2022-23 Kia Season Preview

Offseason Power Rankings: Celtics, Bucks keep top spots in Eastern Conference

See where all 15 teams in the Eastern Conference rank after a busy offseason.

Jayson Tatum and the Celtics should hit the ground running in Ime Udoka’s second season on the bench.

It’s Aug. 1 and in some ways, the offseason seems done. There are still a handful of notable free agents unsigned and about 20 available roster spots, but there hasn’t been much movement on that front since the Phoenix Suns matched the Deandre Ayton offer sheet two weeks ago.

Of course, this league never really allows us to step away. Just as free agency was tipping off, Kevin Durant reportedly requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets. A month later and we’re still waiting for Brooklyn to find the right deal. Maybe that doesn’t happen before the start of the season … and maybe it happens tomorrow.

With Donovan Mitchell also on the market and with Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving in not-so-comfortable positions with their current teams — and with a few other tradable vets being discussed — there’s plenty of potential for a major shake-up between now and when training camps open Sept. 26.

Still, given how quiet things have become, it’s a good time for some offseason Power Rankings. As we run down the Eastern Conference, we have to start with the defending conference champs, who made one of the most significant additions of the offseason.

For these offseason rankings, we’re looking at each conference separately and we’ll have Western Conference rankings next Monday. All stats refer to the 2021-22 regular season unless otherwise noted.

Previous Power Rankings

  • April 4: Suns, Bucks hold top spots before final week
  • This time last year: Offseason Power Rankings: Nets, Bucks stand tall in the East — The Nets had their star trio back at full strength after barely losing to the eventual champs. Brad Stevens went from the bench to the front office, hired Ime Udoka, and brought back Al Horford. The Ben Simmons saga in Philly was still in its early stages, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker took their talents to South Beach, and the Bulls loaded up. The Knicks tried to add some offense and the Raptors returned home.

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 98.8 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 111.4 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:4

2021-22 record: 51-31

Pace: 97.3 (24), OffRtg: 113.6 (9), DefRtg: 106.2 (1), NetRtg: +7.4 (2)

Key addition(s): Malcolm Brogdon, Danilo Gallinari, Trade rumors

Key departure(s): Daniel Theis (who played 20 total minutes in the Finals)

Three numbers to know…

  • In the regular season, the Celtics were 38-9 (.809, best in the league) in non-clutch games and just 13-22 (.371, second worst) in clutch games (those that were within five points in the last five minutes). That was the third biggest differential in the 26 years for which we have clutch data. Both in the regular season (97.7 per 100) and in the playoffs (89.1 per 100), they scored less than a point per possession with the score within five in the last five.
  • The Celtics led the league in both opponent field goal percentage in the paint (53.4%) and opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (47.7%).
  • The Celtics’ starting lineup — Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III — outscored its opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions in its 443 regular-season minutes. That was the best mark for a lineup with at least 200 minutes played in the last nine seasons.

Key question: What’s the ceiling for Brown, Tatum and Williams?

The team that won the Eastern Conference has three starters who will be 25 or younger on opening night (Brown turns 26 less than a week later). So there’s plenty of reasons to (hesitate on a Durant trade and) believe that the Celtics will be better with continued growth from the young guys. They struggled out of the gates last year, but should hit the ground running in coach Ime Udoka’s second season on the bench. And it bears repeating just how dominant this team was once it figured things out (and got healthy): The Celtics outscored their opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions, ranking first on both ends of the floor, over their final 35 games.

It’s possible that Brown’s ball-handling doesn’t get much better, but Brogdon obviously takes some of the playmaking burden off the shoulders of the young stars while fitting into Boston’s drive-and-kick offense. He averaged almost six more drives per game (18.3) than anybody on the Celtics and had the lowest turnover rate on drives (4.2 per 100) among 42 players who averaged at least 10 per contest. (Derrick White had the third lowest rate.) The Celtics’ clutch offense issues were seemingly more about approach than just makes and misses, but Brogdon has shot 32-for-84 (38.1%) on clutch 3-pointers (sixth best among 64 players with at least 75 attempts) over the last five years (including playoffs).

