Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are ready to defend their championship perch.
Every season, almost every team believes it can be better than the year before. This season, other teams believe it, too.
In the 2021-22 NBA.com GM Survey, 13 different teams received votes for the “Which team will be most improved?” question. That’s the highest total in the history of the survey and almost double the average of the last 10 years (6.7). The Chicago Bulls got the most votes, but only 27% of the total.
There was no Kevin Durant or LeBron James or Anthony Davis changing teams this season. The two teams that shook things up the most were the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. But for both, you can make a valid argument for why the moves they made won’t work out so well. Other teams that received votes made smaller moves or have young cores that should see year-to-year improvement.
For all 30 teams in the league, even when you disregard injuries, there are best and worst-case scenarios for how the next eight months will play out. Right now, nobody knows which teams and players will fulfill their potential for the 2021-22 season and which will disappoint.
But we’ll start finding out on Tuesday. The games count now, all of them matter, and the very first one will feature the two teams projected to be the best in the league.
The Brooklyn Nets were No. 1 in the offseason Eastern Conference rankings, but Kyrie Irving’s absence is a good excuse to start the season with the defending champs in the top spot. The Nets, of course, have an immediate opportunity to take it back, visiting Milwaukee on ring night.
Plus-Minus Players of the Preseason
- Right Way: Lonzo Ball (CHI) was a plus-88 in four preseason games.
- Wrong Way: Devonte’ Graham (NOP) was a minus-71 in four preseason games.
Teams of the Preseason
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the preseason: Sacramento (+4), Memphis (+3), Minnesota (+3)
- Free falls of the preseason: Indiana (-3), New Orleans (-3)
Week 1 Team to Watch
- L.A. Lakers — Seeing how LeBron James and Russell Westbrook play alongside each other would be reason enough to tune in. But the Lakers also begin their season with games (all at home) against the Warriors (Tuesday), Suns (Friday) and Grizzlies (Sunday).
Previous Power Rankings
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.
2020-21 record: 46-26
Pace: 102.8 (2), OffRtg: 116.5 (5), DefRtg: 110.7 (9), NetRtg: +5.8 (4)
Small sample size alert! Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 9-for-13 from outside the paint (5-for-7 from mid-range and 4-for-6 from beyond the arc) in his 64 preseason minutes. Forget the 3-pointers for a second, though. Just being a semi-efficient face-up threat from 12-16 feet would be a huge development for a guy who just scored 50 points in Game 6 of The Finals. We’ll learn soon enough if that 17-for-19 from the free-throw line was a breakthrough or anomaly, though he’s definitely shortened his routine there.
We’ll also learn quickly who’s the Bucks’ new Kevin Durant defender, with P.J. Tucker having taken his talents to South Beach. The champs were without Bobby Portis and Semi Ojeleye for the entire preseason, but second-year wing Jordan Nwora emerged as a potential addition to the rotation, averaging 27 points per 36 minutes and shooting 14-for-34 (41%) from 3-point range. In their preseason matchup in Brooklyn, he had the Bucks, playing none of last season’s rotation guys, up four at the half against the Nets’ starters.
Week 1: vs. BKN, @ MIA, @ SAS
2020-21 record: 48-24
Pace: 100.3 (11), OffRtg: 117.3 (1), DefRtg: 113.1 (22), NetRtg: +4.2 (7)
The Nets still have Kevin Durant and James Harden, selected by the league’s GMs as the best at their positions (though Harden is certainly more point guard than shooting guard with this team). They still have a strong supporting cast that goes 11 or 12 deep. They will still win a lot of games and can still win a championship without Kyrie Irving.
But the margin for error is obviously thinner, and Harden might need to carry as heavy a load as he did before his initial hamstring injury last season. As noted in this space two months ago, they could make things easier on themselves by playing a little defense and they should start this season with a better foundation, but the preseason wasn’t exactly encouraging (ahem) in that regard. We might (again) have to wait until the playoffs to see any kind of urgency on that end of the floor.
Still, the Nets were excellent against quality competition last regular season. They were 20-13 (with a middle-of-the-pack defense) within the group of 15 teams that finished above .500, including a 12-2 mark against that group with Harden in the lineup. For the sake of opening-week marquee matchups, they’ll start their season with visits to Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Week 1: @ MIL, @ PHI, vs. CHA
2020-21 record: 51-21
Pace: 98.0 (24), OffRtg: 116.3 (7), DefRtg: 110.4 (6), NetRtg: +5.9 (3)
Mikal Bridges got his extension on Sunday, but it seems entirely unnecessary that Deandre Ayton is still waiting (as of Monday morning) with a deadline of 6 p.m. ET. The Western Conference appears to be wide open and vibes (good or bad) could make a difference!
