseason, the fact Phoenix had the best defense in the NBA through those four games is a promising sign. Locking up Mikal Bridges with a contract extension was smart (and that’s a fair price), but not getting a deal done with Deandre Ayton is about the most Sarver thing ever (and not in a good way). Could we get an angry Ayton this season trying to prove his worth? Maybe, it’s more likely than him sulking through a season (especially with Chris Paul pushing him), but players tend not to forget when they feel disrespected.

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4. Jazz (52-20). No team could have a great regular season and be ignored like Utah this year. The Jazz are title contenders, but they also are still an ensemble team that needs everyone healthy to compete with the big boys (Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell were injured last playoffs). Which is why having Rudy Gay out to start the season due to heel surgery is less than ideal. The Jazz were a force of nature at home last season (31-5) but just good on the road (21-15), and they start this season with 7-of-9 away from Salt Lake City.

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5. Lakers (42-30, LW 12). Don’t read anything into the 0-6 preseason record, the Lakers averaged less than a point per possession on offense in the preseason and that’s not going to happen when LeBron James/Anthony Davis/Russell Westbrook are all playing 30+ minutes a night. That 25th ranked preseason defense, on the other hand, is something to watch. While I’m picking the Lakers to win the West, it will take a while for the team to come together (hence the lower ranking to start the season). With Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton Tucker out weeks to start the season, Kent Bazemore will have a big role for the Lakers early.

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6. Heat (40-32). For Miami to threaten the Bucks and Nets, a few things need to go right — and we saw a couple of them in the preseason. Tyler Herro was red hot — 22.4 points a game, 44.8% shooting on 3-pointers — and the Heat need bubble Herro this season. Kyle Lowry was dishing out six assists a game and looked comfortable defensively, also a key. Miami also needs Bam Adebayo to take another step forward this season, particularly on the offensive end (he struggled to create against the Bucks last playoffs). The 5-1 Heat preseason record is meaningless now, but key players looking ready to step up is a very good sign.

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7. Mavericks (42-30). Dallas had a strong 4-0 preseason for new coach Jason Kidd, particularly on defense where the Mavs surrendered less than a point per possession — an excellent sign if they can carry it over to games that matter. They also played faster, a good sign for the offense. This team remains the Luka Doncic show with questions about Kristaps Porzingis, Kidd, the new front office and everyone else. Dallas is one of the harder teams to project; they could be home for the first round of the playoffs, or in the play-in. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because I expect MVP Luka.

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8. Hawks (41-31 LW 13). If the Hawks are going to build off last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals two things need to happen. First, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish need to stay healthy, take a step forward, and give Atlanta the wing play and defense on the perimeter it needs. Second, Trae Young is going to have to adapt to the new rules on foul drawing and still get to the line (he struggled to do that in the preseason). Fun opening game between Trae Young and Luka Doncic.

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9. 76ers (49-23). The Ben Simmons drama makes Philadelphia the most challenging team to project this season, starting with if and when he will be on the court (Simmons getting thrown out of practice then Joel Embiid ripping him adds to the uncertainty). I’d be shocked if Simmons isn’t traded during the season, but when and where remain wide open questions, Daryl Morey will not be rushed into a bad deal. Philly could finish top 3, or in the play-in, nothing would shock me. Joel Embiid seems poised for an MVP level season and the Sixers need that because a lot more will be asked of him. Also, Tyrese Maxey will have more responsibility thrust upon him this season, especially if we don’t see Simmons for a while.

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10. Celtics (36-36). Boston will be without Al Horford and likely Jaylen Brown on opening night after both tested positive for the coronavirus — a painful shot for a team hit hard by COVID last season. Jayson Tatum is poised to take a step forward off his Olympics performance, but who is making that leap with him? Dennis Schroder struggled in the preseason and they need more from him. The Time Lord has to own the paint defensively — with Marcus Smart and Jason Richardson in the starting lineup, this should be an outstanding defensive team. Payton Pritchard, Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford and more to provide depth behind that strong starting five.

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11. Nuggets (47-25). Denver brings a lot of continuity to the table — meaning they again will be good this season — but to contend they need two things. First, Jamal Murray back from his ACL injury and playing like his old self (this still seems like more of a next season thing). Second, Michael Porter Jr. to make a leap forward again. Rookie Bones Hyland was jacking up threes and playing well this preseason, he’s earned some rotation minutes from Michael Malone.

