Thursday, June 13, 2024

NBA Power Rankings entering preseason: Best-case scenarios for all 30 teams

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It’s that time of year again, NBA fans.

The time for unfettered optimism, wishful thinking, and daydreams that end with confetti falling and championship parades.

“This is the year,” you tell yourself. Surely, everything will fall into place.

Every free agent signing. Every draft pick. Every extension. Every coaching change. Everything!

And so that’s the mentality Sporting News takes into the first weekly power rankings of the 2021-22 season. We’re putting on homer glasses with rosy shades for all 30 teams to spell out the best-case scenario, within reason — if not a little far-fetched!

MORE: The top 50 storylines to watch this season

Yes, the very nature of Power Rankings means that someone is first and someone is last and everyone will yell about one team being too high or too low. And yes, there will be plenty of opportunities for making the case about one team over another. But doing so often requires beating someone else down, and we’re not doing that today.

Three quick notes before jumping in:

  1. Just because a team’s best-case scenario ends with it hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, doesn’t mean we’re saying it’s likely to happen or predicting it to happen.
  2. We’re not basing any scenario off of injuries to other players. We’re neither doctors nor fortune tellers, and we’re not going down that road.
  3. There are teams higher up in the rankings with lower ceilings than teams below them. Do I believe the Hawks can win an NBA title? No. Do I believe they’re better than the Heat? Yes. Do I believe the Heat can win an NBA title? Yes. Does any of this make sense? Maybe not.

Onto the rankings.

(All odds and projected win totals are courtesy of FanDuel)

(Getty Images)

1. Brooklyn Nets

  • Odds to win NBA title: +230
  • Vegas over/under: 56.5

There’s a chance we’re underrating the Nets.

“Underrated? What on earth are you talking about, Micah? They’re already the heavy title favorites and we literally just saw their season torpedoed by health. They’re properly rated!”

OK … fair. But this is all about the glass half full. What if Kevin Durant continues his tour de force and emphatically snatches the “best player” belt? What if James Harden uncorks another MVP-caliber season and finishes second behind only his teammate? What if Kyrie Irving puts an end to the COVID vaccination histrionics and is available for all 82?

There’s a world in which the Nets hit 70 wins and then romp through the playoffs like the 2001 Lakers. When it’s all said and done, this could be one of the truly historically significant teams.

MORE: Circle these 10 can’t miss dates on the NBA calendar

2. Milwaukee Bucks

  • Odds to win NBA title: +850
  • Vegas over/under: 55.5

The last time we saw Giannis Antetokounmpo, he went full Super Saiyan and unleashed a 50-spot to clinch the NBA title. By the end of the 2021 NBA Finals, it became crystal clear he simply went to another level and that nobody could stop him.

Happy Gilmore learned how to putt and Giannis learned how to make free throws. What if he sustains that over 82 games?

The Greek Freak could win a third MVP and then silence anyone clueless enough to remain naysayers by battling through a fully healthy Nets and fully healthy Lakers squads. Unlike this past year — when the Bucks inched past a snake-bitten Nets, caught the Hawks instead of the 76ers, and then the Suns instead of the Lakers — taking the hardest path possible towards back-to-back titles would remove all doubt and any mention of the dreaded “a-word” from the 2021 title.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

  • Odds to win NBA title: 53.5
  • Vegas over/under: +400

Close your eyes and it’s pretty easy to imagine.

LeBron James — in Year 19 — becomes the oldest MVP in league history and snags his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Anthony Davis plays more than 75 games for the first time in his career and snags Defensive Player of the Year. Russell Westbrook strings together an All-NBA season and casually buries wide open jumpers in the playoffs as teams dare him to shoot. To top it all off, Carmelo Anthony hits the game-winning shot off a brilliant feed from James with 3 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win his first title against Durant’s Nets.

The jokes about old age become, well, old, and replaced by admiration for Rob Pelinka’s shrewd ability to place knowledgeable, playoff-tested veterans who can see the game as LeBron does.

