NBA Power Rankings: Nets, Lakers cream of the crop entering Opening Night originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
A new NBA season is finally upon us. Just 12 months ago, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals inside the Orlando bubble. Less than three months ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks won four straight games over the Phoenix Suns to win the 2021 NBA Finals. Now, another season brings more possibilities as teams hope to contend for a title with fans in the stands.
After the league was dominated by superteams, three different teams have won a championship over the past three years. Fans have enjoyed the Cinderella Finals runs of the Miami Heat and Suns, as well as the return of several legitimate contenders. And the league is wide open yet again in 2021-22. Can the Brooklyn Nets finally live up to expectations? Will the Golden State Warriors return to form with Klay Thompson back in the fold?
Here’s how each team stacks up heading into the start of the season.
30. Houston Rockets
Projected starting lineup: Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Eric Gordon, Christian Wood, Daniel Theis
The Houston Rockets are officially in rebuilding mode but have some intriguing prospects. They added a potential franchise cornerstone in Jalen Green with the second pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Kevin Porter Jr. has enjoyed a career resurgence with the Rockets and could have a big year, and Christian Wood has the potential to be a borderline All-Star candidate.
Will all of that contribute to wins in 2021-22? It depends on how they start.
Houston lost 45 of its final 51 regular-season games last season. For now, the Rockets appear headed for the NBA draft lottery in 2022.
29. Orlando Magic
Projected starting lineup: Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Terrence Ross, Chuma Okeke, Wendell Carter Jr.
The Orlando Magic are also in the process of what will be a lengthy rebuild. The good news is that they have two budding stars in Cole Anthony and 2021 top-five pick Jalen Suggs leading the way. Orlando recently locked up Wendell Carter Jr. as a solid reliable player with some upside.
This season might not always be pretty but new head coach Jamahl Mosley has a strong background in developing players and should be able to get the best out of a young, talented core this season.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder
Projected starting lineup: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Josh Giddey, Darius Bazley, Isaiah Roby
The future is bright for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sam Presti, armed with 20 first-round picks over the next half-decade, has a legitimate superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a defensive stalwart in Lu Dort, a unicorn in 7-foot forward Aleksej Pokuševski and a new stud guard in 2021 first-round pick Josh Giddey.
The team is still in a rebuild but the progress of Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort, Pokuševski and Giddey certainly make this team interesting to watch as the season begins.
27. San Antonio Spurs
Projected starting lineup: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl
Without Patty Mills and DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs aren’t expected to be the mid-level playoff contenders they were in years past.
Even with Gregg Popovich as their coach, San Antonio might not be able to overcome the lack of talent on their roster, compared to their formidable opponents in the Western Conference.
Dejounte Murray has the potential to drop 20 points per game for this team but a lineup of Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl just isn’t good enough to stay in the playoff conversation out West.
26. Detroit Pistons
Projected starting lineup: Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, Isaiah Stewart
All of the talk in Detroit will be about first overall pick Cade Cunningham and his adjustment to the NBA. But the Pistons have built a pretty good team around Cunningham for the future.
Jerami Grant emerged as a key player last season and a mentor to some of the younger players on the team. Detroit also had an incredible 2020 draft haul in adding Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, both of whom had solid stretches of games in their rookie seasons.
While Killian Hayes didn’t play much in his rookie season while dealing with injuries, he has the potential to grow as a point guard alongside Cunningham.
It will take a while before Dwane Casey and Co. right the ship, but for the first time in a long time, Pistons basketball might actually be watchable.
25. New Orleans Pelicans
Projected starting lineup: Devonte’ Graham, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas
The New Orleans Pelicans probably should be higher on this list, but after a disastrous offseason, the team is not looking like a top contender in the Western Conference.
New Orleans gave away Lonzo Ball to the Chicago Bulls in a sign-and-trade and then signed Devonte’ Graham to replace him. Zion Williamson continues to struggle with durability early in his career and will miss his third straight season opener with a foot injury.
Without a clear timeline on when the superstar will return, the Pelicans will have to rely on Graham, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Jonas Valanciunas to begin the year, and that doesn’t bode well for them at all.