The Suns didn’t have both of their starting guards for any of their preseason games, but Chris Paul shot 7-for-9 between the restricted area and 3-point line, Devin Booker looked sharp (17 points in 18 minutes) in his debut on Wednesday, and they went 3-0 with one or the other.
They thrashed the Lakers and Blazers (JaVale McGee was a plus-42 in 31 minutes) over the last eight days and they’ll play both again this week. The Suns were 17-7 against the other eight West teams that finished with winning records last season, and they’ll start this one with three games against that group.
Week 1: vs. DEN, @ LAL, @ POR
2020-21 record: 52-20
Pace: 99.4 (16), OffRtg: 116.4 (4), DefRtg: 107.5 (3), NetRtg: +9.0 (1)
Rudy Gay (heel surgery) is out to start the season, but the Jazz did have Eric Paschall playing the five and switching screens in the preseason. They were also one of five teams that played at least 10 possessions of zone, according to Synergy tracking. So the seeds of defensive versatility are being sown.
Rudy Gobert is still the most important defender in the league over 82 games. It was just preseason and it included a lot of third-stringer minutes, but the Jazz allowed 26 fewer points per 100 possessions with the DPOY on the floor (82.8) than they did with him off the floor (108.7).
Last season, the Jazz had the league’s second biggest home-road differential in regard to winning percentage (31-5 vs. 21-15) and its third biggest home-road differential in regard to point differential per 100 possessions (+12.9 vs. +5.2). They open this season at home on Wednesday, but will play seven of their next nine games on the road.
Week 1: vs. OKC, @ SAC
2020-21 record: 42-30
Pace: 98.8 (21), OffRtg: 109.8 (24), DefRtg: 106.8 (1), NetRtg: +2.9 (8)
The Lakers went 0-6 in the preseason and were outscored by 50 points in 170 total minutes (14.1 per 48) with at least one of their three stars on the floor. Most of that damage (minus-41 in 72 minutes) was done with exactly one of the three on the floor, which could speak to issues with depth. Another issue with their depth: Injuries to Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn. The hope is that the latter two will be available on Tuesday.
Fewer guards (for the time being) should lead to more dependence on Carmelo Anthony and/or more minutes of Anthony Davis at the four. Russell Westbrook will have them playing faster (the Lakers saw the biggest jump in pace from last season to the preseason), but he will be disregarded in the half-court by defenses shading toward Davis and LeBron James (preseason examples here and here). How the Lakers deal with that will be the thing to watch early on.
The Lakers have the league’s easiest first 20 games (in regard to last year’s numbers), and they’re playing 12 of their first 15 at home. But three (presumed) good teams are at Staples Center this week.
Week 1: vs. GSW, vs. PHX, vs. MEM
2020-21 record: 42-30
Pace: 97.9 (26), OffRtg: 114.6 (8), DefRtg: 112.3 (21), NetRtg: +2.3 (10)
As good as the Mavs’ offense was over the last two years, there was room for improvement if they just ran more. And that seems to be an emphasis of new head coach Jason Kidd. According to Synergy tracking, the Mavs ranked third in the percentage of preseason possessions (22.5%) that were in transition, up from 28th (12.3%) last season. Kristaps Porzingis in the open floor is kind of fun to watch.
Luka Doncic seems ready for the Week 1 Kia MVP rankings, having averaged 26.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 13.4 assists per 36 minutes in the preseason. Playing faster should keep his numbers high in the regular season, though team success is a big part of a player’s MVP candidacy, and defense will be a big part of where the Mavs finish in the standings. They ranked third defensively in the preseason, buoyed by a game in which the Hornets shot 27%.
Doncic vs. Trae Young on Thursday is a nice way to open the season for both teams. The Mavs were a West-best 11-4 in Eastern Conference arenas last season.
Week 1: @ ATL, @ TOR
2020-21 record: 41-31
Pace: 98.7 (22), OffRtg: 114.3 (9), DefRtg: 112.1 (18), NetRtg: +2.2 (11)
Preseason numbers get thrown out on Tuesday, but Trae Young’s preseason (37 field goal attempts, just five free throw attempts) was emblematic of a big, league-wide drop in free throw rate. No team was fueled by freebies last season more than Hawks (top five in both free throw rate and free throw percentage), so they will be a team to watch in regard to that trend, even if it’s about more than just the points of education regarding Non-Basketball Moves.