You can’t blame a team for wanting Durant, but if the Celtics keep what they have, they certainly look like the best team in the East again.

Last Week:2

2021-22 record: 51-31

Pace: 100.6 (3), OffRtg: 114.3 (3), DefRtg: 111.1 (14), NetRtg: +3.2 (8)

Key addition(s): Joe Ingles

Key departure(s): N/A

Three numbers to know…

  • The Bucks outscored their opponents by 7.5 points per game, the league’s best differential, in transition. Their 24.1 transition points per game on offense ranked third, while their 16.6 points allowed in transition ranked first.
  • The Bucks scored 1.09 points per chance when they set a ball-screen for Jrue Holiday, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That was the best mark among 109 players who used at least 500 ball-screens last season.
  • The Bucks made 53 fewer 3-pointers than the Celtics in their seven-game, conference semifinals series. That was the biggest such differential in a playoff series in NBA history, with the Celtics’ 110 3-pointers being tied for the third most in any playoff series. In the last three regular seasons, the Bucks have allowed 14, 14.8 and 14.5 3s per game, three of the seven highest opponent marks in the 43 years of the 3-point line.

Key question: Can they get back to top-five defense?

In Mike Budenholzer’s first two seasons as coach, the Bucks had the league’s No. 1 defense and earned the East’s No. 1 seed. They won the championship as the No. 3 seed and with the ninth-ranked regular-season defense in 2020-21 and, in each of the last two seasons, they’ve had the No. 1 defense in the playoffs. Their Game 7 loss in Boston this year was (by a healthy margin) the Bucks’ least efficient offensive game (81 points on 101 possessions) of the season, also the least efficient playoff game for any team in the last two years.

So yeah, the Bucks can (and need to) be better offensively. Even with a healthy Khris Middleton (who missed all of the Boston series), there was some ugliness in that ’21 title run. They don’t need to have their foot on the gas defensively all season like they did in ’18-19 and ’19-20.

But better regular-season defense also gets you more wins, a higher seed, and home-court advantage in Game 7 of the conference semis. The Bucks can certainly play better defense than they did last season — 14th overall, 22nd against the league’s top-10 offenses — while also staying fresh for the playoffs. A healthier Brook Lopez (13 games played last season) will help, but Lopez is now 34 years old and the Bucks also need to find a way to better defend the 3-point line against their tougher opponents.

Last Week:8

2021-22 record: 51-31

Pace: 96.7 (26), OffRtg: 113.0 (11), DefRtg: 110.2 (12), NetRtg: +2.8 (9)

Key addition(s): De’Anthony Melton, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House

Key departure(s): Danny Green

Three numbers to know…

  • The Sixers are the only team that’s been better than the league average on both ends of the floor in each of the last five seasons. But they’re not one of the 14 (different) teams who has reached the conference finals over that stretch.
  • Joel Embiid registered a usage rate of 37.5% last season. That was the fourth highest mark for any player in the 26 seasons for which we have play-by-play data. It’s topped only by the marks of three guards: Russell Westbrook (40.2% in 2016-17), James Harden (39.6% in 2018-19) and Kobe Bryant (37.8% in 2005-06).
  • The Sixers are one of two teams (the LA Clippers have eight) with at least seven of the 139 players who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season.

Key question: How good does James Harden need to be?

Harden obviously wasn’t at his best (or most aggressive) in the playoffs. He probably isn’t ever again going to be the player that competed for Kia MVP trophies every season. But, because he’s not the Sixers’ best player nor the only guy who can do something off the dribble, he doesn’t have to be that guy in Philly.

