Power Rankings

Offseason Power Rankings: Nets, Bucks stand tall in the East

Brooklyn and Milwaukee start on top in this early ranking of each team in the Eastern Conference.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

The superstar-laden Brooklyn Nets are among the top teams to watch in the East.

The Milwaukee Bucks were crowned NBA champions just five weeks ago. But this league (sometimes unfairly) moves on quickly. The Draft and free agency are in the books, and training camps will open in 33 days.

So it’s time to wonder how teams stack up for the 2021-22 season. While the Bucks remain largely intact, it’s hard to call them the favorites in the Eastern Conference. The team they barely edged in Game 7 of the conference semifinals promises to be healthier when the two teams tip off the season in Milwaukee on Oct. 19. The Brooklyn Nets still have Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, and how do you pick against that?

Health is obviously the No. 1 concern in Brooklyn, but it’s the No. 1 concern everywhere in the NBA (and beyond). In this attempt to put the 15 Eastern Conference teams in some sort of pecking order, other questions need to be asked. Maybe some of them will be answered in the next 10 months, and maybe these rankings will look silly next June.

For these offseason rankings, we’re looking at each conference separately and we’ll have Western Conference rankings on Monday. All stats refer to the 2020-21 regular season unless otherwise noted.

Previously…

  • May 10: Sixers finish at No. 1 as season wraps up (Welp)
  • Last offseason (Nov. 24): Eastern Conference Power Rankings: Bucks on top (Genius) — The eventual champs swung a trade for Jrue Holiday, but were still waiting on Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign his contract extension. Daryl Morey took over in Philly and immediately shook up his starting lineup. John Wall was still in Washington, but the James Harden speculation in Brooklyn had begun. Five East teams had new coaches, the Hawks were going for it, and LaMelo Ball had arrived in Charlotte.

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)

The league averaged 99.7 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 111.7 points scored per 100 possessions last season.


NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.


Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 48-24
Pace: 100.3 (11), OffRtg: 117.3 (1), DefRtg: 113.1 (22), NetRtg: +4.2 (7)

Key addition(s): Patty Mills, James Johnson, Four more years on Kevin Durant’s contract
Key departure(s): Spencer Dinwiddie, Jeff Green

Three numbers to know…

• The Nets’ offense had the most efficient regular season in NBA history, scoring 117.3 points per 100 possessions. The 128.0 points per 100 possessions they scored in the first round vs. Boston was the most efficient series for any team in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data. After scoring 120.6 per 100 through the first two games of the conference semifinals, they were held to just 101.9 per 100 over the last five.

• The Nets played only 20 possessions of zone, second fewest in the league, according to Synergy tracking. But they were still the league’s slowest moving team on defense, averaging 3.69 miles per hour. According to Second Spectrum tracking, they ranked second, both in the regular season (38%) and the playoffs (45%), in the percentage of ball screens that they switched. The only team with a higher rate in the playoffs (55%) was their first round opponent (Boston).

• Mills is one of four players — JJ Redick, Paul George and Stephen Curry are the others — who has shot 40% or better on at least 200 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in five of the last seasons. Joe Harris is one of four players — George, Davis Bertans and Karl-Anthony Towns are the others — who have done it in each of the last four seasons.

Key question: Will they defend better in Year 2?

The Nets’ offense is so ridiculous that they can win a championship without improving much on the other end of the floor. They did see the second biggest drop in points allowed per 100 possessions from the regular season (113.1, 22nd) to the playoffs (109.3, fourth). But more focus and consistency on that end of the floor can lead to more comfortable wins, which can keep the Brooklyn stars fresher for the postseason. Only two teams had more games that were within five points in the last five minutes than the Nets (40) last season, and 17 of those 40 came against the 14 teams that finished the season with losing records. Reducing the minutes-per-game averages of Harden (36.6), Irving (34.9) and Durant (33.1) would be nice.

Swapping Green for Johnson and keeping DeAndre Jordan at the bottom of the big-man depth chart should help the defense. A full season of Nicolas Claxton (first in blocks per 36 minutes and fifth in fouls per 36 in the playoffs) would ease the load on Blake Griffin.

