Way Too Early 2021-22 NBA Power Rankings: Nets ahead of defending champion Bucks; Suns above Lakers



1

Nets

We didn’t get to see much of it, but the Nets were absolutely devastating with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the court at the same time. It might be unlikely that they all make it through next season unscathed, but it’s hard to argue against Brooklyn being the best team in the NBA after a full year to get used to each other and an offseason of potential roster tweaks.

1

48-24

2

Bucks

The Bucks will be back in full force next season, with all the confidence in the world and a leader who went from a superstar to a legend in the playoffs. From what we know about Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s likely immune to the championship hangover, and he’ll hold his teammates to the same standard as they embark on their mission to repeat.

4

46-26

3

Suns

Phoenix’s success is contingent on Chris Paul’s decision to return or not, but it seems likely that he’ll be back, whether on his current contract or a new one. The playoff experience the young roster gained while coming within two wins of the championship is invaluable, and should carry over into another successful regular season in 2021-22.

1

51-21

4

Lakers

The Lakers have plenty of decisions to make about their roster before the start of next season, but we know that LeBron James and Anthony Davis will make them one of the best in the league yet again, regardless of their supporting cast. Going out in the first round may work to their benefit, as they will have nearly five months of rest after a quick turnaround last year. LeBron will be a year older, but it would be foolish to doubt him.

3

42-30

5

Jazz

Playoff issues aside, there’s no reason to think the Jazz won’t be able to approximate the regular-season dominance they displayed last year. A healthy Lakers squad and a confident Suns team may prevent them from getting the No. 1 seed again, but Quin Snyder’s formula works, and Donovan Mitchell’s ascent should continue.

4

52-20

6

Clippers

In exorcizing their playoff demons, the Clippers also unlocked a small-ball unit that could wreak havoc on the NBA next season. Unfortunately, they’ll probably be without Kawhi Leonard for at least the start of next season. If he comes back healthy, they’ll be right in the championship mix, but the injury knocks them down a peg to start the season.

1

47-25

7

76ers

The 76ers earned the No. 1 seed last season, and are now faced with perhaps the league’s most crucial decision: What to do with Ben Simmons? As such, it’s hard to predict how they’ll look next season, but we know that Joel Embiid is an MVP candidate no matter who is around him, and that makes Philadelphia a perennial threat. If they end up with another superstar in Simmons’ place, the sky is the limit.

4

49-23

8

Warriors

The Warriors have plenty of options with their lottery picks in next week’s draft, including potentially trading them, but they’ll most likely have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to start next season, which makes them a contender once again. Curry is coming off arguably his best season, while Green was a DPOY finalist. If Thompson gets close to his pre-injury self, the Warriors will be incredibly dangerous no matter what they do on the fringes.

4

39-33

9

Hawks

What a season for the Hawks, who came into their own under Nate McMillan and look like a formidable Eastern Conference contender for years to come. Their ceiling next season will depend largely on whether they retain John Collins, a restricted free agent this offseason. But with Trae Young, and improved defense and depth at nearly every position, Atlanta is going to be really good — and fun to watch.

5

41-31

10

Nuggets

The Nuggets haven’t offered any time frame on Jamal Murray’s return from an ACL injury outside of “within the year,” but MVP Nikola Jokic has proven he can lead this team to wins no matter who’s on the court. When Murray eventually returns, Denver could be in the title convesation, but to start the year they’ll be a tier below.

2

47-25

11

Heat

It was a weird season all around for the Heat, who were coming off of a short offseason and struggled through injuries and COVID protocols. They’re always a rumored destination for [insert superstar player here], so they’re potentially one move away from becoming Eastern Conference favorites. As is, though, it seems they’re a step below the Brooklyns and Milwaukees of the world to start next season.

2

40-32

12

Mavericks

Luka Doncic is verging on “best player in the NBA” status as a 22-year-old, but Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t looked like a viable No. 2 — at least not yet. We’ll need to see how new head coach Jason Kidd chooses to run the show, but with Doncic the Mavs’ floor is considerably high. If they add a key piece or two, the ceiling could raise as well.

3

42-30

13

Knicks

Is Julius Randle the player we saw in the regular season, or the one who struggled in the playoffs? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but it raises questions about the Knicks — particularly offensively — if Randle doesn’t duplicate his otherworldly performance from last season. Now that they’re a winning organization again, the Knicks could be in play for several key free agents or trade targets, so this summer will go a long way toward determining their chances for next season.

2

41-31

14

Trail Blazers

I mean. Pass? How can we possibly evaluate a team that might lose its only All-NBA player this offseason. For now we’ll just leave them in the middle and give it an incomplete, but obviously whether Damian Lillard returns or not is a fairly relevant factor in the Blazers’ chances for next season. Either way, new coach Chauncey Billups has his work cut out for him.

4

42-30

15

Celtics

Shakeups galore in Boston, as the coaching staff, front office and starting backcourt all received makeovers. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the real deal, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be enough to keep the Celtics in contention without a proven No. 3 option. Al Horford actually played well in his limited appearances with OKC last season, so he could help ease the transition to whatever comes next for Boston.