He did make an impact upon joining the Sixers last season. After the All-Star break (when Harden started playing), Embiid took 57% of his shots in the paint. That was up from just 49% before the break and, in just 21 games together, Harden had more paint assists to Embiid (52) than any other teammate had all season. Tyrese Maxey also saw the 18th biggest jump in effective field goal percentage (from 52% to 62.1%) among 204 players with at least 200 field goal attempts before the break and at least 100 after the break.

They probably gave Tucker too many years, but the Sixers have a ton of shooting around their stars. Melton (fourth in deflections per 36 minutes) and Tucker also upgrade the defense. The questions won’t be answered until Harden proves himself in the playoffs, but this team could be a regular season monster.

Last Week:5

2021-22 record: 53-29

Pace: 96.5 (28), OffRtg: 113.0 (12), DefRtg: 108.4 (4), NetRtg: +4.5 (6)

Key addition(s): N/A

Key departure(s): P.J. Tucker

Three numbers to know…

  • In the first round of the playoffs, the Heat held the Hawks to 11.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than Atlanta scored in the regular season. In the conference semifinals, the Heat held the Sixers to 14.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than Philly scored in the first round.
  • Bam Adebayo shot 60.3% in the paint and had an effective field goal percentage of just 34.1% on shots from outside the paint. That was the fourth biggest differential among 258 players with at least 100 field goal attempts both in and outside the paint.

Key question: Do they need more size?

The departure of Tucker leaves the Heat without any kind of power forward. So if they (essentially) stand pat over the next 11 weeks, they’ll likely be starting Max Strus, Caleb Martin or Jimmy Butler at the four. Their defense was actually better, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, with Adebayo on the floor without Tucker (102.5 points allowed per 100 possessions in 898 total minutes) than it was with them on the floor together (104.9 in 1,542). But opposing lineups had something to do with that (when they were together, they were generally defending opposing starters) and Tucker’s departure (not that they should have paid what the Sixers did) leaves the Heat with a lack of size and depth up front. Adebayo played a total of 32 minutes (all in the regular season) alongside Dewayne Dedmon or Omer Yurtseven.

The Heat certainly made the most of what they had and withstood a ton of absences last season, when Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry missed a total of 70 games. When it seems like this team doesn’t have enough rotation players, it simply creates one or two more in its Biscayne Bay laboratory. Adebayo still has room to grow offensively and maybe Victor Oladipo (who played in only eight regular season games) has his legs fully under him come October. But the three teams above them in these rankings seemingly have a lot more to work with than the Heat.

Last Week:10

2021-22 record: 48-34

Pace: 96.6 (27), OffRtg: 112.1 (15), DefRtg: 109.9 (9), NetRtg: +2.2 (12)

Key addition(s): Otto Porter Jr.

Key departure(s): N/A

Three numbers to know…

  • The Raptors committed 3.4 fewer turnovers per game than their opponents. That was tied for the best turnover differential of the last 14 seasons.
  • As rosters currently stand, the Raptors rank first in continuity, set to retain 14 players who accounted for 96% of their 2021-22 regular-season minutes.

Key question: Can they shoot?

It’s rather amazing that the Raptors had a better-than-average offense while ranking 27th in the most important of the four factors on that end of the floor (effective field goal percentage) last season. They were the only team in the league with fewer than *two players with an effective field goal percentage at or above the league average (53.2%) on at least 100 field goal attempts, and they had zero.

* Nine teams had at least 10 more-effective-than-average shooters, 27 teams had at least five, and the Pistons (2) were the only other team with fewer than four.

But the Raptors took care of the ball and crashed the glass, ranking third in turnover rate and second in offensive rebounding percentage, to maximize their opportunities. If they can continue to do that and shoot more effectively (just taking more efficient shots is part of that), they can be pretty good. Porter (56% last season) is a better-than-average shooter and Barnes (55.8% after the All-Star break) should see continued improvement.

The defense should continue to be there. The Raps are one of four teams — the Celtics, Heat and Jazz are the others — that have ranked in the top 10 defensively in four of the last five seasons, and they have the best excuse (a disruptive relocation in 2020-21) for the one season in which they didn’t. As was the case last season, there are several teams in the East that have a higher ceiling than this one. But there are even more that have a lower floor.