The stars will carry them in May and June. But the supporting cast and the defense are critical to getting the stars there will a full tank of gas.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 46-26
Pace: 102.8 (2), OffRtg: 116.5 (5), DefRtg: 110.7 (9), NetRtg: +5.8 (4)

Key addition(s): Good vibes, Grayson Allen, George Hill, Semi Ojeleye
Key departure(s): Bryn Forbes, P.J. Tucker

Three numbers to know…

• The Bucks won their last four playoff games that were within five points in the last five minutes, scoring 31 points on 20 clutch possessions (155.0 per 100) and allowing the Hawks and Suns to score just nine points on 17 clutch possessions (52.9 per 100).

• In 123 playoff minutes with Tucker and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the four and five (no Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis on the floor), the Bucks outscored their opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions.

• The Bucks saw the biggest drop in pace from the regular season (102.8 possessions per 48 minutes, second) to the playoffs (97.5, sixth). As a whole, the league saw a drop of 3.0 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes, from an average of 99.7 in the regular season to just 96.8 in the playoffs.

Key question: Do they have to be even better?

The Bucks can play better than they did when they won the championship a month ago. They saw the biggest drop in 3-point percentage from the regular season (38.9%, fifth) to the playoffs (32.1%, 14th and the worst mark for a champion in the last 17 years). Giannis Antetokounmpo is still just 26 years old, with obvious ways in which he can improve.

Though they’ve lost their primary Durant defender (Tucker), Antetokounmpo himself is a more-than-suitable replacement. Additional depth on the perimeter will allow for continued lineup versatility, but Ojeleye’s role as the other 4/5 (replacing Tucker) remains important. He’s shot 38% (a tick above the league average of 37.5%) on catch-and-shoot 3s over the last two years and will launch a little more liberally than Tucker, but was used just sparingly by the Celtics in the playoffs.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 41-31
Pace: 98.7 (22), OffRtg: 114.3 (9), DefRtg: 112.1 (18), NetRtg: +2.2 (11)

Key addition(s): Delon Wright
Key departure(s): Low expectations

Three numbers to know…

• The Hawks were the league’s second most improved team last season, both in regard to winning percentage (+0.271) and point differential per 100 possessions (+9.6), topped only by Golden State in both cases.

• The Hawks were the only team that ranked in the top five in both free throw percentage (81.2%, fifth) and free throw rate (27.8 attempts per 100 shots from the field, fourth). They outscored their opponents by 2.8 points per game, the league’s biggest differential, at the free throw line.

• Combining pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll-man possessions (via Synergy tracking), the Hawks scored just 0.87 points per possession on 33 possessions per game in the conference finals, down from 1.03 points per possession on 39 possessions per game through the first two rounds.

Key question: Is De’Andre Hunter a plus on both ends of the floor?

Hunter’s return from a long absence was brief (he played three regular season games and five playoff games before suffering a meniscus tear in his right knee), but it was very intriguing, especially on defense, where he played a critical role in slowing down Julius Randle. In 329 total minutes with Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela on the floor together last season (regular season + playoffs), the Hawks allowed just 96.1 points per 100 possessions and outscored their opponents by 15.6 per 100.

More of those minutes would be nice, but Hunter obviously has to stay healthy. And if he can take a step forward offensively (a little more off the dribble, closer to 40% on catch-and-shoot 3s), the Hawks have a heck of a starting five. And if there aren’t enough minutes to go around on the perimeter, that’s a good problem to have.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 49-23
Pace: 100.1 (12), OffRtg: 112.5 (13), DefRtg: 107.0 (2), NetRtg: +5.5 (5)

Key addition(s): Georges Niang, Andre Drummond, Restlessness
Key departure(s): George Hill, Dwight Howard

Three numbers to know…

• In the playoffs, the Sixers’ starting lineup — Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid — outscored its opponents by 39.0 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among 22 lineups that played at least 50 postseason minutes.

• In the regular season, the Sixers were 25-9 (.735) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, the 10th best “clutch” winning percentage in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data. In the playoffs, they were 2-5, scoring just 47 points on 54 clutch possessions (87.0 per 100).

• Embiid led the league in usage rate, using 35.2% of the Sixers’ possessions (via field goal attempts, turnovers or trips to the line) while he was on the floor. He drew 8.5 fouls per 36 minutes, most among 404 players who played at least 300 minutes.

Key question: The obvious one.