24. Sacramento Kings
Projected starting lineup: De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, Richaun Holmes
De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III and Tyrese Haliburton weren’t even teenagers yet the last time the Sacramento Kings made the playoffs. The dynamic trio will attempt to end Sacramento’s 15-year postseason drought, but in order to have a chance to snap the streak, the Kings improve their defense. Monte McNair and Luke Walton took a step in that direction by drafting Davion Mitchell with the ninth pick in the 2021 draft.
Mitchell joins a loaded Kings backcourt already featuring Fox, Haliburton, and the streaky but deadly Buddy Hield. Adding Mitchell to the mix was a questionable decision but his recent performances in summer league and the preseason prove he might have been worth the risk. If Walton can find a way to manage and utilize the talent on the roster, the Kings could surprise people on any given night.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected starting lineup: Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ starting backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland was a bright spot in a 2020-21 season full of inconsistency. The Cavs acquired Jarett Allen mid-season to add to the exciting group, and Isaac Okoro developed quite nicely as he got playing time during his rookie year. But perhaps the team’s most intriguing piece is No. 3 pick Evan Mobley, who should provide a spark for Cleveland in his rookie season.
The Cavs also acquired Lauri Markkanen from Chicago in a sign-and-trade. The young core in Cleveland will have veterans like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio to back them up as well. While they might not win many games, expect them to be competitive in more games than not.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected starting lineup: D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves are among the most intriguing teams in the NBA this season. Despite a tumultuous offseason filled with ownership changes and front office scandals, the team itself must find a way to gel together after an injury-marred 2020-21 campaign. Karl-Anthony Towns remains the cornerstone of the franchise with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels hoping to develop in their sophomore seasons.
The key to Minnesota’s success will be the health of D’Angelo Russell and Towns. When both are healthy they have the potential to be All-Stars. The team’s offensive production shouldn’t be a problem this season, but they must shore up the defensive end if they want to contend in the West.
21. Toronto Raptors
Projected starting lineup: Goran Dragic, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Last season could be considered a throwaway for the Toronto Raptors, who were playing their home games in Tampa, Fla., due to border restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Injuries also derailed the team as all of its starters missed at least 16 games.
Toronto lost a key piece of the 2018-19 championship team this offseason in Kyle Lowry. So the Raptors won’t be exactly picking up where they left off when they last played in Toronto, but Fred VanVleet, OG Anunuoby and Pascal Siakam are still growing in the prime of their careers.
Toronto must utilize the players around those core pieces like Goran Dragic, Gary Trent Jr., No.4 overall pick Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa. With a high-level coach in Nick Nurse, expectations should never be too low, but without a reliable go-to option on offense, they aren’t too high either.
20. Memphis Grizzlies
Projected starting lineup: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
The Memphis Grizzlies enter the 2021-22 season fresh off their first postseason appearance in three years.
The team decided to take a measured approach to the offseason, putting trust in their young core of Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis did, however, make one big move, trading away Jonas Valancunias to the Pelicans for Steven Adams.
The Grizzlies are hoping Adams can make an impact on the boards and on the defensive end. The biggest question remains how the young duo of Morant and Jackson Jr. will perform. Memphis still has key pieces off the bench in Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson to lift them over the hump and into the play-in tournament for a second consecutive year.
19. Washington Wizards
Projected starting lineup: Spencer Dinwiddie, Bradley Beal, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford
The Washington Wizards will be a team in transition in 2021-22. What they transition to being is the question that must be answered.
They have a star in Bradley Beal who could become a free agent next year and the hope is that Tommy Sheppard and the Wizards front office can entice him to stay in D.C. With Russell Westbrook now a Los Angeles Laker, Beal once again will have to lead the team by himself. The Westbrook trade did help bring additional depth to the team in the form of Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Washington also acquired Spencer Dinwiddie in a sign-and-trade with the Nets.
If new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. can find a way to utilize European superstar Deni Avdija and Dinwiddie can bounce back from his knee injury, the Wizards could find themselves in contention for a spot in the play-in tournament once again.