Onyeka Okongwu (shoulder surgery) won’t be back until December at the earliest, but the Hawks enter the season healthy on the perimeter, with Delon Wright having joined an already deep group of guards and wings. So Nate McMillan will have some interesting lineup decisions to make in fourth quarters. The last time that both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were available for a game that counted was Jan. 29, more than a month before McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce.
Week 1: vs. DAL, @ CLE
2020-21 record: 49-23
Pace: 100.1 (12), OffRtg: 112.5 (13), DefRtg: 107.0 (2), NetRtg: +5.5 (5)
It’s not clear if Ben Simmons will be on the floor when the Sixers open the season in New Orleans on Wednesday, or if him stealthily reporting to Philly last week changes the macro situation at all. He did practice on Sunday, but that’s all we know about that.
The Sixers should have Tobias Harris (knee soreness) and Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness) back for Wednesday, but Shake Milton is out with an ankle injury. That puts more on Tyrese Maxey’s shoulders as he begins his second season, especially if it begins without Simmons. The defensive numbers were not good in the preseason (the Sixers ranked last in opponent effective field goal percentage), but Joel Embiid played just 28 minutes.
Philly scored 79 points on 57 offensive possessions (139 per 100) with Embiid on the floor, and his six assists (watch ’em) in those 28 minutes is noteworthy. Brooklyn, who the Sixers will host on Friday, is a team that had some success double-teaming his post-ups last season.
Week 1: @ NOP, vs. BKN, @ OKC
2020-21 record: 40-32
Pace: 97.1 (29), OffRtg: 110.6 (18), DefRtg: 110.7 (10), NetRtg: -0.1 (17)
Kyle Lowry had 17 assists (in just 33 minutes) in his first two preseason games with the Heat. His dime-dropping pace slowed down after that, but he’ll turn defensive stops into easy baskets with his willingness to hit ahead (see here and here). Three seasons ago, Lowry led the league with 8.5 “pass-ahead” passes per game, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Last season, he ranked fifth with 6.0 per contest.
Tyler Herro came out hot in the preseason and never slowed down, averaging 29.9 points per 36 minutes (fifth among players who played at least 50 minutes) on an effective field goal percentage of 59.4%. If he can keep that up when the games count, it obviously makes a huge impact on a team that needs as much perimeter shooting as it can get. Last season, the Heat played just 14 total minutes with a point guard (Goran Dragic or Kendrick Nunn) alongside Herro, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. It would be interesting to see some “best five” time for that quartet alongside Lowry this year.
It’s time to ball, y’all.
Week 1: vs. MIL, @ IND
2020-21 record: 39-33
Pace: 102.8 (3) OffRtg: 110.5 (20) DefRtg: 109.4 (5) NetRtg: +1.1 (15)
The Warriors had an ugly start to last season, scoring just 90 points per 100 possessions as they lost their first two games by a total of 65 points. This year, though Klay Thompson isn’t expected back any time soon, they certainly look to be in better shape. Stephen Curry led the preseason with 38.7 points per 36 minutes on an effective field goal percentage of 62.5%. Jordan Poole ranked second at 34.6 per 36 on 60.8%. Otto Porter Jr. was one of three players to shoot better than 50% on at least 25 3-point attempts. Draymond Green even took some shots.
There are no rookies in the starting lineup this year, and Porter and Nemanja Bjelica appear to fit in well. The Warriors are still depending heavily on Curry and Green, but the idea of Poole keeping the offense somewhat afloat with Curry off the floor isn’t so far-fetched. He led the way with 44 3-point attempts (and launched a lot of quick-trigger 3s) as the Warriors took 56% of their preseason shots from deep, but he also showed off some stuff — like a lefty, reverse finish, a fading runner, and an in-and-out-dribble drive — inside the arc against the Lakers.
Week 1: @ LAL, vs. LAC, @ SAC
2020-21 record: 47-25
Pace: 97.7 (27), OffRtg: 116.3 (6), DefRtg: 111.5 (11), NetRtg: +4.8 (6)
The Nuggets rank third in continuity and coach Michael Malone is in his seventh season in Denver. But they saw the league’s biggest jump in 3-point rate from last season (38.3%, 18th) to the preseason, taking more than half of their shots from beyond the arc. That might not hold with a regular rotation as they took 48 of their 87 shots from deep with most of their regulars out on Thursday.