We’re less than five weeks from the start of training camp, and Simmons remains a Sixer. From a pure basketball perspective, we know that — if certain feelings are put aside — this current group is one of the league’s best teams. The starting lineup was dominant last season, but lost Green (they scored a ridiculous 132.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the playoffs) in the first few minutes of Game 3 of the conference semis. In the regular season, the Sixers outscored their opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions with Simmons and Embiid both on the floor. That was the fifth best mark among 154 two-man combinations that played at least 1,000 minutes together.

Continued development from Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, along with additional shooting from Niang (42.6% on catch-and-shoot 3s over the last two seasons) could give the offense a boost. Embiid’s ability to deal with double-teams has improved, but he can still get better in that regard. He and Drummond were two of three high-usage players with assist/turnover ratios below 1.00.

But can the Sixers really put the end to last season behind them if no trade is made between now and Sept. 28? Can Simmons block out the noise until his situation is settled? This team remains fascinating, with both a high ceiling and a low floor (given the talent).

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 40-32
Pace: 97.1 (29), OffRtg: 110.6 (18), DefRtg: 110.7 (10), NetRtg: -0.1 (17)

Key addition(s): Thickness (Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker), Markieff Morris
Key departure(s): Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Andre Iguodala

Three numbers to know…

• The Heat have ranked in the top 10 defensively in 18 of the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data.

• Last season, Miami opponents took 45.9% of their shots, the league’s highest rate, from 3-point range. Eighty-eight percent of their opponents’ 3-pointers, the league’s second highest rate, were assisted.

• The Heat scored just 95.4 points per 100 possessions in their first-round series loss to the Bucks. That was 15.2 fewer than they scored in the regular season (110.6, 18th). Among 88 players with at least 50 field goal attempts in the playoffs, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo saw the biggest and fifth biggest drops in effective field goal percentage from the regular season, along with the two biggest drops in free throw rate (FTA/FGA).

Key question: How will the offense work?

This team will certainly defend at a high level. If Victor Oladipo is somehow healthy, a lineup of Lowry, Oladipo, Butler, Tucker and Adebayo wouldn’t have a weak link. But given the offensive limitations of Adebayo (38% on just 120 attempts from 15 feet and out last season), Butler (32% from 15 and out) and Tucker (his 4.7 field goal attempts per 36 minutes ranked last among 468 players who played at least 100 minutes), the Heat are still counting on the movement and quick triggers of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to keep defenses on their toes.

Butler will get to the line, Adebayo has begun to expand his range, and Lowry (4.1 pull-up 3-point attempts per 36 minutes over the last two seasons) will more frequently launch off the dribble than Dragic (2.5 per 36). If there’s a group (along with one of the league’s best coaches) that can make it work offensively despite those limitations, this is it. But it will be a process, and (as it’s been with the Heat in previous years) we may not see the best of this team until March and April.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 41-31
Pace: 96.3 (30), OffRtg: 110.2 (22), DefRtg: 107.8 (4), NetRtg: +2.4 (9)

Key addition(s): Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier
Key departure(s): Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton (and the accompanying fan angst)

Three numbers to know…

• The Knicks saw the league’s biggest drop in points allowed per 100 possessions, from 112.4 (23rd) in 2019-20 to 107.8 (fourth) in 2020-21. They had ranked in the bottom 10 defensively for four straight seasons and in 13 of the last 16.

• The Knicks’ 8.9 fast break points per game were the fewest for any team in the last three seasons. They also ranked last in transition points per game (14.2) and the percentage of their shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (10.0%).

• Fournier shot 54-for-103 (52.4%) on wide-open 3s, the second best mark among 155 players who attempted at least 100.

Key question: Can they remain a top-five defense?

The Knicks’ offense came up empty in the playoffs, scoring less than a point per possession over the last four games of their first-round loss to the Hawks. The upgrades in the backcourt will help, with the hope that Walker can recover from last season, when his effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers was just 47.4%. That ranked 38th among 83 players who attempted at least 200 and down from 51.0% over the previous three seasons. (If his knee issues are more permanent than temporary, he’s still worth the price they’re paying.) RJ Barrett obviously can get better. His 0.79 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler ranked 68th among 73 players with at least 200 ball-handler possessions, but he did shoot 47.9% from 3-point range over the last 25 regular season games.