18. Indiana Pacers
Projected starting lineup: Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
The Indiana Pacers brought back Rick Carlisle for a second stint as head coach this offseason. Hopefully, a new coach can bring more health to the Pacers after struggling with injuries to multiple starters last season.
Indiana still isn’t 100% healthy as T.J. Warren is dealing with a foot injury that limited him to four games played last season, while Caris LeVert will miss the start of the season due to a stress fracture in his back.
The Pacers will have to rely on players like Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, Oshae Brissett and rookie Chris Duarte to hold down the fort when the season begins.
17. Portland Trail Blazers
Projected starting lineup: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic
Entering his 10th year in the NBA, Damian Lillard knows it’s now or never in Portland. After back-to-back first-round exits, the Trail Blazers fired Terry Stotts and brought in Chauncey Billups to right the ship. Fixing Portland’s defense should be his first priority after the Blazers ranked dead last in the NBA the last two seasons under Stotts.
The Blazers acquired Robert Covington ahead of last season, who is one of the better defenders in the NBA, and traded for Norman Powell at the deadline. With Lillard questioning his future in Portland over the summer, there should be some type of urgency this season to have success and it should push the Blazers back into the top of the Western Conference.
16. Los Angeles Clippers
Projected starting lineup: Reggie Jackson, Eric Bledsoe, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac
The Clippers will attempt to stay among the elite in the West without superstar forward Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is still recovering from knee surgery after suffering a partially torn ACL in the 2021 postseason.
Los Angeles still has Paul George, who is more than qualified to become the primary scoring option and deliver a special season like the one he had in Oklahoma City three years ago.
If PG can return to his MVP form, the Clippers could stay in the hunt. The team is filled with veterans who can shoot efficiently from beyond the arc. But as long as Leonard is not on the court, they can’t be considered as serious title contenders.
15. New York Knicks
Projected starting lineup: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
The Knicks ended a seven-year postseason drought behind Tom Thibodeau’s defense and the 2020-21 Most Improved Player, Julius Randle. New York made some key additions in the offseason that should help improve their offense in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Add that backcourt duo to the blossoming RJ Barrett and the return of rim protector Mitchell Robinson and the Knicks could once again be a playoff contender in the East.
Whether the Knicks can be better than they were last season depends on how Walker and Fournier gel in Thibodeau’s system. Walker dealt with knee injuries the majority of the 2020-21 season and missed 29 games, including 15 back-to-backs, while with the Boston Celtics. If Walker can’t return to form, the Knicks still have Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley off the bench, but having Walker pan out would be huge.
14. Charlotte Hornets
Projected starting lineup: LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, Mason Plumlee
With 2021 Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier, the Hornets saw serious improvement last season under James Borrego.
They went out and added Kelly Oubre Jr. While they still hold the longest active playoff drought in the East at five years, Charlotte will be one of the most fun teams to watch this season. with a young core that has the potential to make the playoffs in the near future.
13. Philadelphia 76ers
Projected starting lineup: Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
The Philadelphia Sixers finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season but were bounced out of the playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks. The fallout from the early postseason exit could spell the end of the All-Star duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
While Simmons finally reported to the team last week, he still has failed to develop a jump shot in four seasons as a pro. With Embiid still in his prime and Philadelphia heavily invested in the veteran core around him, the Sixers need to find a way to acquire a better primary ball-handler to help maximize their title window.
It’s impossible to know what the season could look like without knowing what the team decides to do with Simmons but the talent on the roster as currently constructed is still good enough to finish among the top teams in the East.
12. Boston Celtics
Projected starting lineup: Dennis Schroder, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams
There’s new leadership in Boston after Brad Stevens moved from head coach to president of basketball operations and quickly hired Ime Udoka as his successor.
The Celtics also brought in a new supporting cast for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, picking up Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson in free agency.