MORE: LeBron shares his thoughts on NBA players and the COVID vaccine

4. Phoenix Suns

  • Odds to win NBA title: +1400
  • Vegas over/under: 50.5

As it turns out, the Suns are just getting started.

Devin Booker wins the scoring title, Deandre Ayton supplants Rudy Gobert as the third All-NBA center alongside Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and Chris Paul racks up a third straight top-10 MVP finish. Phoenix not only proves the unlikely run to the NBA Finals was no fluke, but also ups the ante by doing it again, this time against a healthy field of worthy opponents. In fact, they beat the same teams, albeit in a different order:

  • Nuggets in the first round with Jamal Murray back in the lineup? Suns in five.
  • Clippers in the second round with Kawhi Leonard looking spry for every game? Suns in five.
  • LeBron James and Anthony Davis roaring all cylinders and 8-0 entering the WCF? Suns in six.
  • Giannis and friends in an NBA Finals rematch? Suns in six.

5. Utah Jazz

  • Odds to win NBA title: +1400
  • Vegas over/under: 53.5

If the Bucks can rewrite history and raise a banner on the heels of perennial underachievement, so can the Jazz.

Quin Snyder finds a way to unleash the France version of Rudy Gobert on the offensive end. Much to the delight of #JazzTwitter, Gobert becomes far more than Mr. Screen Assist and Dr. Rim Run, as Utah finally starts punishing teams for playing small and switching. Donovan Mitchell ramps up the efficiency, and all of those 2014 Spurs comparisons come rushing back in.

The Jazz are talented enough to win the NBA title, and this time, they do it. Score another one for small markets as the Jazz roll through Golden State, both LA teams and then Brooklyn to do something that Karl Malone and John Stockton never could.

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6. Dallas Mavericks

  • Odds to win NBA title: +2700
  • Vegas over/under: 48.5

In his fourth year, a 22-year-old coming off the first of many First-Team All-NBA seasons — flanked by a slow-footed, towering European big man and a heat-cheat two-guard in his late 20s — carries a talent-deprived team all the way to the NBA Finals. Nobody sees it coming, yet the wunderkind dazzles in upsets of far-more talented contenders.

15 years after LeBron James put together his first legendary extended playoff push alongside Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes on the 2007 Cavs, Luka Doncic recreates history with Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

MORE: Why Luka’s new contract puts the Mavs in win-now mode

Unlike LeBron, Luka doesn’t lose. After winning the MVP and then ousting James by scoring his team’s final 25 points in a virtuoso Conference finals performance, Doncic delivers on the biggest stage and brings a second title back to Dallas.

7. Denver Nuggets

  • Odds to win NBA title: +2000
  • Vegas over/under: 47.5

The reigning MVP is the ultimate floor-raiser who makes everyone else around him better. No Jamal Murray in the regular season? No problem. Nikola Jokic tosses up a 26-12-10 season and brings home a second straight MVP award as Denver finishes with a top-three record. Michael Porter Jr. becomes a consistent 25-a-night bucket and wins Most Improved Player. Aaron Gordon proves worth every penny of that extension, and Murray returns in March with 15 games to get squared away.

Remember that stretch last year when Denver looked like the most complete team in the NBA? Yeah, that version is back, and the Nuggets emerge from the West. They run into Joel Embiid in the Finals where Jokic goes full “Hakeem on Shaq in the 95 Finals” and proves once and for all that he’s the best center in the league.

8. Atlanta Hawks

  • Odds to win NBA title: +4000
  • Vegas over/under: 46.5

Trae Young tapped into some serious Reggie Miller energy with his evisceration of the Knicks in last year’s playoffs. He’s back for more, and firmly cements his status as Atlanta’s certified MBP, most ballinest player. John Collins secures the bag and rewards Atlanta’s faith by earning his first trip to the All-Star game, while Deandre Hunter stays healthy and flashes serious shades of 2014 Kawhi.