Still, the defense was the reason the Knicks were such a big surprise last season. And it’s the reason that any team can be better on the floor than it looks on paper. Sustaining the level of defense that they played last season is easier said than done. In the last 25 years, no team has finished first in opponent 3-point percentage in two straight seasons and only nine teams have remained in the top three for a second straight year. Of course, one of those nine was Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls (his first two seasons in Chicago), and bringing back most of the same group from last season (when the defensive effort was more than noticeable) should help.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 36-36
Pace: 98.9 (20), OffRtg: 113.1 (10), DefRtg: 111.8 (13), NetRtg: +1.2 (13)

Key addition(s): Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Enes Kanter
Key departure(s): Danny Ainge, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Tristan Thompson
Coaching change: Brad Stevens to the front office, Ime Udoka in.

Three numbers to know…

• The Celtics played 43 games, most in the league, that were within five points in the last five minutes last season. They were 17-26 (0.395, fourth worst in the league) in those games and 19-10 (0.655) otherwise, finishing 36-36 with the point differential of a team that was 40-32.

• The Celtics’ defense saw the league’s third biggest jump in points allowed per 100 possessions, from 106.5 (fourth) in 2019-20 to 111.8 (13th) last season. They ranked 22nd in opponent 3-point percentage (37.4%), ending a streak of 13 straight seasons in the top six.

• Jaylen Brown was one of four players — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Paul George were the others — who averaged at least six catch-and-shoot points and at least six pull-up points per game.

Key question: How much better can Jayson Tatum get?

It might have got lost because the Nets had the best offensive series ever, but Tatum had another star turn in the postseason. He dropped 50 on the Wizards in the Play-In Tournament and then was playing one-on-one against Brooklyn defenders for five games (with another 50-piece in Game 3). He led the playoffs (by a wide margin) with 11.4 isolation possessions per game and his 1.21 points per possession on isolations ranked third among players with at least 25 total iso possessions. Tatum’s usage rate has seen an increase every year he’s been in the league and it could have another step to go.

But the loss of some offense in the backcourt makes it likely that Tatum will see an extra defender more often than he has in the past. Schroder can be an effective second-side attacker, but he (36.3%), Richardson (32.3%), Horford (36.6%) and Marcus Smart (32.5%) all shot worse than the league average (37.8%) on catch-and-shoot 3s last season.

The Celtics can put together some elite defensive lineups, though. A return to the top five on that end of the floor wouldn’t be a surprise.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 31-41
Pace: 99.6 (13) OffRtg: 110.4 (21) DefRtg: 111.5 (12) NetRtg: -1.1 (20)

Key addition(s): Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso
Key departure(s): Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, Thaddeus Young

Three numbers to know…

• The Bulls had the league’s biggest differential between their record against the 15 teams that finished at or below 0.500 (24-12, 0.667) and their record against the 15 teams that finished above 0.500 (7-29, 0.194). Only Houston (6-33) had a worse record against the latter group.

• The Bulls were slightly worse offensively (110.0 points scored per 100 possessions) and slightly better defensively (111.4 allowed per 100) after trading for Nikola Vucevic than they were prior (110.6, 111.6).

• According to Synergy tracking, DeRozan (1.20) and Zach LaVine (1.14) ranked first and third in points per possession on isolations among 42 players with at least 100 isolation possessions last season.

Key question: What does the late-game offense look like?

Billy Donovan’s five teams in Oklahoma City all ranked in the bottom 10 in assist percentage (AST/FGM), and his last group there (with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder) employed a very my-turn, your-turn offense. Last season’s Bulls ranked fourth in assist percentage (63.5%), but saw the league’s sixth biggest drop from non-clutch situations (64.0%, fourth) to clutch situations (49.5%, 19th).

Having two guys who are among the best in the league in getting their own shot is a good thing. LaVine (12-for-46) and DeRozan (16-for-39) rank *second and fourth in field goal attempts to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime over the last three seasons. But it will be interesting to see how it plays out, how much the two of them play off each other, and if Ball is on the floor for critical, half-court possessions.

* Behind Damian Lillard (18-for-47) and tied with Russell Westbrook (14-for-46). (Regular season only.)

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 27-45
Pace: 99.6 (14) OffRtg: 111.6 (16) DefRtg: 112.0 (15) NetRtg: -0.4 (19)

Key addition(s): Scottie Barnes, Goran Dragic, Precious Achiuwa
Key departure(s): Kyle Lowry, Tampa livin’

Three numbers to know…

• The Raptors’ defense allowed 7.3 more points per 100 possessions in 2020-21 (112.0, 15th) than it did in 2019-20 (104.7, second). That was the league’s second biggest jump.