Last Week:13

2021-22 record: 46-36

Pace: 98.8 (14), OffRtg: 112.7 (13), DefRtg: 113.2 (23), NetRtg: -0.5 (20)

Key addition(s): Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond

Key departure(s): N/A

Three numbers to know…

  • The Bulls were the only team (and the first team since the 2018-19 Nets) with a winning record and a negative point differential.
  • The Bulls were one of three teams — Milwaukee and Phoenix were the others — that ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage in the paint (58.3%, ninth), mid-range field goal percentage (43.6%, fourth), and 3-point percentage (36.9%, fourth).
  • The Bulls had the league’s second best record (35-5) when leading at the half and its third best record (38-7) when leading by double-digits.

Key question: Can DeMar DeRozan do it again?

Better health than they had last season will surely help the Bulls, especially on defense. They ranked 11th on that end of the floor before Alex Caruso was lost for nearly three months (with Lonzo Ball’s season-ending injury coming less than four weeks later), and Patrick Williams — who played in far fewer games (17) than Ball (35) or Caruso (41) — could be their most important defender going forward. Ball and Williams were opening-night starters, but played just 107 total minutes (in five games) together.

A healthier Zach LaVine should ease the offensive burden on DeRozan, 32. He registered the second highest usage rate of his career (30.8%), was the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorer and shot 53% in the clutch, even though more than half of those clutch shots (47/86) came from mid-range. He’s now had three straight seasons of improved efficiency (true shooting percentage of 59.4% vs. 53.6% through his first 10 seasons), but the Bulls probably want a little more balance in their offense.

Dragic and Drummond could help get more opportunities in transition and more shots at the rim, with the Bulls having ranked in the bottom eight in both of those categories last season. This team is deep, with the two additions joining 10 contributors from last season.

Last Week:15

2021-22 record: 44-38

Pace: 99.4 (11), OffRtg: 113.2 (10), DefRtg: 112.3 (20), NetRtg: +0.9 (15)

Key addition(s): Royce O’Neale, T.J. Warren

Key departure(s): Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, any good vibes that might have been remaining

Three numbers to know …

  • In the three seasons since they joined the Nets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have played in only 58 games (including the Play-In Tournament and playoffs) together. The Nets are 34-24 (.586) in those games, but have outscored their opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions (scoring 120.9 per 100) in their 1,736 minutes on the floor together.
  • The Nets ranked last in defensive rebounding percentage, both in the regular season (grabbing just 70.4% of available defensive boards) and in the playoffs (64.2%).
  • Durant had an effective field goal percentage of 42.8% in the playoffs, down from 57% in the regular season. That was the fifth biggest drop among 89 players with at least 50 postseason field goal attempts. The Nets still scored more efficiently (115.0 points scored per 100 possessions) in their series against the Celtics than the Bucks, Heat or Warriors did.

Key question: What if there’s no trade(s)?

Making a trade is easier said than done, especially when another transaction (see Gobert, Rudy) has set a standard (in regard to the return) that will be difficult to exceed. Durant is under contract for four more seasons and, with 11 weeks to go until opening night, the Nets don’t seem to be close to any kind of deal. But will he just suit up and hoop if he’s still on the roster on Oct. 18? And will the Nets be willing to placate Irving if they don’t trade him?

If feelings can be put aside (we used similar wording about Ben Simmons’ team at this time last year), the Nets have the talent to compete with the best teams in the East. Simmons appears to be on track toward his return and the Nets can complement two of the best one-on-one players in basketball history with two of the top four guys in career 3-point percentage. Defense will always be a question, but with Simmons, O’Neale (39.3% on catch-and-shoot 3s over the last four seasons) and Warren, Brooklyn has addressed one of its most pressing issues (perimeter size).