But rookie Bones Hyland (the team leader in preseason 3-point attempts) may have earned himself some playing time. He was one of three rookies — Josh Giddey and Carlik Jones (since waived by the Mavs) were the others — to average at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per 36 minutes in the preseason. He started the second half of an overtime loss to the Wolves (in which the Nuggets were a plus-19 with Nikola Jokic on the floor) and converted one really tough finish on a give-and-go with the MVP.
Last season, the Nuggets lost four of their first five games. The good news is that, this year, they don’t have to play the Kings until Game 39.
Week 1: @ PHX, vs. SAS
2020-21 record: 47-25
Pace: 97.6 (28), OffRtg: 116.7 (3), DefRtg: 110.6 (8), NetRtg: +6.1 (2)
Comparing preseason stats to last season, the Clippers saw top-three jumps in assist percentage (AST/FGM), the percentage of their shots that came in the restricted area, and pace. So in Kawhi Leonard’s absence, they could be looking to share the ball and attack the basket more. As far as the pace, the Clippers scored only 9.9 fast break points per 100 possessions and allowed a league-high 24.3. That’s not good.
Among the several guys with opportunities to step into larger roles, Terance Mann, with a two-year contract extension in hand, is the most intriguing. He was handling the ball (via pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs) a little more in the preseason, had once nice iso against the Kings, and shot a not-so-bad 7-for-19 on pull-up jumpers. His shot can look off-balance at times and his forte remains off-ball cuts and dives, but he’s got some stuff in his bag.
With four of their first five games against the Warriors, Grizzlies and Blazers (x2), we may get some early clues as to where the Clippers stand in the Western Conference hierarchy.
Week 1: @ GSW, vs. MEM
2020-21 record: 41-31
Pace: 96.3 (30), OffRtg: 110.2 (22), DefRtg: 107.8 (4), NetRtg: +2.4 (9)
It would have been nice if Kemba Walker (11-for-28, only three free throw attempts) had a more encouraging preseason, but the Knicks were pretty sharp otherwise. And the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the Knicks were at their best (plus-26.5 points per 100 possessions) with Derrick Rose (who had 22 assists and just four turnovers) on the floor.
There were some signs (though not a much in the numbers) that the Knicks will try to run a little more than they did last season, when they didn’t run at all, basically. They saw the league’s third biggest jump in assist rate (AST/FGM) from last season (54.3%, 29th) to the preseason (62.9%, eighth), and they were in the middle of the pack (instead of fourth) in regard to the percentage of their possessions that were isolations. With more capable scorers (including the steadily improving RJ Barrett), more ball movement makes sense.
The Knicks are playing 14 of their first 15 games within the Eastern Conference, and they don’t play outside the Eastern or Central time zones until February.
Week 1: vs. BOS, @ ORL, vs. ORL
2020-21 record: 38-34
Pace: 100.8 (8), OffRtg: 111.7 (15), DefRtg: 110.5 (7), NetRtg: +1.2 (14)
The Grizzlies are still the Grizzlies, ranking in the top five in the preseason in fast break points, points in the paint, and second chance points per game. They did see a big jump in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range, thanks in part to Jaren Jackson Jr., who shot 14-for-29 from beyond the arc and averaged 23.9 points per 36 minutes, finishing the preseason with a 29-point performance in Chicago on Friday.
The interior/perimeter balance with Jackson will always be something to watch. In Charlotte, he he showed off his quick-jumping ability on a first-quarter put-back dunk, but also had a brutal, you-can-get-that-shot-any-time, pull-up 3 in transition later in the night. Overall, those preseason minutes (in which the Grizzlies outscored their opponents by 32.5 points per 100 possessions) looked much better than his minutes after he returned from an eight-month layoff at the end of last season.
After they host the Cavs on Wednesday, the Grizzlies have a pretty tough stretch of seven games, beginning with a weekend back-to-back in L.A.
Week 1: vs. CLE, @ LAC, @ LAL
2020-21 record: 31-41
Pace: 99.6 (13) OffRtg: 110.4 (21) DefRtg: 111.5 (12) NetRtg: -1.1 (20)
The Bulls took the preseason more seriously than most teams. Among players who played fewer than five games, DeMar DeRozan (117), Zach LaVine (116), Lonzo Ball (115) and Nikola Vucevic (113) all ranked in the top 10 in total minutes played. With all those minutes, DeRozan led the preseason with 29 mid-range attempts. He did shoot eight 3-pointers, but the Bulls were the only team that took less than a third of its preseason shots from beyond the arc.