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12. Warriors (39-33). This is an improved Warriors team entering the season. Stephen Curry looks ready for another MVP chase, and Jordan Poole looked in preseason like a guy ready to make a leap (Most Improved Player?). Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica are the kind of veterans this team needs around its stars. Speaking of stars, Draymond Green is a couple of weeks away from a full minutes load, but he will be playing. Golden State needs a fully healthy and vintage Klay Thompson to contend, but that’s a conversation for early 2022. Great test to open the season against the Lakers.

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13. Clippers (47-25). While contender status has to wait for the return of Kawhi Leonard (which I still expect is a next season thing), the Clippers are still a good team with a lot of continuity. They played faster this preseason, a smart move to generate some easy offense. Terance Mann has a new contract and appears poised for a breakout. While Paul George is a great fantasy pick up this year (he will put up big numbers), look for a more balanced Clipper attack and more ball movement as they try to replace what Leonard could bring every night.

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14. Knicks (41-31). We know Julius Randle is in mid-season form because Tom Thibodeau played him mid-season minutes in the preseason (two games over 35 minutes... why? I get the passion for winning everything, but these games literally do not count. That said, the Knicks were 4-0 with the best offense in the league during the preseason, and Derrick Rose looked good again (Kemba Walker didn’t look bad, but they need him to be better). While the focus has been on the veteran additions of Walker and Evan Fournier to the improved Knicks backcourt, look for a leap from RJ Barrett, who will have a little more room to operate this season and will take advantage of it.

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15. Bulls (31-41). Chicago had the best net rating of any team in the preseason, with a top two offense and defense, which was due to the fact Billy Donovan wanted to build some chemistry with the new faces and played his starters more than most teams. We’ll see how much of that carries over to games that matter. Zach LaVine is poised for an Olympic bump coming off his play in Tokyo, but my eyes will be on Patrick Williams, who could have a breakout season for Chicago at the four, plus they need his defense this season to hold things together on that end of the court.

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16. Trail Blazers (42-30). Don’t read much into Portland’s 0-4 preseason, there is no way a Damian Lillard led offense is going to be 30th in the league when the games matter (as they were in the preseason). New coach Chauncey Billups promised a more aggressive defense, with Jusuf Nurkic playing out higher on the pick-and-roll, and we saw that in the preseason, but also saw it is a work in progress to have everyone on a string rotating behind that aggressive stance and make it work. Portland is fully capable of finishing in the top six and avoiding the play-in, but it will come down to that defense. Portland has a brutal schedule out of the gate to start the season, that defense and Billups skill as a leader will be tested early.

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17. Grizzlies (38-34). Memphis had the fourth-best defense in the league during the preseason, which is both meaningless and potentially a good sign going forward. Locking up Jaren Jackson Jr. with an extension was also smart, if he can stay healthy he is poised for a breakout season. Ja Morant could get his first All-Star nod this season, he is poised for that kind of leap, but the change at center and bringing in Steven Adams concerns me for the Grizzlies on the offensive end of the floor. Memphis has a tough schedule out of the gate, including both Los Angeles teams this weekend.

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18. Raptors (27-45). Toronto starts the season without Pascal Siakam, who is a few weeks away from playing following offseason shoulder surgery. He remains the key to the Raptors’ season and potentially their future, they need All-NBA Siakam back this season. Once they get healthy, this is a very interesting defensive team with versatile, switchable defenders such as OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes (who showed flashes in the preseason), Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. Good to see the Raptors playing at home again in Toronto this season (5-of-6 north of the border to start the season).

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19. Hornets (33-39). With LaMelo Ball having the rock in his hands, this remains a team at the top of the League Pass watchability list, but can they take a step forward this season? A lot of that may depend on if Gordon Hayward can stay healthy and in the lineup this season, he has been cleared from COVID protocols and is expected to be available to open the season. With Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre Jr. this team has some depth as well. Charlotte’s offense struggled in the preseason, a concern because this is not a roster built to win with defense (their paint defense in particular), they are going to need a lot of points to get wins.

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20. Wizards (34-38). Washington looked good this preseason in the limited minutes Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie played together, but all that depth they traded for was less impressive during the 0-4 run of games (except for Montrezl Harrell, who looked closer to his old self). Locking up Daniel Gafford on a three-year, $40.2 million contract extension could look like a steal in a few years if he continues to develop. This ranking may be a little low for the Wizards, but their disjointed preseason and injury concerns give me pause.

