The NBA launched its 75th season by tapping Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and LeBron James for a lengthy video ad that stuck to an age-old script: Basketball captures hearts with stars who boast rare talents and charismatic personalities.
After two pandemic-shortened campaigns, the forecast for the NBA’s diamond season is indeed looking brighter. Yes, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons have dominated headlines with their preseason absences, but they are the exceptions. Across the league, teams have had months to rest up for the return of a standard 82-game schedule. A healthy player vaccination rate and rejuvenated arena crowds should contribute to a more stable and enjoyable viewing experience.
With opening night right around the corner, it’s time to judge how the 30 NBA teams stack up by entertainment value. As in years past, this ranking considers substance and style, with fresh faces, intriguing additions and novel philosophies earning extra credit.
1. Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant, James Harden and the league’s deepest roster should take last year’s top-ranked offense to new heights. Throw in Irving’s patented mix of hesitation dribbles and off-court headaches, and center stage belongs to Brooklyn.
2. Golden State Warriors: Goodbye, identity crisis. Steve Kerr said the Warriors are ready to “chase wins” rather than cater to their youngsters, clearing the way for Stephen Curry to go nuclear. The countdown is on for Klay Thompson’s return.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: How Russell Westbrook meshes (or doesn’t) with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is this year’s most intriguing fit question. L.A.’s star-studded but aging roster will boom spectacularly or bust spectacularly.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: Title validation will only make Giannis Antetokounmpo that much more terrifying. The Bucks will be the rare defending champions to fly under the radar thanks to their bigger-market competition.
5. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic was scintillating in the playoffs and at the Tokyo Olympics, and Jason Kidd’s arrival as coach should remove any remaining guardrails for the Slovenian sensation.
6. Denver Nuggets: Don’t write off the Nuggets simply because Jamal Murray is injured to start the season. MVP Nikola Jokic gets the most out of all his teammates, and Michael Porter Jr. is ready to launch as many times as necessary.
7. Atlanta Hawks: Love or hate Trae Young’s shot-happy style, last season’s stunning trip to the East finals proved that there’s plenty more to the Hawks. De’Andre Hunter’s return from injury and Cam Reddish’s next developmental step are worth watching closely.
8. Utah Jazz: For decades, the Jazz have been associated with discipline, consistency and unselfishness. Those virtues still apply, but Donovan Mitchell’s solo scoring bursts can drop jaws faster than almost anyone.
9. Miami Heat: South Beach has something for every type of fan: Jimmy Butler’s intensity, Bam Adebayo’s versatility, Kyle Lowry’s savvy, P.J. Tucker’s grit and Tyler Herro’s swag.
10. Phoenix Suns: The reigning West champs are back in full, with a chip on their shoulders after coming undone in the Finals. Phoenix’s controlled and balanced style is soothing to old heads.
11. Boston Celtics: Give the Celtics credit for executing a major shake-up rather than living in denial. The table is set for Jayson Tatum to solidify his superstar status and for Boston to get back to its aggressive, swarming defense.
12. Philadelphia 76ers: Simmons’s holdout has robbed the 76ers of any positive momentum, and a halfhearted return wouldn’t change that. Joel Embiid is a natural showman who needs a new sidekick in the worst way.
13. Chicago Bulls: A spending spree has the Bulls in position to boast an above-average offense for the first time since 2014-15. Though Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan won’t be scaring anyone in the playoffs, this roster has some razzle dazzle.
14. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard has every reason to be annoyed by Portland’s roster-building efforts, which have been careful to a fault and have yet to address major defensive shortcomings. Once titillating, the Blazers have gotten stale.
15. New York Knicks: A one-dimensional attack got big boosts from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Madison Square Garden will be rocking . . . at least until April. Playoff progress will require a major leap from RJ Barrett.
16. Toronto Raptors: Better days are here again for the Raptors, who returned to Canada after a nightmare layover in Tampa and added boisterous rookie forward Scottie Barnes. A choppy offense can be forgiven if Toronto’s athletic core rediscovers its frenetic energy.
17. Minnesota Timberwolves: Brace for high variance. If Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards all stay healthy, the Timberwolves could be fun-and-gun League Pass darlings. If not, Minnesota is no stranger to misery.
18. Memphis Grizzlies: Hopefully this is the year that Ja Morant becomes both an all-star and a household name. It’s always a treat to watch him keep everyone involved with his exquisite setup skills.
19. New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson is one of the NBA’s five most thrilling players, yet the Pelicans spent another summer shedding talent around their young centerpiece.
20. Los Angeles Clippers: Hangover time. After breaking through to the West finals, Paul George and the Clippers are stuck in limbo until Kawhi Leonard returns from knee surgery, which might not be this season.
21. Detroit Pistons: Buy low alert: Cade Cunningham is the most compelling reason to check out the Pistons in 15 years. The 2021 top overall pick’s polished offensive game has transformative potential.
22. Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball must grow his game beyond “TikTok all-star” status. While few players are as magnetic in 15-second increments, Charlotte needs stability, focus and good health from the 2020 No. 3 pick.
23. Sacramento Kings: It takes guts to run back the same coach and virtually the same roster after a 15th straight lottery trip. Expect another round of Groundhog Day if the Kings can’t find some way to improve their league-worst defense.
24. Washington Wizards: With any luck, Bradley Beal’s cringeworthy media day dialogue about vaccines will be the low point of the Wizards’ season. Spencer Dinwiddie leads Beal’s new-look supporting cast, yet defense remains optional.
25. Indiana Pacers: It’s hard to build hype around the unspectacular Pacers because the injury bug never stops biting. Domantas Sabonis inspires appreciative nods, but Indiana remains an acquired taste.
26. Houston Rockets: Sending John Wall home was the right decision, as the Rockets must live in the future. Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green need to learn on the job, free from competing interests and any pressure to win.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers: Get ready for another dismal season marked by inexperience and unsightly defense. By 2023, Evan Mobley might become the franchise talent that the post-LeBron Cavaliers so desperately need.
28. San Antonio Spurs: Gregg Popovich and company waited so long to move on from LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan that their promising young core isn’t that promising or young anymore.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder: More a collection of curiosities than a basketball team, the Thunder are destined for another top lottery pick. No disrespect to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, arguably the NBA’s most underrated player.
30. Orlando Magic: The first year of a total teardown is always the most excruciating. Rookie guard Jalen Suggs may turn Orlando into appointment viewing one day, but that day isn’t today.