The Hawks make a return trip to the Eastern Conference finals, where they run into the Nets. Young goes toe-to-toe with Durant, Harden, and Irving and forces a Game 7 before ultimately coming up short. After the season, Darren Rovell tweets out the NBA’s most popular jersey sales featuring Young atop the list.

9. Miami Heat

  • Odds to win NBA title: +2400
  • Vegas over/under: 48.5

Pat Riley does it again.

Kyle Lowry shows his championship mettle by somehow ratcheting up Heat culture to an even more preposterous pedestal. Jimmy Butler rediscovers his bubble superstardom and Bam Adebayo continues his evolution into the perfect big for the modern game. Holding the key to it all? Tyler Herro. Look, there’s a world in which Herro makes four All-Star teams and there’s a world in which he’s a rotation chucker off the bench. In this version of the Heat Matrix, Herro torches nets and gives Miami just enough offensive juice to power through everyone. Udonis Haslem subs in with 24 seconds left in the clincher and firmly clutches the ball in his hands as the final buzzer sounds.

(Getty Images)

10. Golden State Warriors

  • Odds to win NBA title: +1300
  • Vegas over/under: 47.5

There’s no wider gap between floor and ceiling than Golden State, who could be No. 1 or 24 in these power rankings come April.

Golden State is relying on a number of pieces to hit in specific roles. If we’re REALLY getting hopped on the Warriors kool-aid, let’s talk about the clean sweep:

  • Stephen Curry for MVP? Check.
  • Draymond Green for Defensive Player of the Year? Check.
  • Klay Thompson for Sixth Man of the Year? Check.
  • James Wiseman for Most Improved? Check.
  • Jonathan Kuminga for Rookie of the Year? Check.
  • Andrew Wiggins for NBA Cares Community Assist Award? Why not!

The Warriors are back to being the Warriors and shoot themselves to a fourth NBA title. Curry finally gets his Finals MVP.

11. LA Clippers

  • Odds to win NBA title: +2000
  • Vegas over/under: 45.5

Remember when Paul George sort of hung around the MVP conversation in OKC before finishing third in 2019? With Kawhi out, that happens again. Let’s be real… he can’t win it, so he’s not truly in the MVP conversation. But he’s on the podium.

Anyway, Eric Bledsoe enjoys a renaissance season back in LA and Reggie Jackson — who averaged 21.4 points per game on 48 percent shooting over his final eight playoff games — rides that heater throughout the entire season. Somehow, the Clips snag the No. 4 seed and then welcome back Kawhi Leonard into the fold.

Had Kawhi not gotten hurt, there’s a chance they win the title in 2021. If he comes back and he’s feeling spry, there’s no reason why they can’t win it in 2022.

12. Philadelphia 76ers

  • Odds to win NBA title: +1800
  • Vegas over/under: 51.5

Incredibly, Daryl Morey gets his motherload for Ben Simmons. The Trail Blazers start 5-10 — forcing Damian Lillard to demand a trade — and Morey finally gets his guy. Old Takes Exposed has a field day and Morey retweets 100 consecutive anti-Sixers jokes in jest. Joel Embiid gets off to another MVP-type start, but this time doesn’t get hurt. He wins the MVP and more importantly, Philly morphs into the title team we’ve all been waiting for. The 76ers square off against the Clippers in the NBA Finals and Doc Rivers gets his revenge. Hours before Lillard goes full Dame Time to win it down the stretch of Game 7, Simmons posts another offseason workout video to Instagram.

MORE: What happens if Simmons simply doesn’t show up?

13. Boston Celtics

  • Odds to win NBA title: +4900
  • Vegas over/under: 45.5

Jayson Tatum becomes the first player in Celtics history to average 30 points per game, and Jaylen Brown completes his transformation into Paul George 2.0. Marcus Smart stops playing “NBA Jam” and overnight becomes allergic to ill-advised heat checks. Is there a path for Smart to make a late-20s Kyle Lowry-type of leap into stardom? There is in this column, baby! Timelord becomes more than an enticing per-36 minute stud and provides Boston with some much-needed size.

