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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors start season on top with Bucks on their heels

Kurt Helin talks with Michael Holley about his NBA tiers, including if the Celtics can keeping things rolling without Ime Udoka and who will start making moves to secure the top lottery pick.

The NBA season tips off tonight, so there is no better time to break out our NBA Power Rankings to start the season. Traditionally these will run on Wednesday throughout the season, but with a Tuesday night season tip-off (76ers vs. Celtics, Lakers vs. Warriors) this seemed a good day to start. The defending champion Warriors start the season on top, but in a deep NBA this season there could be a lot more changes in the first five than we traditionally see over the course of a year.

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1. Warriors (53-29 last season). So much for smoothly easing into their title defense. Thanks to Draymond Green’s right cross, tensions are relatively high around the Warriors — with an undercurrent of “is Draymond going to get paid?” Hanging around all season — but it is nothing they can’t overcome. With Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins getting paid, things should settle down. Maybe Klay Thompson is right, time and a ring ceremony will heal all wounds. The Warriors get their rings against the Lakers tonight (Tuesday), then face the Nuggets, Kings, and Suns — there are few easy nights in the West.

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2. Bucks (51-31). It’s been a quiet offseason and training camp for Milwaukee, not a lot of drama — which is just how Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo want it. Khris Middleton will miss the start of the season following wrist surgery, and Pat Connaughton also is out early, which could expose the wing depth issues of the Bucks to start the season, but they are still going to win a lot of games. However, the Bucks didn’t win any games in the preseason and their defense was one of the worst in the league — it’s just preseason, but that raised an eyebrow. Expect things to change starting Thursday night against the 76ers.

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3. Celtics (51-31). This is a championship-level roster — better than the one that went to the Finals last season thanks to the addition of Malcolm Brogdon as a sixth man. However, it took Ime Udoka as coach to get them to break bad habits and turn the ship around midseason last campaign. Will they revert to form with him gone? It didn’t look that way in the preseason when their offense was elite (the Celtics’ defense was less impressive, which is to be expected with Robert Williams out for the first couple of months at least). Philadelphia then Miami make it two tough games to start the season.

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4. Clippers (42-40). The pressure is on the Clippers this season — this is a championship level roster on paper, one that overachieved last season basically without its stars and now get a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to make that run. The only position battle on the roster ended with Reggie Jackson getting named the starter and John Wall coming off the bench. Expect the Clippers to be bombs away from 3 this season, and they shot 39.9% from deep in the preseason. The biggest challenge for Tyronne Lue is keeping everyone happy and engaged on a roster 12 deep with rotation players.

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5. 76ers (51-31). Could Tyrese Maxey be second on this team in scoring this season? He had a very strong preseason and while the James Harden/Joel Embiid two-man game will remain the bread and butter of the 76ers this season, Maxey looks ready to step up his scoring. If Harden embraces a more facilitator role, Maxey could be second (and should be an All-Star this season). The addition of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House should help the 76ers perimeter defense, but that will be put to test from the opening tip as the Sixers face the Celtics on opening night followed by the Bucks two nights later.

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6. Suns (64-18). On one hand, this is a roster bringing back the core of a team that went to the Finals two years ago and won 64 games last season — they have to be considered title contenders. But the vibes around this team are not good: the scars from the playoff blowout loss to the Mavericks, the tension between Deandre Ayton and coach Monty Williams last season (plus Ayton’s contract drama), Jae Crowder not being around the team and demanding a trade, the distraction of the franchise being up for sale, and Chris Paul getting a year older (and it showed the end of last season into the playoffs). Maybe the Suns and their struggling playoff defense bounce back this season, but there will be a lot of eyes on them (and a somewhat thin bench) heading into the season.

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7. Grizzlies (56-26). There are a lot of people around the league who expect Memphis to plateau this season, or maybe take a small step back. The Grizzlies lost more than they gained this offseason with DeAnthony Melton (76ers) and Kyle Anderson (Timberwolves) going out the door. Add in the fact Jaren Jackson Jr. is out to start the season due to injury and there are depth questions around this team. Ja Morant looked as explosive as ever in the preseason, but will internal improvement of their young players balance out the loss of veterans?

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8. Nuggets (48-34). Everyone is healthy again, but how long will it take Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to find their groove together again (they only played one game together in a preseason where coach Michael Malone took it easy on the veterans). With the added depth around Jokic, will his scoring numbers go down as he sees himself in more of a facilitator role (and there are other guys who need touches now, such as Michael Porter Jr.). The Nuggets get a relatively easy start to the schedule this season (Utah and Oklahoma City the first week), but there is a test against the Warriors that should be enlightening.

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9. Heat (53-29). This may be too low for the Heat, who will be a strong regular season team, just like always. Having lost P.J. Tucker at the four stings, but that’s more of a playoffs/matchup concern because Caleb Martin will do a good enough job to help Miami rack up regular season wins. The Heat culture was evident in the preseason as Erik Spoelstra held back the starters, played a lot of bench (and G-League) guys, and Miami still went 4-1. The biggest thing we can likely learn about the Heat during the regular season is if Kyle Lowry is back after being down last season — Miami needs him to be in they want to knock off the teams above them in this ranking. Miami opens the season with four games at home.