• The Raptors had the biggest differential between their “expected” wins (via point differential) and their actual wins. They were 27-45 with the point differential of a team that was 35-37. They were the only team that finished in the bottom five in both clutch offense (27th) and clutch defense (26th).

• The Raptors outscored their opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in 472 minutes with Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby on the floor together last season, but were outscored by 3.3 per 100 in 275 minutes with the other three on the floor without Lowry. The season prior, they were +13.7 per 100 in 345 of those no-Lowry minutes.

Key question: What’s the value of being back home?

A lot of things — most out of the Raptors’ control, some in their control — contributed to the ninth biggest winning-percentage drop in NBA history. And some of those things will be remedied this season. They still have three guys from their championship core — Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — that will keep them competitive. Goran Dragic can be useful (he could certainly help Siakam in transition) for as long as he’s in Toronto, and Nick Nurse won’t leave any stone unturned.

But Lowry is gone, and predicting how his departure affects the Raptors’ ability to compete for a playoff spot isn’t any easier than figuring out how a return to normalcy (or something close to it) matters. Their road record (and their road defense) actually dropped more than their home record from 2019-20 to ’20-21.

The ceiling may not be very high, but (barring injury or more extenuating circumstances) the floor isn’t very low either. And Anunoby (who just turned 24) just might be something special.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 34-38
Pace: 104.7 (1), OffRtg: 110.7 (17), DefRtg: 112.3 (20), NetRtg: -1.6 (22)

Key addition(s): Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell
Key departure(s): Russell Westbrook, Robin Lopez’s hook shot
Coaching change: Scott Brooks out, Wes Unseld Jr. in.

Three numbers to know…

• The Wizards’ pace of 104.7 possessions per 48 minutes last season was the second highest mark in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data, topped only by the Bucks’ mark (105.5) in 2019-20. They played five of the six fastest-paced games in the league last season (including the second fastest-paced game – May 3 vs. Indiana – in the last 25 years), and they won seven of their eight fastest-paced games.

• The Wizards scored 12.5 more points per 100 possessions with Bradley Beal on the floor (114.6) than they did with him off the floor (102.1). That was the fourth biggest on-off differential for offensive efficiency among 233 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team.

• Daniel Gafford blocked 3.4 shots per 36 minutes, third most among 362 players who played at least 500 minutes. Opponents shot 52.0% at the rim when he was their to protect it, a mark that ranked 10th among 72 players who defended at least 200 shots at the rim.

Key question: How does Westbrook’s departure affect the role players?

There are some similarities between Dinwiddie and Westbrook. They’re both North-South attackers who’ve never shot particularly well from the outside. Two seasons ago, Dinwiddie shot just 31% from outside the paint, the seventh worst mark among 190 players with at least 200 attempts from the outside. (He was somehow tied for second with seven baskets — on 14 attempts — to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime while shooting 2-for-24 on clutch 3-pointers.) Westbrook ranked fourth in time of possession (8.5 minutes per game, playing 36.4) last season, while Dinwiddie ranked 12th (6.8 minutes per game, playing just 31.2) in 2019-20.

The swap might not have a big affect on Bradley Beal, who ranked third in usage rate last season. But it will be interesting to see if Davis Bertans (still owed $65 million over the next four years) can return to being a flame thrower who scares opposing defenses when he steps on the floor. And if Deni Avdija can find some offense after, as a rookie, ranking 234th in usage rate (11.8%) among the 251 players who played at least 1,000 minutes. Losing Westbrook will obviously slow the Wizards down, but other stylistic changes under a new coach (more ball movement, more 3s) could give both Avdija and Rui Hachimura a push forward.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 34-38
Pace: 102.0 (4) OffRtg: 111.9 (14) DefRtg: 111.9 (14) NetRtg: +0.1 (16)

Key addition(s): Chris Duarte
Key departure(s): Doug McDermott
Coaching change: Nate Bjorkgren out, Rick Carlisle (back) in.

Three numbers to know…

• The Pacers allowed their opponents to take 36% of their shots, the league’s highest opponent rate by a comfortable margin, in the restricted area. They allowed a league-high 40.4 restricted-area points per game.

• The Pacers ran 38.1 hand-offs per 100 possessions, most in the league by a wide margin, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Minnesota rank second at 27.8 per 100. Domantas Sabonis ranked second in touches (97.3) and frontcourt touches (54.7) per game.