Alas, it’s difficult to keep the rose-colored glasses on for more than a few seconds. The team that was impossible to stop when it was healthy has fallen apart after winning just a single playoff series. With the Nets’ next five first-round picks owed to (or eligible to be swapped with) the Rockets, you can understand the desire to recoup as many of those losses as possible, while also trying to stay somewhat competitive short term. The situation Nets GM Sean Marks was in when he was hired in 2016 somehow looks more desirable than this one.

Last Week:14

2021-22 record: 43-39

Pace: 98.7 (17), OffRtg: 115.4 (2), DefRtg: 113.7 (26), NetRtg: +1.6 (14)

Key addition(s): Dejounte Murray, Frank Kaminsky and a pair of Holidays

Key departure(s): Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, Delon Wright

Three numbers to know…

  • The Hawks had the league’s biggest differential between their record at home (27-14, .659) and their record on the road (16-25, .390).
  • Trae Young led the league in clutch usage rate, accounting for 43.5% of the Hawks’ clutch possessions (via field goal attempts, turnovers and trips to the line) while he was on the floor.

Key question: Can Young and Murray make each other better?

Young (16.9%) and Murray (27.4%) ranked fourth and ninth in the lowest percentage of their buckets that were assisted among 215 players with at least 200 made field goals last season. They’re also the only pair of (current) teammates who were both under the 30% mark. The challenge for both (and Hawks coach Nate McMillan) is to keep this from being a my-turn-your-turn situation offensively. Both guys can create (they ranked third and fourth in assists per game), but the question is how comfortable each will be playing off the ball. Young actually had the fourth best mark (37-for-77, 48.1%) on catch-and-shoot 3s among 280 players with at least 75 attempts, but his 77 translated to just one per contest.

Of course, offense isn’t the concerning end of the floor for the Hawks, who have ranked in the bottom five defensively in three of Young’s four seasons in the league. The Hawks lost a good defender in Wright (12th in deflections per 36 minutes), but Murray (the league leader in both steals and deflections per game) will obviously play a lot more than the 18.9 minutes that Wright averaged last season. Still, one guy isn’t going to make the Hawks a league-average defense by himself.

The core — Young (24 on opening night), Murray (26), John Collins (25), De’Andre Hunter (24) and Onyeka Okongwu (21) — is still young, with time to grow. But the Hawks have tasted success and the Murray trade is a clear push to get back into the top five in the East.

Last Week:18

2021-22 record: 44-38

Pace: 96.8 (25), OffRtg: 111.0 (20), DefRtg: 108.9 (5), NetRtg: +2.1 (13)

Key addition(s): Ricky Rubio, Robin Lopez

Key departure(s): Low expectations

Three numbers to know…

  • The Cavs were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better last season (plus-2.1) than they were in 2020-21 (minus-8.3). That was the fourth biggest season-to-season improvement in the last 25 years, trailing only those of the 2007-08 Celtics (14.3), 1997-98 Spurs (13.2) and 2004-05 Suns (10.8).
  • Only Dallas (15.8) averaged more seconds per offensive possession than the Cavs (15.5).
  • The Cavs scored 10.6 more points per 100 possessions with Darius Garland on the floor (113.6) than they did with him off the floor (103.0). That was the fifth biggest on-off OffRtg differential among 261 players who played at least 1,000 minutes with a single team.

Key question: Can they take some of the offensive burden off Darius Garland?

Jarrett Allen scored 1.18 points per chance on post-ups, the best mark among 63 players with at least 75 post-ups last season, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Evan Mobley will surely have more polish in his second season, Caris LeVert has some stuff in his bag, and both Lauri Markkanen and Kevin Love provide additional skill on the frontline.

But LeVert remains inefficient, Rubio (who tore his ACL in late December) will miss a large chunk of the season, and, after a month, the team has yet to reach a deal with restricted free agent Collin Sexton. The offensive numbers were terrific (119.1 points scored per 100 possessions) in 460 total minutes (regular season plus Play-In) with Garland and LeVert on the floor together last season, but the 22-year-old point guard (with a max extension in hand) still has a large load on his shoulders. The lack of a secondary scorer was an issue as the Cavs went 0-2 in the Play-In.