The Bulls’ No. 1 ranking in preseason defense comes with the context that they played two of their four games against the Cavs and another against the Pelicans without Brandon Ingram or Zion Williamson. But, though the Bulls’ three best offensive players have had issues defensively in the past, there was visible effort and cohesion on that end of the floor. They play their first three real games against the Pistons and Pelicans (who will still be without Williamson), so it may take some time before we figure out just how good (or bad) they are defensively.
Week 1: @ DET, vs. NOP, vs. DET
2020-21 record: 36-36
Pace: 98.9 (20), OffRtg: 113.1 (10), DefRtg: 111.8 (13), NetRtg: +1.2 (13)
The Celtics got encouraging preseasons from Romeo Langford (18 points in Miami on Friday) and Aaron Nesmith (23 in Orlando on Wednesday), who combined for an effective field goal percentage of 68%. If they have a break-out player who can raise their ceiling, its one of the two Lottery picks from the 2019 and 2020 drafts.
But Jaylen Brown and Al Horford (who was a plus-10 in his 17 minutes alongside Robert Williams III) both contracted COVID-19, and Marcus Smart was suspended for the Miami game, having missed the flight to Orlando. Dennis Schroder had an underwhelming preseason and Jayson Tatum had more turnovers than assists. More important than an outsider’s ability to evaluate where the Celtics are is their own ability to get collective reps under new coach Ime Udoka. It’s a long season, but the games that count start Wednesday.
The Celtics play 10 of their first 15 games on the road, but 13 of those 15 are within the Eastern Conference, with Wednesday’s opener at Madison Square Garden an intriguing measuring-stick game for both teams.
Week 1: @ NYK, vs. TOR, @ HOU
2020-21 record: 42-30
Pace: 99.0 (19), OffRtg: 117.1 (2), DefRtg: 115.3 (29), NetRtg: +1.8 (12)
The Blazers promised to defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively, and preseason Synergy tracking data (they had the league’s lowest percentage of opponent possessions that were pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions) is evidence of real change. As we saw in New Orleans last season, that change puts a lot of pressure on weak-side defenders to recover quickly to shooters after helping in the paint. The Pelicans couldn’t do it (they allowed 16.3 3-pointers per game through their first 29) and we should know within a few weeks if the Blazers are more qualified to employ that type of scheme. They had the league’s highest opponent 3-point rate (53% of their opponents’ shots came from beyond the arc) in the preseason.
The offense was a bigger issue as the Blazers went 0-4. In fact, their 87.1 points scored per 100 possessions was the worst preseason mark (for an NBA team) in the last 10 years (since the lockout-shortened, 2011-12 season). Damian Lillard only played 42 minutes, but the Blazers only scored 81 points on 99 possessions (82 per 100) with him on the floor.
The Blazers have the league’s toughest first 20 games (both in regard to cumulative opponent winning percentage from last season and back-to-backs), and they certainly aren’t hitting the ground running. But they’re a veteran group that should pick things up in the games that count, and four of their first five are at the Moda Center.
Week 1: vs. SAC, vs. PHX
2020-21 record: 27-45
Pace: 99.6 (14) OffRtg: 111.6 (16) DefRtg: 112.0 (15) NetRtg: -0.4 (19)
Scottie Barnes showing glimpses of being a do-everything forward wasn’t as surprising as Precious Achiuwa reporting to Toronto with a lot more offensive game — behind-the-back dribbles into pull-up jumpers, coast-to-coast drives, post-ups, tough finishes in traffic — than he showed as a rookie with the Heat.
The new (young) guys should add to the create-chaos mantra of the Raptors’ defense, which obviously won’t be at its best until Pascal Siakam returns from shoulder rehab. The Raptors ranked second in opponent turnover rate (21.1 per 100 possessions) in the preseason and they’ll need to keep that up, so they can …
1. Run often and minimize any issues with their half-court offense. They did lead the preseason in the percentage of their possessions that were in transition (24.7%), according to Synergy tracking.
2. Avoid getting beat up inside, where they have neither height nor bulk. Andre Drummond had three easy post-up scores against various Toronto “bigs” in the preseason opener.
The Raptors are back in Toronto and five of their first six games are at home.