There’s not quite enough firepower to hoist the Larry O’Brien, but the Celtics reemerge as a legitimate title contender. They lose to Brooklyn, but Celtics fans take solace in the fact that Smart completely shuts down Kyrie Irving, who averages 8.7 points on 17 percent shooting for the series.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Odds to win NBA title: +8000
  • Vegas over/under: 44.5

We’ve seen this movie before … sort of.

The Blazers once again garner a third-place finish in the rough-and-tumble West and make it to the Conference finals. Damian Lillard becomes Portland’s first MVP winner since Bill Walton in 1978, and CJ McCollum makes his first All-Star team. Where this story differs from the past is that, this time, the Blazers actually have a puncher’s chance. They take a 2-1 lead on the Lakers and are minutes away from going up 3-1 before LeBron does LeBron things and hits another playoff buzzer-beater. The Blazers lose and still aren’t a Finals team — but do enough for Dame to stay.


(Getty Images)

15. New York Knicks

  • Odds to win NBA title: +10000
  • Vegas over/under: 41.5

Rinse and repeat with 2020-21, only this time Julius Randle shows up in the playoffs. Kemba Walker thrives in the Garden and goes shot-for-shot with Trae Young for a wildly entertaining and raucous seven-game series. Spike Lee co-hosts pre-game “SportsCenter” with Stephen A. Smith, then gets ejected after a third-quarter tiff with Young. The Garden crowd goes absolutely bananas and the Knicks make it out of the first round for only the second time in two decades. Even though they lose in the second round, another year of competence leads to Bradley Beal picking the Knicks in free agency.

16. Chicago Bulls

  • Odds to win NBA title: +7000
  • Vegas over/under: 42.5

It all comes together. Zach LaVine graduates from first-time All-Star to bonafide All-NBA stalwart, Nikola Vucevic reemerges as 24-10 machine while Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan fit in seamlessly. Chicago finishes with the best offense in the NBA and it defends well enough under the direction of Billy Donovan that it makes a surprise run to the Conference finals. LaVine re-signs, Patrick Williams turns into a 94-foot menace and suddenly the Bulls appear on the verge of true contention entering 2022-23.

17. Indiana Pacers

  • Odds to win NBA title: +11000
  • Vegas over/under: 42.5

Is coaching sexy? In 49 states, the answer is unequivocally no. But this is Indiana, the land of Bobby Knight and Norman Dale.

And Rick Carlisle, who proves that elite coaching truly does make all the difference. Carlisle makes all of Indiana’s seemingly mismatched puzzle pieces fit together. All of that Sabonis-Turner talk? Gone. The Warren-LeVert your turn, my turn act? Fizzled. Malcolm Brogdon proves to be the perfect high-IQ two-way point guard that executes Carlisle’s vision to perfection. Indiana wins two rounds before bowing out to Brooklyn. Not enough talent to make a true title run, but Carlisle’s Coach of the Year magic ends Indiana’s streak of underwhelming first-round exits.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

  • Odds to win NBA title: +8500
  • Vegas over/under: 40.5

Ja Morant makes the leap and takes his place alongside Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook at the point guard grown-ups table. Jaren Jackson Jr. stops fouling long enough to actually tap into his immense potential. Steven Adams reinvigorates the grit-and-grind mentality. On Tony Allen’s jersey retirement night, Memphis wins 79-77 with Dillon Brooks taking a game-saving charge. Memphis wins the No. 7 seed, avenges last year’s loss to Utah and then drops a heart-breaker to Phoenix in the second round.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

  • Odds to win NBA title:  +10000
  • Vegas over/under: 38.5

All of that simmering tension in New Orleans dissipates as Zion comes out of the gates showing no ill effects from his offseason foot surgery. He plays all 82 games and makes Second-Team All-NBA while Brandon Ingram joins Williamson as an All-Star. The Pelicans win a playoff series and the Zion-AD comparisons are put to bed for at least another four years.