Allen and Mobley should keep the Cavs in the top 10 on defense. That will give them another serious chance to end their four-year playoff drought. And it’s not like Garland (who’s seen big jumps in both true shooting percentage and assist/turnover ratio in each of the last two years) can’t get even better.

Last Week:20

2021-22 record: 37-45

Pace: 96.4 (29), OffRtg: 109.7 (23), DefRtg: 110.2 (11), NetRtg: -0.4 (19)

Key addition(s): Jalen Brunson, Isaiah Hartenstein

Key departure(s): Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel

Three numbers to know…

  • The Knicks have had a better-than-average defense in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999-00 and 2000-01. But they did see the fifth biggest jump in points allowed per 100 possessions from ’20-21 (107.8, fourth) to last season (110.2, 11th).
  • The Knicks saw the league’s biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range from ’20-21 (34.7%, 24th) to last season (42.8%, seventh). But they saw the third biggest drop in 3-point percentage, from 39.2% (third) to 35.7% (13th). Only the Jazz (60%) took a lower percentage of their 3-point attempts off the catch than the Knicks (63%).
  • Julius Randle (50.9%) and RJ Barrett (51.1%) had the fourth and fifth lowest true-shooting percentage marks among 48 players with a usage rate of 24% or higher.

Key question: Can Randle rebound?

Brunson gives the Knicks some much needed juice off the dribble. According to Synergy tracking, he’s one of only four players — Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and CJ McCollum are the others — that have scored better than a point per possession on at least 200 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions in each of the last two seasons. And, having played alongside Luka Doncic for almost 1,700 minutes last season, he’s obviously comfortable playing off the ball. He shot better than 40% on catch-and-shoot 3s and 50% (38-for-76) on corner 3s.

Only Doncic (486) has recorded more assists on 3-pointers over the last two seasons than Randle (474). But it will be interesting to see how much control of the offense he cedes to Brunson. But the Knicks need both a bounce-back season from Randle (who had his worst shooting season in the last six years) and more consistency from Barrett.

Hartenstein should enhance what was already a strong bench. Brunson (set to turn 26 at the end of August) is the fourth-oldest player on the team, so there should be improvement throughout the roster, with Obi Toppin (and coach Tom Thibodeau’s willingness to play him) perhaps the biggest X-factor.

Last Week:21

2021-22 record: 35-47

Pace: 97.8 (22), OffRtg: 110.2 (21), DefRtg: 113.6 (25), NetRtg: -3.4 (23)

Key addition(s): Monte Morris, Will Barton, Delon Wright, Johnny Davis

Key departure(s): Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ish Smith

Three numbers to know…

  • The Wizards were the only team that ranked in the bottom five in both 3-point percentage (34.2%, 26th) and the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range (35.6%, 26th) last season.
  • The Wizards were 25-15 (.625, third best) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes and 10-32 (.238, fifth worst) otherwise. That (.387) was the third biggest such differential in the 26 seasons for which we have clutch data.
  • The Wizards ranked last with just 11.6 deflections per game.

Key question: What can Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis do together?

The Wizards had 29 guys suit up for them last season, but their two highest paid players didn’t play a minute together. So we’re getting a fresh start with two guys who should complement each other pretty well. Porzingis has never taken half of his shots in the paint (though his rate of 46% last season was the highest of his career) and Beal (sixth in drives per game) has evolved into more of an attacking scorer and playmaker than he was early in his career. A lineup of Monte Morris (41.3% on catch-and-shoot 3s over the last two years), Beal, Will Barton, Kyle Kuzma and Porzingis can be pretty potent offensively.

There are some good defenders on this roster, too. Plus, the young core of Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert, Daniel Gafford and Rui Hachimura provides some hope for internal development.