If Boston can stay healthy throughout the season, the ceiling of the team will be relatively high. But there are plenty of other teams that have a talented, deeper roster than the Celtics.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Projected starting lineup: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr. Dorian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell
After back-to-back first-round exits, the Dallas Mavericks went through a significant shakeup in the offseason. Dallas parted ways with president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and head coach Rick Carlisle in the offseason. The Mavericks then hired Nico Harrison and Jason Kidd to replace the two longtime staffers and hope that both can mesh with superstar Luka Doncic and help Dallas reach new heights.
Doncic signed a five-year, $172 million max extension in the offseason and should be an MVP candidate this season. The pieces around him are the biggest question for the Mavericks. Can Kidd help Doncic and Kirstaps Portzingis improve their on-court chemistry? Can Dallas finally make it past the first round of the playoffs? With the foundation already built, the Mavericks have the potential to exceed expectations this season.
10. Atlanta Hawks
Projected starting lineup: Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Clint Capela
The Atlanta Hawks are the perfect example of a team that can achieve success in the NBA without building a superteam. For years Atlanta has developed young talent and finally saw their hard work come to fruition last season with a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals.
The decision to draft Trae Young over Luka Doncic was questioned by most after the 2018 NBA Draft. But Young has gone farther in the playoffs last season than Doncic has in the past two years. The Hawks kept their second-best player, John Collins, on a restricted deal to pair with Young.
Atlanta is now trending upward with plenty of depth and needs to make the most of their talent to become a title contender in the East. They could be one year away if they can find another star to pair with Young and Collins to compete with the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets.
9. Chicago Bulls
Projected starting lineup: Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, Demar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vucevic
Chicago Bulls GM Arturas Karnisovas wasted no time after the team finished with a 2020-21 season with a 31-41 record in May. Chicago has already acquired All-Star center Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline, but Karnisovas didn’t stop there. He made two sign-and-trade deals for Lonzo Ball and Demar DeRozan and let go of players from the old regime like Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr, and Tomas Satoransky.
The new-look Bulls appear primed for the Eastern Conference playoff run that eluded them last season. Ball gives the Bulls the playmaking point guard they've been looking for and takes the primary ball-handling duties away from Zach LaVine.
DeRozan is lethal from mid-range and can play at either the small forward or power forward position. Patrick Williams has steadily evolved into a solid defender in the league. If he can work on developing a consistent shot, Williams can be a key cog in the Bulls playoff push.
Vucevic didn't play at his usual All-Star level while going through growing pains in Billy Donovan's system but if he can capture just a little bit of the magic he had in Orlando the Bulls can find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since the Derrick Rose era.
8. Golden State Warriors
Projected starting lineup: Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, James Wiseman
The Golden State Warriors aren’t the dynasty team they were two years ago. Steph Curry returned from injury last season and was as productive and entertaining as ever. But the Warriors weren’t able to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive year without Klay Thompson.
Golden State passed on opportunities to trade their high draft picks for immediate help and decided to draft James Wiseman in 2020 and Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody in 2021. The Warriors now find themselves in a holding pattern between legitimate title contenders and preparing for the future.
The team appears ready to reintroduce themselves to the Western Conference elite but much of it depends on whether Thompson can return the same player after two major surgeries. Also, much of the West has caught up to the Warriors in the two years Thompson has been away from the game.
If Klay and Steph can reignite the Splash Bros, the Warriors have a chance to make it past the play-in tournament and make some noise in late May.
7. Utah Jazz
Projected starting lineup: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’ Neale, Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz owned the best record in the NBA last season and was one of the best 3-point shooting teams. But their issue is that they lean too much on shooting from beyond the arc to lead them to wins. Utah still has one of the league's best guards in Donovan Mitchell and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Their depth, ball movement, shooting and defense combine to make them a favorable team in the West, If Utah can remain consistent they could have a surprise run in the playoffs similar to the Pheonix Suns this season. Consistency will be key for Utah though and not just in the regular season, but the postseason as well.
6. Denver Nuggets
Projected starting lineup: Monte Morris, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
The Denver Nuggets enter the 2021-22 season hoping to make the most of their window to potentially win a championship. With Jamal Murray out until at least April or May, the Nuggets will have to rely on 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. to carry the load for the offense.