Week 1: vs. WAS, @ BOS, vs. DAL
2020-21 record: 23-49
Pace: 102.0 (5) OffRtg: 109.3 (25) DefRtg: 114.5 (28) NetRtg: -5.3 (26)
As was the case with Portland, Synergy data had the Wolves defending pick-and-rolls more aggressively and getting the ball out of the initial ball-handler’s hands more often in the preseason. So see the Blazers’ note above about the challenge of employing that scheme in a league that spaces the floor and shoots 3s more than ever. Their first three games — against the Rockets and Pelicans (x2) — won’t necessarily challenge them in that regard, but a reckoning will eventually come if the Wolves’ weak-side defense isn’t on point.
Of course, good defense begins in transition. And Minnesota’s transition defense had issues in their preseason win in Denver, in part because multiple Wolves were crashing the offensive glass from beyond the 3-point line.
Overall, the Wolves were able to run more than their opponents, leading the preseason with 22.3 fast break points per game. They’re mostly healthy (Josh Okogie missed the last two preseason games with ankle soreness), they have some top-line talent, coach Chris Finch had them scoring efficiently at the end of last season and they’ll play seven of their first eight games at home.
Week 1: vs. HOU, vs. NOP
2020-21 record: 31-41
Pace: 100.7 (9) OffRtg: 112.7 (12) DefRtg: 116.5 (30) NetRtg: -3.8 (24)
The preseason doesn’t count and their defensive success was largely about their opponents shooting just 27.3% from 3-point range. But, given where the Kings were coming from, having a top-five defense in the preseason is certainly better than the alternative. (They ranked 18th defensively last preseason before ranking last in the games that count.) As was the case last season, they limited 3-point attempts, but didn’t protect the rim particularly well.
De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell played 3 1/2 total minutes together through the first three preseason games, but they were all on the floor (for another 3 1/2 minutes) as the Kings turned a two-point deficit into a six-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Lakers (who were playing Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis) on Thursday. Two key buckets (one, two) came with Mitchell screening for Fox to get the matchup they wanted.
The Kings beat four good teams in the preseason and their regular season begins with six of their first seven games against the Blazers, Jazz, Warriors, Suns, Mavs and Jazz.
Week 1: @ POR, vs. UTA, vs. GSW
2020-21 record: 34-38
Pace: 104.7 (1), OffRtg: 110.7 (17), DefRtg: 112.3 (20), NetRtg: -1.6 (22)
The Wizards played their (healthy) regulars in all four preseason games and, and you’d expect, staggered the minutes of Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie, so that one or both was always on the floor through the first three quarters. They lost all four games, but outscored their opponents by 16 points in the backcourt’s 54 minutes together and by one point in Beal’s 31 minutes without Dinwiddie. They were outscored by nine in Dinwiddie’s 40 minutes without Beal (who left the preseason finale with a right knee contusion).
Montrezl Harrell (preseason-best 12.4 free throw attempts per 36 minutes) looked solid offensively, but Davis Bertans and Corey Kispert combined to shoot 10-for-41 from 3-point range, and the defensive numbers were bad in those Dinwiddie-only minutes. The bench really struggled (Harrell was a minus-20 in 21:11) against Toronto last week, and the Wizards will see the Raptors again for the season opener on Wednesday.
Week 1: @ TOR, vs. IND
2020-21 record: 33-39
Pace: 99.0 (18) OffRtg: 110.1 (23) DefRtg: 112.0 (16) NetRtg: -1.9 (23)
The Hornets need to find the proverbial switch, because they ended their preseason with a 68-point loss to Dallas that they absolutely earned with bad shots and worse defense. Somehow, after a preseason win over … [checks notes] … the Thunder, the Hornets were “feeling themselves,” according to Terry Rozier. Hopefully, that’s no longer the case. After allowing a league-high 4.5 corner 3-pointers per game last season, Charlotte allowed a league-high 5.8 per game in the preseason.
Hopefully, they’ll get some bodies back by Wednesday. Rozier (ankle sprain) missed the last two preseason games, while Gordon Hayward (health and safety protocols) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (leg strain) each missed the last three. Mason Plumlee also missed a couple of games, but started the two that he played. There are limits to small ball and with Plumlee out and P.J. Washington starting at center, the Hornets got absolutely crushed on the glass by Steven Adams (8 offensive rebounds in less than 24 minutes) and the Grizzlies (28 second chance points).