1

36-36

16

Raptors

The Raptors will look to turn the page after a disappointing season in Tampa, but first they have decisions to make, starting with the No. 4 pick in next week’s draft. Whether they keep the pick or trade it for win-now pieces should give us a hint as to whether a mini-rebuild is in the works, with names like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby surfacing in trade rumors amid Kyle Lowry’s free agency.

8

27-45

17

Grizzlies

The Grizzlies got into the playoffs largely without the services of Jaren Jackson Jr., as Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks emerged as a bona fide 1-2 scoring punch in the postseason. With Jackson’s health and improvement, the Grizzlies could ascend from the bottom rung of Western Conference playoff teams to at least the middle. Taylor Jenkins has to be happy with his team’s progress thus far, and they’re poised to take another step next season.

2

38-34

18

Pacers

Things clearly didn’t work out with Nate Bjorkgren last season, but Rick Carlisle should have a competitive team with Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Myles Turner and a hopefully healthy TJ Warren. With talent and coaching like that, this team has a relatively high floor, even if their upside doesn’t exactly drop your jaw.

34-38

19

Wizards

It appears, for now at least, that Washington will open the season with both Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook under new coach Wes Unseld Jr., which means they’ll likely be fringe playoff contenders yet again. They could use some help on the wing, so we’ll see what the front office is able to do in free agency and the draft. If Washington’s defense from the latter part of last season holds, they’ll be a solid team.

2

34-38

20

Hornets

Charlotte was one of the most entertaining teams in the league last season behind LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, and they’re adding a lottery pick to the mix as well. They should challenge for a playoff spot if they stay healthy, especially if Miles Bridges continues the improvement he showed last season.

33-39

21

Pelicans

Many picked the Pelicans to make a leap last season, and that didn’t happen. Enter Willie Green, who will take over as head coach after a forgettable one-year stint from Stan Van Gundy. The Pelicans showed a lack of effort at times last season, which Green will look to immediately remedy. Zion Williamson is a superstar, and they need to maximize his talent with the right pieces around him.

1

31-41

22

Spurs

The Spurs are at an interesting crossroads, with DeMar DeRozan’s free agency going a long way toward determining the team’s immediate future. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson are intriguing young pieces, but Murray and White have also been the subject of trade rumors. Barring an unexpected big swing, the Spurs will likely be close to where they were last year, fighting for a play-in spot.

3

33-39

23

Bulls

The Bulls have not been strangers to trade and free agency rumors this offseason (Lonzo Ball, anyone?), so we’ll see what the roster looks like on opening night. If Zach LaVine can maintain the efficiency he displayed last season alongside Nikola Vucevic, Chicago should at least be able to contend for a play-in spot. The defense has been solid for the last couple of seasons, which should help them stay in games.

2

31-41

24

Timberwolves

The Wolves finished the year on a better note under Chris Finch, and had a positive net rating when Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell were on the court together. They’ll hope a step forward from Anthony Edwards will help propel them toward the playoffs, but the competition is stiff out West.

1

23-49

25

Kings

What was supposed to be a playoff-contending season for the Kings went south quickly, and they finished with the league’s worst defensive rating. De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton looked great, but outside of those two the roster is full of question marks. It’s hard to imagine the Kings breaking their league-worst playoff drought in 2021-22.

2

31-41

26

Thunder

The OKC Asset Collection Agency continues to raid the draft stashes of teams around the NBA, and now they’ll see what they can get for Kemba Walker. The Thunder probably aren’t ready to cease their tanking just yet, but they were better than expected to start last season thanks largely to outstanding play from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s likely going to be another devleopment year for the Thunder, but they obviously have the assets to pull the trigger on a trade for a star if and when they’re ready.

22-50

27

Cavaliers

The Cavs will get an excellent prospect at No. 3 in next week’s draft to add to the backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton (unless the trade rumors are true and they ship him off). Jarrett Allen is a restricted free agent, but he played well for Cleveland after coming over from the Nets, so they could match whatever offer he gets. The Cavs will continue to look for Kevin Love deals, but it’s hard to imagine them getting back a piece that will immediately impact winning.

22-50

28

Pistons

The Pistons were competitive for most of last season despite the low win total, and now they’ll likely add Cade Cunningham, as good of a prospect as they come. They almost certainly won’t make a huge leap next season, but general manager Troy Weaver and coach Dwane Casey are building a solid foundation in Detroit.

1

20-52

29

Rockets

The addition of the No. 2 pick won’t change the fact that the Rockets project to be one of the worst teams in the NBA next season. Even if John Wall can continue to improve, wins will be few and far between as Houston develops its young talent. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. are a lot of fun, though, so they should at least be entertaining.

1

17-55

30

Magic

The rebuild is real in Orlando, and things could get ugly next season. Offense was a struggle even with Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, so it could verge on disastrous in Jamahl Mosley’s first season due to a lack of bucket-getters. The good new is that Jonathan Isaac will be back, with all the opportunity he can handle on both ends of the floor.

2

21-51

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