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10. Nets (44-38). This could be way too low or way too high for Brooklyn. In the limited minutes their stars were on the floor together in the preseason the Nets looked very good — and the offense wasn’t just isolation after isolation (does Steve Nash get credit for that or new assistant coach Igor Kokoskov?). Ben Simmons stayed in his lane, didn’t take jumpers, but did look good on defense and helped push the ball in transition. No Joe Harris or Seth Curry to start the season leads to questions about whether the Nets will have enough shooting to start the season (especially starting two non-shooters in Simmons and Nic Clayton). The Wednesday game against the Pelicans might be the most intriguing game of the first week.

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11. Timberwolves (46-36). We didn’t see much of the twin towers of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns together in the preseason — they only played together in the final game against Brooklyn (and were -16 in the minutes both were on the floor). Anthony Edwards looks primed for a leap forward this season, but he’s going to have to adjust to different spacing with Towns and Gobert on the floor together, and that seemed a work in progress during the preseason. Look for Minnesota to get off to a fast start as they open with the softest schedule in the league (Thunder, Jazz, at Thunder, Spurs twice, Lakers, Spurs again).

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13. Cavaliers (44-38). It’s just preseason, but the Cavaliers’ new backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell showed some real chemistry playing off each other. What we didn’t get to see is those two playing next to Evan Mobley (he only played in the final preseason game), which could unlock more as Mobley seems primed for a big step forward this season (with all due respect to Mitchell, if the Cavaliers are going to contend in a few years it’s because Mobley steps up and becomes a top-10 player). The biggest thing to watch with this team over the first half of the season is who wins the job at the three as the fifth starter (and, more importantly, closer).

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13. Mavericks (52-32). Don’t expect another slow start to the season for Luka Doncic — coming off EuroBasket his conditioning is better, his focus is better, and it showed in the preseason when he was a dominant force. Christian Wood was the big offseason acquisition and he will come off the bench to start the season, but expect him to get a lot of minutes with Doncic because they will need his ability to score in the paint to help balance the floor. Good tests to start the season in the Suns and Grizzlies.

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14. Raptors (48-34). This could be too low a ranking for a Raptors team I am high on — their unique style throws teams off (at least in the regular season). Nick Nurse rolls out a bunch of 6'4" top 6'9" guys (plus Fred VanVleet) who can switch everything and are positionless on offense, leaning into the dribble handoff like no other team in the league. Look for another All-NBA season from Pascal Siakam and a step forward from Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. Toronto’s shooting was off in the preseason, they need to find it fast because they have a brutal schedule the first couple of weeks (Cleveland, Brooklyn, Miami out of the gate).

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15. Hawks (43-39). The Hawks new All-Star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray were clearly still getting used to playing next to each other in the preseason, with a lot of “your turn/my turn” going on. That should improve as the season moves along, but Young is going to have to get used to being off the ball more. Atlanta made a big bet on De’Andre Hunter with his new four-year, $90 million contract — they need him to step up and become the three next to Young and Murray who can both defend at a high level and knock down 3s. The other big question for the Hawks this season: How well do they defend? We know the offense will be good, but they need stops and better minutes when Young sits.

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16. Pelicans (36-46). Zion Williamson will play in the opener against Brooklyn despite turning his ankle in the preseason. That’s another boost to what should be one of the top offenses in the NBA with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and a team that got out and ran in the preseason to take advantage of Zion’s athleticism. The question for New Orleans is can they get enough stops to win games? Zion got torched defensively by the Heat, a lot is going to fall on Herb Jones and Trey Murphy to shore up that end of the floor. The Pelicans open the season against the Nets in maybe the most interesting game of the first week.

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17. Bulls (46-36). Not having Lonzo Ball to start the season hurts, both defensively and he is their best guard at pushing the pace. The Bulls are going to rely on a backcourt combo of Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso to improve their defense. It’s possible DeMar DeRozan takes a step back on offense, but lost in the spotlight on DeRozan last season is just what an offensive force Zach LaVine has become — the Bulls will get buckets. Chicago had the second best offensive rating in the NBA during the preseason. I had hoped to see more out of Patrick Williams this preseason, hopefully his regular season is stronger.

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18. Lakers (33-49). While nobody should read too much into the preseason, the Lakers shot 28.6% as a team from 3 in the preseason and 39.8% overall — both numbers in the bottom 3 of NBA teams. Los Angeles had a league-worst preseason offensive rating of 93.9 (points per 100 possessions). There’s a lot of noise in those preseason numbers, a lot of shots by guys who will not be part of the regular rotation, but it should raise eyebrows. Especially with the Lakers facing a brutal schedule to open the season: at Warriors, Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Nuggets, at Timberwolves.

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19. Knicks (37-45). In a very Tom Thibodeau move, no team played its expected rotation players more minutes in the preseason than the Knicks. The big takeaway from that in the preseason was how good the Knicks defense was (top five in the NBA, giving up less than a point per possession), now can they carry that over to the regular season? After a tough opener against Memphis the Knicks need to rack up some wins against a soft schedule (because after that the schedule turns brutal).