But there appear to be at least eight teams in the East better than this one. The Wizards finished 12th last season, they weren’t as good as their record (they had the point differential of a team that was 31-51), and they were just 17-23 in the games that Beal played. It’s a fresh start, but to compete in the East, the Wizards need one or two of the young guys to make a serious leap.

Last Week:16

2021-22 record: 43-39

Pace: 100.5 (5), OffRtg: 113.6 (8), DefRtg: 113.1 (22), NetRtg: +0.5 (16)

Key addition(s): Mark Williams

Key departure(s): N/A, for now

Coaching change: James Borrego out, Steve Clifford back

Three numbers to know…

  • The Hornets have the league’s second longest active playoff drought, having missed the playoffs the last six seasons.
  • The Hornets ranked second in both ball and player movement, averaging 357 passes and 11.8 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
  • Kelly Oubre (37-for-86, 43%) and Terry Rozier (55-for-131, 42%) rank second and third in clutch 3-point percentage, respectively, over the last five seasons (including playoffs) among 64 players with at least 75 attempts. Rozier has the best career mark (59-for-136, 43.4%) among 210 players with at least 100 clutch 3-point attempts in the 26 years for which we have clutch data.

Key question: Can they defend?

In Steve Clifford’s first season as a coach (2013-14), the then-Bobcats allowed 7.0 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did the season prior. That was the fifth best season-to-season defensive improvement of the last 20 years, and the Bobcats/Hornets had a top-10 defense in the first three of Clifford’s five seasons there. So you should believe that his return will make an impact defensively.

But these players have some bad habits to break. For much of last season, it seemed that the only team that had an easier time scoring in transition (including off of made baskets) than the Hornets was the Hornets’ opponent. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Charlotte ranked in the bottom six in regard to both the percentage of their opponents’ shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (15%, 26th) and opponent effective field goal percentage in the first six seconds (63.9%, 25th). Good (and bad) defense starts in transition.

The basketball aspect of the Miles Bridges situation is secondary, but uncertainty around the team’s second-best player (and LaMelo Ball’s favorite target) certainly takes the Hornets down a notch.

Last Week:25

2021-22 record: 23-59

Pace: 98.8 (13), OffRtg: 105.6 (28), DefRtg: 113.3 (24), NetRtg: -7.7 (26)

Key addition(s): Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel

Key departure(s): Jerami Grant

Three numbers to know…

  • In 2021-22, 52% of the Pistons’ minutes — the league’s highest rate — came from rookies (17%, seventh highest) or second-year players (35%, highest).
  • The Pistons were the league’s most improved team after the All-Star break, 7.8 points per 100 possessions better than they were be before the break (minus-2.2 vs. minus-10). Seven of the last 10 teams that led the league in post-break improvement went on to see season-to-season improvement the following year.
  • Cade Cunningham ranked sixth in clutch usage rate (38.1%) after the All-Star break.

Key question: How much will they play big?

As their roster stands, the Pistons have five centers — Duren, Noel, Marvin Bagley III, Kelly Olynyk and Isaiah Stewart — who will all need minutes. There’s talk of Stewart shooting 3s and playing the four, but as of now, Olynyk is the only one who can truly complement the others and space the floor. The Cavs proved that teams can have success playing two young bigs together, and maybe there’s some similarities between Duren and Evan Mobley. But it may be difficult for the Pistons to find lineups that maximize spacing and allow Cunningham and Ivey to attack the paint.

Cunningham sure looks like a star, though. He struggled from beyond the arc, but him shooting better from 2-point range (44.2% before the break, 51.8% after it) was a big part of the Pistons’ overall improvement. There was a March game in Boston where the rookie was having so much success against the league’s No. 1 defense that the Celtics had no choice but to double-team him in the second half.

The departure of Grant gives opponents more reason to double Cunningham, and the Pistons were outscored by 12.1 points per 100 possessions in 544 minutes with their other full-time starters — Cunningham, Stewart and Saddiq Bey — on the floor without Grant last season. So while the young core should get better and be fun to watch, the Pistons aren’t necessarily ready to take a real step forward.