MORE: What Zion’s offseason foot surgery means for New Orleans in 2021-22

20. Toronto Raptors

  • Odds to win NBA title: +12000
  • Vegas over/under: 36.5

If Masai Ujiri thinks he has enough, he’ll push the chips into the middle of the table. So don’t be completely stunned if somehow Simmons, Beal, Lillard or some other big-name star looking for a new home ends up in The Six. That said, Toronto sits patiently and plays the long game in 2022. Fred VanVleet flirts with making the All-Star team, Pascal Siakam returns from his injury earlier than expected, OG Anunoby finally — FINALLY — takes that long-awaited leap on offense, and Scottie Barnes proves to be a risky draft day home run.

This is a team that plays chess, not checkers. So while a playoff appearance is nice, Ujiri ultimately uses 2021-22 to set up a masterstroke next summer.

(Getty Images)

21. Charlotte Hornets

  • Odds to win NBA title: +12000
  • Vegas over/under: 37.5

Michael Jordan pulls a stunner, flipping Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward for Ben Simmons. The combination of Simmons and LaMelo Ball combo brings a Showtime East feel to the Queen City. The Hornets win the 7 seed and then face off against Philly in the first round. Simmons takes over late in the fourth quarter on Philly’s home floor and dunks on Joel Embiid to give the Sixers a five-point lead with 90 seconds left. The Sixers play Hack-A-Simmons and he responds by going 7-7 and shushing the Philly faithful.

22. Washington Wizards

  • Odds to win NBA title: +10000
  • Vegas over/under: 34.5

Bradley Beal signs an extension and meshes with Spencer Dinwiddle, who proves to be the perfect fit. A motivated Montrezl Harrell shows up and rekindles his Sixth Man of the Year production from the Clippers. Perhaps more importantly, the kids hit with Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and newcomer Corey Kispert all showing real progress. Washington squeaks into the play-in as the No. 10 seed but then wins back-to-back road games to make it in. They push the Nets to seven in the first round with Dinwiddle thoroughly outplaying Irving.

23. Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Odds to win NBA title: +19000
  • Vegas over/under: 33.5

After two painstaking years of endless grief and personal heartbreak, Karl-Anthony Towns finds peace and uncorks his best season yet. The rest of the roster rallies around Towns with both D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards turning the corner as foundational complementary players. Riding Towns, the Wolves sneak into the play-in and then win a pair of games to advance in an ultimate feel-good story. Minnesota is back on track with the future once again pointing in the right direction.

(Getty Images)

24. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Odds to win NBA title: +25000
  • Vegas over/under: 27.5

The most optimistic Cavs fans see a team on the cusp of playoff contention. They imagine Evan Mobley running away with Rookie of the Year in a loaded class. They imagine SexLand combining to score more than 45 points per game. They imagine newly minted $100 million dollar man Jarett Allen leading the league in blocks. They imagine Lauri Markkanen rediscovering his stroke and contending for Sixth Man of the Year. If all of that happens, then maybe — just maybe — Cleveland has enough horses to earn a playoff spot in a suddenly deep Eastern Conference.

(As an aside: The 2022 All-Star weekend in Cleveland could be the most memorable and goosebump-inducing one ever with the introduction of the NBA’s 75 Greatest Players).

MORE: Odds to win Rookie of the Year

25. Sacramento Kings

  • Odds to win NBA title: +24000
  • Vegas over/under: 35.5

Sacramento has missed the playoffs 15 straight years, tied for the longest streak in NBA history. The Kings find a taker for Buddy Hield. That opens up more time for Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell, who thrive playing next to De’Aaron Fox. Sick and tired of the Luka Doncic jokes, Marvin Bagley finally taps into his immense potential and transforms into a bankable 20-10 forward with a reliable jumper and passable defense. As a result, the streak finally ends! Before the opening tip of their first home playoff game in 16 years, the Kings welcome out Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic, who whip the crowd into a frenzy. They steal Game 3 against the Lakers and for one night, party like it’s 2002.