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20. Kings (30-52). While other good teams might pivot and tank for Victor Wembanyama if the season starts slowly for them, that will not be the case in Sacramento — it is playoffs or bust for a team that was missed the cut 16 straight years. The preseason was promising for the Kings: Mike Brown did his thing as coach and Sacramento had the best defense in the league, the offense was rolling, and the Kings went 4-0. All good signs, although maybe the best one was how good Keegan Murray looked. Murray is a strong long shot Rookie of the Year candidate.

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21. Wizards (35-47). The big question about this team is how high the combo of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis can lift it — Washington has playoff aspirations — but the star duo only played 15 minutes together during the preseason. Without that combo (and injuries to some of the team’s promising young guns), the Wizards’ offense struggled during the preseason. It may be the first week of the season, but Friday’s game against the Bulls is the kind the Wizards need to win to make the postseason.

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22. Trail Blazers (27-55). The revamped Trail Blazers looked like a team trying to find its footing during the preseason, going 0-4 against NBA teams due to a struggling defense (bottom three in the league in preseason). Gary Payton II, one of the free agents brought in to shore up the defense, will miss the start of the season. The Trail Blazers open against the Kings, Suns and Lakers — how they fare against Sacramento and Los Angeles, two other teams fighting for a playoff spot, will tell us a lot about this team early.

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23. Pistons (23-59). Cade Cunningham plays at his own pace, is not rushed, and it took him a while at the start of last season to figure out how to make that work in the NBA — but once he did he was a beast. Now he’s got the athletic Jaden Ivey next to him in the backcourt and a quality scoring option in Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing. This is a roster that is going to score points and could slide up into the play-in if they can get enough stops (wing and paint defense in particular were a concern in the preseason). We’ll see if the Pistons can open some eyes early with the Magic, Knicks, and Pacers to open the season.

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24. Pacers (25-57). There’s a sense around the league that the Pacers would rather trade Myles Turner and Buddy Hield sooner rather than later and get in the Wembanyama sweepstakes, except that kind of tanking is never what owner Herb Simon has wanted in Indiana. Also, as long as they have Tyrese Halliburton on the roster, they are going to win a few games. Bennedict Mathurin was one of the most impressive rookies at Summer League and has carried that over into the preseason, showing an ability to get into the paint and score. The Pacers have a soft schedule to open, if they really are thinking lottery how will they react to some early wins?

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25. Hornets (43-39). LaMelo Ball is out for the start of the season with a sprained ankle, and they are already without their leading scorer Miles Bridges (away from the team after an arrest on domestic violence charges, it would be a shock to see him in the NBA this season). The Hornets went 0-5 in the preseason with a bottom four offense and defense among NBA teams, and while it’s just preseason those are not good signs. Steve Clifford is one of the better defensive coaches in the league, but if he can get this roster even up to league average on that end of the floor it might be his best coaching job.

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26. Rockets (20-62). Jalen Green looked like a player ready to make a leap during the preseason, showing off a better 3-point shot to go with his explosive athleticism. Kevin Porter Jr. got his payday, rookie Tari Eason looks like he can contribute, and the Rockets look like a team building something interesting. Heavy road schedule to start the season for Houston and a tough first week: at Atlanta, Memphis, at Milwaukee.

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27. Magic 22-60). This is probably too low for a team with No.1 pick Paolo Banchero running the offense and Franz Wagner finishing racking up points, surrounded by guys like Terrence Ross and Wendell Carter Jr. The preseason might have been a microcosm of the season for this team in that Banchero looked great and the youngsters got the ball and a chance to learn, but they still had a bottom-10 offense. Orlando is going to be an entertaining team to watch, even as they don’t win many games.

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28. Jazz (49-33). After watching Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, it should have answered the question from some corners of Jazz nation, “why break this team up now?” This team looked very different under Will Hardy than the movement/3-point shooting of Quin Snyder, but they have young ball handlers surrounded by shooters such as Kelly Olynyk who can knock down a few shots, plus they still have Jordan Clarkson off the bench. Collin Sexton will put up numbers this season. This team could win a few games early, which might lead to another trade of a veteran sooner rather than later.

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29. Thunder (24-58). It’s just preseason so nobody noticed, but the Thunder had the best offense and sixth-best defense in the NBA in the warm-up games (to be fair, those numbers were bolstered by games against international teams Adelaide and Maccabi Ra’anana). Not having Chet Holmgren for the season sucks, but there’s still talent on this team worth watching in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. It was Giddey who ran the offense at Summer League and he showed some chemistry with Holmgren. OKC has the twin towers in Minnesota twice in the first week of the season.

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30. Spurs (34-48). There are young players worth watching on this Spurs team, particularly Devin Vassell, who had a strong preseason (even if the Spurs didn’t). But this season in San Antonio is about Gregg Popovich teaching a young team to get better incrementally, and to see of Tre Jones or Josh Primo can learn to run the point. It’s going to be a long season in San Antonio, and a particularly rough first few weeks where their schedule is just brutal.

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