Week 1: vs. IND, @ CLE, @ BKN
2020-21 record: 34-38
Pace: 102.0 (4) OffRtg: 111.9 (14) DefRtg: 111.9 (14) NetRtg: +0.1 (16)
Before the preseason began, the Pacers were hit with bad news regarding T.J. Warren (not healing “at the pace previously anticipated”), Edmond Sumner (torn Achilles) and Caris LeVert (stress fracture in his back). Then Malcolm Brogdon (shoulder sprain) and Justin Holiday (ankle sprain) went down. Jeremy Lamb also missed the preseason finale with a sore wrist.
The Pacers still have two healthy centers in their starting lineup, and playing slower (they saw the league’s biggest drop in pace from last season to the preseason) should fit them better. Their two rookies — Chris Duarte (who scored in almost every way possible against Memphis on Wednesday) and Isaiah Jackson (3.8 offensive boards and 3.2 steals per 36 minutes are good indications of his activity) — deserve playing time no matter who’s healthy. But being this banged up is not a good way to start the season and, if they’re in that fighting-for-the-Play-In tier in the East, their first two games are relatively important.
Week 1: @ CHA, @ WAS, vs. MIA
2020-21 record: 33-39
Pace: 99.4 (15) OffRtg: 110.5 (19) DefRtg: 112.0 (17) NetRtg: -1.5 (21)
Though the games don’t count, there can be concerning losses in the preseason, and the Spurs had one of those when they got beat by the Heat’s second and third stringers in the first week. But they won’t be seeing Max Strus again until late December and they took care of business against the Magic and Rockets after that. The overall numbers were good when their best young guys were on the floor.
Though Dejounte Murray shot a solid 46.4% on a high volume of pull-up 2-pointers last season, he made just nine pull-up 3-pointers (on 27 attempts) all year. But when Orlando defenders went under screens last Sunday, Murray didn’t hesitate (early in the first quarter or late in the third) to pull-up from deep with a pretty smooth-looking stroke. Maybe the Spurs won’t rank last in 3-point rate this season.
They’ll play the Magic two more times in the next 18 days, but their early schedule is pretty tough otherwise.
Week 1: vs. ORL, @ DEN, vs. MIL
2020-21 record: 22-50
Pace: 98.0 (25) OffRtg: 105.2 (28) DefRtg: 113.5 (25) NetRtg: -8.3 (28)
Evan Mobley’s first preseason began with two very unsuccessful post-ups (one, two) against 6-foot-5 Javonte Green. Five days later, Mobley was doing things against the Bulls (blocks, dimes, behind-the-back dribbles in transition, soft-touch floaters) that made him look the guy the Cavs will be building around over the next several years. For now, he’ll give LaMelo Ball some competition for the eyes of the 7 p.m. League Pass posse.
With Collin Sexton out, Lauri Markkanen started the last two games at the three and remained in a pretty good rhythm. His effective field goal percentage of 63.8% ranked 13th among 152 players with at least 30 field goal attempts in the preseason. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love have reunited on the Cavs’ second unit, but it will be interesting to see what coach JB Bickerstaff does with Sexton, Markkanen and Isaac Okoro if everybody’s healthy in Memphis on Wednesday. Sexton got off to a hot start (27 points per night on 59% shooting) as the Cavs won their first three games last season.
Week 1: @ MEM, vs. CHA, vs. ATL
2020-21 record: 31-41
Pace: 100.5 (10) OffRtg: 113.0 (11) DefRtg: 113.3 (23) NetRtg: -0.3 (18)
Yikes No. 1: Zion Williamson, who had foot surgery in the summer, will start the season on the shelf. And you have to imagine that, once he’s cleared by the Pelicans’ medical staff, it’ll take him some time to ramp up to game shape.
Yikes No. 2: The Pelicans trailed their last two preseason games by 46 and 38 points, respectively. They were outscored by more than 40 points per 100 possessions in Jonas Valanciunas’ 70 preseason minutes.
With limited offense in the backcourt, Williamson out, and no history of playing defense, the Pelicans desperately need Brandon Ingram, who missed the last three preseason games with a sore knee. He’s expected back for Wednesday, but they’ll have a Friday-Saturday back-to-back after that. Last season, the Pelicans were outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions in 833 minutes with Ingram on the floor without Williamson.