26. San Antonio Spurs

  • Odds to win NBA title: +10000
  • Vegas over/under: 29.5

As it stands right now, there is not a single, surefire building block on the roster. Maybe the Spurs unearth a foundational keeper from the pool of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Joshua Primo. With DeMar DeRozan now in Chicago, someone has to step up, and there will be plenty of shots to go around.

Taking stock of San Antonio’s cupboard makes you wonder where it goes from here. The answer? Rolling the dice on Ben Simmons.

The Spurs have Chip Engelland on staff who is perhaps the single-best shooting coach in the entire world, and the one person best suited to fix Simmons. San Antonio can offer Philadelphia a rotation’s worth of good players and perhaps Daryl Morey gets desperate enough to go for it. Regardless of wins and losses, this is the type of move that would ultimately accelerate the rebuild in San Antonio.

For a team searching for an identity, walking out of this season with one counts as a massive win.

27. Detroit Pistons

  • Odds to win NBA title: +25000
  • Vegas over/under: 23.5

Cade Cunningham brings some serious “Brandon Roy, but better” potential to the table. For a team that hasn’t had a First-Team All-NBA selection since Grant Hill in the mid-90s, Cunningham could provide the high-voltage star that Pistons fans have longed for. From the jump, Cunningham puts the whole bag of tricks on display and fits in seamlessly alongside Jerami Grant, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. Not only does Cunningham check every box, but also brings the most out of Hayes, who many in Detroit feared might be a bust after the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft struggled mightily as a rookie. It’s Cunningham or bust for the Pistons, and the best-case scenario beyond wins and losses is establishing him as a certified superstar-in-training.

MORE: This one play showcases why Cunningham will be a star

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Odds to win NBA title: +25000
  • Vegas over/under: 21.5

Here’s what matters right now in OKC:

  1. Acquiring as many first-round picks as humanly possible
  2. Molding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander into a legitimate MVP-type of superstar

Here’s the entire list of players 22 or younger to average more than 23 points per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three:

SGA, in 2020-21.

That’s it. That’s the list.

He keeps getting better in his fourth year, while rookie Josh Giddey flirts with winning Rookie of the Year. OKC loses a ton of games and wins the lottery. In addition, the Clippers fall apart without Kawhi Leonard and miss the playoffs. Why does that matter here? Because the Thunder own their unprotected first-round pick in 2022. The ping pong balls bounce in Sam Presti’s favor and the Thunder waltz into next summer’s draft with a pair of top-three picks.

29. Houston Rockets

  • Odds to win NBA title: +25000
  • Vegas over/under: 27,5

Change his name to Jalen Greenlight, because that’s all the rookie guard will see in 2021-22.

Did you know the last rookie to average 25 points per game was some dude named Michael Jordan? With the greenest of lights, that’s exactly what Jalen Green does as he becomes a League Pass darling. Green emerges as the best player in a loaded draft and, even though the Rockets lose a ton of games, they cross the 82-game finish line 100 percent confident that they’ve found the long-term replacement for James Harden.

30. Orlando Magic

  • Odds to win NBA title: +25000
  • Vegas over/under: 21.5

Jalen Suggs energizes the Magic in ways they haven’t seen since Tracy McGrady. Sure, Dwight Howard brought the Magic to the Finals, but he never truly owned the city and transformed the Magic into a must-see outfit. With the fifth overall pick, Orlando ultimately nabs the best player in the draft as the Suggs revenge tour gets off to a rolicking start and never lets up. Jonathan Isaac stays healthy and re-enters the DPOY conversation while one of Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba finally puts it all together. Suggs completely transforms the Magic overnight and suddenly, Orlando emits some more than faint hope.

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