Last Week:28

2021-22 record: 22-60

Pace: 99.7 (10), OffRtg: 103.9 (29), DefRtg: 112.1 (19), NetRtg: -8.1 (28)

Key addition(s): Paolo Banchero

Key departure(s): Robin Lopez’s hook shots

Three numbers to know…

  • The Magic have ranked in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the last 10 seasons. That’s one season short of the longest such streak in the 26 years for which we have play-by-play data, that of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets in their first 11 seasons in the league.
  • Last season, the Magic were the only team that ranked in the bottom 10 in each of the four factors on offense. They finished 28th in effective field goal percentage, 28th in free throw rate, 23rd in turnover rate, and 27th in offensive rebounding percentage.
  • Franz Wagner was the first rookie (in the 43 years of the 3-point line) to shoot better than 50% on at least 300 2-point attempts, better than 35% on at least 100 3-point attempts, and better than 85% on at least 100 free throw attempts.

Key question: What do they have in the backcourt?

The Magic have a ton of young talent at the forward and center positions, and Magic fans should be very excited about a frontline of Wagner, Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. The Magic weren’t so bad (minus-0.5 points per 100 possessions) in 1,523 total minutes with Wagner and Carter on the floor together last season. With Mo Bamba (surprisingly re-signed), Jonathan Isaac (now out for a full two years since he tore his ACL) and Chuma Okeke also in the mix, coach Jamahl Mosley could have a tough time distributing minutes up front.

But it’s not clear that there’s a starting-caliber guard on the roster. Jalen Suggs can get after it defensively, but has a long way to go on the other end of the floor after registering the worst effective field goal percentage (40%) in the last seven seasons for a player with at least 400 field goal attempts. Cole Anthony wasn’t exactly efficient in his second season and has had issues on defense. Markelle Fultz has displayed some serious playmaking chops after returning from a year-long absence late last season, but he still hasn’t shown that he can shoot from range.

Banchero could take some of the playmaking burden away from the guards, and the development of the young guys should make the Magic a better (and more entertaining) team in 2022-23. But it seems doubtful that they’ll be able to end that bottom-10-offense streak or compete for a Play-In Tournament spot.

Last Week:26

2021-22 record: 25-57

Pace: 98.6 (18), OffRtg: 111.9 (18), DefRtg: 115.5 (28), NetRtg: -3.6 (24)

Key addition(s): Bennedict Mathurin

Key departure(s): Malcolm Brogdon

Three numbers to know…

  • Last season was the first time in 23 seasons that the Pacers finished in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency.
  • As rosters currently stand, the Pacers rank last in continuity. They’re bringing back 10 players, but those 10 accounted for only 47% of their minutes last season.
  • Tyrese Haliburton was one of five players — Desmond Bane, Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving and Tyrese Maxey were the others — who shot 40% or better on at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and 40% or better on at least 100 pull-up 3-point attempts.

Key question: What can they get for Buddy Hield and/or Myles Turner?

Though they signed Deandre Ayton to an offer sheet, trading Brogdon (who played in just eight games with Haliburton) makes it clear that the Pacers are happy to bottom out, having just registered their worst record in 37 seasons. Both Hield (two years and $40 million left on his deal) and Turner (one year, $18 million) have tradable contracts and skills that should be coveted elsewhere, but it’s possible that other dominoes have to fall first.

The Pacers could certainly keep the vets around, but this season is obviously more about seeing what they have with their young guys — both in the backcourt and up front. With Aaron Nesmith (acquired in the Brogdon deal), the Pacers now have three guys from the 2020 Lottery. Haliburton is the star of the group, and the Brogdon trade gives him the keys of the offense full time. He should be on the passing end of a lot of Mathurin highlights over the next couple of seasons, but it’s probably going to be a few years before we learn if he can lead a team to success in the standings.