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21. Pacers (34-38). This may be a low ranking to start the season for Indiana, but they begin without Caris LeVert (back) and T.J. Warren (foot), plus Malcolm Brogdon is coming off a sprained shoulder, all of which will slow them out of the gates. Is the Xs and Os genius of Rick Carlisle what the Pacers needed to get the most out of the Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner pairing? Maybe, he has the team playing slower to better suit their styles, and also said he plans to stagger them more. The Brogdon extension means he can’t be traded this season, but this still feels like a team that will see roster changes before the deadline.

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22. Timberwolves (23-49). If I were going to pick one team I have out of the postseason to make a big leap up into it, Minnesota would be the team. Anthony Edwards could explode in his second season, Karl-Anthony Towns seems in a better space mentally and poised for an All-NBA level season, and we may finally see a lot of him and D’Angelo Russell. The question is will the defense be good enough? The Timberwolves played a more aggressive style of defense this preseason and were top 10 on that end of the floor, but that is just preseason. This becomes a much more dangerous team if they can carry over even an average defense into the season.

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23. Kings (31-41). The 4-0 preseason in Sacramento, with some offensive flow and a top-five defense, has positive feelings rolling in Sacramento to open the season. The defense remains the big question mark, the Kings were historically bad on that end of the court last season, and a few nice preseason games plus adding rookie Davion Mitchell doesn’t change that concern. Rim protection is an issue. This feels like it could be an All-Star hear for De’Aaron Fox, but the Kings need more wins to get him in the spotlight. After a 15-year playoff drought, there is real pressure on Luke Walton and the basketball staff to make the postseason, or changes will be coming.

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24. Pelicans (31-41). Zion Williamson will miss the start of the season due to a foot injury, and the fact it’s a foot means there is legitimate reason for concern about his conditioning when he returns (never a strength of his anyway). The biggest wild card with this team is new coach Willie Green, can he mesh Zion, Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis, Jaxson Hayes, Trey Murphy III and the rest of an interesting young core into something more than the sum of its parts? Look for Ingram to put up big numbers early with no Zion on the court.

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25. Spurs (33-39). Gregg Popovich can coach as long as he wants, and he may enjoy the more hands-on, development focused coaching needed for a young Spurs team this season with Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Josh Primo, Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White. There’s still legitimate concerns about where the offense is going to come from on this team, but Murray looked comfortable with his shot in the preseason, a good sign.

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26. Cavaliers (22-50). There are a lot of interesting players on this team, starting with No. 3 pick Evan Mobley, who showed flashes of why he was taken so high in the preseason, but also stretches where it is clear he has a long way to go. Besides Mobley, there is Collin Sexton (coming off a sprained shoulder), Darrius Garland, Lauri Markkanen, Isaac Okoro, Ricky Rubio, Jarrett Allen and more, but it’s fair to question how all these players fit together well. J.B. Bickerstaff has some work to do.

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27. Magic (21-48, LW 26). This is a make-or-break year for Mo Bamba in Orlando, and he showed flashes of the make side in the preseason averaging 11.5 points and 3.8 blocks a game. Still, the Magic locked up Wendell Carter Jr. with a contract extension and will let Bamba go to free agency next season, letting the market set his price. Jalen Suggs is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season, but will he get enough touches to challenge for the Rookie of the Year award? The other thing to watch is how Jonathan Isaac responds coming off a torn ACL.

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28. Rockets (16-53, LW 29). Houston is going to be one of the most entertaining teams in the league, they’re just not going to be very good. Jalen Green will have the ball in his hands and the guy can already score at an NBA level (although he struggled with his outside shot in the preseason), the real question is how does his game round out — can he get others involved? Can he become a true playmaker? Rookie Alperen Sengun shows some promise as well, he’s got some polished skills. Eric Gordon will get some run, if for no other reason than to showcase him for the trade the Rockets are searching for (they’d love to trade John Wall, also, but that contract is much harder to move).

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29. Pistons (20-52). The Pistons are going small with 6'8" Isaiah Steward starting at center, but his energy combined with the skills of No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham and the offense of Jerami Grant will make this a team worth watching. Well, it will be once Cunningham gets on the court, he missed all the Pistons preseason games with a sprained ankle (there is no official timeline for his return). A home and home against the Bulls to open the season for the Pistons.

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30. Thunder (21-48, LW 30). The backcourt combination of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rookie Josh Giddey is going to be interesting to watch this season. That could mesh into a combo that moves the ball well and can play with pace, but it’s still fair to question where the offense will come from with this group. It’s going to be a rough season in Oklahoma City in the win column, but if their players start to show real development that’s all that really matters. This is a multi-year project (and a lot more young players are coming in future years, the Thunder have all the draft picks).

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