• Myles Turner led the league with 3.4 blocks per game and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes. He defended 9.5 shots at the rim per game, 1.8 more than any other player. The 49.6% that opponents shot at the rim when he was there to protect it was the third best mark among 70 players who defended at least 200 total shots at the rim.

Key question: What’s the value in a coaching change?

Things obviously didn’t work well under Bjorkgren, who pushed the pace, had the Pacers trying to defend like the 2019-20 Raptors (without the Raptors’ personnel), and reportedly ruffled feathers in the locker room. Carlisle isn’t exactly known as a players’ coach, but he should be able to fix what’s broken. The Mavs had a better-than-average defense in only one of his last nine seasons in Dallas (they ranked 13th in 2016-17), but the Pacers were third and sixth in the two seasons B.B. (before Bjorkgren). Turner is a real anchor on that end of the floor.

The return of T.J. Warren (one of two players who shot 50% or better on at least 500 field goal attempts and 40% or better on at least 200 3-point attempts two seasons ago) will provide a boost. But, given the depth of the Eastern Conference, there’s a limit to how far Carlisle can take this season, and the ceiling may be a quick out in the first round.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 33-39
Pace: 99.0 (18) OffRtg: 110.1 (23) DefRtg: 112.0 (16) NetRtg: -1.9 (23)

Key addition(s): Kelly Oubre, Mason Plumlee, James Bouknight
Key departure(s): Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, and the last of the Bobcats (Biyombo and Zeller)

Three numbers to know…

• The Hornets led the league in assist percentage, recording assists on 67.2% of their field goals. They ranked third in ball movement (361 passes per 24 minutes of possession) and second in player movement (11.8 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession), and they were the league’s second fastest moving team on offense, averaging 4.70 miles per hour.

• The Hornets played 901 possessions of zone, most in the league by a wide margin last season, according to Synergy play-type tracking. The 0.92 points per possession their zone defense allowed ranked third among the 23 teams who played at least 100 total possessions of zone.

• The Hornets were 24-20 with Gordon Hayward last season and 9-19 without him. At the time he suffered his season-ending foot injury, they were in fourth place in the East (though six teams would finish with a higher winning percentage than they had at the time).

Key question: Does P.J. Washington play even more at the five?

The Hornets outscored their opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions in 891 total minutes with Washington at center last season. That accounted for 46% of his total minutes and they were outscored by 3.1 per 100 (with a bigger drop-off on offense) in the other 1,063.

They traded for Plumlee to replace Zeller (chef’s kiss), but the Hornets now have three key rotation pieces — Hayward, Oubre and Miles Bridges — who can play both forward positions. With lost depth in the backcourt, maybe Hayward needs to play some at the two (where he’d be able to bully guards), but the additional three/four (Oubre) may make Washington more of a five.

Playing smaller can allow them to play faster and further unleash LaMelo Ball. Last season, the Hornets saw the third biggest drop-off in their effective field goal percentage from the first six seconds of the shot clock (63.5%, fourth) to the last 18 seconds of the clock (51.4%, 22nd). Hayward can be an effective weapon the half-court, but more early offense is rarely a bad thing.

Last Week: 0

2020-21 record: 22-50
Pace: 98.0 (25) OffRtg: 105.2 (28) DefRtg: 113.5 (25) NetRtg: -8.3 (28)

Key addition(s): Evan Mobley, Ricky Rubio
Key departure(s): Taurean Prince

Three numbers to know…

• The Cavs were the only team that ranked in the bottom five in field goal percentage in the paint (53.4%, 27th), mid-range field goal percentage (37.2%, 27th), and 3-point percentage (33.6%, 30th).

• The Cavs were 1-46, the worst mark for any team in the last 20 years (since the 2000-01 Bulls were 1-57), after trailing by double-digits. Their lone victory (in which they trailed by 15) was their sixth game of the season (Jan. 2 at Atlanta).

• Darius Garland averaged 28.1 points + rebounds + assists per 36 minutes last season, up from 21.1 in 2019-20. That was the fourth biggest jump among 187 players who played at least 1,000 minutes in each of the last two seasons. He saw the ninth biggest jump in points per 36 (from 14.4 to 18.9) and the eighth biggest jump in assists per 36 (from 4.5 to 6.6) among that group.