Week 1: vs. PHI, @ CHI, @ MIN
2020-21 record: 20-52
Pace: 98.2 (23) OffRtg: 107.6 (26) DefRtg: 112.2 (19) NetRtg: -4.5 (25)
Isaiah Stewart plays with boundless energy and has proven to be a disruptive defender. But he’s just 6-foot-8, and he’s now the Pistons’ starting center. In related news, the Pistons got crushed on the glass in the preseason, ranking last in both defensive rebounding percentage (66.8%) and total rebounding percentage (46.2%). They were able to stop the bleeding a bit last week, but gave up 46 second chance points over their first two games. Stewart and Kelly Olynyk didn’t play any minutes (or seconds) together in the preseason.
No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham (sprained ankle) missed all four games, and it’s not clear if he’ll be available when the Pistons host the Bulls (who ranked sixth in offensive rebounding percentage in the preseason) on Wednesday. The Pistons promise to be patient with the 20 year old, unwilling to take into account everybody’s immediate need to adjudicate him as a star or a bust. Really, it will just be interesting to see how Cunningham and Jerami Grant coexist on the floor.
Week 1: vs. CHI, @ CHI
2020-21 record: 21-51
Pace: 99.2 (17) OffRtg: 104.6 (29) DefRtg: 113.9 (26) NetRtg: -9.3 (29)
Wendell Carter Jr. was the 2018 top-10 pick that got a contract extension, but Mo Bamba was the one that may have had a breakthrough in the preseason. Bamba fouled out in less than 12 minutes in his first start, but averaged 20 points, 12.2 rebounds and 6.5 blocks per 36 minutes over the Magic’s four games. With Chuma Okeke missing the entire preseason with a bone bruise in his hip, Carter and Bamba started the last two games and played a total of 50 minutes together. The offense was not good and the Magic were outscored by eight points in those 50 minutes, but if there’s a team that should be experimenting and maximizing the playing time of its young players (with apologies to Robin Lopez and his sweeping hook), it’s this one. Bamba is entering his fourth season and it’s not yet clear if he’s a keeper.
There’s less urgency with Jalen Suggs, who struggled offensively (he shot 6-for-22) in the preseason, but had a couple of good defensive moments — some hustle against Dejounte Murray, getting around a screen and stopping Derrick White (gif’d below) — against San Antonio. If there’s a way the Magic don’t finish in the bottom two in the East (again), it’s with solid defense, and almost all of their young guys have shown real potential on that end of the floor.
Week 1: @ SAS, vs. NYK, @ NYK
2020-21 record: 17-55
Pace: 101.7 (6) OffRtg: 107.0 (27) DefRtg: 114.4 (27) NetRtg: -7.4 (27)
The Rockets won their first game with a 14-3, third-stringers-on-the-floor run to close the fourth quarter. They trailed each of their other three games by more than 20 points, and they didn’t hold a lead for the final 136 minutes and 56 seconds of the preseason. They’re going to play the young guys, so struggles are expected, but there were some visible effort issues — nobody moving on the second offensive possession of the game, standing in the backcourt as the opponent ran, etc. — in their loss to Toronto last week.
Jalen Green shot just 8-for-33 (24%) from outside the restricted area, and even on one of the eight makes, his 3-point release looked low and slow. But both he and Alperen Sengun were able to get to the line quite a bit as the Rockets led the preseason (by a healthy margin) in free throw rate. The No. 2 pick can definitely blow by defenders on a regular basis, and if they can’t stay in front of him with their feet, they’ll be forced to defend with their hands.
It looks like it’ll be the Rockets and Thunder at bottom of the Western Conference. All four head-to-head meetings will be played between now and Dec. 1, and the first of the four is Friday in Houston.
Week 1: @ MIN, vs. OKC, vs. BOS
2020-21 record: 22-50
Pace: 101.6 (7) OffRtg: 102.8 (30) DefRtg: 113.4 (24) NetRtg: -10.6 (30)
There are a few teams for which what’s written in this space every Monday is less about the results of the games and more about the development of the players. The Thunder are obviously one of those teams (again and from Day 1) this season, and 19-year-old Josh Giddey may already be the most intriguing guy on the roster with his combination of size, vision, and a soft touch inside the arc. The No. 6 pick was immediately put in the starting lineup, pushing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to point guard.
The Thunder ranked seventh in pace last season, but have seemingly slowed down. Though they’ve got a lot of young legs and not a lot of size, only 12% of their preseason possessions, the league’s lowest rate, were in transition. They were one of three teams that took more than half of their shots from 3-point range; Aleksej Pokusevski (6-for-23 from deep) is still letting ’em fly.
This team ranked last offensively last season, and seven of its first eight games are against teams that ranked in the top eight on defense.
Week 1: @ UTA, @ HOU, vs. PHI