There's no question that Jokic is the most dangerous playmaking center in the NBA, but can he do it all alone with the production of Murray? That question will have to be answered if the Nuggets want to reach their goals this season.
5. Miami Heat
Projected starting lineup: Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo
The Miami Heat, just two years removed from reaching the NBA Finals, have a roster built for another title run. Jimmy Butler has established himself as a reliable superstar while pushing his teammates to also grow in the process. Bam Adebayo became an All-Star, Tyler Herro thrived in his role as a clutch scorer and Miami acquired Kyle Lowry in free agency this offseason.
Lowry knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a title after being part of the Toronto Raptors 2019-20 squad with Leonard.
If Erik Spoelstra can manage the team's health throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, the Heat could be a top-three seed in the East. The return of Victor Oladipo should help but the Heat also have other bench options like sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
It will be tough to beat the Nets and Bucks this season, but if any team knows how to overcome adversity, it's Miami.
4. Phoenix Suns
Projected starting lineup: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Miles Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton
The Phoenix Suns are out to prove that their 2021 magical run to the NBA Finals is no joke. While the team recently passed on signing former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, they did lock up Mikal Bridges and Landry Shamet to long-term deals.
The Suns' backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul remains one of the best in the league and with a loaded roster, the only thing stopping them from maintaining success is injuries.
Ayton was a huge piece of the Suns' deep playoff run last season. If he can stay consistent throughout the season he could be headed to his first All-Star game come February.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Projected starting lineup: Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Kris Middleton, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Brook Lopez
The Bucks playoff run wasn't exactly a surprise. Most experts believed that Giannis Antetokoumpo would eventually lead Milwaukee to a championship, just not last season. Nevertheless, the NBA champs took full advantage of the health issues other contenders like the Nets and Lakers went through and hoisted their Larry O' Brien trophy since 1971.
Milwaukee quietly went through the offseason without many key additions. They lost P.J. Tucker, who was a key defensive presence but added other players to ffesh out their bench in George Hill, Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye and Grayson Allen.
Now the Bucks will get the chance to answer the doubters who believe they never would have won a championship if Kevin Durant wore a small sneaker in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With a Finals MVP in his possession, Antetokoumpo is more than up to the task.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Projected starting lineup: James Harden, Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, Kevin Durant, LeMarcus Aldridge
The controversy around Kyrie Irving's vaccination status has overshadowed the fact that the Brooklyn Nets have two of the best players in the NBA on their team.
Kevin Durant is still the best pure scorer in basketball and James Harden can be the swiss army knife that can facilitate an offense with double-digit assists or drop 30 points a night if needed. Even without Irving for the presumed foreseeable future, the Nets should be the favorites coming out of the East.
Health was the only opponent that stopped them last season. Brooklyn was left with only one superstar healthy in Game 7 Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The additions of veterans like LeMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap and Patty Mills should help alleviate some of the responsibility that rested purely on Durant's shoulders during the postseason. It remains to be seen how many games the Nets' core will play together during the regular season, but if they can get it rolling in time for the playoffs next year no one, not even the Bucks, should stop them from reaching the NBA Finals.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Projected starting lineup: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan
The Los Angeles Lakers failed to make the NBA Finals last year after winning the championship in 2020. While injuries have hampered LeBron James and Anthony Davis, another title could be in the Lakers' future if they can find a way to push through the grind of an 82-game season and stay fresh for the postseason.
The addition of Russell Westbrook brings plenty of optimism. There's no guarantee that Westbrook will be the definitive answer for Los Angeles this season, but he certainly can be a big help to James and take the pressure of being the primary ball-handler off his hands.
The Lakers also added Carmelo Anthony and brought back Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard to provide depth off the bench. When healthy. it is hard to find better rotation in basketball. With Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma gone, Los Angeles decided to put their trust in Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn. Nunn played great defense on the Bulls but wasn't an efficient scorer, while Monk was a streaky shooter for the Hornets.
If all the pieces around the big 3 of James, Davis and Westbrook can come together it is hard to see anyone beating the Lakers in a seven-game series come April.