Key question: Can Isaac Okoro be a two-way player?

It’s interesting that the Cavs committed the most money in free agency to a center ($100 million to Jarrett Allen), having just drafted a center (the only one taken in the top 15) with the No. 3 pick. The question of whether Garland and Collin Sexton can work as a starting backcourt remains open. But wings are the thing and Okoro (the No. 5 pick last year) is Cleveland’s sole wing of intrigue.

Among 201 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from outside the paint last season, Okoro had the worst field goal percentage (27.4%) and the fifth worst effective field goal percentage (40.5%). Okoro’s isolation defense numbers (1.15 points allowed per possession) and his field goal percentage allowed differential (+5.5%) were also not good. (He was a rookie, but one that came in with a defensive rep.) Year 2 is a big one for a lot of players, and Okoro should be at or near the top of that list.

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2020-21 record: 20-52
Pace: 98.2 (23) OffRtg: 107.6 (26) DefRtg: 112.2 (19) NetRtg: -4.5 (25)

Key addition(s): Cade Cunningham, Kelly Olynyk
Key departure(s): Mason Plumlee

Three numbers to know…

• The Pistons were 7-25 (.219) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes last season. That was the eighth worst clutch winning percentage in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data.

• The Pistons got 28% of their minutes, the league’s highest rate, from rookies. They were also the only team with two players on the All-Rookie teams.

• Isaiah Stewart averaged 3.09 steals + blocks per 36 minutes, 13th most among 251 players (and most among rookies) who played at least 1,000 minutes. The Pistons allowed 6.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (107.4) than they did with him off the floor (113.5). That was the tied for the 11th best differential among 233 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team last season.

Key question: Can Killian Hayes put the ball in the basket?

All eyes will be on the Cunningham, but there’s more pressure on Hayes (the No. 7 pick last year) to improve in Year 2. As a rookie, Hayes showed potential as a defender (his 4.4 deflections per 36 minutes were fifth most among 362 players who played at least 500 minutes) and as a playmaker, but shot just 40% in the paint and scored 0.58 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the worst mark among 132 players with at least 100 ball-handler possessions. Suffering a bad hip injury in the Pistons’ seventh game of 2020-21 and missing three months obviously affected him. Summer League (where he shot 7-for-22) wasn’t a great sign in regard to his ability to score effectively — which he’ll need to do even if the plan is to have him at the point, with Cunningham off the ball when the two play together.

The progress of Stewart and Saddiq Bey (the first rookie to shoot 38% on at least 400 3-point attempts) will be just as interesting. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pistons (who allowed just 104.8 points per 100 possessions in 752 minutes with the two rookie bigs on the floor together) are a better-than-average defensive team this season.

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2020-21 record: 21-51
Pace: 99.2 (17) OffRtg: 104.6 (29) DefRtg: 113.9 (26) NetRtg: -9.3 (29)

Key addition(s): Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Robin Lopez
Key departure(s): N/A
Coaching change: Steve Clifford out, Jamahl Mosley in.

Three numbers to know…

• The Magic have ranked in the bottom 10 offensively in each of the last 9 seasons. Only one other team (Chicago — six seasons) has an active streak of more than three seasons in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency.

• The Magic were outscored by 6.7 points per game in the restricted area, the league’s biggest discrepancy last season.

• Chuma Okeke ranked third among rookies in both deflections per 36 minutes (3.1) and defensive win shares per game (0.081). He was also one of five players who played at least 1,000 minutes and had as many (or more) steals (48) as personal fouls (48).

Key question: Which of the young guys will take a big step forward?

The Magic now have nine players under the age of 24 who were selected in the first round of the Draft, with six of the nine having been selected with a top-seven pick. Expectations are obviously low and it would be a surprise if (the Thunder let Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play and) this team doesn’t finish last in offensive efficiency. Suggs will add some much-needed juice off the dribble (Cole Anthony’s second year will also be interesting in that regard), but the Magic are the only team without a single player who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season.

This season isn’t about wins and losses and progress won’t be linear. But the potential for good defense is there, and it would be particularly interesting to see Okeke and Jonathan Isaac (who led the league in steals + blocks per 36 minutes two seasons ago) play together on that end of the floor. Isaac’s four-year, $70 million extension kicks in this season, and he’ll be almost 15 months beyond his ACL tear when the Magic open their season in San Antonio.

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